The world of music is changing, in a way that makes record executives uneasy. There’s a plethora of talent on the OMD sites, but finding it can be a bit arduous. Take a step in Steve Ison’s direction. This artist is gentle, unassuming – to the place of self-effacing – but he is very talented. His music is innovative, fresh and exciting.
GOM: Probably since the era of the Beatles, people on my side of the Atlantic have felt a degree of awe for English musicians. What’s the music scene like in England today and especially in Birmingham where you live?
Steve Ison: I’m not really that up on the scene in the UK at the moment to tell you the truth as I’ve spent the last 6 months just listening to stuff off the net. There are a few excellent local bands in Birmingham. Though, I’ve found opportunities seem to be limited unless you’re a ‘blues’ or a ‘tribute’ band doing covers. A lot of the old gig venues have been changed into fake ‘Irish bars’ or lap-dancing clubs. It’s a sad indictment to the soulnessness of a lot of modern culture.
GOM: Steve, I want to talk about your amazing songs, but first anyone who’s crossed paths with you, knows you have a very kind heart. You work as a ‘Music Support Worker’ for people with mental Health difficulties. How did you get that job and what does it involve?
Steve Ison: I got it after doing some voluntary work for them when I was unemployed. Its a charity organization called ‘Sound It Out’ involved with helping people in the local community make their own music. My job as a music support worker mainly involves helping the people express themselves creatively. Basically writing songs with them, playing with them at gigs if they need instrumental/vocal support-organizing groups getting together if they want-being someone they can use for support. It’s a fantastic job. I didn’t think it would be possible to find paid work I genuinely enjoyed – ever, but next to making a living doing my own music this is the best thing! From my experience they’re generally very nice people too: kind, humble, naturally creative – although often with very low self-esteem. They’re just people struggling to express who they are within the fast-paced, competitive and conformist brutality of modern society. Outsiders really.
GOM: Aside from helping others with needs, why does Steve Ison write music?
Steve Ison: To escape to somewhere better. To feel free-to be the best of who I can be… I’m not sure. It’s just a natural drive to be creative that I think all humans share on a deep level. Some express that doing the gardening, some bring up children; musicians make music! Listening to creative music from other people always inspires me to want to write. I’ve got a constant appetite for great new music that feeds me – coming mostly from the net.
GOM: Are there any recordings of the music of ‘Special Needs’ the band with whom you play?
Steve Ison: Yes, we’ve made a CD called – imaginatively – ‘Special Needs’ and we’ve got music available on MP3.com at: (http://artists.mp3s.com/artists/474/special_needs1.html)
GOM: Do you write all the songs for [your band] Special Needs?
Steve Ison: No, Bingo, Steve Harper and I all write individually. (Steve H is the most prolific, LOL.) However, most of the songs are the product of the 3 of us getting together for writing sessions.
GOM: Is the enjoyment of your group work equal to or less than your solo effort?
Steve Ison: It’s probably more so at the moment. There’s a great spirit in the band now and it’s great to feel part of something creative with good friends. Creating by myself – it’s scary sometimes, ’cause it’s such an isolating thing; though it can be very rewarding – and I can express moods/vibes which don’t fit with the band and – naturally – I have full control, LOL.
GOM: Would describe yourself as an indie artist struggling for recognition, or could you care less if others heard your music?
Steve Ison: No, I definitely want as many people as possible to hear my stuff but I’m not really struggling for recognition, because I don’t really have any ambitions to ‘get signed’ or anything-even if it were possible. I LIKE the ideal of not caring whether someone hears me or not, because if you can feel like that it must be very free and liberating. I’m not there yet though.
GOM: So, what are you musical goals?
Steve Ison: To be able to express myself creatively with more and more freedom I guess, to write better songs and be able to produce them more professionally – imaginatively (though I need to get better equipment to do that at the moment.) To make a new album with my band Special Needs is a goal at the moment.
GOM: Steve, your recordings are really well done for home-recordings. Yet, you sometimes leave ‘homey’ sounds at their beginning. For example, If I Met You Again it sounds like you close the door to your room and walk over to the microphone. Is this a signature of sorts?
Steve Ison: I don’t know whether I’d say it was a ‘signature’ he, he but I definitely TRY to create an ‘alive’ feeling in the songs I create, though that’s difficult sometimes as its mostly just me over-dubbing. Strangest Feeling too has the sound of kids outside playing by the roadside, as the window was open when I recorded it and I just left it on. A happy accident!
GOM: What tips would you give to other indie artists as far as recording is concerned?
Steve Ison: I’m no expert, LOL, but mainly make sure you use a good quality condenser microphone. It’s THE most important bit of kit whatever set up you’re using. Be open, experiment with ideas – don’t just accept second best. Listen to what you’re doing objectively and put yourself in the listener’s shoes.
GOM: Steve, the two elements of your songs that put them apart from and above most indie music I’ve listen too, are the craftsmanship of your writing and the quality of your voice.
Steve Ison: Thanks, the voice I’ve never really consciously worked on. The songwriting – especially in terms of the music – I definitely have and continue to try and improve. That’s always the biggest turn-off for me with music if I hear very weak, cliché, uncreative (musically speaking) songs -where you can guess the chord changes coming from 10 miles away. I can love a good song even if it’s dreadfully recorded but an expensively produced/arranged dog will always be just that, I’m afraid – however someone tries to dress it up.
GOM: Which of the on-line songs are the ones you most closely identify with and why?
Steve Ison: There’s far too many to mention of other people’s though at the moment I LOVE ‘To Mean Something’ By K. CRAVEN (on Garageband.com). ‘Exquisitely melancholic’ as a friend said. If you mean my songs I’ve got online…
Steve Ison: I’d probably say ‘Step In My Direction’ as it doesn’t really sound like anyone else at all. It’s also got a more interesting soundscape than a lot of my others which is definitely the direction I want to go, though that’s a matter of getting some new equipment and THEN getting my head round the technology.
GOM: Is there a story behind Scenes from Palacio? It’s a rather sinister sort of song.
Steve Ison: Yes, it’s about 3 separate fictional characters staying in a plush hotel – Palacio: a husband murderer, a Hit Man and a big company boss. The theme was inspired by the strong mood shifts created by the music and its kind of showing the dark secrets that lie beneath the surface of seemingly ordinary people. It’s MEANT to be sinister – he, he.
GOM: I nearly lost your friendship by comparing Destination to an old Chicago track called Saturday in the Park. So we won’t make that comparison here, LOL. However, the song’s bouncy feel, the ambient sounds of mid-way rides and children laughing make it seem like a celebration of summer. Is this what you had in mind?
Steve Ison: No, Cam, you didn’t nearly lose my friendship – I knew you didn’t mean anything bad by it – and I wasn’t upset or anything. I realized it was just your opinion (though I disagreed, as did Steve Harper when i told him.) From what I’ve heard of Chicago their music seems very slick ‘corporate soul’ which the SPIRIT of ‘Destination’ certainly isn’t – though I haven’t heard ‘Saturday In The Park’ so you might be right, still he, he! Steve H had been playing the main riff and the melody and words of the first verse came into my head as we walked round town later with the voice of Jimi Hendrix singing! The whole mood and vibe was very inspired by listening to a lot of those beautiful mellow Hendrix songs like ‘Waterfall’ .The words are very idealistic and just my fantasy really. It IS a celebration of summer and innocence in its mood and vibe – though not deliberately. I’ve never thought about it in those terms before – so thanks for that.
GOM: You’re welcome, and I knew I wasn’t in danger of losing your friendship – LOL. Among your small but excellent collection of online songs, is a song called Girl in the Sky. It’s the first Steve Ison song I informally reviewed back when MP3.COM’s Critics Corner was a cool place to hang out. It has some very beautiful imagery in its lyrics. The angel who I dreamt I kissed / Rises from the morning mist / But like the sun kills morning dew / Her eyes are just a fading view. These lines suggest an elusive feminine ideal that haunts you. I’ve heard that Lennon’s Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was actually in praise of LSD. What’s the elusive girl, Steve, in your case?
Steve Ison: I had the ‘Girl In The Sky’ title for ages and wrote 2 (bad) songs before this track I did with Steve Harper finally assumed the name. It’s a yearning for those transcendent moments of true wonder you get when you REALLY connect with the blue sky or the trees/nature-and the feeling of disappointment as that state of mind is so easily lost when dealing with real life. A few years ago (when I wrote those words) I got really disillusioned that I couldn’t keep that level of consciousness all the time and tried to force myself into it – and it just kind of disappears when you do that. The ‘Girl In The Sky’ is a child of freedom. On a real level it’s a reflection of my inability to have the proper relationship I desire with a beautiful woman. When I meet them I put them on a pedestal and denigrate myself before them (I’m not worthy!) until they realize that even if they had an initial interest in me that way-they soon lose it, LOL.
GOM: In the film Dead Poet’s Society Robin Williams suggests that poetry isn’t about expressing emotion, but getting girls. True?
Steve Ison: Ha, ha. There’s definitely some truth in there! I used to try and woo girls with my sappy sad ballads but they seemed more interested if I blasted out Beatles or Bowie covers. I learnt fast!
GOM: My favorite Steve Ison song, and one that doesn’t get as much attention is Golden Pie. It sounds a bit like Paul Simon’s ‘Loves me Like a Rock’ and like a lot of Simon’s songs it has overtones of the great Black spiritual tunes of the past. This is maybe your most overtly spiritual song, I feel. What is it that feeds ‘your love and joy’ as the song says?
Steve Ison: The melody DID come into my head as a gospel song but due to my total inability to create that kind of sound I went for a T. Rex vibe (a band I really love) instead he, he. Music feeds ‘my love and joy,’ I guess. It’s a never-ending source of fascination, mystery and endless possibilities.
GOM: In My Former Lives shows an element of Steve Ison that is not generally out there for the listening public. The opening lines are really amazing: Loved you in my former lives, / As long as I can remember, / Loved you when I was Joan of Arc, / And I watched the dying ember.
Steve Ison: Ha, ha. I can’t take credit for most of the lyrics in this song. John Wragg, a friend of mine and a prolific poet, wrote them. I added a musical tapestry to his words. He told me it was looking at the idea of love transcending time, gender and space. Ironically he doesn’t actually believe in the idea of reincarnation at all but I do! I LOVE the ‘sam-casablanca’ line!
GOM: This song has a much more melancholy edge to it, Steve, than any of the rest of your collection. Is this an element rare to you or simply hidden?
Steve Ison: ‘I Know a Good Thing’ and ‘Big Wheels’ are very melancholic in vibe too but, no, it’s not rare at all. I’ve written tons of sad, depressing, angry songs in all different shades of blue. I’ve always battled with emotional and mental instability and use songwriting as a cathartic release – so it’s natural a lot of songs reflect that. In that sense the songs online are more a reflection of what I’m comfortable showing other people.
GOM: You have an instrumental entitled, “The Stars are Never Really Distant.” Does this title sum up your idea of people in relation to their dreams?
Steve Ison: He, he. I’ve never thought of it like that, but I like it! It’s a nice poetic line and can be taken many ways, I guess. To me it suggests our connectedness with the universe and that the stars (in the sky) can be our friends – we’re never as alone as we sometimes think we are.
GOM: It’s in my mind to call this interview, Steve Ison and the Best Music you’ve Never Heard. Do you find it frustrating, Steve, when you have such obvious talents as a songwriter and performer that you don’t get a look see from the record companies?
Steve Ison: No, I just don’t expect it at all, though it’s nice of you to think I’m worthy of that kind of attention. I’m just not driven for that any more although a few years ago I kind of was but never actually did anything practical about it LOL. The great thing about the Net is you hear so much incredible music from people who’ll never ‘make it.’ It doesn’t take a genius to see there’s a helluva lot of very mediocre music-makers who are signed and I’ve come to the conclusion ‘talent’ is a very small part of the equation. What’s really needed to succeed is a shrewd business head, burning ambition, massive attention to ‘image’ and a kind of ruthless focused streak that gets up from any set-backs and won’t take no for an answer. Some people are just karmically ‘destined’ for ‘success’ in that way too I believe. I don’t feel bad about that and I’m sort of happy where I am in the general scheme of things. I LOVE the online music community thing and its good to know you can find a worldwide audience even WITHOUT being signed. That’s freedom and a good feeling to make the need for the ‘middle-man’ redundant at last.
You can and should grab a listen to Steve’s songs at www.mp3.com/Steve_ison