Interview / James Heather / Ninja Tune / Ahead Of Our Time

James Heather`s Stories From Far Away On Piano made my list of 2017`s best “Ambient” albums. It contains emotional pieces for solo piano inspired by current news topics. Score-like arrangements that describe a world of terrorism and injustice, saved by hope and compassion. Since its release last August, the recording has picked up a ton of interest, and Ahead Of Our Time are now issuing a vinyl edition. While James is currently working with Radiohead remixers / Jóhann Jóhannsson collaborators, Iskra Strings, preparing for a gig at St. Pancras Old Church on May 9th

Where are you based?

I’ve been based in London for half my life now, I’ve lived in the north, east, south and west of the city!

Where are you from?

I spent the first half of my life in Southampton, which for those not from the U.K, is about seventy miles south of London by the coast.

How long have you been playing piano and what inspired you to start playing? Do you play any other instruments? Did you undergo any formal musical training?

I have been playing the piano since I was eleven. Initially the influences were music tastes filtering down through my family. So through different sets of Grandparents, that would be Debussy, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Mozart and Satie. My Grandad was a keen pianist. Someone who preferred composing to playing the standards. We used to spend hours analysing frequencies on piano strings and talking about the paths on how to go from one particular chord to another. He set himself rules to compose within based on Classical harmony. I took some of that, but rebelled against it in my own way. I think he even met my Granny whilst playing the piano in a bar in Italy during World War II! My Granny on the other side was less proficient, but she didn’t give a damn. She was always straight up on the family piano, with the sustain pedal always down, playing loads of notes and singing. I used to sit quietly in the room and soak it all up. Around this time I started the Classical grades, but to be honest I just wanted to play the teacher my compositions! I also did Jazz piano lessons that came through a friend of my Dad. My Dad respected Classical, but he was more “Punk” in his outlook. He liked underground music of all genres. My next door neighbour who was five years older had a pirate Acid House radio station that I used to hear all the time. So I started listening to electronic music from a young age. I did try to learn the trombone and the clarinet, but I think in the early days of training it’s hard to make those instruments sound good, and my family were very relieved when I took up the piano, haha.

You`ve cited both Classical and Jazz as influences. Can you give me three Classical pieces, and three Jazz pieces that have influenced your playing?

Sure, so from my childhood these pieces in these genres I think influenced me, in mood and as a solo performer.

Beethoven – “Pathetique” Piano Sonatas

Debussy – Clair De Lune

Barber – Adagio For Strings

Keith Jarrett – Interlude No.3

Jaco Pastorius – Portrait Of Tracy

Nina Simone – Summertime

Was Stories From Far Away On Piano your first recorded work? The album was composed following a serious traffic accident. How do you think the accident, and the prospect of being unable to play affected the compositional process? Were you held by fear or urged on despite the odds?

Actually no. My road traffic accident was nine years ago, but the resolution for me in my art came two years ago when I completed the Stories… album. The first year was mainly recovery, from the coma to going back to work. I was unable to use a finger for six months for example. But I started to write some singer-songwriter tunes dealing with the isolation I was feeling. Within that were a few solo piano pieces that perhaps had greater depth compared to things I had been doing before the accident. I realised playing the piano solo was the thing that had been always within me from the start, so I started to concentrate trying to improve that side of things. I ended up being between many rooms in London. A bit lost really. Trying to hold a job down in a big city, but without a feeling of home, so I found it hard to find a place with a calm core to compose. When I eventually got settled I wrote an album called Water Sonatas, using water as a concept for things I was living through. I put a few songs on Soundcloud, and they got shared a bit online. I was not happy with the overall production and feel though. I knew I could do better. So that’s when I started recording Stories…. With no idea it would ever be released. After some interest I decided to put it out via the label where I work, as I trust those guys. They are family! I am very happy my first official recorded work is this album. It happened at the right time in my artistic journey. That said, I feel it shows a raw, initial side of what I do, a foundation, and there is more I want to show. The fact life was nearly taken away from me, and the fact any kind of musical success has come later on for me, has given me a resolve, to as you say, achieve against the odds. It’s also been great that I`ve been able and will continue to dedicate a large part of my life to helping other artists, with my own art being more gradual to enter the world.

How did playing again feel?

Without getting all hippy on you, it honestly is one of the few things that makes me totally relax. When I achieve a sweet spot while playing I can be there for hours just improvising. The fact I can now share that with people is brilliant, and is making me improve what I do. But I would be doing it anyway to no audience that’s for sure, as a hobby.

The pieces on the album are inspired by then current news stories. How did you select the stories? How did the compositional process work?

Water Sonatas that came before, and other bits I had done at home in electronics and vocally, were very auto-biographical. For a few reasons I didn’t feel they were ready to push out into the world. Maybe I need to be older to tackle these themes. So I decided to step outside my head, for what felt like the first time musically, and write songs about other peoples situations. And that is the thing that clicked. And it was officially released. So in the month that I wrote the songs, over a Christmas period, I would wake up in the morning, open up the daily world news on my computer and literally select a story that emotionally drew me in. First the headline would have to hit, then the sub-headline, then I would read the article numerous times. I would then write an emphatic response to the people in these real life stories, and improvise a structure till I was happy. Then I would record it.

The album was released on Ahead Of Our Time, and you work for Ninja Tune. Matt and Jonathan at the label are both champions of technology. Have electronics and technology made an impact on your own music? Stories From Far Away On Piano was described as “Post-Classical”, but I could hear very little processing of the piano going on. 

Yes, Matt and Jon are champions of technology, but within that their work has always had a musicality and a human heart. I have done lots of stuff at home with electronics, and I`m building a studio to work on this more. But solo piano is where my journey started as a kid, and I wanted my first release to reflect that. Who knows, it might always be just piano, or it might go more “electronic and technology” as you say. It will be what feels right at the time. Matt actually helped make my first steps with Ableton, which is what I needed to do the minimal effects, mixing and the recording for this album. My chord structures and general ambience are very much more influenced by loop based electronic musicians, mixed in with a nod to a Classical past. Matt and Jon are “Punk Rock” in their outlook on life. My album is my version of that. Just doing what I wanted without trying to fit into anyones scene.

Are Ahead Of Our Time working with any other Modern Classical / Ambient artists?

I think they are listening to a few, and within the umbrella of Ninja Tune albums, there will always be a nod to this direction I am sure. Watch this space, etc!

When I reviewed the album I pulled in a list of references. Poppy Ackroyd, Craig Armstrong, Matt Dunkley, Phil France, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Clint Mansell, Wim Mertens, Max Richter, and Hans Zimmer. Would you say that any of these artists influenced the recording? Are there any of these artists in particular whose work you admire? Are you in contact with, friends with, any of the people on this list? Other young composers, such as Nils Frahm, the Erased Tapes collective, or the 130701 roster? This is a question I always ask, since living in isolation, the idea of supportive artistic communities is an Eden / a Shangri-La. The stuff of dreams. 

Jóhann Jóhannsson is a big influence. As I’ve spoken about, I have been doing this style of music since the 90’s and improving it bit by bit, so I am by no means referencing them on purpose, but Johann getting the success he did over the last ten years was inspiring for me to see. It made me think something might be possible. It’s very sad that he has passed away. It’s the same with Max Richter in terms of inspiration in the industry, perhaps more so on the piano playing side. The Moon soundtrack by Clint Mansell is amazing. I have listened to a lot. Phil France I would class as a friend. In fact when I was about twenty-two years old I was the “merch guy” for the Cinematic Orchestra for a short while, I shared a hotel room with Phil France, and we still keep in touch. Such a lovely guy. Also Dave Howell at 130701 has always been a big inspiration. Firstly through the acts he signs, and latterly as a friend in the industry. He is always happy to help for the sake of helping and is very passionate about what he does. Erased Tapes have opened a lot of doors in recent years, and helped make this kind of music acceptable in the cooler press. Maximum respect to them for that. I have met Robert Raths from the label a few times, and once again he is a lovely guy, with a pure way of looking at the industry which gives the label its edge. And very recently I have been listening to Poppy Ackroyd. She is very inspiring isn’t she? She`s pushing the Classical template somewhere new, and we have had some nice exchanges online. For decades I felt like I wasn’t part of a scene for my own style of music. But until you put yourself out there you can’t expect a scene to come to you, you have to get in the mix in your own way. I think the scene has a lot of space to grow. And to your last point, to be honest, you say you live in isolation, and to me that is the stuff of dreams!!

Digitally, Stories From Far Away On Piano has been a huge success – getting millions of plays on Spotify playlists, etc. I was wondering has this wide recognition brought in any commissions? Soundtrack work for example?

I’m not sure if opportunities have happened just because it has had some results digitally, but my music has been picked up as background music on TV, and a little bit of potential interest from documentary makers. I am very up for soundtrack work, and it will happen at the right time hopefully. Once my studio is built and I showcase a few more sides to me, it might make more sense then.

You`ve performed the album live a few times now. Were these your first live performances? How did they go?

I’ve performed around seven times now as a solo pianist – excluding a few bits as a teenager. Outside of the usual Classical scene I feel like I am ploughing some areas fairly unexplored. Placing a solo pianist in contemporary music is maybe harder than a band or a DJ. Gigs do come up within the “Post-Classical” scene, and that is great, and I play some Jazz festivals. But also I love to play bills with unexpected acts. It’s all just “sound”, and in theory anything should go anywhere if you can connect with the audience. My only full live performances have come in the last year. I didn’t feel the need before. I was happy composing at home. But now some people have connected with the music, I absolutely love it, and want to play live all the time! My first gig was on the Greenpeace stage at Glastonbury. I’ve played a festival in Poland headlined by Jóhann Jóhannsson, and recently Laura Marling asked me to support her, which was great, for a gig with the charity, Warchild.

You`re about to perform live again, with Iskra Strings. How did this collaboration come about? Will the concert, or compositions, be recorded?

They worked with some acts at Ninja Tune, then I noticed they had worked a lot in the Post-Classical scene too, so I hit them up, not expecting a reply. James from Iskra is one of the nicest people I’ve met, and he has helped me in my first steps for working with strings. I`m composing every part for the performance, but he has helped advise on what is possible, and also how to present it on paper for the players to play. Hopefully the start of many a show with strings!

James Heather`s Stories From Far Away On Piano is available in all formats directly from Ninja Tune. James, joined by Iskra Strings, plays St. Pancras Old Church on May 9th. You can purchase tickets here.

james heather artwork copy

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