Saturday, 17 March 2018

Interview with John Holden

John Holden's album Capture Light is out later in March. John talked to me about the making of the album and working with guests like Billy Sherwood, Oliver Wakeman and Joe Payne.

How did you come to make this album? What were you doing before?

I have always loved music. As a child I would pick up a ¾ size acoustic guitar and plonk away. I had no idea what scales were or what tuning was. But I enjoyed myself even if my siblings weren’t too impressed.

In my late teens I formed a little band and even at that point I was more interested in writing my own songs than performing other people's songs. This was possibly because I liked progressive music and some of it was really hard to master. As work, marriage and mortgages came along the musician inside was forgotten and the instruments sold. This I think is a common tale.

In more recent times I decided that I wanted to make music again but not just as a hobby. I wanted to produce something that (if I were the listener) I would enjoy and ultimately be prepared to buy. I bought some nice guitars, got a keyboard and invested in some recording equipment. I then spent a while just learning all the new technologies and getting my fingers to move again on keys and frets. Fortunately my day job meant that I was working from home a lot more which freed up a lot of time that I could devote to my music.

In early 2014 I was approached by a friend of my wife who was looking for some music to accompany her yoga classes. The brief was "One hour's worth of music. Each piece ten minutes long... and not typical "ambient/boring music"." This helped give me a focus and it was a great learning experience. After completing this project I felt it was time to step things up.

I decided I wanted to write songs rather than just instrumentals and it quickly became apparent that I would need to use "proper" singers as my voice is just not good enough. Luckily I had a friend who was a professional singer and she kindly agreed to add vocals to my demos. This transformed how I wrote as I always wanted my music to be a combination of good instrumentation and strong vocals parts.

Two years later I have managed to produce an album's worth of material. 

What do you want to say with your music? 
That's a good question! They tell you "write about what you know", well that is easier said than done. At first I struggled to find subjects that grabbed me. To be honest my early attempts felt... contrived. I slowly developed a style that worked for me. I have enjoyed writing story songs more and more. I have a love of history and places and that also inspires me. I think my songs work best when I can use both the music and the lyrics to help transport the listener. The hardest thing is to try to capture a strong emotion. When that happens it all seems to come together.

Hopefully my music has a positive attitude. I would also say that there are probably a lot of people out there who are very musical who could do a similar thing to me. I therefore encourage folk to give it a try. Prog is the new punk! lol 

How did you attract an array of guest artists? 
I got some tunes together and sent them to a producer whose work I really admire. He works with a lot of progressive musicians so he understands the genre as much as anyone. His response to the songs was honest and brutal. After feeling sorry for myself I went back and read the email again. There were some comments that were positive but the truth was that my playing and production were simply not good enough. At that point I scrapped the originals and started again. I am pleased to say these received a much better response.

Once I had some decent demos I then decided that the addition of some extra talent would raise the project to a higher level. I realised that "splendid isolation" was not going to make the best music, it was just holding me back!

In spring 2016 I spotted a Facebook post from Billy Sherwood saying how much he "enjoyed helping artists realise their dreams". So I messaged him and we got chatting. Initially I wanted his skills as a producer as I wanted to see what my material would sound like when professionally mixed.

After hearing the demo I had sent, he said that he liked the song and would be happy to work on it. I was surprised and a little bit delighted.

I suggested that if there were any elements that needed strengthening to let me know. A few days later I received an email with a 1st mix which sounded great and in addition a fantastic new guitar solo which was just what the track needed.

Not long after we met while YES where touring the UK and agreed we should work on some more tunes.

Having got Billy on-board I gained a lot of confidence and then sought out other musicians who I thought would be a good fit for the songs. I am sure that because Billy was involved it helped give some credibility to my music when approaching other people. Of course with each addition of talent it made the next approach easier. A snowball effect! So I will always be grateful to him as it opened lots of doors. 

What was the process of working with Billy Sherwood and Oliver Wakeman like? 
Billy was very generous. Remember at that time I was completely naïve about a lot of the technicalities of production. I had never sent "stems" (whatever they were?!). So all aspects were steep learning curves. Billy is a workaholic- he never stops. Also he is based in California so there were lots of conversations on the internet and some on Skype. But he knows prog music inside out so we had lots of common ground.

Oliver was so professional and friendly. I had emailed him in early 2017 to see if he was interested in working on a song. This was the first time that I had failed get a reply. (Or so I thought. He had replied but somehow I had missed his message). A few months later I was working on the song "Capture Light". I knew it needed a real piano on it. So I was considering who to approach. That same day I had a follow up message from Oliver asking if I was still looking for some keyboard work. Talk about perfect timing!

I sent him an mp3 of the tune and he then came back saying he really liked the song and requested chord charts. He was very proactive in trying to deliver exactly what I wanted. I remember him asking "You have a 3rd as the bass note. Are you looking for a Dm diminished"? So he likes to work out every phrase before recording. But what a player! His work was just amazing. I immediately asked him to do another two songs. 

How much did you direct what you wanted? How much could you respond to what they did? 
So I think Oliver comes from a classically trained position and Billy is a more instinctive player. Both are amazing musicians. I have the ability to isolate their individual tracks and hear every subtlety. Astounding technique. Both were keen to deliver exactly what I wanted. For some elements I would say "replicate that part as it is". But generally I find the best thing is not to be overly prescriptive and allow musicians to contribute fully. They have all this talent why not utilise it?!

For these guys there was very little that had to be redone maybe a slight change of a phrase or sometimes I would be inspired by what they had done and ask them to add some new elements or colours. I would sometimes alter things in the tracks provided when doing the final arrangement. However I always send the musicians a copy for approval, it is my music but it is their reputation.

I must admit it did get a bit surreal at times. With Billy we had a session where I was giving feedback to a mix and offering suggestions. A few weeks earlier I had been a total fan attending a YES gig!

And I got a call recently from Oliver making sure things were going ok.

Top musicians and top people. 

The album includes a number of 'story songs', like the title track about the rivalry between Titian and Tintoretto, or another about Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. How did these come about? Were these events you already knew about, or did you discover them while thinking about the album? Did you feel you had to research them carefully? 
I generally write all the music first and then add lyrics. By the time I got to do the last 3 tunes I found that my method had changed a little. I would come up with some basic musical ideas and then wait to see what "images" that sparked off in my mind". I would eventually come up with a concept which I would then use to steer the composition and then the lyrics. This method I found gave me better results and it was more natural for writing lyrics. I found that if I did some research it added a "richness" or "depth" to the songs.

"One Race": This was triggered from the drum pattern - an odd mix of military snare and a sense of motion. I liked it. The movement became running, running became Olympics, then the word 'Race', the different meanings of the word race and then I remembered Jesse Owens. Did my research and it seemed a perfect fit.

I had just completed the first draft of lyrics for "One Race" when I discovered there was a film being released called "Race" about Jesse Owens. I did consider changing the subject matter but in the end I thought "sod it... I got here 1st" lol.

"Capture Light": I love Venice - my favourite city. So I wanted to do a song inspired by it.

The original idea was about a photographer attempting to capture the magical light of the city. I then thought it might be interesting to have him investigate how the old masters did this in paint. Artists like Canaletto, Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto. So I did my research... Then I found the story of the feud. I felt this a stronger idea so the photographer was pushed into the grand canal and I could now set the story in the 16th century!

"Tears from the Sun": The origins of this were in a 12 minute orchestral piece that I was working on as the project started. It was called "Valhalla", inspired by the Viking crossing of the Atlantic. I did not think the music overall was strong enough, however there were elements and themes that I felt I could use. I had come up with the opening part of "Tears" and I thought it sounded quite cinematic and when I decided to put the bird noise on it gave me an image of a central American jungle. When I coupled that idea with sea travel the two things morphed into the story of the conquistadors. Again to personalise the story I wanted to show the story from the young priest who sees the whole thing unravel.

So as they say in the films "inspired by true events". I enjoyed the research and it helped me add colours and textures of detail. But I did not feel I had to stick 100% to fact. 

I also noticed that all three 'story songs' had Joe Payne on vocals. Is there something about Joe's voice that lends itself to this narrative form? 
The last 3 songs I wrote were (in chronological order): "One Race", "Capture Light", "Tears from the Sun".

Having got Joe to do "One Race" (and him being pleased with the result) I just wanted to continue to work with his voice. "Capture Light" was well underway and I had a guide vocal from Julie [Gater]. At the same time I was also starting to work with Oliver Wakeman and wanted him to play on "Capture" and what was to become "Tears".

"Capture Light" is very demanding vocally (try singing along and you will find out - lol) and I knew Joe could handle the range. Also he has the ability to add emotion which I was certainly looking for. So really having the chance to use Joe as a vocalist was a no brainer! 

Thanks to John Holden for being interviewed.

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