Conversation with Steve Nieve
by Paul Avion
I don’t claim to be an expert on music, although I used to enjoy writing songs. I know I cried when I heard Lou Reed passed on, though I never met him personally. I know an album like ToGetHer by songwriter Steve Nieve, also Elvis Costello’s legendary keyboardist, is something to get excited about. And Vanessa Paradis’ involvement is yet another example of how music and fashion come together in inventive, always surprising ways.
In terms of lineup, the phrase “all-star” draws the quickest sketch. ToGetHer includes an array of talent including Elvis Costello, Sting, Laurie Anderson, Vanessa Paradis, Ron Sexsmith, Glenn Tilbrook, Joe Sumner, Harper Simon, and Tall Ulysse, among others.
It’s a bold, fun album that — like Steve Nieve’s opera Welcome to the Voice with Muriel Teodorio — is all about discoveries beyond the comfort zone.
Steve: While working on the opera Welcome to the Voice — the strange and unique jigsaw puzzle I composed with Muriel Teodori — we realised how much we loved the duets.
I recommend to you the last track, “Unlikely Duet” with Barbara Bonney, one of the world’s most beautiful sopranos, singing with Sting. This led me to go further, compose with different friends in mind and to go inside their different genres to explore how certain juxtapositions might build into a coherent, modern song cycle. And how much more interesting than to work alone!
This led me to go further, compose with different friends in mind and to go inside their different genres.
It took a long time to achieve, finding the good moment to mix so many of the killer voices I’d already encountered on my musical path. I decided on ToGetHer to build a sort of bridge between all the great artists I’d already had the pleasure to work with previously. So there are many links that bond the music and the writing and the recording of this allbum.
Q: The title ToGetHer obviously has contrapuntal meanings: “ToGetHer” being two people in union, and “to get her” implying quite the opposite: some period of yearning before or after such a union. What was the inspiration behind the title, if you care to share?
Steve: The first album of songs was Mumu, dedicated to my love Muriel. This new album began code-named Mumu Too, then it became 2Gether when the duet aspect took hold. And finally my friend Dominique Quessada, philosopher, author of L’Insepare came up with the idea of ToGetHer, which is beautiful, because it returns to the idea of desire, the desire to seduce someone, which is the only reason to make music, or to do anything on purpose.
Thinking about 2. Joe Sumner and Glenn Tilbrook sing on two tracks of the record. I met Glenn when I was fifteen, before Squeeze was baptised Squeeze, and that was the beginning of unclassical music for me. That’s why I am so happy he sang with me on “Nostalgia”. He immediately knew how to add his voice into the chorus “I do not miss you at all” and it really belongs there. And some of the song ideas are in pairs, like “Up” and “Vertigo” or “Burn the Past” and “Nostalgia”.
I met Glenn before Squeeze was baptized Squeeze, and that was the beginning of unclassical music for me.
Q: “You Lie Sweetly” also has a possible double meaning: picturing a lover in repose, or a bitter observation that one’s lover is lying. It reminds me of some of the wordplay from your old bandmate Elvis Costello. (“No many how many foreign bodies you can take,” from “You’ll Never Be a Man” — where your classical piano figure is so prominent — implying both a string of lovers or substance abuse as ways to prove manhood.) Did some of his wordplay inspire some of the wordplay and double meanings of ToGetHer?
Steve: You guessed correctly, “You Lie Sweetly” is my music, and my lifelong friend Elvis composed words on it. It was tricky, he told me, being so short a song with very short phrases. He did such a brilliant text, and yes he is the king of double entendre. Sting sings this composition in a longing, poignant voice; his interpretation recalls the tone of his Dowland lute album, and enhances the classical style of composition.
Elvis, since I was eighteen, has been a constant inspiration, not only because of his incessantly complex and demanding texts, but also because his melodies are always so interesting, a strong music that constantly takes surprising turns; he never goes where you expect.
Elvis wrote the words of “You Lie Sweetly,” and Sting sang.
I think I’m unable to match this fearless quality [Elvis] has. Although I have been part of his music, working with him now for over thirty years together, when I approach my music, I deliberately research something more fragile, less self assured. I think our different temperaments when we work together compliment each other because we have certain contrasts, and I certainly would never try to emulate his genius for wordplay.
I think I’m unable to match this fearless quality [Elvis] has.
I’m a great admirer of many different lyric writers, the very minimalist lyric writing of Eno, certain French songwriters like Alain Souchon, the wordplay of Alain Bashung. Lyrics to me are the most important aspect of a song, above the music certainly. And Elvis has been a close companion since my musical adventure began.
I’m a great admirer of many different lyric writers, the very minimalist lyric writing of Eno, certain French songwriters like Alain Souchon, the wordplay of Alain Bashung.
Q: There’s such sadness in this album. “Halloween (Bonfire Night)” is a particularly touching track. The lyrics are amazing. And such a heartbreakingly beautiful melody. Everyone should hear it.
Steve: Well, when Muriel and I produced the first workshop version of Welcome to the Voice, Ron played the part of the Friend (which, on the Deutsche Gramaphon recording, Robert Wyatt interpreted for us).
These two men are such beautiful singers, voices of velvet and silk; they have jazz deep in their bones. The way they phrase is so cool, it’s very interesting. They place the notes in the bar, in such a sexy laid-back rhythm, it would be challenging to notate exactly. I hope there will be future projects that bring me back to work again with Robert and Ron. Check out “Happiness” on Welcome to the Voice.
Ron and Robert are such beautiful singers, voices of velvet and silk; they have jazz deep in their bones.
Q: I’m a huge Robert Wyatt fan. I think he’s what many artists would like to be, but fall short: someone who truly creates art for its own sake, and as such is able to explore anything, break every rule, with a kind of fearless aplomb. Likewise, you tackle almost every genre conceivable on this album. What was it like working with him? And what’s your feeling about the line between commercialism and art?
Steve: It’s always fascinating working with Robert because he is so smart, and speaks enthusiastically about everything in a thought-provoking way. He’s a rascal, and a prince, and he has such an ear for music, and working with him is like working with a Master composer. His melodies are truly original and unbelievable: take “Maryan”, how did he find that?
He is like Ravel, very complex; a brilliant arranger, too. Then his lyrics, I’m always completely blown away by Robert’s texts like “So when I say that I know me, how can I know that? What kind of spider understands arachnophobia? I have my senses and my sense of having senses. Do I guide them? Or they me?” Just reading it brings tears to your eyes, let alone hearing him sing it.
Wyatt is like Ravel, very complex; a brilliant arranger, too.
Commercialism and art? I recently attended a vernissage of Pete Doherty, who arrived to sing a few songs at the Gallery on the shabby outskirts of Paris, dressed in a Russian Red Army uniform. He created some blood paintings, using the blood of Amy Winehouse. 20,000 euros apiece. I leave you to tell me the limit between commerce and art?
Blood paintings, using the blood of Amy Winehouse, 20,000 euros apiece.
Q: Now let’s talk about your collaboration with Vanessa Paradis. How did that collaboration come about, and what was it like working with her?
Steve: I met Vanessa when she released her record Bliss, and I worked as her musical director for the touring behind that album.
Benmont Tench played most of the keys on that record; Vanessa’s music is very keyboard-orientated, so I had my work cut out for me. We’ve stayed friends ever since.
Vanessa is a superb actress; recently she’s done some of her finest work and is on an ascending peak.
She was extraordinary in Cafe de Flore, and her Jacqueline is the incarnation of a perfect love, from total generosity, to utter selfishness — a tour de force.
Vanessa is a superb actress; recently she’s done some of her finest work and is on an ascending peak.
Writing “Conversation” for her was necessary for me, because I am terribly shy; it looks like such good fun when people are discussing, why, for me is it like rafting down rapids?
If you want the excitement, you have to risk the danger factor. It was the first duet I recorded on ToGetHer, and thanks to Vanessa’s determination to sing that song with me, the ToGetHer journey began, and the album steered its own course.
Vanessa put all her energy into singing that lyric with me, her elegance and grace, and I would love a DJ to do a remix with just her voice singing.
If you want the excitement, you have to risk the danger factor.
Q: “Save The World” was a collaboration with French-based artist Tall Ulysse. Is the song a refutation of those who would save the world, or does it contain a message of support? I volunteered in the slums of Kenya and still sponsor four kids there, so I know from experience that there’s often a painfully disappointing divide between idealism and the harsh realities of trying to help others.
Steve: There is a feeling of irony in the “no doubt” because I can’t help but doubt, seeing the disastrous mistakes that big corporations continue to inflict on people and on nature, greedily, just to make money. It’s an awkward subject for a song. I was impressed by an interview of Robert Wyatt where he was saying, we can’t do anything except bear witness to it all. I was also moved by Tall’s powerful heroic anthemic rock music. He added some exciting harmony lines to “Save the World” … our voices blend so well.
Tall Ulysse played all the drums on ToGetHer; I like the fluidity of his style, which goes really well with my playing. We played many times in duo, piano and drums, and I know we will continue to make music together. I want to work with young people. Some of the best moments of this record for me have been discovering new music and fresh ideas with Harper Simon, Tall Ulysse and Joe Sumner. Kids of the eighties have a different musical viewpoint than someone like me, and that’s really interesting and invigorating.
Some of the best moments of this record for me have been discovering new music and fresh ideas with Harper Simon, Tall Ulysse and Joe Sumner.
Q: There’s so much to try and canvas in the scope of this interview. What else can you tell us? What’s next? Touring? Rest? Another album?
Steve: Unlikely Production. Certainly, Muriel Teodori deserves a lot of credit for this album. She is a force of nature, a person who brings out the best in others, who thrives on collaborations with different artists, has an understanding of music that constantly inspires, she sings great, and she knows everything about everything.
Her brain is a wonder of the universe and is constantly steering me into all kinds of adventures. She is the mother of all muses, my Mnemosyne, and it’s for sure that the two records I’m most proud of Welcome to the Voice and ToGetHer are Muriel Teodori records. I can’t wait; my life is an ongoing project, with her.
Muriel is the mother of all muses, my Mnemosyne.
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