Interview: Lola Perrin

OK, I really screwed up this time. I went to interview a major modern pianist without having listened to her work or, indeed, to any modern piano music. It’s people like me who give journalism a bad name.

As luck would have it though, a blagging tongue honed by dozens of tutes got me halfway there, and Lola Perrin’s no-bullshit approach to music brought the interview home.

So who is Lola Perrin? Perrin is the latest pianist to be supported by Steinway, who are to pianos what Hattori Hanzo was to samurai swords. She is a minimalist composer-pianist, with deep roots in jazz. She is collaborating with the heavyweights of the art world – but more on that later. She is also, endearingly, still just a little starstruck by her own rise.

‘There was this one time,’ she says, ‘when I was due to perform at the Teatro dal Verme in Milan. That’s right next to La Scala! And a Bentley was to come and pick us up from the airport, and we were going to stay in a five-star hotel with a, erm, what do you call it?’ – she tries to grab the word out of the air in front of her – ‘a butler.’

She started out on the piano at the age of four. The youngest of six piano-playing siblings, she knew the instrument was hers by right – ‘I hogged it.’ At 13, she was invited along to exhibition classes at the Royal College of Music, and then they gave her the chance to become a concert pianist. She turned it down.

The piano still haunted her. ‘Music picks you,’ she says. ‘A born musician has no choice. You’re completely miserable if you’re not doing it.’ She read Music at university, where she began to take theory very seriously indeed. ‘You had this linear progression from Baroque to Classical to Romantic to, erm, well I suppose you’d call it Impressionism. And then you have Debussy. Debussy destroyed the Western musical form.’

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And after Debussy? ‘I guess you could say that Duke Ellington was the next big composer after Debussy.’ For Perrin, jazz is the natural heir to the classical tradition. The other modern schools squandered their heritage: ‘studying a lot of twentieth-century music was very distressing for me. Listening to much of it, I feel like I’m being tortured – you can’t even tell where the end is, it’s sadistic. And when it’s over, people applaud, but I bet they’re just glad it’s finished.’

‘I started to crave narrative,’ she continues. ‘And meaning. In my dreams, the Cohen brothers would come along and make me a 10-minute film.’ She began to crave collaboration, too. As soon as she felt her style had matured, she began to reach out to other artists. ‘I had this sort of VIP list,’ she explains, ‘these artists I admired and wrote to, and only Hanif Kureishi wrote back.’

The riotously successful novelist and scriptwriter’s reply was the start of an intense exchange of emails like something out of a South American novel. ‘He said, ‘I love your tunes.’ And I said, ‘I would love to work with your work.'” Soon, he began sending her Word documents with no explanation, and she began to take them as her inspiration. They only met each other face to face two years later, at a performance of her adaptation of his short story The Dogs. ‘I was so excited,’ she remembers, ‘that I couldn’t sleep.’

‘The first thing he said was ‘we’re going to do The Turd.’ He wasn’t smiling. I remember thinking, ‘I’m a minimalist. I don’t think I can write about turds.’ Luckily it turned out he was joking.’ Since then, the composer and the writer have appeared together onstage at Latitude Festival. Their creative relationship looks set to continue. I hope they fall in love.

Her dream, however, is to write a score for multiple pianos. How many pianos? ‘Many. I’ve already done six. It sounds…like an aural jigsaw.’ She vents a shuddering breath, and her eyes close. ‘It feels so good. It’s the most expressive instrument.’

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After the interview, I watch Perrin in concert at my local literary festival. She’s doing things to the Baptist church piano that have never been done to it before. Keys used to banging out ‘When I Needed a Neighbour’ and ‘Shine Jesus, Shine’ are being teased into an electrical storm of shimmering riffs and growling basslines. I find myself wondering if some of this music will linger in the piano and make all the Baptists cry come Sunday morning.

And the music sounds everything that minimalist jazz shouldn’t. It’s expressive, tempestuous, eminently listenable, occasionally a bit naive, yes, but above all this is music with something to say. Like Perrin herself. The music starts to make sense when you’ve met its composer, for there seems to be little difference between her art and her life. I begin to wonder if I didn’t meet the woman and the music the right way round after all…