Cliff, at what age did you begin to play the piano, and who or what were the influences which led you to learn it?
When I was aged about six, my parents bought me a toy piano. It was the one toy I kept going back to, so they sent me for piano lessons, with a little old lady in our London suburb of Wembley, who was called Miss Beryl Silley.
Our two surnames made quite a combination! Her traditional teaching methods were sadly somewhat dull, however, and my true moment of inspiration came three or four years later, when I first heard Mike Garson play on David Bowie’s ‘Aladdin Sane’, which was the first record I ever bought.
Do you play any other instruments, and is there another that you wish you could play?
I play guitar. I would quite like to try the sax one of these days.
You’re just about to release the album: ‘Bowie Songs One’; an exciting collaboration which you have masterminded and which brings together 10 different singers whom each perform a David Bowie song accompanied by yourself on piano. Can you tell us how the idea for the album came about?
As a pianist, I had always enjoyed performing my instrumental arrangements of many great Bowie songs. I founded the Bowie Songs Project in 2014 with the aim of performing and recording David Bowie’s songs, arranged simply for piano and voice.
The idea is that by reinterpreting the material in this unplugged, raw and acoustic way, we might get to the emotional core of the songs. ‘Bowie Songs One’, released worldwide on 3rd March 2017, is the first collection from these recordings, and I think listeners will agree that one thing confirmed by this album is the genius of Bowie’s songwriting.
Even stripped of almost all instrumentation, the songs still stand up beautifully. They have a life of their own, and have so many levels of meaning and feeling as well as intepretation. The songs are the real stars of this project. Having said that, I am also very moved and proud to have gathered some amazingly good vocalists, who have worked wonders in taking the songs in new directions.
Was it initially difficult to choose which songs to feature from Bowie’s extensive catalogue?
His back catalogue is such a huge, varied and rich resource. We are spoilt for choice. I have selected only a couple of the better known hits, preferring to focus quite a lot on exploring some less obvious choices. For example, ‘Letter To Hermione’ from the ‘Space Oddity’ album was always a personal favourite of mine, as was ‘After All’ from ‘The Man Who Sold The World’.
On both of those, the effect of my acoustic arrangement is to spotlight the lyrics and find new structure and meaning in the song. There are already some exciting selections lining up for future volumes, too.
Before the project began, did you have a clear idea of which singers you would like to sing each song, or did the respective singers choose their own song? And what was your thought process behind the pairing of songs to singers?
I have purposely suggested unexpected songs to singers in order to create tension and surprise in the outcomes. For example, I asked Ian Shaw, who is extremely well known and respected in the jazz world, to sing a soulful ballad version of ‘Drive-in Saturday’, which was originally a 1950s rock and roll style song, a doo-wop pastiche.
The young German opera singer, Linda Hergarten, delivers an intimate and poignant cabaret take on Bowie’s ‘Time’. This apparent disjuncture or tension between some of the singers and the songs they perform proved capable of being a further catalyst in creating someting new and special.
As a performer, what do you think is the biggest challenge in covering and interpreting a David Bowie song?
During his life time, there were surprisingly few covers of Bowie songs, in spite of the fact that from his earliest years onwards he always saw himself as more of a songwriter than a singer, and famously donated some of his earliest great songs to others for them to have hits with, even before he recorded them himself (‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, ‘All The Young Dudes’ etc).
Perhaps performers have been intimidated by how the distinctive style of his writing emanated from his own unique creative personality in a way which welded those songs to him only. The challenge I set for this project, was to steer as far as possible from his own recordings of the songs, in order to explore other facets of them.
One of our singers from the album, Des de Moor, produced and sang his own acoustic Bowie songs album back in 2003, together with the late and much missed pianist, Russell Churney. Bowie heard the album and went on record as saying: “To hear these songs in such a personalised context is a real ear-opener. I listened as though someone else had written them”.
Do you have a favourite Bowie album or song, and if so, why does it resonate with you?
I suppose my favourite of his albums remains ‘Aladdin Sane’, which was the first album I ever got and which inspired me to become a pianist. The film which was made to accompany ‘Life On Mars?’ always stops me in my tracks. I love ‘Blackout’ from ‘Heroes’, ‘After All’, ‘Five Years’…so many, impossible to choose!
You worked with David on his last ever TV appearance: ‘Extras’ by Rickly Gervais. What are you personal memories of working so closely with David?
He was all of these things (in no particular order): charming, warm, welcoming, funny, perfectionist, witty, professional, chatty, intelligent and effortlessly charismatic. We had several little chats during the two days we spent on the job, about an odd range of topics, the memory of which I still treasure. Above all, we had a laugh, and some very special moments together.
You have also worked with artists, Boy George, Jarvis Cocker, Stereo MCs and Lisa Stansfield amongst many others; are there any other musicians whom you would particularly like to collaborate with in the future?
I was very struck by the way in which Lorde delivered a rendition of ‘Life On Mars?’ at last year’s Brit Awards, which was simultaneously true to the spirit of Bowie’s original, and bringing something of herself and something new into it. It was one of the most moving performances of a song, any song, I have ever witnessed.
Ultimately, she made it about the song, not about herself, which is not always the case at such events. I did approach her for this project, but she was busy working on her own material. Perhaps for ‘Bowie Songs Two’ or at some other time, I would love to work with her.
Do you have plans for a follow up to ‘Bowie Songs One’?
Yes, work has already begun and we have some great names who have tentatively signed up for it, and some more surprising song choices which I have allocated to them. I would hope that ‘Bowie Songs Two’ might be released by about this time next year, but for now we are all very excited about the worldwide release of ‘Bowie Songs One’ on 3rd March 2017.
Can we look forward to any live performances of the album in the near future?
Definitely, plans are in hand for a series of live realisations of the arrangements on this album. The logistics are not easy, with so many singers involved, each with their own busy schedules, but it is another challenge which we are happy to rise to. Details of all of that, and about the album and the project in general, will be posted on the website: bowiesongs.com.
David Bowie meant so much to so many people, but how did his artistry personally touch and impact your own life?
Throughout my youth, he was far more than just another pop or rock star, singer or songwriter. His commitment to being an artist in the widest sense, his love of books, of learning, and of cultural cross-fertilisation, made him more like a distance-learning mentor to me and many others. He was the English teacher, art teacher, European Studies teacher you wished you had at college.
Through his work’s references to Brecht, Genet, Orwell, Anthony Newley, Munch, Burroughs and hosts of others, my education was expanded exponentially. He also personified the key lesson of late twentieth-century adolescence, that it is okay to feel alienated, outside, different and that through artistic expression those things can become strengths. I owe a great debt to him.
To later work closely with him was an incredibly apposite and joyous joining of this circle in my life. I hope through ‘Bowie Songs One’ and other work I do that I am partly repaying that debt and continuing the exploration he was so keen to encourage in people. Rather than produce carbon copies of his work, we will take it in new and unexpected directions, just as he would have wished.
My greatest joy in relation to this album was when I played it to someone who was a very close friend of David Bowie throughout their lives. On hearing this album, he simply said, “David would have loved this”.
For further information on ‘Bowie Songs One’ please visit: bowiesongs.com.
Purchase a copy of Clifford Slapper’s biography of Mike Garson: ‘Bowie’s Piano Man: The Life of Mike Garson’ here.