Once one of British pop’s most visible stars, as frontman of 80s hit makers Haircut 100 and then with solo successes such as Whistle Down The Wind and Blue Hat For a Blue Day, Nick Heyward is also familiar with what it’s like to be off the musical radar.
More than 18 years elapsed between the release of his last album for a record label – 1999’s The Apple Bed, which came out on Alan McGee’s then all-conquering Creation – and Woodland Echoes, which received widespread plaudits last summer.
The 56-year-old chuckles at the thought that he might have spent the ‘lost years’ stockpiling songs for a long-awaited comeback. “That does sound lovely,” he says.
The truth, it turns out, is more prosaic. For at least five years in the early 2000s, he says, his brand of guitar-based, melodic, well-structured songwriting struggled to get a look-in while the charts were dominated by dance-pop.
“Alan McGee said ‘Guitar music is dead’ and he was pretty right, really. It came back but it was dead for quite a while so releasing music just wasn’t even on. I don’t know anybody that would probably release it, either, so it wasn’t exactly as though I had a choice.”
Fortunately the birth of the internet came to his rescue. “I was on MySpace and that was lovely because I could doodle something and share it in a better way. As an artist I was absolutely happy as Larry.
“The around 2007 home recording became better so I could develop the songs more and people could actually make albums at home and release them.”
Forest of Love, from Woodland Echoes, was made in his spare room. “Then I spent the time colouring it in and got other songs together and bit by bit it was ‘Well, you can make this stuff’ and it was actually sounding like an album.
“Then the internet changed again, and for the independent artist it’s never been so healthy. Even the album is back in its form. That had gone for a long time and people were even saying ‘I don’t make albums any more, I just release songs’. That was sad.
“When I was doing this I was just ignoring all the current trends and losses and changes in the music world, and just thought about making an album anyway.”
The rockier side of Woodland Echoes seems to channel some of Heyward’s fondness for the likes of Montrose, Budgie and AC/DC. “I do listen to them a lot, but I was particularly listening to Montrose,” he admits.
“The really rocky stuff didn’t actually make the album, sadly. It was a lot rockier but I just couldn’t fit it in. I was just really recording all the music I loved then seeing how it would work, making it fit together as a story.
“But the rock tunes didn’t fit the story, it didn’t go in any of the chapters, it just tipped it out of balance slightly, so whether it’s going to happen or not, I’m planning for the next album to be more that way.
“It all depends really, if it’s rocky or jazzy. I love them both. I love so much music, I could go any way.”
Other songs on the album are reminiscent of the scruffy electric guitars and harmonies of Teenage Fanclub. Heyward recalls touring with them in North America “quite a bit” in the 1990s. “Then I ended up signing to Creation, which was weird. Suddenly people were saying ‘There’s a connection between you guys’ and I’d been a fan, so it was lovely. I got to see them every night. It was fantastic to sit there and watch their harmonies all falling together like autumn leaves.”
The “nature side” of the album was recorded at his home in rural America. “I would just open the window and sometimes on a beautiful morning I would actually capture the outside, and the song was about the open window.”
The remainder was made on producer Ian Shaw’s houseboat in Key West, Florida. The pair were familiar from Heyward’s 90s albums. “Because of that, going to visit him, I think that’s why it had that older influence back again. Working with him, we’d just hook up where we left off. He had a picture of Screamadelica where you’d do the vocals and he had a Blackstar amp like I used to use under the desk, so I got a Gretch [guitar] out, plugged it into a Blackstar and I’m singing in front of Screamadelica. While I was recording I was thinking of Ian and Alan McGee and Ed Ball and all things to do with nineteen-ninety-something-or-other, so it had that more guitary-thing. And we used real drums, which I hadn’t used in my home recordings with my son [Oliver]. So it was just a case of ‘Wow, I didn’t realise I’d be making this sound still. It sounds quite 1998, but it just happened that way.
“Popping off Ernest Hemingway’s garden to write some lyrics amongst his cats brought in another influence. There were influences wherever I went. The heat of Key West and the whole tropical landscape definitely seeped in. It’s just raw sunshine out there. It’s just sea and sunshine and really vibrant lime green creatures crawling up your leg.”
Heyward is considering turning Woodland Echoes into a musical.
“I think it would be realistic if I make it happen. I don’t think anybody else is interested in making it happen. People look at me when I talk about it and their eyes glaze over,” he says. “It’s totally up to me.”
Some of the story is autobiographical, he notes. “But when you slip into metaphor you can go all over the place. You become different creatures and animals. Sarah, my partner, became a bluebird. At first I was a fisherman inside a beach hut then I turn into a cuckoo clock. I thought ‘Where on earth is this coming from?’ but that’s the same place as when you start writing songs. You don’t know why you’re doing this but it’s happening anyway. It’s writing you.”
Nick Heyward plays at O2 Academy Sheffield on June 8. nickheyward.com