Kelly Moran is a new signing to legendary electronic music label Warp Records. The young New York based pianist released her full length album ‘Ultraviolet’ at the tail end of last year, to critical acclaim. Following her recent appearance at Band On The Wall, which we covered here, we caught up with the musician to talk about prepared piano, techniques and her Warp Records debut.
// When did you first discover your love for prepared piano, and how were you drawn to configuring your own arrangements for the piano?
The first time I got into prepared piano was in college. I saw one of my professors play John Cage’s Sonatas & Interludes, and I was just really obsessed with how cool it sounded. Obviously as a pianist, it was like hearing my instrument in another dimension. I really wanted to try it, so I got into learning John Cage’s pieces. My professor taught me how to prepare piano, but I didn’t start doing it myself until 2016 for my own compositional purposes. I was always a little bit intimidated to try it because I knew the second I did anything of my own with prepared piano, people would compare me to John Cage, and that was a little scary for me. But there was this one day where there was a snow-storm and I couldn’t leave my parents’ house for a few days; and I was like, why don’t I just try to prepare the piano and see if I write something? I hadn’t written my own music for many years at that point. I took a break from writing when I got to New York because I was very insecure and got wrapped up in other people’s projects; I kind of just lost direction for a few years. But as soon as I started playing it, it was like “oh shit!” I had so many ideas come to me and I wrote my record ‘Bloodroot’ in like two weeks! There was non-stop inspiration and discoveries. So that was kind of how it started, and since then it has been this endless well of inspiration for me.
// Do you feel accepted by classical music purists, or do you feel that there is a little bit of a stigma that prepared piano might be considered too contemporary or experimental?
I feel more accepted now than I used to. My record ‘Bloodroot’, which was the first I did on prepared piano, ended up on the New York Times best classical music recordings. So as soon as that happened, there was my stamp of approval from the classical music world. After that I started getting more commissions to compose with other musicians and projects, so I felt like things were getting a little bit easier for me. Classical music will always have purists who don’t want to push it forward and want to preserve the past, but overall I feel like I’ve been accepted.
// How did you decide your own method for preparing the piano for ‘Ultraviolet’?
I pretty much used the same setup that I used for ‘Bloodroot’. That day, I went through my parents’ toolkit that was sitting in their closet, and I played around with different screws and bolts. I figured out that the mid to lower range required slightly bigger screws and bolts, and as a I went higher I had to get smaller ones. So I figured out a configuration that sounded really good, and I’ve kind of kept it the exact same way since then. [Showing me on the piano] I just use one screw and one bolt per string. I have three bags that I divide them into; I have labels, so I know that the bold screws are going to go on A and B-flat here [demonstrating on the piano], but I’ve done it so many times that I just know it and have my own little system worked out. It makes life easy.
// Are your compositions on Ultraviolet rigidly composed or do you allow space for improvisation?
They were all originally improvised. All of them started as improvisations that I actually recorded over the course of one day! I was out of my mind and reached a new threshold mentally. I just had a day where I completely let go. I was at this point in my career where I was writing a lot of commissions for other people who were trying to push me in certain directions. I was having a lot of trouble with it, so I had a day to myself to not think about music and turn my brain off. And then I had this realisation that my music had all felt very forced and planned, and I just kind of had to let go and go with the flow. My piano was prepared and my mics were set up, so I just hit record and started improvising on and off for six or seven hours. The next day I listened to it and thought, this is my next record! So then I learned how to play my improvisations and scored them, and that’s the record. [Sighing] It was a big moment of discovery that day!
// So when you go on tour you don’t have to lug a piano around. Have you found that some venues aren’t so keen on letting you prepare their pianos?
Definitely! [laughing] I have a great booking agent and he has been really good at finding me venues that will let me prepare the piano. For tonight for example, we booked this gig, but once they realised “oh she wants to do prepared piano, you can’t do this!” So the promoter ended up getting a different piano for me to prepare, which was really amazing of them to do. It would have been lame to do it without prepared piano!
// Does it actually damage the piano?
No, it doesn’t. But people are paranoid and piano tutors are like “no, don’t do it!” But the way I prepare the piano, it does zero damage.
// You recently played the Hospital Productions Fest in New York with a lot of extreme metal and noise artists such as Prurient and Jesu. How did you find the reception went, and did you feel any pressure to change your sound for that show?
I just did what I always do. Dom [Fernow, Prurient] and I became friends from MYRIAD [Oneohtrix Point Never’s touring band], because he was on [OPN’s latest album] Age Of, on a few tracks. He performed with us at the Park Avenue Armory and we were constantly joking with each other during rehearsals. He really likes the way that I play, and he said he really wanted to work with me in some capacity. So I sent him my record and he was like, “Holy fuck, this is exactly what I want to listen to!” So he said he wanted to play some shows with me. He’s amazing, you know, he’s Prurient! So I was like, yes dude, I love your music, I’m so down. So then he invited me to Hosptial Fest, and then to tour with him and [Japanese noise music pioneer] Merzbow. I remember at first I was like “are you sure you want me here!?” I was very sceptical because I didn’t know what the reception was going to be like for me playing at a harsh noise show. But Dom was like, “no you’re going to be perfect, trust me!” The reception was incredible, and once we started doing shows I started to understand Dom’s philosophy about having me there because it’s nice to have contrast and a pallet cleanser because I’m so different. Even though my music can be very pretty, it’s still very intense. I’m not playing pretty piano music, I’m trying to rip your face off!
// You’ve collaborated with Toby Driver and Oneohtrix Point Never as well. How did these unisons come about and how does your playing differ when working with them?
I’ve been a fan of Toby’s music since I was like sixteen; Kayo Dot are one of my favourite bands of all time, and I love Maudlin Of The Well. I was just a really big fan of his work and when I moved to New York I went to all of his shows, and so he just kind of got to know me through that. He knew I was a good piano player, and asked me to learn to play on his solo music, which is absolutely beautiful. Of course I said yes and learned his solo music, and we did shows together. From working with people like Toby and Dan [Lopatin, Oneohtrix Point Never] there are moments where I am able to inject my own style in as well. For the most part with Toby, I’m just playing his scores and following his music. With Dan I had a little more freedom to do my own thing. There were moments in MYRIAD where I played prepared piano and got more of a compositional input. The music world in New York is pretty small and everyone is connected. Once you start working with people it’s like everyone knows each other.
// How did your unison with Warp Records come about and how does it feel to be on the label roster?
When Dan hit me up to start working with MYRIAD, he messaged me completely out of the blue, which was a trip all on its own! I was wearing a Garden Of Delete shirt when he messaged me, so I was freaking out a little bit, like [laughing] “how did he know!?” Dan is very prolific on the internet and he knows a lot about music. It was crazy because when I first started hanging out with him, he already knew all of my friends’ bands and the whole scene. He had known about my music and reached out to me because he wanted a bunch of keyboardists on his next record, and he said I had a really great ear for orchestration, and wanted me to help arrange it. So of course I was like “Yes, I’d love to do that!” So he invited me to his studio and played me Age Of, and I was completely blown away by it; I was like “holy shit this is incredible!” It was my favourite work of his, and I felt like he’d reached a new level. I was really excited because it lends itself so well to live performance. So he was like “what about you, what are you working on?” So I started playing him some of [Ultraviolet], and he was immediately like “oh my God, this is so cool! What are your plans for this album, who’s putting it it out!?” I said I didn’t have a label and could definitely use some help production-wise, so he was like “do you want me to help you since you’re helping me?” At that point in time I was a huge Oneohtrix Point Never fan, and if you’d asked me who I would want to work with, he would be at the top of my list. So to have him just volunteer to work with me on it was this crazy surreal amazing moment. Him and his engineer spent the day just going through the tracks and ended up working on three of the tracks, and then I had a day in the studio with them where they refined things. He was like, “let me send this around, I have ideas!” He was envisioning it on a big classical label like Deutsche-Grammophon, but he sent it to Warp and a couple of weeks later he emailed me and was like, “here are a couple of labels who are into your stuff;” Warp was one of them, and I remember not wanting to talk to anyone else!
When I met up with the A&R guys from the UK for lunch, they said there are usually three of us who listen to submissions and then bicker, but they were all completely unanimous, so I was like “holy shit!” There was like a two month period where I was like “this isn’t actually going to happen!” But the morning I got my record deal in my email I was shaking, it was unreal. It’s the most incredible thing that’s ever happened to me and it completely changed my life. I feel like Cinderella! It was great because when I did ‘Bloodroot’, I got so many rejections from labels. People were like “are you kidding us, do you really think we would put this out!?” The main criticism that I got from labels is that I was too leftfield and it wouldn’t fit in. Everyone was like “you don’t fit in! You don’t fit in!” That was the main feedback I kept getting. I kind of accepted that I was forever going to be this outsider who didn’t have a home. So the first time I met with the people from Warp they were like “we like you because you’re so different. It’s like nothing we’ve ever heard before and that’s why you’re perfect for us.” I was like, damn… That’s exactly what I want to hear from people; to be embraced for being unique. To have their support behind me really meant everything; it made all my years of struggling feel like it finally all paid off.
// That’s amazing, especially since the record came out of this one day where you had this big revelation!
Yes, it’s crazy to me that it took all these little events just lining up so perfectly. All these little ifs and buts, and then it just kind of happened!