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Neil Cowley set to light up Derry's Illuminate Festival with homecoming gig

28 January 2022
When you mention the name Derry to Neil Cowley, the enthusiasm positively radiates from the London musician – and there is no better ambassador for the city he calls his second home. Cowley has unreservedly taken the city to his heart since he spent a year as Musician in Residence at the Nerve Centre during Derry's tenure as UK City of Culture in 2013. It's a year that stands out as a landmark time in his career, and one that not only engaged him on a professional level - it brought with it an eclectic array of new friends, and an understanding of a place that, to a Londoner, is a bit of a mystery.
Next month he makes a welcome return to the city where he joins an impressive line-up of musicians at the Illuminate Festival – a brand new outdoor celebration set to light up Derry's City Centre with music, installations, story-telling and performance, for eight days over two weekends. Among the exciting music acts confirmed to perform alongside Cowley are Kila, the Henry Girls, Aoife Scott and Glenn Rossborough, who will perform a series of intimate gigs at a number of venues from 17th -20th and 24th – 27th February.
Funded by Tourism NI, Illuminate is a first for the City, in a year of festivals leading up to the ten-year anniversary of the City of Culture, and a timely opportunity to once again bring people together to enjoy music and culture on a larger scale. For Neil Cowley it couldn't come soon enough, and the renowned composer and pianist is looking forward to the chance to catch up with old friends, and once again connect with an audience post-pandemic.
"In 2013 I spent all my time shouting about this place and trying to tell people in London how amazing it is," he recalls. "I felt that was part of my role to help raise the profile of Derry and I got the sense that where I'm from people hadn't really heard about 'Derry' – or Stroke City, or Londonderry. It confused people – they just didn't get it.
"I loved the city from the minute I got there, and I've been back many times since 2013 to catch up with friends. I think the last time I was there was in 2019 for the Jazz Festival. When I arrive in Derry I just walk up to the Nerve Centre and knock on the door and pick up with people as if I've never been away. I love playing the Craft Village and Bennigan's Bar – there are some really amazing venues that I return to whenever I can."
Like so many during the Covid pandemic, Cowley has struggled with the reality of being a musician without an audience to share his creativity and his ideas. It's been a major challenge, which has made his return to the city next month all the more significant as he gets to grips with live performance once again.
"Covid has been absolutely horrific - hell on earth!" he admits. "It makes you ask lots of questions of yourself, and why you do what you do. Do people enjoy your music, is there a desire for it? Will they still want to come and watch you perform? Should you still keep doing what you're doing? It makes you question your sense of place in the universe. It's no wonder I've been going slowly and methodically mad over the past two years," he laughs.
"It's been very challenging and it's great we're finally coming out the other side of this. But there is a long way to go yet. I've done a few sporadic gigs to date and it's been very surreal getting back out there in front of people and not speaking to them via a screen. I don't think the shackles are off just yet, I think it will take a run of gigs before it begins to feel normal again. But it's reassuring to see that there is an appetite there – you can see it in people's faces when you're playing. There's a level of connection there with the audience and they are hungry for that live performance again and that sense of community you experience as part of a crowd sharing something special.
"The Illuminate gig in the Guildhall has come at the perfect time. I'm so delighted that the opportunity just came my way – it seems so appropriate that this will be the gig to symbolically pull me out of the pandemic. I think the ethic behind it is lovely – this idea of light and illumination being used to tell stories is such a lovely creative thing. And it's great to be back in the city for a different reason other than City of Culture or the Jazz Festival – it kind of shows I'm still in demand and in people's minds."
As the ten-year anniversary of City of Culture approaches next year, it's natural to take stock and see how far the City has come on its cultural journey. For Neil it will always be a highlight in an impressive musical career that has seen him collaborate with the likes of Adele, Birdy, Emili Sandé and a whole host of other big industry names. Despite the calibre of the musicians he rubs shoulder with in London, the music scene here has always resonated with him.
"The music scene in Derry is fantastic, it's so unique and I tell everyone about it. I think what I love most is that it's inter-generational, there's a passion there that spans the generations. "We would be playing a gig at Bennigans and it would be packed with people of all ages who all share this love for the music, singing and dancing along. It's totally different in London where you would play to one audience of a certain age. In Derry the music brings people of all ages together – it's just one of the unique things that sets the city apart.
"I spent 2013 shooting over and back to the City, and I enjoyed a lot of time there in my role at the Nerve Centre. I've been back since for the Jazz Festival and on other occasions and I think the one thing that always remains the same is the spirit of the place and the people of Derry. Ten years on it will be good to take stock and see how far things have moved on culturally. But I know when I go back in February for Illuminate, some things may have changed but the spirit will be just the same and that's what I really love about the place."
The Illuminate theme is particularly fitting as Neil has been working on a new approach to his music that he's had a chance to develop over lockdown for a new solo album, Hall of Mirrors. The ambient and atmospheric style is a departure from the animated jazz performance that people here will be familiar with, and should really grab the audience's attention when they see Cowley in the Guildhall next month. "I've been working on my own in a new guise, which I think is beautifully placed for the gig next month. I'm using technology to try out some innovative new approaches using old TVs which I can actually play using the piano," he reveals. "It's allowed me to introduce music and lights to the performance, which I hope will really work well in the context of Illuminate.
"I played my last gig of City of Culture in the Guildhall so I'm looking forward to playing there again – it just seems fitting to have come full circle again. And I really hope to have the opportunity to play the Jazz Festival again this year. Last year I played a virtual concert from my back garden, which was a bit strange.
"But most of all I can't wait to get back to the Guildhall where I know I'll see all those familiar faces right there in the front row."
You can catch Neil Cowley on Saturday February 26th in the Main Hall in the Guildhall with Ciaran Lavery and Maria Kelly from 9-11.30pm. Tickets for all the intimate music experiences are currently on sale and are expected to sell out fast as numbers are limited – for more details on the gigs and how to book tickets visit –www.musiccapital.org