Following a Glastonbury performance and the release of ‘Modulations: EP 1’, which racked-up over 1 million Spotify plays, contemporary pianist James Heather presents his debut album proper - 'Stories From Far Away On Piano', on August 18th via Ahead Of Our Time - Coldcut’s first label and playground for free expression/experimentation.
“Coldcut have always had an interest in lush ambient soundscapes. When we heard this album is seemed a perfect fit with our newly revived Ahead Of Our Time label. We highly recommend that you tune in for a journey into an emotive piano landscape.” Jon More (Coldcut)
On the surface these solo minimal piano pieces have a simple, innate beauty, but there’s also a stark intensity simmering within, as the emotional landscape shifts from harrowing, sad, optimistic, to fascinating. The album concept centres on Heather’s interpretations of real world stories he read in the news, while composing.
Isis jihadists hijacking the Facebook account of an executed female activist in Syria, the British Empire’s imprisonment of Boers in South African concentration camps and the undiscovered remains of a disappeared Malaysia Airlines jet in the Indian Ocean, were sources of inspiration translated into abstract musical forms. Other catalysts include the terror suspect who had a change of heart at the last minute on taking part in the Paris attacks and the Los Angeles man freed after 16 years in prison after being wrongly identified by having the same teardrop tattoo as the offender.
The black and white album art by Suki features layers of Indian ink bled into newspaper print, repeatedly scanned and treated to interpret the recirculation of information. It also plots the nine latitude and longitude locations where each story came from, forming an abstract world - reinterpreting place into something less literal and more expressive.
The only piece breaking from the world news-based theme is ‘Pathos’, where Peckham in London is given as the location and the area where the album was recorded. The piece, as Heather explains, encapsulates an aim of the album. "Pathos is an appeal to emotion, a way of bringing the listener in, to evoke an empathetic response,” he says, adding “this is my interpretation of stories I discovered. The stories themselves are not the focus, but the piano assimilation is, as the album is about viewpoint, opinion and perspective.”
Perspective is something Heather has in abundance; he nearly died in a traumatic road traffic accident in 2008, leaving him in a coma in intensive care and then off work for an extended time. One permanent injury was his finger, which became skewed in the crash. He was unsure if he’d ever be able to play to the same standard again.
“When I eventually started to recover I began taking my musical sketches more seriously. I found solitude channeling my feelings into compositions, but they didn’t go to the next level until life hit another obstacle in 2012”, he recalls. “A chain of circumstances led to nearly a year of sofa surfing, with just a bag of clothes and a keyboard as I tried to keep my life in an expensive London going, away from family. I needed to play a lot more and I mustered the confidence to put some tracks online and let them go.”
The embryonic unofficial releases ‘The Accidental Sessions’ and ‘Water Sonatas’, helped hone his production skills and compositional technique and received warm reactions, with the experiences being fed into this new album.
As a child growing up in Southampton, Heather’s Grandad on one side of the family taught him composition and how to manipulate the tuning of piano strings, whilst his Granny on the other used to dabble with dreamy improvisations on the instrument at family gatherings. His own early compositions came soon after at the age of 11, also inspired by a love of Beethoven and Debussy and have steadily evolved ever since with his Grandparent’s spirit somewhere within.
His publicity job of 14 years at Ninja Tune may have cut into his own composition time, but has also proved a positive formative effect on his mindset, exposing him to successful campaigns for talent like Wiley, Kamasi Washington, Actress, Cinematic Orchestra, Thundercat, Young Fathers, Kate Tempest, The Bug and Bonobo, which have become a grounding anchor. “I’ve always liked to step out of myself and to become immersed in and help other people’s artistic visions, I’m blessed to be able to do that as a job. I can then meditate in my own music in periods of downtime away from the noise of the industry. This push and pull has worked for me.” he explains.
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 and Nils Frahm, and the wider public’s overdue but now burgeoning relationship with this varied genre.
released August 18, 2017
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