Here at Metropolis, we love nothing more than hearing from and learning more about our friends and clients. With this in mind, the “Metropolis Asks” blog series aims to shine a spotlight on some of our diverse community. To kick things off, we turned to Metropolis based contemporary pianist and composer, Neil Cowley. Neil is known to be one of the country’s most highly regarded musicians and composers working as part of the Green Nuns of the Revolution, Fragile State and Neil Cowley Trio. Winner of the BBC Jazz Best Album award (Neil Cowley Trio – Displaced), Neil has just released his debut solo album, Hall of Mirrors. Metropolis Head of Studios, Emma Townsend, spoke with Neil recently to discuss everything from his favourite lockdown album to his experiences working at Metropolis during the pandemic.
As we speak the government has just announced the route out of lockdown. Can you think back to this time in 2020, as we locked down for the first time, and describe how you felt looking ahead to 2020.
I remember sitting in my studio here at Metropolis and watching Boris Johnson’s TV address as we entered the first lockdown. I remember the emotion both in my studio and outside on the street, like the nation was pulling together to beat an unseen enemy. By ‘eck we’ve come an awful long way since then and attitudes have changed enormously.
As I remember it we had very little time to prepare, possibly only a few hours. I had to get my stuff together and clear out, so I packed the car full of stuff in order to create a makeshift studio at home. I took it pretty seriously. As I drove down the motorway out of London it very much felt as if people were making their ‘last journey’ before an apocolyptic moment. It was reminiscent of moments from ‘When The Wind Blows’ by Raymond Briggs. A bit of a dramatic portrayal perhaps but I can honestly say it felt like that at the time.
That gave way to days and days of rather blissful weather in the garden and I guess I thought 3 months would see this problem off. How wrong was I?
So in answer to your question, I guess I kept thinking that 2020 would suddenly take an upturn, and yet I found my rather optimistic predictions to be wrong. I made the mistake throughout of getting my hopes up and thinking we’d be home and dry in the not too distant future. To have my natural optimism eroded like that and for it to turn in on me was very hard to bear. Two steps forward and 19 steps back at every turn.
Many people discovered new skills or rediscovered old ones during the first lockdown. Did you suddenly learn how to bake, or did the piano in the corner of the room suddenly feel like an old friend?
Well, I followed the pattern of many people at that time I suspect. First thing was to clean everything to within an inch of its life. When the local dump first opened after first lockdown it was the closest thing to a rush hour that anybody had seen in months. Then my attention turned to ’the autobiography’ which lasted for about ten minutes and two chapters. Then I decided to learn Ableton as I’ve traditionally been a Logic man for many a moon. That was quite cool.
Then (like many an musician) I indulged in a series of lockdown gigs from my back garden, streamed live. So far so cliche!
The thing about the piano in the corner of the room suddenly feeling like an old friend is connected to my new album, ‘Hall of Mirrors’, which I have just released. But then that was happening before there was ever any talk of a pandemic. I’d taken a change of musical direction a few years back and in my desperation to discover a new voice I’d somewhat forgotten my lifelong friend the piano. More of that later….
Music has played a major role in getting people through all of this, was there a piece of music or album that you found yourself returning to?
I think in all honesty I turned to film rather than music for a large chunk of this period. I subscribed to the BFI archive website and explored it to the ‘enth degree. Like many people I think, I’ve checked out of terrestrial TV and even the usual TV subscription channels have begun to bore me. I’m looking for a deeper engagement with my TV watching, and I found that the BFI Black and White collection alone kept me occupied for many a month. On the musical side I’ve leant towards the more deeper ambient electronic side of things. There’s an album called ‘Works’ by Abul Mogard which I’ve permanently listened to in order to reflect my mood. Plus Eliane Radigues long tracks of monophonic synth noise have been nice to listen to at night to quieten the mind. But then, to counter that, when I’ve needed to dance and lift myself up I’ve opted for Duke Ellington’s New Orleans Suite. Both Duke Ellington and Erroll Garner have the ability to sound like pure ‘happy’… and there’s been a desperate need for that!
You are clearly a touring musician and come from that community, has it been difficult not being able to play live and to see the devastation it has caused to the ‘circuit’ and all those involved?
Oh my oh my. It has devastated me not to play live, to the point of feeling like there was no return. To have one’s purpose and validation removed in this way has been unbelievably hard to countenance. In addition, not being able to interact with like minded musicians who’ve suffered in equal measure has made the whole experience all the more lonely. I appreciate that it’s hard to get any sympathy out of people at the best of times for a musicians plight, but that doesn’t make it any easier to cope with. I’ve gone through periods of deep depression over it, interspersed with raging anger and sadness. Perhaps understandably, people have decided that we are simply the industry that had to go first and will come back last. That never seems to get questioned which is really difficult to take, because the presumption is that anything we put our hands to equates to some kind of super spreader situation. I disagree with that, though I would wouldn’t I?
The other day, when our road map out of this was announced I received notice of three gigs later in the year. I literally was reintroduced to a feeling in me that I hadn’t felt for a year or more. I think I would define it as hope. Hope is definitely the fuel that ignites a rather wonderful and exciting fire within me.
Metropolis has been able to operate throughout the year. I remember a moment when you were playing the piano in the bar one summer’s day and it is one of the highlights of the year for me. You have a studio here, how have you found working with the team during the pandemic?
Well, I’m not just saying this (promise!) but the team here and the attitude of the management to make the best of this and ultimately beat this has been an inspirational little cornerstone to the other elements of my life as I’ve traversed this ridiculous year. I love my studio space. It is testament to the importance and the effectiveness of the room I have here that there have been a handful of occasions when I’ve forgotten the world outside and the plight we find ourselves in and those have all occurred in my studio at Metropolis. There are so many perks to being surrounded by such a great group of people. For example, Jake in the tech department has even been able to assist me in putting together my live show (for when we have live shows!) by using his days off to invent an amazing system for operating and effecting TV’s from my piano.
…and everyone is extremely kind and accommodating here on a daily basis so that I never feel like I’m just renting a space and shutting my door. There’s always a subconscious connection to all the other things going on around the building and that gives you a feeling of true support.
Has the last year informed your writing as you record your first solo album? And if so, in which ways?
Well my solo album was pretty much done and dusted as we descended into this. But then what followed seemed to highlight and illustrate in a million other ways the story behind my album. In brief, I had spent a few years concentrating on trying to make music in other ways as opposed to through my old friend the piano. I bought an inordinate amount of electronic gear, looking for my sound. All the time, the piano sat in the corner kind of saying ‘I’m here when you need me.’ It was only on a trip to Berlin that I sat down and recorded on the piano properly again and a whole ton of music came out. It’s been a love, hate relationship with the piano throughout my life. I was forced to a certain extent to play it when I was a child and resented the hours of practice I had to do, but then when it became apparent that it enabled me to see the world in my teenage years I suddenly discovered a huge love for it.
Perhaps in recent years I wanted to see what I am without the piano. Answer? Not much!!! So it was a journey of loss and then reuniting and ultimately love. So, as I say, like most peoples experiences in 2020!
Finally, what little thing have you missed most over the last year and what event are you most looking forward to?
Well I guess it’s per my previous answer, gigs, gigs gigs! That’s playing them, much more so than attending them. I’ve missed creativity enormously. The kind of creativity that comes from true collaboration. There is nothing like the coming together of people to reach an end goal. Proper teamwork. It’s exhilarating and makes the impossible, possible.
An event? Hard to say. Most events I’ve enjoyed have been by complete surprise and from unlikely sources. So the event I’m looking forward to most is the one I haven’t thought of yet that happens on an unforeseen day in an unforeseen way. And those kind of things will only happen when we are free to enjoy freedom of the unexpected and beautiful chance.