SALT LAKE CITY — Steven Sharp Nelson, one-fourth of The Piano Guys, thinks of himself as many things — a musician, father, husband, friend — but a rock star is not one of them.
“Four middle-aged dads playing classical music and filming that music in nature? Nobody could ever say that’s a recipe for success," Nelson said in an interview with the Deseret News. "If we approached Sony in the beginning with that idea, they would’ve laughed us out of the boardroom.”
The Piano Guys can scratch their heads all they want at their success, but it’s clear that their influence is widespread. They have garnered 6.3 million subscribers on YouTube thanks to their breathtaking music videos set beneath iconic landscapes, and their Spotify account averages nearly 2 million monthly listeners.
Nelson, a self-proclaimed “nerdy ADHD cellist,” along with fellow group members Jon Schmidt (piano), Al van der Beek (music producer) and Paul Anderson (videographer) make up The Piano Guys, who recently released their eighth studio album “Limitless.”
“Content creation is very important to us. … It’s just the nature of the industry these days that the minute you stop producing content (is) the minute you’re forgotten,” Nelson said.
Despite the pressure to stay relevant in a competitive, evolving music industry, Nelson made it clear that this new album is anything but formulaic — rather, he said, it’s intentional, everything from the melodies, to the lyrics, to the theme is deliberate. For them, the first step in content creation is prayer.
“Prayer is a big part of what we do — we pray our way into the right ideas and ask for the right approach. … (We) pray that inside the music will be the right healing that will make someone’s burden a little lighter. We hand that over to a divine hand,” Nelson said.
One phrase that Nelson couldn’t emphasize enough was: “It’s not about us, it’s about the music.” This phrase was especially relevant as the group composed the “Limitless" album, which Nelson described as helping people realize their limitless potential.
“We’re only as limitless as we think and feel we are. … Each of these songs, in (their) own way, represents that concept and that idea,” Nelson said.
The Piano Guys are no strangers to pushing musical limits as they continue to push the limits of instruments and melodies that have been around for hundreds of years. Besides filming incredible music videos, The Piano Guys are known for taking two seemingly unrelated songs and combining them together to end up with a greater whole.
“We like to transcend traditional genres," Nelson said. "What we have discovered is that all the music we listen to today is descendant of classical music. When you put the two together it’s like a family reunion.”
One of the group's most notable mashups in “Limitless” is with Tchaikovsky's "Swan Theme" from the ballet "Swan Lake" and Canadian singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes' "In My Blood." At first thought, these two songs don't seem like logical musical partners, but after listening them woven together, their compatibility shine through. For Nelson, finding those connections is part of the fun of being a Piano Guy.
“What if Tchaikovsky and Shawn Mendes did collaborate?" Nelson asked. "It’s such an incredible idea. It’s so much fun to imagine these two different composers in the same room together, riffing off each other."
The Piano Guys have reinterpreted songs from contemporary composers ranging from Ed Sheeran to Coldplay to One Direction, and their work has often been met with praise.
“We’ve had over a dozen artists come out on Facebook or contact us and say, ‘We love what you’ve done with this!’ (While) that’s not our purpose, it’s a nice bonus,” Nelson said.
“One Republic (told us that we took their music) to another level, … Rachel Platten really felt the power of what we were trying to do with ('Fight Song') … and Howard Shore once said about our 'Lord of Rings' mashup that it ‘put his to shame,’ and I totally disagree.”
Though The Piano Guys are transcending the bounds of music, they’ve had an equally emotional few years, due in part to the tragic passing of Schmidt’s daughter Annie Schmidt in 2016.
“We have all been through some unthinkable trials. … During that time I witnessed tragedy and majesty," Nelson said. "I witnessed something that was so far beyond what would be considered the human potential. … I saw divinity between Jon and Michelle."
Nelson explained that the music has been transformative in their healing process.
“We have used music personally as a healing balm, and so that’s another reason why it motivates us to do what we are doing," he said. " … Music is a salve that will help (people) get from point A to point B.”
Above all, Nelson wants listeners to know that each one of them has the potential to overcome and transcend trials, and that God will guide them toward their divine purpose.
“I hope that as people listen to our music, and as they struggle with things that seem to be out of place in their lives or seem to be unwanted, that they can take strength in knowing that one day the purpose for which they struggle will become clear,” Nelson said.
“This isn’t just about us and our success. It is something that we want to pass along to everybody. God can do so much with so little.”