Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
Ever since my family took on a second-hand piano from a friend when I was 9 I started to make music, I used to play with a box on my head to learn to play freely without looking at the keys, it must of looked weird! Around this time I played a simple part in a school performance, an older pupil commented on how easy it was, that pissed me off! It was a formative moment for me in trying to improve. Music was important from the start, something impossible to truly articulate in words, it had a profound effect on me, I realised its power to connect in what seemed like an honest way,
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
My Granny on my Dad’s side and my Grandad on my Mum’s. Both used to compose songs rather than just play others. My Grandad having a more rule-abiding approach to composition and my Granny being a bit a more improvisation side. I remember re-tuning a piano with my Grandad at age 12 into equal temperament and writing down frequencies to see if modern pianos were tuned as they should be. My Dad and Brother were also early influences, they used to share music with me from classical to punk to techno and beyond. I think its quite common in the early days of composing to want to please those people who influenced you, before you gain confidence to branch out further afield without always needing nods of approval.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
The biggest frustration was probably losing confidence to share my compositions throughout my 20’s. I was starting to work as a publicist for some bonafide commercial and critically successful artists at the record label Ninja Tune, that took up time and also meant the bar was set higher in my head to the standard of a composition needed. Additionally I felt more detached from my family and friends after moving to London and finding my feet in a new city, so perhaps I became more introverted with my art. I now see this as a useful period, as I never stopped composing, even on cheap small keyboards due to the lack of space I was living in. Perhaps this period was needed to not get too comfortable early on and work on a sound without commercial pressure.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
I am only just starting to release music commercially so commissioned pieces are hopefully something that will come more in future. I have provided pieces to people in the world of sync & publishing, they need hooks at more regular intervals and certain styles to be followed, I enjoyed that process in the refining of my arrangements for sure, perhaps less so having to do a certain style for market. Luckily I do melodic upbeat songs within the more complex dark compositions, so I think it’s not a compromise as such, just a slight re-angling of my sound with full sign-off from me on the brand it might be associated with. Years ago I was also asked to write a song for a key moment at a wedding with a brief and ex-ample song. People asking for your music to help on a special day is a definite pleasure.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
In the school and college days I found this frustrating, as it was a competitive environment with indie bands of the time, and usually people didn’t have the work ethic to follow through what we would plan over a beer! It was one of the reasons I became a solo pia-nist, with occasional dabbles in working with friends who made “beats”. I am now reaching a stage where collaboration is something I am interested in again, I am interested in taking my sound into unexpected environments, I’ve just done some work with a well known elec-tronic producer and a RnB singer so I am looking forward to that coming out. I have noth-ing against the classical world, but I sense it could be a bit of a cul-de-sac if that’s all someone did, It’s important for me to be cross-genre as an artist in collaboration where possible.
Of which works are you most proud?
I think the “Water Sonatas” album I did as in 2015 helped me with a bit more visibility,. It was the first time I uploaded an album to the internet and told anyone, I just put it all up online and gave away mp3’s, it wasn’t on stores. The organic sharing of it among journalists and music industry people was confidence-building and made me think my music could travel further. This led to my first released work “Modulations: EP 1” which is out on June 9th, on Coldcut’s record label Ahead Of Our Time (an imprint of Ninja Tune) with an album to follow later in year. The art direction on both releases is by Suki and I love how beautiful it’s all going to look!
How would you characterise your compositional language?
I would say at the moment it’s a melodic language that modulates between keys freely but I want to explore a more dissonant language going forward, but one with a foot in harmony. My work has elements of soul and jazz in there too which clash subtly with a more classical framework. I want to explore this more too going forward. Within the DNA is a light and dark tension at play with hope bubbling beneath.
How do you work?
Ideally I have 48 hours with no distractions at home. In the morning I might not do any composing, I’ll do usual stuff like breakfast, watch TV, talk to friends and family and find excuses to put off the dusting! I might plan out roughly what i want to achieve in the compositions too, taken from notes I make during the week on feelings I’ve soaked up. As the day gets older and I feel I am reaching a peaceful state I will just play for hours, and record the bits I am most happy with. It has to feel like I am pushing new ground every time I step to the keys. Improvisation is something traditionally I feel comfortable in and never playing same thing the same way twice. More recently I have been relearning and fine-tuning my compositions from years of recording, looking back a little in order to have a set of songs people might recognise when playing live! I try to stop by 11pm so I can watch a bit of football to unwind from the creative zone and get my 8 hours kip!
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
In the classical world I would say Beethoven, Debussy, Lisa Gerrard and Max Richter. I actually listen more to electronic and hip-hop music (among other styles) much more however these days. I like the rawness of Wiley and the consciousness of Roots Manuva and Jonwayne in the rap world. I also love Cinematic Orchestra, Young Fathers, Aphex Twin, Bonobo, PJ Harvey and Leon Vynehall form other genres, I could go on forever. I love mu-sic from every genre that feels like an honest explosion of the heart, whether thats conveying beauty or anger. To me my music is punk in spirit, but on first listen its anything but.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
The live world is something I was initially very shy with and not something I pursued, I am happy in isolation. But in the right environment I do play on occasion. I performed a Sofar Sounds recently, where invited people watch a gig in a house and it goes onto YouTube. That’s a cool vibe, but to play somewhere like The Barbican one day is something that I’ll aspire to. I am ambitious and want to push myself in the live arena, but at my own pace. I wish more places had acoustic pianos!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to as-piring musicians?
The fallacy of self-importance is not a cool thing and not sustainable to a peaceful inner core. Be confident with your art but be interested in others too. Be humble and bend the rules.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Making a living out of my compositions in a varied manner, from albums to collaborations to score work, helping other artists get the exposure they deserve and continuing a spiritual, loving path with my wife.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I believe in joy, somewhere between happy and unhappy where the pressure to be perfect has been eradicated and the lows of imperfection measured against perfection are a distant memory.
What is your most treasured possession?
I feel I can live without any of the few possessions I have, in that respect I’m down with the monks! Without access to the ability to compose music though makes me feel like a metal spring is being pushed down in my stomach however!
On June 9th contemporary pianist James Heather releases “Modulations: EP 1” via the Ninja Tune imprint Ahead Of Our Time, which is Coldcut’s re-launched playground for free expression and experimentation.
These sparse pieces ebb and ﬂow, slowly enveloping the listener in a subtly subliminal fashion. Heather’s minimalist approach allows the instrument’s rhythmic, tonal and melodic capability to take centre stage, oﬀering an intimate encounter with the piano and its player. “Modulations: EP 1” is the ﬁrst in a series of EPs that showcase a versatile handling of assorted emotions and styles.
The seven tracks are drawn from Heather’s large bank of self-penned music, which were written and recorded at diﬀerent times and in various headspaces. ‘EP 1’ will be followed by an album in the summer, which represents a more uniﬁed body of conceptual work
James Heather is one of the new school set of ‘post classical’ artists flourishing in the wake of the long, steady but recently accelerated success of figureheads like Max Richter, Ben Lukas Boyson and Jóhann Johannsson, and the wider public’s overdue but now burgeoning relationship with this varied genre.