Simeon-20

(C) Will Killen and Simeon Walker

Exclusive Interview with Simeon Walker – New Album ‘Winnow’ Out Now

Today GIGsoup are excited to introduce UK-based pianist & composer Simeon Walker. Simeon is a leading light in the burgeoning Modern Classical scene, following his initial releases ‘Preface’ & ‘Mono’ and now his newly released album ‘Winnow’.

His calm piano instrumentals invite the listener to find stillness, beauty and meaning as much in the spaces between the notes as the notes themselves, as musical stories are woven with each tender, intimate performance.

We were able to find some time to sit down with Simeon and discuss his latest release and plans for the future.

We last talked in 2017 about your album Mono and the recording techniques that led to the warm and rich tones through the album. I love how both Mono and your new album Winnow stand alone as beautiful ‘sad piano’ albums but with very different qualities. How would you describe the evolution and journey of your sound from Mono to Winnow?

Moving away from the warm and enfolding nature of the sound of my solo piano work – recorded in my front room, with all the mechanical noises, pedal squeaks and stool scrapes left in – which was used for Mono was a difficult decision, as it was something which gave that album a very present natureas if the listener was sitting there listening to me. When I decided on the instrumentation that I would use for Winnow, I knew that the only way I could achieve that same sense of being present, whilst using other instruments was to record in a studio with a big enough live space to all play together at the same time. If it was going to be much bigger in scope with more sounds and instrumentation, it had to have that musical spark that only really comes when recording at the same time.

I was initially worried that this would create a sound which was saccharine and polished, when comparing the two side by side, but working with producer James Kenosha, I am proud of the way we managed to make a record with lots more going on that still sounds real, has soul, and most importantly for me, allows for those moments of space, freedom and reflection that are key in my music, whether solo or otherwise.

There’s a delicate texture interweaving between your pieces, such as Unravel with the feathery tones of different instruments interplaying, or ‘Haze’ with this huge build up over the course of nearly eight minutes. And some really unusual choices too, such as the use of the ‘ondes Martenot’ on Speak Pt 1. Can you tell us more about the arrangement on Winnow; did you arrange everything and know what you were looking for? Did others improvise to add their own feel?

I was keen to allow certain pieces such as Unraveland Hazeto take as long as they needed for the thematic content to play its way out, and I feel these pieces, coming as they do in the middle of the album, hold the album together from a central position, with the album bookended by different arrangements of the Speaktheme. The musical dimension of rubato (the temporary disregarding of strict tempo to allow an expressive quickening or slackening), is important for me, and in Unravel, I allowed myself a moment for more improvisation that hints at my interest in jazz.

The interweaving of instruments and sounds was something I was keen to explore, with it being a great opportunity to experiment. I was conscious of not using all of the instruments all of the time just because they were there, and so its still very much a piano-centred album, but with much larger dynamic moments than perhaps I have used in the past, but also moments of subdued introspection, which is certainly apparent on Speak, pt. 1.

The ondes Martenot is such a fascinating and beguiling instrument, and I was keen for it to be the very first sound on the album, accompanying the piano. I think it has such an ethereal and captivating quality that draws the listener in – not just because of its unique and unusual sound, but because of its capability to be played in such an expressive and almost voice-like way. Josh Semans who performed the ondes parts is someone who I share a great affinity with and his playing style sits very nicely alongside mine.

I did arrange all of the parts, although the introduction of drums was something I was keen to do for this album. Steve Hanley, who performs on the album, is primarily a jazz drummer well-versed in improvisation and his parts developed out of numerous sessions that were more improvisatory, with certain sections being more focused and planned. Working with such great musicians meant that whilst, I had composed and arranged the parts myself, I was able to relax and enjoy recording and performing because of the trust I was able to put in the other performers. Im so grateful for all they have brought to this album to bring it to life.

Victor Hugo once said ‘Melancholy is the pleasure of being sad’. This quote comes to mind when I look at your work as a self-described ‘sad piano guy’. ‘Winnow’ is a lovely word which you define as: ‘(1) to remove (something, such as chaff) by a current of air; (2) to get rid of (something undesirable or unwanted)’. With this dual meaning, I get the sense that nature and introspection interweave regularly in your work, especially after a recent picture you shared about the hopefulness found in melancholy. I’d love to hear your thoughts on composing ‘sad piano music’ and the kernels of hope within this.

Yes! Im definitely partial to introspection and I think that comes through in my music. Sad Piano Musicwas something I adopted a number of years ago as a way of being able to quickly tell people what music I make (its often called all manner of things, like modern/neo/contemporary/post/indie-classical), and whilst its very much tongue in cheek, I think it has been effective, and also hints at my character as well.

I guess the funny thing about it is that I dont think of introspection and melancholy as being things to be fearful of. My music is very much an external expression of all the numerous things going through my head that are often kept internalised, and so expressing myself through music can almost be quite a relief. And in that, I find a lot of hope. Its not even about trying to be understoodor wearing my heart on my sleeveor other cliches we sometimes hear in relation to musical artists. Its in the expression that I find most freedom and inviting others along to join in feels like a huge privilege.

Thematically, Winnowis definitely a reflection on a whole range of emotions, and if anything, this year has taught us that we can often experience many highs and lows. I think I find most freedom in being able to be musically honestand letting those emotions flow through the music. If that is melancholy or sad, then Im ok with that!

 

Earlier this year, you released the sheet music for ‘Collected Piano Pieces’, available now on your shop. I’m so pleased that I can play ‘Turn’ now, although I’m disappointed my digital piano can’t emulate the warm tones of your recording! You’ve described it as a mega project – can you talk more about the production and process?

Im so glad that people have been able to learn these pieces. Ive had a lot of requests from people for this over the years, and I was really pleased to get it together, in this year especially. Thanks for playing them!

It was actually suggested to me by my good friend and fellow composer Garreth Broke. Hes an excellent transcriber and engraver and had been working on his own music for a while, creating a really lovely book of music, and he suggested maybe we work together on creating one for me. I was very grateful for this, as I wouldnt have been able to do it without him.

I transcribed all the pieces and then sent them to him for editing and engraving so that everything looked perfect, even and consistent. We actually used the self-publishing feature that Amazon provide. For independent artists, finding creative ways of being able to make merch products is really important and this did work really well.

The artwork is by Czech designer and musician Petr Mazoch. I love his style, often working in monochrome, and I was keen for the artwork to convey a sense of minimalism and starkness, and I love what he created for it.

Sorry to ask the ‘COVID’ question! – but how has the unique events of this year impacted on your music, whether it’s your improvisation, recording or promotion? What has been hard for you, and where have you found peace during these times?

This year has of course been challenging as a musician, although I try to temper it with the thoughts of many others who have had it much harder. I did consider delaying the release of the album, but as it became clearer that Covid was going to be around for a lot longer, it felt like it was the right time to put the album out now. I think there are aspects to winnowing – reflecting on the things that matter most to us – that felt weirdly relevant. We were fortunate to have finished recording by the end of February, so we got in there just in time!

Not being able to do any live shows or tours to accompany the release has been difficult, as I really love connecting with audiences in this way. Livestreaming obviously became popular very quickly, and was certainly helpful for a while, but it will never replace the feeling of being in a room together and experience music as a group.

Like many of us, Ive tried to find solace in spending time outside – going for long, solo walks in the amazing Yorkshire countryside. The rolling dales, bleak moors and mysterious forests that create such an amazing landscape here, provided a suitable sense of melancholy, and also the helpful realisation that there are always so many bigger things going on that just our own lives and the inconveniences we face.

What are you looking forward to in 2021? Do you have any more projects on the backburner that we should keep an eye out for?

2020 was originally planned to be a very exciting year for me, with more touring and building towards this album release at the end of the year. Whilst weve been able to put this album out still, it has been a challenging year, and I am hugely looking forward to being able to play shows again. I miss connecting with audiences in this way very much, and I hope to be able to get these going soon, as well as the nights I curate in Leeds called Brudenell Piano Sessions, and getting back across Europe where audiences have been very generous to me.

Winnow represents the end of a long journey, musically and personally, and I do think that the new year does offer a fresh start in many ways. In the next period of time, I am keen to collaborate with a wide variety of musicians and artists, and there are already a number of exciting plans in the pipeline for that. I hope there will also be an opportunity to record and share some of the music I wrote for my recently completed Masters in composition. I’m also working on a piece for solo viola as part of Manchester-based contemporary classical Psappha Ensemble’s Composing For…scheme.

Despite the challenges this year has thrown up, I am excited about the future, getting back to playing live and the many possibilities that lie ahead through increased collaboration and working together.

You can find more information about Simeon Walker at...

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