Mally Harpaz: An Instrumental Inspiration

The first time I saw Mally Harpaz, it was as part of Anna Calvi’s band on Jools Holland. It was the first time I’d heard Anna’s music, and I was hooked. Instantly. That’s something of a thing with me and I suspect a lot of Brits. Jools Holland is the place to discover artists you haven’t heard before. It happened to me then, it happened again this year with Aldous Harding’s appearance, and I’m excited for it to happen again.

During the performance, I became locked on to the atmosphere the music was creating. The semblance of the guitar-to-amp-lack-of-effects, the heavy drums (I’m a fan, as we’ve learned by now), and the woman behind what can only be described as a cockpit or playpen, nay, altar of instruments.

That musician was Mally Harpaz. Switching seamlessly through a variety of instruments, some of which like what I’d learn was a harmonium, I hadn’t heard before. And if I had, I’d never put an image to the sound. The more I listened, the more I became certain that there wasn’t a single instrument that Mally didn’t know how to play. It was amazing.

Photo by Barbara Muller (barbaramullerphotography.com)

Every time I’ve seen them play live, I’ve ended up being pulled into Mally’s setup and the intrinsic connection between her instruments and Anna’s guitar. It’s intricate. It really is like that cockpit or playpen or, like, a miniature version of the Winton Musical Fence, but more inspiring. It’s touchable. Reachable. You can see the music coming out of it.

Once, I took somebody to one of the gigs the band was playing in Edinburgh and kept pointing to the spiral cymbal I am wholly obsessed with. They didn’t appreciate it the way I did, not until the band came out and Mally played it and I’d turned to them like, do you see?

Who knows if they did. I can’t think when my head’s musically infatuated. To quote four esoteric prophets of our time, Nothing Else Matters.

Mally Harpaz is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist who records her own music, creates her own artwork, and gigs whenever she can. A couple of years ago, she collaborated with video artist and friend, Clara Aparicio Yoldi, on some of her short films, and has recently been playing gigs around London (the place she calls home) with singer-songwriters, Hazel Iris and Ciara Clifford.

I got the opportunity to ask Mally some questions about her history and love affair with music, about what she’s up to at the moment; about the city of London, and yes, The Cymbal™.

“I think everyone has a drummer in them. It’s the most innate form of music.”

When did you start playing music?

I had piano lessons as a kid when I was 6 or 7 years old for a couple of years, but the first instrument I took up and was really passionate and serious about was the drums which I picked up as a teenager. I later started playing other instruments as well and went back to playing the piano which I love and is now a huge part of my life and is also great for writing and composing.

What initially drew you to percussion?

I think instruments find you rather than the other way around. I was always fascinated by the drums when I went to see gigs and bands playing. Was just very drawn to it. I guess it’s the physicality, immediacy, and rawness of it. I then learned to also appreciate and explore the delicacy, subtlety, and beauty of it. I think everyone has a drummer in them. It’s the most innate form of music. Percussion is also great as you can use anything as an instrument so it’s infinite.  

Was there a record you heard as a kid that you look back on and think, “Okay, that was definitely what made me want to create music”? What was it?

I don’t think there was one record but it was more of a process of discovering the music I like and being inspired.

Some of the first records that I listened to and had a big impression on me were David Bowie’s ‘Hunky Dory’ which was one of the first records I bought, some Pink Floyd albums like ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and ‘Ummagumma’ and ‘The Court of the Crimson King’ by King Crimson. Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Tom Waits, among many many others accompanied me in my first steps as a musician.

Did you grow up with a lot of music around you? Did you have any family members that were involved in it, or was it something that found you?

We did have a lot of music playing at home. My dad loves classical music and we share some music that we both like,  like Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Alberto Iglesias (Hable con Ella soundtrack) but I’d say that music was more something that I discovered for myself.

I’m the only musician in my immediate family and it has definitely been a journey I’ve embarked on. My family has been supportive though and you’d often see my dad traveling to different countries around the world to see me play.

“It’s not just about what you play but how you play it. Play with meaning and conviction and play what serves the music best.”

When did you join your first band?

I guess it was a year or two after I started playing drums. I have found an old cassette recently of a recording we made. It made me smile but we didn’t get to do very much together. I then played for many years with a really good friend of mine, Eran Karniel, in a band called Lunatic Crash.

How long have you been playing around London?

Ever since I moved here really which is a while back.

Are there any local spots around town that you’ve loved playing at over the years?

I’d say that some of my favorite London gigs I played were: Shepherd’s Bush Empire and the Troxy (both with Anna Calvi). I’ve recently played at the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall with Hazel Iris and I absolutely love that space.

More local venues that I played over the years and I liked include the Old Queen’s Head in Angel, Madame Jojo’s, Shunt, I’ve also played a few times at the Green Note, Camden Town, when they first opened – a lovely venue.

I’ve played pretty much every corner around this city over the years so I’m sure I failed to mention some great places.

“Every instrument opens up a whole new world and musical opportunities.”

One of the best things for me as a sound hound, when I saw Anna Calvi live (around the One Breath era), was your gear setup (the spiral cymbal!!) It’s so intricate, different, and not like anything I’d seen before which sort of matches the music it contributes to. Where did you start on the building of that? Did it start with one piece of equipment and then snowball from there to what it is now?

The spiral cymbal, I love it! the way it sounds and the way it looks.

When we started working on the first album there was a harmonium in the studio and I guess that was the first instrument that became a part of my setup. From then on we built the set up so I could create the ‘orchestration’ and soundscape.

Being a drummer/percussionist means that percussion takes a big part of it but I’m always on the lookout for unusual and interesting sounding instruments that I can introduce to the set.

I’ve used some tuned percussion on the last album and tour (marimba and vibraphone), hammer dulcimer and Moog bass pedals among other instruments so my setup is quite dynamic and changes according to the set and what is needed and desired.

Photo by Barbara Muller (barbaramullerphotography.com)

How difficult is it to transport the whole kit when you’re out on tour?

Ha ha, I joke about it that I specialize in big and heavy instruments. It is quite a lot to carry and set up but thankfully we have a fantastic crew when we’re on tour so things are a lot easier.

The harmonium is such a big part of the Anna Calvi sound. How did you get started playing it? Did you know how to play it already or did you learn?

As I mentioned before, there was a harmonium in the studio where we started recording the first album (we finished recording the album in Black Box, France after signing to Domino Records) and that’s how it came about. I had played keys instruments before so could pick it up quite quickly but it definitely has been part of the journey learning to play a new instrument. It’s something that I love doing. Every instrument opens up a whole new world and musical opportunities.

Is there an instrument you still really want to get your hands on to try but just haven’t had the chance yet?

I absolutely love the sound of bass clarinet or bassoon, so maybe one day, I would love to evolve as a tuned percussion player and play more orchestral drums. Also, I’d spent some months studying the tabla and I’m hoping to get back to it at some point. I think instruments are fascinating so I can never turn down an opportunity to experiment with a new instrument.

“Don’t be afraid of trying anything and always be in touch with what feels right and true to you. Be creative and expressive and honest.”

What instrument are you really digging at the moment?

I’ve been actually spending a lot of time in the last few years playing piano and composing which I love. I also use the piano for writing parts and arrangement for other instruments that I use like tuned percussion and hammer dulcimer so it can be really useful in that respect as well. I have been sharing a stage with accordion players recently playing with Hazel Iris and discovered how beautiful and versatile this instrument can be.

You’ve worked on scoring some short films (including ‘Iconosfera’, ‘Zoom Out’, and ‘Zoom In’) by London-based Spanish video artist, Clara Aparicio Yoldi. Was it the first time you’d worked on scoring a visual piece?

Yes, it is a collaboration that I love and feel very proud of. Clara who is a great friend of mine and an incredible artist approached me a few years ago asking if I could compose for one of her pieces.

When I said yes she told me the deadline was 4 days later as she needed it for an exhibition submission. I stayed by the piano for 3 days and went to a studio to record the following day. That’s how our collaboration began.

Her video art is showing in many exhibitions all around the world, and I’m hoping to release an album of the compositions soon. Working on the final few pieces at the moment.

What was the composition process like? Was scoring visual art any different to how you’d normally compose your music? Did Clara send you the full video first or was it a concept/ storyboard? What was your approach to it?

Each video has its own story. Some of the videos were finished and I composed to the visuals, some of the videos were based on a concept – I was composing and Clara was working on the video and we’d then sent what we had back and forth feeding on each other’s ideas and pieces and would adjust and adapt things either for the video to fit the music (in terms of synchronising for example) or vice versa.

There are a couple of tracks that I composed and the videos followed, so we very much work together but each one of us have the freedom and space to be expressive with our respective art.

Do you consider yourself at all a visual person?

Yes, I find composing to visuals very inspiring. I often use visual concepts for writing and I do love films and visual art. I’ve seen a wonderful piece recently at the Barbican of the Firebird by Stravinsky being performed live by an orchestra with a film being manipulated live to go with the music. It was spectacular.

Do you write and record your own music often?

Yes, I try and do it as often as I can. I play most days in one form or another and I’m always recording ideas on my phone. It is then a matter of committing yourself to an initial idea and developing it into a fully formed piece of music.

“I’m interested in music therapy and what effect music has on the human mind and soul, it is something I might explore more at some point in the future.”

How does recording in the studio face-off against playing live? What are the pros and cons of each?

I love them both in different ways.

I find playing live really exciting, the being in the moment and the energy of it, the exchange of emotions between the artist and audience. The whole experience. I love watching live music and performances (dance, theatre, classical concert, gigs, performance art) and go to see a lot of stuff, I think the live experience can’t be replaced by anything.

I love the creativity about recordings, the whole world of opportunities, the process of creating something new from an idea and seeing it taking shape and coming into life. It is a wonderful experience. The studio gives you the freedom to develop ideas, be really creative and experiment which is wonderful.

Photo by Barbara Muller (barbaramullerphotography.com)

What would you say are some essential tools (from a writing/production standpoint) that a person could use to create their own music from home?

I’d say, the most important thing is to spend time and develop your ideas. Don’t be afraid of trying anything and always be in touch with what feels right and true to you. Be creative and expressive and honest.

You’re currently playing a string of shows with Hazel Iris, how did you guys start playing together?

I met Hazel Iris some time ago through a friend of mine who was playing with her at the time. I really love her music,  her approach, concept and the story telling through the music. We will be joined together for a double bill in September which I am very excited about.

Do you have any tips for girls who want to join or start a band themselves? What advice do you have for them for being part of said band?

Follow your dreams, be confident and believe in yourself and in what you do. Be creative and expressive, intuitive and brave. Playing with great musicians is as important as playing with people that you get on with.

What kind of advice have you been given that’s stuck with you, in regards to music?

It’s not just about what you play but how you play it. Play with meaning and conviction and play what serves the music best.

Most importantly, can you picture yourself doing anything else?

I can’t imagine my life without music but I can see myself venturing into other forms of art. I used to draw a lot when I was younger before music took over. I love the idea of multi media art and art without boundaries of form and method and I would love to compose in the future for dance productions. I’m secretly jealous of dancers as I think it’s a wonderful form of art. I’m also interested in music therapy and what effect music has on the human mind and soul, it is something I might explore more at some point in the future.

What’s up next for Mally? Will we be seeing you and Anna on stage together anytime soon?

YES! The third album is now in the making and is sounding incredible. I love working with Anna, she is an amazing and very inspiring musician and a very close friend of mine. I’m looking forward to starting touring again when the album is out.

As I mentioned before I’m also in the final stages of recording an album of my own compositions so that will hopefully be out sometime in the near future and I’ll be doing the debut live performance of these pieces as part of a double bill with Hazel Iris in September.

CATCH MALLY HARPAZ LIVE

25th July  w/Hazel Iris @ the Islington

28th July  w/Ciara Clifford @ Paper Dress Vintage

5th September Blind Dog Studio Presents: Mally Harpaz + w/ Hazel Iris

23rd September w/Ciara Clifford @ Strongroom

28th September w/Hazel Iris @ Strongroom

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT MALLY ON HER WEBSITE

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Em is a queer, freelance music writer based in the North of England. The things that matter to her (other than David Bowie & her Telecaster) are either money, success, fame, glamour or freedom, beauty, truth and love, depending on the day and whether or not she's bought any incense. When she's not dancing around with a guitar, she can be found dancing around in glitter. Her motto: Don't be a drag, just be a queen.
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