WHEN HE was 10, pianist Neil Cowley performed a Shostakovich concerto to a packed auditorium at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. A few years later he turned his back on a place at the Royal Academy of Music to tour the world with The Brand New Heavies and Gabrielle.
The journey this musical prodigy has taken towards discovering his definitive sound has been somewhat unorthodox but it has lead to his group The Neil Cowley Trio being compared to The Clash and The Jam.
As part of this year’s Galway Arts Festival music line-up The Neil Cowley Trio play the SAS Radisson Hotel on Thursday July 16 at 8pm.
The term ‘musical prodigy’ is bandied around a lot and is not one that sits entirely comfortably on the shoulders of Neil Cowley. There was, of course, a time when he could have gone on to become a classical pianist but reading Melody Maker in the early 1990s turned his head in a completely different direction.
“When I cast the classical thing to one side I was introduced to lots of great exciting music,” Neil tells me. “I had my hooded top and Dr Marten boots and baggy trousers and I had my ears tuned to bands like The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays. At the time the acid jazz thing was happening as well and there were lots of retro elements going on. I got deeply into the music of James Brown and for a time tried to sing like him but failed miserably!”
Each week Cowley would scour the music press listings for an opening and his first big break came when he was invited to tour with acid jazz/rap group The Brand New Heavies.
“In the mid-1990s that was one of the most sought-after hot seats for a musician in London and I was very grateful I got it,” Neil says. “Through the guys in the band I was introduced to a whole wealth of obscure 1960s and 1970s American music that I wouldn’t have been privy to otherwise. I was able to immerse myself in dance music and all these other fantastic elements and it was an amazing thing to have on the CV to have been involved with such an influential group.”
In 2002 he formed The Fragile State and produced two critically acclaimed albums. He also toured with a band hilariously titled The Green Nuns Of The Revolution
“The name comes from the female wing of Colonel Gadaffi’s army and we were this psychedelic dance band,” he says. “The strangest gig we ever played was on an ostrich farm in South Africa and I can distinctly remember seeing people walking around in this field tripping off their heads just as the sun was coming up. Beautiful and strange.”
In 2007 Neil received a call from a producer who was busy in the studio with a British singer-songwriter called Adele who was in need of a piano player.
“My friend Jim Abbiss phoned me and told me that their regular piano player didn’t want to be in the band anymore and wanted to carry on working in Sainsburys instead!” says Neil. “Adele was going into the studio on the Monday to record her debut album and they needed somebody at very short notice.
“I turned up in the studio and played on the track ‘Hometown Glory’ and a couple of others and then went home. She’s a really nice person and I remember thinking at the time that whatever success was coming to her she thoroughly deserves it.”
Adele’s album 19 received a Mercury Prize nomination and four Grammy nominations last year and she went on to win a Grammy for Best Female Vocal Performance with ‘Chasing Pavements’ and was named Best New Artist.
Early last year The Neil Cowley Trio appeared on Later With Jools Holland alongside James Taylor, Estelle, The Black Kids, and Adele.
“It was a really nice moment to be on Jools Holland with her,” he says. “I think she was a little surprised to see me on there. We had a good laugh.”
For tickets contact the Festival Box Office, Merchants Road, 091 - 566577. Tickets are also available through www.galwayartsfestival.com