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Trish Clowes: From Shorter, Lovano and the Sphinx

By Published: September 25, 2012
Recording Tangent was an important step for Clowes and one which has proven invaluable. The album was well-received by fans and critics and helped to establish her reputation at a relatively early point in her career. "My first album changed a lot of things for me, gave me opportunities I didn't have before. Very quickly after that I felt that I knew what I wanted the next thing to be: to organize a concert with a smaller musical setting, a string quartet. Going back to things I've been doing in college, plus my band and Gwilym as a guest. I applied to Kings Place [a major London arts venue] for a date, which will be the album launch date, and it grew from there. I had a very clear idea of how it was going to be from the beginning. All the music was written with that in mind."

Tangent featured a full 35-piece orchestra on two tunes. The largest ensemble on And In The Night-Time She Is There is the nonet. Was this a decision driven by economics, logistics or the music? Clowes is emphatic in her response. "A musical decision; when I recorded the first album, it was a realization of ideas that I'd had for some time. I'd been writing for jazz groups and string quartets while I was at college. If you want to do a big project like that you have to call in a lot of favors—unless you're loaded. It seemed like a good time to do it. I started planning it and lots of very generous musicians agreed to do it. For most of them it was just a three-hour session. I'd only just left college so I was still in touch with lots of people."

Is the second album a more structured work than Tangent? "I don't know. I guess that's maybe for someone else to decide. For me, both albums are honest representations of what I'm doing at the time and that's all that matters. It's always nice to record a debut album, go through the process, and learn as much as you can. Doing the second album you know what to expect, how to prepare, etcetera."

Both albums contain tunes inspired by literary works. On Tangent there's "Coloured Eye," based on a poem by Clowes' friend, Jessie Jones, and "The Master And Margarita," which shares its title with Mikhail Bulgakov's satire on 1930's Russia (first published in English in 1967). "I like writing something that represents or says something about something I love. I'd read The Master and Margarita a lot, and then I wrote the piece and felt that it shared the magic and mystery of the book, so I gave it that title. With poems, the text directly influences the music. I'd read Coloured Eye and felt I could do something with it musically: it gave me musical images, if you like. I bought the complete works of Oscar Wilde and found "The Sphinx." I felt, again, that this was a poem that gave me musical images. Once I find the right poem I find it easy to compose the music. Both of these poems have so many images in them that I could just literally sit down and sing the text on the spot, if that makes sense. There's no point forcing anything. It's about finding things that I felt I could do something with."

The combination of literature and music is something Clowes looks set to continue with in the future. "Yes I think so. There's plenty of time. I can see myself writing a songs album at some point." Would this mean that she becomes a lyricist as well as a composer? "I don't know. That's not something I'm very comfortable with, because I don't do it very much, but who knows?"

As a performer and writer, Clowes takes great delight in working with musicians she feels connected to on a personal level. "For me the people are really important. There's a reason why I work with each of these people: there is some sort of connection. The string quartet on the album, for instance. I knew Thomas Gould [the violinist] a little. I hadn't worked with him but Louise McMonagle, the cellist, who I'm very good friends with, recommended him. Adam Robinson, the viola player, has a group called the Threads Orchestra, which Chris [Montague] is part of. I'd written a piece for that orchestra so I had a connection with Adam too. I like to keep things like that if I can." It's a surprise to hear that the quartet hasn't worked together previously, for as improvisers they sound like a very cohesive unit. "I was so pleased, we all worked. Everyone really clicked, gelled straight away."

Heidi Parsons, another cellist who appears on both albums, is a friend of Clowes and McMonagle from their student days, while Kathleen Willison, the vocalist on "Coloured Eye" and "The Sphinx," is also an old friend. "She's a stunning singer but she doesn't gig that much at the moment. She's a lovely young mum, looking after her children. I had a few singing lessons with her while I was studying, that's how we met. I felt that her voice, her style, were close to how I might interpret something, although I'm not saying I can sing as well as her, so it seemed quite natural to involve her in my work."

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