Heidi Widdop (Cloud Atlas/Stolen Earth/Mostly Autumn)

Heidi Widdop

So, if I were to say ‘Cloud Atlas’ to you, what would you think of? The 2002 poetry collection by Donald Platt? The 2004 novel by David Mitchell? The 2012 film of the novel? Or the new ‘progressive rock’ (careful now) outfit, fronted by former Stolen Earth and Mostly Autumn musician Heidi Widdop? Well, given that you’re on the Words and Music website, there are no prizes for guessing what it makes me think of! Debut album Beyond the Vale is a corker too, so it was great to catch up with Heidi to find out more and to “pick her brain” a little.

Hi Heidi! For anyone who hasn’t seen or heard Cloud Atlas yet, tell us about the band
Cloud Atlas came about after I left Stolen Earth. I felt it was time I moved on and started working on my own material, I had so many ideas and songs floating around in my head it was becoming over crowded. I needed to get them out so that I could allow space for new ideas. Stolen Earth wasn’t the platform for it, so I departed. I knew immediately I wasn’t going to wait before the next phase kicked off and asked Martin Ledger if he would come on board, as he is a great guitarist. We have worked together before and also he is unknown. Sometimes it’s nice to break the mould and not use the same or obvious choices for fellow musicians. Martin has really got something going on and I knew he understood where I was coming from. I think a lot of people will be amazed that they haven’t seen him out there before. I immediately thought of Stu Carver for the bass as he and I had worked together many years ago in the original line-up of Mostly Autumn, he is one of the finest people I know and a very good human being to have around. Neil Scott was drafted in on drums by Martin – he’s very talented and we knew he would do a splendid job on the album. He’s a very busy chap though so at present we are using dep drummers for most of the gigs. Last but not least, Dave Randall, he joined Stolen Earth towards the end of its life and never reached the live phase but I knew he was massively talented and as time has gone by we seem to have had a meeting of minds.

I find it difficult to describe the music – it is what it is. I don’t think I can label it, it comes from within, from the heart, from feelings and thoughts, certainly not the most cheerful stuff you will ever hear but in its own way uplifting, I hope. I have to be honest to myself, I can only write what moves me and if it moves others as well then hallelujah. Beyond the Vale is only the first offering, almost, you could say, something I needed to get out of my system. The next album will be more advanced, I think, more attention to detail, braver somehow and perhaps more experimental.

You’re the band’s main songwriter. What sort of things do you write about?
See last answer! I transfer my feelings to music, usually sadness, passion, the dark side, the things that move me, the things that have hurt me and left a scar within. I’m actually extremely happy but I don’t seem to be able to use that in my music yet. Perhaps I need to reach a higher level of happiness for that to become possible.

Heidi Widdop - Cloud AtlasTell us about your personal musical influences and inspirations?
There has been music in my life for as long as I can remember. My father has always listened to music daily, and fortunately has a really good collection! When I was very small he would play Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Wishbone Ash, The Moody Blues, Lindesfarne, Fleetwood Mac, Roy Harper, Renaissance, Barclay James Harvest, Al Stewart, Neil Young and many more. I would lie in bed and listen to Octoberon by Barclay James Harvest and it would make me cry; I was very young but it touched me. Year of the Cat (Al Stewart) and Rumours (Fleetwood Mac) were also favourites when I was a nipper. Those magical sounds have never left me and although I had a few rebellious years in my early teens where I listened to some 80s’ crap, I came full circle and found the music from my childhood again and it feels so good. I still listen to those bands but they have been joined by some others. Porcupine Tree astound me – when I listen to them I feel a strange kind of dark joy, but also a sadness that I didn’t write that material myself. The realisation that I will never be able to produce something so wonderful leaves me with mixed feelings. I also love Coldplay and Radiohead. At this precise moment I am listening to ‘Snowdrops’ by The Pineapple Thief.

Is it possible to say what music means to you?
It just is. Without it my world would become one dimensional. If I cannot create, I am mute. A slow death would ensue for sure. I would no longer be me. In fact the thought gives me those horrid butterflies, like the ones you’d get when you were small and knew you were going to be in serious trouble at school the following day, when school was your life and seemed to consume everything.

Who was the first artist to make an impression on you?
Barcaly James Harvest – they made me cry. I must have been around seven. My Dad gave me his copy of Octoberon on cassette as he bought the vinyl version.

Tell us about an album, song and/or lyric that means a lot to you?
Octoberon – Barclay James Harvest
A Rush of Blood to the Head – Coldplay
Deadwing – Porcupine Tree
Together Alone – Crowded House

All the above for different reasons. There are many more albums. They all reflect a time in my life that I don’t want to forget, even though some of them may have been unhappy or hard. As for lyrics that mean a lot to me, again there are many but today it is ‘Always in my Head’ by Coldplay:

I think of you, I haven’t slept
I think I do but I don’t forget
My body moves, goes where I will
But though I try my heart stays still
It never moves, just won’t be led
And so my mouth waters to be fed

And you’re always in my head
You’re always in my head

This I guess is to tell you
You’re chosen out from the rest

There’s been much in the rock press recently about ‘the death of the album’. What’s your take on that?
The internet has changed things for sure, sharing, downloading, YouTube, getting your hands on stuff for free, and a lot of bands and artists don’t produce albums anymore, just singles, by all accounts. But I think it depends on the genre. I honestly think that where rock and prog rock are concerned, we are fairly safe. The people that love that music love the physical copy of the album in their hands and everything that goes with it: the artwork, the credits, the lyrics, just to hold it and own it, to open the shrink wrap for the first time, to have it signed etc., to hear the letter clip clatter as your pre-order drops on to the mat. It’s a pleasure in itself, so the artists will continue to create those albums and put them out there. The world is ever changing and yet the album has survived so far.

Cloud Atlas live

What would you say makes a rock gig special?
Apart from the obvious, which is a great sound – nothing worse than going to see a band and the sound is terrible – great venue, great crowd, great material etc., it has to be the delivery from the band. For me it’s more about the vibe on stage and the belief the performers have in what they are doing, it’s an energy thing. Of course, if you get a great sound, great venue, great crowd and great performance then you are in for a treat for sure.

What’s the best gig you’ve been to as a fan?
I’ve seen a lot of live music over the years and Pink Floyd has to be one of the best experiences – how could it not be, they are epic live. But I think the gigs I have enjoyed the most, the ones that have left me ‘affected’, are smaller gigs by much lesser known bands. Probably my most memorable gig would have to be by a band called You Slosh, who are no more unfortunately, though you can still find their music drifting about online. Most people who read this are likely to know their front man, Troy Donockley, who is now a member of Nightwish and has worked with artists including Iona, Mostly Autumn, The Bad Shepherds and Barbara Dickson. Their gigs were amazing, the energy and passion that came off the stage would send the audience into a frenzy. Another memorable gig was Big Country in about 1992 – Stuart Adamson, what a guy, class.

Tell us about the most notable or memorable gig/s you’ve played as a musician?
One memory I have was a small gig in York at a venue called the Bonding Warehouse, now posh city apartments. I performed a song called ‘The Last Leviathan’ alongside Bryan Josh and Duncan Rayson. Duncan was the former keyboard player with You Slosh and has now sadly departed this world for another. The song has so much meaning and passion and everything just came together. You could hear a pin drop, there were tears in the room. Going from one extreme to another, on stage at the Cambridge Rock Festival is always a buzz. You don’t forget those performances; the audience is always so great there – and we’re playing at the 2014 festival.

Your best encounter with an artist as a fan?
Ok, this is easy. I went to The Hackney Empire to see a benefit gig being held for a charity called Rock-a-Baby. It featured Dave Gilmour, Nick Mason, Paul Young, Paul Carrack, Andy Fairweather-Low, Pino Palladino and Andy Newmark. Afterwards there were crowds of people waiting outside the exit round the back and Dave Gilmour came out. He was mobbed and I wasn’t able to get near him but as he got into a car I decided now’s my chance! I leapt in the back with him and went to give him a kiss on the cheek, at which point he turned round and it ended up square on his lips. He said to me: “Oh, how sweet”. I will never forget that. I was young. I think now I would just walk up to him and say hello!

Your strangest encounter with a fan as an artist?
There are many things I could say here but I think it’s better that I don’t!

Your music seems to get labelled ‘progressive rock’? Do you think that’s helpful or limiting?
I get asked this a lot. I think it’s helpful more than anything, because whilst I don’t think it’s entirely prog, there are elements in there and the label allows those who choose that genre to make the choice to give it a chance. Those who don’t do the prog rock thing are still able to make the choice to hear it and they may like it, or not. I don’t mind. You can’t please everyone, and I’m not aiming to be internationally up there. I just want to write, perform, sell some albums, make people feel something and leave something behind when I am gone, for my son.

Heidi WiddopDo you think it’s harder for a woman to break into progressive rock than other forms of music or rock genres?
Hmmm, I think it’s sometimes harder for a woman to be taken seriously, to gain respect and to be listened to without being judged, but I guess that’s the same in everything, not just prog and not just in the music industry. I believe that progressive rock fans are open minded. If something is good, they will appreciate it, whether it is delivered by a woman or a man. I have found it harder being accepted by other musicians than by listeners.

Progressive rock is often associated with demons and wizards, fantasy and fiction. Can it, and should it, have social relevance?
I love demons and wizards, so that’s cool! But yes, it can have social relevance and it’s right that sometimes it should. But it is what it is. It’s a creation that comes from someone’s mind. There are no rules. It can be one thing or another and there is so much prog rock out there that has a social message, meaning, relevance to the world and the horrors within it, relevance to love and harmony, fear and hate, reality and fiction, wizards and demons! I love prog because it’s a journey, much like life itself. It draws you in, it sets you down, it stays with you.

What would you say to someone who thinks that progressive rock was killed by punk?
I’d say clearly they are mistaken. I think in the mainstream punk arrived and the attention was shifted, but those involved in the prog scene would remain so forever. I don’t think it’s something that goes away. It’s not a fad, or a phase that those listeners go through – it sticks. I think punk was more of a phase and it’s a good thing it came about. Change can be good. It had its influence for sure and there have been some great bands to emerge from that but prog will never die. It goes on. My father gave it to me and I have given it to my son. He is eight and his favourite bands are Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues and Hawkwind. I am astounded at the number of people all over the world, far and wide, in places you would never expect, who are part of the prog world. They are dedicated. It’s a lifestyle almost.

How do you view what you do as an artist?
I still feel I am in my infancy. There is much growing to be done. It excites me. I don’t feel I have a choice really – it’s something that I must go with and see where it takes me. I think I have a responsibility to produce something incredibly good in the future. I feel I have a responsibility to perform my ass off on stage. The people we play to deserve it. I am amazed at the dedication and enthusiasm of them. You simply cannot pull the wool over their eyes.

Of everything you’ve done in music, of what are you most proud?
So far, Beyond the Vale. I’m overwhelmed at the response it has received so far.

And finally, what next from Cloud Atlas? What are you up to at the moment? Where can people hear the album and catch you live?
We are performing on the main stage at this year’s Cambridge Rock Festival [7-10 August 2014, Ed]. It’s a brilliant festival; so friendly. The vibe is great, there’s great music, great beer, wonderful people. Then we have a few more dates in September. We are supporting Winter in Eden at their album launch on 5th September  and headlining a Classic Rock Society gig along with a few other bands on 20th September. Other live outings will be announced shortly on the website. Things are buzzing behind the scenes and I already have some new material that is taking shape in my mind. The album can be ordered direct from the website but will also be available in other areas shortly.

 

Cloud Atlas - Beyond The Vale cover

CHEERS HEIDI!

For more information, please check out the Cloud Atlas website and webstore

Hear the Beyond The Vale trailer

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