Michaela Polakova Tells Us About Working with her Musical Hero and Combining Classical Music, Rock…and Being a Mum!

How do you balance your career as a classical composer and musician with your love of the rockier end of the musical spectrum?

I started to play piano at the age of 10 and I always loved to play classical music – Bach, Chopin, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Bartholdy; later Bartok and Shostakovich. When I was a child, I thought at first I was going to be a pianist. But then when I was 12 years old I started to compose short piano compositions, later compositions for more instruments and I fell in love with composing. It was like a whole new world of being endlessly creative in music opened to me.

Buy Ellis Island here: https://wmcz.lnk.to/ellisisland

Since then, I decided I wanted to be a composer. I loved classical music but as a teenager I also started to listen more to pop music, you know, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bad in the 80’s; U2, Depeche Mode etc. and then in 90’s, Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos, Bjork and The Verve. When I was in high school, I decided to go and study composition at Prague Conservatoire and I chose two main subjects – composition of pop music/ songwriting as well as classical contemporary composition. I had some teachers sometimes telling me how I can compose both classical music and pop songs, in those days, and especially in the Czech Republic, both “teams” didn’t like each other much. The classical musicians thought pop-music is something cheesy or worse quality and pop musicians thought contemporary classical music is so inaccessible to people and hard to understand. Not all musicians of course. I had wonderful teachers. But I never had any problem with that.

So, since my childhood, I have always been composing both songs as well as contemporary classical compositions for piano, string quartets, some orchestral music etc. When I moved to London I also studied two semesters at University of East London. This included sound-design and some electronic music, but later I decided to study composition at masters level at King’s College, London. I had a fantastic professor, Silvina Milstein. Classical training always helped me and inspired me in my songwriting to push the boundaries in melody, harmonies, form and arrangements and be more creative as well as being more critical of my material.

Has it been a culture shock, coming to live and work in the UK?

At first I was very excited, then I was quite homesick for couple of years. I missed a lot of Czech things. I came here because I fell in love with my husband and moved to London because of him. I left my family in my hometown Ostrava and my music in Prague. Natalie just released the Hummingbirds In Iceland album for Sony Music where I wrote 8 tracks for her, but I fell in love and moved to London. At that time I also wanted to try different things in life and I volunteered at homeless centre for many months, which I enjoyed very much, worked with kids and started to teach music. I then decided to go back to school and started to study music at University of East London and then a masters in composition at King’s College London and that helped me as well as connecting with British musicians.

When I graduated, we started to work on Ellis Island album with Natalie. I missed my country very much. I missed Prague. It is very beautiful city and I had many memories. Working on a new album and flying to Prague very often for recording sessions helped me to feel more home in UK as well as in Czech Republic. It’s much better now. We bought a house in Essex recently and we are very happy there. We live close to Cambridge and I absolutely fell in love with Cambridge, it reminds me a bit of Prague as well. I travel home quite often now, it’s just two hours direct flight.

Is it frustrating “letting go” of the project and handing it over to other musicians to play?

Not really. At first I am inside my own world and have very specific ideas how the song should sound like and trying to insist on it when communicating with the people I collaborate with but then I am totally open to any changes if that’s better for the music. It depends on a situation…but if you have musicians like Nick McCabe on your album, you can’t really restrict them to your ideas about guitar parts, so you have to let them be free and themselves. The musicians you work with really enrich your music. It’s team work and that’s an exciting and fascinating process. The key thing is to choose brilliant musicians who are on the same wavelength and you can be friends with and inspire each other but who are also humble. That is why we didn’t want to hire just some studio musicians who would just do the job, get paid and say “goodbye”. But as for producing the album, we felt strongly with Natalie, that we wanted to produce it ourselves, we wanted to choose the songs we wanted and had a specific ideas about the sound, arrangements and mixes.

Tell us about how you go about creating your music, from initial idea to completion.

I’m a daydreamer. I’m trying to get inspired by everything: by life, by love, by listening to music, by friends…I usually use Logic Pro X for composing. I’m playing and improvising and singing mostly on a piano sound or exploring various other sounds and record everything immediately. For melodic lines, I usually use what we call in Czech Republic “pseudo-English”. It means you kind of write some lyrics but it is not totally in English, you use some made-up words that sound almost like English or some random English words or phrases that don’t make sense together – you use it in order to create a melodic line without being limited by words or writing lyrics straight away. Most Czech musicians do this [and English-speaking a lot of the time ed.]. It’s bit funny, but that is how we do it even if we write a song that would later have Czech lyrics. So in my case, the music comes first and once the song is composed, then Natalie would write lyrics for it.

I am trying to be strict with evaluating my composition material. That’s what I learnt at King’s College London from my professor, Silvina Milstein. For example, if I feel that any melody I make reminds me of something I heard before many times, I will not use it, or if the song is not somehow special to me, I will leave it. I then record what can be potentially verse or chorus and send it to Natalie (when I work with her) what she thinks. She is not a composer but she is very talented producer. She knows if something can be a really great song or it’s just an average songwriting and she would tell me. Sometimes we would argue in a positive way over a song but this actually inspires me. Some of the songs have five versions. I guess this part is the most exciting process from all the album producing and promoting…I loved sending the ideas to Natalie via internet and then waiting for her reactions.

Once the song is finished, she would then start writing lyrics. Sometimes she would write lyrics in the studio during recording. Once we have rough mixes with my arrangements, we sent the tracks to Fernando for bass parts and to Nick for guitar parts. Again, this was the most exciting part to wait for their parts to come back. I remember first excitement when guitars for Underwater came back from Nick. It was absolutely mind-blowing…that sound he created…exactly what I wanted being a The Verve fan.

When I am composing classical music or string arrangements I  use the Sibelius programme. I just enjoy writing the score from my head, just using my imagination and not playing anything. It’s a different system. Writing a music for a recent theatre play written by Natalie was also exciting. I just communicated with the director Daniel Hrbek via Facebook. We never met before the premiere. I never visited any theatre rehearsal, I just had a screenplay and audio rehearsal as an audio track and director’s ideas. This was quite different from composing music on Ellis Island. And I enjoyed that immensely as well, having clear directions about the music. When I came to the premiere of the play it worked perfectly. He seemed to be happy with that music. I am basically making a music career from my sofa with my computer and keyboard at the moment! hahaha

With both Nick McCabe and Fernando Saunders working with you, did you find yourself having to hold back the music fan inside you?

When we started to think about the album with Natalie, we didn’t know we will work with Nick and Fernando. In the beginning we just wanted to make good songs and write about our experiences. We didn’t have any budget in mind, any label, or any musicians in mind. Once we recorded the songs and started to think about the musicians, we were first looking for a bass player. I have a friend of mine who recommended Fernando to me as he lives in the same town where I come from, Ostrava. I didn’t know at first he played with Lou Reed and other great musicians. We sent him the tracks and he liked the music so he agreed to do bass parts on five tracks. I haven’t met him before and we communicated just online. But when I was in Ostrava after the album was released I met him, we had a coffee and it was very nice, he is such a nice guy, he likes my town, he said it reminds him of Detroit. He travels with his band touring across Europe and sings as well and he likes to work with local musicians. But he is a legend who also worked with Marianne Faithfull, Joan Baez, Slash, Tori AmosJimmy PageJan Hammer, Luciano Pavarotti, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Suzanne Vega.

We were then looking for a brilliant guitarist and we wanted somebody special. Natalie found a string quartet for us and she was preparing some videos and looking for a guitarist was my job. I couldn’t find anybody who I felt would be suitable for our music. So I asked myself, “who is my favourite guitarist?”; “What is my favourite band?” And the answer was The Verve and Nick McCabe, I always loved the band and the guitar arrangements were so special, so original and had a unique, full beautiful sound that nobody can produce like Nick. And I also like his band Black Submarine that he started to play in after The Verve split up. So I found a contact for him and sent him a message: he replied to me after two days, saying he will listen and get back tome, but he didn’t.

After five days I tried again, this time he said he is in the middle of mixing and he will listen straight away. After couple of minutes he wrote back, he really liked the music and said that it’s very dark and to his taste totally, and he sent me his telephone number to discuss it further. At first we thought he will be just a special guest guitarist on the “Underwater” track but we were so excited and impressed with the guitars on that track that we decided we would like him on 8 tracks. The other two tracks are just with piano and a string quartet. It was an amazing and exciting process sending the rough mixes to Nick and waiting to hear back for the guitars to listen to. He really took our music to another level. The guitar parts on tracks like “I Am The End” or “Feeling Falls” reminds me of the early The Verve songs.

Natalie then visited me in London where I used to live and we spent two days with Nick there, filming the “Underwater” video and doing some photo-shoots, and we also went to Assault & Battery Studio to visit John Catlin who was going to mix our album. We became friends. He even came back to London again to hear the mixes in the studio when I was mixing with John. He is a very nice and humble guy and we were very honoured to have him and Fernando on our album. It was a dream come true.

Why has it taken so long for the album to be presented to a UK audience?

When we were recording the Ellis Island album I became pregnant. We were recording a string quartet in Prague and I was 8 weeks pregnant. Last time I was able to fly to Prague was in December and the album wasn’t mixed still, so at the beginning of 2016 I decided to mix majority of the album in London and found John Catlin, a very talented sound/mixing engineer who was, for example, working on PJ Harvey’s album Let England Shake or some albums by Foals, who works in Assault & Battery Studio. I travelled every day from East London to West London – a two hour journey – heavily pregnant to the studio. I guess the studio owners Flood (U2, Depeche Mode producer) and Alan Moulder (Nine Inch Nails producer) never seen before a pregnant lady mixing the album in their studio! I got a lot of attention there becuase of my bump! :)) We then sent the mixes to Prague for mastering. I remember we finished online communication regarding mastering at 12 at night and the master was ready to be submitted to the label.

I went to sleep and got up at 4 am when my waters broke! I had to rush to the hospital. I was 39 weeks pregnant and didn’t expect that at all, as they say usually in the first pregnancy the baby is born after the due date. 12 hours later my son Joseph was born. At the time of the album release, I had one month old baby. Our label Warner Music promoted well the album in the Czech Republic but we haven’t had any promotion in UK. Natalie did a great job with promoting the album in most of the magazines, newspapers, TV, radio stations etc. Then it was summer, my son was still little. I then started to compose music again for Natalie’s theatre play for Svandovo Theatre. Natalie was busy with other work and she has two kids as well. But as I live in UK I felt I would still like this album to be promoted in UK as well as this is really an international project and we also released a new lyric video.

You’ve got a huge gig lined up – what would be your dream venue?

Any venue where people would enjoy to listen to our music….but I guess I would like to experience to play at Glastonbury….we are working on preparing some gigs in the Czech Republic and hopefully in UK as well…it’s bit difficult as I live in Essex, Natalie in Prague and Nick in the north of the country, so we need to think how and where we can do rehearsals first. Maybe make another album first so we have more concert material. But I believe we will definitely play gigs together.

What would be your ultimate aim in the industry?

We would like to continue with Natalie writing and releasing albums together. This team works well. We would also like to tour and with Nick McCabe. I would also like to compose more music for film, theatre, documentaries, TV or other singers in UK, since I am based here. I also enjoy making string quartet arrangements or string quartet cover songs for other artists, which I did in past on ‘Stromboli In Quartet’ album, a well known band in Czechia. I wrote songs for other singers in the Czech Republic for their albums released by Sony Music. I released my solo album as a singer-songwriter, I played and sang in the Excalibur musical for two years, sang a title song for a serial for Czech TV and had vocals on some other music. I once had my vocals on a ballet music, so would love to write some contemporary music for a ballet as well… I really enjoyed writing music for Natalie’s theatre play called ‘The Night Before The Funeral’ for a prestigious theatre in Prague, the Svandovo Theatre. It’s a brilliant bitter comedy. All the dates are sold out. It was directed by successful theatre director Daniel Hrbek who also had plays in US and he contacted me based on listening to Ellis Island album. It was a wonderful experience and I met great new artists. The music for the play was mixed by Richard Kennedy who also works at Assault & Battery Studio.

Is there anything you would like people to know about your current release?

Most of the reviewers consider our album as dark music. Although the tunes might be dark, we have enjoyed recording and producing this album immensely and we had a lot of fun together in the studio. I write the music, Natalie is the singer and she writes beautiful lyrics. Her mother, Marsha Kocab, wrote lyrics for “Social Affair” and co-wrote with Natalie lyrics for “Carry On“, which is a duet with me: we sing about the fun we had in the studio during recording sessions. Her brother, Miki Kocab, played drums. Natalie comes from a musical family, her father Michael Kocab is a well known rock musician and thanks to him, we could record this album in his studio.

We had a friend of ours, David Rubek, who made “Underwater” video for us and did the artwork on the CD with his team. “Underwater” is the only song where I wrote the lyrics as well. My sister, Petra Valaskova, created a lyric video for “These Years” using my father’s (Josef Polak) photograph. He is a photographer. We created this album with love and joy with our friends and family musicians. Hope I didn’t forget to mention anybody I am grateful for collaborating with us!

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