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15 Jul

What I learned from…Part 2

What I learned from….Steve Nieve

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A few years ago I was called by Kathryn Williams’ manager asking if I could stand in to play piano for her for a radio session on Radio France in Paris. I was free, learnt the song and off I went.  After the session we met up with Kathryn’s friends Muriel and Steve, had some wine at their flat and ate some food together.  They are lovely people.  I am just going to talk about Steve here because of the music.  I will talk about Muriel later.  Steve is Steve Nieve, Elvis Costello’s right hand man, an attraction, an imposter, and keys player for everyone that’s ever been at the top of the pop music tree.  That evening in Paris Kathryn asked Steve to play a piano piece he had written from his album ‘Lazy Point’.  The track is called ‘Muriel on the Beach’.  It was one of the most beautiful piano pieces I had ever heard.  His writing and playing completely blew my mind.  Footnote…I was quickly brought crashing back to earth when I was asked to sing and play one of my songs immediately after.  It was excruciating.  The unhelpful side of my brain was whispering to me as I played– “Who do you think you are? Eh? Playing piano to Steve Nieve.  The shame of it!  Do you realise… listen to me…yes that is the right note, but listen…yes I know you’re trying to sing your song…but listen…well, Steve has done it all, everything, all over the world, not to mention the fact he has been instrumental in creating the sound of probably one of, in Elvis Costello, the greatest songwriters there has ever been…”  The inner conversation went on and the song ended, seemingly without a mistake.  I drank a load of wine to make me feel better and to send the unhelpful part of my brain to sleep (always works). When I got home I was so inspired by what I had heard that I set about learning how to play ‘Muriel on the Beach’.  I spent all week at it.  But more than that, the whole experience had, I soon discovered, unlocked a new world for me.  I practiced and practiced and practiced that piano.  I learnt new ways of playing things.  My left hand woke up.  It all CLICKED. Although we had only met briefly I thought I should email Steve and tell him that I had been so inspired.  And so I did.  I got a reply some time later saying that he was glad that I had emailed to share my story.  Some time later again he asked me to be a guest singer on his tour, where he was playing Elvis Costello song arrangements on the piano.  I sang ‘Alison’, ‘Peace Love and Understanding’, ‘Shabby Doll’ and one of my tunes ‘I’ll Never Learn’.  As an aside, I can tell you now that singing Elvis Costello classics to a room of die-hard Elvis Costello fans is, without doubt, one of the most terrifying musical experiences I have ever had.  Walking out to open for Alison Moyet at The Royal Albert Hall didn’t even come close in terms of nervousness (in fact for that gig I wasn’t really nervous, I was hyper).  Anyway, on that tour with Steve I learnt even more and I took to watching him play every night and learning, listening and learning.  I soaked it up.  When I was home I practiced more.  One morning I was playing Muriel on the Beach and started to adapt it into my own version, switching the chords, changing the order, moving it in a different direction.  Another morning I worked on it again and started singing over the top.  Slowly the title track of the new album ‘Hang on the Word’ came into being. Lyrically, I should also mention this.  This is a song of reassurance for my kids saying ‘I will tell you everything you want to know about why your mum and I aren’t together anymore (my fault) and I will be there for you and all will be ok…hang on the word (i.e. hang on my words, listen to me, all will be ok)’.  And there is one other lyric in there too ‘she leaves you underground’, the word ‘underground’ is a subtle nod of thanks to Kathryn (who has a song called ‘Underground’) for creating the course of events that led to my piano playing being unlocked and this song coming into being.  Thank you to Kathryn, to Muriel and to Steve.

A flicker on the water
A speck upon the sand
Lie there
I’ll never leave
If leaves fall in the round
Though I’m not really clearer
Maybe I’ll be bound
To the world that says she’ll come
When she leaves you underground

The devil, he’s the wiser
He leads you to the brink
Then he tells you not to worry
Don’t worry about a thing
Though I’m not really clearer
Maybe I’ll be bound
To the world that says she’ll come
When she leaves you underground

Hang on the Word
And I…
…I’ll tell you all you want to know

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