Our friendly songwriting podcasters hear from the Haircut 100-founding songwriter who’s amassed a stack of hits across his 32-year career
He’s been said to have “provided the soundtrack for the 80s” and, if that statement is open to opinion, then his success during that era is not. Having started Haircut 100 – formerly known as Boat Party, Captain Pennyworth and Moving England – with school friends Graham Jones and Les Nemes, new wave songwriter Nick Heyward would release only one album with the band, 1982’s UK No 2 Pelican West, but released some of the eras most memorable singles, including Fantastic Day. After leaving the band because of struggles with stress and depression, Heyward then embarked on a solo career that has lasted 32 years and counting.
During his solo career, Nick has released a UK Top 10 album (1983’s North Of A Miracle), a slew of successful singles (including the excellent Blue Hat For A Blue Day) and played alongside some of the early-mid 90s most recognisable names, with The Lemonheads, Mazzy Star and Therapy? among those he’s shared the stage with.
Our friends at Sodajerker caught up with Nick and found that he’s a songwriter who remembers the joy of being excited by chords.
Would you say that your songwriting process has changed over the years?
“The songs I’ve been working on most recently are like how I’ve always done things. If you have a band it’s a lot easier, you don’t have to do all the bits. I’m really a frustrated bass player, so I look forward to playing the bass. When you’re in a band, if you say, ‘I think the drums should sound like this,’ you might get hit! So you don’t say stuff, you just do it, which is really nice. I never had to even speak to Blair Cunningham – drummer in Haircut 100 – he just plays brilliant stuff; I don’t need to speak to Les Nemes because he comes up with great melodic baselines; Graham [Jones] is just playing stuff and weaving like a skylark. Then you chose your bird; whether you’re going to be some kind of a hawk, or a songbird. And then there’s the bird you think you’re going to be, because you’ve been listening to, say Shearwater, and then you play and you’re nothing like that.”
[cc_blockquote_right] MAYBE I’LL DO A CONCEPT ALBUM ONE DAY AND CALL IT THE BEATLES BAG ALBUM! [/cc_blockquote_right] How do you typically start when you’re developing your ideas for songs?
“I have to have something to capture it with, which is why the phone is brilliant – it’s got a date and you can file the idea away and put a title on it straight away. That’s so good, because I’ve got rooms and rooms filled with cassettes, bags of them – I don’t know what’s on them. I got a Beatles bag and in there are my special cassettes, and I’m going to go through them one day. I thought that, if you wanted to start a band and be like The Beatles, these were the good songs. I was going to use them on my latest album but I didn’t. Maybe I’ll do a concept album one day and call it ‘The Beatles bag album’! But when you’re writing you have to trust the process, you’ve got to step away from yourself and not be too conscious about this stuff. You’re not putting it together really, it’s just being flung together. And I’m really pleased with whoever’s putting this together, thank you!”
So many of your songs have such huge choruses and we’re always enchanted by your sense of melody. Where do you find the melody?
“Oh, thanks! Blue Hat For A Blue Day was a title for a long time and I thought I’ve got to write a song for that. Then I discovered the little D rundown. I’d worked with Geoff Emerick for a few days and that was so inspiring that I remember going off and imagining that I was in The Beatles. I remember thinking, ‘That’s it, I’m in The Beatles. So what would John Lennon go home and write right now?’ So Blue Hat For A Blue Day came out of knowing that I had a really good title, to then writing some music and knowing that I’d been inspired by working with Geoff Emerick. I remember going to do a demo and it just worked as a song. That’s when I’d started to use demo studios. I fancied myself as a bit of a drummer as well – I knew I didn’t want to play on the records, but I was having fun crafting the records.”
Is it right that you were about 15 or 16 years old when you wrote Fantastic Day?
“Yeah, it was just by having C, G and D and then adding the F in – they’re the chords of the song. That was written playing up against a brown wall that had punk band names written on it, on a box amp, just playing over and over again.”
So when you wrote Fantastic Day it wasn’t necessarily in the same style that we would know?
[cc_blockquote_right] I WAS A BIT ENVIOUS OF OTHER BANDS WHERE THEY GOT ON [/cc_blockquote_right] “It’s a little punkier, you can play it like that, like uptempo Housemartins or something.”
Where did Haircut 100’s sense of groove come from?
“Blair Cunningham. And Marc Fox. Graham and I weave together guitar-wise and Graham and Marc were superb around that area. If Graham and I were birds then these guys were warthogs! They were magnificent, and we were so proud. When we were touring America, we were just getting better and better. You’d sit back to Blair doing the sound check and he’d be like that and then in the gig he’d be impressive, he’s such a natural. And Marc’s the same, he’s played on so many people’s stuff – I think he plays on Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn. If you want your stuff to get tighter and want that stuff on it that immediately makes it a pop record… It’s brilliant tambourine and it’s brilliant cabasa, it’s like icing on a cake! They worked so well together.
“If bands just home in on what they do well and continue doing that, they’re magical things. It’s funny because they’re not great to be in sometimes – I was a bit envious of other bands where they got on. That was the trouble with our band; nobody really spoke up about anything, so there was just seething.”
Love Plus One is quite a guitar centric song. Did you write it on the guitar and then bring it to the band?
“Yeah, I remember taking it round to Les – he was my first port of call on that song and he played an F note, but took the E off. We played around on it for ages and were just really enthusiastic about it. I’m there thinking ‘I’m David Byrne going round to Tina Weymouth’s’ and just getting really excited about chords – you don’t do that when you’re an older man, when you’re younger you get really excited about chords – and we just played around with it for ages.
“We’ve got early demos of that song when we did it and I never thought any of those songs were ever going to be singles, they were just kind of bits of music. I definitely think Bob Sargeant had a lot to do with crafting them into pop records. Because a lot of these bands like The Beat, Haircut 100, were just club bands playing music, you didn’t do slow stuff because people would probably walk out – you’d wanna get people dancing, enthusing, that’s what you did. I remember watching Joy Division and they didn’t play a load of ballads or slow songs, it was just…energy. So that’s what you looked at and, when you got the chance to be on that moonlight stage, you wanted to do that too. That’s what you were doing, you were raw.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have 80 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Lamont Dozier, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts –including the full 45 minute-long interview with Nick Heyward – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.