“To me, editing is another instrument. It’s a vital part of the creative process.”
As we look back on the major hits and killer sounds of 2017, we are reminded that the odds of artists looking to make lasting careers out of their initial splashes are, frankly, super-slim in our current instant-grat-track climate. Sure, you’ve perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the day to in-the-moment perfection, but is that the end of it? You have to wonder: will Cardi B, the Despacito gang, Tove Styrke, and Diet Cig be able to sustain substantive careers beyond their big hits of this soon-to-be-passing year, or are they all fated to be consigned to the playlist you’re putting together for that upcoming New Year’s Eve party — that is, the playlist you’ll soon wind up renaming Bad and Boujee: 2017 One-Hit Wonders?
That said, sometimes it actually does take a few good years for true artists to find the nexus of their staying power. That’s exactly what happened with British singer/songwriter Nick Heyward, who made his initial splash during the prime MTV era by helming hit songs like Love Plus One and Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl) with new-wave icons Haircut One Hundred.
The inner songwriter kept saying to me, “Keep going.”
Even at age 20, Heyward had a vision for cultivating his songwriting chops beyond the pop-chart cavalcade, ultimately choosing to step away from the big machine and hone his craft as a solo artist at his own pace, sharing what he dubbed his “musical doodles” on the web for all comers who’d give a listen. The best of these doodles have since bloomed nicely into the even-dozen tracks now residing on one of 2017’s best-realized and best-sounding efforts, Woodland Echoes, out now in various formats via Gladsome Hawk.
Listen closely, and you’ll find Heyward’s knack for creating indie-rock-laced earwig confections akin to those found in the DNA of modern pop artists like Sam Smith, Hozier, Charlie Puth, and James Bay. “I was quite happy to share my song doodles online, and then when it came time to sharing them as properly made stuff, I felt like these songs have got to be finished well. They’ve got to reach their full potential,” Heyward explained to Digital Trends. “Once they did, I reached my full potential 12 times.”
Digital Trends called Heyward across the Pond to discuss turning “doodles” into full-fledged songs, how nature played a vital role on this album, and why he feels editing is absolutely crucial to the creative process.
Digital Trends: Woodland Echoes is one of the clearest, best-sounding productions I’ve heard all year. And your son Oliver Heyward, an up-and-coming engineer, helped you hone some of those choice sounds.
Nick Heyward: Wow! Well, thank you for saying that! At first, I was online sharing my musical doodles like homemade jams, kind of like you were looking through the window of my house. Around 2007, my son Oliver set me up with a road mike, a tiny pair of speakers, and a laptop with Logic. Up till then, I had been doing it pretty much just by pressing RECORD, but after I recorded Forest of Love and a few other tracks, I thought, “Well, I’ll develop these songs.”
The Internet was changing as well, for the independent artist. MySpace went away, and other things replaced it, like PledgeMusic. I was observing it all as it was happening and I thought, “This is really healthy. Maybe I’ll start working on some kind of album.”
There I was recording in the spare room, thinking about my favorite albums and songs: “[Queen’s legendary] Bohemian Rhapsody wasn’t made in the spare room” — but the inner songwriter kept saying to me, “Keep going.”
You do what you do with some people, even if you haven’t seen them in a while.
One thing lead to another, and I went to see my old friend Ian Shaw, with whom I had recorded [1993’s] From Monday to Sunday, and Kite [which hit #4 on the U.S. Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart]. He had a Blackstar amplifier, and we got down to it. You do what you do with some people, even if you haven’t seen them in a while. You end up doing the last dance you did together — if you did a tango together, you’d end up doing a tango, you know? It’s just something you do when you communicate. You put the kettle on, and you drink the same tea.
You and Ian just picked up right where you left off, then.
We did pick up from where we left off, yes, and with that ’90s influence on it. At first it was strange, but I was just doing what I was doing. And then I thought, “Well, this does deserve to be mixed by Chris Sheldon,” who had mixed the previous album [1998’s The Apple Bed], and also, “This has to be mastered by Denis Blackham,” who had mastered From Monday to Sunday. And then it was done, and the title just popped on there, like a cherry.
You recorded it all pretty much digitally direct too, right into your laptop. I have to say, the nature sounds we get to hear throughout the record give us an even more intimate sense of being there with you in that room.
I had no choice of keeping the nature in there on songs like Beautiful Morning because it was right out the window, and we had no soundproofing. One day, I was like, “I might as well just open the window and let it all in, and let it be on the recording.” I would put my phone out the windowsill, and captured the morning dove chorus. You’re just using mixed media, then — bringing the outside into the inside, and vice-versa.
It took me about four goes to get Beautiful Morning right. The lyric was right, but the music wasn’t really right. The inner songwriter kept saying, “You haven’t got that song right yet.” But the artist was going, “Yes I have!” (laughs)
It’s an interesting conflict having that inner quality control, isn’t it? Is that something that’s deep-rooted all the way back to the days of getting Haircut One Hundred’s Favourite Shirts done correctly?
I think it was something I developed. I wasn’t commissioned by any record company to do this album, so I didn’t have any pressure there. There wasn’t a delivery date or anything, and there wasn’t any pressure financially, either. I had to make the discipline, like a writer does. He has to get up, he has to go into a room, he has to sit down and write, and do it. And I had to record, so that’s what I was doing. I had to make my own discipline, which is something I hadn’t done before myself.
“I might as well just open the window and let it all in, and let it be on the recording.”
When we recorded Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl) [Haircut One Hundred’s debut 1981 single that reached No. 4 in the UK Singles Chart], our A&R man at the time said to the producer, Bob Sargeant, “You need to go back and record the first verse again.” And Nick Heyward the artist thought, “I don’t need to do that again, fucking hell! This is quick, quick, quick” — because Nick the artist wanted to rush it! (chuckles)
That’s probably where the inner songwriter learned its first lesson, because when we did record the first verse again, it was just better. It had more life to it, and Bob got more life out of me.
This was very important, because these were the first words I was going to be singing, so it had to be right. The lyric was really heavy, but it clicked optimistically: “Time can’t afford no time / can’t afford the rhyme, nevermind / someday maybe / Boy meets girl / And love, love is on its way.”
And that was a really good call, because that song established a certain jazz-funk lane for you as an artist.
Oh God, right, that was one of the many landscapes that were around at the time, which mostly came out of my brother’s record collection. He had impeccable taste, my brother. One day, you’d be hearing Argent’s Hold Your Head Up, the next day would be Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill, and then you’d hear Jeepster by Marc Bolan and T. Rex.
That was all going on in my brother’s purple bedroom, with its wall-to-wall Warm amplifiers, copycat loops going on, and him with his guitar, just making this sound, playing Robin Trower and Hendrix! And me going, “What’s he doing in there? He sounds like an alchemist!” (chuckles)
Having those wider listening experiences growing up is why the early material you worked on had so many different textures to it, more than just that early-’80s flavor of the month vibe. You had more depth to the audio side, beyond the visual side everyone saw of you on MTV.
It’s funny — you think you have your influences figured out. I remember going to see Ray Charles at the Hammersmith Odeon in London with my father when I was a kid, but I didn’t know what that music was. It was just astounding! It sounded like it was from another planet. How could these guys be making these sounds?
Your influences are there, but they actually take time to develop into your skill, and your ability. And mine came through a process of making mistakes, and just being bold — just wanting to do it, wanting to be a musician. My first time was just shouting into the microphone, like Johnny Rotten [of the Sex Pistols].
And then early on in your solo career, there you are working with legendary Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick as the man behind the board for your 1983 solo album, North of a Miracle. That must have been some experience.
That music sounded like it was from another planet.
Oh, well, talk about spoiled! I mean, everything he did with your songcraft sounded thrilling, brilliant, and amazing. It really, really, really was. Every time you’d hear an acoustic guitar, you’d go, “Wow, that’s how an acoustic guitar should sound.” Same thing with piano.
Geoff had this massive Neve recording desk, and he only used the monitor side of it, and the limiters. (chuckles) What a sound! What a sound.
Just the sound template you guys got on Blue Hat for a Blue Day alone — what a song.
That’s how I wanted Haircut One Hundred to develop their sound, and that’s why I wanted to work with Geoff. But it wasn’t to be. That was the musical difference there.
I wanted Haircut One Hundred to sound as good as [1982’s] Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello and The Attractions, as that was the album I was listening to at the time that Geoff had produced. As the sort-of leader of the band, that’s what I wanted to steer us toward. But the band went another way, so I had to split.
Something you told me earlier was that you’re your own best editor. Some artists don’t know how to hone and shape their songs, but your inner voice told you, “No, this is how it has to go.”
It’s just like with other writing, or poetry. Where would E.E. Cummings be without editing?
That’s exactly it. To me, editing is another instrument. It’s a vital part of the creative process. It’s just like with other writing, or poetry. Where would E.E. Cummings be without editing? It’s what you don’t write — it really is.
And editing was a massive part of this thing, because I had the time, and the perspective, and I could stand back and edit it, after leaving it for two months. When you’re making an album for a record company, you do not have that luxury.
Here, I was using editing with perspective and time as other instruments. I thought, “Well, OK, I should utilize the fact that I haven’t got a record company. I’d like to have one and have a big studio, and have Geoff Emerick master it, but this is what it is, so I’ll utilize all that I have.”
In this case, I think it led to a more intimate production. All of the decisions are your calls — even down to the sequencing, since, as you also told me, you set up the running order like a vinyl record.
Yeah, and I didn’t want to release it until I had a story. They went together like chapters, and they were the right things. I actually wanted to have more rock on it because I had recorded more rock songs, but they just didn’t fit in the story. They were too rough and ready; too stormy.
But the way the actual chapters read, went well. I went, “Ahh, this is it! This is Woodland Echoes!” It went all together, and suddenly, it was finished. That was it. it was ready. I compiled it like a love story, my favorite songs of myself. It’s almost like a little musical — a musical love story.