Classical music. The harp. Ahh, music to our ears! And what better person to tell us more about it than Valeria Kurbatova, a talented harpist and absolute stunner to our eyes.
We spoke to Valeria about her musical background, some of the great projects she’s worked on, fabulous artists she’s worked with, and where she sees herself in the future – as well as a few tips for those who want to pursue a career with the harp.
KNEWYU: HOW DID YOU GET INTO MUSIC? DO YOU COME FROM A MUSICAL FAMILY?
VALERIA: When I was 8 years old I started to have a strong interest in music which quite surprised my family as both y parents are not from a musical background. At the time, I was begging them to take me to a music school and they decided it’d be a good idea for my general knowledge to be able to play a piano and possibly another instrument.
By sheer, we were living next to one of the top music schools in Russia (Gnessins State Musical School) and they took me there for an audition. When we came for an audition on the day, we were shocked because every little child who was trying to get a place there was already playing an instrument and knew the basics of the music grammar as they were only giving 1 place in every 10 students, and I didn’t have any knowledge of music at all! But weirdly after a series of tests, I did get a place and that then set me on my musical path.
K: WHAT DREW YOU TO THE HARP?
V: I didn’t pick the harp, it picked me. In the music school they asked me what second instrument after piano I’d like to play and the first instrument which came into my mind was the flute but luckily for me they didn’t need any more flute students but the harp teacher offered me to try out the harp. When I saw it, I was blown away. I couldn’t reach most of the strings or pedals yet but there was a strong connection between me and the harp. Soon after it became my main instrument and my parents knew that this was going to be for life. As the school was preparing mostly professional musicians everything was really serious, constant exams, auditions, competitions and concerts. My solo debut concert was in the Big Hall of Moscow Conservatoire at the age of 9. And after graduating from Gnessins Stage College of Music and almost 10 years of practicing the harp, I was offered a place and a scholarship at the Royal College of Music in London, which became a further catalyst for my career.
K: WHO ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVOURITE HARPISTS?
V: I believe that every harpist is great just because they were brave enough to study such a difficult and demanding instrument! I have huge respect for my teachers Leuan Jones and Marisa Robles, they are true harp gurus! I also admire Alice Coltrane for introducing harp into jazz music and creating some really nice music.
K: WHAT IS A NORMAL DAY LIKE IN THE LIFE OF VALERIA? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL RECORDING DAY LOOK LIKE?
V: Practicing is the back-bone of my career, and I still dedicate a decent chunk of time to that. I’m also taking lessons in Logic Pro and production and have recently acquired a little home studio – so am starting to experiment with production and am finding my way there. It’s amazing to start with an empty canvas and build something. I’ve also been doing lots of recording with other artists – I recorded and composed some music for Katy B’s new album (Honey), seeing the roster of guest artists on her album was a bit intimating, so many of them are heroes of mine – D Double E, Four Tet etc. It was an amazing experience. I’ve also been going quite a bit of recording Jamie Jones – such a down to earth and lovely guy which is amazing seeing as he’s one of the top names in dance music. And me and Kate Simko have been collaborating for over 3 years now with our London Electronic Orchestra project (a hybrid of classical and dance music – more info here -, that’s really gone from strength to strength and our debut album is out now on the Vinyl Factory, you can listen to it here.
I’ve been touring a lot lately with The London Electronic Orchestra and doing a fair amount of promo work for our album. And it’ll be back to the studio again soon for our follow up album. Kate’s really well connected and we’ve had projects with Jamie Jones and Seth Troxler (The Tilted EP) through her this year, which leads to amazing exposure, it’s been a real pleasure. Working with Kate has also taken me to some really amazing places where I’ve had to pinch myself from time to time, doing our Boiler Room show at a massive villa in Ibiza was a highlight and our recent show at Midem Music Festival in Cannes was a lot of fun, we’ve got The Royal Albert Hall in October (tickets here – www.royalalberthall.com/tickets/events/2016/kate-simko-and-london-electronic-orchestra) which is great as I’ve only ever played classical there so I can’t wait to play something a bit different there and open up classical music more and more to other genres, which is kind of a mission I have set myself. I find myself touring a lot more now actually, which is one of my favourite parts of the job, getting to meet so many kind and talented people on the road will stay with me forever, life memories!
K: IF YOU COULD PLAY WITH ANYONE (ARTIST/ORCHESTRA/MUSICIAN ETC.) WHO WOULD YOU CHOOSE AND WHY?
V: I am really into James Blake’s music at the moment (and have been for a while) – I think there are very few super talented singer-songwriters who don’t veer into mainstream pop nowadays and who really come with a completely new sound, I think he’s a real innovator, he’s shaken things up. He’s very talented as he plays many of the instruments that feature on his tracks and has an amazing voice. I would love to work with him and compose some harp parts on a track with him. I also love Bonobo – his music is so enchanting, when listening to it, you almost fell like you’re in a daydream. I’ve heard quite a few harp parts on his tracks as well so I think it would be a great fit (if we ever crossed paths of course!).
K: WHAT HAS BEEN THE HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR MUSICAL CAREER SO FAR?
V: Finding myself in iconic places playing harp – The Kremlin, Houses of Parliament and Kensington Palace in the classical world and festivals such as Bestival and iTunes Festival in the dance world. I’m still amazed every time I step into such iconic places – I never thought I’d get the chance at anything like this and to be honest I have to thank The Royal College of Music who believed in me and gave me a scholarship – that enabled me to move to London and really kick off my musical career. They are a world class musical college and I wouldn’t be here without the skills and tools they have given me!
K: WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF 3 YEARS FROM NOW?
V: By that time I really hope I have a solo debut album out, I’m working on finding my own sound and would like to experiment with a stage show – what a dream it would be to be able to showcase my own music like that and pick up skills on new instruments along the way. I’m also interested in working in a world class classical orchestra as well even though it’s incredibly tough work.
K: WHAT TIPS CAN YOU GIVE TO ASPIRING HARPISTS?
V: Well the first and most obvious one is just keep practicing, even when you feel like you’ve been continuously practicing for weeks, practice some more! You’re never good enough, that’s a philosophy I believe in, always look to better yourself. The other one is: find your niche area. My niche was to take my skill-set and apply it outside of classical music to other genres such as hip hip and house music. I didn’t want to become a one trick pony who can only play classical. Learn to improvise and open your mind to new opportunities, it is a truly amazing instrument and there are so many opportunities out there.