Monta Tupčijenko and her path toward the light
From singer to composer, from Latvia to Holland, Germany, and Norway — Monta Tupčijenko on her musical challenges and adventures
I remember there was this singer from Latvia that had suddenly fallen off the radar — one moment I see her at jam sessions, then she just vanishes. I sometimes wondered where she had gone, but we all know how life tends to happen — we all have our circumstances, mundane, projects, etc. And then, a couple of months ago, I suddenly received an email saying she had released her debut album in Germany. The news came as a surprise — there was no news of Monta for maybe five years, and then suddenly «Lathyrus» is releasing an album that consists of the songs Monta wrote. It turns out she hadn’t stopped singing, she just slightly changed her focus and went her way, just not in Latvia, although we may soon hear her singing back home!
It became clear right after receiving the email that I just had to invite her for a chat! The conversation had to happen through ZOOM because we still were in different countries; the December month also was so full of events that the only free time we could find between the two of us was on the 31st! I have to admit that spending the last day of the year in such a manner was quite exciting! So, we powered up our computers, connected, and had a fantastic conversation about Monta’s adventures away from home, her music, inspirations, and challenges.
I haven’t seen you for an eternity! Maybe let’s start with you and not with your album? Tell me, what have you been up to when you left Latvia?
I graduated from RPIVA in 2013 and have worked in a music school in Valmiera for a while. I started my master’s studies, but that kind of degree was less based on practice and more on theory, so I figured I’d get it just to have some additional euros to my wage… Status, you know? But I soon realized that it does nothing for me. I wanted to study abroad, to see how people live there. That summer, I went to «Ventspils Groove» workshops and met Andu Zālīti, who was currently studying in Rotterdam, we had a chat. While talking to Anda, I came to a realization that if I don’t leave now, I’ll never go. So I just packed my bags and moved to Rotterdam! It was also there, in Ventspils, that I met with a teacher Brian Zalmijn, who now teaches in Berklee, the department that is in Spain. So it all just clicked. I left for Rotterdam sometime in the end of August or beginning of September, and I literally had nothing — no money, nowhere to live… [laughs] I started exploring my options and in two years, enrolled in a bachelor’s program, but this time it was jazz composition. I don’t know how that happened… You know what they say — if someone tells you what you’ll be doing in a couple of years, you’ll never believe it! That was the case here exactly.
It was hard in the beginning, I had to learn everything I already had learned twenty years ago. That’s why my start in school was a little… odd. But everything was entirely new for me in composition classes. We had a lot of classes together with classical composers, which was very interesting. So much information was about contemporary music, where everything is more about the sound and not so much about classical harmony and melody. Initially, I wasn’t very into it, but with each week of listening to such music, with a little coaxing, I slowly started composing. Somehow this method sucked me in…
The Netherlands, in turn, didn’t entice me as much — after three years there, I came to a realization that I don’t feel good there. Also, I couldn’t fully grasp the language. It was then that my friend from Germany suggested I try out a school in Essen, in the middle of the forest (I did miss nature very much then). I went and enrolled.
Which department this time?
Jazz composition as well. And if Rotterdam had two separate entities — jazz and classical composition — which didn’t cooperate one with another, Essen had an opposite story. I had classes in singing and improvisation and could develop my instrument instead of concentrating solely on composition and arrangements. It was an odd period in my life when I just went with the flow without overthinking things — if I had the opportunity to do something, I did it. I don’t know if it’s the right approach or the wrong one, I just did what I did.
I was allowed to skip the first year, I could take some classes in one year instead of two, also, the German language went pretty well (I didn’t have a choice there, I was given a year to learn it). Right now, I’m still studying, it’s hard to foresee how will my final recital go because of the pandemic. Initially, I had an idea to have my final recital with a symphony orchestra, but now everything is s unstable, things can change at a moment’s notice, so that plan got canceled. But I did finish all the compositions, now I only have to arrange the tunes depending on the lineup — how big can it be? Maybe 12 musicians? Also, one of the assignments I had to do in order to graduate was to record an album, so there’s that. And another thinking was that because of the pandemic, a couple of semesters were held online, and the school decided that it didn’t count so that we could spend more time at school…
What do you mean — doesn’t count? Because it isn’t productive to learn music online or what?
Well, yes, because, for example, we didn’t have the combo rehearsals. One semester we did a lot of transcribing and talked a lot about music, but we could meet up and play together only maybe five times. The school’s administration said that we could extend our studies if we so desired. In theory, I could pass up on this idea because during our composition classes, most of the time, we show our creations and discuss them, but since I couldn’t properly present my program in a final recital, I decided to extend my studies. Also, I couldn’t begin talking to musicians about a concert that might not even happen. It doesn’t work like that in my head. That’s why I’m still studying, but I’m close to graduating! Right now, though, I live in Cologne.
But you still study in Essen, right? Not in Cologne?
Yes, but I have like three classes a week, so it’s not that I can’t take that ride when I need to.
Essen isn’t a small city, but it is quite industrialized, the cultural life there is almost absent. Most of the people I know who want to achieve something in music tend to go to Berlin or Cologne. Berlin is too crazy for my liking, but Cologne is quite close to Ellen, some 70 kilometers — about an hour’s drive from where I live. Also, my friend was born in Cologne.
There was a transitional period — in 2020, I did an exchange program in Norway, in Trondheim. There everything got cut short because of the pandemic. I had already leased my apartment in Ellen, packed my bags, and then realized that in order to move somewhere where things were happening, I needed to find a job. Cologne is a big city with many people and a lot of opportunities.
And you also have your own band — a quartet you have released your album with!
Yes! I moved to Essen some four years ago, and I was invited to do a show right away. Even though I already had a trio in Rotterdam, I felt it was time for a change. My friend Ruven Weithöner from Essen plays trumpet, he said that if I wanted to, we could play together. At first, I thought it would be odd — voice and trumpet together, would they sound good? But I decided to give it a try. After all, there are plenty of compositions for voice and wind instruments, like «Line for Lyons» and others. At the time, I also used to play the piano, but later on, we had another band member join us, he took over the piano from there on, and I could concentrate on singing more. Later on, the pianist left, though. [laughs] Then I invited a cellist Conrad Noll to join and started playing the piano again. Thus the style of the music changed slightly.
Since I’m very into classical music — I studied classical piano and attended many orchestral concerts — I soon started to use the counterpoint in my composition, write for multiple voices, and use polyphony. It was a completely different direction for me, it brought on other ideas. But then, when I came back from Norway in 2020, I had very little opportunity to play the piano (I mean the acoustic instrument, not an electronic one), and then when I started up again, I got an inflammation in my ligament. I tried ignoring it for a while, but soon I couldn’t play a thing. In truth, I still can’t. That’s why we had invited another pianist to join the band, this time it was Max Brackmann.
So, the quartet’s lineup consists of you on the vocals, piano, cello, and a trumpet?
Yes, The name of my quartet is «Lathyrus», which means «sweet pea» in Latin — it is my favorite flower. All the musicians are German, apart from me, of course. During the pandemic, the musicians were able to receive grants, and I applied as well. My grant was for recording my original compositions in a studio. Somehow this idea grew and grew, I had a lot of songs, but I couldn’t decide which ones to record. As a result, we have an album with ten compositions! I worked with the arrangements, and we had a lot of time to rehearse since there were no concerts because of the pandemic.
In April, we went into the studio, and that’s where the hard work started — everything from the design concept to the rest was so new to me! This small record label wanted to collaborate with us — «Tonkunst Manufaktur». Although they weren’t that interested in free jazz, they were excited about our music. They helped with the licenses, designs, and everything to move the process forward faster. All the songs in the album were composed in recent years — some in Norway, some inspired by Norway. Half of the texts in the album are in Latvian, which surprised me because I’ve never tried writing lyrics in my native language, but I discovered that the right words could be found only there. Only in Latvian can I express exactly what I want to say. I have also accidentally stumbled upon a poem by Dzintra Žuravska, «Uz gaismas sliekšņa» it describes exactly what I wanted to say with this album — even when in the dark, you should always strive towards the light because things will always turn for the better. That’s how the album’s title came to life — «On the Brink of Light».
Optimistic! With hope for the best! Did this attitude help you to survive the pandemic?
I have to admit that already in Norway, I had spent quite some time alone, it was a time for contemplation, a hard time, actually. So when the pandemic hit, I had already had enough of the solitude. When you come to a different country, there’s nothing for you at the beginning — no friends, no concerts. And that is the same as what happened during the pandemic — nothing happened, so it was a bit too much. I had a lot planned before the pandemic — concerts, projects. But then I had to put a stop to everything, and for a while, I couldn’t believe that everything was canceled, that I was not coming back to Norway. Maybe I was depressed from having nothing to do, I don’t know. As I’ve already mentioned, I didn’t have the piano available, but I do all the composing on the piano. It’s vital to me to have a real, acoustic piano, this instrument resonates with me. I can’t write music on a digital instrument, all the creativity stops instantly.
The first wave of the pandemic was very hard on me. It was also why we decided to move, and things started to move somehow, maybe because of the new environment. The second wave was better somehow. When you know what lies ahead. Oh, and I bought a piano!
Good that things have turned for the better!
Yes! My friend gifted me with a puzzle, and now I can’t wait for when they’ll close everything up again so that I can put the puzzle together, but they still haven’t! [laughs]
But what about the album presentation, then? Considering all restrictions, it wasn’t really possible to organize a big event, no?
Well, yes. At first, we thought of presenting the album in summer because everything was open then, but then everything with the album dragged on, and we decided to move the presentation to October. At the same time, we are always waiting for things to change, the times we live in are so unpredictable. Then I was invited to participate in a concert series by our school — the school presents its students in a respectable jazz club «domicil» — it’s quite a spacious concert hall, that made it possible to organize a concert observing all the safety measures. The record label we worked with said we couldn’t pass up this opportunity and present our album there! So, we did the presentation, there were a lot of people attending, but I was slightly saddened because it wasn’t the city where I studied, I hadn’t a lot of friends there, and I really wanted to see more familiar faces there. Then we did a couple more shows, but we hadn’t had the concert tour, and then later in December, the government again closed everything up.
I have noticed that the album isn’t really available on such streaming platforms like Apple Music or Spotify, only a couple of tunes. Why so?
Yes, there are only four songs available at this moment, but maybe in a year or so, we might publish the whole album. But you can buy the album on such platforms as Bandcamp, also, you can acquire one by asking privately. Recording an album is a costly endeavor, so uploading everything and giving it up for free seems unfair. Most of the band members are against streaming platforms, also the record label was against uploading, but we had come to a compromise — we chose the tunes to be uploaded for now.
And what are your plans for the future?
I really hope that 2022 will bring us a lot of joy, light, and the ability to appreciate mundane things. Although we, «Lathyrus», are planning to come to Latvia with a concert, the guys are very excited about exploring my motherland. So, I hope I will see you in person soon!