Nico Casal has always written soundtracks. When the Spanish-born pianist and composer was four he used to watch television programmes and toddle off to play the music he'd just heard on a cheap keyboard. Since then, he's made a living working writing film scores, including the music for 2016 Oscar-winning short, Stutterer. Yet it's only now that he's felt ready to compose the soundtrack of his own life, debut solo album, Alone.
It all began in Casal's tiny bedroom in East London. Here, he slept, worked, and taught the piano, struggling to survive against the expense and noise of the capital. "Everything happened in that room," he reflects now.
Alone was born on a solitary Sunday, one that was sunny in the morning, and ended with rain. "I was having a really bad moment, and that day was the first in my life where I took a notebook and started to write some ideas, 'how do I feel today', 'how can I express that with the piano'," Casal recalls. He sat down and began to play a structured improvisation on a second-hand upright piano, recording into his laptop via a cheap microphone, occasionally adding elements from a £15 broken organ and a small synth.
It was a crucial moment in what had been a fraught year of highs and lows. When Stutterer was nominated for the Best Short Film Oscar, Casal sank all his savings into travelling to LA for what he now describes as "two weeks I'm not going to forget". He remembers the night after their unexpected victory - including failing to get into Leonardo Di Caprio's house party by waving their statue at the doormen - as entirely "mad". More than a crazy night out, though, the Oscar win changed everything, opening doors to new work and allowing him give up his day job working as a piano teacher. When his boss called up asking if he'd be back to work after the American trip, Nico had to say no. "If there is one moment in my life where I can try to make it as a composer, it is now," he recalls, "So I quit."
It wasn't going to be easy. He was the only Spaniard involved in a winning team at the Oscars that year, resulting in a large amount of unexpected attention, and he didn't know how to handle it – especially all the media requests in his native Galicia. Casal put himself under great pressure to capitalise on the publicity and release a solo record, but the result was just an intense period of writer’s block and further stress which ultimately took its toll on his health. He struggled on, seeking inspiration for a personal musical project by reading books, looking at pictures, finding stories, but that had failed. It was, he now reflects, "a defeat", adding that "It was fear, and not knowing myself that well, I wasn't ready to compose something for me". It was only this quiet Sunday dive deep within to record music that he'd never thought would be heard by anyone else that suddenly liberated him. He describes it as a "fuck it moment" that enabled him to do something intensely personal. "In a way I was trying to compose my soundtrack, that day," he says.
The composition of Alone was a turning point for Nico Casal, a moment of resolution at the end of a bad relationship that had only exacerbated his stress and health concerns. Shortly after that day recording music he never intended to release he made the decision to leave the expensive pressure cooker of London and move to Madrid for a short time. There, he worked on the soundtrack for a major Spanish film called, ironically enough given the genesis of his album, Sunday’s Illness. Meanwhile that Sunday cure, the day of improvised recording that became Alone, worked both musically and personally for Casal. With distance from the record he can reflect on what it means for him now, as a portrait of, or a soundtrack to, the person he was then. "I wanted to keep the Nico of that day, with all his shit and problems," he says of the decision not to tinker with his improvised recordings. Now he's thinking about what might shape his second album, to be created in a new room by a Nico Casal who's more comfortable in himself: "I feel like a completely different person," he says. "After years of writing for other people I now feel ready to present this album, with my name."
Written by Luke Turner