We speak to the leading lights of a new crop of jazz musicians changing the way the UK thinks about music. This week, pianist and composer Maria Chiara Argirò speaks to us about her childhood in Rome, the musicality of London, and where her voice will take her next.
The musician’s biggest influence growing up was her mother, a dance teacher, whose passion for ballet and contemporary dance inspired Maria to start piano lessons when she was a child. But by her early teens she’d discovered jazz “and that became an obsession,” she says. She started listening to the likes of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, then expanded out to Seventies prog (Pink Floyd) and folk (Nick Drake) – sounds which were at odds with the strict classical world. “I wanted to be a rebel,” she says.
When she was starting out in Rome, Maria continues, she was one of the very few women in jazz she could think of. “All my life I’ve been surrounded by men,” she says. “But when you’re 15, you don’t really think about being the only woman. Now I see many more women in jazz and electronic music but back then, it wasn’t the case at all.” She moved to London over a decade ago to immerse herself in the music scene; in Italy, she says, “jazz is still seen as the older generation’s music. I wanted to find my own path.”
In London, she studied at the London Centre of Contemporary Music and then took a jazz degree at Middlesex University. The day after her last exam was the day she went on tour with experimental post-punk group These New Puritans. “Then I was locked in a rehearsal space with the guys, it was crazy.” She says the group has hugely informed her own approach to music. “They’re not too worried about being commercial,” she says, “and they mix genres freely.”
Her new album, Forest City, marks her out as an exciting rising electronic artist, where jazz meets Kelly Lee Owens, Jon Hopkins and Radiohead. It’s a concept record, about the “duality of nature and city”, and where organic sounds and textures seem to flow above the urban sprawl. But though the album has dark undertones, it’s not all doom and gloom: in her earthy metropolis, a certain optimism glows through. “It’s about being conscious of the world we live in and how careful we need to be,” Maria explains. “At the end of the day, there is hope”.
How would you describe your personal style?
Vintage, casual, minimal but the truth is that my style is often changing. Trying to assign a label to things is always so difficult for me.
Do you have a favourite jazz album/inspirational jazz artist – and why? ‘
‘Speak no Evil’ by Wayne Shorter has been my jazz album obsession for a long time. He is a unique artist with such a strong vision and a truly inspiring composer to me.
What influences have you brought from Rome to your music and how has living in the UK informed your compositions?
My biggest influence growing up in Rome was my mother, a dance teacher, whose passion for ballet and contemporary dance inspired me to start piano lessons and join choirs when I was a child. I fell in love with Jazz in my early teens after some classical studies and since then I started realising that composing came very naturally and felt a lot of fun to me. Since living in London I’ve been constantly fed by loads of musical inputs. These helped me follow my own musical path and start experimenting with different compositional approaches.
What was the music that shaped the development of your own sound?
I’m always trying to be led firstly by my intuitions when making music, giving priority to the sound choices rather than a specific genre. I studied a lot of Jazz Harmony and Theory and in my first compositions and releases, I have been following an aesthetic, while now I am more conscious to let all these ideas go, breaking some of these rules and fully trusting my instincts. There are of course many influences in my style though – from jazz, electronica, dream-pop to songwriting.
You recently released Forest City on which you are singing for the first time, will we hear more of your voice on future recordings?
Yes, I think with Forest City I liberated myself from the idea of being solely a piano and keyboard player. I will definitely add more vocals in future recordings as it’s now an essential part of my compositional process.
Any film, book, prose, or music you are currently inspired by?
I’m currently reading ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ by Peter Wohllben. I’ve recently watched ‘Everything Everywhere all at Once’, which is very fun to watch and the soundtrack is incredible.
Do you have any rituals/habits you can share that keep you inspired and motivated?
I don’t really have rituals. I try as much as possible to balance the performance/studio/production/compositional time with walks and runs in the parks. Nature is something I really need in my life.
What are your plans for the near future/what music projects are you currently working on?
I’m currently involved in loads of different projects. I’m producing a couple of artists, collaborating on new music with guitarist Jamie Leeming, planning to record an album with duo project Moonfish (along with drummer/composer Riccardo Chiaberta) and working on my next album.
Explore Maria Chiara’s world:
Maria Chiara’s Instagram
All photography by Chaz Langley, shot on location in London, summer 2022.