“To me there’s no such thing as a wrong note. I had a piano mentor say that to me once: if you fall there, go with that because you never know what door that’s going to open.”
The eclectic musician, pianist and composer Rosey Chan is sipping juice in Soho House on London’s Greek Street, casually dressed in denims, fresh faced and eager to talk about the release of 8 Years of My Life, a second album that marks a new milestone in her career.
It’s been non-stop for the audacious musician – she found a new agent, finished her album, there was a big trip with friends to Cuba, and she’s just played Wilderness Festival in the UK. When we meet, Chan has come straight from the airport and a stint in Montenegro (which has become a sort of second home) before
she leaves London again to spend a few weeks in Umbria with her partner.
“It’s been eight years since the last album,” she explains, “You go through all these different experiences and adventures, and I wanted to find a moment to document all that I’ve done in that time, the collaborations, working with various artists from different disciplines, whether it’s architects, electronic musicians, filmmakers – all those things influence and enhance what you do at the end of the day.”
This interdisciplinary attitude to music has remained a constant. She fuses her rigorous classical training at the Royal College of Music with a love of jazz, improvisation and electronica. It’s an approach that’s earned praise from the likes of Quincy Jones, David Lynch and Sting – the latter became a friend and produced her first album ONE (in which the repertoire ranges from Bach and Scriabin to Philip Glass and Tom Waits).
But Chan’s progressive musical signature has been an evolution. Her earlier classical career included playing at the Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall, but she was eventually drawn more to free experimentation and creative collaborations.
“I was brought up in a household with different types of music. My mother would listen to pop music like Elton John, Bee Gees and Michael Jackson or Chinese opera, and my father would listen to classical music like Brahms – so it was very eclectic.”
Her grandmother from Hong Kong played amateur piano and bought one for their house in London. The family soon realised that five-year-old Rosey had a musical ear when she started picking out tunes and playing them on her baby keyboard. Piano lessons followed, and her mother’s improvisations on piano “would really stimulate me. When you’re young, you don’t know what’s going on, but looking back now, it was kind of like some weird, intuitive performance art she was doing, unknowingly. It was very entertaining.”
Today, it seems that early improv well and truly imprinted, as so many of Chan’s concerts show. She’ll play prepared pieces but often take in the energy from the audience and just go from there.
“I learn so much more about myself when I do that. It’s putting yourself on a tightrope and going, ‘I’m going to play in front of a live audience now and really don’t know what I’m going to play,’ she explains. “It’s a combination of the audience’s energy to me on stage and the energy I sense from them – so every performance is completely different and completely unique.” But surely all this uncertainty in front of an expectant crowd is also nerve racking? “Not at all” she replies. “I get excited. It’s an extension of yourself and what you want to say – I just feel much more versatile and free.”
Although her classical training at the Royal College was invaluable for “technical facility, at the same time there’s not so much spontaneity”, she says. “I like the idea of chance and where things – a note – will just fall. Sometimes you play something that’ll be a chaotic run that materialises as a great melody, and I wouldn’t have found it without the chaotic musical hurdles.”
Once a year she tries to record one classical concerto with a full orchestra. It’s a serious endeavour – a testament to her love of the great composers. But doing only this feels slightly restricted, like she’s “playing someone else’s notes and story”. Instead it’s the combination of that classical discipline – “it’s a meditation for soul and fingers, but also pushing myself and learning something new” – that drives her.
The future feels bright right now. She’s focusing on composing new pieces, and interested in writing more musical scores for film. And she’s pushing forward with collaborations outside of the purely musical. Dancers have been a natural fit with her piano work, but Chan also plays the violin and accordion. Then there are performances with artists, such as her work with Marina Abramovich in Moscow in 2011.
“Even when I was young, there were long car journeys with my dad. We’d listen to Uchida, Mozart sonatas and all these symphonies while driving through these beautiful landscapes, so there was always this visual narrative with the music. So organically that became the normal to me,” she recalls.
Of course, China’s rise and new curiosity for culture and arts brings big opportunities for an artist like Chan. Her mother’s family is from the mainland (though her mother grew up in Taiwan) and her father’s side is from Hong Kong. She’s played in Beijing and Shanghai, co-curated Hong Kong’s 2011 Liberatum cultural festival, and performed at the Art HK fair before it was sold to ArtBasel.
This year she worked with “a really interesting Chinese dancer, who didn’t have formal training”, following an introduction by Farooq Chaudhry, producer and choreographer at the Akram Khan dance company, who saw a common thread in their raw and unpredictable improvisational styles.
“We met and threw ourselves into a studio for five hours and she just responded so well,” she says. “We made four films in five hours, going in there hoping we’d just make one. I felt immediately connected with her – there was just this amazing chemistry.”