Contributor Geoff Bailie had the opportunity to talk to John Holden, a UK based multi-instrumentalist who is about to release his debut album called “Capture Light”, a beautifully crafted collection of songs which features guest appearances by a range of notable figures from the world of progressive rock.
So John, I am assuming that a lot of people reading this won’t have heard of you or your music, so can you give me a bit of your personal history?
John Holden: Hi Geoff. Well to answer your question, I’m not surprised people won’t have heard of me, as this is the first material I’ve released! I started playing in my late teens, performed in a few bands and had my first taste of going into a studio in 1980. The reality back then was that I was already working full time and didn’t have the enough belief in myself to pursue a full time career as a musician. Then I got married and life carried on without instruments and playing. I think a lot of people have had a similar story. But I never lost my love for music, especially progressive rock, and I always knew I’d take it up again at some point. About five years ago I started devoting more time to playing and learning how to use the latest music technologies, having invested in some lovely instruments and recording equipment. Once up to speed I then began composing some instrumental music for several projects and after completing these I considered writing a complete album of new material. That was in 2014. It’s been a long journey but I was determined to make something I’d be proud of.
You contribute guitar, bass, keyboards and programming to the album – do you see yourself primarily as a guitarist who can play keys, a keyboardist who plays the guitar or an all-rounder?
John Holden: Good question. I am more adept at guitar but mostly compose on keyboards and enjoy playing bass parts too. The biggest challenge was to learn how to make programmed drums sound good which is definitely a skill. Having said that, the majority of the finished tracks have a real drummer on them but my original demos went a long way to set the scene for what I wanted. As I started completing demos I came to the conclusion that the songs deserved a better standard of musicianship for certain key parts. So I became very much an arranger and producer when I moved from demo to finished song. I was adamant that I wanted it to sound as good as it could so took lots of advice from people in the industry who were expert in production. I also have to say a big ‘thank you’ to Robin Armstrong who not only mastered the album but acted as something of a mentor during the mixing and final stages of the production.
So you took different roles during the process?
John Holden: Exactly. In some cases parts that I had spent weeks working on were discarded if I felt something better was needed. At times that was hard to do but ultimately the song had to come first. So my strength on this project was certainly as a composer, arranger and producer. I’d say that seventy per cent of the music you hear is me but of course it’s the other thirty per cent that really elevates the music. We live in the age of the digital download but the CD of “Capture Light” is accompanied by a beautiful booklet that not only contains credits and lyrics, but gives the background to each track and contains photographic images for every song.
You are credited as the booklet designer – why was that an important part of the album?
John Holden: I think visuals are important. I grew up with vinyl where you would spend time listening while looking at the artwork and reading the lyrics. I always like a package that has a good presentation, it shows that some thought and care has gone into it and you hope it adds to the enjoyment and understanding of the music. Originally I was intending to use a brilliant Italian artist that I knew from Florence who was really into the project and going to do it for free! Unfortunately for me they received several large commissions which would have meant a six month delay. As the mixing was virtually completed I didn’t want to delay the project so decided to have a go myself. In the end it turned out really well, it was certainly quicker than making the music!
The subject matter of the songs covers a huge range, from the Conquistadors, to Jesse Owens’ stand at the 1936 Olympic Games, to subjects like depression and broken hearts. How closely linked are the words and the music or, to put it another way, which comes first – the theme, the music or the lyric?
John Holden: I generally write all the music first and then draft the lyrics. Libby then takes the words and refines them but at that point things are still quite fluid. By the time I came to write the last three tunes; ‘One Race’, ‘Capture Light’ and ‘Tears from the Sun’, I found my method had changed a little; I’d come up with some basic musical ideas then wait to see what ‘images’ they sparked off in my mind. I would quickly come up with a concept which I’d use to steer the composition and lyrics. I found this approach gave me stronger results and it was more natural for writing lyrics. I also found that if we did some research it added a richness and depth to the songs. The booklet has some explanation to the origins and background of the songs. My favourite time is when the music, lyrics and story all come together. It’s so exciting when that happens – as though you are just a conduit for it appearing – it feels like magic!
Your album features a wide range of guest appearances from the world (and it is worldwide) of progressive rock. I assume it’s not just a case of sending Oliver Wakeman or Billy Sherwood a Pro Tools file and hoping they’ll send you something back – so how did that come about?
John Holden: Well I think I only got people interested because the demos were sounding pretty good. So there was a strong idea of where the tracks were heading. As for the musicians, in early 2016 I had a conversation with Billy Sherwood about him doing some mixing for a song. This morphed into him doing some playing and what he sent me sounded really good. This made me realise that using additional musicians is not a sign of weakness; in the end it’s the music that matters not the ego! Also because I managed to get a Billy to contribute that opened doors to getting other ‘named’ people involved. It gave me instant credibility! Then there was a bit of a snowball effect; the more ‘names’ I got the easier it was to attract others. But I was picky about who I wanted, they had to be right for the song; I also gave people final say on the mix; I told them if they did not like what I had done then I wouldn’t use it. Happily no one asked for any changes. I wanted everyone to sound good and took care to represent them as best I could. But it was bizarre at times. Oliver Wakeman (who is fantastic by the way) phoned me one time as he was doing the charts for ‘Capture Light’ and said; “On bar 27 do you want a C minor diminished with a B flat bass note?” So as an untrained musician you have to raise your game somewhat!
I assume your absence from the singing in the albums means you aren’t a vocalist, and so those duties are picked up by a range of singers, from twice Prog Award winning vocalist Joe Payne, Tigermoth Tales’ Peter Jones, Mystery’s Jean Pageau, Steve Hackett Band’s Gary O’Toole and Julie Gater, amongst others. How did you choose the appropriate person for each track?
John Holden: My voice is really bad! I can just about do a guide vocal but they’re not that good either. I’d been working with Julie on another project and I knew she had a lovely voice so when I commenced writing I got Julie to do a ‘first pass’ on the demos. On a couple of songs they worked so well I kept them and later in the process we tidied them up a little. I wanted a selection of voices so it was interesting figuring out who would suit each song. The track ‘Ancient of Days’ has four vocalists because in the end I decided to keep elements of all of them either as leads, harmony or backing. The addition of Joe Payne was perfect timing; he did the final three tracks that were recorded. As these were the first recordings he’d done since leaving The Enid he was a little wary but we met up and did some recording. We probably did more talking and drinking red wine than recording but I had no doubt it would sound great. And I guess Joe must have liked it as he then did another two songs. Being a few feet away from him when he was recording was an amazing experience. What a voice he has!
Were there any situations where once an instrumentalist or vocalist’s contribution was made to the track, it made you rethink your original idea or plan for the music?
John Holden: Absolutely, especially with guitar and keyboards. Oliver Day would send me multiple takes on different guitars and different pick-ups. I also encouraged him to try different styles and amongst the tracks he sent sometimes if I found a lick or a run that was too good to ignore I would then develop a part to show it off. A good example would be his solo on ‘One Race’ where it duets with a violin part. And on ‘Tears from the Sun’ Oliver Wakeman played some wonderful piano that originally was going to have vocals on top. I rearranged the whole middle section to leave space for the piano to have a more featured role. When I listen now I cannot imagine it any other way. So yes I spent a lot of time reworking sections to make things flow correctly.
I’ve already mentioned Oliver Wakeman and Billy Sherwood are on the album, both latter day Yes members – how big an influence have YES been on your music/ this album?
John Holden: An enormous influence. I first saw them in 1977 and have not missed a tour since. I’ve been a fan for over 40 years! Their music is just sublime. They’ve had their ups and downs but I still enjoy the band and look forward to hearing what they come up with in the future. Although they’re a major influence on my music I’d say that’s possibly not instantly apparent. Firstly, classic YES tunes had strong memorable melodies; I mean you can hum along to the solos and I tried to keep that in mind with the construction of my music. Also I’ve not gone overboard with overdubs, in the majority of cases a five piece band could play most of the songs.
Guitarist and player of all things stringed, Oliver Day makes several stand out contributions to the album. As a guitar player yourself, can you explain why you hand out guitar duties to another player?
John Holden: That’s simple – they are better than me! I mean Oliver Day can play like Steve Howe! I decided I could spend an age creating and practicing parts but then someone with his talent just delivers it and usually with much better tone and superior technique.
So after three years in the making, the album is about to be released to the public in its finished form… what’s next? Was this a “bucket list” project, and are you writing or recording more music?
John Holden: Well it has been a series of learning curves. Learning new instruments, composing, recording, arranging, production, artwork, promotion. I’ll be honest with you, sometimes it has been hard work but having done all of these things and gained so much experience I now feel a lot more confident about my work in the future. As I’m a self-funded artist there is no pressure on me to deliver ‘product’. My plan is to take a break and then start writing again in the summer. I already have some strong ideas that I think would be interesting. For now I hope people get to hear ‘Capture Light’ and that they enjoy it. But I will always make music that I like and that’s the most important thing to me.
Thanks for your time John.
John Holden: A pleasure Geoff. Thanks for the interest and the lovely talk.
Below you can watch an almost 3 minutes-long video of “Tears from the Sun”, one of the album tracks.“Capture Light” can be pre-ordered as of today from John’s website and you can use the Sonic Perspectives exclusive discount code CAPTURE1 in your cart to knock off £1 from the album cost when placing your order.