Part 1

Name: James Heather
Nationality: British
Occupations: Pianist, composer
Current release: James Heather's “Meant to Be” is out via Ahead of Our Time / Ninja Tune. It's the second single off his forthcoming album Invisible Forces, scheduled for release on April 22nd 2022.
Recommendations: A recent book I have read that would recommend is the Bobby Gillespie autobiography ‘The Tenemant Kid’. I don’t know all of Primal Scream’s music, although I loved the punk energy of the XTRMTR album when it came out but this book is amazing. The way Gillespie talks about music is like poetry, he has an obvious deep connection with sound, but also politics. He is a really intelligent guy who went the extra mile in writing this book, you can tell the love that went into it.
Can I recommend a film? I watched ‘For Sama’ a year or so back, about a woman filming her friends and family in Aleppo, Syria whilst the city was being bombed, it’s deeply human and incredibly moving and made in documentary style. I think about it all the time, especially now with what Is happening in Ukraine and the challenges being faced there and forced upon them by Russia.

If you enjoyed this interview with James Heather and would like to know more about his work and music, start your journey on his official website. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.

When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

At aged 9 my Mum was given a really old ‘honky-tonk’ piano from a nursing friend. At this point there was no indication I would take to it, but my Dad in particular was a massive music fan, everything from Fugazi, Miles Davis, Gong, Laurent Garnier to Beethoven. Initially I had briefly tried to learn the clarinet and trombone and also the guitar like my brother and friends. Everyone in England in this era seemed to want to play the guitar! But for me nothing really stuck until I started playing piano.

Being able to play 10 notes at once across a wide frequency spectrum and even more if you sustained the notes and merged them together really appealed to me. I’d make drones on the piano using the sustain pedal before I even knew that something called drone existed. I did classical and jazz lessons and my Grandad taught me how to compose music just by sitting on a piano stool with me and explaining how once you learnt what harmonically worked in one key, this could be transposed to another and then he showed me how to modulate between those keys. I was shown Major and Minor keys, and how to bring Minor into Major chord sequences and vice versa.

I was obsessed and after a couple of years of lessons with a proper teacher in classical I just told them I wasn’t interested anymore. I had a desire to share my own music but all these lessons had taught me some useful foundations. I now wanted to bend any rules I had learnt and try and to make my own musical language but still in a way that wasn’t alienating to people melodically.

Around the same time my neighbour Matthew who was older than me was coming back from acid house raves in the early 90s and putting on a pirate radio station from his bedroom which I would listen to from my garden, looking up at him and his mates and romanticising this thing I couldn’t go to. My vehicle was the piano but I was excited by a world that pianos were not in. So my journey since then is about trying make solo piano as exciting as a rave but without using electronics mostly, it’s a challenge when confined to one instrument but I enjoy it. I like to stay true to my grounding in jazz and classical too and merge all these sensibilities, from the soft to the loud.

I think the beauty of music for me is that it’s always evolving as the world changes around us and our feelings change within. It’s also a way to go deep within yourself and through the process of learning how to articulate you can connect with other people at the same time no matter how deep you go. So it’s all these dualities I really like exploring.

Some people experience intense emotion when listening to music, others see colours or shapes. What is your own listening experience like and how does it influence your approach to music?

Music is one of only a few things where I’m totally locked in, in a world of distractions. I see glimpses of purity in music even if it’s talking about the chaos. I travel through time, forward and back whilst at the same time being present. I often hear the ancient in music, I feel I am connecting to something bigger than ourselves in this present time. Talking to lost generations and possibly communicating with those in the future.

And at its best, music is timeless, it can have modern technology in it or it can not, but ultimately there is something magical within the millions of cogs involved in any songs DNA that can on occasion make something feel contemporary and ever lasting. You just have to let yourself go and fly and almost forget everything you have learnt in the moment of listening or composing. And that can be scary.

How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?

I spent many years behind the scenes making music as a hobby that perhaps was trying to sound like other stuff, often using computer instruments or singing. Some of it was just simple piano sketches with glimpses of me in, but quite innocent and poorly recorded. I was sometimes also collaborating with “beat” makers within my social circle.

Then it suddenly dawned on me that utilising the minimalism and large dynamics of the piano actually could achieve everything I wanted if I truly explored it. It connected to myself and the sunny memories of childhood when I first played the instrument. A period where life can be very pure and innocent before it is unlearned into adult life. But through many years of practice, and also dealing with the complexities of adult life I pushed my piano playing to have deeper layers of meaning within it, I wanted to try to sound like a, rock band, an orchestra or a DJ in rave on the piano as well as doing the tender moments too.

I have recordings of me in the early 90’s when I was like 12 playing music that sounds like the Amelie soundtrack or a pianist on Erased Tapes before I even knew that a scene for this stuff would ever exist. At that time as a creative person in Southampton it felt like you could either play Beethoven, produce drum n bass or garage music or you should pick up the guitar and try and sound like Oasis. There was not much in between.

So my breakthrough, If I have even had that moment, I think is persevering with just being me and just working on my craft as hard as possible whether one person or one million people hear it and to show the piano can be put into contexts often unexpected. I think I am the only solo pianist on the wider Ninja Tune set of labels for example.

Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.

I think my sense of identity is being a bit of an outsider. I always want to support the underdog, and shine a light on the unseen where they are comfortable. My Dad was a fireman and my Mum was a nurse and I think it was installed in me to treat all people equally and to work hard.

As an artist I feel that when stuff happens to me in life which I feel puts me in this area of the underdog something switches in me to celebrate that and to present that to the world, and maybe that might inspire someone else too. I think my identity, in music, has veered towards the melancholy often, what I am trying to do now is start to explore areas of joy too in equal measure and to look outside myself. I think it’s harder to write a song of joy that also connects with people in a deep way but I like the challenge.

As an artist there are many emotions to convey and we should not just constantly do one. So as a listener I am looking for artists that show me the full spectrum of human experience, but in a way that feels connected and pure.

What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?

I think I aspire to high ethics and morals, or at least I aim for that a bit more with each year that passes and I almost try to live a monk these days, ha. I am incredibly sensitive to peoples feelings and see the sun shining out of everyone (apart from people like Putin of course) but in turn I am very hard on myself, to the point it can be crippling sometimes and people might think I am aloof, but I am the opposite of that.

Music is the point where I can be free and my personality most makes sense to people. It just feels like it’s the way I communicate my morality as a person, but in a way that doesn’t feel preachy and in a way people can take what they want from it. I think a key message is empathy, and vulnerability, that it is ok to open up about how we are feeling without fear.

Ultimately my art is about building hope, peace and equality, and on that journey I explore dark and light. En route to attempt to reach that destination, things are always in flux - like life perhaps.

How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?

I am interested in human emotion over everything. If that can be coupled with innovation and originality or connecting to a tradition then great, but not at the expense of really connecting to the unique feeling of the artist.

For example it is not always the right decision to be just adding and adding things when making for the sake of it and because it’s easy because of technology. The foundation has to be there of the message, and that can actually be presented minimally. I love all types of music and listen to a lot of electronic but that doesn’t mean I have to copy it. The piano is what I do best at this point. People often say there is too much piano music, but I think that can be said about many genres. For example I think there is alot of acoustic classical music combined with “subtle” electronics and modular synths and only some of that stands out, like any genre.

At the end of the day I don’t think it really matters what instruments or technologies you use, it’s the message from the human that shines through. You could have literally your voice and a fallen tree to drum on and it could be just as powerful as an orchestra recorded in the most modern studio in the world.

Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?

I think focus.

For many years, in my hobbyist days, I had 100s of sketches in my head. Some would stick better than others but often they were not fully formed songs. If friends and family asked me to play I would typically just improvise on parts of those sketches and inside I was annoyed I couldn’t have a set list of full songs I could remember that would blow everyone away and make the piano centre stage. I just tinkled away in the background at low volume hoping to pique interest but scared to really let go on the instrument. So as a composer who doesn’t write anything down I had to have focus on practicing everyday. At one point I feel I broke through somehow. I had different styles of piano music and full songs that would work as a headline performance.

The songs need to be memorable to stick in my head. The way I composed just through instinct and memory without notation meant this process is a good test. Then, over time, I have added to how I record music technology wise and environment wise to increase the chances I will capture that perfect take.

Which of course no one ever quite reaches. But as artists, we are trying to touch the stars, even if we're never quite getting there.

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