Todor Kobakov

Call & Response: Todor Kobakov

Todor Kobakov is a talented Bulgarian-born, Toronto-bred pianist, keyboardist, composer and arranger who graduated from the University of Toronto's music program at the age of 20. Aside from performing with and arranging for several high profile bands, he also submitted a fantastic string quartet remix for Radiohead's "Nude" remix contest.

Similar to Solo Piano by Gonzales, Todor's debut album Pop Music (out now on new TO label 88 Calibre) is mostly classical piano pieces played using traditional pop song structures. He gets vocal help on two songs from Emily Haines and Tunde from TV On The Radio. Those celeb guest spots might initially attract folks to this album, but the beautiful piano playing should seduce them to stick with it.

I'm looking forward to seeing Todor perform his new songs at an intimate venue on Shaw Street this weekend. I spoke with him about his musical childhood, his new album and the unique nature of his upcoming shows.

blogTO: Where in Bulgaria did you grow up?

Todor Kobakov: I was born and raised in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, in a family of well respected musicians. My grandma played in the opera for 37 years, my grandpa was a world-renowned music professor and my mom was a music producer in Bulgaria's equivalent of the CBC.

What was it like growing up there?

Most of my childhood was spent practicing the piano in a very competitive arts school, surrounded by great friends and a vibrant environment. I think, I was ten when my grandma gave me Charlie Chaplin's biography while pointing out all the other ones that I had to read. When I just wanted to go play soccer, she would always say, "you will thank me one day". Thank you Grandma!!!

What were your first impressions of Canada when you moved here?

I moved to Toronto on July 13th, 1996, with the intention of exploring a better life in the arts. At that time, Eastern Europe was going through a difficulties. My first stop was in Richmond Hill for about six months, where I got to know my Dad and spend time with my most amazing brother, George.

First impressions: being freezing cold and yet so happy to be at the Faculty Of Music at U of T, surrounded by fantastic people and the man I look up to the most, my piano professor, William Aide.

I love your new album. What was the inspiration for making a "pop" classical album?

After everything I have worked on in the last ten years, I wanted to put out a solo album that represents "me". The only way to achieve that was to get back to my roots and play the instrument I play best - the piano. It is a bit scary to be doing this because I feel extremely exposed, emotionally and spiritually, but it is the only way to make art for real.

Gonzales' Solo Piano just got a high profile re-release here. Are you a fan of that album? Do you think stripped down, classical albums could become trendy?

It is hard to become "trendy" when it takes 25 years of serious dedication and twenty eight thousand hours of piano practice. I do feel that it will become more popular because there are just not many people who can do it that well, with passion and honest delivery.

Gonzales is one of them and I have loved his work for a long time. I had the pleasure of meeting him within my first days at U of T and still remember him teaching me how to use his sampler and playing the "5 mins to write a song" game with Mocky and Peaches.

How did Emily and Tunde get involved for vocal duties? Why do only 2 songs have vocals?

I have worked with Emily a lot in the past and we are great friends -- so it almost felt like we had already written this piece of music the moment I told her: "Emily, I am doing a solo piano record, the Todor record, I have one for you".

With Tunde, I was very lucky. I emailed my friend Ryan Sawyer from Tall Firs who lives in Brooklyn. I said: "Dude, I am working on the Todor record and I would love to have Tunde on it, do you know how I can get a hold of him?". Ryan said "Yeah man, we play in a band together"! He passed along the first few pieces I had written to Tunde. A few weeks later I got an email from Tunde in which he said he thought the music was "intensely beautiful" and that he was happy to collaborate. He also liked the idea of taking a fresh approach to classical music so he was in to the concept of the project as well.

I am extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with both Emily and Tunde and I think the music we have made proves that. They are both masters of their craft. When you work with people like that, it's just easy. Not much talking, just letting the magic happen.

Did you record their vocals with them in the same room or was it done long-distance?

I researched all of Tunde's and Emily's work first. I wrote the music in a way that it would be natural for them to blend in. I recorded a few versions of the songs in my studio first, and then went to New York where Grammy-nominated engineer John O'Mahony, who I met through Emily, joined us for the session. Two hours and a few pints later, we were laughing. John later recorded Emily's vocals at Electric Lady Studios. It was a high tech experience. I was able to be at the session over Internet Broadcast. When plane tickets are an issue, technology helps. John is an audio ninja!

I really liked your remix of Radiohead's "Nude". Was that a fun project for you? How did you record that string quartet?

I have been working with the Tokai String Quartet for years. I scored the music and then they came over to my place on a Sunday morning and I recorded it. After a few coffees and chocolates we had it! It got me my (very tiny but) first mention in Rolling Stone. There is nothing like writing something on paper, trusting your imagination and only getting to hear it in real life the day of the recording. It requires taking risks and being able to improvise on the spot.

Tell me about the venue, 107 Shaw. What's it like?

It is a lovely new gallery, run by inspired, young people. They present an eclectic body of work, varying from visual arts to bands to DJ's to tasty dinners! Cheers Lana! I'm super excited to be performing there.

What are your favourite spots in Toronto to eat/drink/hang out at?

I live on College Street and the bench in front of Riviera Bakery is quite often my office. The other spots I'll keep secret because they are my escape when I am not making music. Surrounded by others, where no one cares who you are as long as you are a nice person.

What can people expect at your intimate performances this weekend?

Something that they might have not experienced before. An intimate and friendly vibe. A big piano in a small space. The set up allows for people to surround the piano, get as close as they like, Ultimately, I hope the shows are something people will talk about.

Todor Kobakov
Friday, October 23 and Saturday, October 24
107 Shaw Street
2 shows each night: 6pm and 9pm
Tickets $10 advance at Soundscapes, $12 at door

Call & Response is a series of Q&A's with artists from or playing in Toronto. Photo: Ideal Friends.

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