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Free music - Best of 2009






Exhibiting Tendencies - John Howard speaks about his new album

John how does the new album differ from previous ones?

I think the main difference is how much more instrumentation I have employed on this one. Usually my albums feature my piano very strongly with just occasional added backing like (in the case of Navigate Home) strings, or (in the case of As I Was Saying) a small combo of musicians, but always only as a support for my piano and voice.

With this release I wanted to integrate the backing into the whole sound, giving it much more of a group feel, the piano acting as just part of the backing rather than as the main instrument. I used a lot more percussion - in fact this was the first time I had used any percussion since As I Was Saying in 2005 - and heavily incorporated guitar, harmonica and backing vocals in the way a band might, creating new textures and sonic landscapes. 

This meant having to layer a lot of stuff, using loads of overdubs, and as I was not using any samples everything had to be done acoustically all by me in real time. I think the result speaks for itself, with the many textures and layers you can hear in the production. A friend said when I played him a few of the tracks "this is the first 'singer's album', rather than 'singer-pianist album', you have made, John." 

I also did something I have not done for years and that was consult an old producer friend of mine who acted as my second pair of ears during the recording process. Paul Phillips produced my 1975 album Technicolour Biography and for this new album he was my sounding board. I would send him completed tracks to listen to and we'd discuss them over e-mails. I also asked Paul to help me come up with a running order, something again I have not done for years. We discussed what should start the set and what should end it, and it was fascinating discussing our different ideas. It felt really good collaborating with Paul again after so many years. He is credited as Associate Producer and it did feel like a team effort in many ways.

The songs themselves just came out of the ether, as they always do with me. It became pretty clear early on that these were going be much more introspective songs, however they didn't all come from my own experiences, but were often begun from the germ of a memory of a friend's plight in the past or a story someone had told me about something or someone, so I acted very much as an onlooker to happenings going on 'in front of me', as it were. Like watching a movie and then recounting it in music and words.

Songs like In There Somewhere and Nothing But The Truth may sound like my life is falling apart but I can assure you it isn't, those songs came out of memories of past relationships when I did feel my world was imploding. It's odd how it has taken all this time to recount those experiences. I also do think that having a lot of time on my hands as I do now we live in Spain, that past occurances come back to me very clearly, situations that disturbed me back then and which I put out of my mind and just got on with my (then) busy life, I now have time to consider, re-evaluate and judge anew, and as happens with me, that usually turns into a song.

The final track, Not Forgotten,  says it all for me: in the end, "only love lifts you up". After all is said and done, that's about it, isn't it, really?

What to you is most important - the melody or the lyrics. Can you have one without the other and which do you write first?

Ah! That knotty question - the music or the lyrics? Well, with me, it comes in different ways. I can be sitting in the garden and a lyrical line will flow into my head which I write down and come back to later (or sometimes rush to the piano and try to work it into a melody). Or I can be doodling at the piano (as I was when In There Somewheres piano motif came through) and a song will start to emerge.

My partner Neil often says to me he can't understand why I don't ever just sit at the piano and play for pleasure with no agenda or 'pressure' to write a song. My answer is always that whenever I sit at any piano I start to doodle, then a song starts to emerge, then before I know it hours have gone by and I have written and routined the new song ready to record it. I can't simply sit and just play the piano, it always ends up as a song. Which means for relaxation I tend to read or watch movies rather than play the piano. That's my way of emptying my head of things.

Playing the piano simply fills my head with more songs! I still don't think Neil understands this, as he doesn't play an instrument he would love to be able to sit at a piano and just tinkle away. I cannot do that, never have been able to. (Listen to 'Miss Ashton's Disappointment' on Navigate Home, you'll hear from that song that even at the age of eleven or twelve I was writing a song as I played a classical piece).

I have written some instrumentals. In fact I am planning to record an EP of original instrumental piano pieces in the future. There are a few instrumentals on my album Making Tracks, some of them written - but not used - for the Dangerous Hours. It will be an interesting exercise making such an EP and we'll see if I can prevent myself from singing along and writing a melody and a lyric for the whole project!

As to which are the most important? The two, music and lyrics, are one in my mind. The song is a whole and I wouldn't be able to separate them once the song is complete.