Last year I watched an extraordinary musical performance that had been recorded at the beautiful Hereford Cathedral. The piece, The Vibration Continues, was inspired by the surroundings, artefacts and spaces within Cathedral and had been written and performed by two musicians: the blind pianist Rachel Starrit and, on keyboard, Cara Tivey.
I knew of Cara Tivey as she had played on some of my favourite records in the 80s and early 90s (including Billy Bragg, Everything But The Girl, The Lilac Time and the unique genius of Ted Chippington) before retiring from the music business to mostly focus on having a family. I always felt that Cara added something special to the records that she played on, so it was a great, great joy to see her performing again.
Cara Tivey has just released a new album called 'Zone', 13 instrumental pieces that are, in one way or another, influenced or inspired by the nature and the landscape that surrounds her at home in Hereford. It has shades of classical music and of jazz and pop, it is the ideal musical accompaniment to watching the leaves fall and enjoying the last of the autumn sun.
I got in touch with Cara to talk to her about the motivations for new album, her return to performing, recording and releasing music as well as that performance at Hereford Cathedral. I also wanted to ask about her recent live performance of the music that she had created with The Lilac Time as well as her memories of the post-punk music scene in Birmingham in late 70s/early 80s. There was much to discuss.
Outsideleft: Hi Cara, it’s such a privilege to talk to you. Before we start to talk about the new album, could you explain what prompted you to return to performing and releasing music?
Cara Tivey: I was made redundant a couple of years ago from the place where I’d taught for 25 years.The course I taught was closed down. I was a bit flummoxed because I was 60 and I was thinking that this is that time in your life when you could just give up! But, I’d always played and written music, it was my hobby, it is something I’ve always loved, and I still had lots of musical ideas, I felt that I had so much music to make. I started off by applying to the Arts Council for funding for the project in Hereford Cathedral which I did with Rachel Starrit. And it's gone from there.
OL: You've mentioned that the new album is inspired by nature. Could you explain a little more about those influences?
CT: Nature has always been a huge influence, either directly or indirectly. We moved to Herefordshire about 20 years ago and I just love living here. We walk every morning; I go out on my bike. I love that connection, of that feeling very connected to the changing of the seasons.
OL: Some of the tracks are named after flowers (‘Hellebore’) or clouds (‘Cirrus’). When did you first realise that all these pieces were about nature, that it was going to a theme of the album?
CT: I don't know if I did realise! All of the pieces evolve over time. I can be looking at something and it will suggest a motif. That’s often how pieces start. I then develop it at the keyboard, introducing dynamics and creating an arrangement.
OL: I also felt that the music on the album was quite… 'filmic'. It felt cinematic, not like a huge blockbuster but I can imagine a classic French film, lots of rain-soaked pavements in Paris, that sort of thing! Were movie soundtracks an influence?
CT: (laughs) No, but it's interesting that you say that! I played some of the pieces to the music writer Steven Johnson, who’s a friend of ours (Johnson used to present 'Discovering Music' on Radio 3), he said that that they 'sound so French'!
Honestly, I don't know where that quality comes from! When I have a musical idea, I’ll work it, refine it. I then work it quite a bit to refine it. I can really immerse myself in them, the relationship can become quite symbiotic. That's how I would describe the actual writing process. I think there's quite a bit of myself and my feelings in a piece, I don't want to sound like an old hippy but the music will end up coming from a place deep inside me. And I don't know if it's that quality about them that then renders them ‘filmic’. But you're not the first person to describe them as such, it’s not a deliberate thing.
OL: One piece, 'Romantique' reminds me of Erik Satie…and that led me to wonder, as you come from a classical background, I wondered what composers had been an influence to you?
CT: Classically, I love Brahms, as a teenager, I sang Brahms Requiem in the Northampton Bach Choir where I grew up. I had a very visceral reaction to that. Unfortunately, my piano teacher wasn't the sort to have introduced me to people like Satie or Debussy!
But as far as contemporary pianists are concerned, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven when I first heard 'Songs in the Key of Life'. I grew up in a very ‘white’ urban town, so I'd never really been aware of Stevie Wonder. I had no experience of black music at all until I was about sixteen. Stevie Wonder spoke to me so much about always play by ear. Perfect pitch. Yeah. So, I can sort of sit down and play yeah. So I've done that all my life and I've been trying different chords and voicings and things and then all of a sudden I heard Stevie Wonder. Herbie Hancock was also a key influence, as was Bill Evans.
OL: You’ve worked closely with your son on this album. He’s quite a success in his own right, isn’t he?
CT: That’s right, George (Geode) founded the Chord Marauders collective, a dub-step label that focuses a lot on jazz. He’s got over 17,000 supporters; he’s doing well writing his own music!
It's been lovely working with him on this project. He’s staying with us at the moment so, often, when I’ve recorded the original piano tracks in my music room, I then take them to his bedroom studio, where I’ll add the solos and other additional bits. He’d then make them sound lovely because he’s got such refined production skills.
OL: The album’s called ‘Zone’, which I think is a fascinating word. I used to be a hypnotherapist and it reminded me of something we’d guide clients towards, like a ‘safe place’ when they needed to be calm. How important has it been for you, especially during the turbulence of the last three years, to have a ‘zone’ - a place that you can escape to?
CT: Yes, it’s so important! This is my room, it’s my ‘safe place’. I can play music here from morning till night. I can work here uninterrupted, I can experiment and do whatever.
It’s interesting though, I go to the Primadonna Festival in Stowmarket every year, one time I was supporting a friend who was running a workshop there about self-belief. She was asking attendees to think of a safe word for themselves. And although I didn’t really need any help with self-belief, I thought about the safe word - and the one that came to me was ‘Zone’
OL: This year at the Primadonna Festival, you played a set that was based on the work you'd done with The Lilac Time on the '& All For Love' (1990) and 'Astronauts' (1991) albums. What inspired you to revisit and reinterpreted those pieces?
CT: My husband Micky (Harris, the original bass player in The Lilac Time), and I had both been interviewed by Pete Paphides for the re-issue of the band's album 'Astronauts' on Needle Mythology next year. During the interview, I mentioned to Pete that, over the years, I’d played Lilac Time songs just to myself. He was intrigued, so I sent him some rough demos of what I had played …I then thought, y’know, I'm going to get these pieces up to scratch and perform them there.
OL: How do those songs work as purely instrumental pieces? And how did the audience respond?
CT: The music worked really well, yeah, they're quite fulsome pieces. The reaction from the audience was so positive, lots of people who’d never previously heard of the band were saying they were going to listen to them. I was being asked ‘Where can we buy your music?’ so it spurred me on to actually work on my own album too.
OL: What are your memories of working on those two Lilac Time albums?
CT: They’re my favourite two albums from all that I have been involved with, I really love the material, I can really relate to it. I loved recording them - Stephen (Duffy, singer and songwriter with The Lilac Time), just let me do my own thing, there was very little guidance and he seemed to be just happy with whatever I did. And working with John Leckie (co-producer on ‘& All For Love’), was wonderful, he’s my favourite producer.
OL: Coming almost back up to date. I really love Hereford Cathedral, so I was delighted to see that live performance by you and the blind pianist Rachel Starrit. How did you meet Rachel?
CT: I taught Rachel when I was working at the Royal National College for the Blind. Well, I won't say that I taught her because I couldn't teach her anything. She's an incredible pianist. We work very well together because we've got similar ears for music. She can improvise, she’s an incredible person. I love the way that she perceives things. I may be inspired by looking at a flower, but Rachel would feel something, it would be that tactile. I have a very easy musical relationship with Rachel. She's also an accomplished concert pianist. She's just finished her MA at the Royal Welsh College in Cardiff and now plays in the Paraorchestra.
After the final lockdown eased, we walked around the cathedral and I thought that there was such a huge creative potential there. It’s such an incredible space. All the pieces came from improvisations, we just noodle about or just play whatever. Going back to what we discussed about the album, it was that same feeling of seeing or feeling something, of having that motif, that spark inside of you.
Cara Tivey and Rachel Starrit in Hereford Cathedral
OL: You’ve worked a lot with the blind and the visually impaired…
CT: Yes, I worked at the College for the Blind in Hereford. A lot of my students arrived, and they'd been told that ‘blind people couldn't dance,’ or ‘blind people couldn't act because they might fall off the stage’, or whatever, it was all about what they can't do. I never ever thought about them in that way. I always thought that the students were amazing. It was such an incredible experience for me working there.
OL: Finally, let’s go right back to the start, earlier this year we wrote about the 'Unscene' compilation album that featured the post-punk bands in Birmingham in the late 70s/early 80s. I saw that you were in one of those bands (Vision Collision) … so, how does a classically trained musician like yourself find themselves being part of that scene?
CT: I initially came to Birmingham to go to drama school. And although I’m a classically trained pianist, I was a right old cheater really! I struggled with reading music so I played a lot by ear. I could never have followed a career where sight reading was needed because I just can't do it.
When I arrived in Birmingham my friend Glyn Bush (better known as producer/DJ/musician Biggabush), told me that the band Vision Collision needed a keyboard player, so that’s how that started. I also worked with a chap called Pickle Chown in a unit called Mr Liquorice. In fact, Pickles’ has just sent a copy of an album that we recorded at the Triangle Arts Lab in Birmingham in 1981 - It’s quite a groovy little album.
I also played with The Experts whose lead singer was Andy Wickett - who would also be in TV Eye and Duran Duran. I also played with the Au Pairs, We’ve Got a Fuzzbox…and Robert Lloyd, Ted Chippington…
OL (interrupting): You worked with Ted Chippington? (I proceed to do a terrible impression of Ted and waffle on about how I once met him after a gig at a Students’ Union where I once worked)...
CT: Yes, it's me and Micky who played on those records...
OL: …(sounding a little bit stunned) including ‘She Loves You’ and ‘Rocking with Rita’?
CT: Yes (now laughing at how impressed I am by this revelation). There was quite a scene in Birmingham, we lived in Moseley. It was really buzzing and a lot of what I would call cross-hybridization. It was great fun.
At this point, and whilst still laughing, I draw the interview to a close. Before I go, I ask Cara whether she has any (musical) plans for the future, but the moment she doesn’t have anything definite but does note that ‘Zone’ may just be the ‘tip of the iceberg’, which is an enticing place to end. In the meantime, and before we descend into winter, it’s an ideal time to get into the ‘Zone’.
Purchase 'Zone' here
Cara's YouTube channel includes clips of her performances of music by The Lilac Time at this years Primadonna Festival. Link here
The Vibration Continues. Cara Tivey and Rachel Starritt perform in Hereford Cathedral - August 2021