Duologue: A conversation with Jacob Pavek

Jacob Pavek - Brick Wall

Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, Jacob Pavek began his journey as a modern classical recording artist in 2012 with his acclaimed debut album Bloom. He followed that up in 2015 with a moving collection of tender solo piano pieces and duets with violinist Leah Ottman entitled Illume on Unperceived Records as well as a soundtrack to the Emmy-nominated documentary ‘Hello, Montevideo‘ which showed his more kinetic, electronic side. Pavek returned to the label this year with a gorgeous and emotionally resonant new release called Nome which finds his grand piano still at the heart of his work along with violin performed by Josh Misner (Laurels String Quartet).

I am very grateful Jacob found the time to talk to us a little bit about the new album, his creative process live and in studio, and the growing indie classical scene both locally & abroad.

Let’s start by talking about the new album. It’s hard to believe it has been almost 4 years since ‘Illume’. Can you tell us a little bit about the journey toward the making of ‘Nome’ and how you and your music have changed in that time?

You never think that so much time will pass between albums but it just seems to happen. After releasing Illume, I became involved in a number of different projects that kept me busy. I was in two bands at the time and we were both working on albums. I also had a few commissions on some documentaries and commercial work which was a new and different learning experience for me.

Fall 2016, I was sitting on my porch sipping coffee when I got an email on phone from a local venue in town asking if I’d be willing to open up for Johann Johannsson for his Orphée tour. I couldn’t believe it and thought it was spam at first. Certainly a bucket list moment in life having the opportunity to open up for an idol. I quickly realized that I needed to write some more material to play. This was the catalyst for many of the pieces on NOME and motivated me to get out another album afterwards. I specifically wrote “Love/Marriage” with Johann’s influence.

Can you tell us a little bit about your process for composing and recording ‘Nome’? Was it similar to your previous albums?

I knew I wanted NOME to be a step up sonically from Illume. I really like the atmosphere I created on Illume but wanted that to stay somewhat exclusive to that record. I worked with a new violinist, Joshua Misner, who was able to layer more parts to imitate an ensemble. I love experimenting with different instruments, synths, etc but knew I’d need to make some guidelines for this record so that I didn’t add too much and end up overwhelmed. I decided to add one more element in addition to the piano and strings: voices from both my wife Katy and good friend Travis. I sampled them singing each note of the diatonic scale in as large of a range as they could and layered it throughout the record, particularly with Katy in “Pulse”, Trav in “Love / Marriage”, and both in “2040”. Choral music was my first love so it was fun to bring elements reminiscent of that.

I mixed the record but instead of mastering it myself as I’d done with Illume and Bloom, I had NOME done by Francesco Donadello who has worked with some pretty amazing artists such as Nils Frahm, Thom Yorke and Johann Johannsson. It was great way to wrap up the record.

You’ve shared that ‘Nome’ is primarily about reacting to various feelings and moments in his life. Forgive my untrained ear if I am wrong, but it does seem as if there is a common melodic theme running through the album that recapitulates through the various pieces even they touch on different topics. Was that something you did intentionally? Or is that more a reflection of the compositional style you have developed?

It was definitely a conscious choice to make the album as cohesive as possible. I’ve worked hard to develop my own techniques and writing styles over the past few years and I think that helps to weave common themes throughout the album. I use similar chordal voicing on the piano in most of the pieces which can sometimes create its own melody even though I’m just playing chords. I’ve also written for strings quite a bit over the years so I’ve figured out certain formulas and arrangements that I like and can apply that to most of the pieces.

LinksNome (LP/digital)  | Nome (digital only)  |  Jacob Pavek website

How would you compare and contrast the experience of performing your music live as opposed to going into the studio to make a record?

I love both. I love recording because you can create your own space, one that may not exist in real life. I like finding a balance between a “raw”, authentic sound mixed with artificial elements such as a huge cathedral verb to create a slight escape from real life. There are just endless possibilities with recording – I can even have a violinist layer 20+ parts to imitate an ensemble, which is something I wouldn’t likely have the opportunity to work with in a live environment. Maybe someday.

I love playing shows for a few reasons. I love the energy exchange between you and the audience. It’s magical when both the performer and audience find themselves totally focused and in the moment together. I also like performing because it sort of keeps me in check and forces me to write music that is still exciting live. I’m not able to hide behind those mysterious recording tricks while on stage.

It has become evident that you are part of a very active indie classical scene in the Midwest and even right there in the Twin Cities with artists like Chris Bartels (Elskavon), John Hayes, and Philip Daniel. How has that come together and how important is the support you all are able to give each other?

Meeting these guys has been a dream. I’ve played in an “indie” rock band most of my life and have always been part of that scene here in Minnesota. However, I didn’t know anyone when I started writing this instrumental stuff. I pretty much released my first album Bloom in 2012 to no one and my few friends/family that would listen. As the scene started to grow, I was able to get in touch with people overseas to connect about this genre but still didn’t know anyone locally that was doing this sort of thing so it felt a bit lonely and de-motivating at times.

A couple of years back, my band opened for Chris Bartels’ band Bora York through the connection of a mutual friend. Fast forward a few months and I get a text from Chris saying he saw that my instrumental stuff was pinned as a similar artist to his project Elskavon on Spotify, which he’s had for years. I found John Hayes on Instagram and he also introduced me to Philip Daniel. I had everyone over to my studio in St. Paul to meet in person and about a year later (this past February) we put on a show there for my album release which ended up being one of the most special evenings of my life. The collaboration, new ideas, new perspectives, and support that has come from meeting these guys has been incredibly valuable.

It made me realize that of course I wasn’t alone in making this sort of music. There were plenty of artists out there just like me, we just needed to find each other. It’s been awesome to watch how fast the scene has grown the past couple of years and see the connections that international artists have been able to make through the power of the all-mighty internet. And then it’s amazing to see them traveling abroad to meet up and play shows together. I have been able to connect with some amazing people from so many different countries that I otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to if it weren’t for this music. The whole scene is very supportive and we all seem to root for each other.

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With three albums behind you and no doubt a lot of hard work and persistence to get this point in your career, what advice would you give to aspiring young composers?

Make music that you yourself enjoy listening to. I’ve often found myself in a rut trying to write something that may please a certain demographic, etc. but if you’re able to just truly make something that you enjoy listening to that you’re not already hearing elsewhere, it’s bound to be quality material. Do what feels right and what gets you excited.

 Finally, do you have any projects in the works that you want to tell us about?

I have a few collaborations at the moment that I’m excited about. One in particular with Philip Daniel that we call BLOMMA. It’s mainly an outlet for music that we want to make that wouldn’t really fit being released under our solo projects. But it is honestly shaping up to be some of best music that I’ve ever been a part of making and I can’t wait to put it out.

Perhaps I’ll get working on my next solo album as well so that another 4 years doesn’t pass before it’s release.  🙂