Richard Stirton: "It's about the message"

Since winning The Voice SA, Richard Stirton has become a household name on the South African music scene. He answers a few questions.

Good day, Richard. How are things?

Good day, Henry, things are pretty good thanks. Working hard and playing as many shows as possible.

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Photo by Jacques Weyer

Congratulations on the recent release of your first album, Middle Ground. There must have been a massive weight of expectation – both commercially and critically – regarding this debut, released on the back of your winning The Voice SA. How did you experience that pressure? To what degree would you say these expectations influenced the way you designed the songs and sounds on the album? Or if it was a fairly simple process in the end, how did you go about adapting to suddenly being at centre stage of pop music in South Africa?

It’s funny that you say “centre stage of pop music in South Africa”, as I do not feel that I am there yet at all. The process of recording this album was indeed stressful, but more from the point of view that I wanted to make a record that I am proud of and can stand behind whole-heartedly. It was weird – I didn’t think too much about the pressure of releasing a quality album based on having just come out of a singing competition, but more so the pressure I put on myself to put out a product that is true to me and that I believe in. I very much believe in the idea that if you believe in something, others will believe in it too.

Commercial sensibility was definitely taken into account, however, when I was recording the album, as one needs to adapt to the market which you are entering. The whole concept of the name Middle Ground was based on the process of working with the Universal Music A&R team in finding the happy medium between my alternative tendencies and the mainstream, commercial sound that is most definitely needed to get any sort of traction on radio, etc. And I do feel that the style of the songs on the album reflect that process very well.

In a way you're in the minority when it comes to contest winners of this kind, in that you've written (and are still writing) original songs. Did you get to record some songs you've had "in the drawer" for the album, or did you mostly go about writing new ones? Was there a certain "mandate" for the collection of originals, or could you write and/or rewrite freely? I assume you've learnt a lot about songwriting since being thrust to the forefront – how do you believe you've developed as a songwriter in terms of new collaborations and what the advisors have been whispering in your ear?

Yes, and I do feel very lucky that I have been given the opportunity to contribute my original works to my album. Both of my songs were in the drawer, so to speak, but some lyrics and melodies were changed and enhanced with the help of my phenomenal producer, Denholm Harding. I could write and rewrite freely, but I did soon see that there was a particular formula that seemed to be able to be applied to good songs. I think this allowed me to grow, as I have begun approaching the writing process from a more calculated point of view with regard to structure, as opposed to just writing whatever comes out, with little consideration regarding form. I always wrote for myself, but I now try to write more for the listener and how best I can structure the song so the message reaches him or her quickly and concisely.

The two cover songs on the album – "Skinny love" (Bon Iver) and "Sounds of silence" (Simon and Garfunkel), were a part of your journey on The Voice. Musicians are often split on how a cover version should be handled – some believe the original is "holy" and shouldn't be tampered with, others believe it's essential to put your own spin and interpretation on the original. What's your philosophy regarding this, and how did you go about creating your own interpretation? Regarding "Sounds of silence", it sounds like you were inspired by Disturbed's version – is that observation correct, and (without trying to sound "meta"!) how did you go about the challenge of reinterpreting a reinterpretation?

I always maintain that you have to do songs in your own way so that you can be identifiable as an artist. You must obviously draw the line somewhere, so that you don’t completely remove the core essence of the song. I think at the end of the day my approach to covers is that of interpreting the song and its message in my own way without making it unrecognisable to the listener when it is compared with the original version. With regard to "Sounds of silence" I wanted to approach the vocals in almost a S&G and Disturbed hybrid, with the delicacy and finesse of S&G but then bringing in raw, powerful vocals like Disturbed did. At least that was what I tried to do. They’re obviously phenomenally good at their respective versions, so it was just taking some inspiration from each of them.

Listening to your original songs, it becomes clear you've got a knack for merging emotionally laden storytelling in your lyrics with intricate yet accessible music. How does your songwriting process work, from the moment the first chord is written down until the last lyric is polished? How do you know when a song is "completed" or "ready" to be performed and recorded, and to what extent do you remain open for tweaks to be made in studio?

I don’t really have a set process. It varies from situation to situation. Sometimes it begins with an idea, other times a melody or a chord progression, etc. I don’t have a set formula, haha – I never know when a song is finished. Sometimes you just have to walk away and believe you have done enough. There are always things one can tweak, but I guess once it feels right you should just stop and press “record”. I’m always open to tweaks and ideas, time permitting of course.

According to your biography you used to work as a "singing waiter" in the Stardust restaurant. As it happens, I've visited that restaurant before – lots of fun! Looking back to those days, what valuable lessons or techniques did you pick up doing small, pre-fame gigs that are still handy or crucial for your performances today? And in a vice versa way, what do you wish you knew then that you've come to learn now, during and after The Voice?

Stardust was invaluable to my development as a musician. Singing on stage every night, waitering, serving and interacting with strangers every night really does build the confidence. At Stardust I was surrounded by amazing musicians of all different styles and I learned a lot from them from both from a performance and a technical point of view. I really do not feel I would be where I am today without Stardust restaurant. They give you the opportunity to find yourself as an artist and perform songs that resonate with you even if they are slightly alternative or different from what you would expect in a typical theatrical dining venue.

The South African music scene certainly is an interesting one, with so many forces at play and yet a relatively small platform for musicians in terms of venues, sales etc. How do you view the local scene and the industry, having tasted big struggles and big success? What's great about the scene, and what sucks? How would you like to see it change in the next few years, and how would you like to be an instigator and/or part of that change?

The biggest thing is that we as South Africans need to support our local music. The numbers are tiny here and this is reflected by the numbers required to receive gold and platinum records. People need to actively go out, spend money and support music. I do feel that there is a mindset that because musicians love what they do, they should do it for little pay or even free. We need to believe in ourselves as a country with the standard of music we can create. There are some amazing talents in our industry doing some amazing things; we just need to give them more opportunities to showcase themselves.

In the next few years I’d like to see an increase in the live music-watching culture, the purchase of CDs/downloads, as well as the number of available venues for music-listening, not background music, which is often the case. We need to buy into the experience that is music and the amazing talent that is so often overlooked in this country. I guess I will just push the idea of playing venues and sets that are designed for listening and appreciation of the message of the music, because that’s what it's about at the end of the day – the message.

Since winning The Voice you've obviously performed loads of gigs. Before the fame, you were often on stage as well. Any particular highlights that stand out thus far in terms of touring and performances, especially at smaller venues? Any unusual behind-the-scenes stories you'd like to share? Any moments you'd rather forget?

I’ve absolutely loved being able to play music full-time. It’s an absolute dream. The Barnyard Theatre with Kahn was amazing and we’re also playing at Kirstenbosch on the 11th of December, which I am exceptionally excited about. Playing venues like Café Roux, gigs in Bethlehem and Bloemfontein, and just reaching as many people as possible has been an amazing feeling. Come to a show. That’s where I tell all the behind-the-scenes stories.

What does the near and far future hold for Richard Stirton?

To reach as many people as possible with my music. Tour, write, record and do it all again. To establish a brand that resonates with people and will make them want to come back for more because they genuinely believe in the music and what I stand for.

What is the meaning of life?

That is the question.

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