Trying to be the next Piano Man…

Ever since I can remember, people have labelled me ‘musical’ or, more recently, given me the nickname ‘Piano Man’ (can there be more than one?! I hope so…).

But I’ve never put anything down on paper about my journey of being an artist, let alone blogged about it. So, here’s my first (and maybe only) blog about what it’s been like for me so far.

I guess I was relatively late to start singing and writing my own songs – I was 25 and had been singing covers for a couple of years in piano bars and pubs. A guy at a venue in Milton Keynes heard me play, introduced himself as a Music Manager and said he thought I should be an artist. I was unsure because I’ve always lacked confidence and had never written a song in my life. But I thought ‘why not?’

I was introduced to a chap called Alan Glass, now a very good friend of mine. Though we’re years apart in age, we share a love for a similar style of music and are both huge fans of Michael McDonald. At this point, I began writing demos and learning how to sing vocals in a studio. I used to travel all the way from Chiswick in West London to Barnet in North London to spend hours at Alan’s home and studio, playing around with ideas and lyrics. I’ve learnt so much from Alan and am eternally grateful to him.

It became clear that my music needed to be tracked live in the studio with me playing a real piano so I started to record at a great studio called WAX in East London. I met and recorded with Rob Strauss from WAX – a brilliant producer, musician and friend. Rob is a truly inspiring guy with such a passion for music and life (and a dressing up box for when musicians start to flag!). Last year I finished recording my debut single ‘Taking Back My Love’ and added real Hammond organ and a horn section to it.

I had done some recording with my good mates Ruen Brothers at Shangri La Studios in Malibu with legendary producer Rick Rubin. It was here I had my eyes opened up to recording on a real piano with a live band. We recorded a live EP – one of my piano heroes, Ian McLagan of the Faces, recorded on the Ruen Brothers original album – and Rick liked my playing which was a massive boost. I wanted these fired up feelings when making my own music too.

My debut single Taking Back My Love seemed to get a lot of love and won me my first big radio play when it got Track of the Week on BBC Introducing. It was play-listed in Holland which was partly due to me meeting a now very good friend, Lana Wolf, who is a Dutch country singer. She passed my music on to some big DJs in Holland who seemed to dig the sound. I’ve since headed over to Holland to perform quite a few times and loved playing live on national radio.

We recorded the piano, bass, drums and vocals for Taking Back My Love all live. Drummer, Ali Thynne and bass player, Huw Foster, are not only long-time friends but have been playing my music with me since the very beginning. The ‘muso’ part of me wanted to prove I could record piano and the entire vocal live – well, I thought, ‘Van did it, Elton did, Michael McDonald did it,’ so there’s no reason why I should shy away from doing it this way.

I got such a kick out of recording my own music that I wanted to get out there and play it. My band and I played two shows in Birmingham and London – I was overwhelmed with the amount of people who wanted to see me perform live.

My second single Sweet Baby Jane – written with Alan Glass and Rebecca Gregory – was, I felt, a much better song than Taking Back My Love, but it didn’t seem to capture the same magic when I recorded it. It did, however, get picked up and was made Track of the Week on BBC Introducing. I did a few live radio sessions on BBC with it and got positive feedback from my radio pluggers and producers but, for major radio play, the sound wasn’t quite there yet.

Music is my whole life. I’m pretty much addicted to it. I gig 4-6 nights a week and fund all my music this way. I feel very, very lucky to be able to gig for a living, but, like most jobs in the world, it’s not as glamorous as people seem to think! I sing so much some weeks, I know my voice won’t be on top form for a recording session so I juggle gigs and my own music – sometimes dropping balls along the way! I’ve also had some terrible vocal issues over the past few years so my voice is the part of me I look after best.

At the end of 2016, some musician friends put me in touch with record producer, Matthew Lawrence. I’d been a fan of his work with an artist called Juan Zelada – I loved the production. He’s also won a Grammy for his work with Mumford & Sons. But the real deal breaker was the fact he’d worked with Van Morrison!

Matt and I got chatting and I took the plunge to re-record Sweet Baby Jane. Matt started putting a group of musicians together for me that he’d worked with before: Ian Thomas on drums, Robbie McIntosh on guitar, Steve Pearce on bass and Ross Stanley on Hammond organ. These guys are some of my favourite musicians about and Robbie McIntosh had pretty much been one of my heroes growing up. I learnt to play guitar along to him when he was in Paul McCartney’s band. I only had the guts to bring it up at the end of the session and chatted to him about some of the live records he made with Paul McCartney.

We recorded as a band at Assault and Battery Studio, North London. I wanted to track the band live, with me on grand piano. To play with session guys of such a high standard, I had to concentrate like I’d never done before!!! The next day I was so exhausted. But they were such nice guys and made me feel at ease. We then added The Blackjack Horns made up of Jack Birchwood on trumpet and Nik Carter on saxophone. Jack is from my hometown of Birmingham, and I used to play in a soul band with him when I was about 15, so it was great to have him on the record. They’re both true professionals and monster players!

Next was the backing vocals. We added 5 female voices; Vula Malinga, LeDonna Marie, Genevieve Sylva, Sabina Adekunle and Viveen Wray. Again, such an incredible pool of talent. I’d always been a huge fan of Vula, seeing her sing with Basement Jaxx and around London. Same goes for Genevieve, who is also a fellow Brummie I’ve been going to watch perform since I was about 17. We recorded the horns and backing vocals at The Pool, Bermondsey.

At the risk of sounding like a big music geek, seeing Matt work and learning the ways of modern recording techniques was one of the most exciting experiences I’ve had.

Recently, whilst finishing off my recording, I was gigging at the Savoy Hotel in London. There are always celebrities walking around, although I don’t recognise a lot of the newer names. One man who stays there a lot – you might have heard of him – is Sir Tom Jones. I’d been playing at the Savoy for a few months but we hadn’t crossed paths. One Friday night not so long ago, I was on my break and about to play my last set. I walked back to my piano and couldn’t miss his hair! I’ve never been that nervous. TOM F*****G JONES!!! I remember, I played Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On and Bring It On Home To Me. He clapped and cheered, which was a really nice gesture. I finished the set with what he told me afterwards is his favourite – Great Balls of Fire. As soon as I finished, a guy walked over to the piano and said, ‘Hi there, Tom Jones would like to meet you.’ What a genuine guy – he complimented my playing and asked me loads of questions about my musical career. Funnily enough, the musicians on Sweet Baby Jane used to play with him so we had lots to chat about. I was fascinated to hear his tales of friends like Jerry Lee Lewis. We hung out for about an hour drinking.

Eric Idle and Noel Fielding even walked over and to say hi to Tom and that they’d enjoyed my music. Tom then said ‘Hey can I have your number please, do you have a card?’ I replied with ‘Oh errrr, I don’t have a card on me’. He said ‘Oh, don’t worry I never carry cards on me either!’ So I got a slip of paper out of the till and wrote my details down for him. He gave me so much inspiration that night, during a time where I was drained and running out of money due to being so full on with my recording. Meeting him came at just the right time.

You never really know what’s going to happen when you finish a song. What I both love and hate about music is that it’s entirely objective – it’s other people’s opinions that decide whether you’re any good! But I’m pretty proud of myself, knowing that I recorded it the way I wanted to and off my own back. When I record, I always have in the back of my mind that two of my heroes, Elton John and Michael McDonald, will hear it and love it. I can dream…

Actually, Bernie Chiaravalle, Michael McDonald’s guitarist, who has always been encouraging and supportive of my music, plays on some of my tracks. Through Bernie, Michael heard my music and sent me a message to say he had been listening to my songs and had been inspired. That was incredible, to receive such a positive message from one of my idols.

You don’t hear very much Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll music on mainstream radio but, when I play songs like Great Balls of Fire for boozed up crowds in London, their reaction is priceless! I’m convinced Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll would come back with vengeance if it had more air-time on mainstream radio.

I just handed my new single to my radio pluggers and have already started arranging new songs to record. It’s most musician’s dream to play their own music live. I love playing with my band and plan to do some shows around the UK and Europe in October. I also hope to head back to South America to play some solo shows after performing in Brazil for the first time earlier this year.

Who knows what will happen next? If all else fails, I might try and become a lanky Elton John tribute act…

My single is released Friday 30th June 2017.

Thanks for reading.

James Sayer



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