1. Lang Lang has attracted attention for his ‘showy’ performance style at the piano. Are you ever compelled or even obliged to bare your emotions during a performance?
Think there’s a huge difference between imbuing a performance with emotion and displaying emotion for the sake of it. My feeling is do whatever you need to in order to make the performance as good as you can. If that means you look a bit weird then so be it.
2. With the complexity and nature of a classical concert, is it possible for you to absorb the atmosphere of an audience?
Always! There are three factors in any concert: the music, the performer and the audience. Too often one tries to ignore or forget about the latter which I think is a big mistake.
3. You appear to be at odds with tradition in music. Does that cause any complications as a classical pianist?
Everything evolves. Tradition is lovely if it serves a purpose, but wearing ridiculous outfits and making the whole experience sacred and pompous doesn’t serve any purpose that I can see. It doesn’t cause me any problems at all. It only enhances things for me and hopefully for the audience.
4. Your modern approach to the genre has received a great deal of critical acclaim. Are you someone who is affected by reviews of your work?
No. Show me one critic who is willing to go on stage and perform a full-length concert and I’ll listen and take on board what s/he says. The goal for me is to be immune to both criticism and praise, and not just in music!
5. Your writing is always well-received and you write with an assured confidence. Is writing something you’ve ever seriously considered?
Yep – I love it. After slaving away at the piano for hours, it is hugely satisfying to be able to find another outlet for anything creative.
6. “Find what you love and let it kill you” is a quotation you recently used in an article. Have your influences changed at all as you’ve progressed in music?
Maybe as I get older, yes. But progressing in music doesn’t bear any relation to that. The core principles of being willing to fight for things, jumping in with both feet and not listening to the inner critic stay the same though.
7. You appear to be happy to talk about the fact that you spent some time in a psychiatric hospital. Does that openness lend itself to your development or is it more in support of others?
The latter. If I’m lucky enough to have some kind of voice then it seems vital not to shy away from anything taboo or stigmatised. It feels good to be able to own my past, not feel ashamed of it, and make it public knowledge, especially if it can perhaps show that mental illness isn’t necessarily a bar to living well. 8. You talk about the pressure of being a classical musician but also the love you have for music. Is it difficult to find the balance?
Not at all. Any job has pressure and I think it’s more to do with personality type rather than job type. Love for music is the one consistent thing that is ever-present and will never go away.
9. What have you got planned for the future?
Lots! More TV, more albums, concerts, writing, travelling, practising and trying my best to improve on and off-stage.10. Are you happy to tell us a bit about your life?
So I’m sitting in what’s laughably called the Serenity Garden at a London psychiatric hospital that shall remain nameless, and one of the patients approaches me quietly (we are after all on the ‘shhh don’t upset them’ ward) and asks we what I do. Not what I’m locked up for (psych hospital etiquette forbids it), what I do. She’s cute in an anorexic, self-harming kind of way, so I tell her that I play the piano. ‘What, like in a band?’ she asks, remarkably unslurred by meds. ‘No’, I say. ‘Just me. I’m a concert pianist. Classical shit’ I clarify.
‘Wow! Seriously? Man, that’s so cool!’ all wide (wild?) eyed mania. ‘So I guess you started at like 4 years old and practiced 8 hours a day like forever, and went to like Julliard or somewhere huh? I bet you look awesome in your tux when you play!’.
She happens to be American.
Our conversation was cut short right about then when she stubbed her cigarette out on her arm and was carted away by a brace of orderlies. Nurses are peculiar like that. But I was thinking about that exchange recently (it happened about 3 years ago) and it struck me how the job title ‘concert pianist’ rather like ‘gynaecologist’ or ‘surfer’ inevitably conjures up very specific images and histories in people. And I think it’s appropriate, important even, to dispel the myth of the autistic/fragile/shrouded-in-his-own-genius/tux-wearing/idiot savant as pianist.
I started playing on my own aged around 7 or 8. At 11 I had a handful of lessons by a teacher who struggled to sight-read my Grade 2 pieces. At 14 I found an inspiring, quite brilliant teacher called Colin Stone. He was (is) the real deal – technically accomplished, thorough, meticulous, decent and above all nice. Unfortunately I was for too interested, obsessed even, with playing pieces so far beyond my facility as to be laughable. It didn’t stop me trying but it did put paid to any kind of technical progress, and so at 18 I abandoned the piano entirely and did not touch a note for over 10 years. Instead I went to work in the City in the, as it turns out false, belief that making hideous amounts of money would make up for the loss of my abandoned career as a pianist.
It is only after going back to those 88 keys a few short years ago with help from both Colin, Edoardo Strabbioli (a crazy, angry, almost psychotic Italian teacher) and Bryce Morrison that the career of my dreams has started to take shape and dare I say it, flourish.
Of course the road to happiness is rarely even and along the way I got a little overwhelmed. ‘Sectioned’ is, I think, the technical term, and I spent around 9 months in various mental institutions doing my level best to kill myself. Perhaps it was this new-found pressure that came from knowing I finally had a shot at what I really wanted. And there was a metric fucktonne of childhood issues I had never addressed (sexual abuse tends to do that to people). But I got out of hospital (once on the run and then, finally, with the all clear) and continued playing. I met a total stranger in a coffee shop and started chatting to him (as I tend to do). He is now my manager, Denis Blais. Within two months of meeting him, Denis had assembled a team including Dennis Morris (the official photographer of the Sex Pistols and Bob Marley), GHP and Albion Media, the first CD was recorded (on his dime) and we had a record deal with Signum. A few tweets from Stephen Fry who had enjoyed the CD and one of my concerts, and a couple of press interviews got the attention of Warner Brothers and after a few months and losing a few stone my manager got the proposed contract into a decent shape and we signed a six-album deal. The first album has just been recorded and will be out in December. The music is entirely and absolutely core-classical (cross-over classical holds no appeal for me), and helping out with the artwork is Dave Brown (Bolo from the Mighty Boosh – if I see another 19th Century French watercolour on the cover of a classical CD I’d want to rip my own face off).
The notion that the concert pianist has to be selected from birth and nurtured/trained cruelly for countless hours, that he or she can only succeed by winning competitions and attending the best conservatories is simply not true. In fact, I have no doubt that (like the immortal John Ogdon and Terence Judd) I’d have been over the edge of Beachy Head or dangling from a rope had I gone to music college or won the Tchaikovsky Competition as a young man. I came close enough to that without the added pressure of remembering 40 concertos and 20 different concert programmes.
No. Through luck, passion, sweat, flirting and some quite spectacular medication, I seem to have achieved the two things I’d always dreamed of – the ability to earn a living doing what I love most of all, and the mental/emotional acuity to enjoy it. Dealing with the (largely self-imposed) pressure of playing over 100,000 notes from memory at my age is hard enough even with the support of friends, doctors, Jessica Alba and nicotine. Dealing with it as a teenager? Not a chance. My days (when not touring/recording) are filled with what they should be today – four hours of serious practice, endless cups of coffee, dates, friends, shopping, restaurants and fun. I’m aware of how lucky I am but believe me, I do not take a second of it for granted.
To end on a slightly tree-hugging hippy-ish note – every great idea is initially seen as a blasphemy (Russell I think, though I’m no doubt paraphrasing poorly). I left a job and a life I hated to follow my great idea, ignoring my raging head which told me I was blaspheming. And for all the self-doubt, stress, pressure and criticism, it is beyond wonderful.