Clara Peya: “What am I going to do on a solo tour? I’m going to die of grief!”
Clara Peya (Palafrugell, 1986) is a leading figure on the music scene of Cataluña (the region in the NE of Spain). In 2019, at the age of thirty-three, she received the Catalan National Culture Award for her musical career and social commitment. At the time, he had released eight albums, somewhere between singer-songwriter and jazz. However, the most curious thing is that he had not yet released what can be considered his best works. The first were two solo piano albums, A-A Analogia de l’A-mort, released at the end of 2019, and Estat de larva, the latter, released in the summer of 2020, was the sonic result of the convulsion caused by the three months of lockdown to which we were all forced, in the spring of that year, due to covid-19. The third in that list of best works was an album of songs entitled Perifèria [outskirts, backland], an intimate album in which she tackled precisely those matters of her social commitment, dedicated to all those forms of life situated on the “outskirts” of what is understood as normal: the difference that generates vulnerability. Difference and vulnerability that she herself has suffered, because of her sexual condition, on the one hand, and because of the illness she was diagnosed with at the age of 21, obsessive compulsive disorder, OCD, and which it took her almost twelve years to dare to communicate publicly, because of the social stigma attached to mental health. She did so through Suite TOC núm. 6, a theatrical performance by the company Les Impuxibles, which she co-directs with her older sister, the choreographer Ariadna Peya.
Perifèria, one of the great national albums of 2021, speaks of all those who have been “left out” because they have not been included, not because they have decided to do so voluntarily and freely. Invisible people because they have been marginalised. Perhaps as a result of her new musical interests, the instrumentation on Perifèria is sparse: just the bass and keyboards of Vic Moliner and the drums of Didac Fernández, as well as Peya’s own upright piano. As usual in her albums, she does not sing; on this occasion it is Enric Verdaguer, known artistically as Henrio, who shines for his sensitivity and ability to change register according to the tone of each of the themes. He sings on all but one of them, Mujer frontera, in which the vocals are provided by the French-Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux and the Spanish actress Alba Flores.
But if the field of song is sufficiently well known in the case of Clara Peya, her work as a composer of solo piano pieces is not so well known. The two albums she has published in this way have not had much media repercussion and she doesn’t “help” either, by not presenting them live… Well, actually, A-A Analogia de l’A-mort was performed live on a single occasion, on 6 December 2019 at the Utopia 126 space in Barcelona. However, these two albums open new paths of expression that fit in the path of post-minimalist and/or neoclassical composers such as Nils Frahm, Ólafur Arnalds or Max Richter.
I have always been struck by your physical appearance. Without hearing you, one might think you are a punk, but then one listens to you… and your music is not only not punk, but it shows a very sweet sensibility…
People are contradictory and contradiction exists in everything. I don’t trust anything that is “by the book”, let’s say, that seems stipulated. I, on the other hand, am a very sensitive person and giving a tough image gives me a feeling of protection, which in reality is a lie. But I did want to offer a tougher image to protect what’s inside, which is a bit fragile. It is an explanation.
I studied classical music, so I don’t believe in the “liturgy” of classical music or in elitism. Music is to bring us closer, not to distance us, and classical music is super elitist: to study it, or even to “consume” it, you need money. I have never wanted to be a distant person, but a close person. And all this is a kind of explanation of why you don’t like my image, I’m just too used to it!
I think you started playing the piano at the age of three. How did it come into your life?
I come from a family where my grandmother and my aunt [the concert pianist Josefina Rigolfas] were pianists and I’ve been playing the piano since I was a child, out of obligation. I even thought I didn’t like it and for a long time I had a love-hate relationship with music. It took me a long time to accept that I loved music. I’m a rebel by nature and I question everything by nature and whatever they tell me I have to do, I don’t want to do. It took me a long time to understand that what I loved most was playing the piano and that I wanted to make music.
Did you complete your piano studies?
Yes, I finished classical piano and started jazz and I stayed in the fourth year.
When you say you accepted that you loved music, what music do you mean? Chopin, Bach…?
What I liked most in classical music was Mozart. It’s strange, but that’s how it is, because it was one of the few things I understood. When you are very young and you start playing Bach, Rachmaninov or Chopin, emotionally you can’t understand the piece. Technically you can play it, but emotionally it’s impossible: you’re light-years away from understanding it. Mozart seemed closer to me and became very important in my life.
Now, with time, being older, I find Bach incredible and Beethoven the same. What happens is that I don’t like what classical music means: how it is transmitted and what it becomes… In this country, at least. Classical music is not popular, and for me, the word “popular” is important, because it means “accessible”, for everybody. And I’m not talking from an intellectual point of view, but from the point of view of being able to “consume” it.
When did you start listening to contemporary classical music?
When I was given pieces to play and I didn’t understand anything. I think it was in the first year of my degree. Until then, I didn’t know it and I hadn’t even contemplated it. I’m talking about contemporary music, not impressionism. In fact, until I was 16, I listened to what I was told I had to listen to, not what I wanted to listen to. Suddenly, in the ESMUC sound library I discovered that there were many, many, many records. At that time there was no Spotify or anything like it. And I started consuming records like crazy. I started to discover jazz, folk… And my horizons opened up. And I became aware that I am a girl. Because as a girl pianist I was destined to be a teacher. I had no reference points: I had spent my whole life playing works by white men. For me, white men were the ones who composed and performed, and the possibility of transgressing that had never crossed my mind. And I became aware that I could also compose and I could explain my experiences and my history.
I deny my past a lot, although I also love it, because it is the path I have taken to find something. I always wanted to sing but I never felt able to do it. I don’t have a good voice and I don’t like it, so I looked for my voice in other voices. It took me a long time to find what I wanted to do and I think that until the last two albums I haven’t found that whoever sings is my real “voice”. But if you ask me in four years’ time, these probably won’t be my albums either. If I point these out, it’s because they are the ones that most resemble who I am now.
How much do you discard? What is your criteria for a piano piece to end up on an album?
I used to discard nothing and now I’m starting to discard quite a lot. Now, on each record I drop three songs and before I used to put everything I had. I have more and more criteria, both on a personal level and on a musical level. My own. It’s not better or worse than any other, but it’s my criteria.
The solo piano albums are a bit different: they start from improvisations that become songs and are very minimalist motifs that can be born any day, at any time, and they come up very quickly. It’s difficult to explain. It’s a completely different creative process.
Actually, I like to hear what you say, because I also think that it is in your last three or four albums, from Oceanes (2017) to Perifèria (2021) and, more specifically, in your solo piano albums, A-A-Analogia de l’A-mort (2019) and Estat de larva (2020) where you seem to have entered a different pianistic terrain… Was it due to something in particular? Did your tastes or influences change in any way?
In two albums it’s very difficult to be who you are. It rarely happens that with two or three albums you find your place. I think, for example, of Maria Arnal and Marcel Bagés, who with two albums have managed to establish a language that is very much their own. But, in general, it doesn’t happen. On the other hand, when you’re not the main voice, it’s very difficult to make a splash. In Catalonia I’m better known because I’ve had eleven albums.
But Maria Arnal and Marcel Bagès are also “older” artists: they’re not exactly in their twenties?
Of course! 34 and 39 years old.
In Catalonia you are an icon of feminism and other social causes, but that discourse, which can be expressed through your lyrics, can be undetectable in solo piano albums… Although you try: the titles of the pieces in Estat de larva, No, Sé, Vos, Al, Tres, Pe, Rò, Jo, Ne, Ces, Si, To, Pell, Per, Viu and Re, read “No sé vosaltres però jo necessito pell per viure”: “I don’t know about you, but I need skin to live”…
Actually, solo piano albums are not the most “commercial” of my career. And that’s part of my struggle, because I do Estat de larva because I try to show a discourse behind it, and I have to explain that discourse. And, on top of that, I didn’t do concerts for Estat de larva, because we were confined.
I like each record to have its own discourse and its own entity and to talk about something. For me it’s a responsibility to go out on stage in front of an audience that comes to see me and I feel I have to do something that goes beyond myself. I think it’s egomaniacal enough to go out on stage to be watched and listened to, even if I like it. In fact, whoever goes on stage does it for that reason, to be listened to.
That’s why it’s important, when you go on stage, that you do something with it, that it’s useful collectively and not just individually. Life is very complicated: we die, but there are other people who come after us. I think we artists have more responsibility than we think, or we use it less than we should.
I find a certain parallel between you and Lluis Llach. Many years ago, I think it was at the presentation of Geografia (1988) at the Palau de la Música de Catalunya, I was able to interview him and tell him how surprising it was that externally he had so much repercussion as an icon of political or social song when, in reality, he was the most “musician” of the singer-songwriters…
He became an icon of independence and of Catalan. A time has come when everything is very complicated, especially with the wild irruption of new technologies: we relate to each other on flat screens and depth has been lost for all intents and purposes. We are losing the time we need to take to do things. Now videos are thirteen or fifteen seconds long. Everything is liquid. And it’s very difficult to find the substance, the pure. For mental health, we are in one of the hardest and most difficult moments. Art, on the other hand, is the most direct way, because it doesn’t go through reason. That’s what the search is about. The quest is not to be successful.
Did you talk about these concerns with your aunt?
No. She was a great performer, but she didn’t compose. It was very difficult for me to understand that classical music, in a way, was constricting me and restricting my creativity. I felt I was a performer, but it didn’t allow me to express my creative side and I didn’t feel very free. With time, however, I have discovered that I find my creative side therapeutic and necessary to centre my head.
Within contemporary music, the groundbreaking character of Stockhausen, Xenakis, Boulez, Nono, Berio…, who even today are difficult to programme in large auditoriums because the “traditional” public doesn’t accept them, didn’t they attract your attention?
I remember that at the time, Prokofiev caught my attention. It’s not the same thing, but he had a physicality and a way of approaching classical music that broke my head. What overwhelmed me most about classical music was having to reproduce something already written, not having the freedom to express myself, both physically and ideologically. I felt very limited by the fact that I had to interpret something by someone else. I am interested in Prokofiev’s voice, but not his voice in my hands. In my hands I’m interested in my own: who am I? And I had to find out what I am like and what my path was.
From John Cage, for example, I was also very taken at the time with that piece in which nothing happens. Do you know what I’ll tell you?
I was really taken by it, because for me that was art. It showed me a philosophy and opened up a whole world for me that has not yet closed. What happens to me, artistically, is that I never rest: I never find a place where I feel comfortable. When I start to feel comfortable with something, it starts to get… boring and I become disinterested. I’d like to rest.
Your first album, Declaracions (2009) was sung, with your lyrics, but without your voice, but with the voices of other singers. How was the process of making that, in particular, your first album and how have your musical tastes evolved over time?
Of the eleven albums I’ve released, I’d say I like three… There are also individual songs from each album that I like. I like the production of a few songs, but this is part of the individual personal evolution: the world moves and we move with the world and my musical interests move in a circular spiral. Something that I don’t like now I might like again in ten years, and ten years later I might not like it again. And it has nothing to do with the fashion of musical styles: styles and your way of feeling and seeing life move. Just as you don’t play the same way when you’re twenty as when you’re forty, you don’t compose the same way either. I’m closer to my forties than my twenties and somehow I notice that in many things.
I get tired of everything in the industry: having to look good with people, having to talk to programmers… I’m comfortable playing on stage and I love going on stage, but I don’t like TV interviews, I don’t like selling myself. I like us to listen to each other, I like people to cooperate.
Do you think that with Perifèria you have succeeded in getting your discourse, which is clear and evident, to spread?
No. I don’t think so. I don’t stop trying to do it at every gig and in every interview or in every place where I speak. When they ask me about me, I try to get them hooked on me so I can explain and talk about more disruptive things. When an artist says that he wrote such and such a song looking at the sea and I don’t know what and I don’t know how many, I think: “What do I care? Art, on many occasions, lacks discourse. And I would like my art to be committed, because that’s the only thing that can change the world.
What are we becoming? Individuality is one thing and personality is another. I believe a lot in personality and very little in individuality. I believe that people should have their own personality to act as a group and what happens is that we use individuality to shine alone. It is very difficult. I myself am a contradiction: everything I say should be summed up as “leave the stage”, but I don’t and I’m delighted to be on stage. And I love the adrenaline it gives me. It gives me happiness and energy. I feel useful and when I’m playing I feel like I’m doing what I came into this world to do. But I feel empty if I think that what I do is not filled with a discourse that can be halfway useful for the audience I have, which is a middle-class audience. I perform in auditoriums where people come who can afford to pay the ticket price. And the audience already knows what my message is.
For a while I generated what I called the “Snowflake” effect: the white, albino gorilla that everyone went to see because of his rarity. Somehow, I had this feeling that people came to see that kind of thing, rather than the person. At first it made me uncomfortable, but then I took advantage of it: you come to give me peanuts and I give you something else: my speech. That’s what life is about: an exchange.
Alba Flores, who is not a singer, sings Mujer frontera in Perifèria. Is she a friend of yours?
Yes, she is a friend. If not, of what? She was the one who told me that the profits from that song should go to the collective of day labourers. She knew about it and I thought it was great. If it hadn’t been for Alba, I wouldn’t have known about it. They have a lot of merit.
How did you meet?
Half of my career is in theatre and dance: I’ve composed music for more than thirty shows. I was at the Teatro Español doing a season in Madrid years ago, and it was then that I met Alba. We have been colleagues ever since. I admire her a lot, because she is one of the few who “goes out on a limb”. And I’m grateful for that. We need people like her, because she moves a lot of people and shows her responsibility in everything she says and how she positions herself.
You said that you didn’t do any concerts in Estat de larva and I think that A-A-Analogia de l’A-mort was only performed live once. However, I think that it is in that facet of your work as a pianist that you could have a huge international career, in the league of Nils Frahm or Ólafur Arnalds?
You’re saying my favourites! But I do do solo piano concerts, but it’s not the tour I roll with. Every year I do a dozen concerts or so. You know what happens? I’m tired of touring: I’ve toured a lot, with contemporary dance and I don’t like touring. Going to the hotel, eating out… touring is overrated! I like to be at home, with my people. And, on the other hand, with instrumental music, as you said, showing the discourse is much more complicated and I have the feeling that I can’t launch a political discourse with these pieces.
But I’ll admit that I thought about touring more with the piano records. But then I said to myself: “what am I going to do on a solo tour? I’d die of grief! I like to be with people, with my musicians.
In your albums of songs there are always collaborations with singers (from Judit Neddermann, Ferran Savall and Alessio Arena, who are regulars, to occasional names). But haven’t you tried to get in touch with those musicians in the same orbit as you, like the ones I’ve mentioned, or like Joep Beving, who also performs, like you, with an upright piano instead of a grand piano?
Sometimes I have thought about collaborating with other pianists, but the piano is a very complete instrument, very orchestrated, very harmonic, with many harmonics… that is, with harmony and with harmonics, which you hear a lot. Experimentation with two pianos is not in my head, but it could be very cool! I have thought about having them produce a record or something like that, but sometimes we don’t ask what we want… and we already have the “no”.
Do you feel you have been influenced by them or are you in close orbits by pure chance?
I have been influenced a lot by the Nordic world. The solitude, the immensity… So much space… and so few people. And so much cold. There is a seed there that influenced me a lot and that has to do with something very intimate, very intimate, very intimate. Intimate is pure and incorrect. And I really like the sound of mutes and the sound of hammers, of wood… It’s like amplifying the most intimate silence.
And how does this post-minimalist or neo-classical style come into your music?
I also have a lot of classical music influences and I remember that when I studied classical music what I liked most were the simplest things. Always. The other stuff made me feel like I was getting lost in the virtuosity, in the way I tried to play it. The technique ate up the music many times, both in my case and listening to other pianists. And I do have the feeling that it’s in the more melodic, lyrical and quiet things that my essence lies.
© Photograph by Josep Echaburu provided by Clara Peya.