Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
Almost as soon as I started to learn music I began playing pop, rock and jazz covers on the northern club circuit (UK). I was totally obsessed by and immersed in music and never seriously considered doing anything else in life.
Improvisation and composition happened naturally alongside learning to play. My teacher encouraged me by setting tasks to compose or arrange pieces within various parameters – this led me toward a deeper understanding of theory and technique which in turn gave me more to work with.The tasks sent me in new directions, the parameters limited me and in doing so hopefully taught me to make the most of an idea and to try and keep things engaging.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
One way or another, I’ve been influenced by everyone I’ve encountered and every bit of music I’ve ever heard or played.
The ‘Great American Songbook’ songwriters,The Beatles, Jimmy Webb, Bacharach & David, Bob Marley, Goffin & King, Ray Davis, Roy Wood, Stevie Wonder and Neil Finn are some of the many songwriters I admire.
Support and encouragement from my parents and later my husband (musician and composer Mike Walker) were key. Mike’s also the person I’ve played the most concerts/gigs with, we first worked together in 1992, so his influence on me has been immense.
Growing up in the 1970’s the public library was important to be able to access reference books – favourites being ‘Instrumentation & Orchestration’ by Alfred Blatter & ‘Music Notation’ by Gardner Read.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
Finding the time and space to compose while trying to earn a living and do all the usual day to day chores.
Not working in a specific genre can often count against you – some people view eclecticism as a lack of authenticity.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
I’m really happy working to a brief and enjoy collaborating with others.The only times I haven’t enjoyed the experience has been when there hasn’t been any genuine room for creativity e.g. film- makers who ask you to parody music by others that they have been using as a ‘temp track’.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
I’ve not had the opportunity to work with large ensembles/orchestras.The challenge when somebody else performs my composition is to trust the piece to them.To be a musician is to be in control of every nuance of the performance as far as your abilities allow. Of course, you lose that control when you are the composer only. As a musician, there’s no better feeling than connecting with fellow musicians when you play together – it’s cosmic.
Of which works are you most proud?
Although my usual feeling with everything I write is that the next work will be better and that I’ll get closer to realising the potential of the spark, I’m proud of my back catalogue of songs (I’ve been songwriting for approx 40 years). In recent years I’ve written and recorded as The Nearlys.
‘5 Divertissements for Guitar’ (2015) was my introduction to composing for classical guitar; my collaboration with the guitarist Jon Gjylaci, who premiered the work, was a great experience and I hope to compose a larger work for Jon in the future.
‘Distant Shores’ LP (2005) a collaboration with the Norwegian singer Trond Teigen, was a landmark for me because I was involved in every aspect of its creation from songwriting, arranging and playing through production to the minutiae of its release; it was a fairly steep learning curve and took a lot of work and determination to complete.
As a musician I’m really proud of ‘Now Is The Time’ EP (2008) by Now Is The Time (Dave Bundy: Bass, Mike Walker: Drums, Helen Walker: Piano).Three quirky jazz covers of indie pop songs.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
Eclectic. Melodic. Jazz influenced harmonies.
How do you work?
I compose in three different ways: at the piano, in my mind or spontaneously in the studio. I usually sketch things out on manuscript and fine tune things later when I write the score. When I compose for instruments that I don’t play I research their ranges, qualities etc and then make a start. When songwriting, I usually get the music in real time along with a few words, which may or may not make it into the final lyric. I decide what the song’s about if I don’t already know and then I complete the lyric.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
There are so many, here are a few…
Favourite Composers: Bach, Handel, Prokofiev, Borodin,Vaughan Williams.
Favourite Musicians: Nina Simone, Luiz Eça, Daniel Barenboim, Glenn Gould, Dave Swarbrick, Wynton Marsalis, James Jamerson, Chris Squire, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Joe Morello.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I find it impossible to single out a particular concert of my own. As an audience member: again, there are so many, here are a couple…Jimmy Webb – solo concert in Manchester (UK) was emotionally intense. His songs are so good; to hear his rendition of them was awesome. In between songs he’s a great raconteur with a line in self-deprecating humour – we alternated between laughter and tears all evening. A recent concert by the Nicola Farnon Trio (Nicola Farnon:Vocals & Acoustic Bass, Piero Tucci : Piano & Tenor Sax, Phil Johnson: Drums) at the Horwich Music Festival 2017 (UK) was such a joyful, full on experience.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
The disposition that you need to learn an instrument to a high standard usually stands you in good stead for life. I think everyone finds their own way – there are so many variables – but to be a professional musician, beyond talent, you need to be resilient and resourceful. Unless you’re very lucky, you’ll probably have to work on projects or play gigs that are far from ideal – this shouldn’t prevent you from giving your best; to play music is to hopefully connect and convey and no matter how humble or wrong the setting, you should try to honour the aim and the listener.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Music. Reading. Comedy. Being outdoors; Nature.
Helen Walker is a musician, composer, songwriter, recording artist and record producer. She has composed music, across genres, for concert, film, stage, television and radio. Helen also runs the UK indie record company Everyday Records and has written, collaborated on and produced many projects.
RECENT HIGHLIGHTS: Winner of the Alwinton Summer Concerts 2016 National Composers’ Competition. Her piece ‘Gather Here’ was premiered by Kathryn Tickell & The Side and was added to their setlist in Autumn 2016. ‘Five Divertissements for Guitar’ – premiered by Jon Gjylaci at the Manchester Guitar Circle’s International Guitar Concert June 2015. ‘Divertissement No.3 for Guitar’ – published in the Spring 2017 edition of Classical Guitar Magazine with an accompanying feature.