Meet The Pros - Steven Reid Williams
Hi Steven, its lovely to speak to you finally.
It’s lovely to speak to you too.
Well if I’m able to just jump straight into this, how would you introduce yourself? Imagine you’re at a cocktail party - what’s your normal intro?
I always tell people I'm a musician, and I don’t generally specify unless people ask further questions – because, actually, it’s quite a difficult concept for people to get their heads around.
I think most people, as soon as you say you’re a musician, say “Okay, what music do you do?”; and that’s a perfectly reasonable question, but that’s not very helpful in my case. So I always say something like, “Oh I do all sorts of music, depending on who’s hiring me or depending on what I'm interested in at the time.” That then leads on to further questions usually.
If you ask a member of Coldplay what he does, he does a “thing”. He’s in Coldplay - that’s the music they do. Whereas, what I do is whatever anyone hires me to do; and in my case that’s generally pop music, but, often with other flavours attached to it. I've been in a country band; I’ve done soul and blues and a little bit of jazz. But essentially my work is mainly focused around the UK pop industry.
So yeah, I'm a piano player and singer, which I suppose was probably the first thing I should’ve said!
What’s your earliest musical memory?
I think my earliest musical memory would probably be my Dad playing his records. I think that counts as a musical memory. I mention it because I think it was really important for me.
Listening to the stuff he was listening to as a kid really filtered through and I got a strong sense of what made a good song. So lucky for me he had very good taste in music. So yeah, him listening to his records, mainly on a Sunday afternoon singing along at the top of his voice in his armchair!
Do any of those records stand out?
Well… I’ll give you 2.
One I remember very, very well is an album called Back Home Again by John Denver, which I know is an odd choice but it’s a very… what’s the word, it’s almost got a storytelling kind of vibe to it. John Denver is very colourful with his words, and painting images with his words, which is great when you’re a kid.
So we used to love that album. There was a song on that album called ‘Grandma’s Feather Bed’. He was obviously a grown adult writing these songs but as a kid it sounded like it was written for us. But at the same time it was great country music, with great players on there…and I developed a really good appreciation for music.
My Dad is a very big fan of Gerry Rafferty as well and he is probably in my top 5 musical heroes too, especially in the songwriting world. Sadly, he’s often only known for Baker Street, but he did many, many albums.
Tell us about your musical training.
I'm mainly self-taught. So I started playing keyboard when I was young; probably 10 or 11 something like that.
I did pretty much everything off of my own back. And actually I think that’s how most of my musical colleagues and friends did it.
When I left secondary school I did my A-levels and then went to university and I chose a Music & English degree. So that was musical training of a sort. As part of that I had to do some piano lessons. It was all part of the course - it was kind of mandatory.
But other than that, that’s it really. I know some people go to weekly lessons and that’s the way they learn; and other people go and do a pure music degree. Or, you know, they might go to Berklee! Somewhere like that, but that wasn’t for me.
I do have friends who went to music college, and pursued music education a bit deeper, but a lot of them actually just left school and started playing music, as much as they could, and kind of did a real world apprenticeship.
I don’t really advocate either way. I think whatever suits is absolutely fine. But for me, it was better to be self-taught, and I learnt mainly by ear. But actually that’s how my job also works. Most of the material we learn is learnt by ear. There’s very little reading music or reading charts.
Was there a turning point in your life where you decided to pursue music seriously?
Yeah there’s probably a couple of points.
One was definitely when I was in school. I did alright at school actually. My grades were quite good and my teachers said “you should probably do something that would be fitting for someone who gets your kind of grades.” Whatever they meant by that!
I think they meant go and do something sensible like law or politics, but I wasn’t interested in that very much. I remember, even at that point, thinking that music is the thing that makes me happiest, and you couldn’t stop me from doing it; in my break times and lunch times and after school. I think even then it made sense to me that the thing I do for a career, should be the thing I enjoy doing the most.
But you know, getting from that point to doing it as a career is another matter. When I left university I actually became a teacher for a while. I taught for about 8 or 9 years, so I suppose the second pivotal moment came near the end of my teaching career.
That was when I got the job with Jamelia. I was offered the gig with her; just a one-off initially and then they offered me the job ongoing. I was still teaching at that point and I just remember thinking, well it’s not a career but it’s something, and I think I can work with that. So I left teaching for one gig really… and yeah it kind of worked out.
Is there a mentor figure in your life or someone that really inspires you?
Great question. Is there one? When I was young there certainly was.
When I was at school I was very lucky to have an amazing music teacher and, in fact, he’s still a very good friend of mine. I don’t think he would say that he was a musical mentor to me anymore perhaps, but that’s not really what mentoring is about is it? It’s about attitude and general guidance. The music is only a small part of it.
I would say that he was definitely a mentor growing up. But now, do you know what, I don’t think I have one. That’s probably bad isn’t it? I probably should have a mentor!
I think that when you’re a musician you’re surrounded by mentors who you’ve never met. Stevie Wonder is my mentor, Paul McCartney is my mentor. I guess anyone who you admire in any field can be your mentor.
These days, with all the online resources we have like YouTube and social media; we can get inside these peoples’ lives a little bit more can’t we. Musicians of a really high calibre are sharing their skills and their lives with us a bit more. That’s the way the world’s going. It’s a really lovely thing we’re all a little bit more connected and a bit closer.
One of my heroes is Chris Hitchens. He didn’t have a musical bone in his body. But through all the things he recorded; all of his TV interviews, all of his books etc, he leaves behind a legacy of things that still sort of inform… certainly informs my life in certain ways. But I don’t think I have one mentor anymore.
I suppose music is inherently about sharing. You can’t be a musician without sharing your art, your craft.
No not easily.
But that’s it. I think you’ve got to take whatever influences you can find, and that’s the beautiful thing about being a musician isn’t it – you can learn all the time. There’s access to a billion records and songs and you never stop learning.
Tell us what your practice routine looks like
Oh this is going to be a terrible answer for anyone reading this, but I don’t practice very much, and that’s shameful.
I’ll tell you what it is. For me I think it’s because music is my job, and as such it sometimes feels that the thing I like to do with my spare time is…something else! I have absolutely no doubt that I would be a much better player if I were to put in several hours a day. I have no doubt at all. So I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from practicing, because you should.
There are points when I’m glued to the piano though; especially if there’s a new tour coming up or something like that. You know, I tend to learn through my job and my playing has improved, and it continues to improve all the time, purely because I have to tackle new challenges on a fairly regular basis. Except for last year obviously!
But yeah, I certainly could practice more.
I’m sure you practice though when a big tour or recording session is coming up?
Oh of course, of course. I’d like to think that one of the reasons I get hired is because I am well prepared. If I turn up to the first day of a rehearsal for a new tour, especially with a new artist, I put a lot of homework in.
As a keyboard player a lot of my job involves putting together sounds and getting the laptop and synths and all of the technical side of things flowing properly. Doing all the splits on the keyboards, of which there may be several, and learning all of that stuff - just the mechanics of playing a gig before you even perhaps get to the final nuances of playing a song.
So I do a lot of technical prep. I set up the full touring rig in my house and I run it and learn the songs that way, so by the time it gets to full rehearsals not only do I know the songs but I know where they all are on the keyboards, in terms of the hand positions and all that kind of stuff.
I mean you’ve got to leave some room for rehearsal, but you turn up knowing your stuff, and that can take days or sometimes weeks if it’s a complicated gig. That’s how I tend to approach it.
Some gigs don’t require that much technical preparation; it might just be a more standard piano, Hammond organ type gig, but the same rule applies – just know your stuff. Learn the songs and make sure you can play them to a standard.
Personally, I try to prepare to the point where I don’t need any charts. I know other guys that don’t work the same way. A friend of mine; a great bass player; he turns up to all rehearsals with charts and then by the end of the rehearsal process he tries to lose them. Whereas I try to arrive at rehearsals without charts, just because I know I could become a little too dependent on them. So maybe it requires a little bit more work upfront, but I’d rather do that.
I definitely don’t slack when it comes to preparing for a job. You can’t do that because you’ll soon get found out anyway.
Now obviously you’ve played with some really big names, and at some really big venues as well. What have been some of your standout professional moments?
My first gig with Leo Sayer was really cool. That’s not so much because of where we were playing; it’s just that he was a guy I grew up listening to. So really it wasn’t even the first gig, but maybe just the first rehearsal; being in that room, and playing ‘One Man Band’!
That felt like a really nice moment, because, you know, those are really great songs by a great writer, great singer, that had formed a part of my musical upbringing. So that felt pretty nice.
But also perhaps, maybe my very first professional gig of that ilk with Jamelia. That was a strange one. We flew out to Kazakhstan of all places, and we played for the President and his daughter! The MD called me up the day before this gig, bearing in mind I’d have to take a flight to Kazakhstan in between, and said, “Our keyboard player, he can’t do it, he can’t come. I know it’s a real last-minute thing but can you learn the whole set and come out?!”
So I remember that day was mental. My partner at the time came over and basically did everything practical for me; packed my case, cooked me some kind of food etc, so I could just sit down at the keyboards to try and learn this whole set. And then, without any sleep, I drove to Heathrow, got on the plane to Kazakhstan and did this gig.
That was a real defining moment because I nearly said no to it; thinking theres no way I can learn this set and do it properly within the 4 hours I've got now before this flight. But I did, and it came off. It was fine.
That was a pivotal moment really because those guys who I was playing with then, well they’re still some of my best friends in the world now. I still tour with them and still play with them in various bands.
So yeah, that was definitely one of them. But you know, playing the O2 is always going to feel cool, Wembley Arena – playing that for the first time was nice; Birmingham Symphony Hall, The Sage in Newcastle…you know, all those kind of iconic venues.
But, that said, a lot of the most fun gigs I've done are the smaller ones. The small music venues like The Coronation Tap in Bristol, a famous little music meets cider venue, where the people are 2 inches in front of your face. But I’m doing what I love, with my blues band or something like that. Those are some of the most fun moments.
But yeah, doing a big gig like the one we did in 2019 supporting Cher with Paul Young is really cool too. I did a great Mel C gig in Dubai a few years back. That was a first gig as well; another last minute, lots of pressure type of thing. Seeing that sea of people out there, on the seat of your pants, because the whole gig starts with the keyboards! That’s why, with all that pressure, you often don’t enjoy the gig till afterwards!
Brilliant stories. The Jamelia gig sounds like it was at turning point in your career. Where does that phone call come from? Presumably, you were on somebody’s radar. How did you get that gig?
Well, there’s a very specific chain of events that run up to that and there's no getting away from the fact that it is often a bit of a mixture of ‘right time right place’ plus your ability; and neither one is enough!
So I think it had been probably 2 years before that, where I was playing piano for a great singer called Beth Rowley. She became fairly well known actually. She was sort of around the same time as Duffy, and right back when Adele had first started, and she was up for the same awards at that time. But when I first met her, she was doing fairly small venues. I played this one gig for her, I think, for about £50 in London; bearing in mind I lived in Bristol; so it just covered my fuel! It was a 3 or 4 different acts showcase night type thing and there was a small audience there, a great little venue called The Bedford in Balham.
So, one of the other bands playing there watched our set, and I watched theirs, and I remember thinking “Man, these boys are brilliant!”. I hadn’t heard a band doing their own material who sounded that tight and that professional before. The harmonies were great, the playing was great and there was a lot of admiration there; so I felt like I had to tell them afterwards.
But before I could get to them, they came up to me after the gig and said “Man, your piano playing was great!”; and there was basically a lot of mutual love and respect! And so, we all became friends. We swapped numbers and the last thing they said to me before we left that night was “look, we’re going to get you on a gig at some point”.
The following year these boys ended up being offered the gig with Jamelia, and the rest you know!
And that’s why I nearly said no because I thought, well if I mess this up no-one’s going to ever call me again. You know, I’ll be that guy that messed up this gig.
But thank goodness I took the chance. That’s where it kind of all started for me. It’s a funny one because one of the things I really care about is making sure musicians are earning proper money. So when people say should you go and do free gigs, cheap gigs or open mic nights, part of me thinks you need to get paid what you’re worth. Then I remember my own story and I think, well actually if I hadn’t done that gig, where would I be? I'm torn on that issue.
That’s a very long-winded answer sorry!
No no, that story just proves that you’ve got to be in it to win it, you’ve got to put yourself out there.
A little bit; and I hate all that but it’s true; it’s true.
You can’t just be good at what you do sadly. You do have to engage and get out there a little bit, and that’s why people said, you know, move to London because there will be more of that; because ultimately London is where it’s at etc. I played a gig in London, met some people, my career… started.
So there is an argument there. But that one thing has branched out to so many other things and now I don’t just work with those guys. I work with lots of artists and lots other musicians. It’s a tree. It branches out and you meet new people and, before you know it, lots of people have your number, and, hopefully, might be inclined to call it from time to time.
Do you have any funny backstage stories you can share with us?
I suppose I could preface the answer, whatever it might be, by saying that actually backstage life is far less interesting than people think it is. Sadly, it’s not all sex, drugs, and Rock‘n’Roll. In fact there’s very little of that.
That said…I have walked in on someone having sex in a dressing room, and walked out again very quickly. Obviously, you know, out of respect!
Was this the main artist or can we not say?
It was not the main artist no. *laughs*
But actually that reminds me, there was a time where we, the band for the main artist, went backstage and there was a woman waiting alone in one of the dressing rooms. No one knew who she was, we hadn’t met her before, but she was essentially there with the artist and they were having, well, relations shall we say.
But we didn’t know this, so my friend walked in and he introduced himself and, assuming she was the support act, went “Oh hello, are you opening up for [insert artist name here]?”!
But anyway, you probably had to be there for it to be doubly funny. There’s probably loads of things that have happened but it’s all disappeared; until someone prompts you specifically and says, “Do you remember that time, we did/saw/ate such and such” and then, it all comes flooding back. Anyway, there’s a couple for you.
Have you ever made any embarrassing mistakes during a performance or recording?
Embarrassing mistakes, oh yeah of course I have. Two immediately spring to mind.
The first one was Glastonbury, and I think I was on a rented keyboard. I opened up the show, again, confidently, and I had realised, about ¾ of the way through the short intro, just before any of the other band had joined in, that the transpose button was on. But it wasn’t a tone, it was a semitone; the worst possible scenario.
So the rest of the band fell in, and well, it went horribly wrong at that point.
So how did this resolve itself?
Well… I kept going, and what I mean by that is we didn’t restart. So I joined them in the right key, obviously once I heard it was going horribly wrong and no one was following me to this new key. I realised that I was the one who was going to have to back down.
I don’t know what I was thinking of there, hoping that the rest of this 12 piece band was going to cover my arse! But no, I had to put it back to where it was supposed to be and take the hit.
So you always check your keyboard before you start now do you?
Yeah, that’s far less likely to happen these days. If I do play something wrong it’s usually because I actually played it wrong! But, everyone makes mistakes, so you know, I’ve definitely played wrong chords, here and there.
There was one at the O2, and we were only support but it felt like a big deal. We did the O2 then we were going to do Wembley Arena the next night. It was a piano led song and I played a wrong chord. The audience wouldn’t have noticed but that’s the thing; for me it’s not really about the audience in that scenario, it’s more about the rest of the band, your peers and the artist, thinking that you’re a bit shite! That’s the problem. So I did this song, and I remember getting really het up about it afterwards that I played this wrong chord, because I've always prided myself on being a bit of a perfectionist. But of course the rest of the band, all my mates, they’re just laughing. They don’t mind at all.
But the next gig, I had built it up, it was literally the next night and I'm sweating because now it’s become a thing. And I'm getting closer and closer to that point, everyone in the band is just looking at me at smiling. They don’t care but they know how het up and worried I am about playing this chord wrong again; and the thing about music performance is that the more you worry about it, the more likely it is to happen. Suddenly something as simple as playing the correct chords becomes a challenge!
I got through it though, I played the right thing and it felt like the weight of the world had been taken off my shoulders; and that was just one chord in one song! That only mattered to me really.
That’s the other thing about music, it’s a bit of a curse sometimes in that you can really take on a lot of responsibility. But as my friend says, “It’s just music.”
When you think about it like that you go “that’s true, it is just music, we’re not saving lives.” And its not that it isn’t important, but its important in a different way.
Well that leads very nicely on to the next question actually. WeJam is all about encouraging people to have a go at being in a band. What are the best bits about being in a band for you?
The best bits about being in a band are… that you get to be a part of something, and I know that sounds like an obvious answer but…
Being a solo musician is great, there are lots of benefits to that. The autonomy is great, but the feeling you get when you play with other people; especially people who you like, well that’s an almost magical experience, and it’s very uplifting. Even from just a scientific level we know that it’s good for the brain to connect musically with other people. It’s just great, it releases endorphins and seratonin and all the things that your body likes. It’s good!
Collaboration, working together, feeding off of each other, pre-empting what someone might do, covering them if they’re not doing well for some reason. All those things that you do when you’re in a band are good for your brain and your soul. And, obviously, it just makes an amazing sound doesn’t it; when people get together and work together, properly, and they allow space for other people and they allow space for you, to do your thing.
The overall image, the musical picture is beautiful isn’t it. And that’s what being in a band is all about. Its not just 4 or 5 soloists, if you have 4 or 5 soloists in a band it sounds awful. If you’ve got 4 or 5 people who understand that being part of a band doesn’t mean being front and centre all the time, and it’s respectful and sympathetic, then what you come out with at the end of it is magic. That, you can only get in a band, and I really miss it, especially this last year you know. But it’s the comradery as well; the friendships, the hanging before and after. What’s not to like?
What tips do you have for any aspiring musicians trying to break into the industry – either as session musicians or as solo artists or in a band?
I think perhaps to reiterate the fact that its very hard to do it alone. So I think getting out there and meeting people. It doesn’t mean necessarily moving to London, but it does mean hanging out with people. It does mean, perhaps, being a part of that musical community a little bit; doing jams, writing music together…because it’s people that will connect you to other people and that’s where opportunities are. No one’s going to pull you out of a vacuum to do a gig.
I hate the word networking, because it sounds so dry and cynical doesn’t it. Its just a bad word for making friends really. Just make friends. Make friends in the music business; but not just to get work. Just make friends to make friends! We can all do with more.
And if you make contacts genuinely, you get on with people and you care about what they’re doing, and their musical life, and they care about what you’re doing and yours…well then something will probably come out of that. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter, you’re not resting your future hopes on it.
Make plans as much as you can. Be proactive obviously. Make an album, get better at your instrument. Do practical things, hone your skills and your craft of course, but if you want to make a career out of it, be a sociable musician.
What equipment did you start with and how has it progressed?
Well I was very lucky that my parents were supportive enough to buy me a keyboard. So I hassled them when I was young and they got me a keyboard for Christmas! I don’t think I could tell you what it was, I think it was a Casio something.
But then, yeah, I just sort of worked my way up. So I saved my pennies from my Saturday jobs, and things like that and I remember buying a Kawai K1 at one point. But then I think it was probably in my late teens I got myself a stage piano, one of the early Roland’s, and then I carried on from there.
You know it’s like anything, it builds up and now I’ve got more keyboards than I need; and that’s what every keyboard player should have – too many keyboards! We’re all guilty of that.
Though a lot of it is spread around the country now, because they’re in various bits of storage associated with different tours. I own a lot of equipment though.
It doesn’t really matter what you start on I think, as long as you can make sound on it. If you’ve got the bug then you’ll wring the last bit of love and music out of it… and then move on.
But for those young people who have got the music bug, you’ll never stop them! They’ll always find a way to save for an instrument. I used to be a part of a charity that helped to buy instruments for young people who couldn’t afford it, which sadly isn’t around anymore. But it did a lot of good work in that area; to try and help out families who didn’t have much money so the kids could have instruments sooner. It’s something I was very proud of being involved with.
But yeah, my journey all started on a Casio home keyboard I think!
What gear do you use today? Is it all hardware or do you use software too?
No no, I use a lot of software. Because computers are so much better now I actually now do use some software live. I wouldn’t have done that not so many years ago. I just wouldn’t have trusted it.
For the Paul Young gig, for example, there are obviously a lot of amazing 80s synth sounds to find. In the old days you’d need a truckload of keyboards to cover all of those. Now I can just use a laptop in combination with just a couple of keyboards to get the range of sounds I need.
Whatever the gig is though, I’ll nearly always need a piano too; and I tend to use hardware for that. So a really good stage piano is what I have. I own a few but my main one is a Roland RD2000. The pianos on that are great and I know it’s solid and reliable.
I tend to use software for more of the synth kind of sounds; so, some of the strings, saws, leads and all those kind of things. I also use it for obscure sounds that are easier to create on a laptop perhaps than they are in hardware. Plus it means you have less to carry around.
At home I use Synthogy Ivory and I've been using Alicia’s Keys recently which is really nice too. And also the new UAD (Universal Audio) piano VST called Ravel which is really nice. I’ve got loads of the piano VSTs, again too many!
What’s next for you and where can we follow your career?
Yeah, so my plans for this year are – well I've just finished an album, which I finally finished in lockdown. I’ve been trying to finish that for a while, but touring and regular work took me away from that for a little bit. I'm just getting it finally mixed and mastered at the moment; so when that’s out, I will be doing a little bit of promotion for that.
I may do a few gigs with the album material. Other than that, I've got a tour booked for the end of the year with Leo Sayer. If things return to normal then I will be on that; and if they don’t then, who knows where I’ll be! Right now it’s hard to answer that question I’ll be honest.
If things return to some kind of normal then my musical life goes back to pretty much what I was doing before hopefully; a little bit of touring, regular solo gigs - parties, weddings, birthdays; all those things will be back on with any luck.
Yeah, that’ll probably be the rest of my year, but, you know, at the same time, perhaps learning other skills and getting involved in other non-musical ventures perhaps; little side businesses I've had simmering away for a little while now. I may get those finally started!
Who knows what the year holds?
Well I certainly wish you the best for that, it has been absolutely lovely chatting to you.
The pleasure was mine!
To follow Steven, check out his links below.