Over the last three decades, Mick has forged and upheld a successful career as a songwriter, poet, performer and storyteller. His successes speak of a man who is proud to be a veteran of the Sheffield music scene. He still supports many musicians through his relentless redefining of his art.
After leaving school, Mick went on the road playing sax in a backing band of visiting soul musicians until he joined Clock DVA in 1980. His stay was short but he still works with leader Adi Newton, who he considers to be one of Sheffield’s greatest sons, albeit in exile.
In 1982, Mick worked in Detroit, signed to Virgin Records with his band Floy, working with Ace producer Don Was and his band Was (Not Was). He worked in Detroit and New York until 1986 with artists like Aretha Franklin, Wayne Kramer often recording in the Talking Heads studio in New York. One hit song, Weak in the Presence of Beauty, knocked Depeche Mode off Number 1 in the import charts. He professes to have learned his art in the studios of Detroit and New York.
When in 1987 Mick’s Dad called down the hall that Virgin was on the phone and Alison Moyet was covering one of his songs, he had no idea that his life had changed forever. Weak in the Presence of Beauty was a massive worldwide hit.
He had much success throughout the early 1990s and in 1995 wrote a worldwide Number 1 hit for Take That, with Gary Barlow co-writing, with Everything Changes But You.
After 1995, he made a conscious decision to go his own way. He collaborated and worked with Sheffield’s I Monster and wrote spoken word pieces, successfully enlisting readers such as his old friend Richard Hawley and famed actress Maxine Peake. He created soundtracks for several BBC Radio 4 drama plays, created his own radio plays and has been more recently working on Psych album Kiedy Wilky Zawja? featuring Polish chanteuse Sylwia Drwal singing and narrating throughout.
Which famous musicians do you admire?
I like Tom Waits a lot. I consider him more of a writer and a performer than a musician – he plays the piano but he plays what he needs to play. I used to love Junior Walker because his playing was so beautiful and so expressive. I like some of the original members of Mothers of Invention, I like Captain Beefheart.
To be honest I like artists more than I like musicians such as Tom Waits, Was Not Was, Captain Beefheart, Mothers of Invention and Jimi Hendrix. I think Jimi Hendrix transcended the guitar. He was like someone from another planet. It didn’t matter what he played – I think he was just a genius. Probably Jimi Hendrix if you were to ask me about me about my favourite musician. The best musicians have the techniques they need to express themselves.
Miles Davis always said, ‘You only need what you’ve got to express yourself’. The rest is surplus. And Hendrix was like that. I think he was an incredible craftsman. The guitar was his paintbrush and Jimi Hendrix expressed himself through that paintbrush. I think Hendrix was probably the most expressive musician there has ever been. For me. In purely musical terms.
Describe your experiences of playing your first instrument.
I’m not a natural musician. I think I’ve just always been really, really tenacious. If I want to do something I never give up. I had years when I was in bands when I wasn’t the best musician by any means, struggling, but then eventually through sheer tenacity, the penny dropped and I started using the instrument. Instead of playing an instrument, I started singing into the instrument. And when I started singing in to an instrument, that’s when I started being good. If you’re just going to play, blow down your instrument, technically and move your fingers about … but if you can start to sing in to your instrument you find your own voice. It takes a long time for that to happen.
What motivated you to play musical instruments rather than just pursuing your writing?
I think it was down to my lack of confidence. I played the saxophone and I was in bands where everyone else wrote songs except me and everyone sang except me and it wasn’t until I was 26 or 27 that I started writing. And I only started writing because I was in a band and I thought if they can do it I’m sure I can do it too. The first song I ever wrote became Melody Maker’s Christmas single of the year. I got a record deal with it with Virgin. That was ‘Until you Come Back to Me’ [from their 1984 debut album Into the Hot]. It was like a soul ballad.
How do you feel about performing in public?
I’ve always, right from the very first gig I ever did – as soon as I got on stage I felt at home. I’ve done live television: The Old Grey Whistle Test and The Tube back in the day. They were live so if you screwed up the world saw it -well, the British public saw it. I’ve never felt nervous live.
What inspires you to write?
The job. I come to the studio. At one time I’d write half a song in the studio and want to take the song home and work on it but over the last ten years I’ve developed and will complete songs in the studio. When I go to the studio I never think what I’m doing until I get to the studio and then I start writing. And I just go in to the zone in my head. It’s like a strange door that I open in my head and I go through the door and I’m there where I stay while I’m writing the song. All the Crooked Man stuff, all the Mzylkypop stuff, everything I’ve done in the last ten to fifteen years has been like that.
Hoagie Carmichael, [songwriter] when asked what inspired him to write replied ‘the phone call’ and I’m a bit like that as well. I’ve got like that. When I’m home I never think about song writing. For me it’s work. These people who feel they have to go up to the attic and those people who say they can only write when they are sad – when I’m sad I can’t write. I can’t do anything. I can barely stand up. I never write when I’m sad. I’m the opposite. I have to be happy to write. Not sad. I’m motivated by the job.
With Crooked Man, which is Parrot’s baby 100%, he gives me a brief – it might be a phrase and he’ll say I want you to write about this … or he might even give me some words. So like for example the big record that we’ve just had the sync in America, [the music was used for Kohl’s department store ‘Everyday Runway’ commercial] he gave me the title ‘The Girl With Better Clothes’ and some words as well. When it comes to the tune I come in to my own then – I’m my own free man.
What are your fondest musical memories?
I used to love listening to my Mum singing in the kitchen. She used to sing along to her favourite songs and I used to think that she sounded a bit like Billy Holliday as I got older. That’s one of my fondest musical memories. My Dad had piano lessons but he never kept it up – they were both from poor families both my mum’s side and my dad’s side – and when I first bought my first electric piano to the house my dad got on it and played some tunes that he remembered still and I was amazed. It was amazing to watch.
Most of my other big favourite musical memories are from my time in America – when I worked with Aretha Franklin. Meeting her – well, I say met her, she never spoke. I was sat in the Sound Suite Studio in Detroit –it was a gospel studio – and all these singers started turning up – Martha Reeves, Levi Stubbs from The Four tops and then who should walk in but Aretha Franklin. She literally walked in very quietly and sat down. I was told Aretha was still grieving for her father who died and she wouldn’t fly anywhere. She didn’t leave Detroit much at that point. She literally sat in the studio like that [head down] and didn’t speak to anyone. Her brother was introducing everyone and was introducing me. Then she sang. She sang lead vocals and Levi Stubbs duetted with her. Being stood in the middle of those two singers was like a spiritual experience I’ve never had before or since.
What are your real passions?
Obviously, music is my real passion but [a huge passion is] Animal Rights. I’m passionate about wild animals. When the badger cull started two years ago, I arranged to meet some of them in a pub in Sheffield. I’d been working that day in Manchester and I drove back and met them in a pub. They were the sweetest people. There were about five of us turned up and I was the only one, eventually, who joined. I drove on two occasions down to Somerset and Gloucestershire. Although they were friendly, some of them viewed me with suspicion. There’d been a lot of infiltration, not only from the police but others, you know, and I think some of them thought I was an infiltrator because of the way I looked. I was much straighter than them – I didn’t have piercings, I didn’t have tattoos I didn’t have a [different] haircut, and I was wearing leather shoes which got a few stares. Eventually, they trusted me. And I’ve been a contributor and a member of Hunt Saboteurs’ Association and League Against Cruel Sports. Other than music [it is] the environment and animals. They are my real passions apart from music.
Now the Sheffield Tree debacle makes me so angry. When you look at other councils – I was reading about Camden Council how they use flexible paving, nurture the trees, value them spiritually to give shelter, take carbon dioxide, all these things –and yet in Sheffield they just cut them down.
[Sheffield Council] actually referred [to trees] as ‘vegetables and flowers’. As no different. I value vegetables and flowers but trees are special. Trees are special. They take a long time to get to how they were and these saplings are not a replacement. It’s tragic. It is a tragedy. They will make long term enemies. And I don’t even think it’s political. It’s people who, for whatever their reasons are, are bloody minded.
How do you feel about Sheffield’s current music scene?
I think the music scene has changed so much in the last fifteen years there is still the same amount of talented people who are as good as when I started out and in some cases probably better. The opportunities now are so limited for young musicians to actually make a career out of music that there’s nothing you can really do about it. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
The internet and the democratisation of music has made recorded music virtually impossible for geek people like me who buy everything by an artist – Tom Waits, say. People offer me downloads often and I don’t accept them. I don’t like them. I like to support artists. Several generations now have grown up with disposable music – a file on a computer or whatever the latest technology is. For example, you can download the whole of The Beatles back catalogue. To me, I’m old school and that’s not magical to me. Music has to be magical. That has massively contributed to the lack of investment in music conversely in musical publishing because a lot of the revenue in music publishing now just comes from old records, back catalogues and they just keep regurgitating it.
Back in the 1980s, if you had a good idea, and this is no word of a lie, you could literally go to London, see half a dozen A&R men and more than likely come away with a record deal and if not that then at least encouragement to go back and get that record deal. Sheffield guys did it. There was a lot of money around and they loved Sheffield bands – Virgin did for example. They’d take a chance. Throw it at the wall and if it stuck it was good. They did that with us, they did it with the Human League – again very successful; Cabaret Voltaire – very successful. They kind of collected bands. So if you were a Sheffield band and had a good idea, more likely than that a record label would invest in your career. You’d come back to Sheffield – I came back to Sheffield with a cheque for £20,000, which in 1982 was a lot of money. So that enabled you to buy a little home studio, instruments, live, pay yourself a wage and effectively start your career. That doesn’t exist anymore.
What’s happened in very simple terms is that there’s a lot of money at the top and nothing in the middle and nothing at the bottom. It doesn’t filter down. If you’re really good which was a sign back in the day you would do gigs for nothing, record at home, make music on your laptop which is amazing. But it doesn’t translate. You can have a thousand likes on Facebook but it’s just a big pond. All the old guys like me are still around but it doesn’t go down the years. There are really good bands now who’ve been around for eight or nine years and they’re still waiting and then behind them are a number of other bands, young bands being formed as we speak, but there’s no guard at the door. This a good thing and a bad thing. In the old days if you wanted to put something out you’d got someone saying you’re good or you’re crap – but now everyone’s in the same boat.
There’s no pacemaker. In many ways, it means there’s such massive competition – trying to get noticed even if you’re really good. I’ve said this before – if you established [yourself] fifteen years ago and you have a decent fan base you can make a career. I mean, I’m signed to BMG and I still get up-roads from the past. Someone might ask ‘How do I get a publishing deal at BMG as a songwriter?’ I wouldn’t know what to tell them. I got one as I was in a band and that’s probably the best route to get noticed. It’s hard for young musicians. It’s tough. Much harder than back in the day.
Mick Somerset Ward signed to BMG Music in December 2016 and continues to write, perform and evolve with each project, working with a whole range of talented artists and musicians. Most recently, he has been working on his latest project, Mzylkypop, with Sylwia Drwal as vocalist, capturing current political and cultural issues through spoken word and song.
PHOTOGRAPHY MAL WHICHELOW