Today GIGsoup are very excited to be featuring the fantastic pianist and composer Simeon Walker. His brand new album ‘Mono’ is available on GIGsoup as an exclusive pre-release live stream before the official release this Friday. ‘Mono’, his second album, is a collection of nine piano recordings from the winter of 2016/2017 which includes his stunningly captivating track ‘Turn’.
Not only do we have this livestream available for our GIGsoup readers, but we also had the chance to interview him about his journey as a musician so far and about his recording and composition process for his new release.
I hear that you started out as a singer-songwriter and that you decided to refocus on instrumental work. Can you describe some of your journey in getting to this stage as a musician?
Simeon: I was always interested in making my own music. As a child, in the early stages of my piano lessons, I would take semi-incomprehensible scribblings along to lessons, which my amazing teacher would generously attempt to make sense of. Whilst they were terrible and non-sensical, I was clearly showing a desire to compose new music, and I’m grateful that my teacher encouraged me in that way.
Throughout my teens I had singing and drum lessons, and taught myself the guitar too. I was in a creative school and joined a number of bands, and began thinking about how to write songs. This continued whilst studying Music at university, and despite being involved with all kinds of musical projects, performing in bands and submitting a varied composition portfolio, I probably spent the best part of a decade trying to write songs, assuming that it was the musical space in which I was supposed to be, mostly on guitar. All this was forgetting the instrument on which I started my musical journey, which gave me the most joy to play, which I was most proficient at and qualified in, and which was my first love.
Discovering other pianists like Nils Frahm and Olafur Arnalds around 2012 was a crucial turning point. They managed to make the piano come alive in different ways, using a variety of musical skills and abilities, and ultimately created music which made me feel something special and connected. I began to experiment with lots of ideas, enjoying the new-found freedom of not having to write clever, poetic lyrics, which had never been my strong point anyway. Considering it was something as simple as spending more time playing my favourite instrument, it was still a powerful and transformational part of my musical history, for which I’m hugely grateful.
Mono is a stunning album; part of that for me is the ambience and that it really feels like a soothing winter listen, with the warmth of the noise of the piano creaking and keys moving. Did you first get to this sound organically, by accident? Or was it a deliberate choice?
Thanks so much – I’m glad that came across! In the (growing and exciting) modern classical world, it’s quite a common device to use layers of felt to dampen the sound created by the hammers on the strings, as popularised by Nils Frahm on his Felt and Screws albums. I used this, but I also placed the microphones underneath the keyboard instead of above the keys, near the hammers. This created a warm and rich sound, with less percussive noise from the hammers, whilst also creating a slightly twangy sound to be heard because of the proximity to the strings of the piano harp.
This all contributed to create an honest, genuine capture of the sound of my piano (which I love so much), and one which came about through a lot of experimentation, trial and error, and probably a few happy accidents as well. If you listen carefully, there is the odd car going past the window, and a few bird sounds too. When I was mixing and mastering the record with Andrew Glassford, I shared that I was worried about these things and that it would sound odd, but he convinced me that they were endearing qualities, which gave the listening experience a greater sense of authenticity. He described it as if anyone who listens is having the opportunity to sit in my lounge, listening to me play, with all of the other sounds placing it fully in its own context, which was a description I found to be very helpful.
I like it because it means that it doesn’t feel clean or clinical as can sometimes happen when you record in a studio. Whilst it is a little rough around the edges, I love the space that the listener is afforded on this record; space to think, to breathe; to feel.
I wouldn’t say I have a clearly defined process as such. I love to improvise and when I have a good period of time to write, I’ll often start sessions by simply improvising and seeing where things end up, based on how I feel, the time of year, the weather or other events that are going on. Other times, I’ll deliberately choose to work on something specific – writing in a less familiar key; utilising a particular rhythmical device; working on more complex harmony; exploring the sonic possibilities with such a diverse and amazing instrument; all whilst striving for melodies which engage, captivate and capture my (and hopefully others’) imagination.
Some pieces take months – even years on occasions – to fully form, and I quite enjoy leaving something alone for a time if necessary, as the freshness you can bring to something familiar further down the line is great. Other times, such as Lull on the album were pretty much fully written within a hour or so. In this case we’d had a particularly heavy and unexpected snow – I popped out in it with childlike excitement, but spent the rest of the day watching the snow fall heavily, yet peacefully outside, whilst I was able to play. It created the perfect backdrop to enable me to write something that felt cold.
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The album art for Mono is by none other than Gregory Euclide, the artist behind the cover of Bon Iver’s award winning self titled second record. How did it feel when you discovered he was a fan of your work?
I got an email from Gregory to say how much he enjoyed my music. As a massive Bon Iver fan, this was quite a shock, but also clearly a hugely exciting and confidence-boosting moment. Obviously, the Bon Iver connection is amazing, but Gregory is also a massive music fan, particularly in the musical world in which I sit, and so to have not just his commendation, but also his willingness to be part of and associated with the record is something for which I’m incredibly proud and grateful.
What do you prefer – live performance or creating and recording songs? Where will you be focusing your energy after the release of Mono?
To be honest, I’m equally at home in either setting. I perform a number of times in any given week in various contexts, and there’s an aspect to teaching which is a little like a performance as well, so I do plenty of performing.
A big target for 2018 is to play more shows than ever before. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to take my songs around the country in the next few weeks, but I’m also working on booking some European tour dates at some point next year.
The obvious next step for me from a recording perspective is to begin to incorporate more instruments to my music. I have quite a bit of material ready for my next project, and whilst I do love performing and getting out there and meeting people, I really do adore the time I have by myself with the piano, and I’m looking forward to the next step and what it might bring.
‘Mono’ by Simeon Walker is out on Sweden’s 1631 Recordings on the 24th November, available on his website: https://www.simeonwalker.co.uk/shop
Simeon Walker is also touring from now until the 21st December where you can experience his beautiful piano tracks in person.