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Interview: Lara Downes

Pianist Lara Downes is gearing up to release For Love Of You, a tribute to Clara Schumann, pianist and composer, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of her birth. We spoke with Lara about her incredible collaborations and from where she draws on inspiration for her music.

Listen to Lara Downes Phenomenal Women playlist on Primephonic. 


Your latest release, Holes in the Sky, features leading females from all aspects of music. What did this album mean for you as the next step in your recording career?

I’ve had this very lucky sequence of projects where every one seems to lead me to the next. I don’t necessarily recognize the connection as it’s being conceived in my mind, but when I look back the threads are so clear. When I began working on For Lenny, I thought it was a celebration of Bernstein’s centennial, but really it was a much deeper tribute to American music and what Bernstein did to grow and change our musical tradition. He was so driven to expand access to the arts, and to support the wide community of American artists. For example, he went out of his way to help artists of color and female artists. As I came face to face with that aspect of his legacy, I recognized the connection with my own desire to share the hidden stories in American music, which goes back to my 2016 release America Again and then propelled me forward to Holes in the Sky, which came out earlier this year!

For so long I’ve been finding inspiration in female artists, both past and present. Holes in the Sky was inspired by a Georgia O’Keefe quote: “I want real things--live people to take hold of--to see--and talk to--music that makes holes in the sky--I want to love as hard as I can.” And you know, it’s funny - just recently, I was talking to an audience member who was asking me about that quote, and all of a sudden, a memory surfaced. This goes way back to my first piano teacher and the last time I saw her, when I was about 10 years old. She gave me a tiny, enameled box, and in it, she’d written on a tiny piece of paper “Always reach for the stars, and if you miss accept the sky.” Imagine - that idea of the potential of the sky had been somewhere inside me all this time... 

So at a very basic level, all my projects are how I got here. And this time, I’m celebrating all the women who have been formative for me and the culture at large.

This release was coupled with activism in female communities. How did you combine your music with your outreach to create impact? 

Spending a year with Lenny cemented the need and responsibility to take music way outside of  music itself. Doing what I can, as an artist and a citizen, to make the world a better place. And my collaborators on Holes in the Sky, like Judy Collins and Rhiannon Giddens, exemplify that mission as well. I think that as artists, in this big, distracted world full of so many needs, we have to apply ourselves to making some impact. For me, there are some basics. Like everywhere I go, I’m interacting with young people; something I know I can do every week of my life. I’m bringing them my music as a medium for experience and reflection about human connection through communication, through art and music, words, thoughts, shared history… This is really important. But I’m so aware that there are other things that are equally if not more important to the lives of human beings. Food, water, education, health, civil rights.... It doesn’t feel authentic to focus on the importance of art and culture without trying to connect the dots. If someone doesn’t have food, they can’t benefit much from beauty. So I’ve been joining forces with organizations who are working to address these pressing needs in other arenas,to collaborate and enhance the work from both sides.

It’s been eye-opening and rewarding. It’s given me greater insight into where we can all contribute. Partnering with the Lower East Side Girls Club of New York is a great example. I’ve been aware and in awe of their work for quite a while, and it was a real privilege to host my album launch for Holes in the Sky at their headquarters, to bring my friends on site to see the work that is happening to absolutely transform the lives of thousands of young girls in that neighborhood. Putting music to the service of other efforts is really powerful, and something I want to continue to do.

Why did you choose Clara Schumann for your next album called, For Love Of You?

Clara Schumann was a huge inspiration to me from my earliest days at the piano! Her 200th birthday is coming up this fall, and I wanted to celebrate the milestone. During the making of Holes in the Sky, I realized so deeply how much it meant to me to have female role models. As women, we do face some very real challenges in our professional lives. And when I read about Clara Schumann’s life, I realize how constant and consistent those challenges are. For example, for me and my friends who are female musicians, motherhood and music are a tricky combination. We all feel so torn and guilty about our time away from our kids when we’re on the road. Well, that was a conflict for Clara Schumann two centuries ago! Some things never change. Women move some big mountains to be able to create, to work, and also to take care of their children and their communities. 

This album celebrates in equal parts Clara’s stature as a pianist and as a composer in her own right. And it is about how impactful she was to the Romantic era, to Robert Schumann’s career, and to the art of the piano. She was a fascinating, complicated woman, and I feel connected to her in many ways.

How does Clara Schumann’s classical music story resonate with you? 

Clara was an overachiever from the beginning, and I think a lot of her life was spent doing her best to fulfill expectations, and to make relationships that were diametrically opposed come together. An ongoing search for freedom of expression; that was probably at the center of her life, when expectations and goals had been placed in front of her when she was so young. It’s remarkable to me how she succeeded!

Why do you think Clara Schumann isn’t typically found on lists of Top 10 notable Romantic Era composers? 

People have a narrow bandwidth. I think that at a certain point, the lane called The Great Romantic Composers got filled up and then no one addresses that status quo! It’s strange and hard to address the balance once those decisions have been made, and it’s kind of an algorithm a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m always trying to address this imbalance in my work, to bring some of the lesser known figures into the foreground. 

You are also working toward a project featuring Florence Price. Can you share anything with us about how that is taking shape?

She’s been on my mind for a long time. Around 2008, I remember I was putting together a program of American music, and couldn’t find any black female composers! I went digging around and finally found an anthology of piano music by black women composers, and there was Florence Price’s Fantasie Negre. I fell in love with the piece and started playing it everywhere. All I can say about the recording at the moment is that it will be a massively collaborative album that tells a very uniquely American story.

Listen to Lara Downes Phenomenal Women playlist on Primephonic.