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'I'm always trying to retain the spirituality of my music'

PASSION: Alexis Ffrench has released a selection of albums since his debut in 2009

LIFE & STYLE: Take me on a journey that sees a man like yourself develop into the classical pianist, improviser and composer who releases his first album, The Secret Piano, in 2009.

Alexis Ffrench: I started off as a church organist. My dad got me into that. We’re a deeply religious family, so I became a church organist when I was about seven.

Before that I was playing piano and was always playing on the kitchen table, which is how I learnt in terms of my formative years.
My parents eventually got me a piano – I think they got bored of the tapping.

ACADEMIES
From the organ I’ve then won scholarships to various academies and colleges.

I was at the Royal Academy of Music when I was 11 and then trained as a composer and a pianist with and briefly on the violin, which I played hideously, but piano stuck, composition stuck and orchestration.

For me, the Royal Academy was key along with other places as well. A lot of practice, a lot of hard work and sacrifice. But a lot of reward, too, and I have continued doing it since.

L&S: Where did you grow up? What was life like for you seen as you were married to a piano from a young age?

AF: My dad was in the Royal Air Force and we travelled around, – we lived on bases.

There were a lot of planes over head, a lot of rough and tumble. Then we moved to a place call Bagshot in Surrey when I was about six, a very gentile place and where I became a church organist at Christ The King Church.

It wasn’t out of the ordinary for me to be doing what I was doing because for my parents it was all about raising the bar, you do what you’re doing and you don’t look around to see who else is doing it and everything you did you did it to the best of your ability, work harder than anyone else, that’s what they used to say, for whatever reason.

Everyday was about practice, working hard and being ready. I went to boarding school when I was about 14, in Harrow. It was perfect – great friends, idyllic with incredible teachers and a wonderful headmaster.

L&S: 1992 was your concert debut – talk about your experience of that, both good and bad.

AF: I think of my concert debut as when I was 11. It was in the Duke’s Hall at the Royal Academy. That’s when I played a complete programme of my own music.

The Duke’s Hall was an incredible place. It’s huge. Everything about it even at the time is excellence.

I remember turning to a lady, who wasn’t even my teacher at the time, before I went on stage and I said to her that I was really nervous.

She said something that when any young person says the same thing to me, I repeat.

She said, ‘Stop being so selfish and thinking about yourself, think about the music’. I remember the comment going straight through me like a dagger and I thought that it was really quite harsh, but I knew exactly what she meant, immediately.

L&S: Piano Karma, Stolen Lullabies, Escape and The Piano Whisperer are all of your albums released since 2009 – you’ve stayed busy. Talk about finding inspiration for those projects and your own musical growth during that period.

AF: My albums tend to fall into two different camps I guess. One is the very free, metaphysical improvisatory sort of album which is where I might reflect on a word or a feeling.

Those are some of the most powerful moments for me, when I am just in a darkened room and there is no music, there is no plan, there is just perhaps words or something I want to meditate on, or something I’ve been thinking about.

For other albums that involve orchestras or people, things have to be written down, and that’s quite different.

My challenge then is to retain the purity and the essence of what I do when I am working in a free way so that it doesn’t become sanitised.

Those are the two camps but what I am always trying to do is retain the spirituality of my music.

INNOVATIVE
L&S: Away from the classical stuff, what else is Alexis Ffrench into musically?

AF: That’s a big question. I’m interested in everything.
Personally, I like very stark, Estonian music – bleak, devoid of all hope.

That’s the music I love. If I’m running, being active then I’ll listen to Jon Hopkins. I always, love his stuff. But then I also love Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar and I think there is really amazing, really innovative stuff happening in hip-hop.

L&S: You are set to perform at the Classic BRIT Awards, returning after five years – you must be looking forward to them?

AF: I’m going to be playing Bluebird, which may not be a surprise to many, but there are also going to be other ingredients, too.

I’ll be performing with a wonderful artist along the programme. It’s an organic programme so it starts with one thing and turns into another and the wonderful Pretty Yende is going to be joining and collaborating within that performance, so I am very much looking forward to that.

There are other elements, which I will leave until the night.

The Classic BRIT Awards take place at the Royal Albert Hall on June 13.

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