Interview with Peter Conway
Peter Conway has delivered a stunning album with ‘Stay’ (current FolkWords Album of the Month) so it seemed only right to track him down and ask about the album.
FW: Tell us about the genesis of ‘Stay’ – how did the album come about?
PC: “I separated from my music management company about a year before and was in a place where I was trying not so much to find myself by going out but to find me looking within. I had a burning desire to go to Nashville. I hadn’t read anything about it, heard a lot about it or seen a specific programme. It was just a voice inside me that said I should go to Nashville, to go on a trip and take on an adventure.”
“All the music I had written up to then was autobiographical either literal or invented, and I felt like I wanted to write with other people and go on a journey. Can’t tell you any more than that. So the idea was to work with this producer/ arranger and write a set of songs.”
“I got the trip arranged and went out to Nashville to work with this one particular producer and arranger who could possibly write and record an album with me. When I got there he was simply too busy to work with me. He was really sorry but an existing project had over-run and that was that. I went back to the hotel a touch disappointed - I’d travelled 5,000 miles to meet this one guy and now that’s not happening. So there I was in a small motel not knowing anybody and with seemingly nothing to do for two weeks.”
FW: You’re far from home and not knowing anyone – hardly a good start.
PC: “No absolutely not. So I sent an email to a guy I knew who had believed in my voice and my writing up to that point. He was in New York but he replied and told me not worry that he would send me an itinerary every day of different people to write with and tell me where to meet them to set up writing sessions. So I thought that’s good enough for me.”
FW: So now you’re writing with people you don’t know and travelling all over the place.
PC: “Pretty much that’s it. I woke up each morning, and there would be an email saying get a cab to here you’ve got a writing session with this person, in the afternoon go there you’ve got another session with this person. I didn’t know anyone I was writing with – none of it was pre-organised, it only happened because the other plan fell through. None of the people I was writing with had ever heard of me, they didn’t know my music or style, hadn’t heard my voice, it was all unknown for everyone.”
“It’s important here to tell you about the main reason I wanted to experience this trip. I wanted to write more than songs. I wanted them to be ‘keys’ to unlock something in someone’s emotional heart or psyche. Even though a song in its finished entity is like a crystalline, finished form that’s ‘locked,’ in its essence it can be organic and live on in another person. Great songs that I love have so much depth at so many levels that they take on an entire life inside you and inside other people that hear and love them. When you’re a songwriter every song has that effect on you to a certain extent because you go through a cathartic experience writing them, but do they have an effect on other people?”
FW: That’s something that must be impossible to know – how songs affect other people.
PC: “True, but previously most of my songs were autobiographical. This time I was writing in part as a healing process for myself but I also wanted to write songs that would be for everyone. Now that’s a wide statement. Not everyone is going to like what you do. I wasn’t trying to ‘please’ everyone, the songs weren’t coming from that place. They had a wider purpose.”
FW: When a song leaves you it may evolve inside someone and become something other than as you intended.
PC: “Absolutely. You have no control on how people interpret your songs. The intention this time for me was to write songs that would unlock peoples’ hearts and minds, and mean something to them. I’ve been writing songs for nearly 20 years. Obviously I’ve gone through many changes in my writing but as a songwriter that was the journey I had to go on.”
FW: Do you think the songs on ‘Stay’ would have existed without this interaction with other writers?
PC: “Yes, they would have existed but perhaps in slightly different forms. It’s a little like if someone says: ‘You wouldn’t have done that or been there but for me.’ Well the answer for me is: ‘Yes I would, because that’s where my life was heading.’ However, that someone may have been a catalyst. Being there at that moment in time, yet at the same time the song would have eventually formed itself. Everyone meets someone for a reason – the people I worked with in Nashville were there because they were meant to be, and that’s not to take any credit whatsoever from them.”
FW: How did these unplanned writing sessions pan out?
PC: “The first song I wrote was ‘Found My Faith In You’ and that was another ‘experience’. I was scheduled to meet with well-known wordsmith Tyler Hayes but she couldn’t make it so she forwarded my email to Andrew Fromm a songwriter living in the Nashville area, and I was asked to go there. When I met him on his wall were all these platinum disc but all for pop songs – now I have no problem with pop songs and if you strip out some of the ‘neon and bubblegum’ effects and reduced down to acoustic guitar, bass and drums you could have a great song on your hands. So no judgement from me.”
“I set out with the intention to write meaningful yet fictional songs with emotions based in fact. I wanted to write about everyone’s journey. To weave the songs that way. The emotion would be 100% real, the story real in terms of the emotion but with characters created to tell that story – does that makes any sense?”
FW: Yes it does. So how did it go?
PC: “I started off by telling Andrew about my objectives and he asked what sort of song I wanted to write. I told him that we should go to bed tonight feeling so happy with the song we had written. I wanted it to be so clear in its lyric and melody structure to unlock the doors inside of us – emotionally and psychologically. It had to be so clear in its lyrics that it was translatable into meaning for everyone. Again, you can’t please everyone all the time but I wanted to write songs that would become those special ‘keys’.”
“Remember I said that inspiration behind ‘Stay’ came from a series of visions that I had, well one of them was at his house. On the mantelpiece was a picture of him and Tom Hanks and the minute I saw that image I had these vivid images in my mind. I saw Tom Hanks as a character standing on a harbour looking over the water, a cross-fade showed an aircraft and looking out the window was Sharon Stone. I immediately I saw the entire story in a flash – their friendship, his marriage, having kids, being soul-mates, her being the lover that broke up his marriage and his son disowning him because of their relationship. It’s so hard to explain how vivid the vision was, it just exploded in front of me. So I said to Andrew, I know what this song is going to be about and told him the story.”
FW: So the basis of the songs are a set of these highly detailed visions?
PC: “I don’t know if Andrew will remember that but it worked for us to write that way. With ‘Found My Faith In You’ he sat down, played a chord and sang the line: ‘I guess I’ve found a new religion.’ I caught up with him on the acoustic guitar and followed up with the line: ‘God’s made an incision and breathed me back to life’. So we went on that way line after line.”
“We’d only written about half of it when Tyler became available. We started working together and she was giving me lyrics that were fine but not ‘dark’ enough. I explained that my Tom Hanks character had found his faith in the Sharon Stone character and reached the point in his life where he understood that. Then we came up with the lines about angels having doubts and that broke through. Angels are supposed to be these divine beings, the pinnacle of belief and what happens if they have doubts. Then we found the line: ‘If all the angels stopped believing I still wouldn’t have a doubt.’ That’s an example of the intensity going on in these sessions.”
FW: Can we talk about the quality of the Peter Conway voice? Where does the vocal depth come from?
PC: “A lot of people ask me that. I just love music. I keep singing, playing and writing. Over the years my voice has evolved as I grew as a singer I found myself singing from different parts of my body. Singing was doing different things to me and coming from different places. It’s as though I sing through my experiences. Life has been shaping my voice, it’s how I react to experience, it’s like something is moulding my voice.”
“I actually felt that when I’d made ‘Stay’ I went within myself and found my voiceprint. Up until that point on was on a journey to find that voiceprint and with ‘Stay’ I found it. I still believe that my voice will continue to develop, it’s on a journey. With ‘Stay’ there’s a feeling of coming home and how my voice changes from here will be moving on from that place.”
FW: On ‘Stay’ there’s a step-change within the album – deliberate or not?
PC: “I spent months getting the songs in order. Some things that people might see as insignificant I’ve spent a long time getting just right. In the past I’ve had record and management companies choosing for me but this album is all down to me. Choosing the track listing is so important. I worked with Jon Astley to master the album, he told me to put the album in order because he wanted to master it in order rather than just generic, and then come into the studio while he did it. I spent many nights with the stereo low and the loudspeakers right next to me until the order just came – it was a feeling inside that felt just right. It felt just like it had to be.”
FW: Does the album say what you wanted to say?
“I co-wrote eight of the songs on the album in Nashville with different writers and wrote the others myself when I returned to London, except 'Lonely Tears, which I had written myself years before. 'Call Out Across America' is the most personal and autobiographical song on the album, that speaks of me realising my dreams in the face of adversity and others opinions of me as an artist. It also reflects the desire I have as an artist for 'Stay' to unlock peoples' hearts so that more love can rush in and surround their lives with love and light."
"The main thing is that 'Stay' is a love story....it's a love album...a concept love story about the choices we make and where they lead us. If you listen to that voice inside, that voice from your spirit; it will only ever guide you to a natural magic that will shine a light on your life and the lives around you. It's really a modern-day fairytale, that's the message of 'Stay'."
FW: Is it fair to say that ‘Hey Johnny’ bears more than a nodding relationship to a Springsteen song?
PC: “There’s a grain or two of truth in that statement. Without being it being a throwback or emulating it is something of an homage to ‘Born To Run’. I said that to Angus when we were mixing it. When we recorded ‘Stay’ it was recorded to make sure everything was captured as 'real' as possible."
"Specific EQs were used in the mixing stage - I spent months meditating on the panorama of the mix until I had a 'sonic vision' of how it should be mixed and where each instrument would feature in relation to everything else, as well as directly channeling what would be the right mix in the mixing sessions, which was unique for each song. Not to change the sound, but rather to support and and bring out the natural sounds that were captured in the recording process and bring out the emotion and spirit of the song in the mix. I wanted everything to sound as natural and raw as recorded, if not it’s not real.”
FW: So your live performances are the same as the album?
PC: “Yes, it’s obviously more raw and lively. Sometimes I do things with my voice that’s not on the album because that’s what’s moving through me at the moment. The music may not be as full at a live gig because I may not have all the musicians with me. There are natural differences but the songs transfer really well and people have said that. I also do acoustic guitar-only gigs and play stripped version of a song and because of that I might put another slant on a song. When they're listening to the album I want people to close their eyes and feel as if it’s a live band. I want it to retain the earthy, raw feel. "
FW: What’s the next step?
PC: I have a plan bubbling away, which I cannot reveal right now but watch this space. I hope the plan takes ‘Stay’ to a wider audience.
FW: Peter, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you about ‘Stay’. Thank you.
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