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Creative work of Elza Ozoliņa, glued on a wall in an A3 format

Aleksandra Line

If you compose a lot and regularly, inspiration isn’t the most crucial factor

Publicity photo

Elza Ozolina is a pianist, composer, and arranger born in Latvia. Since she turned four, she has been making music, graduated from Jāzeps Mediņš Riga Secondary Music School and Tallinn Academy of Music and Theatre, and is currently taking a Nordic countries Master’s degree program «Nordic Master in Jazz». She’s a finalist in the «Riga Jazz Stage 2019» competition, her composition has been included in a jazz show at «BBC Radio 3» along with the brightest jazz compositions of the world. Last year she released an album of her original compositions, «Lick Attack», together with her international schoolmate line-up residing in Denmark, the one she called «B.H.A.D. Company».

Video calls help in uniting the whole world. Where do you talk to me from?

I’m in Stockholm right now. I have been studying in Helsinki, and now I’m in Stockholm, and then the last year of my Master’s studies will be in Denmark, Aarhus. I’ve been studying for my master’s in Tallinn, Estonia, and last year I moved to Aalborg for an exchange program to finish my studies there, now I’m in Stockholm and then moving back to Denmark.

Don’t you get fed up with moving all the time?

Maybe a little bit. But, considering that the next stop I’ll take will be more extended, I understand that I’ll stop at one place for a bit quite soon.

You’ve lived in quite a number of places. Do any of these countries seem closer to you?

Helsinki is quite a cool city in terms of the jazz scene, and Sibelius Academy is a cool place as well — the jazz department there is really well-developed and on a very high level. It’s really inspiring to study there — everyone wants to play, everyone wants to jam, and the lessons are exciting. Aalborg is an incredible place as well — most probably you’ve heard about it from Krists [Saržants] and Edgars [Cīrulis], how cool is that. Completely different — it’s a small city with tiny houses or huge modern buildings as, for example, a conservatory.

Do you know what you want to do after you get your Master’s degree? Where would you like to stay?

I plan to stay in Denmark. And most probably I’ll do so, I want to keep studying after my Master’s. They have this two-year-long education which corresponds to a Doctor’s degree in music. So I plan to keep studying so that everything else concerning working and living is set — everything is open for students.

Your debut album has been recorded together with an international team. How was it working together with them?

To be honest, I’ve been working in Latvia the least — as soon as I graduated from Mediņi, I instantly moved. I’ve been working in Estonia the most. Due to pandemics, all the lessons in Helsinki have been held online. In Stockholm, everything’s open — actually, only yesterday [we talk on February 25, 2021] they announced that people have to wear masks. Only yesterday. So before this, everything has been uncontrolled but open. And speaking of collaboration, I’ve been in Sweden before I began studying here as well, in 2018 we had this collaboration between Estonian and Gothenburg schools, and at the moment we went there, I’ve established a girls trio, and in n2019 we’ve been playing at the «Nefertiti» jazz club in Gothenburg, which was a very nice concert with very positive feedback. I hope we’ll keep on collaborating.

The Aalborg collaboration has also begun spontaneously because of the school concert. So we’ve played it, and I had a feeling — okay, these guys are pretty close to what I actually want to play. We have a pretty nice contact; we have fun outside the stage, so we decided to record an album together. At the same time, we applied for a Danish jazz contest for jazz bands, not soloists, reached semi-finals, and all of that happened really fast. So we’ve agreed on this — we record at the studio, we have a week for that, I had 12 compositions, we put them together, rehearsed, and prepared for the contest. It took us two days in the studio, from the morning until the evening, and we’ve recorded the whole album. Aalborg has a very cool recording studio with three rooms. It was a funny case — in the end, I set up the entire studio myself because the sound engineer simply didn’t come. I took everything into my own hands — set up all the technical equipment, being online with a mixing engineer in Copenhagen — he just told me what to switch in where.

Last year you were telling Signe Lagzdiņa in your interview for the LR3 «Klasika» about the fact that the album was composed in two weeks. How can you find this inspiration and creative spirit in you so quickly?

I had it all accumulated. I just had a bunch of ideas — so I opened the whole box, sat down after Christmas, for two weeks at the studio, and composed 12 — 13 tunes. And then we released ten. I took one idea — melody, groove, and put the demo together, a song structure. We had a rapper I got last minute, he said — «Okay, I’ll come to record». We haven’t ever met in person; some six rappers dumped me in Aalborg before that. Nice rappers who rap in English aren’t enough in Latvia as well. So I got one from Aarhus, and when he entered the studio, he had no idea that we’d record that same song live. And he was shocked because he has never recorded it like this. So we recorded that song, and he was so inspired that this «Outro» in the end was really spontaneous.

How do you position this album in terms of the genre?

This is a chapter that grew out of me in the last ten years. I grew up in Riga among extreme sports, skateboards, fixies, and the electronic music and jazz environment as well. I’ve done so much before this was out. Now, of course, the new chapter begins the one that moves towards traditional jazz while keeping that urban feeling I grew in — it definitely won’t disappear anywhere. I currently collaborate with an electronic musician from Denmark, and hip hop won’t fade; only traditional jazz will join. I have to say that the smaller European countries, especially the Baltics, struggle with that American tradition.

Speaking to me today, you use the word «inspiration» quite often. What inspired you in music and outside it?

To be honest, I just try to do everything that comes to my mind. I have changed the sports I do for some 15 times or so — I skate, earlier I’ve participated in some competitions in Latvia, in my school years when I had more time. Now it’s harder to find the time, but I always have my skateboard with me. Being in Denmark, I also work in a hip hop company in Denmark now, sometimes I record the other rappers, help marketing, manage the other artists; that’s a side job. I don’t just sit at home or in my classroom studying — it’s really important to go out, do things, get acquainted with people. I think it brings the most inspiration. If you only sit on your own and only do this, go to rehearsals and study, then at one point, your inspiration can leave you. But if you compose a lot and do it regularly, inspiration isn’t the essential factor.

Do you feel good playing the music composed by others, as well?

I think it’s really interesting to play music composed by others. Both, the one composed by my course mates and by some completely new people, as well. I now took a study course where we study jazz trio from a historic perspective, so we play all piano jazz trios there, and there’s a lot of music. If the piece is yours, then you react to it differently, you try to show more of yourself. But when you play the music composed by others, you have a task to support, listen and put something more from yourself, only in a decent quantity.

And the moment where the others play something you’ve composed — is it easy to perceive it?

I don’t feel like changing a lot. If you play your own music and can lead a band, then you don’t have a problem like this. If you know what you want and know how to tell it, let everyone speak, but you’re a leader and can have the final say.

Is there any instrument you’d like to be used more often in jazz?

It’s hard to say. I could answer this question in five different ways, being in five other countries. If we are in Latvia, I’d say more trumpets, flutes, horns. If I were in Finland, I most probably wouldn’t say anything. By the way, I’ve heard an exciting jazz violinist in Estonia — that is an exciting jazz era. Actually, I’ve graduated from Pāvula Jurjāna Music School myself, a violin class, and only then decided I’m going to play jazz piano. I think more girls in jazz would be nice, but I think it gets more. And more guys in vocals.

Cann one, in your opinion, be responsible for so many different fields — compose your own music, play it yourself, then produce and manage it all?

On the one hand, it’s nice if the other people are responsible for it. I would like to do that if I could admit I can do it well. And put up to 200% of my own vision in this. But I definitely want some quality to it, so I realize that if someone else could do it better, why not let him do it. I’m currently studying to make the beats myself, produce, work with the sound, mix, and master — we can talk about it in a couple of years if I will anyhow progress.

Do you feel great when you compose something, even if nobody hears it?

I would say an artist is an artist, no matter if the marketing is shitty or not. I personally also have quite a lot of music that has never been performed anywhere. I also have such compositions that have come from some more painful or happy sources of inspiration. I’ve been in Aalborg concerning that school project in Estonia two years ago, and that was a sad moment when my grandfather passed away, he had a funeral that week when I had to be in Aalborg, and I couldn’t cancel it. That was the day I was playing in my classroom with such great windows — the sun shines inside the whole room from the corner. So I was playing and thinking that I could, at last, be together with my closest ones today, and then a melody was playing in my head — a beautiful composition that I still keep playing from time to time and that isn’t recorded or released anywhere. A little moment I called «Rudolph the Skywalker». Then I’ve been on tour with the big band — I had one concert recording on the Vienna radio which afterward was played by the «BBC Radio 3» in their end-of-the-year show. They’ve performed three compositions, and one of them was mine.

You’ve told me we have limited time for this conversation because you have to go to the studio tonight. What will you be working on?

At the studio, I have to finish this and that in relation to the other projects. Then I’ll go home to watch — a big band from Sweden, «Stockholm Jazz Orchestra», is doing a concert here at school. And then I’ll go home to work on recording company things. During this pandemic time, I’ve lived in three different countries, six different cities, and I’ve done more than ever. It has turned out completely different for me. Of course, there are no concerts, and it doesn’t do good for my motivation, but I have other stuff to do.

Also, that fact that you can go and hear a concert live tonight…

Yes, but they have a limited number of listeners they’ll be letting in. And it wouldn’t be any surprise if they let us know last minute that they’ll do a live stream only. And, as I’ve said, two days ago they told us everyone has to wear masks.

Are you ever tired because of the amount of work you have?

To be honest, I’d really need to go to a gym now and then, to waste a bit more energy. But other than that, I don’t have to wake up at six a.m., go to work from 8 to 16 only to do one thing. If you have so much to do, the most important is to hold everything together so that you don’t miss something. My life is actually glued in an A3 calendar format on the wall at home not to miss anything. When you do something, you just cross it out, everything is really structured. The main thing to me is not to get tired, but not to forget anything instead, not to forget something that was important. It’s really hard, I wouldn’t advise anyone to work with music, especially if you want some excellent marketing [laughs] But really, I can help the other artists in that recording company only because I’ve been through it all myself.

I’m happy to hear your life is really saturated!

Yes, I just miss concerts and the festival is waiting for us. Some fifteen shows are canceled for the presentation tour of the album. Actually, at one point, I began researching how to make a good streaming thing and learned to make it, switch everything on, put everything to a streaming platform that takes you to social media. It’s hard to tell if you really need to turn to all this and begin doing it because coronavirus won’t end for some more time, or sometimes it seems it will end really soon. It’s the end of February now, and it still hasn’t ended. But you definitely have to do things, not just sit and wait. You have to contact people, begin working on new things you really wanted to do — we have a lot of time now. You have to plan and do a lot — everything that comes to mind. Especially in jazz — you have to get some life experience to have enough to tell about musically.