Photos by Kat Gollock
It’s great to see the minimal music of pianist Poppy Ackroyd finally getting some love. Newly signed to Bjork’s One Little Indian label, Poppy is celebrating with Sketches, a new 10-song overview of her work as a solo artist. Reissues of her earlier albums and a fresh new album are set for later this year.
You may not have heard of the thoughtful 36-year-old musician but she’s got big friends in quiet places. Nils Frahm and Hauschka, both pioneers in the meditative piano scene, have tipped her as a force to be reckoned with.
For Poppy, the process of creating the handy guide to her music was one that felt like she was reinventing, rather than introducing herself. “It surprised me how much work it took me to nail down the 10 tracks for Sketches,” she says.
Originally it was just supposed to be simple re-takes on existing material. But Poppy admitted she became “obsessed” about curating it. “I wanted to really focus on the compositions and it took me a huge amount of time. I’ve gone on a massive journey with some of these songs. Like ‘Birdwoman’. I originally wrote it in 2009 for a short black and white animation for an artist in Edinburgh. And that became a track that I worked into my second album, and now I’ve reworked it into a solo piano piece.”
Although Poppy plays violin and keyboards in the rather more bombastic band, Hidden Orchestra, with her partner Joe Acheson, she has long craved the opportunity to concentrate on her solo piano playing.
“I’ve always wanted to do more solo work. I’ve been talking about it for years,” she admits. “There is something really special about communicating simply through the instrument alone. In a band, there is always something to hide behind. But with only the piano you can focus on your technique and expression, everything feels very audible and exposed and that is very exciting. Especially when playing live.”
Born in London Bridge, she grew up in a warehouse that she describes as being in a nice neighbourhood – these days, at least. Her father is a dogged piano player, she says, who’s been playing the same handful of tunes and improvisations for most of her life. “We’ve always had a piano. He plays lots of Irish folk melodies,” she explains. “And he plays some Mozart. But generally he just picks up a melody and plays harmonies around it for, like, 10 years.”
Poppy was only seven or eight when she decided that her future career would be as a pianist. Her choice was informed by listening to a cassette of pianist and Ealing resident Murray Perahia play Schubert’s Impromptus in the family car. “My father had a Bob Dylan cassette as well,” she says with a laugh.
But Poppy’s tastes were always closer to the Impromptus with their spacious, unhurried setting. The first time her father heard her playing any modern classical pieces – by composers such as Toru Takemitsu and Helmut Lachenmann – he told her simply: “You are outrageous!”
“Everything feels very audible and exposed and that is very exciting.”
“I don’t think he understood,” she says. “I think it was his polite way of saying to me that it was horrible.” While these modern composers were big influences, the most important were electronic pioneers such as Aphex Twin and Steve Reich. Her own music is made in a similar fashion by being carefully constructed from loops of her keyboard musings with a digital pick up and the help of Ableton. The rest is down to her – the use of strategic pauses and repetition to ratchet up the dramatic tension, and how she lets the room provide the natural atmospheric details.
“With loops, it’s always the trick of trying not to repeat yourself – but also to avoid being too theatrical or grandiose. I love music that creates a tranquil mood. I wanted to hold back.”