Ally had the pleasure of talking to London-based Italian pianist and composer Maria Chiara Argirò, ahead of the release of her second album Hidden Seas (which releases on the 27th of September via Cavalo Records).
Since moving to London from Rome in 2009, Maria has become a well-known name on the London scene, playing with artists such as trombonist Rosie Turton, jazz crossover collective Kinkajous, as well as Alfa Mist's guitarist Jamie Leeming to mention just a few.
As the name suggests – Hidden Seas – is about the sea, with each song representing a story. Are you able to tell me about your motivations behind this album?
“Motivation wise, I have an obsession with the sea, especially sound wise. I grew up in Italy, in Rome, and we used to go down close to the sea for the summer. It’s been a very important element for me, in terms of nature but also with memories. So it is really important for me to write about this topic.”
A lifelong fascination with the sea helped form Maria’s initial concept for the album, but when a copy of Edward MacDowell’s Sea Pieces fell at Maria’s feet at a bookstore in Camden, the idea was sealed.
So it’s quite personal to you?
“Yeah, it’s very personal to me. I started getting really inspired by the concept of the sea, but what happened in Camden was a sort of revelation. I had written some music, but then I decided to write it from scratch. I found Edward MacDowell’s book and I was very inspired to write a concept album. I thought ‘wow the sea is my favourite thing’, so I decided to stick to it.
At the beginning [of making the album], when I started to arrange the music, I just went with whatever my imagination brought to me when thinking about the sea.”
From that moment in Camden, did it take you long to write the album?
“It was a strange process because I basically started writing the titles of the songs down (with some of the titles being amended later). But I had a rough map of titles, but I used a sort of inverse process, so starting with those titles I then started composing around those ideas of the particular image you have in mind about ‘Nautilus’ or the story of ‘The Water Oath’ or something like that.
For me, it’s been a different sort of process. Usually, I start playing on the piano and start practising, and something happens. But in this way, it was completely the opposite. This means my imagination was sort of tickled. It’s been a long process, but I was more obsessed with certain sounds, rather than focussing on where certain solos go, or stuff like that.”
In contrast to your previous album, The Fall Dance, you’ve added some different elements to your compositions such as using synths and electronics. How did you find integrating these elements to your music and what drew you to use them?
“First of all, I live in London and we are bombarded with new things all the time. I play with many many different bands, and one of these groups is called Kinkajous. I started using synthesisers and guitar pedals with them. On one side, it’s been a kind of natural process, but I’d say because I’ve been exposed to a lot of different types of music in the UK in general, there’s a lot of electronic music going on now. With loads of the musicians I’ve been playing with, we are incorporating more electronics.
On the other side, I’m very conscious to challenge myself with new things like, for example, writing songs. I’d never really written a simple song with not much improv. That’s why it’s quite a mixed album, with lots of different inferences.
It’d be almost impossible for me not to write a different sort of album when I’ve been exposed to so much music. London is a city where I go to listen to concerts by songwriters, and then some other times it’ll be experimental jazz, or somewhere like Ronnie’s [Scott's]
where often it’s quite straight jazz. I’ve always enjoyed a mix of influences.
Thinking historically, now you can write and record an album from a laptop in your bedroom. I haven’t quite done that. Instead, I’ve used the [electronic] instruments to create bits. I basically collaborated with engineers who know how to create the best sounds. But I have a synthesiser which can sample things and use sounds which are already in it. I don’t really like laptop use, like on-stage or wherever – I’m not a big fan of that. For me, it’s like playing a piano which is an electronic piano.”
Do you tend to write musical lines on synths or piano?
“With me, the musical line comes into my head first. Even with melodies, stuff like that. Then I’ll go back to the piano. For example, if I’m walking and I have an idea, I try to record it with my phone, and then I’ll go back to it later on. But usually, as a piano player, I find it easy to sit down and then play what I have in mind.”
Do you think there is anything in particular that you learnt during the process of creating The Fall Dance, that you’ve fed into the construction of Hidden Seas?
“Basically, what I noticed was that for Hidden Seas I wanted to create really concise songs. Usually, I try for the split between composition and improv to be equal. But I wanted to have a balance in the record, then I wanted to achieve embellishing these songs in the live shows (apart from songs!). I wanted to push the boundaries of the record. Obviously, it’s a challenge, as it’s quite a concise record. It’s not really jazz…
Loads of people call it jazz, but I don’t know about this labelling thing… There’s the use of electronics, and they are more traditional songs… It’s very tricky to define. It comes from the [jazz] aesthetic, but then it goes in different directions…
I want to push my creativity as much as possible. I’m not saying I want to shock people, because that’s not where I’m coming from, but I know the more we imagine things, the more we push our creativity, the more people will realise that we can create something new. That’s why I’m better in this moment of crossover writing…because I can be a bit freer and write really different things. Different styles, taken within the background of jazz.”
Although it’s probably difficult to do so, do you have one standout song from Hidden Seas? If so, why?
“Hmmm... It’s tricky because it’s a concept album…”
For me, I keep on changing my mind when listening to the album but I keep on coming back to ‘Watery Universe’
“For me, [‘Watery Universe’] is quite a paradox. It seems to be getting quite a lot of plays everywhere! It wasn’t my first choice, but it’s probably the song I enjoy playing most live. It’s quite energetic, and it can go a lot of different places…
I was pleased with how [‘Watery Universe’] came out of the studio, and it’s been a lot of fun playing it live. It’s been a bit of a workout… particularly for the drummer [Gaspar Sena]!”
Are you able to describe Hidden Seas in three words?
“Open, dreamy and honest.
Open, because it’s an album all about the sea. Then it’s dreamy, because it’s very imaginative, and how I feel and about the stories I’ve read. Honest... because that’s me! This album is me. It’s a reflection of me as a composer, piano player and synth player.”
Being a keys player who is well embedded within the London scene, you’re clearly in high demand. Do you find that there is much of a contrast between leading your project in comparison to being part of a project?
“Well, it depends on what project I’m playing with. I feel I’m lucky that I’m quite strong. I can feel at home when I’m not leading my band.
When I’m leading my band, I feel it’s important to make decisions, leading, but also listen to the others. I like to listen to the others’ stories, people soloing and stuff like that. For me, it’s quite a privilege to be able to do that.
When I’m part of other peoples’ projects, I’m not saying I’m forced to follow other peoples’ ideas, but I need to respond to what the other leaders are doing. Although for me, I don’t feel a huge difference are these things I’m doing, I’m flowing into the others. All these things I’m doing as part of Kinkajous, Teotima, Rosie [Turton], all their influences flow into my musical world.
I feel like when I’m switching between leading or playing with others, it’s almost the same. In terms of organisation, it’s hell… Everyone is super busy. At the end of the day, I have to decide and make the last decision, but I do like to be more democratic with my own players. Like with arrangements, they can give me some inputs (which are always useful), but at the end of the day it’s me taking the picture, and I’m going to decide. It can be hard, but it’s coming from a democratic view. As I’m doing lots of side projects and lots of sessions, it helps me understand what it’s like being on the other side. It’s not a separate world for sure. I’m super happy to be part of lots of projects. Sometimes, it’s a lot going on in one month, but it’s also good to see and think in the realms of a side project. For me, it’s a circle, these things are all are connected.”
You’ve played and recorded with some really impressive names over the years. Are you able to name any highlights or any standout moments during your career to date?
“Well, I can tell you the time my hands shook the most before playing! That was for the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles before Björk with These New Puritans. Normally, I’m ok to be on stage, I don’t get scared or super nervous… But that time, I was like wow, this is a really big gig…
And then after that, The Barbican for sure. These are the two gigs which have been the highlights of my career as a keyboard player.
Lately, I’ve been playing with Liran Donin, who is a double bass player from Israel, in Holland. This has been really really beautiful, as we were playing in the middle of a forest. I think when you play in nice places, they will always be a highlight!
However, sometimes the best shows I enjoy the most are the smaller ones. When you play in front of 50 people instead of 3,000, it’s different. Your headspace can be quite different. It can be freaky. Sometimes, it’s even harder.”
If you could name one venue that you want to play it but haven’t yet, where would you choose to play?
“I think it would have to be The Royal Albert Hall. That would be an amazing thing to say that I’ve done. I think it’s quite a majestic venue.
When I was playing with a 35-piece band, I found it so huge to play with a big orchestra or big band. It’s quite fascinating to be with all those people. I would like to play there at least once!”
Who are you listening to at the moment? Which artists are exciting you?
“I’ve been listening to the second album by Jordan Rakei [Wallflower] quite a lot. Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to listen to Origin yet. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Alfa Mist because I play a lot with the guitarist, Jamie Leeming. I’ve also been listening to a lot of the Belgian group, SCHNTZL.
Then out of the classic things I always go back to, it has to be Radiohead. Then I always go back to Billie Holiday. So, it’s a bit crazy, loads of different things! I also really like Kneebody! I think they’re incredible!”
Maria Chiara Argirò's Hidden Seas will be released on the 27th September via Cavalo Records.
Maria will be playing live on the 15th of November at The Crypt (London), as part of EFG London Jazz Festival.
You can also see Maria at the following dates:
28 September – Lucca Jazz Donna Festival, Lucca, Italy 23 October – Peggy's Skylight, Nottingham 24 October – Seven Arts, Leeds 25 October – Gosforth Civic Theatre, Newcastle
15 November – The Crypt, London (part of the EFG London Jazz Festival)
You can keep up to date with Maria via her socials here: