James Heather has been honing his meditative piano improvisations since being introduced to the art of composing by two of his grandparents at the age of 10.
But it was a near death experience one summer night in 2008 and a period of sofa surfing a few years later that gave him the determination to take his “serious hobby” further and ultimately land a record deal with Coldcut’s label Ahead Of Our Time.
Stories From Far Away On Piano is his first album as a signed artist. It is an outward-looking work of neo-classical solo compositions inspired by news stories from around the world. Heather sees the record as his way of empathising with the despairing situations faced by the characters behind each story. The catalysts for his soundscapes include a terror suspect in the Paris attacks who had a change of heart at the last minute and a Los Angeles man who spent 16 years in prison after being mistaken for a killer with the same teardrop tattoo.
Heather’s decision to focus on the plight of others reflects a need to put a period of introspection over his own challenges behind him. Only one song on the album, ‘Pathos’, is autobiographical.
Taking me back to August 2008, Heather, who has worked at Ninja Tune as a press officer for 14 years, says he was cycling home from work when he got hit by a cement mixer truck. “I got dragged down the road roughly 20m and sort of gradually started to die and then I was in a coma,” he says. Heather described the experience as “going dark from the outside in, to create a tunnel effect.” He remembers lying on the ground staring at sky; a helicopter was called but was unable to land on the busy Southbank streets.
In the month following the accident, Heather had a 5% chance of living. His lungs were punctured, he had broken lots of bones, including his jaw, much of his skin was flayed and he spent days at a time drifting in and out of consciousness under heavy doses of morphine.
After a few weeks his condition started to improve. But his hand was so badly injured that doctors said he may never be able to use his right index finger again. The thought of losing his ability to play piano just made him more determined. “I was going to go to the next level in taking it seriously,” he says.
While Heather did regain the use of his finger, the accident left it permanently bent at the tip. It would take years of careful practice to get back to playing to his previous standard. “I’d been playing for 16 years at that point and I had almost like a sixth sense of where to play and if I did that I’d be missing a note with the finger because it was so bent. So I had to sort of be a little bit less in the moment with the creativity…realign how I played, but got there in the end.” He explains that this process actually “injected some further ambition” in him.
Heather also faced the psychological battle of trying to return to normal life after what had happened. “To go so close to your mortality and then to go to being a normal 28 year old again, especially when you’re someone like me who likes to think about things…it’s not something I can just [say] ‘oh that happened’ – it’s something where I wanted to see what I could learn from it.” Heather embarked on a 220 mile cycle ride from Newcastle to Edinburgh, which he says was “a massive big middle finger up at the accident.”
He also kept notes of experiences – something he would continue through another difficult period in 2012 when he spent eight months sleeping on various friends’ sofas with no home of his own.
Between houses due to a delay in paperwork, his closest family living almost 100 miles away, and keen to keep his job, Heather kept moving between friends to avoid overstaying his welcome. Feeling down and less sociable than normal, Heather spent hours deepening his art and making sense of his experiences through new compositions. “I find I’m a lot calmer expressing myself through music than other forms of communication because perhaps in some ways music is more natural,” he says.
The resulting music included the aptly titled Accidental Sessions – a full-length DIY SoundCloud only album of Daniel Johnston-esque voice and piano songs, and Water Sonatas – his first full-length piano album put up on SoundCloud.
Heather tentatively sent Water Sonatas out to a few select journalists. This was one of the first times he would share his music, beyond the early piano musings he gave to mates as a teenager in Southampton. Back then he would try to form bands with friends, none of them quite working out, and, at one point there was “very early” talk of him joining some school-friends, the electro indie act the Delays, but it didn’t get beyond a phone call and watching a jam session. “And then I started to make some songs with a friend who made beats,” he says. “I just didn’t feel like I was coming through.”
“I almost got to the point where [I felt], ok this is a hobby, it’s not going to happen. It’s not that I’m lazy – I was always trying to improve my composition at home but it felt odd putting it out into the world. I can’t articulate why or how, I just felt why would I assume anyone would be into this?”
He needn’t have worried. Journalists he sent it to responded with positive tweets. The publishing department at Ninja Tune generated interest for Heather’s music from broadcasters including the BBC. And managers of the label also started to recognise his abilities beyond promoting the music of others. “The boss of Ninja had texted me one day and he just said ‘I’m sat on the bus and your song’s just come on my shuffle’ and he said something along the lines of ‘this is really good.’ I don’t know if he was just trying to be nice but it was out of the blue…so it was a blessing to get this message.”
All the encouragement convinced him to make another album. This time he would seek a record deal. And the concept would be less introspective.
“After going through something so deeply personal as the Water Sonatas I wanted to look out into the world a bit more,” he muses. “I’d gone in as much as I wanted to [at] that point. And everything I’d learnt I wanted to then use to show empathy to other people’s lives so that was the whole idea of Stories From Far Away On Piano.”
After some interest in the album, for Heather, going with Coldcut was the obvious choice. “I’ve known those guys for 15 years,” he says. “In 1997, when I was 17 I remember buying Let Us Play and opening it up in my bedroom. Previously I’d been into Supergrass, Oasis, bands like this and it was just something from a different dimension; so it was for me a no brainer.”
Listening to the album, there seems to be a quiet sense of triumph filtering through the tracks. I ask if, despite the focus on other people’s struggles, this could be a reflection of him having conquered his own difficult experiences. “The triumphant feeling you might be getting from it is because I’m not concerned about myself as much anymore and I really am just trying to put a signal out to those particular characters in those particular stories. In some characters in the stories it was a bleak outlook so it’s not like I was pretending I could solve anything but maybe if they had heard, it just might be a moment [where] they could feel some empathy and I felt in a position to just give myself to a greater cause.”
Since signing with Ahead of Our Time, Heather has gone from having no iTunes and Spotify presence to launching the first of a possible series of Modulations EPs in June, the album, Stories From Far Away On Piano, is released on 18 August and he performed at this year’s Glastonbury Festival.
He is playing at the Solidarity of Arts Festival in Gdańsk, Poland, on 26 August and the National Concert Hall in Dublin on 4 November. There are also collaborations in the pipeline and Heather says he’s interested in doing more stuff in the realm of electronic, jazz and grime/hip hop.
“But for now I’m just keeping honing the piano style and that’s my base and then I may add sound to it as we go. You can overthink these things sometimes but it’s actually the thing you’re doing at the start that’s the realest thing.”