GIVEN the raft of Scottish-based musicians I have been...
reviewing lately, it is great to revisit with one of my earliest review subjects. Steve Heron is a prolific and multi-talented Edinburgh musician with a huge following and great respect. Not only does he promote and foster other acts- from homegrown contemporaries to further afield- but he is marking himself as one of the most interesting and compelling songwriters around.
Having taken a slight break last year: Steve is back in 2016 and planning new music. Many artists- when interviewing with me- give quite brief (and snappy) answers. It has been great hearing the passion come from Steve Heron: An artist who has an intense dedication to music and a lifelong obsession with its virtues and mysteries. One of my favourite musicians from the U.K.: I was keen to catch up with Steve and see what this year had in store; which new musicians he would recommend and what music (personally) means to him…
Hi Steve. How has your week played out?
Thus far, it’s played out like most weeks. Too much time sitting on buses and at work. Not enough time sitting with guitar or pen in hand.
For those unfamiliar with your music: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
An Edinburgh-based guitarist by trade; singer by accident. I’ve had a few releases: I’ve been lucky enough to have been a featured BBC Introducing artist on a couple of show (on a couple of occasions). I’m also hoping that my new nickname of ‘Snakehips’ catches on (see the bottom of this interview).
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Your songs have such originality and highlights- unique chord changes and emotional ranges- and that has always grabbed me. What inspires your songwriting process?
I don’t really have a set way of working when it comes to writing. When it comes to lyrics, I just try to think about stories: Whether they’re my own or other people’s I’ve heard and see where it goes from there. I’m not one for just knocking out a set of lyrics in 10 minutes just for the sake of writing something. I like to take my time with it. I put a lot of thought into what’s being said and how it’s being said- I try to imagine myself saying the lyrics to someone, depending on the situation. People have said my lyrics are honest and kind of conversational, so I imagine that’d be why.
Anything could spark it though: It could be a line in a conversation; could be a film; could be a piece of art…anything. A lot will depend on what kind of song I’m looking to write at that time, and a lot of that will depend on how I’m actually feeling at that time. I do find that most of the time I will have a whole song planned out musically and all the parts will be there so all that’s left is lyrics. So I’ll do a rough demo and listen to it on repeat for a few days (or longer depending on the song) and try to get a feel for what it should be about. I’ll try to get inside my head and see if I already have something kicking about that needs to be married up to the piece of music.
You have that stand-out voice-and-composition combination that sets you aside. Which artists influenced you growing up?
In terms of listening to certain artists from a young age: I was brought up on my dad’s music taste– Queen, Rod Stewart, The Beatles etc.– so I think their influence runs through my music in terms of the classic songwriting aspect of it. From my early teens- when most people start to develop their own musical identity- Oasis were the band to really make a big impact on me as a teenager: They were more my generation than anything I’d listened to up to that point. The more I read about them and their influences- the more bands I wanted to find out about- and the more my influences grew.
There has been criticism (stating that) music has been declining- not being as strong as decades past. What is your view on this issue?
I think it’s probably true that it’s not as strong it used to be in terms of credible artists in the mainstream; but there will always be good original music out there somewhere if you’re patient and willing to look for it. It’s too easy to look at the charts and the press and get downhearted about the amount of vapid shite that is presented to us music lovers; but there is good music to be found anywhere you want to look for it. So much ground has been covered in the last 60 years of popular music: Things are always likely to plateau at some point and people tend to forget that popularity and quality don’t always go hand-in-hand.
For me there seems to be too many fans hung up on old bands reforming (Christ knows that we need yet another ‘90s Indie band reforming for a tour!) so they’re less focused on finding new music, finding new bands, going to local gigs: Taking a chance of experiencing something new to them that causes them to immediately think that music and bands aren’t as good they were. I don’t think that’s the case, personally. I think that most people look at the overall state of modern music and they just naturally feel more comfortable with the nostalgia stuff.
I don’t mean for this to come across as some sort of anti mass-media rant (and all that stuff) because everything has its place. What I’m saying is that just because it’s on TV or radio doesn’t make it a fair representation of what is actually going on musically in the world, so people need to stress themselves out less about it. Everyone has their own take on it though and some people will read this and probably think I’m talking a load of shite, but that’s the way I see it.
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Edinburgh showcases so many brilliant musicians and bands. What is about the city (and Scotland as a whole) that creates so many terrific artists?
It’s difficult to say to be honest. For all the good musicians we have, I still feel that the Edinburgh creative community lacks the support from the local council to really showcase the creative talent the city has. I think if it became more widely accepted and encouraged- to make music happen in the city- instead of trying to close down live music venues and cut music tuition in the city- then you would see a lot more talented people coming through.
Overall though, I think it’s a naturally Scottish trait to have a chip on our shoulders about something: music tends to be an excellent way to channel that productively. Scotland has produced some of the best authors, artists and cultural figures since awaaaaaaaay (sic.) back in the day so why not try and be the next (big) one? It’s all relative though, I suppose.
On the subject of Scottish music (and Edinburgh): which bands/artists would you recommend the reader checks out- maybe acts you have performed with?
At the moment, a few names for you:
Neon Liston, Miasma, Trio HLK, May He Go; Emma Pollock, Black Cat, Bone Roisin; Tuohy, Gigantic Leaves and Snide Rhythms
Of course, I’m sure your readers will be familiar with bands like Universal Thee, Benny Monteux & my buddies from Ded Rabbit too (indeed): but obviously I’d encourage them to check out everyone I’ve mentioned here and see what else is coming from Edinburgh at the moment.
If you had to select the most important albums to you- from a creative or personal perspective- which five would you choose?
It’s always tough to narrow it down to just 5, but here goes:
- Silent Alarm by Bloc Party – It would have been about early/mid-2004 when I first heard Bloc Party. I came home after a night out and was watching 120 Minutes on MTV2 and the video for Banquet comes on. I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited by a band right from the get-go as I was for Bloc Party (after seeing that grainy black-and-white video).
- Darkness on the Edge of Town by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band - It’s a toss-up between this and Born To Run but ‘Darkness just edges it (pun not intended). I got the chance to see Springsteen play the full album at Wembley a few years ago: It was genuinely one of those experiences that you read about people having at a gig, but always seems will never happen to you. It’s quite amazing to be in a stadium with thousands of people and see so many of them moved to tears by the songs from this album. It’s an album that is so melancholic but also unbelievably uplifting at the same time. The title track- and most of the tracks from the album- is a song about loss, but also carrying on. You’d be hard-pushed to find someone who can’t identify with that in this day and age.
- Grace by Jeff Buckley – From a creative standpoint, Grace is a massive album for me. I was so obsessed with learning all of the songs from album; it became a sort of long-term project for me. Learning them, you get to see how they’re put together and I think it’s a stunning album musically. Jeff Buckley’s voice is so dynamic: The altered tunings he uses give chords so much texture that when it’s all put together, it’s almost a (virtually) perfectly produced album. You could listen to it a hundred times and you will hear something new in each song, every time. The man was a master musician.
- The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths – Much like Springsteen: It’s hard to single out one album by The Smiths that had the most influence on me. Meat is Murder and Hatful of Hollow are really close to the top of the list, but T.Q.I.D. edges them out. Johnny Marr has been the single biggest influence on my guitar playing and this album is filled with some of his best I’d say. Morrissey lyrics are smart, funny; sad at points and witty. They’re as good as anything he’s done before or since, and each set of lyrics is perfectly matched to Marr’s music. I think it’s almost the perfect album, so it’s one that I revisit often especially when I’m writing because there’s always something new to find in the lyrics and music.
- The Atlantic Years by The Lemonheads – I’d always loved The Lemonheads cover of Mrs. Robinson, but it was this album that really opened my eyes to what a great band they really are and what a brilliant songwriter Evan Dando is. Nothing overly complicated with the music, but it works so well with Dando’s lyrics. If I’m writing lyrics, I usually keep ‘Lemonheads’ songs in mind, and try to write similarly smart, witty, funny and descriptive lyrics (if I can). From a personal standpoint, a close friendship was formed over a love for this album too so it’ll always be a special one for me.
What advice would you give to new musicians coming through at the moment?
Be open, be honest: Don’t worry about what others are saying or doing – just worry about what you’re doing, don’t concern yourself with reviews. Take what you do seriously, but don’t take yourself as seriously as that. Oh, and if you’re drummer owns a Cajon, it’s time to get a new drummer.
You had a busy 2015. With this year in full swing: Is there new music forthcoming?
I took a bit of time off last year. It had been a solid five years of gigging, recording and doing all sorts of stuff, so it was time for a break. That being said, I have been working a bit with Neon Liston since last summer- just adding some guitar stuff to their tracks so that’s been good. Their stuff is different to what I usually do with my own ‘solo’ stuff so it’s been a nice change of style and pace. I’ve really enjoyed being able to give my voice a rest too. I’ve been having problems with it since the end of 2014, so I’ve really been able to rest it and focus on playing guitar again, which is what I really love to do anyway.
I’ve still been putting together my own songs though but at the moment I’m taking it easy with Steve Heron’s tunes. My voice still needs some work and I always like to make sure that I have a good batch of new songs ready before I start looking at getting the band back together. In the meantime, though, Neon Liston are getting my full attention. There’s plenty new material we’re working on and there was an E.P. released at the end of 2015. It’s on Spotify and Soundcloud for those who want to check it out, *wink*
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Last year saw some great artists emerge in the mainstream- from Kendrick Lamar to Courtney Barnett. Which artists were your standouts from last year?
Father John Misty, Jamie xx, Man Made; Natalie Prass, Mac Demarco, LA Priest. I’m drawing a bit of a blank at the moment but those are some that caught my attention last year- along with Courtney (Barnett) and Kendrick Lamar.
Music means a lot to different people. What does music mean to YOU personally?
I think it’s such a hard thing to put into words: what music means to someone? It’s like if someone asks you to describe an emotion. Music is an emotion in itself, and it’s the one thing that I take total comfort in no matter what genre or which artist I’m listening to. Music means that I can be at a gig and immediately connect with a complete stranger without ever having to engage in horrible awkward small talk and explain why you’re having a wee moment. It crosses generations: It doesn’t care who you are, where you’re from and all those things that people tend to be hung up on. They say music is the only thing that stimulates the entire brain. Some songs I hear and I can instantly be taken back to certain specific moment- good or bad- and live it all again.
Someone said to me once that music (specifically playing live) is the perfect combination of the conscious and subconscious, which really rings true I think. How many other things are there in life that offers that kind of experience? And what else is amazing about music, is that someone will read what I’ve said and know exactly what I mean. The next person won’t have a clue what I’m talking about because the way music makes them feel will be completely different. That gives me a lot of heart because it makes me feel like there’s still more out there for me to experience. Music to me means you can be one of the two drunk strangers pogoing together at a gig- or one half of the couple on the last train home- resting their heads on each other with an earphone each. It brings me closer to the world and the world closer to me.
Jeff Buckley is a shared joy for us- in terms of inspiring musicians. With a ‘new’ album coming out (You and I is a collection of unreleased material): What is about the man that compels so many musicians?
One of the things I always admired about Buckley was his ability to cover a song and make it totally his own. He took an already great song in Hallelujah and managed to record the definitive version of it. But I’ve never listened to any cover he’s done and had that sense that it was recorded solely to get attention, or for profit: I always feel like he’s doing it as a musical education. When I really started getting into Buckley, I would go away and find out about the people who wrote the songs he covered. Hearing the Live at Sin-é and Mystery White Boy albums led me to buy some Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Big Star albums for example- which I would never have thought of doing unless I had heard them. Artists that play a big part in your musical upbringing and education will always be special and I think Buckley definitely fills that role for a lot of musicians. His music always feels very inclusive.
Not forgetting of course that he was also a ridiculously talented musician and the fact that they’re still releasing Jeff Buckley material (19 years after his death) personally just makes me more interested in what we missed out on- and if there are any more performances kicking about. I always find it interesting to hear another musician’s take on some songs you know anyway: It can feel like someone is breaking a song down and explaining how a great song works in some cases. Jeff Buckley was amazing at doing that. He was always trying to find out new ways of playing the same song. Listen to all the versions of Hallelujah he recorded: He never played it the same way twice. It would get a bit stale playing the same songs on the road every night so the ability to be able to do the same songs in a different way is an exciting thought; both as a musician and a fan. He made each crowd special because they were getting a one-off version specific to that gig: Playing different intros to songs, doing longer versions; throwing in some outrageously improvised vocal stuff. He was constantly pushing the boundaries of what he was capable of doing in the moment as he was playing. His confidence as a musician & his drive to develop as an artist is what I think makes him so compelling.
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Money is a big sticking point for a lot of new musicians- the cost of maintaining a career; the lack of money earned. Do you think money concerns are putting a lot of musicians off or does that passion and determination override such issues?
It’s all down to the individual with this. For me, I would love to be able to make a living from making music: But if you offered me the choice of playing for cash or playing to a busy venue for free, I would take the busy venue every time. I’ve never made any big cash from music: Any cash I have made has just gone back into making more music. Some people’s passion will drive them on to make money from it, but others will be happy to get up and bang out a few tunes at an open mic for free.
It’s sad that people have to judge how passionate they are about something (based on if it) will earn them enough to live on- but unfortunately, that’s the world we live in. I do think if being a musician was recognised as a proper job- and not thought of as a ‘hobby’- then that would encourage a lot more talented people to follow it through and see how far they could take it. The world would be a much richer place if that was allowed to happen…
Finally- and for being a good egg- you can name any song you like; I’ll play it here…
Do Anything You Wanna Do by Eddie & The Hotrods.
Follow Steve ‘Snakehips’ Heron