I Got a Lot: An Interview with Nick Heyward
In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.
As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.
Inevitably, the band fractured and Heyward stepped forward as a solo artist. For a while, he followed the formula, and the hits flowed. Then, he grew up. Unfortunately, he grew up faster than a lot of his fan base, and the top of the charts grew ever distant. That's where the story normally ends, but not in Heyward's case. In spite of only grazing the charts in recent years, his solo albums are things of beauty -- full of pop songs which run from the whimsical to the pastoral to the out-and-out rocking. His latest album, the DIY creation Woodland Echoes, is amongst his best works to date. Annoyingly, he looks about six months older than he did in 1982.
In 2017, the boy from Beckenham finds himself stateless: "I've been renting for a decade. At first, I enjoyed it, always thinking I'd buy somewhere, especially when they were practically giving out mortgages, but I missed it! I didn't have the enormous house from the '80s, so I just got into renting. I'd like to live somewhere in the UK, but at the moment we're living in Tampa, which is full of alligators and brightly colored creatures -- tropical looking things. We go on a cycle ride, and we're cycling past alligators. It's odd and not like South London at all!
"My friend Ian [Shaw] is a recording engineer and moved to Key West, 90 miles from Cuba, a few years ago. He lives on a houseboat with a studio on it. It's ridiculously hot there. I'd popped in to see him, and we inevitably ended up recording there -- on this houseboat, in a little room. That became part of the album. When it came time to do the video for 'Baby Blue Sky', we drove to the beach and shot the video on a phone. The whole album was recorded in spare rooms: in my spare room, my son Oliver's spare room, Ian's spare room..."
Ah, Oliver Heyward. To go along with this DIY aesthetic, Heyward Sr. got his son along to help out. "Oliver was the executive producer and it was his job to round it all up, keep it organized and make it all work, which he's really good at doing. He kept it all clear and organized it well. No matter where we went -- Cambridge or Key West -- he knew exactly what was what. It was nice to have that perspective. We used what we had, and we got on with it. We recorded 20 songs and 14 got mixed. One song called 'Make It Happen' had an intro that was full on AC/DC! I wanted the whole album to be rough around the edges with a feel of a band in the room.
"I'm big into rock -- Montrose and Budgie and stuff and I always go back to that; there are no words to describe how brilliant those bands are," Heyward continues. "We'll never get that sound again. That period was about the studios, the engineers, the producers, the musicians, a certain time in the evolution of music. You can make a pastiche of it, but that moment has gone. That sound sort of seeped through, but the more I worked on the tunes, the less rough it sounded. 'Make It Happen' turned into a mixture of Siouxsie and the Banshees, XTC and the Jam -- I don't know why it went that way."
Spontaneity is something that Heyward holds dear. In the early part of the new century, he explored spontaneous composition by recording live, impromptu songs on a computer, with a view to releasing them on his MySpace page. It's hard to imagine a writer of such carefully measured material dropping his guard like that, but, "I loved that period! I loved the way the music world had gone. MySpace meant I could make music at home and have it out straight away and share it. As an artist, I was completely fulfilled.
"I thought this was the way that the music business was going to go," he muses. "I've got those songs on an old computer, but Ollie and I can't find it. They're all done live. I'd bought a laptop, but all I could do technically was press record and then stop. I put mics everywhere: I didn't know what I was doing at all. I discovered that if I put the mic in the kitchen and played the piano in the living room, it sounded great. My pots and pans sounded nice when I hit them, so why did I need a drumkit? A spoon dropped onto the laminate floor during a take, and when my manager heard the recording, he said 'Was that a spoon hitting the floor? ' I replied 'Great, isn't it?' He said, 'That's OK, but I can't see it working live... ' But that's the point! I didn't care! There's a whisk on the new album on 'Forest of Love' and a door opening too. Great percussion sound!"
It seems this rather random approach permeated more than just one track, notes an excited Heyward. "The whole record started off a bit like that. I sat down to write an album that I thought would be finished in a week, but it didn't happen like that, and it changed over the months and years. Oliver and I worked on it in our bedrooms. When we went to Key West and started playing with local musicians, it developed from there. I'd been going to the gym and listening to AC/DC and my rock stuff, so by the time I got to record with Ian Shaw; I was pumped up!
"Blackstar amps and a sparkly Gretsch -- that's how the rock stuff happened," he continues. "But then the tunes started to flow like a story after that -- I didn't set out to do that. It just happened. Once I sat down to write a novel and ended up writing a children's story: it's what comes out. I've got loads of poetry too, so on the next album, I'm going to push myself to get that poetry in the music and make it less autobiographical. The old Haircut 100 stuff was all over the place, and the poetry is the same. It's creative and a bit surreal, but it works. It's a stream of consciousness, and you don't question it."
Although the album was created with the help of friends and family, he still needed to mix, manufacture, market and distribute the finished product. Like a lot of artists, he turned to crowdfunding to help. He also dipped into his back catalogue, playing at "Stars of the '80s" package shows in the UK. Alongside acts like the Village People, Belinda Carlisle, John Parr, and Sister Sledge, Heyward revisited his chart-topping years, midway through the bill. Is he bitter that he's had to play the hits from 35 years ago? Not at all. "The album was paid for by other peoples' audiences really -- all the people who came to those nostalgia concerts didn't come to see me, I was way down on the bill. [laughs] They came to see the headliners. I've held on to some fans from the Haircut 100 days, and some of them are real boffins. They know all the details. You never assume that anyone knows or is interested in what you're doing in the slightest,"
What his old label boss Alan McGee would make of these nostalgia packages is unrecorded, but Heyward has a lot of love for the legendary Creation supremo. "It was great working with Alan. When I was on Creation, it had been through the whole Britpop/Oasis thing, and he was going through a health kick -- eating lots of oranges, so I always associate him with big, ripe oranges. He always had about ten on him. To me, Alan is an orange tree who enables fruit to grow. I'm still friends with the Creation guys, and that creative vibration is still happening in Camden. The Sylvia Plath plaque is the center of that."
A conversation with Nick Heyward requires some staying power. Off the cuff questions get energetic, detail-filled answers and it's obvious that he still loves music. When he talks about his (rather unlikely) love of classic rock and his delight at being sent a copy of the recent XTC TV documentary, he sounds like an over-enthusiastic fanboy. You also need to keep your wits about you, as amongst descriptions of the minutiae of recording processes, he's likely to drop in a phrase like, "It's like taking a piece of coal and throwing it in the steam engine and driving into the future." He's thrilled that his rough and ready, back bedroom project has turned into something rather special, but he's not finished with it yet. " Woodland Echoes, to me sounds like a musical. I'd love to stage it in a little, old theatre somewhere -- nothing too grand. It's a love story. A house, a home, a forest, bluebirds, true love, fishermen -- it's all there. It's all written down."
It's all written down. Alongside the poetry, the children's book and a sparkling repertoire of neatly crafted pop songs. Pass me some coal. We're driving into the future.