…On Music, Inspiration and Living with an ME Sufferer
In ‘Adventures with Nettie‘ I wrote about a very good friend who is also an ME sufferer. Unfortunately, due to a health relapse, I haven’t had much contact with her for quite a while now. But several months ago her partner Nigel sent me a copy of his new album Collage and I was thrilled to learn that she had managed to contribute to a few of the songs. My nearest and dearest know I have no musical talent. I can appreciate music, but have no talent to create it so I have nothing but the utmost respect for talented musicians like Nettie and Nigel. But as an ME sufferer, I know how difficult it is to even get basic day to day tasks completed, so I find it amazing that Nettie was able to contribute in any way to Nigel’s amazing album.
Collage is comprised of ten instrumental songs composed and performed by Nigel Harpur. There’s a blend of soulful jazz to more upbeat numbers. It’s perfect for those times when you want music but ME brain fog won’t allow anything jarring or when lyrics are just too much to handle, and I have to say as someone who loves rainy days, the song ‘Watching the Rain’ could have been written as a theme tune to my rain-induced musings. However the faster songs, like ‘Seaside Rock’ are perfect for when I want to rock out (on the inside anyway). I was blown away by the range and feel there’s something for everyone on this album. I recently asked Nigel if he would allow me to interview him and here he talks about his musical background, album, future projects and living with an ME sufferer.
How long have you been playing music?
“I have almost dreamlike memories of ‘playing’ on my gran’s piano as a very small boy; they’d wind the seat up as high as it could go and then put some big old encyclopedias on it. Apparently the first time I just clambered up on my own and my parents worried that I’d irritate my gran, but after a few minutes she told them to leave me be. She had been a concert pianist and straight away could hear that I ‘had something’ as I didn’t just bash away randomly and treated her beloved old piano gently and with respect. At first I played the notes up and down the keys, then two at a time; deciding which combinations I liked best.
Later at around ten years of age my mum arranged for me to have cello lessons, with which I did persevere, despite the lugging around of the huge instrument on the bus and also the rather boring nursery rhyme style tunes they taught me. Also the focus on learning to read and write music seemed tedious and in hindsight I can see that my innate musical senses were already way ahead of my formal musical education.
Then I was given an old nylon strung acoustic guitar by a friend who’d never got on with learning to play it herself. Whoosh went the musical rocket ship and over the next three or four years I became something of a child prodigy, rarely without guitar in hand and would lose myself for hours, if not days, at a time as I absorbed everything my wonderful teacher John Hart could show me. Now I primarily play guitar, but also bass guitar, keyboards and drums.”
How long have you been in a relationship with an ME sufferer?
“I’ve been with Nettie for over 20 years and I guess she’s had ME for a lot of that time; as you know it is a bloody bugger of an illness but she has a fantastic sense of humour and is a fellow creative lunatic. Our house rings far more with laughter than tears.”
How did you meet Nettie?
“From the age of 14 I was always in a band of one sort or another and in my late teens to early twenties had a serious bash at the jazz-rock-funk style of music which had by then completely swept me away. I was also involved in reggae bands, soul bands and a couple of jazz guitar duos.
Most magically for me, I formed an alternative music trio ‘The Butterflies’ with jazz trumpeter and pianist Tom Walton… and… the one and only Nettie! Performing her beautiful songs in London venues like ‘The Mean Fiddler’ was a real personal high point, as was the co-writing and production of the music. I had never before met anyone with such a wealth of creativity pouring out (continuously!) so I suppose it was only ever going to be a matter of time, what with her also being completely lovely, before we became a partnership in more ways than just musical. When she had to abandon her musical dream due to getting ME it was very hard for her, but of course she turned her creative attentions to writing books and the results were wonderful; we both know they have helped many people in many ways.”
Tell me how you came to create ‘Collage’
“When the other guitarist in the last duo I played in went back to live in America in early 2011, it seemed to me that the time was right to finally get my own album done. I had a bag of ideas, old and new, and due to the busy gigging schedule over the previous years in ‘Avocado Pair’ my guitar playing was very much in form. I also had the germ of an idea to incorporate a couple of instrumental versions of Nettie’s songs.
So ‘Collage’ is my first album and it took about two and a half years from recording the first bars of ‘Noggin’ to the release of the final mastered CD and digital files. It has been a long time coming, but that’s just the way things have panned out for me and I am really proud of it. You have to wear a lot of different hats when you do the whole process yourself; composer, performer, recording engineer and producer. Thankfully Nettie is amongst other things a talented artist, so the cover and artwork was left in very good hands; I think it all looks as beautiful as it sounds.”
What musical role did Nettie play on ‘Collage?’
“I wrote all the songs, apart from ‘Now That You’re Gone’ and ‘Watching The Rain’, from scratch and played all the instruments apart from the shakers on ‘Agitar Los Gránulos De Salsa’, which Nettie played. ‘Now That You’re Gone’ and ‘Watching The Rain’ were originally songs with the melodies and words written by Nettie and the instrumentation by me. In fact ‘Watching The Rain’ was the very first song we did together. I’d written a little guitar part that Nettie thought was rather beautiful, so she said, “Give me a tape of that and I’ll see what happens.” She came back with a haunting melody and lyrics that fit my music perfectly; something I found miraculous as the music was in the quite unusual time signature of 10/8!
Although it was really pleasing to get two of Nettie’s songs arranged as instrumentals on the album, I did feel sad that her lyrics weren’t going to be heard. She became too ill with ME to ever finish the vocal recordings you see (it takes far more energy than people generally realise) so I’ve put ‘Now That You’re Gone’ to video, with the lyrics as subtitles, and plan to do similar with ‘Watching The Rain’. YouTube is a wonderful thing!”
This may be an unfair question, but do you have a favourite song on the album?
“Yes, that definitely is an unfair question as every song has special meaning whether it is due to what inspired the song, or the actual composing and performance of the piece. But if I had to choose, my favourites of my own compositions on ‘Collage’ are probably ‘Agitar Los Gránulos De Salsa’ which is a very upbeat tune with a Latin feel and ‘Pad Pod’ which was inspired by fond memories of my great ginger tom cat Paddy, possibly the best friend I have ever had.”
You mentioned inspiration: what inspires you as a musician, both in terms of other musicians and anything in general?
“Well, I’ve been into a very wide variety of music (over a lot of time!) so all I can do is mention some of the landmark discoveries that have really knocked me out along the way. Even as a very young boy I could tell the difference between The Beatles and most of their contemporaries, it seems a cliché to reiterate it, but they were something else. Then the great acoustic music of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, taught to me by John Hart, really opened up the guitar for me. My very first inspiration to play an electric guitar was the legendary Elmore James and his hatful of beautiful songs like ‘The Sky Is Cryin’’ and ‘I Believe’. Then I found Frank Zappa… that was a game changer, as they say! In amongst all of that guitar stuff though, there were so many inspirational ‘non guitar’ artists, like Kate Bush (a true genius) and a host of others, far too many to list here. Of course throughout it all there has always been my beloved Bach and Brahms, and aside from Nettie, my lovely animals and the natural world, the inspiration just bubbles up from where I do not know… but it won’t seem to stop.”
Do you have any plans for another album?
“I have started work on the next album and I’m looking forward to producing it. I already have a rough idea of how it will sound. I’m not letting on exactly how it’s going to be to anyone yet though, I’ve learnt my lesson over the years; as soon as you start ‘boxing something up’ before it’s finished you unwittingly cut off artistic paths that you might have otherwise travelled.
I also have a germ of an idea to go out gigging as a duo with an old keyboard playing friend. Hopefully we’ll play a mixture of some of my tunes from ‘Collage’ and a selection of jazzy standards that we both like.”
Images: © Nigel Harpur – all rights reserved and are used here with permission.