The scene is a drab department store record section in the suburbs of Toronto, 1983. I am fourteen. Things weren’t great at home for me by this point; something was up between my parents that didn’t bode well for their future together. In the meantime, a song called “Whistle Down the Wind” by former Haircut 100 frontman Nick Heyward was on the radio. I loved it. It seemed sad, but kind of nostalgic and restful at the same time.
In that department store, I held the album off of which the song came, North of a Miracle. The cover depicted Heyward looking skyward from a darkened room into the light above him with a half-smile on his face, seeming to know something I didn’t. Once I got it home, I spun this album A LOT, characterized as it is by the effervescent pop sound to which I’d always gravitated, but containing narratives and images in the lyrics that seemed to reveal hurt, brokenness, loss, even with all of the funky rhythm guitars, lyrical piano, smooth fretless bass, soaring strings, and happy brass that framed them. It suited my state of mind perfectly. It spoke to my teenaged soul. The album is an enduring release of its time and transcending that era, too. It’s an engaging, warm-sounding record about feeling cold and disconnected, which are themes that also endure.
Thanks to various social media channels, I got a chance to connect with Nick Heyward and to ask him about North of a Miracle, his debut as a solo artist. How did this record come about for him, coming as it was out of a turbulent time in his own life? How was it made? Where does it sit in his own artistic world now? Here’s what he told me.
North of A Miracle was your solo debut and coming out of some pretty tumultuous experiences for you in leaving Haircut 100 and struggling with exhaustion and depression. How did you find the emotional space to write these songs, and how did your experiences at the time influence the way you approached planning and recording your first solo record?
It was a tumultuous time. But sometimes, the best things come out of times like that. During this period, there wasn’t much awareness of mental health issues, and I would say to Les (Nemes, bass player from Haircut 100) “Do you ever just feel bad, or depressed or not comfortable in your own shoes?” and not be able to really express what I was feeling. It was hard to communicate then. Also, by then, the band had split into three segments, and I got to the point that I didn’t want to go into the studio with them. When I did, it wasn’t clear what my role was. What should I do? Merch? (laughs).
I became friends with an A&R guy at Arista who understood where my mind was at. He booked Air Studios and we eventually recorded the songs for North of a Miracle there and in Abbey Road studios, too. The sound we got on the record was where I thought Haircut 100 should go. I wanted to get to another level, and at the time the band wanted to stay where they had gone for Pelican West. At the time, I was just discovering that I could go in a different direction. I could ask about various instruments and get a French horn sound that I’d heard on a Beatles record if I wanted. It was within reach.
Speaking of Beatles, Geoff Emerick adds his signature clean and lush approach to the record. How did his involvement in the record come about and how do you feel his work influenced the way you achieved its overall sound?
I had heard “Town Cryer” on Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom album which Geoff produced and thought it was absolutely beautiful. That was the sound that I wanted, and I knew Geoff Emerick was the person I wanted to work with to get it. When I was in Air Studios, he was recording Paul McCartney’s Tug of War album. He’d walk by and I’d think “huh …” knowing it was time to make a connection with him. We cut “Whistle Down the Wind” from there. I was very bold. That’s what you have to do to get where you want to go — be bold and make a point of asking.
Working with Geoff, he was a wizard. This is a guy who really knew his onions when it comes to getting the right sound based on feel and not on a grid which is a way that many records are made now. For (opening track) “When It Started to Begin”, that song was edited together in just that way, based on a vibe. When he’d record a part, it was the best possible sound — an acoustic guitar, brass, what-have-you. When I was working with him, I had to set aside the fact that he made my favourite pop record of all time, “Penny Lane”. He made that! He helped to fit all of the pieces together. I had this line I wanted to get onto the album somewhere, “the common touch of loving you”. It wouldn’t fit. We tried it on “Blue Hat For A Blue Day” and other songs. Finally, we got it in on “The Kick of Love” (laughs). He helped to put the pieces together on that, too!
On my new record, I wanted to work with Geoff again to get that same sound. Not long ago, a memory of him resurfaced. He was laughing about a man he nicknamed Bits Dangling because he had a face like a dog’s testicles! So there I was, sitting on my sofa laughing at the thought of Geoff laughing and later that night I read that he’d died. There’s a lesson there to reach out to people right now and continue to be bold.
“Whistle Down the Wind” remains to be a stand-out cut, kind of living somewhere between contentment and weariness.
I had earlier versions of “Whistle Down the Wind” under different titles, and we recorded a Peel session that featured an early version of that. I approached writing it as a younger person thinking in black and white. I think the melancholy just came naturally out of that. I grew up with English pessimism, and life at school where I grew up in South London was very grim. It was a grim time at the end of the Seventies in general. The pessimism is just a part of the English psychology. Nowadays, I know that I can change that mindset. Back then, it came out because I wasn’t as aware of it as I am now. Life was crumbling around me at the time I wrote that song and it came out in the writing. I had always been a sensitive person, and sometimes I didn’t want to be. But it was very good for the writing.
When I was at Air Studios where Paul McCartney was recording his Tug of War album with Geoff, I played Paul “Whistle Down the Wind” off tape while I had my red Gretsch on my lap. Then, I asked him about proper way to play “Ticket to Ride”. So, he showed me that and a few others. Holy fucking fantastic moment!
You had some heavy hitters instrumentally on this record including Steve Nieve on piano, Paul Buckmaster doing the string arrangements. How did you make those connections, and what are some of your thoughts on what these musicians and others brought to the arrangements?
The Paul Buckmaster connection was made during the Haircut 100 period, and I loved his work with Elton John. Steve Nieve was in the studio recording Punch the Clock with Elvis Costello. So he was just around. Geoff suggested him because he loved working with Steve. So, he approached Steve as I was too shy. I could hardly speak to Elvis Costello when I met him. My Aim is True, Armed Forces, and the then ever-present Imperial Bedroom were all music that had broken my heart. Meeting Steve, the man who’d made “Oliver’s Army” sound like ABBA, and played the Vox Super Continental (with Roland EP 30 on top) on all those brilliant songs and fantastic TV performances was way too much for me to handle!
Meeting him was lovely though. Nice man; relaxed with a dash of the surreal painter about him. Geoff said, “You’ve got to see how he works, it’s amazing.” First few run throughs of the song were like a kid on a piano playing with every key they could find like they were imagining they were Mozart. The third take was Mozart. All perfectly placed. That was “Take That Situation”. He nailed it all on take three. Pure genius, Steve Nieve. I was gobsmacked. Geoff was chuckling in his chair like he did. Geoff loved to giggle. He was deadly serious one minute and like a mischievous classmate the next.
There is an amalgam of styles on the album, from Northern soul, to jazz, to funk, to 60s orchestral pop to The Beatles, often on the same song. A lot of that same synthesis can be heard on Pelican West with Haircut 100. But here it sounds more sophisticated and ambitious. What were some of the forces that helped guide the styles and textures listeners can hear on NoaM?
My first concert was Ray Charles and Oscar Peterson on the same bill. I loved the fluidity of the music and jazz was a big part of my early musical experiences. Apart from that, Bowie, Marc Bolan, Argent, and other music of the early Seventies era that came out of my brother’s room. Then punk came along, and later ska, and the funk scene and I felt like I wanted to be a part of all of those waves. In my earlier days, I couldn’t have put it all together. But when I began to play my own music, it began to happen. I was absorbing the styles and trends of the time.
You’ve been an active musician and songwriter well past this debut. Is there a single thread to follow all the way through your career, or do you think of each record as a stand-alone statement of where you were at the time?
The common thread is just to keep going. Just to keep moving forward and keep doing it, creatively. I recently watched Rocketman, the movie about Elton John, and was amazed and touched, particularly during the songwriting scenes. They were trying to get somewhere in writing those songs. The same with Burt Bacharach. Andy Partridge (of XTC) gave me this book about him that I’ve just finished. He was trying to reach new levels all the time.
Also, I love the idea of creating a world for listeners to live in, to get away from the mundane and into a more colourful world for a while.
Right now, Nick is doing shows in the UK as a trio. He’s also recording tracks for an upcoming album made in the same spirit and with the same approach he used to make North of a Miracle.
To learn more about Nick and his more recent projects, visit nickheyward.com