When asked in the course of this interview to summarise the reasoning and feelings behind her debut album, musician Ruth McGinley simply stated: “This is me not apologising for who I am.”
And, that concept of simplicity is one which lies at the heart of her debut album ‘Reconnection’ which was launched last night at The Playhouse in Derry.
Ruth’s story is one which is well-known in this city and far beyond. Although it is a term or label that she completely loathes it is hard to round-up her story without referring to her as somewhat of a child prodigy.
In 1994 she won the piano final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year. With this as an illustrious launching pad and whilst studying at the Royal Academy and Royal College in London she gave solo performances with the BBC Philharmonic, the London Mozart Players, the National Symphony Orchestra and the Ulster Orchestra. Recitals across the UK, Europe and the Middle East followed.
However, the pressures of performing took its toll. In 2004 she returned home and began the job of raising her son. Disconnected from the thought and the process of solo performance she still nonetheless embarked on a career as an accompanist most notably with The Priests and did a range of work for BBC Northern Ireland.
Nothing it would seem though could coax her from a massively premature ‘retirement’ from solo performances. Playing solo in any sense had become an activity restricted to late nights at home when the doors were closed and her son was in bed.
It seemed that her fate in this respect had been well and truly sealed by herself no matter how many requests to return she received. As Derry’s year as City of Culture approached however it became an opportunity to more than anything face head on the anxiety issues that had taken her over at the peak of her early career as a very young woman.
The first showpiece event of City of Culture was the BBC’s ‘Sons and Daughters’ concert at Ebrington which brought together the many internationally renowned talents produced by Derry down the decades. It was here in a performance with saxophonist Gerard McChrystal that Ruth began the process of returning to public performance.
Having a restored a degree of confidence in herself in June 2013 she played live on Stephen McCauley’s live Electric Mainline show from the city’s Glassworks and played a Phillip Glass piece named Glassworks. As the City of Culture year came to an end Ruth again played as a soloist at the BBC’s final live broadcast of the year from St Columb’s Hall. The following year saw two more solo performances with the Ulster Orchestra, again for the BBC. At that point it had been ten years since she had performed as a soloist with them
All this also explains the title of her debut album. Ruth McGinley had literally begun the ‘reconnection’ to music.
I thought, wouldn’t it be lovely to play the more simple piecesI built up a repertoire of stuff that I loved to play-Ruth McGinley
This is a record however that is not a full-blown return to the strictures of ‘heavy’ classical performance. There can be few pianists anywhere that have produced albums that include Rachmanioff, Satie, Debussy, Gershwin and Randy Newman. The diversity in the play list is also however not restricted to the choice of composer but also to musical genres, ranging from classical to jazz. If there is a label to be placed on the genre of the album ‘Reconnection’ at all it is perhaps best described as contemporary classical.
Ruth told the ‘Journal’: “I met David Lyttle, a wonderful jazz drummer about three or four years ago. At that time I wasn’t doing much solo playing at all. But, I had gone through a big change in life and I was feeling more content and happy in myself. He repeatedly said that he didn’t understand why I had never made a recording. But I had told myself that wasn’t for me, that life was fine and I didn’t need to do that.
“However, he planted the idea in my head and that’s what started the ball rolling. Music to me at that stage was a therapeutic thing. I used to sit down at night and play and I was starting to find music and pieces of all different types that I loved to play. I had been at the stage where I just wasn’t enjoying anything I was playing anymore.
“David Lyttle also sent me through music that he loved and we shared music in that way. I built up a repertoire of stuff that I loved to play. “
Part of this process also saw Ruth take jazz piano lessons, via Skype with musician Shan Verma in London.
The ‘Journal’ asked if Ruth it interesting to become a student again considering that she also spends a lot of time teaching her own young students.
She said: “Yes. Totally. What I did realise was after a year of taking regular jazz lessons was that I wasn’t going to become a jazz pianist in a year. It is a completely different language, a different way of being. It is a lot more freeing and I loved it. I loved being a starter again. And, the guy who taught me, although we are good friends now, but I would tell him to treat me as a complete beginner that knew nothing. I didn’t know anything about how to improvise or harmonise in jazz so I was very nervous but I loved it.
“Initially I found it really difficult to do that because I like to know what I am doing-what notes I have to play. Over time I started to recognise similarities between classical music and jazz. I saw it in a different way. As a piano teacher I am starting to encourage my students to take the book home and learn about chords and harmonies, something that I had not studied before. I’ve always listened to jazz musicians. I love Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett who produced amazing stuff.
“The love of their music and the sheer admiration I have for jazz musicians and how they are aware of harmonic structures pushed towards doing this and how every jazz standard is played so differently. So, I am back doing classical music but a few of the tracks on the album have a jazz style to them.”
However, the process of talking about making an album is of course vastly different from actually making one. A visit to the head of the Arts Council Ciaran Scullion to seek backing for the project was greeted very enthusiastically and as a result an Artists Career Enhancement Scheme award was made and the process of producing ‘Reconnection’ was definitively under way.
“Years ago when I was in the middle of doing very heavy concerts and playing Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev and then do Chopin’s Nocturne for example for an encore, people would come up and say ‘I wish you’d play more stuff like that’. That used to frustrate me because obviously I’d sweated blood and tears to play the ‘heavier’ stuff. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be lovely to play the more simple pieces. Playing concerts with The Priests has been a huge eye opener to me in terms of different audiences and how music is presented in that classical cross over world where they do not make any apologies for playing the more well-known pieces. It is an easier and less stressful way of being a musician as well.
“After the Arts Council came on board then it was a case of ok, now I need to make this happen. That was about 18 months ago. I sat at the kitchen table and started to structure the set list. I spoke to Michael Keanie the producer who is classically trained but has produced Foy Vance and Duke Special and who writes for TV and screen. I met him briefly at ‘Sons and Daughters’ and said that I wanted to keep it all really simple. That was something he reminded me of during the recording process when I became a bit freaked out.
“It was pretty clear to me in the few years that I was getting myself back into playing that the things I wanted to play, all the pieces of music from that period of time were ones that really made my heart open again. I heard some of these on the radio at 3am in the morning and got out of bed and turned the laptop on to find the music. They had an impact because I’d closed myself off. I had been frustrated with the piano because I hadn’t found where I wanted to be with it.
“There is also a biographical aspect to the play list whether people realise it or not,” said Ruth.
Pieces from Rachmanioff and 18th century operatic composer Gluck give way on ‘Reconnection’ to tracks such as Vocalise by Astor Piazzolla the Argentine tango composer then to Phillip Glass who Ruth McGinley says she loves because there is no great structure to his work. It has a “vague quality, a darkness to it,” she told the ‘Journal’.
Ruth continued: “The second half of the album is definitely lighter. Pieces like the jazz standard ‘Embraceable You’ and ‘Clair de Lune’ just connect with people. They are famous because they are beautiful. ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ is just full of meaning for me and finally ‘Smile’ is my personal favourite.
“This is my not apologising for who I am. It’s a very truthful and it’s important for me for it to be an authentic album. It’s just important for me to look back and say ‘I am proud of that.’ And, I am very content with how it turned out.”
‘Reconnection’ is on the Lyte record label and can be bought directly from www.ruthmcginley.co.uk and also from ITunes, amazon, cool discs, Veritas, Above and Beyond the Warehouse as well as stores throughout the country.