By Blake Parker
Simeon Walker is a contemporary classical composer and pianist from Leeds, UK. His recent pursuit of a solo career has turned the heads of many, including 1631 Recordings – with whom his EP album “Preface” is released – and Nils Frahm, who selected his track “Compline” to be featured on the 2016 Official Piano Day Playlist. We recently contacted him to learn more about his life as a musician and what may be in store for fans in the near future.
How did you initially become interested in music? When did you first start playing, and when did you first start composing?
My Mum is a musician and a teacher and my Dad - whilst not a musician - is really into music too, so it was a big thing in our house when I was growing up. It was just a normal part of life and we went to shows and productions even when I was little, so my love for music started early on.
I started learning the piano from around 7 years old after a lot of tinkering. I'd always been fascinated by lots of instruments, and I learnt guitar, drums, singing and trombone over the years, but piano was always my first love.
I've always been creative and quite independent - happy and willing to do my own thing - so making new music was a freeing, fun and normal thing to do. I can't remember how I first started, but I do remember writing out ludicrously complicated/impossible piano pieces for my teacher to play - he tried incredibly hard to be as accurate to the ideas I'd written, but they were probably a little extreme.
Your music has a soft aura about it; it is very approachable and comforting in its style. What are the major sources of inspiration for your music?
Thank you! I'm glad you find it approachable, as there's nothing worse than music which instantly pushes the listener away. I love the way that some music draws you in, even from the first few notes or chords, which is something I try to aspire to in my pieces.
I've always had a wide range of musical likes and influences. I was classically trained, and have always loved Chopin above all others, with Debussy and Satie not far behind. I think it was the way that they were keen to throw off the harmonic and stylistic shackles of previous years that spoke to me - also the way that their melodies took on an expressiveness that seemed to speak to a myriad of emotions.
As a teenager, I developed a big interest in jazz, and went about the process of teaching myself to improvise. I was fascinated by the extended harmonic language of pianists such as Bill Evans and Thelonius Monk, the flowing melodic playing of Oscar Peterson, and the ability to fuse musical styles together that I heard in Brad Mehldau's work. I also had a love for the ambient/electronic music of the late 90's/early 00's - artists such as Aphex Twin, Air and DJ Shadow.
When I first came across the outstanding work of pianists such as Nils Frahm and Olafur Arnalds, I was incredibly inspired, as it gave me confidence to think outside the box as I tried to bring my wide range of influences together. All of the artists on Erased Tapes have proven to be a huge influence to me, as the modern classical genre continues to develop.
Do you have a particular songwriting process? What does it involve?
Loosely. I love to improvise, so every time I sit down to play, I'll allow myself to experiment and try out ideas. The best way I can describe it is that I like to play how I feel. So, that might involve my feelings that day, the season of the year, special occasions, etc. With it being instrumental music, I really enjoy the freedom to go where my feelings take me. Writing with lyrics can be fun, but often restrictive for a variety of reasons.
Sometimes I'll set myself challenges and then ideas spring from there. For example, I like to think in a minimalist way, so I'll often try to simplify ideas if I can. Not just for its own sake, but to see if I can find the most absolutely perfect way of playing how I feel. Other times, I'll try to focus specifically on using different musical elements in creative ways - rhythmical shifts, melodic alterations, experimenting with textural changes, using the different registers of the piano, or using a more extended harmonic language.
How did you become involved in the group 1631 Recordings? How has this affected your music?
After I'd released my EP, they came to me and asked if I'd be interested in re-releasing it with two extra songs. It's really great to be involved with the guys - if you look at the artists who have released music with them, it is incredibly humbling that they considered my music to be strong enough to sit alongside such an exceptional body of work.
I am very much at the beginning of my solo career, and there are people also on 1631 whom I hugely admire and whose work I love to listen to. Check out Sten Erland Hermundstad, Library Tapes, Roberto Attanasio and Ceeys for starters. Also look out for Kinbrae whose album is out very soon, and Alice Baldwin's beautiful piano music which is mainly on SoundCloud.
Similarly, you recently were featured in Nils Frahm's Official 2016 Piano Day Playlist. Tell us more about how this came to be, and if it has changed anything for you as a musician moving forward.
Piano Day is a relatively new thing, run by Nils Frahm. It happens on the 88th day of the year (the number of keys on the piano) and is very simply just a celebration of the instrument. Nils and his team take submissions in the months leading up to it, and then release a playlist of the best entries on SoundCloud.
Even though it's still a young event, it generates a lot of interest in the modern classical world, and the song of mine which was featured this year called 'Compline' is my highest played track on SoundCloud, so the exposure of being on the playlist has been great.
Can you describe a single potent moment in your pursuit of music that has stood out to you most?
Not so much a single moment, but 2016 has been a hugely important year for me. I've been involved with music for over a decade since studying music at university, playing in and with lots of bands and artists – however, composing has always been my absolute favourite thing, right back from school days through to university. Somewhere along the way after university, I stopped doing what I love the most. I've now been able to make my life work so that I can devote a lot of time to it, and this year has been the most freeing and exciting time of my musical life. Years worth of playing, a phone/computer full of ideas, pages of handwritten sketches are now coming to fruition.
SoundCloud has been hugely important for me. The community of music lovers on there is brilliant, and there are people whom I've never met, yet feel very grateful to have come across, whose support I have valued greatly.
If there was one moment I could pick out, it would be the first time I performed in this new solo capacity towards the end of 2015. I was opening at a festival called High & Lonesome in my home city of Leeds, and it was early in the afternoon the day after the terrorist attacks in Paris. Everyone was clearly still very shocked and upset, but I guess there was a sense in the room that what we were doing (gathering together to listen to music), was what those poor people in the Bataclan had been doing just the night before. The soft, gentle stillness of my music felt like an appropriate way to begin the day, and I was pretty humbled to be able to do that on behalf of us all that day.
If you could collaborate with any one artist (musical or otherwise), with whom would your dream collaboration be?
Well, Nils Frahm and Olafur Arnalds have collaborated themselves already, so if they'd let me join the party as well, that would be my dream collaboration!
Would you say your music has an underlying message?
Always hard to convey a message without lyrics! I'm not too sure about the whole musicians trying to convey a message to the world thing. I don't want to be too preachy.
I'm a pretty quiet, independent person and have plenty of things going around my head. When I play, everything seems to be ok. If I can give people happiness and enjoyment from hearing me play the instrument that I love, then that's good enough for me.
What can we look forward to hearing from you next?
In the immediate future, I'm going to be releasing an arrangement of a Christmas song as a free download. This song has strings on it, and I've been working hard on scoring parts for lots of new songs and playing with two lovely string players, so at some stage next year there will be a new release, which will be more than solo piano.
I have stacks of material waiting to be worked on, arranged and recorded, and I have a few collaborations in mind as well. I always have a mountain of ideas, and it's about finding the right one to focus on.
I'm also performing at a Christmas event in December in a beautiful old church in Leeds, with live strings for the first time, and I'm hoping to get out a lot more next year to perform.
It's an exciting time for me. Thanks for asking!