Brighton-based, London-born composer and performer Poppy Ackroyd is a beautifully postmodern entity of polarities. Classically trained in piano and composition, she lends herself to interdisciplinarity within the fine arts. In addition to her own “releases,” she often writes soundtracks to experimental video projects, theatre, and dance pieces; she is, perhaps, best known as a contributor to Hidden Orchestra, the Edinburgh electronic jazz collective. Last year saw the release of her second full-length album, Feathers, and she currently has a handful of live dates throughout Europe this March, May, August, and September. She recently took some time to tell me about her various projects and the things that inspire her.
Izzy Cihak: What were your personal highlights of 2014, in addition to the release of your sophomore LP, Feathers?
Poppy Ackroyd: 2014 was a pretty busy and unusual year. In addition to Feathers, I also released a DVD in collaboration with visual artist Lumen from Bristol in September. Lumen made short, synchronized, black and white films for each track on my first album, Escapement, which I originally intended just to be projected live at gigs, however, because people kept asking to buy them after the shows, we decided to make Escapement Visualised. I also play with the group Hidden Orchestra, and 2014 saw us finish putting together our live AV show (also with Lumen), which we toured around Europe in the spring. The show consists of over 20 suspended drum heads, which are projection mapped, as well as a mixture of other screens, depending on each venue. In October we played in London at Union Chapel. Having captured footage of the venue in advance, Lumen incorporated it into the rest of our usual visual material, and also played with the architecture of the space, using projection mapping. We also had two excellent guests – Phil Cardwell on trumpet and Tomas Dvorak (aka Floex) on clarinet. The venue was stunning, the audience were amazing, as were the lighting and sound. It was a really memorable and moving performance to do; it is going to be hard to beat. On a more personal note, I moved to Brighton in 2014 after a long time in Scotland. There are a few things I miss – my friends, the city, the countryside – but I am very happy to be nearer other friends, my family, and my hometown, London.
Izzy: What would you consider to be Feathers’ most significant influences, both musical and otherwise?
Poppy: The new album is influenced by many things that all come together and are connected by feathers. The line from the Emily Dickinson poem — ‘Hope is the thing with Feathers’ — is significant. As for various reasons amongst family and friends, a lot of hope was needed. Birds and flight were a big influence on the album as was the theme of migration. I suppose, musically, the instruments themselves were the biggest influence. The fact that the strings in some of the instruments were plucked by feathers quill, also played a part in the title of the album. I set out on this project not entirely sure where I would end up, and so I followed where the sounds took me. A few of the tracks on this album began as soundtracks for dance pieces, so I suppose dance and movement is also an influence.
Izzy: Have you had any favourite reactions to the album, whether from critics, audiences, or just friends and family?
Poppy: My favourite reaction was from my mother. I sent her a CD copy of the album when they arrived and she sold it to a friend before even listening to it! She has another copy now though!
Izzy: Do you currently have a favourite track? I am especially fond of “Timeless.”
Poppy: I think “Timeless” is also my favourite track. I felt that track was taking me somewhere new. It has at points a freer quality which I really like. Also the beat is also made up of field recordings, not just instrument sounds, so it is different from the others on the album for that reason. The track “Feathers’” is also very close to me. It is the most intense track on the album, with the strongest personal story.
Izzy: You have a few upcoming live dates. What can be expected of the live experience this time around?
Poppy: Because I released the Escapement Visualised DVD only a few months before the album, I am keen to perform with the finished visuals, as well as showcase new material from Feathers. Currently I start the set with the new material, creating as much live as possible using live sampling, loops, and samples and then the second half of the set is more arrangements of tracks from the first album, with visuals. I perform live with a piano, violin, and electronics, and control the visuals myself from the stage with a laptop so they are synchronized.
Izzy: In addition to the live dates you have lined up, how do you hope and plan to spend 2015?
Poppy: I am already thinking about the next record; there are also some interesting collaborations in the pipeline… I am planning a long tour for the autumn and also shorter tours/one-off dates throughout the year. I will, as usual, also be touring with Hidden Orchestra. Since moving house I have been away almost every weekend, and the first few months I was almost solidly in the studio, so I hope this year to spend some more time in Brighton, exploring my new home and, as I am living in a tiny house at the moment, I hope by the end of the year to have my beautiful grand piano back out of storage and into a nice new studio.