Interview: James Heather

Stories From Far Away is James Heather’s debut album, a set of piano pieces documenting his emotional and musical response to contemporary news stories. It brings out the pianist’s more ‘classical’ side, a complement to the work he does heading up the communications team at Ninja Tune, where for the last 15 years he has supported the label’s output of pioneering electronic and experimental music. In this chat with Arcana he talks about how the two strands unite for powerful musical impact, and his hopes for the future as a performer. But first…

Can you remember your first encounter with classical music?

The most powerful memory is of a subscription we had to a magazine called The Great Composers Of Our Lives. It was a monthly, with 40 or 50 issues in a binder, and they were different colours for different composers. It started off with the big hitters, like Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, but it was aimed at kids really. It was quite thin and picture-heavy, but it had as much about the academic aspects of the music as it had about their life story. It added a more emotional side, and that seeped in at an early age. It showed me that behind these complicated pieces of work there is a human story. I collected each one in a binder and became obsessed with it!

On top of that my grandparents were very in to classical music. When they came round my dad would like to choose a piece and put it on at just the right level, and sometimes my role was to get the ambience just right with the classical music in the background. My granddad was into classical – personally I am more into the romantic era. My granny was also into Schubert and Schumann, and both of them used to come round and jump on the piano in our house. My granddad was good; he played in the Second World War when he and his colleagues had an off moment – playing in a hotel in Italy. That’s where he met my granny, who I think was a nurse out there. He was playing the piano and she fell in love with him!

My other granny played piano and had a tendency to go off on a mad one, which sounded like Debussy on drugs – quite wayward but had a very distinctive style, quite madcap. I think you can hear that somewhere in my style of piano playing. I used to love listening to them play, and my dad also sent me to blues piano lessons. We had a honky-tonk piano initially, and I learnt the boogie-woogie scales. I can still play them, though they are not what I’ve chosen to put on record so far!

A year or two later I did the classical grades, and got to about Grade Six before going on my own path. That was really good because I learnt some key skills, the scales and theory around it all. What I was most passionate about from 11 or 12 was playing my latest compositions. My teacher was patient with me, and I used to play my new songs for five or ten minutes before the standard lesson.

Even at that age I was composing. I learned to play Beethoven’s Für elise, the Moonlight Sonata, the more simple Rachmaninov stuff, but I wanted to do my own thing. Once a week I would go to my granddad’s house, and he taught me the simple rules of composition – how to change key into another key, the chord sequences – and I was faithful to the rules he taught me but then later on in life I bent them a bit. I always thought he was a stickler for some composition rules. He used to detune his piano so that it was equal temperament; we used to spend hours doing that, and it was really interesting.

How has your style evolved in that time?

Initially I was just improvising, so I would sit down and play for two or three hours, just going off on one, and just play. I loved getting totally immersed, and subconsciously I was training, going off on different tangents of scales and learning what was working. I think I have become more refined, as before I hadn’t worked out introductions and endings. This came later when I started to listen to popular music, and learnt tricks about recurring motifs / hooks, and having a proper end! My early stuff as a young teenager was too repetitive and loop-heavy. The loud bits got loud without a progression to the loud, it wasn’t subtle enough. Now I think I’ve found my style and a way to deliver it in a way that people might appreciate more. I think when playing live it’s good to have a good moment where you improvise, and show that side of you. As you mature as a person your sound evolves of course.

Do you find playing the piano cathartic?

In the early times it was primal; I would just get up and do it. Some people use yoga and meditation but for me if I’m going home and I know I’ve got time to step on to the keyboard I’m excited, because I know I’m going to be relaxed. It calms my centre, and for me that’s what it’s all about. It’s nice to share, and I never assumed that anybody would like it. That’s great, but I’m also sensitive that you should remember the struggle, that for many years nobody seemed to care. Just because people care now, you’ve got to keep it on a level plain.

Given your family history, that must bring an extra personal edge to what you do?

Yes. I do think of my family, and certain chord sequences my grandparents played that seeped into me, and my late Dad’s unparalleled enthusiasm for music. It’s a shame they never saw me have any sort of proper success, but I wanted to protect myself in my teenage years. Everyone heard me play at family gatherings, but I never opened myself up to a wider audience. I didn’t want to be criticised, but you get over that!

Was that partly because your work at Ninja Tune deals with the reception of records and music?

I did become acutely aware of that one, and maybe I was overanalysing what people might think of my stuff – but also I don’t think it was quite ready. I was so busy doing my job that I knew I would get round to it. Who knows why we do things in certain orders?! In the ‘electronic’ and ‘hip hop’ networks I was in a 23-year old classical pianist was slightly odd, but as you get older you find people becoming more responsive to it. I love a rave as much as the next person, but I also have this other side. People knew about it but I do believe in organic stuff, and don’t want to push things down people’s throats. If they want to hear it, then great!

I think it’s good I’ve left it late to let myself ‘out’, because there are intricacies in all composition, and I hope that mine sounds like ‘me’ now. I would hate to just be adding to things. As a solo instrumentalist it’s harder, because if you’re a producer you’re working with hundreds of different sounds. I think I had to find my ‘person’, what made me ‘me’, and sometimes you don’t know that until you’re older.

One angle I would like to potentially go down eventually is that I’d like to do a piano album with a grime MC. I listen to classical music, new classical musicians – maybe 10% – but I listen to all of Wiley and Skepta’s catalogue. Stormzy at Glastonbury was amazing! I don’t just want to put on a bow tie and play a classical gig. I would like to do that as well but it’s all about the flexibility.

There is a certain element of classical music that is very upper class and perhaps more elitist, but then you’ve got all the new people coming through like Nils Frahm, and earlier on artists like Amon Tobin and Cinematic Orchestra opening things up more from the indie world. Now you look at 6Music with the Proms, and people like A Winged Victory for The Sullen, it’s inspiring. There’s not really an obvious place for my current sound as a solo pianist whose brain is more in the electronic world, so I’m going to try and find that. Where I have to add other instruments, why not do more young facing, risky things? I don’t want it to be seen as elevator music!
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Have the artists you work with at Ninja influence you musically at all?

Before I was at Ninja I had a keyboard in my room at university I was very passionate about what I did, but I had no idea how I could make it successful – a few friends liked some songs. Before that I tried to be in a band,  and also make electronic music with friends, but it was hard to get off the ground for various reasons. Then at Ninja I started to get a feel for how the industry worked. I think I’m a very loyal and hard working person, and I was surprised to get the job with no experience – but was in the right place at the right time. For many years I was very focused on not fucking it up, doing well in my position, and became very passionate about promoting the artists and was blown away by their music. Piano remained a hobby, and in London I was in small flats so had a keyboard, which wasn’t the real deal. I kept it going, and what it did for me was realising I had to up my game. Hearing Bonobo and Cinematic Orchestra, and then hearing one of my piano tracks, I was thinking that I need to up it somehow.

That’s how it influenced me, and I guess Ninja has given me a knowledge of how the industry works. I got signed kind of by accident, but had this network of people and could lean on a few for help. I never particularly sent it to the artists, I didn’t want to be the person who had a self-agenda. It made me more ambitious, because I see the ambition in our office. For the foreseeable I think I can put both hats on. Solo piano music is pretty different to what I’m doing at Ninja Tune. I’m going with the flow really, and I don’t pr myself, i got the great Duncan Clark @ 9PR for that – that would be slightly strange and not particularly healthy for me to promote me!

You played at Glastonbury this year – how was that?

It was a random one, because it was a connection through Greenpeace. I know the booker there, and he asked me to play – but there was no piano there, so I had to take my USB keyboard. It’s not my perfect performing situation, but I’m a believer in Greenpeace, so I wanted to help them. It’s also pretty cool to have said that’s my first ever gig! I’ve done Sofar Sounds and random singer-songwriter nights on the piano as a teenager, but it was my first real gig. The scheduling wasn’t perfect for my music, because the act before was a vocal-techno set, and before that there was a very upbeat brass band! Then I was playing my style of piano music, which is on one level very chilled but there are things going on in it. It was a small stage with 30-40 people but then lots on the perimeter. It was Sunday, around 5pm, the sun had just come out – and Shaggy was on the other stage, there was a skateboarding competition – lots of distractions. I had to keep going, and couldn’t hear myself properly, but did a 45-minute set and didn’t bugger it up. Some people zoned into it and contacted me afterwards. It’s not something I would rush into again but it’s an early sign of me not doing what’s expected.

I have a Solidarity of Arts Festival gig coming up in Gdansk, with Johann Johannsson, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Penguin Café. It’s like a Barbican vibe, I’m playing a 400 capacity room on a grand piano. I’m also playing at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, not in the main room but the equivalent of the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall. I’m going to be the first gig in that room, and I’m really looking forward to it. Hopefully that will open up a new world. After 25 years of composing I’ll believe it when I see it, but hopefully those gigs will be the true James Heather experience!

Does the classical music you listened to growing up still resonate now?

Of course, yes. I grew up with Beethoven’s Pathétique Piano Sonata, and the whole grandiosity of it – but then it gets so quiet. Debussy, I have his ‘best of’ – and I just love it. The other day I was listening to the John Cage piece Landscapes, one of the first example of classical music and turntables, and loops. Then I put on a Gangstarr record – which shows how anything goes!

Finally, what does classical music mean to you?

It’s very hard to articulate in words. When classical music hits me in the right way it’s very profound, a transcendent experience. I think it means independence. In indie music you have bands, and in electronic music you often have duos, if you have an orchestra a lot of the time it’s coming from one composer, and it feels like a staunchly independent thing. This is the vision of one composer, and it’s like a big statement, and here are 50 musicians playing it. I think you possibly get less ‘bands’ or ‘duos’ in classical music so for me classical music means Independence. That’s a random on the spot theory!

James Heather’s album Stories From Far Away is out now on Ahead Of Our Time. For more information on James Heather, head to his artist website

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