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LISTEN: James Heather On Coldcut's Label
Christian Eede , July 18th, 2017 11:01

The contemporary pianist follows up on his debut EP with an upcoming album set for release via Coldcut's own label. Homepage photo courtesy of Fabrice Bourgelle

Following the release of his debut EP, Modulations: EP 1, last month on Ahead Of Our Time, the label founded and run by Coldcut, James Heather will soon make his full debut with the release of a new album, entitled Stories From Far Away On Piano.

Comprised of a collection of solo minimal piano pieces, the album acts as a series of interpretations of real world stories in the news that Heather had read while composing the record. Above, you can hear 'Last Minute Change Of Heart', taken from the album, streaming ahead of the release of Stories From Far Away On Piano on August 18.

"When I eventually started to recover [from a road traffic accident in 2008] I began taking my musical sketches more seriously," Heather says. "I found solitude channeling my feelings into compositions, but they didn’t go to the next level until life hit another obstacle in 2012."

"A chain of circumstances led to nearly a year of sofa surfing, with just a bag of clothes and a keyboard as I tried to keep my life in an expensive London going, away from family. I needed to play a lot more and I mustered the confidence to put some tracks online and let them go."

A series of unofficial releases over the following years saw him hone his production and piano skills further, with Heather tracing his interest in the instrument back to his Grandfather teaching him composition skills and the ins and outs of manipulating the tuning of piano strings.

With the album's release approaching, we had a chat with Heather below about the links he made on this album with real life news stories, improvisation and young people's relationship with classical music.

You say the songs are mainly inspired by stories you’ve read in the news. How would that come out in the music you were making?

James Heather: Up to this point, nearly all my music was autobiographical in some way and mostly I didn’t feel ready to put it out into the world in an official capacity. For this particular album, I was looking to approach things differently. I wanted to look out into the world, as I had had a period of looking inwards. In the period I composed and recorded these tracks I would wake up and look at the news headlines. I would look for the article which drew me in most emotionally, then I would read the article numerous times and research it. Then straight away I would sit down at the piano. Keeping the story in mind I would compose the initial bare bones of the song, one which I felt told the story, but with messages of hope and empathy within, as most stories involved some sort of emotional struggle.

In 2012 you seem to have been a little down on your luck, couch surfing with just a bag of clothes and a keyboard. What do you make of the housing situation in London right now, and the future of artists forced to live in the same situations as yourself at that time? Do you feel like London and the UK more widely offers sufficient support to artists and people doing creative things?

JH: I’m not sure I feel qualified to answer this question on a political and societal level, as my own particular story was a chain of personal circumstances which felt unique to me. At this point my music was a bit of a secret, but I worked in the music industry behind the scenes, and from my perspective when I hit some harder times my employer had my back. Maybe creative companies have more empathy to employees' ups and downs then, say, a bank would, I don’t know. That period in my life was an eye opener, as things changed for the worse out of the blue, and I had to ride out some problems, which sometimes only time can help. Struggles can happen to anyone, and now as an artist I think that knowledge has deepened what I do.

In many ways, young people tend to seem disinterested in classical music, and the burgeoning success of 'post classical' is fairly surprising. What would you say to someone who says classical music is boring?

JH: I’d probably cross to the other side of the road and not speak to them, ha! But seriously, I think anyone ruling out an entire genre as boring probably has a bit of maturing to do. I have tried to educate myself and see everything as a stew of sounds and influences. It’s been said before but there is just good and bad music. I sometimes joke that I hate 'country' music, but I know if I dug deep into that I would find things I like.

Is Aphex Twin boring? Most young people at Field Day 2017 would say no, but I hear Philip Glass and Shostakovich in his work. I saw a lot of young people at the Barbican when Actress collaborated with the London Contemporary Orchestra too - Boiler Room wouldn’t be doing that if it’s boring. I’ve enjoyed Kendrick Lamar with an orchestra, and I remember, as a 16 year-old, being transfixed when Portishead filmed their show in New York with an orchestra in a concert hall. I think the multi-choice age we live in has brought more of an 'anything goes' approach to music. I've been honing my compositions for over 20 years, but it's only now that labels seem more interested in stripped back classical sounds as there are more places to make it stick. The fact I am in my mid-30s means I feel I can do as I wish, whilst when I was younger I thought I had to front an indie band or make dancefloor electronica to fit in.

You’ve spoken about losing confidence in sharing your work in your early 20s. What pulled you out of this funk, and what advice do you have to artists that are lacking the confidence to put themselves out there?

JH: This one confuses me too, because I never stopped composing in my 20s and I always had a inner confidence in it, but as soon as I let it go I would have doubts. I felt like I needed a magic key or a special password to enter the inner circle of being an artist. As such I just shared with a tight circle of friends and contacts. In many ways I am glad I waited till now to put it out officially as I can hear it has improved. Whilst there is hopefully some value in the old stuff, I had some work to do on my production knowledge and I can see how I improved my compositional techniques. Also I was very lucky to get work promoting the roster of Ninja Tune at the age of 22 and as a shy musician playing solo piano songs I felt like my music had to step-up as I was blown away by the music of the label.

My advice to musicians struggling to find an audience is to not stop if thats what you love doing, keep moving on what you do and you never know what the future will bring; build an inner belief. For me a friend, high up in the music industry texted me one day to say he was loving a song I had written that had popped up on his playlist on the bus. Around the same time my Dad text me to say he was listening to people like Ludovico Einaudi and Max Richter and he felt I had been doing something similar for 20 years when I played the piano at the family home. I kind of knew then that I had take this music thing further, that there might be an audience for it.

Coldcut’s label Ahead Of Our Time says they are focused on “free expression and experimentation”. You’ve said before that your process involves a lot of improvisation, but how do you think the content of your work is inspired by this mantra?

JH: For me my piano music is like a form of punk music. I say that in that it’s the realest, most DIY thing I can do without having to enter more corporate creative worlds rather than the sound. Since the age of 10 or 11 I used to sit at the piano, pick a note and go off for hours improvising. It's only in recent years that I have started to write shorter songs and remember them, that felt too traditional for many years. I think subconsciously I was purely improvising to find a style, but of course if you never play the same song twice that’s going to minimise a potential audience.

Being on the piano for me is one of the only places I do feel free and with a calm core, I can just express myself and experiment. On first listen the tracks may be 'nice'-sounding but I have spent years learning the intricacies in tone, composition and subject to make it stand out and work on different levels. I feel this album is very conceptual compared to the EP, in a way that feels like a natural progression for my sound and its meanings. It’s an honour that Coldcut have been up for putting this out. I remember as a 17 year old buying their album Let Us Play and opening it up in my bedroom and thinking everything from the packaging to the music was on a different level to anything I had seen before.

James Heather's debut album, Stories From Far Away On Piano, is out on August 18