Postgraduate Pianist and Composer Releases New Album ‘Winnow’

By Dav Williams


Simeon Walker Will Killen

Photo Credit: Will Killen

Three years since his debut album ‘Mono’, recent postgraduate student, pianist and composer Simeon Walker has released his eagerly anticipated follow-up album - ‘Winnow’.

Supported by the likes of PPL Momentum Accelerator, PRS Foundation and Music:Leeds’ Launchpad programme, the release builds on his solo material through use of an ensemble which includes strings, drums and the lesser known ondes Martenot.

Known for his distinctive melancholic and evocative piano works, Simeon set up the Brudenell Piano Sessions – an intimate series of live music events celebrating the diverse and varied music being created for the piano, held at the iconic venue – the Brudenell Social Club.

We caught up with Simeon to discuss his development as an artist, experience of our MA Music programme and learn about the creative process involved behind ‘Winnow.

How does ‘Winnowdiffer from your first album ‘Mono?

“Having produced an EP and ‘Mono, I felt, perhaps for myself more than anything, that I needed to showcase and develop my skills in writing and arranging for other instruments. It felt like a natural progression, and I really value those artists who are able to progress and do something that is not exactly the same, but is still authentically them. It’s a difficult balance – doing something different whilst remaining authentic and true to your own artistry. It was a realisation that the way I play and the way I write and think about music could be done in a different way. Finding a way to do that was a challenge but became the reason behind ‘Winnows inception.

The very first time I played any of my solo material live was at the Brudenell Social Club during the High & Lonesome Festival. It came a day after the Paris terror attacks in 2015. It was 1 oclock in the afternoon and everyone had come into the Brudenell and there was quite a strange atmosphere. It was a special event for me, as I played my music to a group of people who barely knew who I was, playing this material publicly for the first time, so it was very special – not only for the poignancy of it all. I played ‘Haze(track 4 on the latest album) that day, and the piece had never felt like it truly worked within the context of the first album. I felt like it needed to go much bigger than I could make it with solo piano, and I saved it for the right moment when I could. I think this was a key thing for ‘Winnow’ – I had a lot of people advise me to only put out this album and get it together when it felt ready.”

What was the reasoning behind the choice of orchestration/ensemble used in the album (e.g. use of the ondes Martenot, drums, strings)? How was this informed by your desire to include and feature other musicians?

“Having recorded most of my solo material in my living room, part of it was that playing together with other people is a real joy and so much fun – I had definitely missed that. Ive been in a lot of bands in Leeds over the past decade, and I felt it could only be a good thing to involve other people, not least from a creative and performance perspective. I also felt that the sound would naturally develop from incorporating others.

Piano and strings is a well-used combination - Olafur Arnalds has been doing it brilliantly for the past 10 years. It works well, is a good combination and helps provides an additional level of interest for contemplative, restrained music, or however you want to describe it.

In terms of the other influences – the drums were played by Steve Hanley (a tutor at Leeds Conservatoire), and he has been heavily involved in the jazz scene. Ive always had one small toe in the jazz world, and whilst I would never call myself a jazz musician, Ive always had an interest in that area, and the likes of Bill Evans, Brad Mehldau and other modern players. I wanted to feature this just a little bit on the album. The 5th track ‘Unravelhas a short moment of improvisation, is slightly modal and incorporates a slightly jazzier harmonic language. Steve is a really musical player, and I was happy to say to him - ‘do what feels right.

With the ondes Martenot, I was looking for something that would create a little bit extra, and provide additional interest. I wanted it to be the very first sound listeners heard on the album, alongside the piano. Its such an interesting sound and creates that little bit of intrigue. Theres something really fascinating about the way its played – its such a physically involved action and it takes on an almost voice-like quality. Particularly with my music being instrumental, it felt like the instrument was able to be an extension of me and it has so much capability in terms of what it can do sound-wise.”

How do you seek to express your emotions and tell your own story through music?

“When I was younger I spent time playing around with the guitar and trained as both a vocalist and pianist. I got to a point where I thought that the only way I could express myself was to sing. However, what has been most fantastic about the past 5 years is that since going back to the piano, it feels like that this has been the thing that has connected most with other people, and makes most sense to me. When you put music out there that doesnt have vocals or lyrics, perhaps some people look at it and see fairly oblique titles and see it as a bit airy-fairy, but the pieces represent specific moments in my life, and is often a reflection on an emotion.

With Winnow – it tells a story of a long period of unravelling of a key aspect of my personal life. Its not that singer-songwriters are less important, far from it. It was simply the fact, for me, instrumental music expresses the raw emotion coming through in my playing and its about being able to share it, say it and put it out there. The singing and lyrics werent me. Writing the words never came naturally. Pieces in an instrumental form made more sense to me, and it gives people the freedom to interpret the music in their own way.”

Could you tell us a little bit about the creative and recording process involved in producing the album?

“I was really delighted to record the album with producer James Kenosha at, what was then, Chapel Studios. It has since become Evoke Studios, who are also great and Im really pleased to see what theyve been able to do – they had a massive flood in their studio in Brighouse earlier in the year and have been able to turn it around in a massive way which is brilliant. I feel like they are a real success story for the region - even in a really difficult year their approach is collaborative and provides a base for people in Leeds to go and make stuff which is awesome.

Once Id decided that this material needed a bigger sound, I knew that there was no way we could record my piano, four strings and drums in my living room. It had to be in a studio and in a space that was big enough to record all at the same time (pre COVID-19), because I was committed to that sense of hardly any overdubs and it being real, as I really wanted to encapsulate the spark of the connection of people playing at the same time. I didnt want to just lay down my piano parts and then sit in a control room listening to others putting their parts over the top - I wanted to play with everyone, and capture that energy. We just had a couple of days with the strings and the drums all recording at the same time and then we overdubbed the ondes Martenot - simply because it is such a fragile, delicate sound that you can only mic it up and it uses 3 different amplifiers so there was no way we could have recorded them all at the same time.

The recording process was a beautiful experience. Ive done so many recording sessions, for other people and bands. They can sometimes feel like everyone is watching the clock and everyone is tense and stressed and that never really brings forward a good musical performance or result. I had really thought beforehand about how to create an atmosphere and environment where we could record that felt great. I realised it was important to spend time getting to know each other and not rush the whole recording process. We talked about the parts, arrangements, musical direction, shape and dynamics. I know its easy to say ‘we had a great time recording itbut it was genuinely the most fun two full days of recording in a studio Ive ever had – and I wasnt expecting that. I feel the result is that you hear in the recording something that feels really special. My biggest fear was that it was going to sound polished within an inch of its life, in comparison to the raw feel of ‘Mono. However, it still feels like me, and sounds like my kind of stuff – I was really pleased with how it all came together.”

How has support from the likes of Help Musicians, PRS Foundation, PPL and Music:Leeds/Launchpad assisted your creative development and the release of this album?

“One of the things that I really love and is really demonstrated in Leeds is that we genuinely are better when we work together. We always are and we always have been. Leeds does that. I think thats a really strong thing about the city.

Organisations such as Music:Leeds, Launchpad and Come Play with Me take that ethos and use it to support people – whether thats me, Graft the rapper or a band like Talkboy. Its amazing in terms of whats going on and coming out of Leeds. Receiving support from BBC Introducing in West Yorkshire has also been hugely beneficial – it was quite a new thing to have my kind of music on the show, and I was so pleased to be able to perform at Latitude Festival as a result of their support which was amazing.

For ‘Winnow’, I knew that I couldnt fund it all by myself. I was fortunate enough to be receiving an income from my teaching and schools work, plus a little bit of money via Spotify, but it wasnt enough for the scope of what I wanted to achieve with this album. So I needed the support from the likes of Help Musicians and PRS Foundation to bring this album to life. In terms of funding – its important for artists to keep going and not be put off by rejection. I had numerous rejections before I was successful, and from speaking to other musicians I know that theyve had similar experiences. A ‘no’ doesn’t mean that youre a bad musician – there is are always so many other good people also applying for funding and yours simply might not have made the selection this time round. Be confident in yourself, assured in your abilities and in your artistic vision. Also, be realistic and honest about your budget – e.g. what does it cost to get those session players. If you believe what youve got is great and worthwhile, then I firmly believe someone will eventually back it.

I think that attitude runs through the whole of the music industry – if you didnt get on a particular Spotify playlist, it doesnt mean that your music is bad. It could be for a multitude of other reasons. Its important to take validation from your audience and those who love what you do – use those messages of support and interest in your work to keep going. Its about connecting with people, with individuals.”

How did studying on our MA Music programme help develop you as a musician, and your creative processes?

“Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, I had a fantastic time on the postgraduate degree programme. Fortunately, most of the material for my album had already been written by the time we recorded in February.

Prior to starting the course, I felt like my writing had got to stage where I was frustrated because everything was all so tonal, and all within a key, and I really wanted to explore slightly more experimental, contemporary classical approaches to composition. I had some amazing tutorials with Matt Bourne, Ben Gaunt, Errollyn Wallen and Jake Thompson-Bell who guided me through that world and challenged me to explore a range of possibilities.

I also really wanted to push and stretch myself, and challenge what I do. Alongside the material Im releasing in my name as an artist, I wanted to develop myself further as a composer for other people and ensembles. Ive ended up writing a set of pieces for my portfolio over the course of the year which is really quite different to what Ive released – my final submission had a choral piece, a wind quintet, a piece for brass ensemble and some more experimental 20th century influenced piano works.

The MA worked really well for me as most of the teaching takes place on one day, so you can continue to earn a living from music whilst studying. With it being based heavily around you as a practitioner and what your creative practice is, that aspect really encourages you to think about who you are and what you want to do, and why. That additional aspect of reflection is really helpful, whilst combined with your developing and evolving musical focuses.

Your album is a celebration of the Leeds-based music industry. What prompted you to set up the Brudenell Piano Sessions?

“There were a number of reasons. I noticed that this type of music was being performed and lapped up by people across Europe. However, I was frustrated because when I wanted to perform, there werent many places outside of London in the UK that youd be able to perform this type of material, so I took the old age thing of ‘if its not there, start something. It was therefore born out of my own frustrations of not having a home or a place to perform this type of music. I feel like the Brudenell Piano Sessions therefore plug a gap which was missing.

One of the key things about this scene is it draws people from across all genres – those who are interested in the trancier side of Nils Frahm to the more diatonic, very ‘sweet’ style of piano by artists like Ludovico Einaudi. For example, I sat next to a couple at an Olafur Arnalds gig in Manchester and asked them how they heard about him. They mentioned they had been to Creamfields Festival and saw his Kiasmos live set, and then checked him out on Spotify and realised he had composed the music to Broadchurch. Theres such a huge audience for this type of music –and its not limited to a specific demographic.

Finally, I really wanted to do something for the North, outside of London. We could have artists visiting from London, and all across Europe whilst still reinvesting in the local scene in and around Leeds. Its a good thing for me to give back to Leeds, a city which has given me so much, whilst letting the scene allow to grow and develop. I wanted to give more opportunities for artists like myself to play live. Doing it at a venue like the Brudenell Social Club and having recognition from such an iconic venue elevates the status of it, whilst also allowing a community feel to build around the event.”

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Visit Simeon’s website

‘Winnow’ was released on the 20 November. Buy the album via Bandcamp

Find out more about what our successful graduates have been up to in our Alumni Profiles

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By Dav Williams

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