Named “Best Pianist/Keyboardist” by the Cleveland Free Times, Rob Kovacs has been widely hailed for his shape-shifting musical experimentalism, spanning history-making classical feats and audacious recreations of videogame soundtracks to crafting mesmerizing indie rock both as bandleader and now, at long last, solo artist. Kovacs has invested more than a decade in the creation of his debut solo album, LET GO, a brave and bittersweet song cycle written in the years following an intensely impactful romantic relationship and then recorded over an even longer span. Songs like “Fizzle” and the urgent first single, “Here In The Future” are cinematic yet intimate, sweeping in their sonic approach and composition yet deeply vulnerable and private at their heart.
“I look at songs as snapshots of where you are in life,” Kovacs says. “Who you were then makes you who you are today. So even though it’s been a long time since I wrote them, these songs are definitely part of who I am. I haven’t completely discarded who I was then.”
Kovacs grew up surrounded by music. Inspired by his older sister to learn piano, he wrote his first piece at only 10. Then and there, he knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Kovacs held true to his dream, writing songs and fronting his first band while still in high school.
“I just thought that I had a unique voice,” he says. “I've always loved music and piano and rhythm. I just felt that I had something different to say, musically, and wanted to express it.”
Having spent his teens playing and performing, both as solo pianist and band member, Kovacs decided to study music theory at Baldwin-Wallace University, earning a scholarship after his first year. It was there he began exploring contemporary classical music and its myriad offshoots.
“Minimalism really struck a chord with me,” he says. “It said it was okay to do something different. It was okay to repeat stuff over and over. You can focus on the subtle changes that are happening, rather than the big, dramatic changes you hear in Rachmaninoff or Liszt or something like that. You have more subtle progression, which is more in tune with the life that I see around me. Life doesn't necessarily move that fast, but it's constantly moving, constantly changing.”
Kovacs also maintained a healthy interest in more popular strains of modern music, performing Radiohead covers alongside a guitarist friend in college coffee houses and cafes en route to co-founding the acclaimed piano rock trio, Return of Simple. In 2004, Kovacs made musical history as the first pianist to perform both parts of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, simultaneously playing two pianos to accomplish the unprecedented feat.
“I first heard Piano Phase and hated it,” Kovacs says. “It sounds like it's just the same 12 notes over and over again. But if you listen, there really are the same 12 notes over and over again – but played by two different pianos, and one of them is slowly speeding up. So the relationship between the two of them, even though they’re not changing the notes, the relationship is constantly changing. I found it really fascinating and then tried to learn how to play it by myself. I wanted to see if I could speed up one hand and then keep the other one the same. Hand independence was always interesting to me and that was like the ultimate – can you be that controlled?”
By his senior year Kovacs had not only mastered the piece, he’d organized and performed a major concert of Reich’s music, highlighted by his remarkable solo performance of Piano Phase.
“It became a huge event,” Kovacs says. “We invited Steve to come to the concert – which he did for a pretty nominal fee – and we had this one-day music festival. Steve Reich, the world-renowned composer, coming to our small college in Berea, Ohio! I've never been so nervous in my entire life. Literally shaking. Like, what am I doing? But I calmed down and played the whole piece, it got a huge round of applause and I just burst into tears. I've never experienced anything like it, all that pressure. But after that I felt like I could actually do anything in the world.”
Kovacs’ singular performance of Piano Phase threw open the vaulted doors of classical music. Reich’s manager reached out, suggesting representation, but Kovacs instead chose to pursue his singer-songwriter dreams by continuing onward with Return of Simple.
“I was real clear,” he says. “I love contemporary music but I have this band and right now my goal is to pursue a songwriting career. That direction wasn’t on my radar, ever. I never wanted to be a performing pianist. At least at that time.”
Return of Simple pushed forward, releasing their acclaimed debut EP, SAFFRON, in 2006 before moving east to try their luck in New York City. Though the band met with some success, Kovacs soon found he was writing songs better suited to solo performance, many of them reflecting on the end of an impossible romantic entanglement that had left him questioning everything he once thought to be true about himself.
“It was a couple of years after college,” he recalls. “I was 25 and I met someone who just shook my world. It forced me to look at the way I was living and really reexamine everything. I just fell so head over heels for this person. I was coming from a place where I wasn’t really open to love – really, I was more afraid of it. Afraid of getting hurt.
“The relationship made me take a look at myself and allowed me to try things like therapy, which was really a lifesaver. I lost so much confidence; everything I thought about myself was shaken. I had a strong need for trying to keep things in control, being in control of things, and I had absolutely no control in the relationship. And that's very reflective of life. Learning to accept that was a huge lesson, but it took a long time to learn.”
Heartbroken but unbowed, Kovacs decided to return to Cleveland where he could devote the necessary time and resources to recording his new songs.
“I didn't feel like I could do it in New York, I didn't have any record label support, and wouldn't be able to afford a studio where I could confidently nail the songs in time. I felt like I could do it in my home. I know how to record, I have the equipment, and I can take the time - which I certainly did – to record it myself.”
Kovacs finally began recording at his home in Cleveland in 2014. Though his initial goal was to record a kind of career overview, showcasing what he believed to be his best work as a songwriter, he couldn’t help but see certain patterns emerge.
“I realized that there was a theme,” he says. “They’re all about the same relationship. I realized that I needed room to tell the story. To feel complete.
“Conveniently all these songs are in the same key centers, a lot of D flat and A flat. They’re chronological storywise and then each song flows into the next key – some of them somewhat even overlap. That kind of worked out pretty nicely.”
Kovacs spent the next few years recording almost entirely on his own, filling in sonic space with the help of a few local musician friends, including guitarist David McHenry, drummer Daniel Kshywonis, and bassist Charlie Trenta.
“We were all teaching at the same music school,” he says. “I asked them to be on this record and through that process, I said, let’s be a band. They reluctantly agreed, and so, for like six months, we were a band called Math + Logic. They’re all great musicians, and their influence on the record is great, but it just wasn't the right chemistry.”
Frustrated by the breakdown of Math + Logic, Kovacs once again refocused on his solo career, extending his growing CV to include roles as music director, accompanist, arranger, dueling pianist, lounge act, and even e-card composer. Highlights include work alongside a diverse span of artists ranging from Mark Mothersbaugh, Sandra Bernhard, Natalie Weiss, Rachel Potter, Parson James, and Grace Love to such contemporary classical groups as No Exit Ensemble, the Lima Symphony, and the Five One Experimental Orchestra, with whom he served as main pianist for the final three years of their existence.
“It's all music,” Kovacs says. “Classical music, rock music, musical theater, jazz, whatever. It's all music. Having learned all these different styles helps me play all the other different styles better. There’s so much that classical musicians can learn from rock or jazz and vice versa.”
As if all that weren’t enough, Kovacs began arranging and performing songs from the original NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) under the guise of a new project that he dubbed 88bit. The project allowed him to access different aspects of his music, indulging his love of technique and theory.
“It’s incredibly inspiring,” Kovacs says. “I love it. I was living in New York and I did a piano arrangement of ‘Air Man,’ from Mega Man 2. I had seen a bunch of stuff online, people playing the melody here and there, but no one was really doing the music justice. Years later, I thought, why don't I just do a bunch of Nintendo games? I don't have to just do that one game. It was right at the time that I was mixing this album. I was so frustrated with Math + Logic. I thought, screw that, I don't need a band. It's just me. I can play music and not have to worry about other people. I love videogame music. It feeds that classical part of me where I want to try to push myself as a musician, push what you can do with the piano as a pianist.”
Meanwhile, through it all, work continued on LET GO. Kovacs recorded all his piano tracks and then spent the next few years on vocals and additional instrumentation before having it all mixed in Chicago by 2x GRAMMY® Award nominee Sean O'Keefe (Fall Out Boy, Hawthorne Heights, Plain White T’s).
“It was somewhat of a drawn-out process,” Kovacs says. “Little things kept getting in the way. Like, I want to change this lyric, or I want to redo the vocals. Writing string parts and getting the strings recorded, adding those to the mix. Then it took a while to get it mastered, that ended up taking all year.”
LET GO is rich in its cohesive scope, its craftsmanship and narrative range befitting its extended invention. With his warm vocals and elegant melodies, Kovacs invites listeners to accompany him through that first flush of attraction to heartbreak and loss and ultimately, greater understanding and acceptance. Songs like “Reach You” and “Momentary Bliss” are grand in vision but strikingly unguarded and tender at their core, with a sophisticated precision and emotional depth unlike anything he’d ever attempted previously. The album’s closing track, “Bitter Memory,” is perhaps its most raw and explicit, expressing all the complexities of the relationship and the healing process that followed with straightforward honesty and a striking lack of sugarcoating.
“I like to be genuine as possible,” Kovacs says. “It's not about impressing people.”
Now, after almost a decade, Kovacs has finally concluded his epic relationship with LET GO, its protracted creation lasting far longer than the actual romance chronicled therein.
“I'm very happy to let go of this project,” he says. “It feels fantastic. It just feels so great. When I released ‘Here In The Future” earlier this fall, it was the first music I’d released in years. I had very mixed emotions – I was excited, but also nervous. Am I going to meet people's expectations? But I woke up that morning with a flood of texts and emails, it was just wonderful.”
Kovacs – who currently serves as artist in residence for the Arts and Medicine Institute at the world renowned Cleveland Clinic – is now free to move forward on a number of other new projects. He has begun work on a long-gestating collection of other songs written over the past decade, as well as a fully instrumental VR game soundtrack that he proudly describes as a “kind of prog rock synth odyssey.” Kovacs further hopes to be able to bring LET GO to the live stage sometime soon but in the meantime he’s been adapting to the new normal by performing each and every Thursday via Twitch.
“Streaming is definitely going to be a big part of how I perform going forward,” he says. “Twitch is all about connecting with people, you're talking to them right away. You can see people's responses in real time to your songs, which is so powerful and so helpful and interesting.”
With its ambitious compositional palette and hauntingly potent songcraft, LET GO affirms Rob Kovacs as a fully focused and steadfast artist, evincing a commitment and creative persistence rarely seen in our ever more short attention span society.
“I watched a lot of my friends, great musicians, pack it in for a more stable life,” he says. “I’ve had loves throughout this past 10 years which have enriched my life and been wonderful. But I’ve also learned that if I’m not pursuing music, that doesn’t matter. It eats me up to not be pursuing music, regardless of the outcome. As long as I’m on that journey, creating and putting music out there. If I’m not doing that, I’m unhappy. As long as I’m doing that I feel fulfilled.”