“I don’t come with a goal,” says Declan Zapala. “I know the world can be beautiful; there’s always joy to be found in specific places and in particular ways.”
Joy is exactly what can be found in the ‘classical-percussive’ guitarist’s set this Fringe. Although this year’s show seems to be enjoying less success than last year’s ‘Fusion Guitar’, Zapala maintains the same standard of ingenuity, impeccable technique and musical storytelling that impressed the critics in 2014.
“Guitar Multiverse,” as Zapala explains at the beginning of his performance, “is a take on the many worlds theory. In all the parallel universes of different guitarists, no single person sounds the same.” If you don’t quite catch the implications of the explanation, Zapala’s guitar playing is sure to smooth any confusions right through. He transforms how the instrument is normally played, and in doing so how it traditionally sounds. Not only is there the tambor tapping and string plucking that we’ve all heard in mainstream artists such as Ben Howard and Andrew Bird, there’s something more. It’s almost like a dance, his hands swapping places with acrobatic precision. Sounds emanating forth you didn’t even know were possible. One minute a harp, next a sitar.
It’s obvious he’s a trained musician. So tell us, how did it all start? “Guitars were always around the house, but it was only once I was ten that I started playing,” says Zapala. “There were free classical guitar lessons at school, and I just seemed to take to it really quickly.” After this it was off to Watford School of Music for ten years, near where he grew up, then to Guildford for a Music and Sound Recording degree, and finally the Royal College of Music to do his Masters.
What was it that inspired your particular percussive fingerstyle playing? “I was always a tapper,” explains Zapala. “Growing up I was always being sent out of school for tapping. It was compulsive; I had to finish the beat out in my head before I left the room.” But it was not until he was introduced to the guitar playing of Eric Roche by a fellow student at the Royal College of Music that Zapala’s music really found its own sound. “It just seemed so obvious to me. How did I not think of that?”
Zapala’s music is not only making headway in the guitar world, but to the wider musical consciousness. His set features songs from Bach to Led Zeppelin, played in Zapala’s own particular style of guitar, helping to disassemble rigid labels such as “pop” and “classical” and forming his own sound which borrows from both traditions.
The show also features the musician’s own compositions such as “A’ Song” and “Sleeping Gently”, written for his niece and nephew respectively. A trend appears when these are played alongside his well-known song “Philomena”, which was inspired by his mum and more specifically the Magdalen Laundries in Ireland which was “something I was very aware of while growing up,” says Zapala.
Is family mainly where he gets ideas from for his own music, then? “Yes, I guess; people definitely affect the way you choose the harmonies,” Zapala confirms. “Ultimately music doesn’t really mean anything. But if you make it mean something to you, then people can pick up on that. There’s humanity to it, and it’s relevant.” When discussing this concept in a classical context, Zapala says “when I listen to recitals again as I get older, personally I hate them: it’s art for art’s sake. But when it’s for you, it can somehow relate to a wider audience.”
Is this something you’ve tried to carry through in your new album, Awakenings? “Yes and no,” says Zapala. “This my debut album. It features songs from the show but also others. It is where I am now as a guitarist and where I was but in the same album.” How very multiverse.
Declan’s album Awakenings is out now. The title pays tribute to the late Robin Williams, who played a doctor caring for patients with locked-in syndrome in a film of the same name.