It's First Friday. I'm at my third gallery opening in as many hours, drinking cheap wine from a plastic glass and eavesdropping on yet another conversation about Nicole Pesce. "But have you heard her ABBA medley?" one wanna-be fashionista is saying to another. "Oh, please," her gal pal is saying. "Six times! But I'm all about Nicole's Bacharach interpretations! She makes old-guy music sound cool!"
Nicole Pesce makes a lot of stuff sound cool -- which is one of the reasons she's attracted an ever-growing fan following, why diners at downtown's My Florist Cafe linger over the soup du jour, and why they return so often to hear her take on everything from Tchaikovsky to Billy Joel. Minutes before taking the bench for her standard six-hour set at My Florist, the twentysomething Pesce spoke with me about playing Led Zep songs for septuagenarians, backing Jerry Lewis, and the difference between Bach and Beethoven.
New Times: You do realize you have a cult following, don't you?
Nicole Pesce: I started to say, "No, you're crazy." But I do sort of know that the same people are coming back to hear me quite a lot. It's really amazing. I find it hard to believe, but it's so cool, too. It's kind of just starting to sink in that this is happening.
NT: People come from all over town to hear you play.
Pesce: The weird thing is that it's all different ages. I'll have a more mature crowd, and I'll be playing show tunes and stuff, then suddenly a bunch of younger people will come in, and I'll be playing my Queen medley or "Stairway to Heaven," stuff like that. And I'm playing Led Zeppelin for these 70-year-olds and thinking, "How did this happen?"
NT: How did this happen?
Pesce: I did the piano bar thing for a while in Connecticut, and it started to happen for me there. But the real reason it all clicked is that this is such an awesome place to play. [My Florist owner David Lacey] really gives me total artistic freedom, so no one's telling me, "You can't play ABBA and Chopin!" No one's saying, "Tone it down, play classical, play background music, stop showing off!" Here, I can do just about anything.
NT: Anything? Could you wear a headdress and have chorus girls performing a kickline behind you?
Pesce: Well, David would probably go for it. Seriously, though, he just lets me make my own musical decisions, which is really heaven for any musician. So I can play Rachmaninoff and Van Morrison and then on into Jelly Roll Morton.
NT: You have a pretty wide musical knowledge for someone your age.
Pesce: I have a huge record collection at home -- probably a thousand record albums, and as many CDs -- jazz, classical, and everything in between. I studied with my father, and he had an enormous knowledge of music that he passed on. He encouraged me to study and appreciate all kinds of music. That's pretty rare. He listened to everything from Fats Waller and Elton John, and he encouraged many different styles, which a lot of teachers don't do. They'll say, "Play classical or jazz, but not both."
NT: Did he force you to study music?
Pesce: No! I had to ask. He wasn't going to teach me until I asked. And he never said, "You just have to play this or that kind of music." He said, "Here it all is. Play it." And I do.
NT: I know. And a lot of it is contemporary music for which you write new, classically inspired arrangements.
Pesce: Right. Like with the Led Zeppelin song, there isn't a whole lot of piano in the original recording, and so I redid it for solo piano. I've always done that. My first job was playing a Christmas party at age 8, and I didn't know you were supposed to play the song the same way each time.
NT: And by the time you were 14, you were playing for Debbie Reynolds at her hotel in Vegas. I hear she's a megabitch.
Pesce: Not to me she wasn't. She was awesome. She was very Debbie. Rip Taylor was on the mike making jokes the entire time, which was kind of a challenge.
NT: After Debbie, you toured with Jerry Lewis.
Pesce: Yes, we toured all over the country with a 16-piece orchestra. I was 14 then.
NT: After which, apparently, you hit a fallow period in your career, where you were just playing piano bars in Connecticut. I guess playing with the Jerry Lewis Orchestra is a tough act to follow.
Pesce: (Laughing.) Hey, it wasn't all piano bars -- I played some hotels, too. And I also played with Buddy Greco and Pat Boone, don't forget.
NT: Wow. Pat Boone!
Pesce: Yes, but it was amazing to play with a legend like Buddy Greco. Then I came back to Phoenix when I was about 18 and got a job playing at the Ritz-Carlton.
NT: Where I hear you played for Verne Troyer, the little person who played Mini-Me in the Austin Powers films. Did he have, like, a cabaret act or something?
Pesce: (Laughing uncontrollably.) No. I can't imagine what a Verne Troyer cabaret act would be. He was staying at the Ritz for a while, and he stopped by to hear me play. He was very sweet.
NT: Oh, I get it. So, tell me the truth: You're playing music while people are eating and talking. Do you ever just want to stand up and shout, "Listen to me, you assholes!"?
Pesce: (Laughing.) I don't know what you mean. No, really, when I'm playing, I try to feel the room out, try to figure out what they're up for. Sometimes I'm just playing ambient music, and other times I'm doing a show. Later in the evening, it's more about my performing.
NT: I've seen that. You really get going, sometimes. Have you ever just fallen off the bench?
Pesce: I've come close a couple of times. My excuse is that I lose perspective when I'm playing. I admit it, though: I've almost taken a dive a time or two.
NT: Bach or Beethoven?
Pesce: Beethoven is more romantic and more piano-friendly; Bach was a genius and extremely difficult to play. I enjoy playing Beethoven more, because it's easier to be more musical with him. I love Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Liszt -- all the composers contributed so much.
NT: Liberace or Van Cliburn?
Pesce: (Laughing.) Now, there's a question. Uh, my father toured with Liberace, so I guess I'd better say Liberace. But Van Cliburn's the most phenomenal pianist of his time -- and talk about big hands!
NT: Major or minor?
Pesce: Major keys have been done to death, so when I'm writing, I tend to write in minor keys. I can find more to do there; minor keys can be more haunting. Sometimes I sneak my own compositions in when I'm playing here, just to see if anyone will notice.
NT: Were you a band geek in school?
Pesce: I didn't start my first jazz band until I was about 12, so I mostly worked solo. It's hard, when you're like 10 years old, to find anyone to play with, because the adult musicians don't really take you seriously. And your little friends from the school band just aren't always up to, you know, improvising or playing jazz riffs.
NT: Not to mention a medley of Queen songs.
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Pesce: I can't get out of here most nights without playing my Queen medley. Which is funny, because when I was a teenager, I'd never heard of Queen. I was playing at a restaurant, and one of the servers brought me a Queen CD, and the playing was really phenomenal. I was like, "Wow, rock music -- a totally new aspect of music." It was very challenging to find a way to play this music that wasn't campy.
NT: You play some pretty odd stuff. But do people sometimes request just plain stupid songs?
Pesce: For a whole year, different people were asking for this song called "Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. O'Leary's Clam Chowder?". I thought they were joking, of course. I later found the song in an old Irish folk songbook, of which there's like three copies in print. And so I finally learned it. Now that I have, I hope those people come back.