The view from the window looks very familiar. In fact, I think it might be the room right next to the one where Jeff Pedraz stayed last year, when he played with Kurt Elling on the second night of the festival. Back then I wrote: ‘The view is beautiful, so I decide to snap a quick photo; I probably won’t be back here very soon.’ It turns out I’m back one year later, hanging out with another talented young musician.
Three hours before his band, The Neil Cowley Trio, electrified the JAZZTM audience with a stunning, high-energy performance, I met pianist Neil Cowley in the lobby of the hotel, at 6 PM sharp.
We took a seat at a table in the lobby but quickly noticed that it was a bit loud. Neil suggested we go to his room. As we sat down at a small table beside the window (where I noticed the familiar view) we got into some friendly chatter and I immediately knew that this would be my favorite interview.
Neil is fantastically approachable; a laid-back, funny and humble person and an all-around nice guy. He answered my questions in a straightforward manner, offering a valuable glimpse into the mind and the world of a talented and successful musician.
Let me get this out of the way first, because I know it’s something you get asked all the time. You’ve talked on countless occasions about your music technically not being part of the jazz genre and how jazz audiences, so-called “purists”, react to it. I wanted to ask, is this still an issue after eight years and five records?
It is an issue. It’s an issue for us, it’s an issue for jazz itself. I think there are many jazz musicians who would say that we’re not jazz, because we don’t necessarily improvise in the usual way – the way things are composed. They’re composed very methodically, very strictly. And if there are any extensions or expansions, they tend to happen live and not on record. So we don’t necessarily sound like jazz. We definitely look like a jazz outfit because we’ve got piano, double-bass and drums. I’m not a great ‘defender of the faith’ when it comes to jazz. But we’re told that we are jazz by more people than those that tell us we’re not, so I guess we are jazz, then. I’m not hung up on it particularly. I think there are some fairly interesting chord progressions in [our music] and that makes us jazz. But we’re interested in so many other things. It’s a practical, logistical point really. The jazz festivals are the places that are best equipped to deal with us. They have pianos and all that. And they have a real sense of the fact that the music is the most important thing. Everyone comes to listen to the music. They don’t necessarily jump around like maniacs, you know? So I guess we sit best in the setting of a jazz festival. We kind of just are jazz, whether we like it or not. I’m a little embarrassed by the word, because I think if I were to listen to a jazz record I’d probably go back about 50 years and listen to something that sounded right and vintage and crackled a bit. I would think of that as jazz. And I probably wouldn’t think of us as jazz from the outside. But we seem to be.
Well, Europe seems to generally be pretty open about what it “accepts “ as jazz. Many European jazz acts transcend the genre. Is the U.K perhaps more closed-off in this respect? Is the jazz audience in the U.K more “traditional”?
I think it’s the same old cliché: ‘If you can make it in the U.K you can make it anywhere.’ They want you to fail (laughs). And generally speaking, they regard musicians as lower-class persons in the U.K. They love music, but the general attitude is that they wish musicians would just get a proper job. So playing and gigging in England can be hard. When you’re playing in Europe, people will be nice to you and you’re wondering ‘why is everyone being nice? why is everyone glad that we’re here?’ It’s very strange.
It has always been that way, as far as I’ve perceived it. My first ever foreign gig I think was in France. It blew me away when people were pleased to see us. Yeah, it is a bit of a U.K thing. And yet, we’ve got a lot of fans in the U.K. We do really well there. They understand the crossover that we do. But I think there are some of the older jazz-heads who don’t.
There was a Facebook post that someone put up, and they tagged me. And they said to a friend ‘check out Neil Cowley!’ Not knowing that I was tagged, the guy suddenly went ‘isn’t this that jazz that isn’t jazz?’ He really hated it, clearly. He said ‘I tried to listen to it, but I can’t,’ Didn’t like us at all. But I could see on his page that he liked jazz in a certain way, pretty conservative I suppose.
I love all sorts of music. I love old and new music. Some people just want to hear the same record put out again and again for the rest of time. They feel comfortable there. And for me that’s the absurdity of it. Jazz is now some sort of an academic past-time. There are university degrees galore in jazz. When I was a kid, jazz was not treated like that. You had to study classical music. Now you can study jazz everywhere. I wonder if that’s such a good thing, because now we’re just regurgitating and we’re probably over-analyzing and concentrating on what jazz ‘is’. Once it becomes a classical form like that I think it’s doomed to stick where it is. Which is an irony because it was such a culture-changing medium . And it’s difficult to maintain a lifeblood that way.
I live in a neighborhood which is…well… it wouldn’t be the first neighborhood you’d go to in order to find a music fan. It’s a very nice village and they haven’t got a clue. It’s not a good thing, being a jazz musician, I have to keep it quiet. But I played on big pop records so I just talk about that.
I can imagine the conversation:
‘I’m Neil Cowley, from the ‘Neil Cowley Trio,’’
“I played for Adele,”
(Laughs) That’s a carbon copy of the conversation. I get that every time.
Does it bother you?
No, no. That’s totally understandable. I’m almost uncomfortable when they do know who I am. I expect people to go ‘I love those records’. And I’m really proud to be on those records, (Adele’s 19 and 21) because I think you have to wear many hats to survive as a musician. I’m not a jazz purist. And I’m actually very good at doing that kind of thing. I’m a very good session musician, although I do it very little these days. But I’m proud that I’m on something that people know and they understand and have in their car, something I hear in every single restaurant I ever walk into. It’s nice, you know? I don’t listen to what I’m doing but…
You don’t listen to your own stuff?
No, it’s a nightmare for me. It’s different if it’s Adele, because she’s the star and I just listen to her voice and concentrate on that. I’m just in the back. I play like eight notes. But I do that quite well, I do it dynamically. But everything in music is an art. There’s an art to everything. There’s an art to that too and I do it very well, and I’m proud of that. But when someone says ‘I love your music’ and they play it at a dinner party I’m like ‘oh no!’ Because I care so much about what the trio does that if I hear it I’m over-analyzing it and listening to every note and going ‘I could have done that better!’ So I tried to avoid that if possible.
It’s normal to be better known for your pop work. A lot more people listen to pop than to jazz.
It can be dangerous if you get labeled with it. But my thing was I played on the record and then I never did another thing with her. I never toured live with her, I didn’t want to. I toured a couple of world tours in my early twenties and I had a great time but I had enough. Music means too much to me to go out on the road playing the same thing again, night after night when I’m not entirely into it. So I never toured again with anyone else except this band. I never have since I was twenty-five. I’ve made that a rule. So when Adele asked me early on I said no. I mean, I’m on the record, it’s played everywhere. I get the notoriety and the joy of it getting played everywhere but I don’t have to go out and play it live which is my idea of a nightmare. It would never be me. I mean if this – the Neil Cowley Trio – was completely over and I needed some cash, and it was a really cool band, then maybe. Touring has not been in my plans for fifteen years.
Can you tell me a little bit about the dynamic of the pop scene compared to the jazz scene?
I think what I’ve noticed early on as a working musician in the pop-scene is that it’s pretty cutthroat. It tends to be ageist. You don’t necessarily have to be the best. The pop scene is still predominantly run by A& R executives who are mostly hideous people. I could think of a couple of them who I’ve met and I can’t believe they exist like that. They are comedy shows and are not necessarily doing the right thing for the artist. This is the thing that people miss about pop music, it’s full of incredibly talented people. But then it’s wrapped up and presented to you. And I think that, quite often, the way it’s wrapped up and presented to you, you’ll go ‘oh no, that’s horrible’. But under that there can be some incredibly talented people. I worked with a girl called Birdy, she is amazing. I think when you see the team around her you think ‘I hope she’s being treated ok’ and ‘I hope her career is being thought of rather than a quick buck’. Because she is amazingly talented. When you’re in the room with her you can tell she’s spine-tinglingly good. I actually think that the pop scene is really good at having people who are talented. And then there’s some really good underground artists, like Micachu. She is from North London and she is a pop artist where everything is wrong: her teeth are bad, her hair is bad – she is amazing. She is a bit dirty…
My type of musician…
Yeah, you got to check her out! She’s like punk pop and electro as well. But incredibly well educated musically. And she’s turning it all on its head. It’s wonderful stuff. I find that incredibly invigorating and exciting. Actually, when it comes to the jazz scene, I don’t follow it much. I’m more inclined to see what’s happening on the pop scene. I probably would know about the jazz scene but I wouldn’t analyze it. Probably in fear of me copying it compositionally (laughs). I don’t want to hear that, it might influence me, I might sound like someone else. So I try and avoid as much other jazz as possible. And I’ll probably listen to older stuff really, if I’m honest.
So what do you listen to, specifically?
It would be older stuff. I mean, I like piano and Hammond and I love fantastic old piano players like Errol Garner. Really romantic, charismatic piano players. And I love the things that are on the funkier side of life. If I’m really honest, I like bands like The Crusaders , you know? I like Fender Rhodes – it’s a keyboard, it’s the best thing in the world – so bands that play Fender Rhodes, I’ll give them a listen always. So I don’t necessarily listen to the cutting edge stuff.
Who is your favorite piano-player?
That hasn’t changed much in about thirty years. It would be Errol Garner, because he makes me smile. When he plays there is a smile in the room and I just love that. The way he swings, the way he smiles in his playing, I find that life-enhancing and inspiring. I like things that entertain in that way and that make you feel good about life. Everything is just so incredibly positive. It would be him still. I can’t think of anyone that would replace him, in my life.
Do you feel like he influences you when you compose?
I do actually, yeah. The way that he draws out emotion – I try and emulate that.
Any “new” guys?
Michel Petrucciani. He’s amazing, I love his playing. And it’s got that romantic edge as well. We’re getting a bit closer (laughs). Brad Mehldau I don’t really listen to.
I think you’re the first musician who ever said that to me. It seems like everyone listens to Mehldau.
He doesn’t speak to me. I look at him and I go ‘cryin’ out loud he can play, man he’s good!’ but I don’t feel it.
You have to connect with the music.
And I don’t with Brad Mehldau. And he’ll probably say the same of me. He’ll probably go: ‘who?’ (laughs) So he doesn’t connect with me. Michel Petrucciani definitely connects with me. No one else springs to mind.
Let’s talk about Touch and Flee for a little bit. First of all congratulations, it’s an excellent record! My only gripe with it is that it’s too short.
It’s the old rock’n’roll adage ‘leave’em wanting’ (laughs)
Well, you succeeded.
Thank you. I agree in many ways that it was – what is it, ten tracks?
It was fourteen initially, but I got rid of five because they didn’t fit. I’m always guilty of putting too much on so I put a rule this time that I had to make it concise. Someone else has also complained…
It wasn’t really a complaint, though.
(Laughs) No, I know..it’s a nice complaint. It’s a nice thing to say. But, it’s just the way it is. Just the way it panned out. When we listened to those fourteen track, those five didn’t fit and those nine did. And it felt like that was the right time to finish. So I’m afraid that’s just the way it is.
What is the concept behind it? What did you want to accomplish with this record?
We wanted to move on slightly from our usual mode, which is very hook-laden and quite energetic…
(Laughs) Loud, louder…stop! It’s syncopated, it’s all those things that we’re known for. We felt like we made The Face of Mount Molehill Part 2 and we scrapped it. So we actually got six months into the last year when we said ‘No, I’m not feeling it’, it feels like we’re putting out the same record again. So we stopped, we didn’t do that. And we made a new one. We wanted to just extend a few things. In recent compositions we ventured into a world where the stories were longer, more drawn-out, perhaps more sensitive. We wanted to do that. In actual fact, it’s been the scariest thing I’ve ever done. When the record company says to you ‘that’s a brave new direction’ you know you’re in trouble. That’s what they said to us. And I thought ‘oh shit!’ So that’s what we’re left with ‘brave new direction’. But I think we felt that it was important to make something better and extend what we do. I have to say it’s quite hard to integrate into the set. Because the set is so powerful and vast and energetic, it’s pretty hard to integrate those new tunes into the set. In fact, so much so, that we’re playing the Barbican in London and I think we’re going to do two sets. We’re going to do one with Touch and Flee complete and then we’re going to do all the hits in a second set. Keep them separate. It does feel detached from other stuff, so we felt it’s ok to do that so it’s a ‘brave new direction’ and slightly scary for us. And Touch and Flee, the concept was just a story I had read in a newspaper that 40% of under-forty-year-olds in Japan are now averse to touch. They don’t like physical touch. They’re so connected with the world of cyberspace and technological advancement that they’ve forgotten how to touch. So they’re going to classes now, run by ex-women-of-the-night, who are teaching them to touch. And also ‘touch and flee’ is a literal translation of ‘toccata and fugue’. And Rex (bass-player Rex Horan) said ‘I think the music on this has a very different touch to it – a completely new touch’. It all became this one big mess that we made in the middle. So those are these sort of rules, the elements behind it.
I feel like it’s really a genre-bending record.
Well, we talked about pop and jazz before. My ethic has always been – because I’ve worked in the world of pop – to cherry pick the favorite places and people that I have met in pop, because I think that you’re always competing. People think that jazz is completely insular and I think that’s a mistake. I think you’re competing in an overall market, if you want to use commercial terms. It’s a big market and you’re always competing. So I use very expensive pop studios. Like Rak Studios, where I recorded most of the Adele stuff. That’s a massive studio, great big piano, huge desk, tape machines. And Dom Monks, the guy who produced it, engineered for Ethan Johns, who produced Kings of Leon, Ray LaMontagne. He’s a massive pop producer and he creates an amazing sound. I’ve always been a big fan of this sound that he creates. So we got Dom in to produce the record and I think the sound is ‘big’ which is very important to us because it sounds ‘expensive’. It sounds like the best it’s ever going to sound. So paying attention to the sound is very important. There is kind of a pop crossover, sonically. Even though we’re definitely a jazz band, we do it in a pop environment so I think some of that rubs off.
Hold on a second. Did you just say ‘we’re definitely a jazz band?’ I think it might be the first time you ever said that in an interview.
(laughs) It’s a revelation. I suddenly realized that we’re a jazz band, right here at this interview.
I’m so happy to be here for this.
Oh yeah, it’s an honor for all of us. (laughs)
Tell me about what usually inspires you? Do you get your inspiration from other art-forms as well or is it just life in general?
Well, life in general does affect it. The compositions are done at home on my piano, with my family in the background. It’s essentially me getting quite lonely and quite melancholic. I try to combat that in some ways. The other thing is, I don’t listen to jazz so that it doesn’t affect me. But you have to have input. And there normally would be some genre or area of music that I’m obsessed with at the moment. For The Face of Mount Molehill it was Krautrock. I’m really obsessed with guys like Can and Neu!, I was really into that at the time and I think that seeped through. And I wanted to have the same qualities of that. This time, I’m not sure, Rex’s words are ringing in my ears about us being a contemporary classical concert-hall band now, so I was trying to create contemporary classical music through this thing. So I was probably listening to more of that. I mean, I always go back to Shostakovich. I love Shostakovich. And I was listening to that whole Eastern-Block area of classical music. So I’m trying to emulate that but with a three-piece band. I think that would have been my background. I’m terrible…I kind of go ‘oh, don’t listen to things! don’t look at things!’ because you got to find it from within. It’s a big mistake. Eventually, I’ll go to an art-gallery or something like that and go ‘oh, yes…I understand creativity again.’ (laughs) So things would pop up along the way but I couldn’t specifically tell you what they were. They were just good creative moments and other creative things that inspired me throughout. But I also like to write about people. I try and emulate a character that I like through the music.
I read somewhere that the names of your songs come from people that you know.
I’m trying to think of some of the titles on this record. They’re much more about themselves, these tunes. “Queen” is a tune about a woman I’ve met in Northern Ireland. There’s a city called Derry. Very troubled, historically, with terrorism and things. But she’s the self-appointed ‘Queen of Derry’, she’s just a fashion-queen…loud and funny and very amazing person. So that’s named after her specifically. I dedicated it to her, she’s thrilled about that. I should get more specific with my titles rather than being subtle about it.
You mentioned that you write music with your family in the background. Do you ever get feedback from them?
No, I’m scared of what my wife will say (laughs). She is not a diplomat when it comes to this. She will tell me exactly what she thinks. She has an unfortunate habit of saying the thing that will make me cry the most (laughs). When it comes to music, I’m so sensitive about it. I’m oversensitive. Some people I really enjoy playing it to, not many though. I find it really hard because I’m so sensitive to what people say. I think my biggest fan is my daughter. She’s six. There’s a track with her laugh on it on The Face of Mount Molehill. She’s laughing and the track has been written around her laugh. She’s like ‘I love what you do daddy’. I know it’s biased, I know it’s completely rigged but I’ll happily take that. I play [the newly written music] to the band, that’s the first time I play it to people. But they’re normally good to me.
Is it always you composing?
Generally. There’s a couple of tunes we’ve done together but I’m a control-freak so I tend to do it that way. And I think that creates the sound that we make. In real terms I invested and continue to invest money in it. I mean, you talk about Adele…well, that money just goes into this band. It’s a labor of love, as you say. If I looked at the books, whether I was up or down, I’d probably be down. But there are other things that come as a result of this, good things. And I do well. I’m very happy with my life and happy with my ‘income’ if you want to talk about it in those terms. But I think the Neil Cowley Trio, in terms of plus and minus on the spreadsheet, would probably be a ‘minus’, because I spend too much on the recording. I totally financed the first record. I think they’re all breaking even slowly. That’s where it ends up. Well, you know, The Neil Cowley Trio…I say we don’t make money, but we do. The gigs are good, they pay well. The albums themselves though…because I want them to be so good I spend so much money on them, so they’re a ‘loser’ but everything else is a ‘winner’. I think in about three or four years we’ve started saying ‘oh yeah, this works, it’s worth the sacrifice’.
Do you have any pre-show or post-show rituals?
We shout. (laughs) We shout and we laugh and it’s high energy backstage. We all make each other laugh a lot so there’s real high energy. We shout, we scream. We run around like children. We’re big kids. So that’s really the only ritual: high-energy shouting.
One last question: If you could travel back in time to when you were six years old and had your first contact with music, what advice would you give yourself?
I suppose that would depend on the mistakes I felt I had made. And I think that, despite the fact that I enjoy this part of my career where I invest in myself in much the way we just spoke about, I only found the courage to do that when I was in my late twenties, maybe about thirty. And I would just say:
‘You got time, all the time in the world. Start now! Start all that work now. Invest in yourself, believe in yourself. Believe that you can make a sound that is uniquely yours and that your voice will be heard! And please believe in it. Don’t wait ‘til you’re thirty, start now! Because then you’ve got a massive head-start.’
It worked out for me because I’ve had so many influences I could call upon by the time I was thirty. So it did work out for me. But I think if I did it again I would say just ‘don’t doubt yourself!’
I’ve always doubted myself my whole life and now that I’m in this band, I’ve got the confidence that I do know how to write and I do know how to play. I got a thing that I do, I’m ok about it. So I’d just say to myself:
‘You have it, believe in it, trust in it, start honing it now because you have it! You have it! Don’t doubt it! Don’t spend all that time trying to find your voice, trying to find where you belong. You belong in you, with you. Doing your thing. So don’t look for someone else to conjure it up for you. It’s all about you!’
by Andrei Cherascu