Interview With John Holden
With the release of Circles In Time in February 2021, John Holden presents a third album within a time period of only three years. Since his two former albums were very positively reviewed on this site, it seemed a good idea to try to learn more of this multi-instrumentalist who suddenly appeared in the prog scene. Right from his very first appearance with debut album Capture Light in 2018 he worked together with highly renowned artists like Billy Sherwood, Nick D'Virgilio, Jon Camp and Jean Pageau. DPRP.net's Theo Verstrael ended up having a fine video chat with this very nice guy on a cold January afternoon and hearing quite some interesting details about his way of working, Egyptology, serendipity, and future plans.
Hi John, thank you very much for taking time to talk to DPRP.net. And congratulations on your new album, another very nice one!
Thank you, it's my pleasure. Thanks for the compliment! It's always nice to talk to people who really listen to the music and want to delve into that. Unfortunately, that is definitely not always the case.
There is a lot to talk about so let's start with your arrival in the music scene only three years ago. Your 2018 debut album Capture Light came as a surprise to many music listeners, myself included. Looking at the list of guest musicians on that album, amongst which are quite a few very renowned prog musicians, you must have been around in the prog scene for a while. How did you become acquainted with all these musicians?
It's true a lot of people thought I had been on the scene for a long time - hiding in the shadows - but that is not the case. I played and created music as a hobby and just for fun.
It was only when I decided that it would be good to focus on trying to record something for others to hear that I began to take things seriously. At the time (2016) I was just creating music on my own. My wife Libby suggested that maybe I should join social media and contact other local musicians. However, I wondered what would happen if I approached some known, professional musicians whose playing I admired.
I decided I had nothing to lose, so the first person I contacted was Billy Sherwood, initially to seek production advice. One of my main goals being that my music had to sound as professional as it could. Those conversations lead to him offering to play on a few of the songs. Part of that was luck, being the right person at the right time. An example; on Crimson Sky he replayed my guitar solo which had taken me months to learn and did it much better.
I really paid attention in detail to what he advised production wise and learnt an awful lot. With Billy on board, I suddenly had an air of credibility and that made it easier to attract other musicians. Things snowballed from there and I kept adding people to the project. I was surprised and delighted that all these famous musicians wanted to be involved.
Your debut album received numerous positive reviews and high rankings in many media. Did those reviews bring about you immediately starting to record the second album, Rise And fall, which also met rave reviews, including a warm recommendation by a certain Mr. Steve Hackett? Or had you already planned to release that album?
The response to Capture Light was amazing! I originally made a limited number of CDs thinking I would be lucky to sell a few hundred, but those quickly sold out and I had to produce a lot more to keep up with demand.
I had finished recording Capture Light in the fall of 2017. I spent the rest of that year mixing and, with the help of Robin Armstrong, getting the production sounding as pristine as possible. I then started sending out review copies. Suddenly I was getting requests for interviews and found that all my time was spent promoting the release. When that phase came to an end it was the Summer of 2018 and I realised I had not picked up an instrument in nine months!
It was only then that I considered creating what would be the follow up. For Rise And Fall I was much more confident about the whole process and the reviews, sales and positive feedback were very encouraging. I was able to bring in new musicians and previous collaborators were also very keen to be involved.
The music on both preceding albums is eclectic, with a wide variety in melody, mood and instrumentation. That may be a strong indication that your musical taste is wide ranging too. What (prog) music has been a major influence for you?
I got into Prog at the age of twelve. I was a massive Yes fan devouring all their music. I listened almost exclusively to Prog music for quite a few years. In the eighties Prog music was almost non-existent and bands like Yes and Genesis moved into a more commercial place. I started to listen to all sorts of music. To me there is only 'good or 'bad' music regardless of genre. I can enjoy a great pop song or a piece of classical music. That is why you will find many different approaches and styles in my songs. At the heart of my compositions there is a Prog sensibility. It has to be interesting and have some musical depth.
You play quite a few instruments, yet you invite a lot of other musicians to play parts of the music. What is the main reason behind that?
That is simple. They are better than me!
I am an all-rounder. When I started recording the first album I would spend forever learning and practicing parts. Then I would get a part sent to me and it blew mine out of the water! I am lucky to work with world class players and I think it would be stupid not to use their amazing talents. What matters most to me is making the songs as good as they can be. So, when I put my producers hat on, if someone else's part is better than my original then I have no concerns about using that.
Another factor is that I always encourage collaborators to use their own creative expression so they will sometimes send me something unexpected. I may then rearrange the piece to incorporate and expand their idea.
And now, within three years, your third album entitled Circles in Time, is about to be released, again with an impressive list of guest musicians. Never change a winning strategy! Has the current pandemic been instrumental in the sense that you had more time to write and record than would have been the case if things hadn't been impacted by Covid-19?
Absolutely. I was lucky that I had some new recording equipment arrive the day before we went into lockdown in March 2020. I started recording soon after. My original thought was to have a release ready by the end of 2021. Because work had dried up due to the pandemic, there was unexpected time available. I could spend ten hours a day composing and creating new music.
Normally I would have to coordinate and wait for other musicians who would most probably be out touring or recording. But with the pandemic affecting so many things and essentially all gigs being cancelled, which of course was terrible, it meant I could get people to work on things much more quickly than in normal circumstances.
Therefore, I was able to complete the new album before the end of 2020; every cloud has a silver lining!
Again, this album is musically very diversified, ranging from folk to rock to an epic suite. What struck me most was the rocky character of opener Avalanche, the delicate ballad The Secret Of Chapel Field, and the epic suite KV62. With so many people involved, how did you manage to keep so many musical moods consistent?
I produce quite accurate demo tracks with the structure in place including tempo maps and guide parts for the vocals, drums, etc. I usually spend a lot of time making sure the feel is right before sending the track out to others. As the songs start to take shape, I take an overall look and think "Maybe I need a rock song" or "This song is too similar in style to another" so I will change it. I like to listen to a variety of styles and create music that I enjoy listening to. If anyone else likes it that is a bonus!
The subject of the song often dictates the approach. I played on a lot more of this album and I think that also helped set the mood. I also knew before I wrote a note of music that a song like The Secret Of Chapel Field needed a slightly sombre, bitter-sweet folk feel. Whereas with Avalanche, the first song written for the album, I was looking for a strong and hopefully interesting opener with lots of fantastic playing!
How do you select the musicians? And how do you decide which parts they will contribute?
I generally have a good idea right from the start who would work well on the track. Having a team of musicians that I can go to is great, but if I think I need something a little different I will seek out someone new. An example of this would be the song, High Line. I required an American jazz feel to the drums, so I asked Nick D'Virgilio. I wanted an almost ballad style vocal and some saxophone therefore Peter Jones was an easy choice. However, I decided I needed a proper violinist to bring the end section to life, so I involved Frank Van Essen for the first time. As for keyboards for this album, it is solely Vikram Shankar as he can play any style brilliantly. He adds to my basic playing with his wonderful technique.
So, each song and style dictates who I ask to play on it.
Furthermore, the lyrics deal with a wide diversity of subjects, ranging from a Victorian murder case, the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in Luxor to dealing with the horrors of cancer. You write the lyrics with your wife Elizabeth but as you indicate in the information that comes with the album, the real inspiration for the lyrics is the mutual discussion between the two of you. So, what comes first, the lyrics or the music?
The method we use is to decide what stories or subjects we want to write about. I find that helps the creative process and gives a real focus to the song. Luckily, Libby has a great ear for music as well as contributing to the lyrics. Once we have found some interesting ideas, she and I will talk for hours about what approach would work best to communicate the story, atmospheres, and emotions. Once we have a plan, I will start creating musical ideas and as melodies appear, I will generally do an initial lyric. I then hand that over to Libby and she will refine or sometimes rewrite a lot of the words. As the music becomes more complete, we then sing along (very badly), to see if the lyrics work when sung. Sometimes they will be changed to make sure they work better for the intended vocalist. On one song on Rise And Fall, and for Circles on the new album, Libby wrote the lyric first and I then created the music.
I especially loved the melancholic ballad The Secret Of Chapel Field. It's very moving, very well performed, beautifully sung by Sally Minnear and Marc Atkinson and quite a story to tell.
I live in a very small village which has a very old local church. One day when wandering in its surroundings I came across a gravestone of a very young woman which is one of the strangest you'll ever encounter. Written on it are details of the young woman, how she was murdered and who the murderer was. That was the start of the inspiration. But when I investigated the story there were many unanswered questions, so when writing the lyrics, we took a different viewpoint with the characters who played a part in what happened there.
The suite KV62 deals with the story of Howard Carter, the principal person working on the excavation of Tutankhamun's tomb. During its more than 19 minutes, the longest track you have written so far, the music flows from cinematic to orchestral to jazz to rock and back. The inspiration for the lyrical part of the suite evolved while visiting Luxor in Egypt several times. Where does the musical inspiration come from?
Libby and I both have a huge love of ancient Egypt. There are some Egyptian style references and middle eastern instruments in the opening section of the track, but I had already done a very Arabic sounding track called Heretic on the previous album so I did not want to repeat myself. That song was originally inspired by ancient Egypt but evolved in a somewhat different direction, influenced as I was at the time by the news of what was going on in Syria.
In this new song the focus is Howard Carter and I wanted the music to have an early twentieth century English flavour. We included some 1920's popular music and I felt the use of a full orchestra would give a more cinematic feel. I was really trying to produce a movie for the ears. On this album I did all the orchestration myself, something I had never done before. And as I said, I don't have a training in musical theory so this was quite a challenge. Basically, I start off with piano and guitar to develop the themes. Then I try to imagine how an orchestra would play these themes and how that would sound. And I wanted it to sound right so in the end I decided to record all orchestral instruments separately. A string section of six violins meant that I recorded them all six separately, and so on with the horns, the trumpets and the rest. Once I had decided what the arrangement would be, I can hear it in my head which serves as a kind of reference for the actual recording. It was time consuming but satisfying!
There was another peculiar thing with that song. It was sounding good, but we realised there were some key elements of the story that needed to be included so more sections were added. When we had all things in place the track turned out to be 19 minutes and 22 seconds long. This was quite a coincidence, because 1922 was the year in which Carter discovered the Tut-Ankh-Amun's tomb. So, then the song was finished!
Much of the background to the stories can be read in the beautiful booklet. As I already mentioned in my review of Rise And Fall, I see again that you put a lot of effort in the artwork and the contents of the booklet, with excellent results. Apart from the high-class photography and art design the album buyer also gets all lyrics and the background of the inspiration of each song. Yet album sales are poor nowadays and taking the albums to the road will not be possible for at least many months. Why did you choose to produce these informative booklets, nonetheless?
I don't find it particularly difficult to create the art work for the CD and, this time around, for the vinyl package. It is far less work than creating the music!
The information we include hopefully adds to the enjoyment and experience for the listener. It adds value and shows that we take care about what we produce and how it is presented.
CD sales may be low but for an independent artist like myself they are the main form of income. I also think that people who like Prog are more attuned to the idea of buying a physical product. Another reason why we produce a nice package.
Hearing this third album, released so shortly after your debut, I can't help but asking myself where the differences are between those albums. I think that your music has matured and diversified and has thus become more adventurous. Do you feel the same?
It has been a very rapid learning curve. Not just in creating music but in so many different areas; the technical production, promotion, advertising, making videos and so much more. Obviously, when I started, I knew very little and I was lucky enough to have people advise and help me. I am very happy with how the music sounds and I feel confident enough to allow myself to try different approaches and styles. For me Progressive music is NOT about re-living the 1970's. It is about attempting new things and finding ways to improve as a composer, musician and storyteller. Yes, I agree I have come a long way in just three years. But I am still learning all the time and hopefully getting better?!
Of course, I hope that people like the new one as they did the former two. Every artist wants to have good reviews, I'm no exception to that. But on the other hand: what really matters to me is what I feel in the music myself, how excited I am about what I hear, no matter what others may judge. I hope that people with an open mind may like it, maybe real prog addicts may be disappointed as there are not many clever time signatures or complex rhythms. The only real reason I classify myself as a prog artist is that it is the only label that can cover my type of music.
Finally, do you have plans to take your music to the road in the near future?
Not any time soon – that's for sure! But I do have plans for the future so keep an eye on my website and Facebook page. There will be something quite unique happening soon for a very special goal, but that's about all I want to tell for now. Just wait and you'll see!
John, it was a real pleasure to talk to you. So, thank you very much for this nice chat and all the best with the new album and the other plans you have.
It was my pleasure too, thank you!
John Holden — Circles In Time
In just two years, John Holden has managed to catapult himself from being a totally unknown musician, towards being a distinguished (prog) artist, with two highly-rated albums to his name. Of course he has had some help from some quite distinguished names in prog but that can only be explained by the quality of what he had to offer to them before they collaborated.
And as if those two albums weren't enough, he used the involuntary period of not being unable to play live, to write and record this third album, Circles In Time. It again features a fine bunch of distinguished musical friends, including amongst others, Silent Skies' Vikram Shankar (keyboards on all songs, co-writer on two songs), Big Big Train's Nick d'Virgilio (drums, and co-writing a part of one song), Iona's Frank Van Essen (viola, violin) and Tiger Moth Tales' Peter Jones (saxophone), while his wife (and co-lyricist) Elizabeth can be heard in the background vocals. The lead vocals are sung by different male vocalists who all have a voice with more or less the same timbre which makes this album sound vocally varied but very consistent. The female vocal duties are splendidly done by Sally Minnear, well-known in her own right and because of her involvement in Celestial Fire.
The album features six new songs that vary widely in mood, style, instrumentation, length and theme. It starts off with Avalanche. It is a track that I had to get used to. For it is quite heavy, built upon a loud guitar riff and sounding quite straight-forward at first glance. But slowly it shows its real nature, with exquisite Lee Abraham-like guitars played by Eric Potapenko, some very fine singing by Jean Pageau of Mystery-fame and a clever musical development.
High Line is driven by a Steely Dan-like electric piano and tenor sax theme. It is a seductive, poppy track that tells the story of two young people in New York enjoying time-off from the hustle and bustle of that crazy city. They meet on the former tram-line high above the streets, the High Line. That piece of infrastructure has changed into a green recreational area and its popularity has risen steeply over the past years. The lyrics are partly written and sung as a playful conversation between those two, and give the listener a very optimistic feeling. Musically the song goes from pop, to soft-jazz, to some bossa nova samba, with a delightful sax leading the music to an absolutely wonderful violin and sax coda played by Frank van Essen and Peter Jones, who also does the excellent lead vocals. It is a song that makes you wander off to a peaceful place, packed with good friends with whom you want to share a drink and enjoy this life together. During these bizarre days, that's a wonderful feeling.
Then the mood changes completely towards romantic folk in The Secret Of Chapel Field. The intro is a beautiful, almost a cappella verse sung by Marc Atkinson, known from his work including with Lee Abraham, and Sally. What follows is a gorgeous, intricate, melancholic, heavenly musical melody accompanied by violin, piano, some sparse acoustic guitar and (towards the end) some woodwind.
The lyrics tell the tale of a gruesome murder that took place in the early eighteen-hundreds. Again, these lyrics are very well pronounced and therefore clear as crystal water for non-native English-speaking persons; a real asset of this album. And although the tale is horrific, the music is so beautiful, so well sung, so cleverly instrumented that I think this is one of the best songs I'll hear this year. Absolutely stunning.
Once again the mood changes completely with the very uplifting instrumental Dreams Of Cadiz. Within its five minutes, Holden manages to transport the listener from the celtic environment in the former song, to the Spanish coast where wonderful acoustic guitars play a seductive melody on the rhythm of Spanish percussion. The sound of waves upon the coast appear halfway, to add to a very Andalusian feeling throughout the song. It all sounds so attractive and so deceivingly easy.
Sally Minnear reappears to sing lead vocals in the fine track Circles. The song has a pulsating rhythm containing sounds from hospital equipment and a very, very nice vocal melody with, in the beginning, primarily piano in the background. After a short synth solo halfway, the pulsating rhythm comes back, there is more percussion and drums, but in some clever way the instrumentation remains sparse; exactly what is needed here.
And then we come to KV62, an epic of more than 19 minutes divided into seven parts that are all described extensively in the very informative, arty booklet that comes with the album.
The title refers to Egypt's Valley of the Kings where the many of the archaeological treasures have been found. The number refers to the excavation site. The song starts with the Theban priest's chanting in ancient Egyptian, immediately followed by the deep voice of Jeremy Irons who reads the text that was written on a funeral object and can also be found on the tombstone of the English archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter.
Carter should have been world-famous because he was the one who found the tomb of Tutankhamun at site 62 after many years of hard labour and many deceptions. Yet he has been almost completely forgotten, illustrated by the fact that he was never honoured for his ground-breaking work, let alone be knighted. His story is told in this imaginative epic that flows from the sealing of the burial chamber, to the boats on the river Nile, through to a crowded bar somewhere in the 1920s, then to the high class surroundings of England, the blazing and relentless desert of Egypt and ending somewhere in an English graveyard.
Very different moods and settings pass by, driven by the excellent vocal performance of That Joe Payne. The clear lyrics give the listener insights in the doubts of the researcher and his financier, Lord Carnarvon, in their joint despair over the lack of success during many years. Then the sheer joy when Carter finally finds the tomb he always thought he would uncover. That is quickly followed by his utter disappointment as others, who prove far more powerful than he, push him aside, enabled as they were by the pre-mature death of his financier. His fate is leading a life in anonymity while those who pushed him out of their way enjoy the admiration of the global community.
In spite of all these different scenes, the music keeps on flowing, gluing this long song together. There are intricate orchestral outbursts, a very fine guitar solo around the 11-minute mark played by Zaid Crowe, subtle keys parts, and a great transition section with gorgeous tubular bells leading to a new musical theme played on piano. An emotional coda, again refers to the tombstone text. It all feels natural, although it is so different, showing Holden's talent in amalgamating different musical parts into one coherent epic. A great piece of music reminding me a bit of Alan Parsons' Turn Of The Friendly Card* as well as of Procol Harum's _In Held 'Twas In I. But this epic is even more complex.
I had the privilege to review John Holden's former album Rise And Fall and was already impressed by the musical diversity on that one. (His 2018 debut album Capture Light was reviewed here on DPRP.net as well.). But I have to admit that he has succeeded in making an even better third album. This is so varied, so well written and played and has so many enjoyable moments that I think it will attract many new listeners, not only proggies.
The album contains songs of high quality and bears the John Holden mark all over the place, whilst being very, very different from its two predecessors. The stellar booklet provides the album-buyer with all the lyrics as well as the backgrounds of all the songs, which is in the case of KV62 a real asset. It will definitely rank high in my favourite albums in this still very young year. Give this one a try, maybe start with the unworldly beautiful The Secret Of Chapel Field followed by KV62 and make sure that you don't stop after the first spin!