Celebrated London-born pianist Neil Cowley has just taken up his role as Derry’s Musician in Residence for 2013, but few realise that the composer has also worked on the albums of multi Grammy-winner Adele.
In fact, with Adele’s album 21 being the global smash it is - he is quite literally – the most listened to pianist on the planet!
The charismatic composer laughs off such an impressive tag-line. “Well, it’s not a white lie, it’s probably an absolute truth,” he laughs. “In relative terms, that last album was only three afternoons of my life in 2010, and so to listen to it in every public place I go is mad – it’s so widespread and one of the most ridiculously successful albums out there.”
Having created the poignantly expressive intro to Hometown Glory on 19 and the stomping piano on Rolling in the Deep, Cowley reveals that the Adele collaboration came about as their original keyboard had decided to keep his job in Sainsbury’s!
“Working with Adele was great,” he reflects. “She sang, and I played and it worked beautifully and so that’s the way we recorded from that moment on, the two of us in the same room and then adding everything else.”
Having toured all over the globe with his own award winning band, the Neil Cowley Trio, the pianist is delighted but daunted at his latest appointment for the Culture Year 2013. He was chosen from fifty nominated musicians all over the UK for the Derry role.
Still, he was amazed when he got the job. “I was at the swimming pool with my kids and got a phone-call saying it that the job was mine if I wanted and I said yes, of course, and then thought, my God, what have I just done! This is so mammoth and gargantuan – a whole year and I have to make it count. The mild panic has only stopped now that I’ve arrived here in Derry!”
“I’ve never been to Derry before and it’s great. I think everyone has been lovely and friendly. The city seems to be bustling with talent and a real regard for music. And you can really feel the weight of the history of the place. What really blew me away was when I was taken on a tour of the walled city, and I was standing on the Derry Walls overlooking the Bogside. Seeing all that history concentrated within metres from each another, it’s pretty powerful.”
“My first encounter in Derry was in an Italian restaurant and I met John Hume! He walked past me, saw my beard, and said to me “have you not got a razor!” We had a bit of verbal tennis and then someone said to me, do you realise who that is? I couldn’t believe it when I realised. He was great.”
So what does the Musician in Residence role mean for Cowley while he’s in Derry?
“There will be a lot of working with the community and in conjunction with the Nerve Centre,” he says. “I also pitched the idea of the Eighth Gate, which they seemed to like, which was an idea to create a massive collaborative with local residents culminating in a big performance at the end of the year. I have also met with the Music Promise team and they want some of my time too so I’ll be working with local kids. My own band is going to play the Derry Jazz festival too.
“I have the capacity and the budget to bring in other musicians whom I‘ve met along the way to work on Derry projects, and there’s plenty I know that can be useful here. An infusion of experience and advice is what I’m here for, I think! The Nerve Centre are also very interested in my videos too and we could bring over the director behind them maybe.”
Speaking of the Nerve Centre – Cowley is impressed with the former Musician’s Collective on Magazine Street. “Do you realise how lucky you are to have a place like the Nerve Centre here? I’ve never seen the likes of it anywhere else. The sense of community here is amazing.”
“There are so many ideas, I can’t wait to get started,” he goes on. “It is quite daunting, of course, but there is so much creativity here, why am I conduit for that, I wonder? I have lot of advice and experience to pass on, so maybe that’s what I’ll do best this year.”
Neil Cowley will return to Derry in March, bringing with him the passion, ideas and vision needed for 2013. “It’s a massive challenge but I’m looking forward to all of it,” he adds.