Doing it himself: Seb Stone
Songwriting meets a young London singer-songwriter as he releases a new self-produced EP. Actually, make that singer-songwriter-producer. Or rather, singer-songwriter-drummer-guitarist-bassist-pianist…
Here at Songwriting we love music that comes from the heart, so naturally we tend to be fans of the DIY approach. But when it comes to ‘doing it yourself’, young West London-based singer-songwriter Seb Stone doesn’t so much take the biscuit as scoff the whole ruddy packet.
Seb’s just released a new EP, you see, called Ordinary You. Seb wrote all the songs himself, naturally, mixing up influences from funk, rock and anthemic pop. But he also produced the EP… and yes, that’s him on guitar. And drums. And bass. And piano.
We were impressed – and we’re not the only ones. Though he’s still only at the start of his career, Seb’s also worked as a backing vocalist for the likes of James Morrison and Leona Lewis, under the tutelage of no less a personage than legendary producer Guy Chambers (Robbie Williams, Kylie Minogue, Tina Turner, Katie Melua, Rufus Wainwright, etc).
So in our eternal quest to bring you the hottest songwriting talent first, we figured we’d best get Mr Stone on the blower, sharpish… as they say in that London.
You’ve got an EP out called Ordinary You, but it’s not actually your debut, is it? Can you tell us a little about your career so far?
“It’s actually my second EP, there was another one earlier in the year called Human. And before that I had an album out called Mr Controller, which you can still get on iTunes, but that was… well, I do actually like some of the songs on there but when I listen to it now, it sounds like work in progress! It was me trying out different ideas, whereas the stuff I’m doing now is more what I’d view as a finished product. Which is basically as I get more experienced in songwriting and in arranging songs.”[cc_blockquote_right] MY MUM WOULD BE DOING BACKING VOCALS FOR ERIC CLAPTON OR VAN MORRISON [/cc_blockquote_right]
You come from quite a musical background to start with, we believe?
“Well, my Mum’s a singer, and she used to be in a duo with my uncle called Mac & Katie Kissoon… they had a few hits in Germany and Holland. And my grandmother wrote some of the songs, and my Dad was a singer in another duo as well. So yes, a very musical family indeed, actually!
“Which was great as I was growing up, because my Mum would be doing backing vocals for people like Eric Clapton, or Van Morrison, or Roger Waters, and I’d get to go along to rehearsals with her. We’d go down to Air Studios and I particularly remember going to see her rehearse with Eric Clapton, because he had the most amazing drummer – Steve Ferrone, who was in the Average White Band. Later, as I got into my 20s, I’d be listening to some of those same artists and remember seeing them at Air. So it was quite an amazing schooling really.
“That said, it wasn’t really until my late teens, early twenties that I really started writing songs myself. Before that I was just more concentrating on the everyday business of growing up, I guess.”
Can you remember when you wrote your first song?
“Not exactly, but I must have been about 18 or 19, I guess. I couldn’t play any instruments then, so I just kind of hummed a melody and came up with some words to go with it. But then I got my first drum kit, which was my first real musical passion… and then I got a bass guitar as well. Now, I play drums, plus various other percussion, bass, guitar, piano and trumpet.”
And in a nutshell, how did you get from those early steps to where you are now?
“I put some songs on MySpace to start with. And someone liked them and approached me and I signed a management deal, but that didn’t really work out, so I had to kind of have a re-think. Mr Controller was basically the result of that. It was self-released and I played all the instruments, but I had someone helping me with the engineering, production and mix-down… I was still quite green when it comes to the studio side of things at that stage. I’m a lot more confident with all that now.
“Mr Controller was quite a different sound, as well, because it was all programmed beats. Which is cool but I don’t really like programming beats any more – I prefer the sound of a proper live drum kit.”
So how would you describe your sound now?
“It’s fundamentally pop, I’d say, but with an urban feel. And lately, I’ve started to explore a much more melodic side of myself, especially on a song like With Me. I find that if you’ve got a better developed melodic structure, that helps you get your messages across better. Although the flipside of that is that I started as a drummer, so the rhythm and the drums are important, too – they need to complement the song and the emotions that I’m trying to get across.
“So it’s quite emotional and personal I guess, in terms of the lyrics and the emotions, but it’s got a strong rhythmic undercurrent as well. My music’s also a bit less guitar-driven than it used to be, basically because my piano playing has improved! So there’s more of that now, and it’s a bit more ballad-y.”[cc_blockquote_right] IF IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR STEVIE WONDER, IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME! [/cc_blockquote_right]
You spoke before about developing as a songwriter… can you tell us about your approach to it? Is there a particular process that you find works best?
“Well, I’ve experimented with a few techniques over the years but basically for me it all comes down to my digital voice recorder. I carry it around with me everywhere and as bits of pieces of melodies or rhythms come to me, just as I go about my life, I’ll hum them or sing them into the recorder. I’ve got folders on there full of dozens and dozens of different little ideas and snippets! Later on, I’ll sit down and listen back to some of them and find one or two that seem to work… then I’ll pick up a guitar or sit down at the piano and develop a melody, and generally the words will come to me as I work on the melody.
“And then I’ll record a rough demo of the song, and work out the drums around that. So it’s funny, because these days it’s basically melody first, then lyrics, then the drums last of all, whereas it used to be completely the other way around! I’m sure it’ll change again at some point in the future as well. At the moment, what I find is that once I start recording and putting drums on a track, it often takes on a completely different life from what it sounded like acoustically.
“But yeah, it all starts with the dictaphone that goes with me everywhere. Basically because my Mum told me it’s what Stevie Wonder used to do, and if it’s good enough for Stevie Wonder it’s good enough for me!”
Would you describe Stevie Wonder as a major influence, then?
“One of my big influences, for sure. But there are others, like Jamiroquai, at least up to the Synkronized album – King For A Day is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. T. Rex were amazing as well: what I do doesn’t really sound like T. Rex at all but they just really struck a chord with me, songs like Laser Love or 20th Century Boy were just so well-produced and so far ahead of their time. There’s a guy called Stephen Simmonds that I really rate as well. He’s this Swedish R&B artist and he’s a bit off-radar, but I think that’s because he writes these really deep, emotionally heavy songs. I think he deserves to be a massive star but it’s probably a bit much for some people!
“My biggest influence of all though, I’d have to say is Ben Harper… he’s just a legend. He consistently writes amazing songs that are full of emotion and his musicianship is incredible too.”
Speaking of music legends, what was it like working with Guy Chambers? And how did that come about?
“That came about through my Mum, actually – she was doing some backing vocals for Robbie Williams and she gave Guy a CD of some of my tracks. You know what Mums are like! And he was kind enough to listen to it, and he rang me up and gave me some encouragement – just told me to keep at it, basically. And then a bit after that he called me up and asked me was I interested in doing some backing vocals for him?
“So I did, obviously! And yeah, as a producer myself, just getting the chance to watch him work was amazing.”[cc_blockquote_right] MAYBE ONE DAY I’LL WAKE UP AND FIND AN IVOR NOVELLO AWARD IN MY HOUSE [/cc_blockquote_right]
So what comes next?
“Well, the two EPs will be followed by an album, hopefully by the middle of 2013. I haven’t got a title for it yet, I’m still writing and choosing songs for it. But yeah, the album is the big news – again, it’ll be a self-released thing, because that way I have control over it. But I’m also putting a live band together so I can tour the album, because live performance will be a big part of the next stage, too.
“After that, really I just want to carry on writing and recording songs, stretching myself as a songwriter and as an artist, and putting out albums. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll wake up and find an Ivor Novello award in my house – that would be quite nice! But that’s way, way off… I’m still developing at the moment. Like I’ve only really just started playing trumpet and I want to start learning the cello next, I think that would be good for bringing a different texture to my songs. So it’s still early days, really.”
Nonetheless, you’ve already achieved quite a lot! So finally, any advice for songwriters out there who might be really just taking their first steps?
“Just make up your mind to do it, really, and then stick at it. Make that decision that this is what you want to do, and be prepared to the lumps and bumps that go with it. You WILL make mistakes, so it’s always good to get someone else’s feedback on songs – but pick them carefully, and preferably pick someone who’s got experience of songwriting themselves. And you WILL get knock-backs along the way, so be mentally prepared for that. Just develop a tough skin, basically!”
Interview: Russell Deeks
You can hear Seb Stone’s EP Ordinary You below. To find out more, visit his website.