The soft mix of blues, rhythm and blues, jazz and the charismatic vocals of Stephen Ridley leave almost no one indifferent. This explains why over the past few years he has gained thousands of fans around the world: in 2019, Ridley gave more than a hundred concerts, gathered an impressive audience of listeners on social networks and visited Russia more than once. We meet him in central London, near the trendy Soho district. We buy coffee, go through a maze of corridors and find ourselves in a small room - a recording studio, where the pianist is working on new covers, his own music and the premiere EP, which he plans to release by the end of the year. The fact that we are communicating live already seems almost a miracle: this interview was the first conversation for both of us after a long three-month lockdown announced in the British capital back in mid-March.
During the pandemic, the musician was involved in several projects at once. Including launched a series of videos "Song for the world" (Song for the world), where he plays the piano in the most unusual places in London. First, Stephen Ridley went to one of the deserted metro stations and sang John Lennon's legendary song “Imagine”, which touched the audience - the video has already collected more than 900 thousand views on YouTube. The musician filmed the second clip at the Tower Bridge at dawn and dedicated it to everyone who is fighting the pandemic. We start our conversation by watching it.
- During quarantine, you started recording a series of videos in empty London. To see a city in which life is in full swing all year round, without people is a rare, and in a new context, also a frightening opportunity. How did this idea come about?
- The idea to shoot a video in an empty London subway appeared completely spontaneously. I had returned to London a couple of days before. At first I spent several months in America, then I was in Moscow - it was there that I got news about the coronavirus. I remember landing at Heathrow and feeling the strange looks of people on me. I then thought: "Maybe the British always look at each other with contempt?" I couldn't understand anything. On the way home, I watched many neighbors collect their things and leave the city with the whole family. Something very terrible seemed to be happening. And the next day, a lockdown was announced in England. So before everything officially closes, I decided to go outside and play one more time. We went to King's Cross station (there is a piano that anyone can play), there were practically no people at the station,I sat down at the instrument and felt like the hero of Will Smith in the movie I Am Legend.
- I think it was more difficult to organize the second shooting. How did you manage to bring the huge grand piano and set it up next to the royal treasury?
- The police even came to us and tried to stop us. Imagine the scene: 4:00 in the morning, a huge van with a grand piano weighing over a ton, and a team of five people trying to set it up near Tower Bridge. Two guards came out to us - we had to explain to them that we were not interested in the royal jewels that are kept in the castle. I just wanted to play one song. In the end, everything turned out so touching that we all felt this special atmosphere that hung in the air and united us.
- Was it strange to perform there alone, without spectators? In general, is the live reaction of the audience important for the artist?
“It wasn’t just weird. It is very unusual and difficult. At some point, I realized that I was making music not only for myself. When I play, I feel what other people feel at that moment. Usually we feel much more than we can explain in words, and it is music that helps me express the range of emotions that remain outside the scope of what has been said. This allows you to form an inextricable connection with the audience, learn to hear and understand it. By the way, I'm very lucky - I have very attentive fans. Deep, understanding, discovery, honest and empathetic. We are on the same wave. Therefore, I really like to be surrounded by such people, I like to surprise them and share my mood.
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- Are there any critics among them?
- Of course, but, to be honest, I really don't like criticism. And if I see negative comments or messages, then it happens that I block the user. This may sound arrogant, but I still try to protect my mood and emotional state. I don’t want to waste the time and energy that can be invested in creating something beautiful.
When I play, I feel what other people are feeling at that moment.
- How did your love for music begin?
- I was 11 years old when I first saw Robbie Williams perform at Knebworth House on TV. This three-day concert was the largest in the history of the UK. I swear nobody even went to work back then - everyone stuck to the TV. It was attended by about 375 thousand people live, and three and a half million viewers watched it on television and the Internet. So, I admire this show, and my father at the same time convinces me that a man needs a stable job, money, an apartment, and music is not serious. But in my childish head there is only one thought: “Now Robbie Williams is making a musical revolution. And that's exactly what I want to do my whole life. " I still get goosebumps from the memories. After that day, no one could convince me that working in an office could be cooler than putting together stadiums.
- So, you immediately set yourself the goal of becoming a musician who collects stadiums? Doesn't sound very humble.
- Unfortunately, everything was the other way around. I started making music because it gave me the opportunity to hide from other people in my fantasy world. We lived in a village, it was very boring there, and only these lessons helped me escape somewhere far away. My parents worked hard and often left me with a neighbor who had a piano in his house. I remember how I was fascinated by its shape, the keys and the sounds they make. And also the fact that it was the only clean thing in his house. (Laughs.) Later I realized that music is my meditation. And it still seems to me that when you play for other people, they also have the opportunity to remain alone with themselves, their thoughts and be transported somewhere far away in time and space. It looks like magic, and I want to believe that I have some part in its creation.
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- If you had a love of music since childhood, how and why did you get a job at an investment bank?
- I always try to answer this question in a philosophical way. But to be honest, when I was 15 years old, my father died right in my arms. It happened very unexpectedly and greatly influenced my character. My father was the one who said all his life that finding a high-paying job is very important for a real man. That I should be responsible for my future family because he always did the same. Although now I clearly realize: it would be much more important for me for my father to live his years happily. So I decided to graduate from university, started investing, and worked for several years in an office in the City. Of course, it was very scary to leave work. For a long time I was haunted by my father's words, and I was afraid not to justify his hopes. But what scared me even more was that in 40 years my life could end too,and dreams - to remain unfulfilled. Then I decided to give myself three months to just make music and see what comes of it.
I started making music because it gave me the opportunity to hide from other people in my fantasy world.
- And then you played your first street concert in London?
- Yes, I was just walking down the street, saw an old piano in a store and decided to buy it. Immediately he put down his hat, took off his head, laid it on the ground and began to play. I earned £ 16.34 for the show, although it was just awful (turns on the video and after 15 seconds turns it off). Not! I can't look at it, I'm ashamed. (Laughs.) The point is that until that moment I had never tried to perform songs, only played an instrument. But that day I thought, "The money I earned is enough to have lunch and drink coffee." And this was a real discovery. "So if I play more, I'll earn more." Now I play 15 hours every day, travel the world, give concerts in different countries, and my three-month plan has stretched out for a lifetime.
- How did the environment react to your decision to quit a stable job for the sake of music?
- Almost no one supported me. What's more, those I thought were close friends thought I was crazy. I remember how I shared my bewilderment with my mother, and she answered: “Why are you surprised? This is life, Stephen. It is impossible to change anything in it”. I wanted otherwise. I knew I could become something more. And to understand who exactly, I had to get out of my comfort zone.
- Do you remember your first big concert? For which they paid an amount comparable to the monthly salary at the bank.
- I played at a private party with an Italian writer. By the way, we met him on the street. He came up during my next performance and just started crying. It turned out that I reminded the hero of his new book. At first it seemed to me that something was wrong with this guy. But when we went to have coffee together, he described exactly my life, my sense of the world, my dreams - and it was very difficult to believe in it. In 20 minutes we were both crying in the coffee shop. And then we became friends, and he invited me on a tour of Italy, where I played at the presentation of his new book. During the trip, I met many interesting people, and then everything began to develop by itself.
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- During this time, did you have any thoughts that it would be better to go back to the office for a stable job and stop making music?
- No, I never wanted to. There I did not feel in the right place. In addition, office work gives only the illusion of stability, but not real confidence in the future. And the quarantine that has hit the whole world is confirmation of this. Many people who came to the office every day are now out of work. Therefore, we are all in the same conditions and it depends only on ourselves how the events of our life will develop.
- If we talk about the music industry, then, indeed, during the quarantine, work in it almost completely stopped. But, on the other hand, new formats have appeared, online concerts have become popular. And when you announced that virtual speaking would be paid, many on social media were unhappy. To which you answered: you honestly admitted that at the beginning of the journey an artist needs to develop and earn money. Did you expect this kind of reaction from your fans? And how did it go in the end?
- I constantly conduct live broadcasts on instagram: during the quarantine alone, there were probably more than a hundred of them. But after a month of singing on the phone, I got depressed. There was a real feeling that this nightmare will never end and creativity and music will not be the same. Therefore, I wanted to create something of high quality: a good performance, the organization of which required money, resources and strength. I decided to pay for the concert just to cover these costs. For example, it cost £ 800 for the equipment alone, not to mention the team work and the rent of the premises. And I really wanted the audience to understand this too. I am an artist, during the quarantine my income stopped completely, I don’t give concerts, and I don’t want to ask the government for help. Fortunately, in the end everything worked:tickets to the concert cost $ 20 and more than 600 spectators "came" to it.
We are all in the same conditions and it depends only on ourselves how the events of our life will develop.
- Are online gigs like this a viable format for musicians in the future?
- Maybe now people are tired of virtual communication, but in the future such concerts will give us the opportunity to perform for spectators who are in different parts of the world. In fact, you can assemble an entire stadium without leaving your city. The only condition is to make high-quality shows and at a fair price. We can't just sit and wait for this to end. Moreover, quarantine would be much more difficult to survive without art. Although, on the other hand, an online concert is a completely different experience and cannot be compared to a live performance.
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- Do you think the unwillingness of viewers to pay money is the effect that social networks have?
- Partly yes. For example, when we filmed a video near the Tower, 12 people worked on it, and I paid each of them a fee, after which I published the video completely free on YouTube. I like it and it gives me great pleasure, but at the same time, you need to have sources of income in order to allow yourself to sometimes arrange such experiments.
- On the other hand, many argue that thanks to social media, becoming a famous artist is much easier today than, say, 50 years ago. Do you agree with that?
- It's definitely easier now to become an amateur musician. All you need to do is buy instruments, sign up for vocal lessons and post your performance on the Internet. But growing into a real artist is much more difficult, because, firstly, the competition is higher, and, secondly, in those days, to become famous, it was enough to bring the recording of your song to just one radio station and please its owners. The art world was centered around the same people: the likelihood of their rejection is high, but if you got into the game, then success was almost inevitable. Although it is too early to talk about this, only time will tell the result.
- At concerts, as in videos, you perform covers of famous songs, although you write your own music and lyrics. Why would you prefer her to be off-screen? Don't you want to share your own thoughts?
- I have never spoken about it. It's simple - I'm very scared to make my own music. It's safe to work on a cover because I know that people love a certain song, they generally like my performance, and all together usually work out with a bang. At the same time, when I create a cover, I always try to bring something new to the song. For example, last year I performed twice with Sting and listening to him perform the song Roxette live, I really wanted to sing it differently. Of course, this does not mean that I do not like Sting - he is a genius. But I feel the music differently, I think about the meaning of the text, and I think that my vision also has a right to exist. What I want to say is that it's easy for me to record a cover, but it's very difficult to predict whether the audience will like my music. And it stops me.
- Should you fight this fear?
- I write songs for other musicians and various TV shows - I made about 400 lyrics in total. Gradually I notice that many of them really like the audience. And it calms me down a little, even inspires me every time fear starts to take over me again. After all, like any artist, I understand that every new person who visits my page on social networks wants to get something more than a cover of a song already familiar to him. I also try to play my music at concerts to see how the listeners react - they seem to like it. (Plays.) But every time I put more instruments on the piano, the song changes, and I have not yet decided whether to do this. Therefore, I decided that I would release an EP with five songs in the original sound and in the processed version at once.
- I plan to finish the first "pair" in the next few weeks. And work on the full EP by the end of this year. And I'm also working on a classical music project where only the piano will sound. I hope that I can also present it by the end of the year.
- By the way, why do you have so many fans in Russia? Have you ever thought about this?
- I have my own humorous theory: in the world they often talk about the "broad Russian soul", and it seems to me that I am in the wrong body, because I do not feel like an Englishman, although I look like a real British. We are very similar in temperament: in me, as in many Russians, there is a stream of unbridled energy that constantly wants to break out. I'm not used to hiding my emotions behind a conservative mask or rules of decency. I always try to be honest and open, no matter what. I consider myself a man of action, I'm not afraid to seem ridiculous and I really love Russia - this is a new dynamic country where everything is changing very quickly. I like this pace - I really feel comfortable in it.
It's easy for me to record a cover, but it's very difficult to predict if the audience will like my music. And it stops me.
- How many concerts have you already had in Russia? And when - presumably - next?
- The nearest concert is to take place on December 4 at the Moscow House of Music. And before that there were many private events, last year's performance at the jubilee of pianist Yuri Rozum in Zaryadye and my solo concert in New Holland in 2018.
Let's go back to Stephen Ridley at the very beginning of his career for a moment. What advice would you give to a young artist who found himself in your place, without support, but with faith in himself and in music?
- Constantly work on mastery and do not feel sorry for yourself. In the beginning, you are nothing. And there is no other choice but to sit in the room while everyone is walking on the street, traveling, having fun, and playing, playing, acting … The problem with many young artists is that they sound like amateurs and cannot cross over to a new quality level. In order to solve a problem, you only need to work hard - so you can achieve something special. There is one more advice that at first glance contradicts itself: do not listen to anyone when you make your music, but learn to hear what people like and feel their emotions in order to stay on the same wavelength with the audience - this will be your first step towards paths to an extraordinary future.
Pianist Riad Mammadov - about jazz, classics and the image of paradise.