On his way to the Panama Canal, Will Foraker sounded energized.
His globe-trotting job — entertaining travelers as a piano-playing singer aboard Celebrity cruise ships — “is definitely not a lifestyle I want once I settle down.” But for a 25-year-old with “at this point, no wife and no kids,” it’s a pretty good gig.
“In the end, it’s all worth it,” Foraker said from his cellphone at sea. “I wake up in the morning, and I play piano.
“For the most part,” he added, “it feels like a paid vacation, really.”
Even the unusual destinations energize Foraker. His current tour, which began Dec. 7 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., will eventually take Foraker from Argentina to, of all places, Antarctica. “I’m super pumped,” he said. “I want to see some penguins.”
In a way, the variety of the scenery mirrors Foraker’s music, including this month’s release of his fourth and latest CD, “Billy Big Lips.” The Terre Haute native began playing piano at age 6, but didn’t like it. Later, as a Woodrow Wilson Middle Schooler, the influence of jazz ignited a passion for music in Foraker, through performances with combos supervised by school instructor Dave Nearpass and in private lessons with Indiana State University professor John Spicknall.
Spicknall “kind of opened my eyes to jazz — that it wasn’t just notes on a page,” Foraker said.
He impressed Spicknall, a veteran jazz pianist in Wabash Valley music circles.
“To see the light bulb go on, and see him understanding things my college students were working on when he was in middle school was something,” Spicknall recalled. “His gift was apparent from the get-go.”
As a mere seventh-grader, Foraker and bassist Da Bologna regularly entertained patrons at Pino’s Il Sonetto restaurant.
His progress continued from his middle school days through high school at Terre Haute North. From there, he enrolled at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and pursued first a mechanical engineering degree and then switched to economics, figuring it would lead to “a steady, 40-hour-a-week job, and do music on the side.” But after three years, he dropped out at Rose in 2008. “My heart really wasn’t in it,” he said.
Throughout his college time, he performed around Terre Haute and Indiana and recorded music with a blues-jazz-rock group, The Leonard Washingtons. They continue, regrouping during summers. Last September, they got solid reviews from fans at the lineup of the Blues at the Crossroads Festival.
Shortly after leaving college, he spotted a callout on Facebook from a talent agent. It said, “Wanted: Musicians for 5-star cruise ships.” Foraker applied, and soon attended a casting call at Indiana University. He auditioned for 10 minutes, playing a medley of Billy Joel, Eagles, Miles Davis, Ray Charles and Dave Brubeck standards.
By December 2009, he was playing piano and singing on Celebrity’s Solstice ship heading through the Caribbean to Honduras and Mexico. In 2010 and 2011, his stops included the Mediterranean Sea ports in the French Riviera, Italy, Turkey, Greece and Croatia. Last year, he and another young performer played for six months at a Japanese hotel, before wrapping up in February. Already in 2012, Foraker has played Hawaii, Miami, England and Norway. Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Malaysia and Africa are also on the docket.
His parents, both retired, frequently catch his act in person, joining the cruises. “So I just kind of double as their travel agent,” he quipped, “and they’re kind of my unofficial groupies.”
While back home in Terre Haute, Foraker has recorded albums with Vigo County producer Don Arney, who operates Quantum Music Production studio in Pimento. Arney’s production skills helped shape Foraker’s delivery. “If I wouldn’t have met Don in 2008, I wouldn’t be the musician I am,” Foraker said.
His recent “Billy Big Lips” album — available at websites www.billybiglips.com and willforaker.bandcamp.
com — exemplies his abilities, Arney said. On it, Foraker does renditions of old jazz standards, as well as Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” and Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.” “But it all works together,” Arney said, “when it’s Will playing.”
Foraker also delivered a gem to the new benefit album, “The Wabash,” which Arney produced, with proceeds funding a planned sculpture commemorating composer Paul Dresser’s state song, “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away.” Foraker did a version of the long-lost ragtime tune, “I’m Gonna Float My Boat Right Back to Terre Haute.” He’d never heard it before, and only had some sheet music and a casual sing-along YouTube rendition of the song.
He turned it into one of the album’s strongest tracks, using a New Orleans stride piano style, in the vein of Dr. John or Leon Russell.
“I tried to do it in the style that made me happy,” Foraker said.
That happens almost any time Foraker takes on a song, Arney said. For example, Foraker tackled the country classic “Long Black Veil” by Lefty Frizzell, and Arney boldly said, “Will’s version is probably one of the best ever recorded.”
Foraker, he added, “is probably one of the most well-rounded musician-entertainers I’ve worked with in 40 years.”
Looking ahead, Foraker has a “five-year plan, and a five-year contingency plan,” but wants to be a professional recording artist by age 30. For now, making music at sea suits him well.
“I’m really not ready to be done cruising,” he said. “I’m not done seeing certain spots in the world. And if they’re paying me, I can’t say no.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or email@example.com.