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Interview: Simeon Walker

5 November 2020

As a year characterised by solitude and introspection wraps up, it seems perfect timing to receive this offering, a spacious, concise musical reflection that speaks complex volumes in its quietly confident simplicity. Gently breaking new ground with his latest work, join British composer Simeon Walker as he sheds back the layers and gets to the core of his musical process and sources of creative stimulus, and we take a closer look into the making of his upcoming second full length release, Winnow. We’ll also learn a little more about the personal journey the artist took to bring this creation to life, the highlights of touring life and how the pandemic has affected this release, as well as a tantalising glimmer of where music making may take this artist next. Best of all, we’ve invited the artist to share a playlist of his favourite work to prime your ears for the musical offering just around the corner.

Celeste: Congratulations on the release of your new full length album Winnow, available from 20th November. Following your EP and another full length album in 2017, this is now your third release. Tell us a little where you’ve come from and where Winnow sits in the context of your musical journey. What does this new album tell us about who you are now as an artist?


Simeon Walker: Something that I admire about many of my favourite artists is their ability to develop their style from album to album without the music being too derivative of their previous work. They push themselves to seek out new sounds and ideas, and challenge perceptions of what kind of musicians they are perceived to be; all whilst still “being authentic”. I especially admire bands such as Radiohead for this, alongside artists like Nils Frahm. 


For me, the development in my musical style is not tokenism or change for changes sake. On my latest album ‘Winnow’, it was important to me to keep the essence of my previous work: still a disciple of Sad Piano Music, and gentler, melancholic, more minimal style of piano composition, whilst expanding the instrumentation and enhancing the ways in which I was able to express the meaning and thematic content of the album. The challenge was to find a way to continue to adopt the spaciousness that means so much to me in my writing, whilst adding textures and sounds stretching the genre as we know it. I feel my new album has found that development in musical expression whilst still “being authentic” to the sound I am known for.


C: Your music has an interesting textural quality that uses familiar sonorities of piano and strings mixed with a haunting twist of the little known ondesMartenot. How did you choose your sound palette? 


SW: As you say, many artists in the Modern/Neo/Contemporary-Classical world have used strings alongside the base instrument of the piano, and it is a winning combination. Even though ‘Winnow’ features a string quartet, I chose to use a formation with a slightly deeper register, with violin, viola, cello and double-bass. One of my favourite things about the piano is the vastness of its range, and using this combination of stringed instruments, allowed me to replicate this range by creating space between the instruments in certain moments, and a closeness/overlapping harmony in others. 


The ondes Martenot is such a fascinating instrument and I was keen to feature a sound which has the potential to be both unusual, and also comforting. The use of drums on this album was also something I became particularly keen on as the material for album was finalised in the latter part of 2019. I felt that the addition of both drums and ondes Martenot would stretch my exploration of the genre and provide a different take to other piano & strings albums, The result is an album which has moments of introspection, whilst also offering moments of increased rhythmicality and intensity. I was excited that this new direction would allow for additional moments of interplay between myself as a performer and other performers, creating a distinction to my previous solo piano releases.


C: Were your choices around timbre a primary force from which music emerged, or did you choose these instruments to best express musical ideas you’d already begun to conceptualise?


SW: I have been working on some of this material for a long time, with some it pre-dating my previous album ‘Mono’. As it is music which portrays a personal journey I have been on for a number of years, I feel like the compositions and arrangements have swayed and molded with me as time has progressed, accompanying me on this journey. A few of these pieces -‘Speak. pt1/2’ for instance - started life as short piano sketches which were sculpted and arranged to fit the instruments and timbres I settled on at the end of 2019 to feature on the album. Other pieces such as ‘Haze’ were always destined to feature strings following a long exploration of subtle variations on a theme, whilst ‘Unravel’ developed in a way giving the freedom for gentle improvisation and a slightly jazzier palette, through the interplay of myself on piano and the drums. 


‘Unravelling’ adopts a rhythmicality and growth in dynamics that may come as a surprise to audiences familiar with my previous work. This was a deliberate compositional decision to reflect the thematic concept of unravelling previous aspects of my life to my current reality. I love rhythm and working with subtle cross-rhythmical ideas, and through the instrumental choices of the album I was able to play on that more than I have on previous recordings.


Whilst I am in awe of the timbral capabilities of the ever-increasingly amazing options provided to us by plug-ins, it was  crucial for me on this project to use real instruments played live by musicians, as there is an incredibly special spark of musical interaction that can only be achieved by having the real thing. 


C: Tell us a little about the production of this album. How did you set about tracking the different elements and who were your collaborators? How did the arrangements come together and how did the piano inform the other elements?


SW: In terms of the production, I was delighted to be able to work with James Kenosha for this record. Recording at Chapel Studios in Leeds meant we were able to record the piano, strings and drums all-together at the same time in one big live room. This was crucial, enabling the interaction and interplay that the music required, especially with regards to tempo and the element of rubato being of primary importance. The album needed to feel live and real, and this was certainly quite demanding with the instruments involved and the predominantly quiet dynamic that the album required. James enabled us to do this perfectly, and has produced a full and broad sound, whilst retaining the intimacy and introspection that I aim to capture. The only overdubs came from the ondes Martenot, which is an even more sensitive sound to capture. 


The string quartet features Caroline Pether, Lucy Nolan and Liz Hanks of the fabulous Up North Session Orchestra, alongside long-term collaborator and close friend Alice Phelps on bass. All of these wonderful musicians have played on countless releases and projects across a wide variety of musical styles and it was a total joy to have them play on ‘Winnow’. Josh Semans plays ondes Martenot, and is a longtime collaborator of mine. We have been exploring the interaction between the piano and ondes Martenot, collaborating and making music together for a number of years. Finally, Steve Hanley is a superb drummer in Leeds who is well-versed in jazz and improvisation. We began jamming in the truest sense of the word in the summer of 2019 and Steve’s exceptional musicality and ability to respond to my playing, encouraged me to think further about how best to capture his sound on ‘Winnow’.


I am quite a hands-on composer, writing and arranging the strings and ondes Martenot parts, often around piano motifs or existing parts. I was keen to ensure that the album had both moments of consistency and difference, and that it shouldn’t be a wall of sound, despite the much richer textures available to me. Steve and I worked hard on workshopping the pieces he was featured on, with some moments planned out specifically, and others giving him freedom to express himself and bring his improvisatory skills to the table. Steve’s humility in knowing when and when not to play is one of his most enduring qualities of musicianship, that I truly admire. 


Whilst rehearsing and recording, I was so delighted to be able to work directly with all the musicians and be able to discuss the finer details of the subtle shifts in dynamics, tempo, intensity and textural density I wanted for the album. I feel this direct connection with the musicians in the recording studio where each musician felt confident in their role and (I hope!) knowing their input, ability, experience and suggestions led to an album that truly resembles what I was trying to convey.


The lead single from the album, ‘Captive’, is a piece that has developed in a special and meaningful way. I performed this piece on each night whilst touring Europe in April 2019, inviting other performers and curators of the events in each city to join me and improvise around a rough part I gave them. This included additional piano players, cellists, violinists, synths, accordionists and musical saw, in places such as Stockholm, Stuttgart, Berlin, Vienna, Prague and Budapest. Turning up in a new place each day and inviting different musicians to play and improvise with me was the most wonderful experience. I felt I was connecting with new artists across borders and languages through music, and this experience had a major influence on the final arrangement of the piece you hear now.


C: You’ve been involved in some exciting performance opportunities across the UK and Europe in recent years. Could you share a career highlight to date, or something truly memorable from your live venue experiences?


SW: If I may, I’d like to share a few! My performance at Q3Ambientfest in Potsdam in 2019 is one that sticks out. This is a festival that means very much to me, curated by dear friends Daniel & Sebastian Selke (CEEYS), bringing together so many wonderful artists and musicians from across our varied scene and from many countries. It embodies so much of what makes music special, sharing experiences together with like-minded people, and is all-the-more poignant now that live music is so curtailed. I loved being able to play, knowing that so many of my closest friends and musical colleagues from across Europe and further afield were all in one place, sharing music together. I miss this so very much.


Being able to perform at Latitude Festival in 2018 was a huge experience for me. Playing Sad Piano Music to an audience of people who had no knowledge of me and were probably expecting a more “upbeat” experience, I received the most lovelyreception. To have such a genuine reaction to my music from a new audience was very special for me, and it is a lovely festival too.


I have also been hosting and curating my own events at the beloved Brudenell Social Club here in Leeds - Brudenell Piano Sessions. Before Covid curtailed these, they had become much-loved and anticipated events, bringing together a wide range of piano-based music and artists, sharing particularly special and emotional performances. I really hope we can begin them again in the not too distant future, when it is safe to do so.


C: How do you hope to connect with audiences with this new release at a time when there are limitations on touring widely and reaching large live audiences? Did the pandemic affect your choice to release your music earlier or later than originally planned? 


SW: This was a hugely challenging thing to decide. I was nervous to release it now, because I was aware there would be a huge amount of music being released now, whilst, as you say, reaching audiences without being able to perform is especially challenging. Livestreams are great, and many people have worked incredibly hard to share music via this medium, but it remains difficult to drive the same interest as a live event attended by a live audience and I really do prefer the latter for connecting with my audiences.


Eventually, I decided that three years was a long enough time to have waited to put this second album out into the world, and as it was ready (in terms of the recordings/masters), it felt silly to wait. As an independent artist, it remains a challenge to get the word out there, and I rely on social media to do that, whilst I am also working with a super PR agency to help spread the word. I am also hugely grateful to have received funding support for this project from both Help Musicians UK and PRS Foundations’ PPL Momentum Accelerator fund, without which this release simply could not have happened. 


In the end, the pandemic has created a set of circumstances for us that we could have never envisaged or imagined, and whilst there is a lot of new music coming out, I genuinely feel that the themes associated with ‘Winnow’ are oddly serendipitous and relevant to our time, and I hope that the music and videos accompanying the album can bring some escape and relief from the stresses and strains we are living under.


C: This latest offering of yours, Winnow, has been three years in the making and is an intensely personal album. Could you tell us more about the battles you faced to make this music become a reality, how it has tested your faith and the ways you hope this music can convey the peace you feel you have found in this music?


SW: For many years, I have talked about my desire for listeners to find peace, safety and freedom in music that do not contain lyrics in song-form. Not because that is bad - far from it - but because sometimes, words only go so far in expressing what the heart feels, and that sometimes we need to allow the heart - rather than the head - to lead and guide us in reflecting on how we feel, what we think, or even, what we believe.


Music is the thing which makes most sense to me - it is my life and I am hugely grateful to have a career in the thing I love. ‘Winnow’ is a musical exploration of the feelings and emotions I have experienced whilst battling with and coming to terms with the fact that the faith I grew up with and spent a good chunk of my twenties in was becoming increasingly non-relevant and inauthentic to my developing worldview. 


Winnowing refers to the process of removing something that is no longer fit for purpose. It is a poetic word and one which took a while to coalesce my feelings around, but which now feels completely perfect and genuine as a term to describe the experiences I have had. It isn’t and shouldn’t be seen as an angry record, or me “setting the record straight” - in reality this record reflects on having the courage to be true to oneself, to be truly honest and genuine about who one is and what matters most. This album does not seek to shame or disparage church, faith or Christianity and much of my family and many of my closest friends are still very involved with the church. The album is an acknowledgement that who I am now is the best version of me that has been, and that I am now a happier and more fulfilled person with the new directions I have taken. ‘Winnow’ is simply a raw, real - at times painful, in others, joyfully free - demonstration of what and who I am today. 


C: In what ways do you pursue authenticity in your creative practice? What place do you see for piano based music in the year 2020 and into the future, and where do you see your creative voice in the broader landscape of the current moment? In what ways might you hope to evolve with your future work, and what layers do you seek to shed as your style continues to develop?


SW: This is an incredibly involved question, which I couldn’t possibly answer fully at this point, but I will try to do something!


In the five years that I have been putting music out under my own name in this Modern Classical vein, one of the primary things I have sought to do is to value authenticity beyond anything else. Knowing the music you want to make and what speaks most to you as an artist is important, and I am very comfortable now with the general way in which I work. You’re unlikely to get flowing, fast-paced arpeggios from me anytime soon - I don’t say that to demean those that follow that form in their writing at all - but I find myself increasingly drawn to music which continues to value space and a general “uncluttered”form, as this is what resonates most with me. I still hold to the principle that if I can write/play it with less, then I will. I like to give the listener space, and this philosophy will likely always inform that music I make.


Being completely honest, I am concerned that a lot of piano-based music continues to be released on a weekly basis in the modern streaming market. This is to be expected as the genre has grown exponentially in the last 5 years, but it is becoming hard to stand out and create something truly unique and the scene is becoming increasingly saturated. My worry is this saturation in the piano-based music scene will continue to make it difficult for new artists to find a way to break through and develop an audience beyond being featured on playlists where the audience are often passive, background listeners, which doesn’t always lead to further inquiry into the artists and composer behind music.


With ‘Winnow’, I have absolutely made the album that I wanted to make - that spoke about my life and my experiences, using this as a way of finding an artistic and expressive voice. The way I have chosen to do this might not lend itself to big playlist placements, but in every aspect of this album, I have sought to present it as an authentic artistic representation of who I am. And I am completely content with that.


I have just completed studying for a Masters in composition, and I have been focusing on a number of things, primarily developing and expanding my harmonic language, whilst also experimenting with aspects of spatial, structural, registral and textural approaches to motivic development, and exploring a variety of compositional techniques, methods and approaches. I have become increasingly influenced by composers such as Howard Skempton, Laurence Crane, Morton Feldman, John Cage and Arvo Pärt. Some of my newer works have drawn on aspects of this experimental and contemporary music, which may be released at some point in the future.


I am also currently writing a piece for solo viola as part of Manchester-based contemporary classical ensemble Psappha’sComposing For… scheme. In the coming years, I think you can expect to see a number of collaborations with a range of exciting and talented artists, with perhaps an increasing focus on composing works that may or may not feature me as a performer…or indeed that contain piano. I am keen to continue working and collaborating with a range of people from across genres and other artistic disciplines, and I am excited to see what emerges from these periods of collegiate music-making.


Thank you so much to Simeon Walker for taking the time to get deep into the details on forthcoming album, Winnow, out November 20. Until then, take a sneak peek at the album with lead single ‘Captive’, newly released second single ‘Seasons’ out yesterday, as well as the playlist below that Simeon has pieced together to showcase some of his favourite musical works by other composers and music makers. 


Seasons - Simeon Walker

Futō - Shida Shahabi

Lag Fyrir Ömmu - Ólafur Arnalds

Kittiwaako - Erland Cooper

Lento (excerpt) - Howard Skempton (BBC Symphony Orchestra)

Initium - Keaton Henson

Without Shelter - CEEYS

Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears - A Winged Victory for the Sullen

We Try to Make Sense of it All - Hammock

Festina Lente for Strings and Harp - Arvo Pärt (Bournemouth Sinfonietta)

Oleander - Julia Kent

Good Bye Vienna - Donauwellenreiter

All We Need - Blaer

Prelude for HS - Laurence Crane & Håkon Stene

In a Landscape - John Cage (Stephen Drury)

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