Neil Cowley, Musician in Residence for City of Culture

Neil Cowley, Musician in Residence for UK City of Culture 2013, on researching Derry~Londonderry, working with Adele and his biggest challenge to date

‘Incredibly significant, potentially my greatest challenge yet.’ That’s how Neil Cowley views the work that he will do next year in Derry-Londonderry, as Musician in Residence at the Nerve Centre during UK City of Culture 2013.

Recently dubbed ‘the most listened to pianist on the planet’ following the phenomenal success of Adele's 21, on which he appeared, Cowley is a musician of seriously impressive credentials.

His Neil Cowley Trio scooped the 2007 BBC Jazz Award for best album, with their debut, Displaced, and Cowley also has a string of high-calibre collaborations to his name, including funk act The Brand New Heavies. He also played on Adele's debut album, 19.

The Englishman is charmingly dismissive of the headline-grabbing Adele connection. ‘It doesn’t feel like anything, really,’ he chuckles. ‘It doesn’t really mean much. It only took me about three afternoons to contribute to that, it’s such a small part of what I do. It’s just a nice, pleasurable bonus – and a handy little sound-bite, of course!’

The Derry-Londonderry residency is, by contrast, says Cowley, ‘the biggest type of project I’ve been involved in, certainly in the amount of people that will contribute'. This unique residency is a partnership between PRS for Music Foundation, UK City of Culture 2013 and the Nerve Centre, Derry-Londonderry’s music hub and where the residency will be based.

Cowley's involvement began just a couple of months ago, when he was one of 50 composers nominated as potential Musicians in Residence for the City of Culture celebrations. ‘I’ve still not discovered who nominated me!’ he laughs.

News of the nomination sparked a flurry of activity in the Cowley household. ‘When I heard that I’d been nominated,’ he says, ‘I went on a voyage of discovery, did a lot of research, immersed myself in the whole Derry-Londonderry story. I went deep in there, looked at a lot of films, learnt a lot of new things.

‘It’s shameful how little I knew, really. I simply didn’t know, for instance, that architecturally it’s such an interesting place.’ Those unique architectural features, the city’s walled and gated heritage, particularly sparked Cowley’s imagination, spawning the seed-idea for his City of Culture application.

‘I came up with this working title of Eighth Gate,' he explains. ‘I thought it would be a marvellous thing to create a sort of sonic tapestry, created by the everyday people of Derry-Londonderry. A gate for the future, a marker in time as to what it means to be in the city.

‘I’d like to encourage Derry-Londonderry people to record their own thoughts. If they want it to be musical, that’s fine, or it can be non-musical, and I’ll collate it all together with the help of the digital tech students from the Nerve Centre. I can then use that to harmonise with local musicians, and build it into a bigger musical work.’

The precise nature of that bigger musical work is yet to be determined, and will depend largely on the nature of the contributions made by people from the city, in a series of workshops and field recording initiatives Cowley will use to gather up the basic raw materials for the new composition.

‘In my head I’m imagining I’m going to end up with a musical performance of about an hour and a half long. Part of the joy of this is that there is scope for me to involve local musicians, and also bring in people that I already work with – my trio, for example, who will be the core of it.’

Cowley is, however, at pains to point out that he is bringing no particular musical idiom or agenda to the table, preferring, as he puts it, ‘to be a guiding force rather than a dogmatic one. I’m not coming in with my jazz hat on at all,’ he insists. ‘There’s a lot more flavours in there, it’s a lot more than that.

'I think that’s possibly why I’ve been chosen, because my background is so multi-layered, my involvement with dance music, rock, blues, soul and funk, and my early classical training. I’m coming in to make a piece of music inspired by the city, whatever form that takes. I have enough in my armoury to bend and sway with that, there is no jazz dogma attached to this at all.’

Cowley is clearly hugely animated by his involvement in the City of Culture project. ‘It’s incredibly exciting to be part of the inaugural event,’ he comments, ‘and I know it’s going to be a liberating moment when I meet real people face to face.

‘I think the city itself is an inspired choice. Even geographically, it’s on the outskirts of what is considered the UK, and it’s obviously got so much political history. There are so many other lame, unimaginative choices you could make for the UK City of Culture. And I think this is the exact opposite.’

Like so many newcomers to the political and cultural intricacies of Northern Ireland, Cowley finds some of what he has discovered there surprising.

‘I find it fascinating that there is still such a significant division, even if it’s underlying,’ he muses. ‘My aspiration within music is always to draw out the commonality between people, to convey emotion and empathy between people, something that we all commonly feel. That’s what I’m aiming at.

‘I think to embrace the city’s cultural and artistic side, to use this as a tool to bring that commonality to the fore, is a very exciting proposition. So I hope that we come up with something that is just quintessentially of Derry.’

In a career already showered with critical plaudits for both his playing and composing, and with numerous acclaimed recordings and successful media appearances already to his credit, it’s clear that Cowley views his forthcoming residency at City of Culture 2013 as something truly special, a genuine once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

‘It feels like the biggest honour I’ve ever been treated to,’ he concludes. ‘I look alongside me at the UK City of Culture, and I look at the other people involved, and I see nothing but people I respect. I think this is going to be a very, very important cultural event. I’m very much looking forward to this interesting yet scary year – it’s my own personal Olympics!’