It’s not every day someone gets to work side by side with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. But for Josh Rawlings, a 2001 Skyline High School graduate, it’s all part of the job.
Rawlings has been fortunate enough to make his lifelong love of music into a stable career, having recently worked on Macklemore’s hit album, “The Heist,” which won four Grammy Awards last month.
Rawlings said he became acquainted with Owuor Arunga, Macklemore’s trumpet player, through the local jazz scene. Arunga came out to a jam session with the band, The Teaching, featuring Rawlings on keyboard, bassist Evan Flory-Barnes, and percussionist Jeremy Jones. Arunga told them that Lewis was looking for a jazz band to contribute to a track on “The Heist” and that he had recommended them. One thing led to another, and before they knew it they were in the studio with Macklemore and Lewis. And at this point, the duo was still up-and-coming.
“They were growing in popularity at the time we recorded, but they weren’t super famous yet, so we didn’t feel like we really needed to impress them. They were just dudes,” Rawlings said. “No one knew that the album was going to blow up as much as it did.”
Although they did work with Macklemore, Rawlings said they did a majority of their collaboration with Lewis.
“Ryan likes to snowball and bounce ideas in the studio,” Rawlings said. “He’s not so much a trained musician who can write a score and hand it to someone, but he knows what he wants and can craft it in the moment. He’d know what the mood was of what he was trying to create.”
Rawlings said that he and The Teaching members attended the pre-telecast of the Grammys at the Nokia Theatre where the Rap Album of the Year award was announced. Since Macklemore and Lewis were getting ready for the telecast show, nobody was there to accept the award, and Rawlings had to keep himself from jumping up and running down to accept it on their behalf.
Rawlings was unsure as to whether they were official Grammy winners, and just heard back from the Grammy Association clarifying their involvement. Technically, The Teaching members are ‘featured artists on the multi-Grammy winning album’ opposed to official Grammy-winners.
“I know that we can definitely say we were nominees for Album of the Year, probably the most prestigious award in the Grammys, and associated with this multi-Grammy winning album,” Rawlings said. “Being able to say those things alone makes me so proud to be a part of this city and what we’re doing.”
Rawlings said that while the album is Grammy-winning, it’s also cool that it also features many local, Northwest artists.
And “The Heist” is just one of Rawlings many projects.
Aside from being a full-time dad, Rawlings plays the piano and drums, sings and is a composer. Most recently, he has been touring nationally with the Jason Parker Quartet and The Teaching, having shared the stage with Al Green. He is an Earshot Golden Ear Award recipient and has performed at the internationally recognized Earshot Jazz Festival.
Rawlings, who was born in St. Croix Falls, Wis., and grew up in Minneapolis, said he was kicking to music in his mother’s womb, but his connection to the art became solidiﬁed during in 1985 when he got his first keyboard for Christmas. Before that I was banging on pots and pans and having fun interacting with music.
“For me, getting that ﬁrst keyboard…a small Yamaha toy keyboard with no more than 20 keys and buttons…it was more than a toy,” Rawlings said. “I really connected with the piano because my parents got me that toy keyboard.”
He moved to Seattle when he was 14-years-old and started attending Skyline High School. Having been used to playing music by ear, Rawlings was devastated when he failed to make it into jazz band because he didn’t have a strong grasp on reading music.
“High school is when I really got serious about music,” he said, explaining that Skyline was where he took his craft and strived to be better. Rawlings knew that if he could match his talent with actual practice, he could do something amazing. Once his sophomore year rolled around, there were a lot more opportunities to become involved, from the drama program to different school bands, and Rawlings ended up writing the school’s alma mater.
“I got my hands on anything I could,” he said.
Rawlings entered Skyline during the school’s first year of existence, so to him it was a perfect match.
“I really feel like, for me, when I started at Skyline it was a new beginning because I was in a brand new environment, having grown up in Minnesota, so I had a fresh start in a new place,” he said. “And the fact that the school was new, it felt so serendipitous that I was having a fresh start and the school was having a fresh start. I felt like I had an opportunity to dig my fingers in, and not have to necessarily prove myself.”
Rawlings said that there were certain teachers who started the music programs that truly inspired him, acting as mentors rather than teachers. Two of them are still at Skyline: choral director Nancy Ziebart and band director David Pitt.
“They recognized the drive and talents that I had and wanted to help nurture them,” he said. “I feel eternally grateful to them and to Skyline.”
From Skyline, Rawlings attended Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle where he received a degree in Jazz Piano Performance. Starting out as a freshman, Rawlings would play gigs in exchange for coffee and donuts. By the time he was a senior, people were paying him pretty good money to perform.
“Cornish gave me the tools and resources to pretty much immediately access that career and lifestyle,” he said.
But now, Rawlings said life is vastly different. With a 2-and-a-half-year-old boy and a little girl due in April, Rawlings first focus is on his family.
“I really feel like becoming a father was one of the best things that’s ever happened in my life,” he said. “It required me to focus on my priorities.”
Rawlings met his wife, Emily, an aspiring vocalist, when a Seattle venue owner paired them together for a performance. Before that, Rawlings was living the bachelor life, gigging day and night trying to climb the ladder for his career. But Rawlings fell in love, started a family, and settled down. And after touring for two months straight, Rawlings said he felt like he got to live out his dream of performing. But what he really learned is that ultimately, he wants to stay close to his family.
“You start to really, really miss the people you love,” he said. “Now I’m focusing on one band, opposed to six or seven. I’d rather have the flexibility to be able to write in the comforts of my own home,play local shows and have the flexibility of not having to live on a bus.”
But later this summer Rawlings hopes to finish some albums he’s been working on.
“This may be the year that I actually do it, but don’t quote me on that,” he said with a laugh. “Life is so different being a parent. I have to be a little bit more flexible. Not everything can happen at the same time.”
That being said, Rawlings is making himself known and available. He said that after the Grammys, he ran into Lewis at the airport and he mentioned wanting to get together to collaborate. Rawlings said it’d be awesome to be able to continue working with the duo.
“I learned that it does take a lot of energy and time to sustain a high level of performing music,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean you have to give up your connections.”
Rawlings currently divides his time between fatherhood, running his company J&J Music with his business partner and trumpeter Jason Parker, and performs regularly with various groups. For more information on Josh Rawlings and The Teaching, visit www.joshrawlings.com or www.theteachingmusic.com.