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“I was fighting to stay alive, and in the recuperation process I had a lot of morphine in my body, I heard temporary voices due to this, which I think came from another part of my brain that had opened up with all the trauma.” We speak with James ahead of his show in Dublin this Saturday. Click here for tickets.
James Heather released ‘Stories From Far Away On A Piano’ earlier this year, but he’s been composing music since the ripe old age of 11 after his grandparents taught him how to play and create his own material. Almost 10 years ago, a serious road traffic accident almost derailed both his life and career, but he’s turned it around since and found solace in his art.
These days he makes gorgeous instrumentals with just the keys of his piano. Songs like ‘Last Minute change of Heart’ are contemplative compositions that soothe and satisfy in equal measure.
With some being inspired by troubling current events, the tracks off Heather’s new album capture an ‘emotional heartbeat’ as he puts it. Above all they are calls for empathy, an impressive feat for music relying solely on the sound of one instrument.
Ahead of his November 4 gig in the National Concert Hall, we chat to Heather over e-mail about the power of streaming sites, piano playing as therapy and those pesky comparisons to Nils Frahm.
Do you think the likes of selected playlists made by streaming sites like Spotify have allowed a new wave of classical music to flourish?
The monetisation of online music consumption, after the anarchic early years, has evolved the industry of course. One area that is doing well is people discovering music via curated playlists, be that on Spotify, Apple, Deezer or other platforms globally. I think this has helped artists find an audience in a quicker way than before, but its not just within classical genres, look at how Rap Caviar on Spotify can break a new rapper for example.
Considering you went through what sounds like a fairly traumatic road traffic accident, one that could have ended your musical career, what’s it like to finally have music out that world that so many are enjoying and hearing?
At the point of the accident in 2008 I was working behind the scenes in the music industry, and my own music was just a serious hobby. Initially, I was fighting to stay alive, and in the recuperation process I had a lot of morphine in my body, I heard temporary voices due to this, which I think came from another part of my brain that had opened up with all the trauma. The voice questioned if my music had merit.
Once I recovered a few months later, I took this as a challenge. Often we tell ourselves we can’t do something, but if you dig deep to take that leap, eventually something might happen. It’s been a long process, not least because having to hold down a full time job has meant its hard to find the time. I am over the moon that the music is resonating with people now, I certainly don’t take it for granted, due to my period of being to shy to share my work, I am much more confident now and those memories seem distant.
Following on from that, did you find piano playing a therapeutic process?
Since the first time I sat at the piano aged 11 it has been a useful outlet for me, but after the accident I had some feelings that felt better to articulate through music than words. Of course life presents situations and it’s good to be able to create a response to that. It seems to me that music is perhaps a more innate form of communication than talking, it’s wonderful that it’s by turns a form of meditation for me when recording, but then something that can shared with people too.
Your album was released via Coldcut’s record label Ahead Of Our Time, were you a fan of their work in the 90s and onwards?
Yes for sure, Coldcut to me signify being progressive but with a social conscience. I became fully aware of their work in 1997, I bought their debut Ninja Tune album, ‘Let Us Play’. Before this I had mainly been into grunge, britpop, metal and some commercial classical, electronic and hip hop. I had been blessed to of had a older neighbour who ran a acid house pirate radio station, so I was vaguely aware of Aphex Twin too. But buying the Coldcut album, shortly after getting into DJ Shadow opened up new worlds for me. I would later learn that Coldcut were linked to this early 90s acid house scene too and it all clicked into place. They were doing stuff with music and art that I hadn’t seen before as a young teenager in Southampton.
It had a punk personality to it, but it was electronic music.
‘Stories From Far Away On A Piano’, is an interesting name for an album without lyrics. Do you think that you tell stories through the music you play? For instance I hear they are inspired by news stories from around the world, do you view these tracks as an abstract representation? Is the state of the world something that troubles you more than your personal issues these days?
Yes I try to. Sometimes I compose a song and I am just channeling a general feeling at that point in time, but I like to steer away from this. I am more fulfilled as a composer if the mood and composition of a piece is linked to a theme or a recurring thought I may of been having. My debut album was made by directly composing after immersing myself in different world news stories, ones that I found had a strong emotional heartbeat. But I ensure the pieces will work outside of the concept too, on its own legs.
I had mainly written autobiographically before this album, I felt I had mined my own existence as much as I wanted at that time and through some life lessons i had learnt, I felt I was at a stage where I could tackle a concept such as this. Empathy for others is very important. Although not every track was about the troubling state of world stories, ‘Biomes’ for example was a love letter to all the flora and fauna of the world!
All of your music comes from one instrument in this project, and as such so does all its power, is that a daunting prospect, or is it something you relish, having only yourself to rely on?
I want to add more to the sound and have plans to collaborate and augment things, but I do feel comfortable with just me and the piano. It feels like my own kind of punk rock, in that it feels like a true representation of myself at this point, improvising on the piano is something I did from the age of 11, when my actions were very innate and childlike and were not trying to fit into a scene, so in that way it links me back to my past, and in turn back further to my grandparents who taught me to play and played from a young age themselves. Also trying to set up indie bands in the 90s usually ended up in drunken arguments and was stressful!
Your playing often sounds like gorgeous film soundtrack, is doing a movie score something you could see yourself doing in the future?
Thank you. Yes I am very interested in this area, I often go to the cinema for the soundtrack over the film!
I know that you can also sing, would you consider adding that to your compositions or do you think your ‘voice’ is better represented by your playing alone?
At this point it’s the piano part of what I do that is ready to share, I would like to experiment with the voice but for now it’s the piano that is the foundation of what I do.
I’ve seen you hailed by some as the next Nils Frahm or Yann Tiersen, is that a comparison you enjoy or do you want to be seen as cultivating distinct sound that’s separate from those in your genre?
Those kind of comparisons are flattering of course, although I try not to think about it. Of course I respect these artists, they are amazing but I was playing the piano for years, honing my own thing with no awareness of people in the “post-classical” scene, it’s just due to my busy work life and situations in the personal world that I was late to share my own work but I practiced and practiced in case this moment ever came.
I listen to a lot of jazz, soul, hip hop, electronic and rock music that I would like to seep more into my sound too, so hopefully I can bring something different to the table.
James Heather performs live in the National Concert Hall this Saturday. Click here for tickets.