Suffolk songstress returns to county for Snape proms
10:50 14 August 2013
Fiona Bevan has always loved music. She was brought up in Sudbury, worked at Compact Music in the town, studied at Colchester County High School for Girls before heading off to the bright lights of London.
Last year her career kicked into high gear when she and good friend Ed Sheeran wrote Little Things, a number one hit for boy band One Direction. She also wrote and recorded material for singer-songwriter Gwyneth Herbert’s Sea Cabinet album which was designed to capture the flavour of living close to the sea.
Fiona says that music has always been part of her life and she couldn’t imagine doing anything differently. “When I was a teenager I was in a band in Colchester called Rocking Horse with three other friends and I got into songwriting at that time, as a young teenager and really loved it.
“I taught myself bass guitar and joined a band and never looked back. I found I really loved it. We did loads of gigs in Colchester and across East Anglia and I realised after a while that I didn’t want to do anything else.”
She said that the band dissolved when they all went off to different universities but the love of music has never left her and since graduating she has devoted herself to making a career in music. Fiona went to University College London, where she studied English, which has proved invaluable for the lyrical deftness she shows in her songs. “For me it’s very important to find a new way of saying things people might already know,” she says. “Like, we’ve heard it all before, but we haven’t heard it like that.
Born in Bury St Edmunds, raised in Sudbury, educated in Colchester, it is somewhat ironic that she met up with Suffolk’s other high profile singer-songwriter in London. “It’s funny I didn’t know him at all when we were both in East Anglia but when we met up in London we got on really well.
“We met when he first started gigging in London. We were gigging on the same scene, had a lot of mutual friends and became mates and have played a lot of shows together over the years. The great thing is that when you work together you don’t know where it’s going to end up.”
Fiona has recently boosted her profile by opening for Ed on his recent tour. She describes her music as a “fiery and sweet” collection of soul and folk-tinged pop songs. “The co-writing has been a great thing for me, because you get to know someone so quickly and so deeply. It’s an incredible thing to do. I’ve done a lot of improv, which is very experimental, and film music, and played in classical groups and done jazz stuff, and rock, and electro, and now I’m doing my soulful, folky pop.”
She is currently recording her first album in a small studio, near the British Museum, working with producer Shawn Lee and engineer Pierre Duplan.
Although pop has a reputation for being ephemeral, Fiona is striving to make music that will stand the test of time.
“It’s really important to me to make something that isn’t just like a fad,” she says. “I wanted to make something that hinted at all the different types of music I listen to and love, but still sounds contemporary and looks to the future.”
Collaboration is something she feels is important and she enjoys working with a wide range of other musicians. Her success with Ed Sheeran is just one highly visible and highly successful aspect of her collaborative way of working.
“Several years ago, Ed Sheeran and I recorded a demo that he thought was lost. Last spring I found the lyrics to Little Things and emailed them to Ed, who took it on tour before trying it in the studio with One Direction.”
But the undeniable proof that she’d arrived as a songwriter came on Sunday, November 18, 2012, the day that ‘Little Things’ became the UK’s No. 1. “I did have a little cry, then my phone went insane,” Fiona remembers.
One month later, the pop sensations were performing Fiona and Ed’s song for the Queen, at the Royal Variety Performance. By then, she’d signed her publishing deal with Imagem, and was delighted to find that in their roster, listed alphabetically by first name, she’s next to Elvis Presley. “That’s really made my life complete,” she laughs.
Other collaborations include work with Grammy-winning producer-musicians John Shanks and David Hodges in Los Angeles, former Kaiser Chiefs member Nick Hodgson, True Tiger, Ghostpoet, Dan Dare, 5 Seconds Of Summer, Gwyneth Herbert, Mikill Pane and Fem Fel.
She said that although she writes principally for herself and her own voice she finds it easy to write material for other people because she listens to such a wide variety of music. “I love listening to loads of different types of music - pop, folk, soul, rocky indie stuff, dance, jazz, classical - it’s all in there and it’s a joy to write a pop song for somebody or a dance tune for someone else or do something experimental with film music. It’s like an actor taking on different parts or using different voices.
“For me music is about communication. It’s all connected. You can call it by different names or say they come from different genres but in my eyes there are no boundary lines. They are all connected. If you are into music, you are allowed to like whatever music you like - especially nowadays when you have something like iTunes which allows you to cherrypick all sorts of music. People have become much more open to listening to all types of music.
“Twenty years ago, I think people were quite territorial about the music they listened to. You’d find people saying: ‘I listen to rock music. I don’t listen to anything else’ whereas today I think that has completely changed. People have all sorts of music on their phones or iPods. One minute they’ll be listening to drum’n’bass and the next they’ll have a Katy Perry pop song on there, then some Leonard Cohen. It’s all mixed in there together rather like my brain.”
She says that contrary to expectation, although she has always loved music, she didn’t have a particularly pop-centric childhood. “I was brought up on classical and jazz, and 1940s songs, from the old black and white musicals and things. I had instrument lessons as a kid and as a teenager, and I started learning about the whole process, getting songs together with a band, performing them, how to work the technology and recording.”
Fiona said that the performing side of music has given her tremendous confidence and singing her own songs has given her a voice to talk to the world at large.
“As a teenager who was quite shy, getting up on stage and doing gigs was the most wonderful feeling. It completely cured me of my shyness. I discovered that it was the most amazing form of communication. The response you got back from an audience meant that you were engaged in the most wonderful conversation.”
Fiona is currently working to encourage other young singer-songwriters to follow in her footsteps by championing new talent at her own live music evenings, Fiona Bevan Presents, at Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston.
Among those performing have been Gwyneth Herbert, Nick Mulvey, Ryan Keen and Sam Lee, and poets such as James Massiah.“It’s really lovely to put artists on that I think are outstanding, and expose them to a new crowd,” she says.
She is hoping that these gigs will encourage other women to showcase their talent.
“Surprisingly, statistics show that the number of women in the music industry as singer-songwriters is still very uneven. I would like to encourage more women to step up to the microphone. I feel that, as a woman in a man’s world, I have a lot of say and I would love to hear what other women think about things as well. I think my friend Gwyneth Herbert is someone with lots of interesting things to say as well. I think as women songwriters we fight a slightly different battle to men, so when we get up on a stage it feels like a very important job.
“A lot of young girls who come to my gigs really respond to that. It is not unusual for them to say that they have never seen a woman on stage with a guitar singing her own songs, songs that she has written. We’re not talking about X Factor or cover bands, although there’s a place for that.
“We are talking about performers with a sense of their own voice who can be a strong role model for the next generation of young female singer-songwriters.”
She says that she has really enjoyed joining Gwyneth Herbert on her Sea Cabinet tour because they present a complementary approach to songwriting and performing. “We both have a lot to say but we are different, so it’s a good fit. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Each night all the musicians bring years of experience to the stage. They love to experiment and improvise with sound within the structure of the songs. She says that she loves the way that her and Gwyneth’s careers have arrived at a similar place but from completely different backgrounds. Gwyneth has much more of a jazz heritage but they both share a love of Billie Holiday.
Fiona’s musical inspirations include Radiohead, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, The Kinks, the band Beirut and Jeff Buckley – it’s a pretty diverse collection of artists, particularly when you add The Beatles and Billie Holiday into the mix.
She says that her meeting with Gwyneth happened on a rather crowded tube train one evening when their eyes exchanged heavenwards glances after a fellow passenger was making a nuisance of themselves.
“She might not remember this but we first met a couple of years ago when we were doing a fundraising gig in Spittlefields for Crisis the homeless charity but we didn’t really know each other but we re-connected on this awful train journey. She then played at my EP launch a couple of years ago and we realised we were neighbours and became really good friends after that.
“The last couple of months sitting in dressing rooms with her has been such fun.”
The next thing on Fiona’s to-do list is the release of her debut album which is scheduled to be released early next year.
“I’m really excited about it, it’s sounding very analogue and warm and golden. We’re using lots of ‘60s and ‘70s equipment and acoustic instruments, but it’s very feelgood. Even with the ones which are a bit darker and more political, there’s a groove to it. It makes me move.”
The album includes story songs with evocative titles such as Love In A Cold Climate, Rebel Without A Cause and The Exorcist. Plus a Great Gatsby-evoking finale called The Last Days Of Decadence, inspired by the words on a flyer she was once given. The song has already outlasted the nightclub it turned out to be advertising.
“There are loads of stories on my album,” says Fiona. “There’s always something new out there. Pop is this amazing, evolving form, and it speaks to people so directly, and so many people. It can be about high ideas and beautiful concepts or it can be about everyday things. I just love people and being able to connect with them.”
Fiona Bevan will be performing at the Snape Proms alongside Gwyneth Herbert on August 22. Gwyneth Herbert talks about the inspiring Suffolk coast in next Saturday’s arts pages.