“I feel much freer in music, playing the piano, than in life”

Clara Peya

Retrat de Clara Peya © Dani Codina

Seeing Clara Peya (1983) on stage, sitting in front of the piano, is an unforgettable experience. She approaches it, surrendering her body and her soul to a new conquest that will ultimately move us, without a doubt. She contracts and expands, inviting us to an intimate stronghold where it is she who sets the pace, who embraces us and who, at the same time, asks us to embrace her. Few words can describe the act of enjoying her performing live, with music that extends far beyond virtuosity, perfection in its execution, notes or scores. It is communion, it makes us feel welcome, it makes us tremble.

​Frank and spontaneous, her nature has brought her to build her own unique language; to live and breathe art as a powerful tool for change, bringing light to hidden places, to the margins; to be brave enough to challenge identities, sexualities, injustices as well as the stigma carried by the ill, visible in the condition itself, OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), which she suffers from. At the age of 33, she is the author of eight albums – she will release her new album in November, featuring the piano as the sole star – and a fine list of productions, as varied as those she does with Les Impuxibles. This is the company she set up alongside her sister and in which they merge dance and piano, with works such as Suite TOC núm. 6 [OCD Suite No. 6], PainballLimbo and AÜC – the latter will most certainly be completed in February 2020 –, after having premiered a street performance in Dresden and another at the CCCB Classics Festival, in October. “I don’t even know what clothes I’m wearing when I leave home”, she confesses, overwhelmed by her frenzied pace.
An author who plays just like she thinks, who performs just like she lives. She tells us how her mother made them – her and her sister, choreographer Ariadna Peya – play five minutes of piano every single day. “She instilled in us the principle of persevering, even just a little, every day.” Today, not a day goes by that she doesn’t play, but for work: she has become one of the most sought-after and active authors on the Catalan scene. She is also the youngest winner in the history of the 2019 National Culture Prize, awarded by CoNCA [the Catalan National Council for Culture and Arts]. It has been an unsurpassable year. “Many things happened at once. The other day I thought I wouldn’t be awarded any more prizes, because I have already been given the most important one granted.”

Normally, the CoNCA awards acknowledge an entire career, a trajectory spanning years. Your case is unprecedented, with a jury that placed the emphasis on innovation, an unconventional voice, an ability to hybridise different music genres, but, above all, a proven commitment to different causes, all through art.

The last one is the best. When I was told, I was very taken aback and a thousand thoughts ran through my head: I don’t deserve it, I don’t believe in awards, it’s an institutional award, should I accept it or not. Imagine! Then, I, a person who makes lists upon lists – I have OCD! –, made a list of all the shows I had set music to. I got a total of 26.

The average is almost a show per year lived. That’s not bad considering your age…

Yes, but bear in mind that I started setting music to shows at the age of 23 [she laughs]. Since I last counted, I’ve done 30 shows. And now I’ve recorded a new album, just piano, no voice, which will be released in November, with a smidgen of electronic music. It will be called AA (Analogia de l’A-mort) and it will be an analogy between love and death. The whole record alludes to light and darkness, darkness and light, and how we try to balance these two things all the time.

Your last album, Estómac [Stomach] – which garnered the Enderrock critics’ prize for best record of the year – was to be a highly politicised work, but it ended up coming out of love.

On the record, I allude to love and challenge the parameters of romantic love. Therefore, it ends up being a political record, which emerges from songs that are undeniably love songs. A few months ago I had a break-up, and whenever very powerful emotional things happen me, I engage in an artistic process that, somehow, I think helps me heal. This last year has been very hard, very intense, on many fronts: recognition from the press, institutions and also from the public; buckets of exposure and work; also a year with a very tough therapeutic process, with Suite TOC, and coming out as a person with a mental disorder, which is also exposing yourself a great deal. Exposure that is accompanied by a process that is both therapeutic and artistic. And all this ended with a break-up, and I decided to go on a spiritual retreat. But there was a piano where I went and, instead of the retreat, I made a record.

An example of how art can be therapy, a process for healing and expressing oneself.

Yes, I like the term healing process. I feel much freer in music, playing the piano, than in life. I don’t feel free in life, there are many things I do and would not do, I would like to say and do not say. There are lots of social codes you have to conform to.

Precisely, Clara Peya’s art makes a break with all this, with a discourse and a music that are interwoven, which are very compelling.

Yes, that’s what I try to do. But I am still a victim of romantic love, of the church, of this Catholic thinking. We were born with guilt. And I’m still a victim of patriarchy, of capitalism. I may try to deconstruct it, but I’m full of little things that stir me and I’m becoming aware of that from day to day. But the deconstruction I’m left with is colossal. Through music I find a vehicle to channel it.

You talked about romantic love, and that swiftly connects me with Estómac. And you also said patriarchy, which connects me with Oceanes [the feminine form of the Catalan word “oceans”].

Patriarchy is everywhere. Capitalism and patriarchy are two vectors of oppression that cut across everything. If we do not put patriarchy in romantic love, there is no gender difference between man and woman. While making Estómac I realised I only knew how to make love songs. And I said, “okay, I’ll write love songs”. But I also thought that I’d try to include political elements, even if they were within the realm of poetics.

A good example would be I jo pensant [And Me Thinking], where you talk about the injustices suffered by people who are starving and die, evictions...

Oddly enough, with all this crap, I just think “whether you’ll come back”. How can it be that, with all this going on, my whole mind is taken up with love and not all the issues that are much more important? But we have been educated like that. We have been taught that, alone, we are not complete.

But many of your lyrics do have verses with a highly politicised double meaning. In Estómac de plàstic [Plastic Stomach]: Tinc l’estómac de plàstic / ja no sé si soc dona o robot” [I have a plastic stomach / I don’t know if I’m a woman or a robot], or when it says: “il·lustrant esquerdes als marges” [illustrating cracks in the margins]. It is a declaration of intent. It describes a very clear landscape as regards you and your position vis-à-vis the world.

There are many ways to make love songs. You can make a love song like Tierra del hielo [Land of Ice], a very dramatic song about absolute love, but that does not allude to possession or neediness. A lot of very damaging things are concentrated in romantic love, such as possession (“sin ti no soy nada”) [without you I am nothing], neediness (“estaré contigo para siempre”) [I’ll be with you forever], and adoration (“nadie es como tú”) [there’s nobody like you], etc. Hey, just a minute! When you come to that realisation, you get very contrite. I didn’t analyse that for many years, I was stuck with it. When you start reconsidering things and thinking about the vocabulary we use, how we have been built in society... [she gasps]. I, for example, do not know who I really am, because I am someone in accordance with society. I don’t know what I would be like in a world where everything wasn’t learned. Here, we are told how we must behave and how we should think. We’re told everything!

The boundaries of Good and Evil also greatly define us. And that torments us, because we lug around the guilt of having done something wrong, if we don’t go straight to morality.

We have to avoid the concepts of Good and Evil. We have to avoid the man/woman, good/bad binary. We must seek out all the possible nuances, at all times. We have to replace blame with responsibility and I firmly believe in the empowerment of vulnerability. I have an outlet and the privilege of having studied what I studied. I was in a position to study piano because I didn’t have to wait on tables to bring money home or to take care of my grandparents. I have had a fully structured family with means, which allowed me to devote the hours I wanted to my vocation. My parents were able to pay for my education, for example, which is one amongst a series of privileges that sometimes we are not sufficiently aware of. We need to be responsible for who we are and to do something to change things.

It’s a hard process at a personal level, not at all easy.

The hardest thing for me is accepting everything that has happened to me, and I’m still in the midst of this process. It’s also hard, from this point, to start building something. I think if I’m lucky to have an outlet, I must use it in the best possible way. If I do shows, they will always be politicised and they will always somehow allude to social change and transformation. Art has an incredible power for transformation. The trouble is that we are busy, not informed.

There are also many people who prefer not to think, to isolate themselves from everything and to enjoy for the sake of enjoyment, nothing more.

I’m not saying that isn’t right, but it doesn’t interest me. I’m not interested in doing my take on classics, for example. What I do believe is incredibly important is how you go about it and what you seek to achieve, what your purpose is. I wanted people to know that I played the piano really well, but I didn’t start feeling good about myself until I had something to say. And this is regardless of whether you play well or badly. Everything changes when you realise that, deep down, it isn’t that important.

You talk about the little power you have for transforming society and, in fact, there are now many other voices with whom you spread your message. Now that it seems that your discourse has found an outlet and a context, how do you perceive the rise of the extreme right, repression and conservatism?

It’s very important for us to know that we live in a micro-world. The people around me – musicians and artists – are generally people who are highly politicised, committed, and who hail from social movements. I don’t know anyone who votes for the PP or VOX [Spain’s right-wing and far-right parties]! But they do indeed exist, all over the place. Then, there is a lyric by Jorge Drexler that claims that “history is a revolving door”. And I think that’s true: we haven’t learned anything! Power lies in the hands of money; and the more money you have, the more you want. There are very few people who do selfless things with their wealth. The people who have power don’t care about killing, or arms trafficking, or burning down the planet. This shows a complete and utter disconnection with who we are and where we come from; we come from the land, from nature. A disconnection from our ancestors and our soul, from things that are intangible. Why do we want so much money? To fill the gap left by love with money?

Power breeds power, you say. But we vote for these people, those in power. What happens to most people, those with no power or money?

To begin with, the left has had lots of time to think. Generally speaking, most left-leaning people come from the middle class, because the lower class only has time to get by. When I see people vexed over data that claim “Immigrants have voted for Ciudadanos [Spain’s centre-right political party]”, I think: “Yes, got it, but what do we do about the racism that is implicit in our daily lives? What do we do about the discrimination?” What do we ask of them? That to boot they think about things that they have no time even to consider? I think they can’t be judged.

This makes me think of the verses in the song Cicatrius [Scars]: “Ens han enganyat / Res no era veritat” [They tricked us / Nothing was true].

It can be applied to everything! Your parents put you in one school and not another because of its political ideas with which they share an affinity (pro-independence, Catalan nationalism, religion, etc.). You are told the story and you take it to be the right one. But there’s already bias here. You are told that the colonisers are heroes. You are told that Christopher Columbus is a hero! Are we crazy? How can there be sculptures, songs and so much literature dedicated to that tyrant? I only know what I’ve been told, and I don’t know if it’s true.

Art cannot be detached from a way of being, of getting involved and of seeing the world. What do you think of the authors who say that their life does not affect anything in their work?

I don’t have any answers, I always change my mind. Let’s see, there are things that are crystal clear to me, like what I think about sexual violence. But there are things that steadily change for me as we speak, or things I consider I have no right to form an opinion of. And I think labels are used to shatter them. In fact, labels must exist for this reason. Art doesn’t have to provide answers, but must raise questions and generate critical thinking. We must facilitate the discussion of certain issues after a show.

Retrat de Clara Peya © Dani Codina © Dani Codina

Sometimes you make categorical claims, like “the Bourbons are thieves”; but other times, you raise questions, like with the Suite TOC show.

The first was an anti-establishment assertion, but I think it was necessary. And in Suite TOC we ask questions like “Can we be healthy in a world that is ill?”. Actually, we all are sick. This doesn’t mean that I want to make the illness chronic, but that medicalisation is an outrage. I’m saying that and both my parents are doctors. In my case, I went to the psychiatrist and I was told: “You take this for life and that’s it”. We are accustomed to not being told “you have a cold”, but “you are this or that”. You can’t get rid of you.

Always a label.

“Because you’re like that...”, you’re told. I want to be lots of things, I want to change, I want to try to learn, I don’t want to live in a box. The processes for talking about my OCD are going really well for me, mainly as a political premise. I will not be fired from my job for having this disorder. I’ll be told I’m an eccentric artist. I am “candy” in this respect. But if I worked in a company, I might be given my notice.

You run the risk of being called “eccentric”, but also “radical”.

Yes [she smiles]. But the thing is that people are lacklustre, they are half-hearted. Why don’t they take an interest in the things that are really of interest? Humans and their stories are the best thing there is! Every person is unique: how can you lump everyone who suffers from schizophrenia together? Maybe we should think about what happened to that person to get to this point. After all, we are born to a system that generates money and with pharmaceutical companies that want you to consume and make you chronic. Do you think someone should decide whether or not you can get a penis? Do you think that should be decided by a doctor’s practice? Yet there’s no problem getting you breast or lip augmentation or lip enhancement surgery.

Do you think the Catalan scene needs to take one step further and address all these issues more often?

We are too polite. And being polite is a nuisance. Lots of people address these issues, but with hardly any visibility. The day that public theatre starts depicting the society in which we live and not middle-class heterosexual white people, and starts depicting racialised, migrant and diverse people... Tell us about realities that extend beyond the typical Catalan family! But enough of leaving your hometown, doing a degree, having a direction, being very pacifist and really polite. Because we Catalan people, without a doubt, are really polite...

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