When you have the comfort of working on your ninth album without the rush to meet a deadline, you really want to take your time, especially if it’s your first solo outing in 18 years. For singer songwriter Nick Heyward, ‘Woodland Echoes, has served as a reminder of things he is grateful for. His appreciation for making music is reflected on all 12 tracks on this breezy, smart pop gem. Heyward has been putting out great pop songs since his band, Haircut One Hundred, blasted on to the scene in the early 80s earning four UK Top Ten and two US Top 40 singles with “Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl),” “Love Plus One,” “Nobody’s Fool” and “Fantastic Day” from their debut album, Pelican West. While enjoying the early days of success, differences in style and direction led Heyward to leave his post as front man and lyricist to begin his solo career.
An artist who has always been well received by both critics and fans, Heyward released three solo albums in the 80s, three in the 90s (including a 1998 release on Creation Records at the behest of Alan McGee) and two 2 collaborations in the aughts. A 2013 announcement of new music was met with eager anticipation, but supporters would have to wait until 2015 for a preview of what would become the music on ‘Woodland Echoes.’ Recorded at his son Oliver’s studio, on a houseboat in Key West, and Zak Starkey’s Salo Sound studio deep in the UK countryside, Nick deliberated over the music until he felt it was ready. “At first, I wanted it finished straight away.” he says. “But then, ‘that’ll do’ became impossible for me; in fact, it was the opposite – as soon as someone said something would do, I knew it wouldn’t!”
It’s that precise attitude that makes Heyward’s music so special. This album, like all of his work, is made with the same passion, introspection and grace found in all of his music. An avowed lover of nature and the outdoors, you can hear that influence in all the tracks, particularly “Beautiful Morning.” “Love is the Key By the Sea,” which opens the album, is a bold and harmonious love song, and the jazzy snap-your-finger fun of “Who” is most certainly a tip of that hat to Mr. Paul McCartney. “Baby Blue Sky” is a rapturous beach song with a dash of Oasis thrown in to the mix, and lead single “Perfect Sunday Sun” is the most perfect 70s era pop song. Heyward, who has always been singled out as a strong and thoughtful lyricist, continues his streak of songwriting success on ‘Woodland Echoes,’ which feels warm and intimate.
All things being equal though, the Nick Heyward of 2017 isn’t the same person as the Nick Heyward of 1982. “You have to find peace and love; it’s a process – my early songs were always bittersweet – the verse would be going through the struggle, but then it would be ‘it’s a fantastic day’; but there was always that struggle. On this album, that struggle is gone. The songs on Woodland Echoes are reflective of the past 10 years.” It’s a treat to have Nick Heyward back making premium pop music. In 1985, Nick told Smash Hits magazine that “I want to make the kind of LP you can wrap up and give to someone as a present. No duff tracks at all, just 12 shining wonderful singles, I suppose.” In 2017, with’ Woodland Echoes,’ he has finally achieved his goal.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Nick Heyward to discuss his life in music, his songwriting process, bringing ‘Woodland Echoes’ to life and what the future may hold for him as an artist.
The arts played a big part in your life. How did you get involved early on?
I started out as a commercial artist in London in the punk days. It was about 1977 and I was working for a company who did some sleeves, which was mainly rock stuff, but the first punk thing they did was The Jams’ “In The City” sleeve. I worked on that! I got to take some artwork to Chris Parry of Fiction Records, who thought I had a demo to play him! [laughs] I didn’t! In fact, I wasn’t doing much musically then. I had just started because my brother had always been the musical guy in the family. He played guitar and was in bands and stuff like that. I was the commercial artist guy in the family and was just getting into it through the influence of Pete. Something sort of clicked when I was there to meet him. I thought, “Well, I could have had a demo tape!” [laughs] So, I started a band with Rob Stroud, who was my friend at House of Wizard, which was the name of the commercial art company in West One in London. We went down to music shops in Tin Pan Alley. He bought a snare drum and I bought a Telecaster copy. We said, “Let’s meet up!” I lived in London at the time, so he came around to mine and we started playing! We were just making up stuff. He later left just before Haircut 100 was formed and started a band called the Sex Gang Children and I started Haircut 100! We sort of went in separate directions but we are still mates today! That’s how I got into music really — punk was happening, I got a guitar and started making stuff up! That was it!
Did you leave the world of commercial art when you started pursuing music?
I still stayed in because I did the sleeves, posters and other design. Mainly, what I was really inspired to do was make a record. That’s what I did! I made a record and it got played on John Peel. I would stay up every night just to listen to John Peel. I made it for the sleeve! I made it just to make a record and I think I called it “English Records.” John Peel played it and I couldn’t believe it! I’ve got it on tape somewhere! That was it! I stayed in commercial art as well as doing music. It was all about the creative arts really and expressing yourself in creative form!
You made a name for yourself musically with Haircut 100. There were trials and tribulations along the way which are well chronicled. How did that period impact you as an artist moving forward in your career?
I look back on those years with incredible love. At the time, no one really realized what a creative time we were living in for music. It was such a wonderful period for music! There were so many great producers, engineers, record company people and record companies. The record companies at that time were so creative! There was lots of moaning going on at the time but really major labels were creative hubs. They were great people working in the companies from the A&R men right through to the marketing. It was such a wonderful time! You had so many great things going on, so to be making music during that period was a bit of a gift! It was something we didn’t realize until the music business disappeared and changed so drastically from what we could recognize. I look back with great fondness on that time, where at the time every artist would think the business part of the music business stopped creativity. In hindsight, the major label was a very creative environment. Any label really, whether it was independent or major was a very creative place. It was definitely more creative than anyone gave it credit for at the time!
You took a break from music for a while. What brought you back?
I think it was just watching the music world change. It changed for the benefit of the independent artist. I thought, “I can do what I wanted to do in the beginning which was have my own record label and make albums!” I’ve just done this one, “Woodland Echoes,” and I’m inspired to do another one! If I really had my ideal, I would just make these records because they were made at home. I popped around the corner and found a postcard and thought, “I’d like that to be the sleeve … ,” so that became the sleeve. The title popped out of Nowhereland and everything just came together! The music came together through sitting in my spare room or by going to friend’s spare rooms or their studios. It was made independently, so that is how I was drawn into music again. I was still playing live and doing things and being Nick Heyward the artist but not Nick Heyward the independent artist and making albums. Albums have disappeared as well, so it didn’t look like so much fun from a distance. When I looked at music, I was sort of thinking, “Wow! The album is even dying. It’s interesting how music is changing. Is it changing for the better or the worse?” I couldn’t really work it out! It is changing, so it doesn’t really matter how it’s changing. It’s adjusting. I thought, “It doesn’t matter what it’s doing. I’m just going to be creative again!” I was always creative but I just wasn’t releasing anything. I was a bit like a trod-on hose pipe in the garden. [laughs] I feel like we are back in those creative days I spoke of earlier. You can get up, like I did this morning, and go on Instagram and watch about 30 guitarists playing different things. There were 30 to 40 different music teachers who all have accounts and are all known. You have access to everybody in the music business! You can find record stores or different kinds of music everywhere! It’s really never been this creative really and independent. Everything is there for you! To be able to communicate directly with people all around the world has changed everything. It’s really fascinating. It’s really exploded and everybody is connecting. It’s amazing! I could speak for hours on it! [laughs]
We are excited to see you create new music again. When it comes to your songwriting process, what changed and what stayed the same?
It’s exactly the same. The only thing that’s changed is it used to be a pencil and a bit of paper and now that’s turned into a phone where you jot things down digitally in Notes on my iPhone. Then, I haven’t got a little cassette player that I can record on, a dictaphone. I now use my iPhone and it goes straight in there and it’s got a date, which is really helpful. All of that gets downloaded onto my computer. I’ve literally got thousands and thousands of song ideas on cassette from throughout the years and now in digital form. When it comes to putting an album together, I always think I’m going to go through those songs but I don’t really. I don’t go through every one. I just do the latest thing I’m doing and go back to the latest 12 ideas or something and work on those. Sometimes, I think it’s like a community chest card in Monopoly. I just go there, this collection of files after files after files, and I just pick one! There was a song I had out called “The World,” back in the ‘90s, and that was one I just picked out of my cassette box. I remember thinking, “OK, I’m just going to pick one out, put the cassette on and hear it.” I put it on and I heard this course. I thought, “I really like that!” It was, “What about the world I gave you, the world I gave you, I gave you the world.” I really liked that, so I continued to work on it. With that said, the songwriting hasn’t changed and it’s still exactly the same. I still use the same template. I still think of the Beatles “Revolver” every time I come to do an album because I feel that is the perfect template for pop music. I know pop means a different thing here in America but I mean pop as in the Beatles pop or popular commercial music. It’s the sort of thing where Bob Dylan and Neil Young write pop but they don’t set out to write pop; it just becomes popular, you know? You just do what you love doing and it becomes popular. I mean it in that tense. I don’t sit down to write pop songs that will be in imaginary charts somewhere. That’s the wonderful thing about nowadays — there are actually no charts or game to play. You are actually doing it because you love it. If you wrote poetry, you would use the template of a certain meter and a certain type of meter on a certain type of poem. If you have a favorite type to use, you would kind of do that. That’s what I like doing. I like the conciseness of three minutes or under. I really like that! I’m thinking more musically these days. I must say, with this album, “Woodland Echoes,” I look at it now and it’s a musical really! I don’t see it as an album because it’s like a story — a love story in musical form. I could definitely turn it into a musical.
Where do you look for creative inspiration these days?
For this album, it seemed to be nature and romantic love. They came together. I know the next record won’t be so autobiographical. I set out to write observational songs but they just didn’t make it to the album. It seemed to come together in a more autobiographical way; most of it is told first person. Like I said, it wasn’t something I had set out to do; it just happened that way. Hopefully, the next record won’t be that. You know, like a novelist, sometimes you set out to write one thing and end up with something totally different. It’s like “The Life of Pi,” isn’t it? He set out to write a completely different book but ended up writing that book!
Great example! [laughs]
Yeah! That happens, you know? I think creativity comes down to this — Just sit down and fuckin’ do it! [laughs] Get on with it, you know? [laughs] Just do it — begin!
What were the biggest challenges in making “Woodland Echoes” and the biggest lessons you learned along the way?
The biggest challenge was to make a record in your spare room. That was the biggest challenge because you sit there and say, “OK, I’ve got an acoustic guitar, a half-decent microphone, a computer and some nice-ish speakers. Right! Off we go.” Then your mind starts to have a chat with you. In the moments in between what you’re doing it says, “All those great producers, great studios and artists, Tom Petty’s brilliant songs, those weren’t done in spare rooms. They were done by amazing bands with amazing musicians in amazing studios with amazing producers and engineers.” That’s why they all sounded so good. You get to thinking, “OK, I have to make something that is going to go alongside that in this spare room with this acoustic guitar … ” You can’t listen to yourself! You’ve just got to say, “Stop that! Get on with it! This is what you’ve got right now.” That was my biggest challenge; to make a record that would stand up to all the other records that you’d loved before and that went before. That was quite disheartening sometimes. When the album came out in the UK and was reviewed, it got some really good reviews in magazines I respected like MOJO. It got great reviews and I was mentioned in the same breath as people who I respect. I felt that was the greatest accomplishment from this album — to make something in your spare room and other people’s spare rooms that they call studios! Everybody calls it a studio these days! It really isn’t. I recorded “North of a Miracle” in the same studio where Elvis Costello was making “Punch The Clock” in the studio next door. I was making it amongst Paul McCartney’s equipment at The Weekend when he was doing “Pipes of Peace” and “Tug of War.” I was working with Geoff Emerick and he was my producer/engineer at the time in AIR Studios. I was working on a Paul Buckmaster string arrangement in a song. So, that was the caliber around me at the time! [laughs] It’s like, I know you still have to have a great song to work on but when you have all of those people with you, it did not hurt! [laughs]
What do you have your sights set on musically in the future?
Well, I’m just going to continue. I still haven’t got the budget for Paul Buckmaster or Geoff Emerick or AIR Studios, yet! I think I will just keep going. I might make another one and another one and, I suppose, eventually people will say, “Let’s give him Paul Buckmaster.” It’s Paul Buckmaster who is responsible for things like the strings on “Train,” that wonderful song. That’s the kind of stuff! So, one day, I will hopefully be back making records with artists of that caliber in a similar situation. In the meantime, I’m just going to keep carrying on making these records! That’s what I love doing — against all odds! [laughs]
Every artist evolves over time. Which of your creative milestones stand out?
A turning point for me was making a record called “Kites.” It did well here in America on college radio. That was a turning point for me because I was a bit stuck before then. This song “Kites” took off on its own means here and surprised everyone including myself! It was so surprising because it took off in such a different place than what I had expected — coming over to America and playing with Evan Dando, The Cowboy Junkies and Mazzy Star. I thought that was fascinating! [laughs] I liked it! I was going out and playing this song and people were still moshing to Therapy? before I came on! It was hilarious. I thought, “This is really random!” I was really enjoying that completely different turn! That came about through a time in the studio and was a pivotal moment for me. I was in the studio, I was on Sony Records and Rob Springer was getting really frustrated with me. He was coming on and saying, “It’s really good what you are doing but I don’t think we have a single.” I had never really sat down to write a single. You just write and singles therefore appear. I was writing all of this stuff that I thought was a single! I had this mad time of being in this 16-track studio in London, trying to write what I thought was a single. I didn’t even know what one was. It was strange for me to be in a position where I was writing for someone. I thought, “This is so odd.” I went through this really frustrating time and I said to Ian, who I was working with, “Ian, could you press record because I’m so fed up with this. I’m really, really fed up with this and this is hell on Earth, me doing this!” He pressed record, gave me a little beat and I played something. I didn’t know what I was playing but I played it anyway! I said, “Ahh, thanks!” I put it on a cassette and I took it home. I woke up the next morning, had breakfast and stuck it on. I thought, “I like that!” I wasn’t thinking single and I’ve never thought anything like that. I was thinking, “I like this piece of music.” I wasn’t even thinking it was even going to be played to anyone. I had something I had written, about this story of a boy with a kite. His mom had been arrested for smuggling drugs. It was in Turkey. The mum died in prison and the little kid was left flying this kite in the prison ward. I remembered writing down these things when I was watching on the telly, so I had it in a book. Those lyrics are what I sang over this bit of music. I thought, “I love that!” I went to the studio the next day and I said, “Ian, I’ve got this idea. I just want to sing it before we start working!” [laughs] He starts to put it down and all the pieces fit like a really easy puzzle. After I sang it, I thought, “Ahh, that’s really nice. Hold on. I will play a bit of guitar there. Okay, that fits there.” After that, I just left it and didn’t think anything of it. That then became the thing that Rob did want! [laughs] He just had a communication breakdown. It was this moment that I realized that when you stop trying to find what you’re looking for, you find what you’re looking for! [laughs]
What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey as an artist?
Wow! Well, it’s been a strange journey and it hasn’t been consistent for one thing! I’ve disappeared in the forest undergrowth a couple of things! [laughs] I’ve been reported dead a few times! [laughs] People have asked, “Where is he? He’s lost in action!” I’ve definitely had some Glenn Miller moments! I even avoided flying for five years because I didn’t like that. That’s not really good for a career in music. It’s been awkward but I keep coming back to the love of creativity. I feel like I want to make up for the lost years of creativity by spending too much time thinking about the music world and being put off by it. Whereas now, it’s that thing of being able to control the mind when you sit down and get bombarded with thoughts of, “This isn’t a good enough studio you’ve got here.” Now, I just say, “Well, it’s what I’ve got, so fuck it! Just get on with it!” It’s the same with everything. Yes, I don’t like certain parts but creativity and talking about creativity is something I could do until the cows come home! I think I’m going to make up for lost time creatively, really!
As a fan of your work, I couldn’t ask for more! Thank you so much for your time today, Nick!
Thanks, Jason! It was lovely to speak with you!