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In January of this year, during a Q & A session with Billy Joel at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, a courageous student stood up to ask his question: the student said that his favorite song was “New York State Of Mind” and he had been “fortunate enough” to play with Richie Cannata, Joel’s saxophonist. As cell phone videos were rolling, the student then simply asked if he could play the song with Joel, and the student quickly corrected himself to say “accompany you.” Before an awed crowd, Joel paused for a moment then said “OK,” to a roar of applause. The rest, as they say, is “viral” history.
The student, Michael Pollack, became an internet sensation where yes, not only did he get to play “New York State of Mind” with Billy Joel, but he played it brilliantly, leading him to TV interviews and guest appearances all over the country.
Although an overnight celebrity, Pollack spent years perfecting his craft, starting to play piano at the age of seven. “I was at a friend’s house and he had just gotten this toy piano and learned how to play the Star Wars theme”, Pollack told me. “I was mesmerized by the fact that he could click the keys and create a sound that was familiar to everyone else. I made him teach me it and when I went home I told my parents that they needed to get me a keyboard just like that one. I played the Star Wars theme for two months in a row until my parents said it’s time to get you lessons so we can hear you play something else. I was so captivated by playing something that I had heard before and to know that it was me recreating it.”
Among Michael’s many interviews and appearances on TV, he performed his original song “Get Well” on The Jeff Probst Show, a song he wrote about his senior year in high school where he battled severe anxiety. He described the song to me as having a “really lazy-rock sound to it; a lot of people says it reminds them of (Billy Joel’s) “Vienna” or Gavin DeGraw’s “Soldier.” He went on to explain the inspiration and song in more detail. “I had a lot of help from my family and friends around me but the main idea about the song is that no matter how much help you’re given, you’re going to have to get over it and work past it on your own. It’s only you that can give yourself that peace. It took a while to write that song. I mean, it didn’t take long to actually write it but for it to really sink in and come to terms with it took a while. I think it has a very uplifting beat to it, and the melody swings really nicely. People like to hear about other people getting past their obstacles because it helps them get past theirs. I think all the little aspects of the song make it come together and make it very relatable.”
Not long after that performance, Michael got a call back from Jeff Probst and the producers of his show to write a song about playing with Billy Joel; the opening lyric became the title of the song, “Chances Are” and Michael told me how it was written. “It was so busy after the Billy Joel…experience, we’ll call it,” he said. “I really didn’t have any time to put my thoughts down on a page and make a song out of it so when Jeff and his producers called and said we want you on the finale and we want to hear a song about that experience and taking a chance. The first thing that came to my mind was why the hell haven’t I done this yet (laughs)? It was very easy to do, I had the entire chorus done in the first 5 minutes of writing; “Chances are this chance won’t come again” was the first thing I wrote down for that song. What I wanted to do was have the verses address the kind of person that usually won’t stand up and raise their hand, seize the moment, per se. I wanted to feel that so I could actually write about it so I sat in my dorm room and I re-watched the video of me asking Billy to play. I get ridiculously nervous talking in front of people, nonetheless, in front of my childhood idol. After watching that I re-experienced all the nerves, the heart pounding and the sweaty palms. I wrote all that down and turned it into this conversation with another person; “Does the fear in your chest have your heart double-time/is it harder to stand on your own.” I kind of twisted my story into a self-help for other people.”
Still a student at Vanderbilt University, with an undeclared major, Michael has been taking several music classes. Even over the summer at NYU he took a songwriting class, and I thankfully stumbled upon two songs, “What I Didn’t Say” and “Fallen,” that he wrote during that time. “Those were…not really meant to be heard yet,” Pollack said with an uneasy laugh. “I actually took a songwriting class at NYU at the beginning of the summer and I got to collaborate with a couple other writers. We were given titles and one of them was “What I Didn’t Say” and we came up with the idea of the verse addressing all the things that the guy, or girl, says to the person they love then hangs up the phone and thinks about all the things they wanted to say. It came out as a nice country/pop song; don’t know where it’s going or who’s going to take it, but I definitely like that one. “Fallen” is a song I wrote, rather quickly, and I was just thinking when things go badly for the average person they’re not really “bad” in the grand scheme of things. You gain some perspective that everything could be so much worse so I tried to capture that idea. I wanted it to be a duet as well so I asked a friend of mine, Sammie Miller, who’s got an insanely good voice. It was a lot of fun working in the studio with her. But yeah, thanks for reminding me to pull that one down (laughs).”
Having just played his first live set of originals opening up for X-Factor’s Carly Rose Sonenclar, Michael is looking to the future of not only performing his own music but writing for other people as well. A prime example that Michael brought up in our conversation is One Republic’s Ryan Tedder. “He’s got one of the craziest vocal ranges and when I saw him I was just so impressed. I went home and realized that he wrote for, literally, everyone, from (Leona Lewis’) “Bleeding Love” to Britney Spears, I mean, he writes for everyone. I think what I love about that is my vocal range is not 25 octaves like Ryan Tedder’s but it gives me this opportunity write into this new range and new patterns that someone else can sing, that I wouldn’t be able to sing. I can tell a story with my song, but I can’t sing it like Justin Timberlake or Bruno Mars. It definitely opens up all these pathways for my songwriting.”
Dripping with talent and ability, Michael Pollack is an artist to watch for in the future. I concluded our conversation by asking where he thought he’d be in 5 years. “I don’t even know where I see myself in a month, gosh!” he said, laughing. “5 years…I hope that I’m still doing what’s makes me happy musically. If at that time it’s performing, I hope I’m performing, if it’s writing for others then that. I really don’t know. I know right now I want to make music, and I want people to hear that music, and I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen.”
Watch Michael's viral performance with Billy Joel here!