Interview with Steven Joseph
The first question is always the classic one: when did you start playing guitar and why?
I began guitar at the age of 5. Mr. Surtees (my then teacher in school) would often have the class sit and clap along to him playing guitar. In hindsight, I’m not entirely sure that was strictly within the curriculum! Nevertheless, I was captivated and I asked my parents if I could play guitar. They duly obliged and got me a half size guitar and asked Mr. Surtees to come over to our house after school to teach me once a week, and the rest as they say, is history.
The chances are if he’d had played the violin instead of guitar, I’d have learned violin. Or if he’d played trombone then I’d be a trombonist! I think it was more the fact that guitar was the first instrument I got to see up close and played live that resulted in me playing, rather than any romantic mystical connection or epiphany!
Where did you study and what is your musical background?
I have been extremely fortunate to study at many of the world’s finest music institutions during my life. Although I started guitar aged 5, when I look back I realise I never really took it seriously or practised that much til around age 13, which is when I started seriously considering what I wanted to do as a career. Believe it or not at one point I was very close to pursuing a career as a pilot in the RAF!
In regards to my musical background, I’d always been at a slight disadvantage in regards to the fact that pretty much nobody in my immediate or extended family at all played an instrument or had ever even touched one. My granddad could ‘sort of’ play the organ, but other than that everyone has been and still is bemused as to where I got my ‘musical gene’.
My dad, despite not being a musician and knowing pretty much nothing about the music scene, was very proactive in researching and contacting the best teachers and institutions in Liverpool and further afield. Through pure chance he learned of the Junior Royal Northern College of Music – a Saturday music school in Manchester teaching kids aged 8-18. I auditioned and got in and was the only guitarist studying there! So in order to partake in ensemble classes I took up saxophone and played in quartets and big bands.
My teacher at the Jnr RNCM was Wendy Jackson and she was also a teacher at the famous Chethams School of Music. She suggested I audition to study there for 6th form, which I did. I remember vividly the day the letter arrived at home saying I’d got in. Going to ‘Chets’ was arguably the most pivotal moment of my life to date as not only did it mean leaving home in Liverpool to go and be boarder at the school in Manchester, but it signified my choice to seriously pursue music as a career. My 2 years at Chets were the happiest of my life and many of my nearest and dearest friends today I met at Chets, including my girlfriend who I’m still with today 11 years later.
For my undergraduate studies I went back to the RNCM for four years, studying with the legendary Gordon Crosskey and Craig Ogden. 4 years later I moved down to London to do my Masters at the Royal College of Music under the tutelage of Gary Ryan.
With what guitar do you play and have you played with?
There’s somewhat of a funny story behind my current guitar. Up until recently I had been playing a cedar fan braced Stephen Hill, which Stephen built new for me back in 2012. I came across Stephen’s guitars via my RCM tutor Gary Ryan, who played his guitars. They have a very unique and distinctive quality to their sound, which is hard to describe –almost ‘piano-like’, very sonorous and powerful.
A good friend of mine Manus Noble also played Hill’s (several in fact!) and he had this one particular Hill built for him in 2011 which I instantly fell in love with the first time I heard it. In fact it was this particular guitar that convinced me to commission Stephen to make one for me.
The guitar Stephen built for me was excellent and I used it right up until late last year, until Manus contacted me saying he was saying his 2011 Hill and would I like it.
So obviously I snapped it up and that’s the guitar I’m using right now!
When did the idea for your first record “Firewire” come about?
I had wanted to make an album for quite a long time before I finally got around to recording ‘Firewire’. I think as far back as 2011 I had begun researching studios and getting a vague idea of what it would cost. It was becoming more and more apparent that a record label was going to come knocking on my door anytime soon and I was going to have to do it myself like everyone else!
I was able to give the project the green light in late 2014 when my dad generously agreed to fund it. Unlike most classical artists I was keen to record in a sterile, studio environment so that I had complete control over the acoustics. This did result in me spending about 20 hours crammed in a tiny soundproof booth within the studio, but it was worth it as I was able to get the sound I was after.
The name of the album comes from one of the pieces on it, which was written for me by Duncan Ward whilst we were both at RNCM together. Duncan is something of a genius and I believe he’s now a junior conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic as well as an in demand composer, so I felt it prudent to ride his coat tails to fame!
The artwork was done by an artist friend of mine called Lauren Sebastian. I met Lauren in Granada when I went out there to pick up my first Stephen Hill guitar. She is a friend of his and I was very fond of her style of painting and so commissioned her to create my album art, which I’m sure you’ll agree is quite distinctive and unique.
How did you come to choose the pieces you played?
I decided to forgo the tradition of having some sort of theme as I wanted the album to be similar to what you’d get in one of my concert programmes i.e. a wide range of styles and genres, most of them not especially classical. I’ve lost count of the amount of debut classical guitar albums that feature music by Bach, Albeniz, Granados, Tedesco etc. and whilst it is beautiful music, I just didn’t want to add yet another version of those pieces to the already humungous pile that’s out there. It’s just not me. And in essence I wanted this album to be a sort of snapshot of who I am as an artist. In short, I wanted it to be different. I wanted it to be fun!
All of the pieces on the album have a personal meaning to me one way or another. A lot of them had a great impact on me the first time I heard them; none more so than Nigel Westlake’s ‘Hinchinbrook Riffs’, a stunning minimalist piece for solo guitar and electronic delay. I first heard it played by Craig Ogden back in 2005 and was completely taken a back by it, not least because I had no idea how it worked at the time. I put on the two Dyens arrangements and Gary Ryan’s ‘Railroad’, because no others have shaped me as a musician as much as those two. Gary in particular has shown myself, and many others, just how versatile the guitar can be.
Rivera’s ‘Whirler of the Dance’ was an interesting choice I feel, because most guitarists haven’t even heard of it, let alone the general public. I love the piece. It’s 3 short movements and to me it seems to capture pretty much everything the guitar does brilliantly.
Duarte’s Catalan Variations are about as close as I steer to ‘standard repertoire’ on this recording. I stumbled upon them quite young when I was listening through some John Williams CD’s and it just struck me as a fantastically written piece of music with real excitement and passion.
I end the album with my own piece Voyager. I wrote it back in 2013 and its my official ‘Opus. 1’ if you like. It’s a distinctly filmic and modern work that tells the story of the Voyager space probe. It utilises quite unusual tuning and I like to think that after listening through the album from start to finish and reaching this piece last, the listener would be able to hear how to a greater or lesser extent all those pieces before it influenced Voyager.
What does improvisation mean for your music research? Do you think it’s possible to talk about improvisation for classical music or we have to turn to other repertories like jazz, contemporary music, etc.?
The word “improvisation” has become synonymous with Jazz and Pop music. I think when most people think of what improvisation is, they picture a musician in a big band making up a solo on the spot, or a lead guitarist in a rock band shredding a solo.
“Classical” musicians are often made to feel quite guilty over their supposed lack of “improvisation skills”. I myself doubt I would be able to put together a convincing solo if someone just started playing chords and said “go!”
But to me this is nonsense. Every time we perform, interpret or interact with music, we are improvising. It’s unavoidable. In order to find our own unique voice in the music world we must improvise. And in order to succeed in this industry you must have a unique voice.
Are there any ‘mistakes’ or ‘regrets’ you have of your musical career to date? Have you tried to avoid making mistakes or did you embrace them and learn from them?
Mistakes? Hundreds. Regrets? Very few.
I’ve made countless mistakes over the years. Whether it be professional ones like turning up late to gig (or failing to show at all! (that only happened once)), failing to plan ahead accordingly, the way I’ve conducted myself in certain situations etc. etc. But ultimately they’ve all been little mistakes in the grand scheme of things.
I can’t say I have any big regrets. I’ve been very fortunate to have done what I’ve done and be were I am today. I guess I sort of regret not being more hard working during my college years, but then again would I have given up the amazing times I had with my friends during the best years of my life instead? Probably not.
It’s easy for anyone to look back and say they regret not practising more for that performance, or not giving their all in this situation, but ultimately you are who you are and although I wish I was a super hard working, guitar playing machine, it’s just not the truth! I’m laid back, enjoy socialising and relaxing and I try not to take myself or life too seriously.
With who would you like to play? What kind of music do you listen to usually?
It’s not very original I know, but he has been my hero since I was 5, so I would have to say John Williams. Of course Julian Bream would have been amazing as well.
Outside the classical guitar world I would love to play with the likes of Evelyn Glennie, Joanna Macgregor, Pat Metheny, Yo Yo Ma and so many others. I’m drawn to people with vitality and a real passion for what they do. People who embrace all styles and don’t play to please anyone but themselves.
As for music I usually listen to, again its cliché, but honestly I like pretty much all styles of music. Or perhaps I should say, I appreciate a good song or piece, regardless of genre. If you were to look through my album collection and online playlists, amongst many others you would find the likes of System of a Down, Lady Ga Ga, Breabach (a celtic fusion group), Abba, Rage Against the Machine, Christine and the Queens, Disney, Eurovision, Steve Reich, Gotye, Snarky Puppy etc. etc.
I guess my two most listened to styles of music are heavy metal/prog rock and cheesy 80’s hits…not exactly to styles that go hand in hand! Surprisingly I don’t really listen to classical music that much at all.
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
At this moment in time I’m preparing for an audition in a couple of weeks for a concert scheme. It’s fairly demanding in that I have to memorise an hours worth of music of all different styles and periods and on the day they can pick and choose what they want to hear at random.
I confess I’m not the most focussed individual you’re likely to meet. I don’t really set myself specific goals or targets very often unless it’s an audition or competition or concert coming up. And these days I’m doing a lot less competitions than I used to (and I only did a couple a year on average at best). I never seem to play well in competitions and always find the atmosphere very uncomfortable.
I’m very excited to have been asked to come and be the first guitar teacher at a music camp in Antigua this summer. It’s an annual event that’s been running for a few years, primarily aimed at getting local kids involved with music, and I’m crazy excited about going to Antigua.
I’ll also be performing aboard the Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria ocean liners later in the year. I’ve done a few short cruise ship residencies in recent years and absolutely love them. Not only do you get to play to a receptive audience in incredible venues (many of them bigger and more grand than ones I play in on land!) but you also get taken around the world, often to places you would never have gone of your own volition.
That’s easily the best thing about this job. It can take you all over the world and you never know what’s around the corner.