Ania Reynolds: ‘I always look for the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary’

It’s difficult to put a label on Ania Reynolds and her music. One day, you will see her choosing the baritone sax as her weapon of choice, the next she will be tickling the ivories – or tampering with asynthesiser always creating fresh music, covering a wide range of genres, from dub-and-afrobeat flavoured electronica to ‘classical’. An avid sonic explorer, she is much more than a multi-instrumentalist; she’s a multi-disciplinary artist, using music as a tool to make sense of humanity. Having already created a vast body of work as a composer for theatre and after a long tenure at the Circus Oz (which probably deserves its own credit as a cradle for creative music), she released her debut album, Uforik (under her Synthotronica moniker) last year. Now’ she’s back with a completely different release, a solo piano album, titled My Shadow is my Only Follower. Completed and recorded in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdown, this collection of lyrical cinematic soundscapes claims its rightful place among the works that serve as a soundtrack for the pandemic era. And as such, it makes sense that it will be launched with an online concert, transporting her from her home, straight onto our screens.

What would you say to someone not familiar with your music to get them to watch your concert?

You’ll get to see me perform – virtually! – from my home studio, House Of Noodle, which I share with my partner, Carl. I’m performing on the beautiful old Steinway baby grand that we have in the studio – along with more synthesizers, guitars and saxophones than you can poke a stick at. The concert also features video footage from my travels around the world and here in Melbourne as well as an animation I made. So you’ll get to meet me and the studio, listen to the album, and hear the stories behind many of the pieces on the album.

Why did you decide to do a solo piano project?

In late 2019 I had just got back to Melbourne after two months in South America, touring with Circus Oz in Colombia and then performing at the Honk! Festival in Rio. It was a ridiculously wonderful and crazy time, especially the festival in Rio where I was staying up till dawn and performing and partying in the streets with brass bands from all over Brazil and South America. After being part of such an enormous high-energy project with gazillions of people, I was craving to do something self-contained and focused, in solitude – just to balance it out! I’d spoken to my good mate, fellow pianist and composer Nat Bartsch, about recording on her piano at her house, and it turned out she was going away for a week in December and very kindly gave me access to the house and piano for that week. I had decided over a series of solo piano gigs earlier in 2019 that these were the 10 tracks I wanted to record for the album, so I set up in Nat’s front room and spent six days recording them.

One of the tracks is titled ‘When did ‘The Streets fall silent’; are you referring to a specific incident?

I thought of this title at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, when I returned home to Coburg from a tour cut short and the first thing I noticed was the absence of noise in the streets – without all the usual traffic and background hum of transport, industry, etc. a sort of calm and stillness fell over the streets – and the sounds of the birds became much more pronounced! But when I wrote this track, which was quite a few years ago, I envisaged a world driven by technology – not a kill-all-humans dystopia but a place where technology is so advanced that it continues functioning, ticking over and pushing forward long after humans have disappeared. So the title is also inspired by the absence of human life in that imagined world.

What has your own lockdown experience been like?

Lockdown for me has meant cancelled tours and gigs and four overseas work trips postponed indefinitely, but despite all that, life in lockdown has actually been incredibly creative and productive. Like a self-imposed artist residency! It’s been a chance to really ground myself (prior to this year I hadn’t spent more than four months in a row in Melbourne for the last ten years) and work on personal projects that I wouldn’t have otherwise had time for – including releasing this album with the online concert! It’s been great spending so much time in our home studio that I share with my partner Carl, working on our various individual and collaborative projects. I feel like I’ve been quite lucky in lockdown – I even managed to play an appropriately socially distant gig in real life from the balcony of The Commons building in Brunswick! That was a blast.

What is the role of music and the arts in periods of crisis, such as the one we’ve been going through?

Music nourishes our souls in so many different ways – it transports us, calms and soothes us, excites us, reflects our feelings and emotions. I think people have been turning to music in a lot of different ways during lockdown – to feel soothed, to be transported away from the current reality, to dance in the kitchen…I’ve heard of many artist suppliers and music shops that have sold out of merchandise during lockdown! Music and the arts unite people and communities, they affirm connection, inclusion and self-expression which are vital for humans to survive crises. The last time I was in Brazil I had a really strong sense of this, being surrounded by incredibly vibrant artistic expression and joy and at the same time experiencing the flip side, the equally extreme hardship and adversity. In the face of uncertainty, music, the arts and culture keep us going – they bring us the spiritual nourishment that material possession alone can never fulfil.

What is the importance of getting financial support from the City of Melbourne for this project?

The COVID-19 Arts Grants program is a really significant, positive way to not only support the arts community, but to show that it is valued within our broader society. It recognises the value of the contribution that artists make to our lives. In the current circumstances, the program recognises that artists are having to adapt their practices, and provides support to find new ways to do so.

At the start of the year I never imagined I’d be launching my album digitally – I’ve learnt so much from the process, which is definitely going to shape and influence my future projects. As someone who has up until now predominantly worked in live performance, I’m very grateful for the support and opportunity to expand and develop the way I work and explore new forms of presentation.

The support provided by City Of Melbourne for artists to continue working and adapting is a positive, affirming statement for our city of Melbourne with its strong and proud reputation of being a capital of arts and culture.

What did you learn about yourself, while making this album?

I definitely discovered that I was used to performing these pieces on my Nord Stage 2 touring keyboard so I had to spend time working out how to play them on Nat’s far superior Yamaha upright! The sounds of the pedal and hammers, pedal movements – I had to make specific decisions about all those elements that aren’t present on a digital keyboard. I think the process of making the album and finally recording and committing to digital tape these pieces (that up until now have only had a life as ephemeral live performances) has been empowering and gratifying – as a solo artist it’s extremely satisfying to be able to realise my recording projects from inception to release. In many of the interviews I read with recording artists, one of the most common things they’ll talk about is learning to trust in yourself and have confidence and belief in what you’re doing – and it’s true! By working at your craft, writing and releasing music and getting to know yourself as an artist, that confidence and trust will surely develop, and it’s very rewarding.

If My Shadow Is My Only Follower was the soundtrack for a movie, what kind of movie would that be?

It would be an animated movie with no dialogue, the visuals and music would tell the story. I am actually working on creating visuals for this album with the phenomenal video artist Sean Healy, so I will be able to perform it live with projections. So soon you’ll be able to come and see for yourself! I have always imagined that ‘Chupa Chups’ would be an animation about Chupa Chups (in their wrappers) growing like flowers from the ground and creating a whole forest world of ‘Chupa Chups’ that is then threatened by environmental degradation and deforestation – but nature triumphs in the end!

What is the story behind ‘Chupa Chups?

‘Chupa Chups’ was inspired by time I’ve spent in Spain, and especially a wonderful Spanish friend whom I met here in Australia and with whom I’d spend hours in conversation, practising my Spanish. He was a former acrobat who had performed in concert halls all over Europe, to royalty and Salvador Dali amongst others! And he told me that it was Salvador Dali who’d designed the logo on Chupa Chups wrappers.

Who are Coco, Cynthia, Lili and Pete? Why did you write music for them?

They are all dear friends! And two of these pieces were written for them as birthday presents – ‘Cynthia’ and ‘Valse Pour Lili‘.

‘Cynthia’ was written for an animation that I made for both my good friend Cynthia and my mother. I was away on tour and wanted to make them both something for their birthdays, which are close together, so I decided I’d make an animation, which I did from my hotel room, using matchsticks arranged into pictures on the carpet and filmed from above in time-lapse. And then I had to score it, and we happened to be working at the Merrigong Theatre at the time, where there was a huge instrument storeroom right underneath the stage, with an old Steinway. So I went in one morning really early before work, sat down at the piano and wrote this piece of music as the soundtrack to my animation.

My Shadow Is My Only Follower is very different to Uforik; which part of your personality does each reflect?

My two main reasons for making music are: to create and tell stories, and to make people dance! Throughout my musical career I’ve always played in party bands, and Synthotronica is the culmination of my love for world music (Afrobeat, Latin, Ethio-Jazz, etc), electronic music production and playing live bari sax and percussion all rolled into one solo act. I write all the beats so I’m not restricted to any singular genre – the only rule is that it has to be music that I would dance to! Meanwhile, I adore composing on the piano because it provides such a rich palette to work from – there is so much to explore harmonically, rhythmically, percussively, melodically. I love the power of the piano to convey emotion and narrative using all those elements, so when I perform solo piano my energy is much more inwardly focused on narrating and telling the story of the music, while my Synthotronica performances are all about outward energy, having enormous fun on stage and sharing that energy with the audience.

How has working in the theatre and circus influenced your approach to music-making?

After so many years working in live performance and moving image I definitely see myself as a soundtrack composer. I am always interested in the capacity of music to create emotion and tell stories, so when I write, even if it’s not a score, I think about dynamics and movements within the piece, tension and release, the emotional journey – is the ending a triumph? A full stop? An exclamation mark? A contemplation? A crossfade to the next chapter? I have become accustomed to reading physical movement as a visual score – from all my work in live theatre so many musical cues come from the movements of the performers – so when I’m playing with others, particularly in a multi-artform situation, I naturally and subconsciously follow the visual action in my playing.

Who are your musical heroes?

One of my biggest influences was seeing the percussionist Marilyn Mazur perform with Jan Garbarek back in 2000. It was at Hamer Hall and she totally stole the show – her performance was sheer joy onstage, it was exhilarating to watch such incredible musicianship delivered with such energy and exuberance. She was having the best time and she brought us all along with her! Watching, I thought, if playing music can be like that, then that’s what I want to do!

I’ve had some incredible piano teachers over my life, from my early piano teacher June Cozens to Steve Sedergreen, whose weekly jazz improvisation course at the CAE made me decide that I would abandon my Arts degree to become a musician; Enio and Marina at NMIT and then the Cuban piano players with whom I took lessons – Denis Peralta and Marietta Gonzalez in Havana, and the incredible Yoel Diaz whose mind-blowing left-hand solo with Trabuco Habanero one night in Montreal totally inspired me to learn about Cuban piano.

Artists who inspire and influence my solo piano work are many, coming from a wide range of genres, and include Chucho Valdez, Ludovico Einaudi, Aphex Twin, Mogwai, Michael Nyman, Ruben Gonzalez…

Can you describe your creative process?

Sometimes I will sit down to write with a strong, clear theme or melody already in my head (this was the case for ‘Chupa Chups’) but most of these compositions started intuitively – I’d sit at the piano and a melody would emerge, which I’d follow and develop. The process of developing the melody is definitely influenced by my work as a soundtrack composer for live performance – thinking about dynamic shifts, tension and release, often imagining a visual narrative in my head – for example, thinking about when a breakdown should come in for a moment of pause before building to a climax. Drummer Ben Hendry, with whom I worked at Circus Oz, taught me a lot about Greg Sheehan’s number diamond techniques for rhythmic composition generation, and I often find these techniques and patterns interesting to explore on the piano (Hypercolour was developed using number diamond rhythmic variations).

What inspires you?

In the world around me, I always look for the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary and everyday. And I love art that does that too.

One of my favourite quotes is from artist Ken Whisson:

“I believe that the reason for making art, art in general, is that it gives to the world, not just to human beings, some more profound dimension, something nearer to the reality that we feel it surely must have, but does not seem to have.”

I love artists who can find beauty and humour in unexpected places. I am also hugely inspired by cultures that embrace art and creativity in all their forms as an absolutely essential part of life – where music and storytelling and dancing, all creativity, is inclusive and just part of what you learn, what you grow up doing, and how you express yourself. Joyous expression – in whatever form it takes; that always inspires me.

Ania Reynolds will launch My Shadow is My Only Follower with an online concert on Friday 26 June