In your music you combine elements of jazz, rock, pop, various electronics. Is there a musical style that is foreign to you?
It’s a bit ironic that I have the greatest reservations in certain areas of jazz. For example, I wouldn’t go into very fast bebop or modern jazz. I know a lot of people who can do it really well, and maybe one day I can do it too, if I practice hard enough. On the other hand, when you practice jazz in general, it gives you a pretty good chance of working with other genres. Many musicians who devote themselves to popular music, for example, have extensive jazz or gospel experience. It’s a great starting point for your musical journey. But as I say, paradoxically, I would be afraid to go for a more complex jazz.
Is associating jazz with other musical styles a way of maintaining the popularity of this genre among young people? It is often said that classical music or jazz will be difficult in the future.
It was certainly not my intention. As a child, I was passionate about music, and I still am.
In jazz, I always appreciated that he never tried too hard to be popular. Musicians who aspire to fame have always annoyed me.
I’m sorry to interrupt you, but what does it mean to be a music nerd? What can you imagine down there?
I spent weekends in various bazaars with records, kept talking about new albums, making my own mixtapes and living with the music. Just like someone is passionate about football and is a football nerd, someone is a science nerd, so I’m just a music nerd. And precisely because I discovered jazz through this “nerdy” path, that is to say through hip-hop, by collecting records, old T-shirts or photos, so I never met something that would seem outdated or insufficiently youth-friendly.
I didn’t have to grow up in the Rolling Stones to know that the Rolling Stones are great. Just like Robert Johnson or Bach. Bach is great too. I just think like that, so mixing genres is quite natural for me. What I’ve always really appreciated in jazz is that it never tried too hard to be popular. Musicians who aspire to fame have always annoyed me. Jazzmen, I’ve always thought that they don’t really care about being famous, but they just want to make music because they like it. And I wanted to be more of one of those people.
People around the world know you not only from the work of the author, but also from a number of covers of popular songs by other artists. Where does your popularity for this discipline come from?
I think using famous songs as a basis for self-improvisation is kind of part of the DNA of all jazz musicians. But it is sometimes very complicated, because in modern popular music only two or three chords are often used. The songs covered by Louis Armstrong, for example, were much more harmoniously complicated. But that doesn’t mean that modern pop songs aren’t good.
Take, for example, I Can’t Feel My Weeknd Face. There aren’t many chords, but it’s a very interesting song rhythmically and lyrically. And I’ve always loved breaking down such songs. It’s like someone who is interested in old cars. He also enjoys dismantling, reassembling and driving the machine.
It was through your covers that you became known as Sinatra in sneakers. Nowhere have I found information on how this designation actually fits you. So are you happy with him?
I love Sinatra and I love sneakers. The only thing that probably bothered me at the time was that I never wanted to be a nostalgic artist. The one who puts on a soft felt hat and suit and makes it from Sinatra’s group. I never felt that. Besides, I’m not twenty anymore, so the nickname seems a bit ridiculous to me. But I totally understand why this happened to someone. When you see a boy in baggy pants and sneakers singing those older songs, you probably think of them and it’s a pretty funny example.
Live versions of your songs are often very different from studio versions. For example, I found the song Don’t Give Up On Me on the internet in so many different versions that it was basically just another new song. Why is it like this? Do you like doing covers of your own songs?
Certainly. I think that’s one of the things I had in common with Amy Winehouse. And also one of the reasons why I got along with her like that. We both played our own songs, but we looked at them through the lens of jazz. Of course, you can ruin this song for the audience. Have someone come and listen to a song they know and you play it in an unrecognizable form.
When I do covers, I always feel like they’re my own songs.
That’s exactly what I wanted to ask if your audience doesn’t care sometimes.
It depends how far you go in these changes. I always tried to keep the base of this song. I was at a few Bob Dylan concerts, for example, and sometimes I had trouble knowing whether he was playing Like A Rolling Stone or not. He’s such a legend that no one cares. But I don’t think I’ve ever remade my song so much that it’s unrecognizable. Also, this change can act as a signal that you don’t forget the song and don’t want it to be listened to or bored. Live performances are all about bringing the songs to life. If you only play a few guitars live, maybe some vocals and some drums, there is no danger or adrenaline. And I think that’s what the public needs.
You were supposed to come to Prague with the Taller disc two years ago, but the covid pandemic moved the performance several times. This album is the first to consist only of your own songs without “supported” songs. Why did you do it almost 20 years after your debut?
I wrote the greatest at a relatively interesting stage in my life. I discovered a lot about my personality or my family history. I wanted to say a lot of things and it seemed insufficient to me to use foreign words, I felt that I was going to betray the album. In retrospect, I don’t think it would matter much, because when I do covers, I always feel like they’re my own songs. I took it all too seriously. Especially now, after two years of pandemics, and in addition to the current Russian invasion, I see Ukraine as putting a lot of weight on something that didn’t really have any.
When you mention Ukraine, many artists are now canceling their concerts in Russia due to the current war situation. Some people argue that, and others argue that politics (even if it’s war) is not art. How do you see it?
Personally, I don’t have any concerts scheduled in Russia, but it’s very difficult. Because there are a lot of people in Russia who will pay for it, even if they can’t blame it. In my forty-two years of life, I’ve learned that most things don’t have a clear solution. But in this case, it is clearly a violation of human rights and international law.
With your permission, I will come back to the Taller album – during these two years you have already managed to release two more discs – one with Christmas songs and the compilation album For The Love, which was released there a few weeks. So what album did you end up here when you released three?
The concerts I’ve given over the past six or eight months have been such a kaleidoscope for my entire career. I play songs from my first album, even the most recent ones. I might play Christmas songs, whatever, it’s May. It will be a selection of what I have created over the past twenty years. And what I find interesting is that a lot of people who go to my concerts watch me all the time. I know a lot of bands where people only know the first, second or third album. And I understand that people who follow me know most of my work, so it allows me to dig into old songs and extract whatever comes to mind. And I can’t wait to do it here in Prague.
I read that you released your debut album practically on your own and it cost you around £500. For orientation, at the moment, not even a single-song prelude is often recorded. Is this period, when you play in clubs with fewer people and the success is not so great, something better than the current popularity with indoor concerts and awards?
It’s probably just different. I don’t think I’ve changed much as a musician. I’m still curious, I still like to play, I still have that childish enthusiasm, and I’m probably a better musician than I was before. And from time to time I still do small concerts. Yes, I play in halls and at big festivals, but I still don’t despise a club. Sometimes I just sit at the piano and play someone else.
It is a great pleasure to know how much we can still learn. I discover new things on the piano every day.
So is it the diversity of concerts that keeps you playing?
Definitely yes for me. I think I’m more of a real musician than a pop or rock star. I love playing, and every project I take on prolongs my career, keeps people coming to me, and gives me the opportunity to play with other musicians. For what I do to have meaning, I have to do it with enthusiasm. And I gain enthusiasm when I believe in what I do. Of course, when you make music for success or for money, it can work, but it’s much better to do it from the heart. Otherwise, the person is bored on stage and therefore the audience is bored.
Many musicians say that jazz is one of the few musical styles that a musician must constantly discover throughout his career. Is there anything you may not have known about jazz until recently?
I discover new things every day. It’s an endless project. And that’s exactly what’s great about music. There is no final. Only maybe time. It’s hard to have enough life to learn everything. Every three weeks I go to see a piano teacher, who always shows me something new and says, “If you practice nine hours a day, you might learn well.” And I don’t have time for that anymore with the kids and the wife and paying the bills. But it is a great pleasure to know how much we can still learn. Studying is a great gift that we should use whenever we can. And I discover new things on the piano every day.