We sat down with jazz bassist and composer Misha Mullov-Abbado to chat about his highly acclaimed album New Ansonia and how this ‘unfailingly inventive, artfully produced, and delightfully sunny debut’ (The Telegraph) came to be.
I imagine you’ve been surrounded by music since you were born – what are some of your earliest musical memories?
I was exposed to so much music when I was young, I don’t remember the specifics. Apparently I could recognise any piece my mum was practicing and would tell her off if she skipped a bit! That said, I couldn’t tell you what those pieces are now. As for my earliest actual memories, they probably aren’t classical. Growing up with music like Stevie Wonder comes to mind.
What was it like growing up around such famous parents?
It didn’t really dawn on me until I was about seven at a music course and this guy (who ended up being one of my best friends) came up to me and said:
‘Is your mum Viktoria Mullova?’
I said ‘Yeah…’ , to which he replied,
‘Oh my God, I’ve got to tell my mum!’
I was genuinely really surprised that it was a big deal!
You studied music at Cambridge before completing your masters at the Royal Academy. Do you think going to university and getting an academic degree first was useful? Would you change anything in hindsight?
I wouldn’t change anything, I think going to uni can be very useful for some people. I know a lot of people who went to music college for their undergrad and they were typically people who’d planned to do so from an early age. University is good for musicians who aren’t so sure of the direction their careers will take. The alternative for me was to apply to conservatoires for composition, and I’m definitely glad I didn’t do that. Now I’ve found my own niche for composing and it’s so much better than being judged on your writing at a conservatoire where you’re not performing you own work and you can’t experiment as much.
What would be your advice for those musicians trying to choose between university and conservatoire?
For those who really know what they want to do, music college is perfect, but I’d recommend uni for those who are more indecisive.
Let’s move on to your newly released album – New Ansonia.
Could you explain the inspiration behind the album?
It’s simply the kinds of music I’ve been exposed to. Every piece I’ve written has been born out of a desire to explore particular musical styles. It’s basically my representation of music that I love.
How long have you been working on the album?
Just over a year. We ended up spending three days as a quintet in the studio, followed by a day with all the extra musicians two weeks later. Then, over the course of a month, we spent seven days mixing and finally a day of mastering. We used the last few months to promote the album before its release.
What are your composition processes?
Usually I just feel like writing a tune, which is often inspired by a piece of existing repertoire. Every single track on the album has come from me thinking – ‘I’m going to write a piece that’s like this.’ For example, ‘a swing in F minor’ [Lock, Stock & Shuffle]. Sometimes it’ll be a month before I sit down at the piano, or sometimes I’ll do it that night.
How did you come up with the album titles and song names?
Ansonia is a completely made up word, I used to live in a house on Anson Road. We always referred to our house as Ansonia. I was thinking along the lines of ‘New York’, like a place.
Real Eyes, Realise, Real Lies?
I saw it graffitied on a wall after a ULSO (University of London Symphony Orchestra) rehearsal. In the pizza place past Gloucester Road tube station there’s loads of graffiti on the wall where people have written quotations. I remember seeing it and thinking it would be a great title for a tune. A few weeks later I wrote the song and the phrase seemed to match how I was feeling at the time.
Satan, Oscillate My Metallic Sonatas
It’s a strange track – it looks back to my classical background, particularly my encounters with contemporary classical. I really wanted to write something where our pianist, Jacob Collier, could do whatever he wanted. I felt like I was often telling him what to do on the other tracks, so for this one I just let him do his own thing. The title itself is a palindrome that someone once told me and I thought it was so brilliant that I had to name a tune after it. The piece is in sonata form, and it’s got an oscillating motif – so it works!
Who is King Michael?
He is a good friend of ours, Michael de Souza, a guitarist. He’s very inspiring!
How was performing on Radio 3?
Yeah it was really nice, I had to do a little interview afterwards, and Sean Rafferty is hilarious! Everything was live, so we played a tune, and then I sat next to him for a little chat. It helped publicity as well – I was with the record label producer, and apparently sales spiked straight after the Radio 3 performance.
Perhaps the most clichéd phrase newly successful young musicians tend to use is that the whole experience ‘feels surreal’. Does it?
It feels great, but I’m very aware that this is only a first step. I know a lot of people around my age, in a similar position, recording an album. It’s so easy to get ahead of yourself. I’m trying not to rest on my laurels.
Speaking of people doing similar things to you at the moment – what’s it like working with Jacob Collier?
He’s on another level; a great musician who adds a great vibe. His recording experience meant that he could easily adding multitrack and cool little details here and there that have all made it onto the final recordings. I love that he’s an international star but continues to live at home with his mum and sisters; she still tells him off about washing up! It’s all part of his brand, though.
How many instruments do you actually play?
I play a bit of bass guitar, not so often nowadays but it led me to double bass. Though I don’t play it as much anymore, I began learning French horn before guitar and double bass and really wanted to play it on the album. I don’t really play the piano anymore but it’s useful for writing. Oh, and I play the sousaphone! I realised the other day that I play more sousaphone than French horn, which is quite weird, but it makes sense being a bass player. Apparently I played the violin for all of a day, but didn’t like it!
You play a lot of different styles of music – what’s your favourite genre to perform?
I’m trying to think of the most ideal performance setting in the world – two things that spring to mind. I love playing with my band, when everyone’s on form, the audience is listening intently and there’s heartfelt artistic creation.
The other thing that springs to mind is a gig at a festival playing blues covers or sousaphone in a brass band. Somewhere with a huge audience and they’re all dancing – that feeling is just amazing.
What about the classical format for performing?
I do still enjoy the classical concert hall style of performance, but the most ideal format for me would be with my band. I wouldn’t call what we do classical or jazz, it’s just artistic music that’s mine. The other end of the spectrum for me is music which makes people dance, whether its blues, rock, folk or ceilidh, getting people to dance is amazing. These two very different performance styles are equal in my mind.
Are you thinking about lining up festivals to perform at?
Yeah definitely, I was talking to someone the other day about the Love Supreme Jazz Festival. It would be great to get on to that. I’ve been waiting till after the album release, hopefully getting some good reviews before pursuing the festival scene.
I know this is quite personal, but I think many of our readers would be interested in knowing whether you feel any extra pressure to live up to the high standards of your parents?
I do feel the pressure, its good and my parents were always good at making me practice, and making sure that I try to fulfil my musical potential. If you want to hear about pressure, my mother growing up in soviet Russia, her parents basically said as first born she would be a musician, and would practice 5 hours a day. They put all their eggs in her basket essentially.
What does music mean to you, and what do you think it means for other people?
It makes me start thinking about God quite a lot. I’m not really religious, but I believe that music could make people believe in God and already has done over the years. My view on most religions is that they’re all very similar, they all come from the same place or the same kind of inspiration which is apparent in music. I feel that I actually do believe in God because of music, if only because music itself is just as unexplainable.