An interview with James Heather

In our multi-media world, we are often quick to categorise, label and judge, however the music of James Heather does not sit easily in any category and music lovers of all types are responding to his lyrical, expressive, emotive solo piano pieces with roots in classical, ambient and contemporary music. This extremely talented composer, musician, arranger and performer, takes influences from many sources and melds them into a sound which is both familiar and yet unique.

With over 20 million plays on Spotify his debut album “Stories from far away on piano” soared to number 2 on the iTunes classical charts. Available on the “Ahead Of Our Time records” imprint, James is a modern artist with something to say and an original way of saying it.

Taking inspiration from real news stories these thoughtful and atmospheric solo piano pieces are ideally suited to the intimacy of St Pauls Worthing.  Part of the post-classical vanguard and having played at shows with the likes Laura Marling, Johann Johannsson and Lubomyr Melynk (Erased Tapes) James promises an evening of entertaining, thoughtful and enjoyable music which will delight the curious and convince the casual listener to delve deeper into his catalogue.

James will perform in the round at St Pauls on November 8th, you can find out more information and purchase tickets here.

I spoke to James ahead of this fast selling gig, and first asked him what sort of evening we could expect.

The focus will solely be on the piano, the first half will be more ambient, darker and classical. The second half will open out a little more and focus on jazz in some parts. I never do the same set list twice, so whilst it will have many tracks from my releases, I will also debut some new ones and also improvise passages whilst connecting the tracks, so it feels more like a dj mix.

How would you describe your performances and music to a layman?

As always with these type of questions, the answer really is best described by interacting with the art itself, it’s hard to put into words! On the one hand my recorded music to date could have been made hundreds of years ago in terms of the set up, but on the other there is no way it could have been composed then because I listen mostly to new music that uses the technology of our age, and the influences that brings to my headspace and to my thinking on composition and structure makes the music what it is, but on a solo acoustic instrument. I like to go from absolute minimalism to technical flourishes and back again in the smoothest journey possible.

 I know your grandparents were a big influence, but apart from them  who are your biggest influences musically?

My Dad was a very big influence, as he liked Mozart but also liked Dead Kennedy’s and he also liked underground techno from France. My next door neighbour had an acid house pirate radio station when I was about 12 and I liked the punk DIY spirit of that too. But really it was my Grandad, who taught me some fundamentals on composition, and its only now I am realising I have an outlet of creativity that is vital for my peace of mind.

For many years I felt no one would be interested in me on a solo piano because many of my influences were not doing it, so my family taking an interest in my piano playing was influential as I honed my sound in private. One of my Dads last comments before he passed was about how it was more egotistical to keep a passion secret and to in fact share what you love inspires others to do the same and is the least egotistical thing to do.

Is it true that as a child, you used to play with a box on your head so you could improvise more? And did it work?

Ha,ha, i think that is true yes, I did that once or twice when i was about 10. I think when I was really young I tried to play some pieces with my toes too! I am sure there is a deeper reason I used to do that with a box, it’s probably something connected to being in the moment and playing by feeling. I think it worked in the respect of me thinking outside the box, sorry bad joke.

In the ambient world do you favour the likes of Eno, John Foxx or Aphex Twin and how does their language blend with the likes of Debussy and Richter?

I’d probably go with Aphex Twin, as I know his catalogue the most. For me it’s not just necessarily just the sound that links these artists, but more the ethic that these artists do almost everything themselves in the creation process and to also dig deep into a dream like world, but keep things abstract enough to connect with anyone willing to decode meanings and take things for themselves.

What is your go to track or artist when you need a bit of a lift?

Right now I would say Pixies, Alec Eiffel. As a young rock fan it was great to hear a keyboard!!

If you could live in any time-period and place where and when would it be and why?

 Apart from now, I would say the 1600’s in London, but as a ghost, I would not actually want to live there! I’ve always loved London history and how the city has been built up. The 1600’s seems like the absolute worst time to have lived in the UK, it wasn’t about immigration then, record numbers were emigrating. Plague, fire, beheadings of kings, Guy Fawkes, civil war, dissolution of parliament and our beginnings in the slave trade, all these sad things happened in a short space of time. I’d observe it all from a safe space, and try and find the examples of people triumphing despite all of this, the spirit in people must of been strong then.

Tell me about the album “Stories from far away on piano”?

Stories From Far Away On Piano is my debut album. For the first time the inspirations were not from within but I looked to the outside world. I did 9 songs based on news stories that I had an emphatic response too. So for that album, I would immerse myself in the article and start playing a response to the stories in them. I would record the first demo, then over the next few weeks refine the composition and work on the structures. A month later they were done.

So how do you normally compose. Is it on piano or with a musical manuscript or on a laptop.

More generally when composing, I mainly just improvise to a concept, and if the concept is strong in my head from start to finish for the duration of a song, i know the song is true to me. I come from a purely improvisational playing background, elements of jazz mixed in with classical, nothing is on manuscript, it’s all in my head and must be memorable to remember it and every song distinct! I spend time refining all the songs so i feel its concise for the listener.

When playing live, which is more important feel or technique, and why?

Feeling is the most important thing, it’s about passing that feeling on to the audience in the most powerful way through sound and vision. Technique is important when delivered in a way that honours the feeling, rather than the other way round.

To finish up, how about some quickfire questions

Brecht or Berlin? 

Berlin

Prefab sprout or aha?

Prefab Sprout

Philosophy or history?

History

Steinway or Bernstein?

Steinway

Cheese on toast or smoked salmon salad?

Cheese On Toast

Composing or playing live?

Composing, then playing that live 🙂

Debussy or Mozart?

Debussy

Thanks for your time James, what are your hopes for the next 12 months.

I am going create a studio space to make my next album and try to create something that is a warm thing in people’s lives. I’ll do some gigs but the main focus in on the next release!

Tickets for James’s performance are selling fast and as we have already discussed every performance is different so why not get yourself down to St Pauls Worthing on November 8th and treat yourself to an evening of interesting, exciting music from an artist who is able to create beautiful interesting, atmospheric music which will soar in St Pauls amazing space.

Learn more about James Heather at jamesheather.bandcamp.com or on the Ahead Of Our Time records website and check out his album on Spotify, iTunes or any good outlet.

Tickets are available at just £5 per person plus booing fee, doors open at 7.30pm, don’t miss out on one of the years most interesting evenings so far.

Watch out for more great live music at St Pauls Worthing and check out my blog Womu, a Worthing music blog at worthingmusic.wordpress.com

Rob Kelly

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