In Conversation with Neil Cowley

Neil Cowley is a British pianist-composer with a large cult following. He’s sometimes described as the “most heard” pianist on the planet right now because of his piano work on Adele’s recordings. His own compositions, recorded with the aid of the brilliant Neil Cowley Trio, are milestones of innovation and beauty, his piano style moves effortlessly between jazz and his own more personal musical messages. Cowley’s latest album, Spacebound Apes, is a musical wonder (reviewd by the Voice Magazine here), and forms the soundtrack to his science fiction novel, Lincoln. .

Cowley met with Wanda Waterman during the Montreal International Jazz Festival to share his views on jazz, current events, the new album, and why he doesn’t like working with singers.

You’ve often said you don’t like working with singers. Is the issue musical or personal?
Personal. And I sympathise, really, because they only have one instrument, the voice, and so they need to keep themselves entirely protected. You have to tiptoe around them, and I’m a bit heavy-footed. I have a very low boredom threshold.

There’s also a practical reason behind it. I saw Zero 7 create a massive album with Simple Things, and they worked with Sia, who’s now a megastar, and Sophie and Mozez?all their songs were recorded with these singers. As soon as you do that you create a very short shelf life for yourself; these singers weren’t integral to the band, and they had their own careers. So the moment the singers were too busy or too preoccupied with their own bands they couldn’t play them live; they were completely at their whim. When I was thinking of creating my next project I thought, “I don’t want to be held to ransom by singers and careers.”

I wanted it to be about what I do. I wanted to make my instrument the solo instrument. That way I only had to rely on me.

What about Adele? Does she fall into the same category as other singers?
By the time I worked with Adele I was clever enough that I only needed to work on the bare essentials. I also had this band (the Neil Cowley Trio) up and running, and this band has always been my main passion. The amount of time I spent with Adele recording, if you compressed it, it would probably be about three days. Her last album took about three afternoons.

How were you chosen to play for her?
In 2007 I got a phone call from an old friend saying, “We’re going into the studio on Monday morning with this girl named Adele. It’s her first recording. She has a piano player in her band, but the piano player doesn’t think the band is going anywhere so he’s decided to keep his job at the supermarket. Would you help out?”

I was doing sessions at the time so I said alright, and they set me up on one side of the studio and her on the other, and we did “Hometown Glory” virtually in one take. I said, “She works at my place and my level!”

Not to be conceited, but as I said I do have a low tolerance for boredom, and I do things very quickly. Adele does things very quickly, too. It was no surprise to me when she did that big Brit Awards performance and became a megastar; every take is a one-take with her.

It’s a pain in the backside sometimes because every restaurant I walk into now they’re playing me, and I hate that, but the perks are great.

Even though you’re known as a master of jazz piano, your latest album, Spacebound Apes, contains no jazz. Why is that?
On Spacebound Apes I was really trying to create a concept album.

My love of jazz comes from things that swing. I listened to Erroll Garner as a kid. I adore playing that stuff and I’m actually good at it, but I no longer do it openly because I don’t think it fits with how we’re living now. It feels like it comes from an age gone by, and I wish it wasn’t. It would be glorious for music to be that happy, but it’s just not the zeitgeist of the age now.

I taught myself everything beyond classical music. I’m slightly cockeyed, slightly cack-handed, as my mother would say. I have a very roundabout way of getting to where I want to be, and I waste a lot of energy doing so, but hopefully I come up with something a little different, something authentic? something that’s of me.

There’s a sadness in Spacebound Apes. Is that somehow a response to what’s happening in the world now?
I’ve been musing about that the last few days. Moodwise I’m very fickle. Part of the poignancy comes from the fact that I make my music alone in my room at the end of my garden. I love people, but when I write it comes down to me and the piano, and quite a lot of loneliness.

I don’t know if it’s age, but things really do feel very stark and bleak right now. It’s easy to get bogged down by it.

Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.

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