Gemma Milly_Nicholas Stevenson
Illustration by Gemma Milly
Nicholas sent me his CD and tape, troche accompanied by a lovely letter about living and musing about in Bristol. One of my favourite pastimes – we may have been staring into the same middle distance…! Like a quill pen into my heart, stuff I am a sucker for a personal letter. Especially on such nice paper. After reading his scribe, treatment I listened to Nicholas’s album: Phantom Sweetheart, available now on Hilldrop Records.
Album Cover, Phantom Sweetheart, Illustration by Nicholas Stevenson
It’s a splendid listen. Thoughtful and wistful. It’s like a less brash Spectrals. It has a Californian, surf sound, mixed with a smattering of New York – and the mighty UK. This mixture of locations is perhaps a reflection of Nicholas’s various home locations from birth. Since my initial listen, I now enjoy playing the album when I’m in my own little zone, cleaning. Because you could be anywhere. And if you don’t overly want to be where you are right now, there’s your ride. This interesting, sentimental man will take you away. Or indeed in my present case, scrub that flat ‘til in shines like the summer sun reflecting in my – prematurely purchased, cat eyed – sunnies. I miss you sun. I’d like to meet him to discuss travel, home, love and art. Oh yes, he’s an illustrator too. As Nicholas was so eloquent in his letter, I thought an interview would be perfect. So here it follows:
Could you introduce yourself for us Nicholas…?
Hi there, my name is Nicholas Stevenson and I’m a songwriter and illustrator.
Where are you from originally and where do you reside now?
I currently reside in Cambridgeshire, but I was born in Scotland, lived on an island in the Seychelles for a while, and then moved back to England. I’m also half American so I sometimes have a confusing accent; it’s all a bit confusing actually. I usually give people fake biographies about growing up in the North Pole or being found in the wilderness to avoid explaining the complicated truth…
EP Cover, The Aeroplane Darling, Illustration by Nicholas Stevenson
How long have you been playing music? Could you describe it?
It would be hard to say when I started making music, but I found a tape of myself shouting a song I made about giraffes aged four the other day. The music in the shape it is now probably started about three years ago when I moved away to go to Art College. I had a band in high school that made fuzzy alt rock like the Smashing Pumpkins, but when we went our separate ways I started recording songs on my own in my room. It’s a sort of alt folk sound, with lots of layers, and a big emphasis on melodies.
How long have you been illustrating? Could you describe your style?
I’ve been drawing a lot longer than I’ve been making music, but I don’t think I could ever have considered myself an illustrator up until the last couple of years. I try to make work that’s fun, mysterious and occasionally a bit unsettling where possible.
Chase In A Sketchbook, Illustration by Nicholas Stevenson
Do you use your illustration and music to compliment/influence each other?
Most definitely. I think both of these activities really boil down to an urge for me to be story telling. Both my music and illustration usually revolves around some sort of implied narrative and it’s pretty common for a drawing to influence a lyric or vice versa.
What inspires your creativity, both re: music and illustration?
Cosmography, polar exploration, time travel, childhood, memory, feral children, miniature painting, amateurs and outsiders; a lot of things that I read about or places I visit. I try not to rule anything out as potential fodder for making stories and art about.
Bayonets Album Sleeve, Illustration by Nicholas Stevenson
Have you ever had a ‘phantom’ sweetheart?
Well not a sweetheart per-se, but in the Seychelles I had two childhood ghost friends called Coco and Silent. Coco lived in a palm tree, and Silent lived on an abandoned ship. They were both only a foot tall, and wore white sheets with eyeholes, although I think Silent wore a baseball cap. The name ‘Phantom Sweetheart’ came about partly because all of my records have had terms of endearment in the name (Dearest Monstrous, The Aeroplane Darling) and I wanted this album to be really ghostly and spectral. Phantom Sweetheart just seemed to be the perfect title.
And what do you think about love and ‘being in love’ ?
I think it’s a really nice special thing, I’m probably a bit of a softy and a romantic. It might seem like I’ve written a few songs from an anti-love position, but as Harvey Danger once said: “Happiness writes white”.
Have you been in love?
Oh yes mam.
Hilldrop Business Cards, Illustration by Nicholas Stevenson
Who else is in your band?
Dan Lewis plays the drums, Tom Harrington plays the bass guitar and glockenspiel whilst Oliver Wilde plays lead guitar.
When/how did you get together?
I met Dan and Tom in Hereford where I was studying at Art College. My manager Joe introduced us and we started arranging my songs and got performing almost straight away as a three piece. Oliver joined the band just last autumn. He not only signed me to his label Hilldrop Records, but he also produced and recorded the album with me in his house in Bristol. We worked really closely together on Phantom Sweetheart and Oliver had a big impact on the way those songs turned out. Of course by the end he knew how to play them all back to front and it seemed like a no-brainer that he should come out on tour with us.
And who is your record label, and how did you get signed?
Hilldrop Records are my label. I think they requested I send them some of my demos in the mail over a year ago. They liked what they heard and I played some gigs for them and we hit it off pretty fast, I started making posters for their shows too. We were all coming from a similar direction and they were interested in promoting art and building it in to the performances. We’d got to know each other reasonably well by the time we decided to sign a contract and make the album.
Illustration by Nicholas Stevenson
What was it like going on tour? Did you get inspired?
It was a blast, definitely not glamorous, but great fun. Our car broke down on the way to a sold out show in Bakewell and we had to jettison half the gear and get a taxi. We arrived just in the nick of time with no drums or drummer, and played entirely unplugged to a wonderfully attentive packed room. We spent the night in a big old house; there were teddy bears in the beds. Bakewell is such an old fashioned and charming town (home to the bakewell tart) everyone was so kind and interesting there, it sort of inspired us to play more small places on tour. It doesn’t seem fair that the big cities get all the tour dates, where people can sometimes be so jaded towards the barrage of live music anyway.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Hopefully doing the same things I’m doing now, but more masterfully. I’m fully aware I have a long way to go and lots of room to grow before I’m satisfied… I just hope I’m fortunate enough to find time for it all.
What about now, what is coming up for you?
At the moment I’m working on a sort of audio zine project called ‘Dead Arm’. It’s going to be a series of cassette tapes, each with a different set of new songs and sounds. Its quite fun telling myself to sit down and make a continuous twenty-minute tape, rather than getting too hung up on individual songs; it makes me less precious and hopefully more inventive. I’m quite excited to see where it goes…
You can buy Phantom Sweetheart, on Hilldrop Records, here.
Categories ,adventure, ,Anti-Love, ,Art College, ,Bakewell, ,Bakewell Tart, ,Bayonets, ,bristol, ,california, ,Cambridgeshire, ,city, ,Cosmology, ,Dan Lewis, ,Gemma Milly, ,Ghost, ,guitars, ,Harvey Danger, ,Helen Martin, ,Hereford, ,High School, ,Hilldrop Records, ,illustration, ,implied narrative, ,Love, ,miniature painting, ,new york, ,Nicholas Stevenson, ,Phantom Sweetheart, ,Romantic, ,scotland, ,Seychelles, ,singer, ,songwriter, ,Spectrals, ,story, ,surf, ,Tom Harrington