Audeze speaks with pianist and composer Neil Cowley
October 12, 2021
Audeze speaks with pianist and composer Neil Cowley
When we asked Neil for an introduction for his interview, this was his reply: "I’m Neil Cowley…. I’m a piano. I’m highly strung." At that moment, we knew this was no ordinary interview. Neil is one of the most creative musicians around, and he clearly lets that creativity permeate his lifestyle.
"Personally I’ve never owned a pair of headphones as ‘posh’ as the Audeze’s... they are the ultimate in comfort. In fact, some days, I keep them on when I’m not listening any more! And of course, bottom line is, they sound bloody amazing." - Neil Cowley
Here's our talk with Neil:
Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?
Prayer, She Lives in Golden Sands and Circulation from my latest album ‘Hall of Mirrors’
How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?
I’m composer, performer and producer. I use other influences (mainly film) to bring narratives into my instrumental music. I look for universal themes as I see us as a pathetically small part of a seemingly infinite universe and music should share in that humility. I hope to reach the corners of people's hearts that remain untouched by current affairs or daily worries.
How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?
My father was a pianist/performer. He wasn’t around when I was growing up but he left a piano in the house. So his genes were allowed to flourish in me without hindrance. I just started playing one day when I was 5 and that was that. Because of the musical education I received I was restricted to classical input from my teachers and Jazz from my mother's record collection. It left me feeling stifled and I had no intention of making a career of music, until a friend of my mother's introduced me to Soul, Funk and R&B via my first band. Then the lid came off. My record collection started with Donald Fagen’s ’Nightfly’ and then very quickly I became ridiculously obsessed with James Brown. Everything sprung from those roots. From stuff that made you feel good, stuff that made you dance and stuff that made you think.
Can you name any factors you feel majorly influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?
The aforementioned friend of my mother's who introduced me to gigs, pubs, late nights and other things on the list of ‘cool’ at the age of 13. That was definitely a life changing moment. Frank Zappa always inspired to find my own strength and sense of purpose and self preservation as an artist. Siedah Garrett, who wrote ‘Man in the Mirror’ for Michael Jackson and duetted with him on ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’ also taught me a lot. I stayed with her in her home in Los Angeles in my younger years and she taught me a lot about not ’taking any shit!’
Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?
I spent a few years just before the making of this most recent album with my piano lid firmly closed, trying every piece of gear I could get my hands on to try and elicit a new sound and new material. That turned out to be a long dark road. Throughout that time the little piano in the corner of the room had been patiently whispering ‘here when you need me’ . When I eventually did open the lid and play again I realised that the piano had been my truest voice all along, but I needed to understand what I was without it. Answer? Possibly not much!!! However all the things I learnt along the way did come along for the next chapter of that journey, and you can hear it in the record. So it was worth the ordeal. But for my psychological well being I could have done with realising it a lot sooner!
Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?
My Moog (circa 1973) is my most ‘go to’ instrument. It was through that I came up with my own internal formula for the quality of an instrument. It’s something along the lines of ‘amount of money spent’ over ’time regretting aforementioned amount of money after playing first note on instrument’. For the Moog it was some thousands of pounds and about 3 seconds. In addition I love my increasing set of guitar pedals that I put my piano through. If there is anything that sounds like and even looks like a palette in music it would be my pedal board.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?
Make sure that the making of the music becomes the most pleasurable and rewarding element of the process. If you become obsessed with any other part then it will be fleeting and will punish you when it swiftly leaves the room. One exception to that rule is playing it live. But then that is the playground that you dare not dream of at the moment…. but it will. Playing live has the potential for rewarding you with many pots of gold for the soul.
How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?
I used to use them way too much in previous years, until someone suggested I take them off! I think it was the product of working in a flat some years back in South West London and not wanting to disturb the neighbours. I’m always reaching over to the piano to record and to avoid feedback I throw the headphones on. I haven’t been doing it recently but I want to use your open backs I have to mix at crucial moments more moving forward.
Do you have any additional comments or stories you want to share?
First thing that came into my head.... I’ve released a video for a track I did called ‘I Choose The Mountain’. It’s an homage to ‘Paris Texas’ by Wim Wenders. I replicate the walk through the desert that Harry Dean Stanton undertakes at the beginning of the film, except my version is filmed at Beachy Head. To make myself look as much like Harry Dean Stanton as possible I went on a month long diet to strip myself of excess weight. So I suppose you’d call it a small experiment in method acting! It changed so many things about my life and served as a wonderful way to blur the line between daily living and making art. It had so many extra incidental effects on my creativity, all for the positive. A fresher brain, a sense of how enriching it is to embody your creativity etc etc. I recommend a little bit of method acting to all musicians when they create!
How have your Audeze headphones affected your work? Can you tell us what you've been working on with them so far?
I’m working on the follow up album to 'Hall of Mirrors’, No time to waste! The best bit about the Audeze headphones is very idiosyncratic to my life experience. When I was about 6 my uncle put a huge pair of sturdy headphones on my head one day over at his house and played me (way too loud) the soundtrack to ’The Lion in Winter’ by John Barry… and by doing so indelibly marked it as a thing of wonder in my little brain. There is something strangely reminiscent of that moment whenever I put the Audezes on. It’s the immense padding that sits round the ear and the immersion in the sound. So that’s my little nostalgic bonus ball that I get every time I put them on. I’m transported back in time.
Personally I’ve never owned a pair of headphones as ‘posh’ as the Audezes. With the aforementioned plush padding round the ear they are the ultimate in comfort. In fact, some days, I keep them on when I’m not listening any more! And of course, bottom line is, they sound bloody amazing. And sometimes when you can’t hear your music anymore, you need just such an audio luxury to lift your music up again in your esteem and inspire you to carry on.