At some point, Jerry Lee Lewis must have gotten bored. Left hand, right hand, which keys have how many sharps and flats. The guy maybe wasn’t the first, but at some point he exiled his instructor and started screeching boogie-woogie for real as a kind of primal release.

The old clavier was never the same. Little Richard and “Great Balls of Fire” gave way to the Ben Folds Five and Regina Spektor, artists who treat the keys as more of a physiological extension then an inanimate instrument.

From this rich lineage we get Will Gattis, an otherwise plain Mainer ready to take the mantle and start kicking over a few benches of his own. Even though his fingers fly when asked, Gattis can still coax a nuanced melody out of his piano, so much so that he took home the Maine Best Songwriter crown in 2007. Gattis’ ballads are easy to get inside, but powered by lyrical conflicts. In that way, the tracks are much like the guy himself – more than meets the eye. (Stream his music at

GO wanted to get a peek at a piano man on the rise before his show at 9 p.m. Saturday at Geno’s, 625 Congress St., Portland (


All right, let’s get this Ben Folds thing out of the way. Who are your influences from way back? How about now?

I definitely get compared to Ben Folds a lot because we’re both geeky white guys who wear collared shirts and play songs about ex-girlfriends. A couple years ago, I decided to stop listening to Ben Folds, because I was and still am a huge fan. I had to get him out of my head.

Growing up, it was always the Beatles, and my favorite was the fifth, (producer) George Martin. He’s the one who got them to experiment and try to make every song sound like it’s by a different band. That’s my ideal. Bigger than the Beatles is a composer named Nobuo Uematsu, who does music for video games. A theme song for every character, place and situation. He captured those people, places and things in music perfectly. Complex human emotions in video-game music is like translating a novel into a recipe book.


Do you write about your own life? How do you approach your craft?

I have on-and-off periods of writing what’s going on in my life. In college, I had a hard time and wrote a lot of sad songs. I even used the names of people I knew, straight up. I learned pretty quickly that no one wants to hear about your problems. I want the song to be about the listener, not me.


How’d you learn to tickle the ivories?

I would poke around at different piano keys until they sounded good growing up. My dad is a songwriter, and sometimes he would convince me I was playing guitar. He would hold down the chords and all I would do is strum. My piano teacher, Brian Wilson (not that Brian Wilson), started with me when I was 8.

When I got into those video games, I began to use what I had learned in the lessons by figuring out the “Final Fantasy” games on the piano. Much to the chagrin of my family, I would leave the TV blasting, and hum the songs at the piano. That experience, in a weird way, got me playing the way I needed to be playing. When I was a (high school) freshman, I was invited to join a rock band, and it was all downhill from there.


What are you working on right now?

My main goal is to work at least 40 hours a week on booking shows. A few months ago I had the realization that if most people can work 40 hours a week at a job they loathe, I can try to get on stages. Most of the work is sending hundreds of e-mails to venues and promoters. It can get frustrating at times. Writing happens as the moment occurs. I want to perfect the songs I have in the live setting.


What has coming up in the state of Maine taught you?

Definitely politeness. When I play shows south of here, I feel like sort of a bumpkin when I say “please” when ordering coffee. Being a touring musician in Maine is more difficult than if I lived near more populated areas. In the Mid-Atlantic, there are cities north, south, east and west. In Maine, it’s almost all south. Which makes for a lot of driving. But this scene is so nourishing, filled with musicians trying to help each other. That’s something I’m really thankful for.


Who are some of the slickest players in town?

I’m a big fan of Tom Hall in Kill the Karaoke, and I’ve had the pleasure of playing with him numerous times. The guy can shred like a madman. Also Ryan Higgins is a sick drummer, fun to play with. When I think of technically proficient cats, I think of those guys.


Describe your best memory from a show this year.

The first time I played in Manhattan at Kenny’s Castaways. When I played there I was really nervous. I didn’t know if I’d be able to draw anyone. But the club treated me truly kindly, and I had a lot of friends and family go way out of their way to be there. One of the bands canceled and the sound guy said I could play later or longer. Of course, I chose longer. I played for two hours, and it went off without a hitch. It was a great experience for me.


Mike Olcott is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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