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Interview with Poppy Ackroyd: From "Escapement" to the "Feathers" of hope

Hope is the thing with feathers”, exactly like her new album.
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Poppy Ackroyd is a performer and composer from London. Classically trained on violin and piano from an early age, she studied piano and composition at Edinburgh University before completing a masters degree in Piano Performance. A long-term collaborator with Hidden Orchestra, she also works with other musicians and artists, creating soundtracks for film, dance, physical theatre and radio. Her debut album "Escapement" (Denovali Records, 2012) impressed with its delicate, intricate and beautifully atmospheric music, created using only piano and violin (with the exception of a few field recordings). In November 2014 her second full-length album "Feathers" was released, which she is performing live across Europe in the following months.

Poppy's beloved, restored Blüthner grand piano in her studio is again the backbone of the album, providing most of the melodies, bass lines and percussive sounds. Other material originated from improvised recording sessions at the Russell/Mirrey Collection of keyboard instruments in Edinburgh. Having previously spent time there dismantling different pianos to understand how their mechanisms work and make sound, she was given complete freedom on her own in the museum to experiment with around fifty keyboard instruments from the 16th century to the 19th century. You can have a look at the list of the keyboard instruments of the Edinburgh University Collections here.

On Wednesday the 10th of December, we were at the first concert of the mini tour of Poppy Ackroyd with Carlos Cipa, her mate in Denovali Records, in LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur in Münster, Germany. You can read our little review for the concert here; unfortunately it is available only in Greek. After the concert, we had a chat with Poppy Ackroyd that started like this:

Your new album is called “Feathers”, which are also depicted on its cover. On the other hand, the press release of Denovali connects the title to a verse by Emily Dickinson. I was wondering about this connection.

The line of the poem is “Hope is the thing with feathers”. I read that line when I was starting to write the album. It stuck with me. I kept seeing it, as it was on the table in my flat. And then I saw something that was called “without feathers”, the idea of being hopeless, and I liked this idea as well. So I was playing with this idea of “hope” and “no hope”. But feathers is also a reference to the mechanism inside the harpsichords. Basically the end of a feather plugs the string. The image in the front cover of the album actually shows feathers from the museum, feathers that the technicians were using to build harpsichords. So I said I can connect these two things. There is a number of reasons. And also this year I left Scotland. So “feathers” are also connected with the idea of migration, leaving and moving.

Let’s remain in the names and go back to your first album “Escapement”. What’s its meaning? Sometimes we use music as a means to escape from everyday life. Is this the answer?

Exactly. Writing the album was a kind of escaping from things and a release of emotions through the instrument. But also the name is the mechanism inside a piano. When you press down a key on a piano, the hammer comes up and hits the string. If you didn’t have this escapement mechanism, the hammer would stay in contact with the string. But the escapement means that the hammer moves away and the string can keep sounding. That’s why it’s an interesting and beautiful instrument!

So basically it’s the same thing again. I am playing with the idea of things that are going on in my life emotionally and something that is related with the instrument that I am working with. It is called a double meaning.

Did you have already in mind to record in this museum of of keyboard instruments when you were planning your new album?

Yes. I actually got a funding to make the album. I proposed the idea and they said OK. But I didn’t know what I was going to do and how the writing process would go.

How did you feel touching such old instruments and antiques?

I can’t believe how amazing they were. They just let me on my own.

Without supervision?

Yes, like that. By myself for the whole day and I was there for several days. Each time I would phone and say “I am coming in. Can you tune this instrument for me?”. And then they were ready, sometimes; sometimes they were not. But I could try and play and find the ones that had the character that I liked. I didn’t use all of them. I just found some that had a distinctive quality, more “character” than the others.

It should have been amazing. Imagine if these instruments had soul! It would be like getting them out of a fringe after so many years.

They are not played. No one uses them. And it is so strange to have those things and say “don’t touch”, “don’t play”. And I think they have probably spent more time in the museum than anywhere else. But they looked like they have had a lot of use. It was amazing to play them, for sure. And you do wonder who has played this, where it has been, in whose living room it has been, if it has been neglected… There is definitely a story behind each one.

There is a track called “Roads” that has lots of clavichords and harpsichords. And they are so different. The harpsichord is one of the best examples of its kind. I think it might be the best example, which I didn’t realize until I started tapping it. And clavichord is very hard these days in tune and really sunky.

The museum is now closed. Those were the last weeks that it was open and I think this is the reason why they were so kind. They are building a new one right now and all the instruments are in storage. If the museum had just opened, I wouldn’t have the chance. I was basically lucky.

Some things about Hidden Orchestra. It is quite different what you do there. How can you combine both? Occasionally you even support the band. How can you change character?

All of Hidden Orchestra is written by Joe (Acheson). We don’t write any music. It’s his solo project. And since he is my partner, I work with him to make the band happen. It is different what we do. It’s more danceable and I love that side. It indulges that part of me.

But this allows you to remain concentrated on your solo work.

I don’t think the music would be as good with all of us working to it. The reason why Hidden Orchestra is so good is because Joe is spending so much time in the studio. We are the same. He has his studio on the one floor and I am on the other and we are there hours each day. It works really well. It is nice to tour with him and it’s nice to go on my own and explore.

And sometimes to combine them as well!

Exactly. Combining is really exhausting, though. I don’t want to do it many times. Two soundchecks, two gigs. It is a long day.

You have performed in small places, in a church, today you are for second time in the museum. Which concert places do you prefer?

I like really small places. But small with character, small and dark. I like to be able to feel like I am talking with everybody, like we are all together. It’s like us, me and them, having a conversation and feeling the energy of everybody.

On the other hand, big places are good too. You get a better sound. But I like the intimacy of people in a room together.

Intimacy! I remember that you weren’t wearing shoes the first time that I saw you performing. Today you do!

I never wear shoes, but it’s too cold. I‘ve started wearing shoes the last few days. And also I get dirty feet!

Image: (c) Kat Gollock

A last topic to let you rest. How do you see this whole thing with Denovali, the cooperation with them, your tours with other artists? I guess that you are building some kind of relations with each other. Are you planning any collaboration or project?

Not at the moment. I like working on my own. At the moment it works and there is not much space for anything else. But I do have some ideas which have collaborative elements and which work on the way that I like to work.

With Denovali the thing is just fantastic. I love what they do and everybody who is in the label is so nice. It’s really easy to tour. And with Carlos (Cipa) it’s the second tour that we do together. We just get on so well. He is like my little brother, my little German brother.

I was listening his new album and -perhaps it was my idea- I recognized some elements of your music.

Perhaps. A few sounds. But they are nothing new. This stuff has been going on for decades. What is different is maybe the way of programming those sounds, arranging them and putting them into a new context. But you cannot lay claim to sounds like that, I suppose.

But, of course he would be influenced by me. I am his big sister, you know!

It is obvious that you are feeling comfortable. And every time your performance is getting better. Thank you very much for your time. Good luck with everything and enjoy the rest of your tour.

It has been lovely to meet you. Thank you!

We thank you, again, Poppy Ackroyd and until next time!

Poppy Ackroyd

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Cover image: (c) Kat Gollock
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