Woodland Wonder: Nick Heyward takes it easy, and waits for the plaudits (Photo: nickheyward.com)
While Woodland Echoes is Nick Heyward’s seventh solo album, it’s his 10th in total, going right back to 1981’s Haircut 100 debut Pelican West. And this highly personable Beckenham-born singer/songwriter, guitarist and pianist is rightly proud of his latest offering, telling us, ‘I’m glad I’m alive, I’m glad I’m writing and putting records out’.
Even that quote takes me back to the first long player, Nick having ‘borrowed’ a little of the Lizette Reese-penned hymn Glad That I Live Am I for the last verse of Milk Film, as this ex-choirboy knew full well but was unlikely to let on to his mates.
If Nick was guilty of anything in those days – and for much of his career – it was for his relentlessly cheerful lyrics and tunes, as the early Haircuts hits underline. Fantastic Day speaks for itself, and who can forget Favourite Shirts‘ ‘Your favourite shirt is on the bed, do a somersault on your head.’ Not great advice for us with back and neck problems. In fact, his sole concern back then seemed to be a phobia of lakes, if Love Plus One‘s anything to go by. Yet Nick’s enthusiasm and optimism was contagious, and Pelican West still gets regular plays on my in-car system, not least when the sun’s out. What’s more, within a year he delivered another classic, a grown-up one by comparison.
But more of that later. Instead let’s focus on Woodland Echoes, his ‘first pop record in 18 years’ (since 1998 Creation rebirth of sorts, The Apple Bed), and an ‘accidentally-autobiographical reflection’ of the course Nick’s life has taken, its songs ‘influenced by love, nature, togetherness, ‘70s’ pop, America, open spaces and afternoon tea’. As the blurb has it, ‘This is the sound of a confident man in his mid-50s making music for nobody but himself’, Nick insisting it was only when he started compiling and sequencing the LP that he realised he had something different’.
As he puts it, “It came together like a storybook, a love story. I realised the songs were chapters. It starts with time passing; you find love and get a significant connection with your other half, in the forest of love. I’d never really had that connection. I didn’t know why I could always split up with people – it was either them or me.
“The passage of time is reflected on the album – it begins with a cuckoo clock ticking; as you age you become more selective about who you spend time with; no longer the hasty friendships of youth. Who is about the question of who do you keep and who you let go. When you stop looking for what you want, it is often there in front of your nose.”
Three listens in, I was impressed. There’s something of Skylarking-era XTC in places, such as opening track, Love is the Key by the Sea. While that’s quintessentially English, we cross the Atlantic for something of a Great Outdoors hoedown (complete with Jew’s harp) on Mountaintop before The Stars gives us old school Heyward quirkiness, as suggested by the line, ‘I’m a garden wall, you’re a spinning parasol’. A reflective, part-trippy Beautiful Morning carries traces of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, while Who is more Django Reinhardt goes camping, kind of Huck Finn’s Hot Club de France years. And Forest of Love would sit nicely on master songwriter Boo Hewerdine’s most recent offering, Swimming in Mercury.
He’s on top form for the guitar-driven Baby Blue Sky, inviting us on a coastal ride in a convertible on another perfect summer’s day. I’m channeling Paul McCartney (with George Harrison guitar touches) on radio-friendly love song, I Can See Her, while we’re catching Californian rays and filmic imagery on the evocative, somewhat epic Perfect Sunday Sun. Colourful, duelling acoustic guitars, glockenspiel and Fleet Foxes-style harmonies provide a semi-instrumental bridge – more Drake than Heyward – on New Beginning as we near journey’s end, Nick then back in classic pop territory on I Got a Lot – think Tom Petty guesting with the Lightning Seeds – and then talking to the trees again on For Always, at one with nature on a closing track somewhat reminiscent of Dodgy, another outfit in their element staying out for the summer.
Recorded on a houseboat in Key West, Florida, and back in his native UK at Zak Starkey’s Salo Sound studio, there’s definitely an unhurried feel as well as a holiday vibe from an artist in somewhat transitory mode at present, between short-term accommodation. And in Baby Blue Sky, the flip of his double-A-side lead single, it certainly seems that Nick’s coined the sound of summer … again. In fact, I suggest to him on the phone, there’s almost a Teenage Fanclub vibe there, something not so many would associate with this ‘80s pop icon.
“A lot of people … many millions, in fact … don’t know I was on Creation Records, and I toured with Teenage Fanclub in America. I’m a big fan.”
Meanwhile, Mountaintop – the other side of that first single – is totally different again, more country-tinged.
“That was recorded near the Everglades, using a local band. It’s all blues there, but there was definitely a country influence. We were driving through Nashville and doing stuff over there. That’s nothing like the rest of the album either. But they all have this connection, a celebration of nature. There’s a track called Who and it’s gypsy jazz, and an out-and-out rock number like early AC/DC, I couldn’t put on the album though – people would think I was all over the shop, like a fox running all over the garden, into every bit of foliage you could find.”
Maybe we have the blueprint there for an extended album – Wild Woodland Echoes maybe?
“Well yeah. I’m Springwatch, through and through!”
Do you spend a lot of time in the States?
“It seems to have been that way. It wasn’t planned though. Maybe that’s down to Ian Shaw, who I worked with in the ’90s, who worked with Julian Cope and Alan McGee’s assistant Edward Ball. I played bass on his records and Alan would come down a lot, and really liked my song Kite, and said I should come to Creation Records. Anyway, Ian later moved to Key West to be near his Dad, ending up building a houseboat, including studio equipment. My girlfriend – now my fiancée – is from way up North in Minnesota, and while visiting her parents in Florida I went to see Ian.”
The LP’s certainly a mixed bag, style-wise.
“Yeah, I think that’s because it was recorded over a long period. It was either I save up for a property or invest in me and make an album. The more I was making it the more I really wanted it to sound like a proper vinyl record, and it’s mixed by Chris Sheldon, so all that took more investment and more time.”
Having Fun: Nick Heyward, not at all fazed by writewyattuk’s questions (Photo: nickheyward.com)
Nick’s son Oliver, 29, was also involved in the recording process, as a studio engineer.
“Yes, he’s doing brilliantly with sound engineering, and just the other day he was working with Chris Thomas and Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook. He never wanted to play, but always looked at the equipment I had around and seemed to know how to work it. He does all the summer festivals, like Let’s Rock and Rewind shows I’m involved with.”
Nick also has a daughter, Katie, 26, who he says ‘writes lyrics effortlessly, but chooses at present not to get involved with music’. He hasn’t put her off, has he?
“I might have done! Ha!”
As it says on his website, ‘While the battle for the music industry was playing out as the ‘00s became the ‘10s, Nick stood aside from all this, released two albums under the radar, and got on with the business of life; seeing his children grow up, and finding love’.
It’s certainly been a full career so far, from major label, big money backing at Arista, Warner and Sony to more cult indie support with Creation, and now fully embracing the crowd-funding era. And that independent direct-to-audience concept seems to make sense for him, not least being so social media friendly. Yet while he has his own label these days, Glenhawk, he’s not averse to PR help, via his Pledge Music album initiative.
“That way I can carry on and do another album. That’s why touring is so important to me – from the summer gigs I can then invest back into making more music. And I’ve chosen that rather than owning a house, living in short-term rents.“
Until September that’s in Henley-on-Thames, near Oliver and much of his work. But now his daughter’s Sheffield-bound, he’s contemplating upping sticks again, possibly to there, or nearer Manchester or Liverpool. Speaking of the latter, he played The Cavern last November and previously featured at a show marking the end of the About the Young Idea exhibition at the Echo Arena, celebrating The Jam.
“Yeah, brilliant, and I’ve played with Russell Hastings and Bruce Foxton’s band (From The Jam) again recently, jumping on with them at Let’s Rock, doing Modern World.”
All Set: Nick Heyward awaits the next tricky question (Photo: nickheyward.com)
That’s a quality I like about this Kentish entertainer – it’s not about obvious covers. There’s also footage of him from 1994 playing The Jam’s Sounds from the Street for a TV show.
“Well, Fantastic Day was written when I was pogoing to The Jam! I’d go home inspired by them and others around that time, ending up buying a practice amp and guitar. I locked myself in my bedroom and kept playing D major, C major and G. I had to sing something over those chords, which just happened to be, ‘It’s a fantastic day’. I then thought, ‘Actually, that sounds like a song. I should write one of those other things you have in songs – a verse’. But I didn’t know any other chords, so just played C and G. Later, I learned another chord – F, so put that in just before the chorus.
“I then had this song I played in various bands, although it didn’t pop out until it was suggested in a rehearsal to play to a record company. So we did, and they decided to sign us.”
The rest was history, Nick having left school in 1977, aged 16, working as a commercial artist but soon realising his pop dream. And as the bit about Haircut 100 on his website says, ‘They played the pop game perfectly, tucking their Arran jumpers into their trousers, riding the post-new romantic funk wave, marrying Chic with the Monkees and opening their shows with a blistering cover of Low Rider by War.’
That all sounds pretty cool, but I still feel like I’m at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting when I stand up and admit to Nick that Pelican West and North of a Miracle were two of my favourite LPs of the 1980s.
My tastes were more punk and new wave then, but I’d still regularly listen to both albums, and still do to this day. So why should I have felt a need to keep that to myself and feel reluctant to publicly appreciate his early work? Was it because of all the Smash Hits and fashion and pop teen mag coverage?
“It’s interesting. I don’t know why that was the case for us and not Edwyn Collins and Roddy Frame, who had similar kind of acts. It might have something to do with the fact we played with the pin-up thing. I don’t think Edwyn and Roddy did. Now we’ve got stats suggesting it’s 90% male fans buying records. Maybe that smaller percentage of women made it … off-putting.”
It was a golden era for white pop-funk and dance, from more mainstream ABC, Duran Duran, Haircut 100 and Spandau Ballet to indie-crossover outfits like A Certain Ratio, The Associates, Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, and The Higsons. I loved the latter’s East Anglian neighbours The Farmer’s Boys too, a band that seemed to be like a tipsy version of the Haircuts to me. All those bands still sound fresh for these ears, and that can’t just be nostalgia on my part, can it? But – as I suggested to Nick – perhaps for me it was more about the songs than what his band were wearing on Top of the Pops.
“Yeah, I think that first album was closer to Steely Dan than anything. It was more complicated, but I got tarred with the icon thing, probably in the same way David Essex was. But musically that’s never affected me, and I’m still doing what I do. Maybe it’s just down to people not being able to openly admit that.
“I also put music first and was playing Dreamin’ by Cliff Richard last night. I don’t give a f*** that it was Cliff. It was written by Alan Tarney (and Leo Sayer), one of this country’s great producers, songwriters and bass players. The way he crafted pop records … I listen to great pop music regardless of who it’s by, but I suppose if I was doing an interview for the New Musical Express I probably wouldn’t say I was listening to Cliff Richard.”
It struck me in later years that Nick was barely 22 when he made North of a Miracle. Yet it’s such a mature album, the artist co-producing with Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick and involving quality session players. As Uncut later put it, ‘If Elvis Costello had released this album, it might just feature in the lower reaches of those lists of all-time greats’. And for a record of that era it’s remarkably unfettered by the synth touches that quickly aged so many LPs around then.
“Well, hopefully I’m going to be doing that album somewhere soon, and get Geoff along to do a talk. To me he’s not only the guy who made Sgt. Pepper but also Imperial Bedroom and so much amazing music. He was the guy who put the microphone six inches closer to the bass and made the guitar on Paperback Writer sound more rocky. For me, he was there at the birth of rock music!”
Is it true that XTC were in line to record that album as well as Geoff? I’d have loved to heard their spin on the album.
“Yeah, and I’d still like to work with Andy Partridge. I speak to Thomas Walsh, of Pugwash fame, a lot. He has me in fits of laughter – he’s the most eloquent, hilarious man – and knows Andy really well. So you never know!
“Back then, we were sat in a coffee bar around the corner from Air Studios and Andy said, ‘Maybe we could be your band’. I was such a fan and was just stunned. I was thinking, ‘He doesn’t really mean that’. But that was a younger, startled, gob-smacked me. Now I’d say, ‘Oh yeah! What time? Nine o’clock? I’ll be there!’”
The following period wasn’t Nick’s best, and while I bought the more club-friendly single Warning Sign, his final top-40 hit in late ‘84, and Postcards From Home in 1986, the latter was soon in the bargain bins. There are some fine songs on Nick’s second solo LP, but production-wise he lost me. Perhaps I felt he was more interested in winning over the audience that saw him support Wham! at their Wembley farewell shows.
“Yeah, I’d lost that … it’s weird. I got to work at Air Studios and with Geoff Emerick and have great musicians, but then didn’t have that power, so the studios weren’t so good and my manager wasn’t really a manager. As a songwriter you’re as good as who you work with. In hindsight I see quite clearly things weren’t sounding so good. Howard Jones and Nik Kershaw were doing well at the time so I was put with Pete Collins and the results sounded good, but I must say my songwriting wasn’t as good around that period.”
I’d moved on by the time of his Warner Bros. Records move and 1988’s third album I Love You Avenue, the single You’re My World just another that failed to chart. And however good the records that followed, it’s a fickle market, Nick struggling to pull back that wider fanbase. By the time of 1993’s From Monday to Sunday he was revitalised though, touring regularly, particularly in the US, alongside the likes of Belly, The Lemonheads, Mazzy Star and Therapy? I think I only picked up on that later though, missing Tangled too, the 1995 album that pushed him further on again. However, I fully appreciated both later, and thankfully he was on Creation’s radar by then, acclaimed 1998 album The Apple Bed seeing Nick finally publicly acknowledged as having returned to form, even if he didn’t seem to sit comfortably with the new breed when that resurgence in interest came around the time of the BritPop phenomenon.
“Yeah, that all followed me getting to work with Ian Shaw, doing demos. That’s where Kite came about, the single Alan (McGee) first liked, a demo all the way through really, because it just worked with acoustic guitar, a drum, cello, trumpet and bassoon sound. That was it, and it was just one of those magical recordings.
“Ian just gave me a beat to play along to, I then took it home, felt I really liked it, opened a little book – and I don’t usually write that way – and tried some lyrics. I went back the next day to see if it worked, and sang it in literally one take. It wasn’t going on the album, but was the song Rob Stringer at Sony heard and thought was great.
“That proved to be the turning point. Maybe I was trying too hard before. Up until then I’d been giving people what I thought they wanted, and it was working. But then there was pressure after North of a Miracle. I was trying to write a hit, and nothing happened. But then I started being creative again in the studio, all this new material starting to pop out.”
Plenty of songs from that era have stood the test of time, such as 1993’s January Man, which for me was kind of On a Sunday part two (although that accolade arguably falls more directly to the rather splendid Perfect Sunday Sun on the new LP). He was properly back with us.
“That was it. It was like a blip before then, despite little glimpses like Traffic in Fleet Street (from I Love You Avenue). But then it was back again.”
On Spec: Nick going for the studious look with his fellow Haircuts, back in the day
Time flies, and it’s now 40 years since Nick and schoolmates Graham Jones and Les Nemes initially started a band. When was your first gig?
“The first as the band? That’s an interesting question. I’ll have to find that out.”
There were plenty of names, including Rugby, Boat Party, Captain Pennyworth and Moving England, before they settled on Haircut 100.
“We changed names so quickly! But the first would have been the four-piece with Pat (Hunt) on drums, probably the Ski Club of Great Britain, in the bar, inviting our friends. I don’t think (music writer) Adrian Thrills came to that, but it was either there or another around the corner in Kensington at the university supporting a band called The Tropicanos. Herschell Holder was in the brass section, and we went on to work with him on the album.”
Incidentally, Herschell had already played with Graham Parker, Eddy Grant and Black Slate by that stage. But as Nick’s website biography concedes, ‘Haircut 100 burnt briefly and brightly – the ultimate group of pals who, within a year, had hit the big time. It finished as quickly as it began’. So while the rest of the band carried on and made a second album, 1984’s Paint and Paint – Marc Fox taking over lead vocal duties – Nick had already released his debut solo LP. Does he keep in touch with his former bandmates?
“Well, Blair (Cunningham, drums) plays on two tracks on my album, and we played together last summer, along with Echo and the Bunnymen, one in a girls’ school playground turned out to be the best gig of the summer! Last summer I had tea in Marc’s garden, him and his lovely lady, and before then I went to Graham Jones’ wedding. I never miss a Haircut wedding, and I’ve been to every one of Blair’s!”
Inevitably there was talk of animosity at first, but Nick was clearly destined to be out on his own.
“Well, it’s just a long boring story about a band without a manager – like a football team without a manager would be a rudderless ship, probably not even getting outside the harbour. It could be the best ship in the world and the greatest crew, but if you haven’t got direction and a leader … But I’m always open to the idea of the six of us playing together again.”
So that might happen again?
“It’s up to us – it takes six people collectively to do that. The last time was when VH1 got us together for a TV show. That was really enjoyable. In the meantime though, I’m not twiddling my thumbs!”
Guitar Man: Nick Heyward knows a few more chords these days (Photo: nickheyward.com)
True enough, not just with the new album but a series of dates too, this week’s headline show at 229, Great Portland Street, Marylebone, seeing Nick – as with his Cotton Clouds festival appearance in the North West (Sunday, August 12th) – backed by his own five-piece band. There are also appearances on the Rewind circuit at Scone Palace, Perth (Sunday, July 23rd) at Capesthorne Hall, Macclesfield (Sunday, August 6th) and in his current backyard at Temple Island Meadows, Henley-on-Thames (Sunday, August 19th), while Nick is set to see out the gigging year for Let’s Rock Christmas at Wembley Arena (Thursday, December 14th).
For those shows he’ll be working with house bands he’s got to know well, including his own players in the Let’s Rock band and a Rewind band drawn ‘mostly from ABC and again great guys’. And when we spoke, he was looking forward to Let’s Rock in Southampton with The Human League, Belinda Carlisle, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Tony Hadley and recent writewyattuk interviewees Howard Jones and Katrina Leskanich. I’m guessing he’s having a ball. Is there good camaraderie between the acts?
“There really is, and it’s getting nicer, meeting up every summer and playing with them. We really put the effort in to make the day work too. It’s not so much the bands as the audiences that lift the day, and when the weather’s good, it really works.”
Then again, I bet it’s equally memorable when it’s chucking it down during Fantastic Day.
“I’ve played that song in all weathers! I remember one at Alnwick Castle where it was literally hailstones, wind, and icicles, with everyone still out there, singing along. How hardy are they!”
Scooting Off: Nick Heyward heads off, another interview complete (Photo: nickheyward.com)
Nick Heyward appears at the Cotton Clouds Festival on Saturday, August 12th, on a bill also featuring The Coral, The Sugarhill Gang, the Everly Pregnant Brothers, and a DJ set from Inspiral Carpets’ Clint Boon, with tickets £39 plus booking from the festival website. There are also official Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.
And for all the latest from Nick Heyward and more detail about Woodland Echoes and where to order the LP, head here.