The comprehension of classical music had long been privy to a selective audience, but when laced with modernity, one would be pleasantly taken by how it can create a sense of vibrancy and excitement. Ninja Tune-affiliated artist, contemporary pianist, and composer James Heather is a prime example of how he can make instrumental piano music fresh and, relevant, as proven in his latest Modulations: EP2 release.
The London pianist and composer delivers beautiful ambient climes and crediting the piano as the main attraction to his compositions. James Heather’s work has made him a certified “post-classical” artist after he released his first solo release Modulations: EP1 in 2017 ahead of his classical crossover debut album titled Stories From Far Away On Piano. In 2018, he released Reworks, which is an album featuring remixes and alternate versions from incredible names.
James Heather finally returns in 2021 with his much-anticipated and very personal Modulations: EP2. It takes us on a journey that touches on the loss of his father to optimism during this challenging time. He has let go of a lot of his methods, and you can feel the freedom in his work this time, which is both emotional and powerful.
We managed to catch up with James Heather over an interview to find out about the challenges in making Modulations: EP2 on his own, to his thoughts on how music is marked by continous change.
Q. Hi James, how have you been coping with 2021 personally?
Thankfully ok, just waiting for my second vaccine, so still spending a lot of time at home. Luckily I completed building my music studio just before the pandemic started, so I spend a lot of time there.
Q. Nice! Do you remember your first encounter with music as a child?
I remember sitting in the backseat of our family car, and my dad would always have a wide range of music on the go. He spoke to me about hearing Jimi Hendrix for the first time in the ’60s when he worked in the engine room on boats in the Merchant Navy. He also loved Joy Division, joking that rock should never be ‘soft rock.’ But he also would listen to Mozart and Nick Drake. One thing that stuck with me on those car journeys was a band called Prefab Sprout. When you’re a kid, you are less looking for what’s cool, but more a connection with harmony and melody, and they had that in spades. So that’s why I’ve started my playlist with them. It’s not so much aligned to my taste now, but I think their melodies seeped into my consciousness from those early years. We would also listen to the Top 40 a lot when it came out on a Sunday whilst we drove home from a day out. I’d rush up to my room when we got home and rewrite the Top 40 in the order I thought it should be on a typewriter. I must’ve been about eight years old!
Q. Do you still remember the first album you purchased?
My first 7 inch (record) was The Bangles, ‘Manic Monday,’ which I later found out was written by Prince. My dad got rid of his vinyl and decks at some point, and sadly, I can’t remember why, so we became a house with a lot of CDs. The first CD I bought was Nirvana’s Nevermind, but I have earlier memories of being obsessed with a cassette tape by an artist called Tinita Tikaram. I think it was Nirvana that was the first band I could call my own.
Q. How has your music taste evolved since then?
After getting into alternative rock like Nirvana and Metallica, a few things happened to my musical taste. When I was about 12, my older neighbour next door was running a pirate radio station. I’d sit in my garden hearing all this Acid House and Aphex Twin’s music coming out of his bedroom window. When I spoke with him, I’d quiz him at length about the free parties around the M25 (road in England) he had been to, and it seemed magical to me. But it was when I was about 16 that I really started to find music that felt like it was for my generation. Two of my friends started introducing me to acts like DJ Shadow, Boards Of Canada, and Four Tet. It was like a revolution in my head, music outside of the mainstream, that I felt was better, something more profound. I’ve also always been as interested in the B-sides and the album tracks, especially the more ambient tracks. I like a banger as much as the next person, but something about the more chilled side of an artist catalogue spoke to me just as or if not more strongly.
Q. Tell us about your relationship with the piano.
I first tried to play the guitar as my older brother was getting good at it, and he was also really good at sport, but I didn’t click with it. I wanted to find my ‘thing’ too. So I tried to learn the clarinet around the age of 9. All the tunings were a few semitones down, I’m not sure if that was the reason, but I didn’t enjoy learning it. So next was the trombone. My parents joked that the loud noises I was making trying to learn were keeping the whole neighbourhood up. Then an amazing thing happened when I was about 10 or 11, a woman my mom worked with as a nurse was selling a piano. So we drove over to pick it up; I still remember it now. It was your classic “Honky-tonk” piano. My parents bought me some Scott Joplin manuscript books, and I started to learn a more “early jazz” way of playing. For four years, I started taking classical lessons and got quite high in grades, although I was more interested in playing my teacher with my rudimentary compositions. I still have some on tape, and I might put them on YouTube one day.
Eventually, we got a slightly better piano, a Reid-Sohn upright, that now sits largely unplayed in my studio. It’s not great, but I might do an EP on it one day and experiment with the inside to see if I can get it sounding vibier. Anyway, from the age of 15, I just went my own way, with some basic fundamentals of classical in my skill set. Complemented by some lessons from my hobbyist grandad in piano composition and my dad’s friend in Blues piano playing. Although I was becoming certain, I wanted to do my own thing from that point on. It took me years to get myself in the headset that I was an artist in my own right that people might want to listen to. I had become quite happy just making music for purely uncommercial reasons.
Q. Why the decision to release a follow-up to Modulation: EP1 instead of an album?
I always wanted to follow up on the first EP. The Modulation series' intention being it could be a series of piano tracks that don’t quite fit the more conceptual albums. I had intended to put out the new album in 2021, but the EP felt right at the time, with tracks I loved but mostly didn’t quite fit the vibe of the upcoming album. I really want my album to be released when I can play live gigs more again, as really that is the thing I most like to do. The album is coming!
Q. Can’t wait! The Modulations: EP2 sounds very personal. Care to share the story behind it and your process in creating it?
My debut album was about stories I had read around the world, and whilst it was still my personal feelings going into it, I wanted to take it a stage further with my new releases. EP2 is about the journey of losing someone too soon in life, dealing with themes around mortality, and ultimately realising you have to find that spark for life again whilst you are breathing if you can. EP2 and the upcoming album really is me articulating who I am but through instrumental music. If the listener can feel the meanings of the songs through my playing but not being influenced on how to feel by lyrics, then that would be amazing. I love solo piano music, but I also love many other genres, and I think my journey on the piano is about respecting the intimacy of solo piano but also about wanting to be the strings, bass, vocals, guitar, brass, and drums I hear in my head translated through my hands. It’s like a punk DIY thing for me; when all my friends in the ’90s were in Oasis type bands or making jungle or drum and bass music, I was on the piano thinking I can make a sound just as big, and then I would always counteract that with more dreamy improvisations too.
Q. What’s the most challenging part about creating Modulations: EP2?
I would say recording it all in my new studio for the first time, learning about new microphones, piano, interfaces, and the computer. I also self-produced it and mixed it. As for me, it's such a part of the composition process, and I tend to go very deep on stuff, so it’s easier to do my own thing. The mixing of the solo piano isn’t as easy as it might seem, even though it’s one instrument. The piano is one of the hardest instruments to record with its dynamic range; there is a lot to learn in the mixing process. I’m happy with EP2, although I learnt a few lessons, so I can hopefully improve more for the album. I also work full time, helping out Ninja Tune, so getting into the creative headspace after a full day at work, on top of all of the other challenges life brings, is something you need to work on constantly. Respect to all the musicians with full-time jobs!
Q. What would you say is your favourite track off the release and why?
Passing Soul felt very instinctive. I had come to the end of recording a lot of songs and taking a lot of time getting everything right, like recording versions on different microphones. With Passing Soul, I put the Extinct Audio Ribbon mics under the piano and kept the lid shut, which was against the advice of any recording guide I had read. I felt the pressure was off, as it was just an experiment. I ended up opening the EP with that take, and it feels like a fitting song to be in memory of my dad. It is also something that works on a more philosophical level about the physical body and passing souls within us, especially with the year we just had. I also like Metal Machina because it feels like the more dramatic side of my live show, and I felt I hadn’t quite put that into my recorded output yet.
Q. Care to share more about the incredible visual arts for the new EP?
The art for my releases is as fundamental as the music. It's never just something thought of at the last minute or given to someone to create in a non-personal way.
The art for my releases has been so instrumental – all created by Suki, my long-term collaborator. She is the one who heard some of my early music ways before my first release. Her encouragement and enthusiasm for the compositions triggered something within me that had been dormant for so long. That love for the piano I had as a young child was the realest thing about me, and it had been in front of me for years without me realising fully.
I’d constantly been practicing at home, but now I was finally going to release music side by side with Suki creating everything that is visual. I have a tendency to doubt myself, but deep down, I know my story is worth sharing. I believe everyone’s is. She taught me to love the world again.
The art for the release is a photo taken in my studio of a Stargazer Lily opening, photographed by Suki. The photo uses UV light techniques to reveal a fluorescence that is usually hidden. The Stargazer Lily symbolises purity and rebirth, and this image is a reminder to me that our inner light is ever-present even though you can’t always feel it.
Q. As a contemporary pianist and composer, what are your thoughts on the current music scene?
I love the current music scene; although in all genres, there is just too much to wade through, the gems are still there. Someone I know, who I thought was the most forward-thinking music fan in the ’90s told me a few years ago that music was not what it was. We had a friendly argument about that. I disagree; music can last forever and be infinitely inspiring. It is one of the purest forms of human expression. Humans can do a lot of bad things on this planet, but music is not one of them. So while humans live, music lives, and as the world gets further away from nature, I do believe that art can go more towards it. Future music scenes will be better and better still, as we yearn for the planet as it once was or what it can be.
Q. Well said. How do you define the James Heather sound these days?
I would say it’s getting to where it wants to be. With each release, I learn a little more, get myself into an improved headspace and build up the tools I need to express my sound. I want to respect the nice melodic sound of the piano but also bring in something grander and more atmospheric to it. I’m just obsessed with trying to make the best piano album I can make. I’ll know when I’ll make it, and then I hope to find more time to experiment with other sounds too.
Q. What are your hopes and goals for the rest of 2021?
To complete the album, start playing gigs more again and clink a few glasses with my friends and family more often!
Q. Tell us more about this playlist you have curated for us.
I make a lot of modern classical and ambient playlists these days, so I wanted to do something a little different. With this playlist, I wanted to make something that was a bit more jazz and soul-based but still with a link to the classical world. I wanted to showcase a diverse selection of artists and mix up the established artists with the brand new ones; that’s what I always try to do. I hope your readers find some music to treasure on this playlist.
And that personal invitation now awaits on your favourite sound system. – A Specially-curated Playlist by James Heather –
Cover Image: Suki
Writer | Kevin Yeoh
Kevin is a Malaysian who spends way too much time on Twitter and YouTube. He has also been listening to the same podcast since 2016 on repeat.