To hear the music of Australian pianist Sophie Hutchings is to be spellbound by its unfettered beauty. Rich in melody and sonic colors in constant movement, her compositions and arrangements can summon wide open spaces on a grand scale or turn inwards with the most calming and intimate warmth. After a busy year in which she released two albums (Yonder and Byways), toured in Europe, performed at the inaugural Q3Ambientfest, and traveled to India, Sophie was kind of enough to take some time to chat with us about her recent projects and her music in general.
You’ve had so much going on in the past year, but let’s start with right now because you have a beautiful new release on 1631 Recordings called ‘Byways’. On social media, you’ve referred to it a few times as “Yonder’s sleepy sister”. The music does have an especially hushed, slumbering quality to it. Anything in particular that drew you toward wanting to make that kind of record?
Not really. When I was younger I was very shy about sharing my music and I’d practice late at night with the practice pedal down. For admirers of this approach one knows it also lends itself to a more dreamy pretty tone which naturally adds to its gentle mood. I often play this way so as not to disturb my neighbors. I recorded it at home here and there between 1am – 3am so it felt natural for it to be a sleepy dreamy style and was originally going to be released with Yonder, hence the album being referred to as ‘Yonders sleepy sister’… they’re slightly related.
I recorded a similar album to ‘Byways’ last year called ‘Drift’ , however this was an exclusive album that was linked to the pre-orders for ‘Wide Asleep’ Pozible Campaign so it’s sadly no longer available!
Right now ‘Byways’ is only available as a digital release, but it will eventually be part of a special package along with several other 1631 artists in the near future will it not? Can you tell us a little about what is in store in that regard?
For those that follow 1631’s releases you will notice there’s been a progression of mini releases from the likes of Hauschka, Dustin O’Halloran, Library Tapes, Oskar Schuster, and Dmitry Evgrafov along with myself. They all have a similar theme with artwork created by the lovely Kassandra Jensen. 1631 will be releasing this as a CD box set as well as a split vinyl (Hauscka & Dustin, Library Tapes & Sophie Hutchings) which I think is really nice for the music lovers who value the substantial existence of a physical release in an age where digital is so accessible. All of this should be out late this year.
As I was revisiting your past albums, especially ‘Yonder’ (1631 Recordings) and ‘Wide Asleep’ (Preservation), I was struck more than ever by the constant sway and movement in your music and the seemingly effortless fluidity of your playing. I am curious where the line is between composition and improvisation in your work or, put another way, between instinct and intent. How does that dynamic work as you are developing a piece?
I guess there tends to be a combination of both. Sometimes I have a very detailed vision. Other times it’s a release of emotive energy that generally takes over my thinking. A pathway of expression that’s communicated from a different part of me I guess. That’s the part I really enjoy – a freedom of expression that is communicated through music.
I read that you actually taught yourself the piano starting at a very young age. What inspired you to go down that path and what kind of obstacles did you have to overcome to reach the point where you could begin to express yourself on the instrument in your own style?
I come from a very active musical family. My father plays all the woodwind instruments. He did a lot of arranging so he always had a piano in the main area of the house for general use. Mum said I used to tinker around on it a lot . I started with piano tuition from an early age and got extremely frustrated with my lack of ability to sight read well. So it was kinda broken up here and there. I would get very impatient with myself and give up easily and got caught up in my teens partying and lost interest though I never lost the thirst for music and composition. Both those aspects kept me inspired. When I look back I’m grateful to my second classical teacher who very much encouraged my composing side and made that a weekly task. (My mum still has a tape of my childhood recorded themes.)
I still composed throughout my late teens but it wasn’t till my father organized Jazz tuition in my early 20’s which assisted my understanding the shapes and patterns of music a lot more and increased my knowledge of what I was actually writing. This helped my confidence grow which I lacked because I often wouldn’t know what key or the like that I was playing in except I also came to understand why people want to learn to throw their knowledge out the window. I now view that as liberating in a lot of ways to not have to think about that aspect when I’m composing until someone asks (haha) or I’m putting arrangements together …
I feel personal style isn’t something you think about, it just is and I appreciate that about other musicians I listen to. I think you can tell when someone is doing something genuinely from within or doing something they want to become like. That’s what differentiates music being emotionally convincing.
Both dreams and memory seem to be recurring themes in your music. Are those subjects that you find yourself naturally drawn to?
Not intentionally but yes I think so. I really love that instrumental music is interpretive and even so, it can draw upon a common silent understanding too. Dreams can be a bit the same. They are our own involuntarily creation yet convey a lot of feelings. I like that there is a vagueness to them and it doesn’t have to be definite. Like an abstract painting… I’m also a very sentimental person so memories connect us to so much. Music being a big one.
Back in the spring you participated in the inaugural Q3AmbientFest organized by Daniel & Sebastian Selke of CEEYS. That must have been a lovely experience. I am curious – your music seems in many ways to be very personal and solitary; what is it like to perform it live in that kind of setting?
Very true. Even though I’m naturally an outgoing person, my music is the personal side of me. In the past I felt a little reticent to share it in a public setting however experiencing people’s appreciation, I’ve adapted and grown more comfortable with saying something, just in a different way. It’s just sharing a feeling and that’s something special that I’ve learned to appreciate too. It’s also really nice when you’re part of a line up of other like minded artists and share a bit of comradery.
Any new live or studio projects in the works that you are ready to talk a little bit about? Or perhaps after such a busy year you are just ready for some downtime!
I’ve just come back from some time in India. I love traveling to places where I can disconnect myself from a certain creative headspace and absorb myself in what other people and cultures are doing. I find it really stimulating. Then it’s a re-set button for what lays on the horizon…
Video for “The Road” from ‘Yonder’ filmed by Scott S. Hutchings