I grew up in London, living very happily with my mum. It was a close and intense relationship. We’d both get worked up about things quickly but were always open with each other, and I think that has influenced me in terms of how I approach both people and music now. I was lucky that I was supported from early on.
I studied English as an undergraduate and then was on the postgrad course at Royal Academy of Music. I took a year out in the middle to focus on practice. I went to the USA for two months at the start of that period and met lots of interesting people – meeting Dr Tuffy Simpkins, who wrote the first biography of Coltrane, and some of the musical community in New Orleans, who were incredibly welcoming. But there were things like the statue of Coltrane where he grew up in High Point, NC, being placed on the (predominantly) affluent, white side of town as opposed to the side where he actually lived. I started thinking properly about the responsibility to educate yourself as a musician regarding the history and social context of the music you’re engaging with. I came home from that trip more engaged and aware but obviously I have a lot more learning still to do.
I was working a little by the time I left RAM because I wanted to hit the ground running when I left. That meant taking on lots of very different types of work, and I really enjoyed the challenge of adapting musically to whatever was going on that particular day.
I think I’m particularly drawn to playing a community-based music because I often prioritise interactions with people that are based on depth and mutual understanding. I think that’s what keeps me interested in playing improvised music, I’m often adjusting and attuning to other people and their intentions. It’s rewarding but at the same time not always easy to get into that headspace. You can tell that the best musicians are always operating at such a high level of empathy, which results in great music.
In terms of motivation in general, I often struggle with defining exactly what it is I have to contribute, and why people should be interested in what I have to say, especially at a time when there are so many strong and diverse creative voices even just in my home scene in London.
You always want the music to sound good and to mean something, which is obviously the most important thing but can lead to you feeling drained creatively at times! And all that is absolutely tied up in your sense of self worth, which can mean that your life has lots of localised peaks and troughs where it could otherwise be a bit more stable. You’re constantly getting feedback in different forms, it can range from something subtle like the way other musicians change the way they play around you, to a listener telling you exactly what they thought of your playing at the end of a gig.
The London scene is a particularly exciting community to be part of at the moment, as there is so much different stuff going on with everybody following their own thing, and the atmosphere is generally pretty productive and supportive. Sometimes you wonder how music that is so wildly different can come out of one place. So even if you’re not playing with musicians from every single scene-within-a-scene, it’s really exciting to watch their success and to open up your own writing to their influence. I definitely feel I’ve been nurtured by the musical community. I’ve loved how older musicians have been so willing to pass on their knowledge.
I work with lots of people that I respect, both personally, and as musicians. I spend a lot of time playing with people that are close friends. We often talk about how the dividing line between our professional and our personal lives is either vague or non-existent, but really I wouldn’t have that any other way because it means that I get to spend time with people I care about and who make my life better. And it deepens your relationship with those people too, which feeds back and makes the music better.
Words: Alex Hitchcock
Photo: Lisa Wormsley