Pianist Thomas Zaruba on his best-selling album Slow Down and the need to reach out to his audience

Thomas Zaruba, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Thomas Zaruba, author of the best-selling jazz album Slow Down, is a pianist of Australian-Canadian-Czech origin living in France. Although he was born into a cosmopolitan family of musicians and started playing the piano at the age of two, he opted for a career in advertising and it was a tragic incident that made him turn his life around and devote himself exclusively to music. When Thomas visited Radio Prague this week I asked him what had prompted him to drop everything and pursue his life’s passion.

Thomas Zaruba,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů

“After the Bataclan attacks I said to myself – if I die, I want to die as a pianist.”

“It was the Bataclan attacks in Paris. It was a real shock to me. I was supposed to be in one of the restaurants where the shootings happened. And by chance I was in Vienna trying some pianos so I couldn’t make it and then in the middle of the night everybody was texting me, sending messages via social networks, asking if I was OK. I actually live in the 11th district in Paris and that’s where the shooting occurred.”

What happened after that?

Mourning people captured during civil service in remembrance of November 2015 Paris attacks victims,  photo: Mstyslav Chernov,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0
“It had a great impact on my way of seeing life. The French paper Le Monde featured a portrait of each of the victims that died and I couldn’t see myself named there with my age and my profession in advertising. I said to myself – if I die, I should die as a pianist. So that’s how it started. What made me put things together and record my first album, here in the Czech Republic.”

You are a composer as well. Where do you seek inspiration?

“From everyday life, basically it just comes…”

Are we talking about people’s emotions or is it the environment – is it cities and places that inspire you?

“It is cities, people and countryside, the countryside in the south of France for example. And Prague, Prague is a great inspiration. I also got great inspiration in a forest, not far from Prague in a small town called Unhošt where I recorded the album at Sono Records. That is the perfect combination - to be in a studio, close to a forest with no mobile phone signal and just focus on what you are going to do.”

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů
Your best-selling album is titled Slow Down – and I believe it is currently the best-selling jazz album in France – where did you get inspiration for that?

“I was working in a fast-paced environment, hotels, taxis, air-conditioning, planes, moving from one city to another for business. Also, working in digital advertising meant working with robots that operate buying and selling of digital space on computers in less than a hundred milliseconds. When you blink that’s two hundred milliseconds, so that’s twice as fast. So I was very much impacted by the way we live today. We have so much technology, you step into a shop and there is music, it is very hard to find a place where there is just silence.”

Photo: klickblick,  Pixabay / CC0
Where did the inspiration for Slow Down come from then?

“It appeared just like that in the morning. I thought – Slow Down – that’s my title. I didn’t know then what I was going to play. I had some ideas somewhere in my head, but it was impossible for me to capture them on paper. But I am a painter also, so I painted the cover of the album and I knew that was going to be the inspiration for the music. So I had the title, the cover and when I went to the studio the first day was terrible. I played and played and I didn’t like the result at all. It was terrible. So we had dinner with the sound engineer, we had a couple of beers and at about 2am he said “ I can’t sleep at nights, I have insomnia so, if you want, we could try to record something at night”. And it just came. Boom. Like that. Everything.”

New York,  photo: Hannes Hauptmann,  Pixabay / CC0
So you released your first album and it was a huge success immediately. You travel a great deal. Do the cities and places you visit have a unique mood that you perceive as an artist?

“Sure, they all have their own energy, their own smell and their own pace, also.”

Are you able to capture that in your music? Does that happen?

“Absolutely, but take a city like New York, where I lived for two years – I could not write anything that goes with New York. Or at least, not today, because I am in a laid-back position right now. Slow-down mood, something very emotional, not the technique you can find in some pianists all over the world who are like good surgeons bing…bing..bing...bing it is perfect, but in my opinion there is close to zero emotion. You cannot play Rachmaninov if you don’t know anything about his life. You need to understand how the music was composed and what was his mental state at the time. Then you can get into those emotions and pass them on while playing.”

Petr Drulák,  photo: Michal Kůrka,  Archive of the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs
What about Prague? A lot of people come here because they like the slow pace of the city. Is it a place to slow down?

“Let me put it this way – when I returned to Paris after living in New York, it took me six months to just get down to the Parisian rhythm and when I come to Prague I find that Paris is too fast-paced.”

You composed a piece called 1968-2018 is that right? Are you influenced by political developments and did you compose that for a special occasion?

“Absolutely. In 2017 I was having lunch with the Czech ambassador to Paris, Petr Drulák, and he said 2018 is going to be a big year for us – it is the centenary of the birth of Czechoslovakia, the 50th anniversary of the crushing of the Prague Spring and 25 years since Czechs and Slovaks separated. And he said I would like you to choose one of these events and compose something. I accepted immediately.”

Photo: Egle_pe,  Pixabay / CC0
So what did you choose?

“I took 1968, but it is not just about Prague. I tried to bridge it with Paris, because we also had a big revolution in May of 1968, a big youth movement. So I tried to describe the mood before 68, in 1968 and after.”

How do you feel about vinyl records?

“For me there was no question – I had to produce a vinyl. The studio I recorded at has the best microphones I’ve ever seen, the best technology….David Bowie recorded some of his albums there, Tatabojs, a lot of people know this studio because of its quality. And I thought I can’t just put my music online because it is compressed and the people will not be able to hear the depths. So I went directly to vinyl and when I was looking in Paris where to produce it, it once again got me back to the Czech Republic because there is the biggest and oldest factory in the world producing vinyl records in Loděnice, close to Beroun.

“Listening to a vinyl record is a ritual: you are choosing a moment to enjoy music, have a glass of something, close your eyes and travel without moving.”

"They produce close to 60,000 records a day in low season. And for me it is the physical aspect that makes it special – you can see how it works, you can hear the sound –it is perfect. It is a ritual. It is not like listening to music on your telephone, using earphones – you are choosing a moment to enjoy music and sit down, maybe have a glass of something, close your eyes and travel without moving. Vinyl has this magical crack that makes it really authentic and deep. And as the colour of the album is in orange and yellow tones I didn’t want the vinyl to be black –it is a special edition and it is see-through blue vinyl.”

Petrof piano,  photo: Martina Schneibergová
You are an ambassador for Petrof pianos in Paris –how did that come about?

“That’s a long story. In the studio I recorded on a Steinway C, which is a great model and this one was from 1907, a beautiful instrument in mint condition. So at one point I went to Steinway.com contacted Hamburg, spoke my best German and asked how it is possible to become a Steinway artist and they never replied. I called, I emailed them and they never replied. That is really disrespectful. And then I was on a famous TV show in France and someone saw this show – a piano dealer in the east of France – who then sent me a mail to say “I’m working with Petrof –maybe you should talk to them.

“Something I really believe in is that when something doesn’t happen –it is for a reason – because something better is on the way. And that’s how it turned out. I met with Anna and Adam at the Petrof factory and tried the great pianos they have ANT. PETROF, a real luxury product and they decided to offer me this position to be part of the Petrof Art Family and there are only 15 people in the world who have this status. So it is great.”

Source: Czech Centre in Paris
What are your plans for the future?

“I am working on a play where the piano will be at the centre of it, something with humour and piano playing. Because in January of this year I gave a concert and debate at the Czech Centre in Paris and the director Jiří Hnilica said “that was great, you should maybe work on something like a play”. Because it was only improvisation, but the people in the audience were really glad to be there. It was not a concert where you sit and receive the music – it was inter-active and that has a lot of meaning for everyone today, because we have all these mobiles and connections, but how many people do we really see and get in touch with physically? That’s less and less, I think.”

So this is a better feeling for you than having an audience that is silent?

“Exactly. They can react, ask questions. I think it is always great to be able to speak to an artist. Even for the artist, because that’s the best feedback you can get. Once I record an album it is done. What I love is to get feedback from mothers who put their babies to sleep with my music, from the Alzheimer centre in Geneva where they use it as a means of therapy and reportedly see great progress in patients, and even psychotherapists who use my music as part of their therapy. I love to get that kind of feedback from people.”

When you made the decision to leave advertising and turn your life around and devote yourself to music alone – how rewarding has it been? Has it changed you in any way?

“Architects design houses while listening to my music, mothers put their babies to sleep with it, others write books…. I was shocked in a good way to find how people use my music – that is a blessing.”

“Well, I always had the music in me. I always played the piano. In New York, when I was working in banking, I went to these luxury hotels where they had grand pianos and I would play there. I have always played. The difference is that now I only play. And it is really rewarding. All the people that send me messages telling me how they feel about my music, how they use my music, architects design houses while listening to my music, some write books…. it is really amazing and I was shocked in a good way to find how people use my music –what they use it for. I could never have imagined that when I was composing the music, playing it and recording the album – that is a blessing.”