December 2020

Simeon Walker: Finding peace

Image credit: Will Killen

For pianist and composer Simeon Walker (Music 2008), 2020 has not exactly turned out to be the year he was hoping for, but that doesn't mean it should be one to forget.

As an independent artist without support from a label, the challenge of growing and retaining an audience has been compounded by restrictions on live performances during 2020 as a result of Covid-19.

Despite the challenges, Simeon recently released a new record, ‘Winnow’, and his music has been heard regularly on BBC Radio 3 and 6 Music, with over 10 million streams worldwide. We caught up with him to find out more about the inspiration for his music, his enduring connection to Leeds and the effect of the pandemic on the creative arts industry.

Start by telling us about your time studying at Leeds.

Simeon Walker (SW): I was living in Charles Morris Hall in my first year which was a particularly good location for hearing all the gigs going on in the Refectory! I remember the 2006 NME tour, a stellar 00’s line-up of Arctic Monkeys, Maximo Park, Mystery Jets and We Are Scientists.

I played a lot of Wednesday afternoon intra-mural football up on the mud baths of Bodington Fields, and dipped my toe into Ultimate Frisbee too. I was involved with a number of Leeds University Union Music Society events and groups in my first year especially, and playing lots of gigs around the city with my band at the time, Highflyer.

One of the highlights was being involved with Leeds Student Radio. I was the “sports correspondent” on the Breakfast show in my first year, and then throughout my second year, co-presented a weekly show with two of my housemates called A Cup of Tea at Number 53…in honour of our glorious second and third year accommodation, living on the Hyde Park staple Chestnut Avenue (described at the time by the Sun as the most burgled street in Britain).

After graduating you decided to stay in Leeds, what was your motivation for pursuing your career in Yorkshire?

SW: I had already alarmed my sixth-form tutors by putting Leeds down as my only option for uni…I was clear that Leeds was where I wanted to come to study. Something about it just drew me in. Throughout my time studying, I developed a huge affinity for the city, the people and the general atmosphere. It’s very common, particularly for musicians, to gravitate towards London, but I was convinced that Leeds was the place for me. It didn’t have the enormity and anonymity of London, but was bigger and had more going on than my hometown of Loughborough. It simply felt right, and felt like home. It felt like a place where I could be known, but also contribute to and invest in a music scene with a rich heritage, and an exciting, vibrant future.

What is your sense of connection to Leeds and Yorkshire and how is that expressed in your music?

SW: From the start, I admired Leeds’ independent spirit and the way that people genuinely support each other here, especially within the music scene. There are so many incredible people, groups, organisations and indie businesses making things happen for themselves with the support of a genuinely interested and committed community. For an independent, unsigned musician, that resonates deeply with me.

I love the proximity Leeds has to some of the best and most beautiful countryside in the country, and I regularly get out and about around Yorkshire to get some space from everyday life, whether in the rolling dales, bleak moors, enchanting forests or the stark coast. I find it all quite inspiring and freeing, and even though my music is instrumental, I hope that this is evoked in and through the spacious and unhurried nature of my music.

In November you released your second album, ‘Winnow’. Tell us about the album and the reception it’s had?

SW: ‘Winnow’ has been a long and winding road for me, both personally and musically. Having released a lot of solo piano material, this album features a range of other musicians, producers and creatives working in the North, and I was keen for the album to tell some part of my story, being based here. This project was an opportunity to spread my wings and extend my sound – all whilst remaining true to the spacious, restrained, and minimal approach which is at my core and I find most affinity with.

It is a musical progression and features a string quartet, jazz-infused drums/percussion, and ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument that creates "wavering" sounds similar to a theremin. I really wanted to highlight this early 20th century electronic instrument which was invented by Maurice Eugene Louis Martenot, a French cellist, and wartime radio operator. The instrument has most famously featured in works by Messiaen, Jonny Greenwood & Christine Ott.

Having worked on the material for Winnow for a number of years, fortuitously we recorded it in February 2020, just before anyone realised what was about to happen. I’ve been overwhelmed with the response to the album so far, both in terms of physical sales and the amount of attention it’s been getting online and on the radio. I’m fortunate to have a very loyal audience, and I am grateful for all the kind comments and feedback it’s been getting.

I very much hope we’ll be able to perform it live at some stage next year, and resume touring as well.

Given the huge effect the pandemic has had on live music performance and the creative arts in general, what are you hopes and aspirations for 2021?

SW: This year has, of course, been a hugely difficult year for the creative arts, and I am fearful that we haven’t yet seen the full results of it all. Certain things may be hard to measure for a while, such as creatives at the start of their careers who may have had to give up studio spaces, or even move out of Leeds because of work drying up. It has been hard for so many.

However, if there is one thing I know about the creative industries, it is that the amazingly talented, passionate and gifted people working in it are some of the most resourceful people there are. They regularly live in quite precipitous circumstances, and when expressing yourself through your creative practice is the thing that gives you most joy and makes most sense for your life, it is worth fighting for and I passionately believe Leeds will continue to be at the forefront of the cultural recovery and response to all we have experienced this year

When live events are able to happen to the extent that they become increasingly viable for the venues who have managed to keep going, I am so hopeful that we will see such great new work being made and performed. I’m looking forward to playing my part with my Brudenell Piano Sessions events, and I can’t wait to get back to the recently refurbished Hyde Park Picture House and Howard Assembly Rooms.

Finally, what advice would you give to current Leeds music students, as they graduate into an uncertain economy and live music scene?

SW: I can only imagine the uncertainty and frustrations that must be happening at the moment for current students, and I sympathise greatly with them.

It’s easy sometimes to fall out of love with the thing that gives you the most joy. I guess I’d say to keep sight of why you came to Leeds, what gives you most joy about music and what you might want to be doing in 2030. Your experiences along the way give you so much to work with, and I’m sure this current situation, whilst intensely difficult, will provide great creative stimulus and energy for your careers ahead.

Musicians are some of the most resourceful and passionate people there are. You will need those attributes, and a dogged belief in what you are doing. But the world needs you. It needs your voice and needs your art.

Stream Winnow or visit Simeon's website to purchase a physical copy of the album