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Interview: Fiona Bevan on songwriting, new EP and touring with The Wandering Hearts

We spoke to the singer-songwriter as she released her first solo record in four years.

Fiona Bevan
Credit: Chris Almeida

The name Fiona Bevan may not be familiar to many people, but you’ll definitely have heard her songs before.

Bevan’s breakthrough hit came in the form of Little Things, recorded by One Direction, which she wrote with Ed Sheeran. The song topped the charts in 13 countries and led to her writing songs for artists including Steps, Backstreet Boys and Aurora. Now she’s found time to focus on her own music with her new EP Wild Angels Sweet Demons – the follow-up to her 2014 album Talk To Strangers.

I caught up with Fiona recently to talk about the EP, her songwriting experiences and what to expect from her UK tour with The Wandering Hearts.

How would you describe your music?

Well first and foremost I’m a songwriter, so it’s all about the song for me. But I suppose it’s kind of dreamy, cinematic. The EP is mostly me and a piano or me and a guitar, so it’s quite stripped-back. It’s quite organic-sounding, but it’s quite lush and dreamy and cinematic… Sorry, this is not a very good answer! [laughs] It’s sort of soulful and I suppose it’s almost like storytelling. I love painting a picture with the songs. But it’s like the arty bits of Kate Bush mixed with the storytelling of Joni Mitchell and maybe the sexiness of Jimi Hendrix and a bit of the wildness of Bjork. And then I’m somewhere in the middle [laughs].

Why did you decide now was the right time to put this new EP out?

I suppose I just really wanted to release some of my own music again. Because for two years I’ve been writing for other artists, which has been incredible. It’s been a bit like doing a PhD of songwriting – just every day doing it doing it doing it. I really started to have this urge to express myself again in a slightly weirder way than you can get away with with other artists. There’s something very individual about doing your own music and really being able to communicate and express something personal and intimate and a bit weird.

But also I got offered this tour with The Wandering Hearts, and they’re just so amazing. We met on stage in Nashville because we played at the Bluebird Cafe together, and then we were like, ‘oh my God we have to tour together!’ So then I was like, ‘OK, that means I have to record an EP because I can’t tour my old album’. You always need to be moving forward and pushing forward, making new work and keeping yourself challenged and interested and fresh for the audience. It felt really right to me. And I’d already been writing these songs so I just finished them off. I just put together the ones I felt created this world and it just felt completely right. With this record I really followed my gut instinct through all of it and just doing what feels good, and that’s what’s been guiding me.

Was there anything you found challenging about going from writing songs for other people to writing for yourself?

Yeah, it’s very weird to go back to actually, to writing on my own. I think also when I’m writing with other people, I could be writing a real big dancey pop song one day and a rocky pop song the next day and something urban the next day. And I love that kind of variety. But then you end up speaking in all these different voices, like ventriloquism or something. And then you sit back down on your own and you’re like, ‘oh my God, who am I? What do I sound like? What do I want to say?’ And in a way that’s quite terrifying.

So one of the challenges for me was to not hide behind other artists. Because it’s quite easy, even if you write a super-emotional song with that artist, it’s them who’s going to be singing it every night and promoting it on the radio and everything. So I think it was really important for me to not hide any more and to come out with my own music, and just to be brave and put it out into the world and stand up behind it.

Is there anything you’ve learnt from writing for other artists that you applied when you were making this EP?

God, I’ve learnt so much. If I look back at my work from a few years ago, I can see that I’m much better now. Which is good, because it’d be awful if you looked back and thought, ‘oh no, I’m not as good as I used to be!’ So I’ve definitely learnt a lot. I think you learn a lot having to write a song almost every day with people you’ve never met before. You have to quite quickly find common ground emotionally, quite quickly find something really meaningful to everybody in that room. And so you learn how to do that quite quickly and put everyone at their ease and how to create something together and finish it off by the end of the day, which is sometimes incredibly pressured and an intense environment. But you’ve always got to make sure everyone’s having a really fun day. No songs get written if someone’s having a bad time, so we have to make sure everyone’s having fun and it’s relaxed.

But I suppose in general, in terms of songwriting I think you just learn by doing it. You learn so much, and I’ve just been battling. Every single day I’ve been writing songs, so I’m a much, much better songwriter than I used to be. I think hopefully I’ll be able to say that forever. You always want to keep learning.

Are you quite disciplined in your approach to songwriting, or is it more about how the mood takes you?

I’m not particularly disciplined but I’m very open. If I’m not writing with other people and I’ve got the day off to myself, I am disciplined about it. I write songs best first thing in the morning, so if I don’t use that time I’ve lost my little window when my brain is full of really interesting strange lyrics and melodies and stuff. So I am disciplined in I will make the most of the morning and make a massive pot of coffee and sit at the piano or guitar and just really try and see what’s still in my brain, connected from my dreams.

But it’s a combination of being disciplined but also just being really open, because you might get an amazing idea while you’re driving or while you’re in the shower, and I think you’ve got to be able to record it and think about it. So it’s a strange combination of those two things.

Were there any songs on the EP that were particularly easy or difficult to write?

In a way Goddess was the hardest one to write, because I hadn’t been writing for myself at all. I’d been through a lot of bereavement and I’d been through a very dark time, and then out of nowhere that song started to come to me. I recorded it on my granny’s piano. I lost my granny, that was one of the bereavements I had all at the same time. My family decided that I should have the piano because I was the one who really wanted it the most and was going to make the most use of it. So they gave me Granny’s piano, and that song came to me on that piano. It was the beginning of me writing for myself again and it was the beginning of this EP. So from such a dark place which was so difficult and I wasn’t making any music for myself, and out of that all this music started flowing and it’s because of that song. That song’s been like a gateway opening up, and now I feel like I’m exploding back into life with all this new material. It’s helped heal me, actually, and it’s helped me through grieving and depression, so it’s been incredible.

You mentioned that when you write for other artists you tend to co-write – is there anyone you’ve particularly enjoyed working with?

Recently I’ve been working a lot with Aurora, who’s just absolutely incredible. She’s a very special human, a very special musician and songwriter. We’ve actually probably spent a month together writing all in all, so I’ve seen her more than some of my best friends this year. I feel like she’s my little sister now. She’s such an inspiring, unique, creative spirit. So it was such an honour and such a joy to make music with her, because somehow our minds complement each other and we manage to make something really interesting together. I did a lot of her singles, like her single Queendom which I’m very proud of, which came out earlier this year.

I’ve also been working a lot with Tom Walker, who I absolutely love as well. So I think you end up becoming like best friends with these people because you’re often writing a whole album’s worth of material with them or even more. And you’re really going in deep and they’re telling you all their secrets. Because you have to bare your soul a little bit to each other to write a song. Otherwise it’s not going to be a real song. It’s not going to be authentic, it’s not going to be any good. And so you really end up connecting with these people. I’m so proud of Tom as well – it’s all really kicking off, he’s doing so, so well and that’s been a really exciting amazing one as well.

But I’ve also been writing a lot with Janet Devlin who’s wonderful, and LION who’s an artist signed to Fiction, and all these people. I guess I end up helping them develop what they’re doing. In a way I have quite a nurturing role towards them but then it’s also very nurturing for me to work with these people, because they’re such incredible people and it feeds my soul a little bit. So it’s wonderful for everyone when we get to work together like that and be really connected.

Is there anywhere on the tour with The Wandering Hearts you’re particularly looking forward to playing?

Well actually it’s gonna be incredible for me just to get out on the road again. Because I haven’t been touring for the last few years, and the last place I toured was actually Canada. So it’s been a while since I’ve done UK dates. But all of them are just gonna feel so, so good. And I’m revisiting some venues that I’ve played at before, like Newcastle and Brighton. A lot of these towns in fact I have played before and it’s lovely to go back. I hope people remember who I am, because it’s been a while, but the response has been amazing. I’m a bit overwhelmed by all the love actually, it’s just been incredible. So hopefully people out there will come to the show if there’s still any tickets left – a lot of them are sold out. But there’s some really special venues out there. I just love getting out there and meeting everyone after the gig as well, and just having a big chat and connecting. It means a lot to me.

How did you get into music, and what made you decide to pursue it as a career?

Well I suppose I’ve always been really, really interested in music. Apparently my mum told me that when I was four I started bugging her for piano lessons, which I don’t remember. But she’s very into music and she let me have piano lessons with a local teacher in our village, and that was the beginning of it really for me. I remember the first time I composed a chord sequence on the piano. I was like, ‘oh I don’t know what chords I’m playing but they really go together’, and that was the beginning of me composing. I was probably five, six years old, and I really remember that little lightbulb going off in my head.

I’ve always been in bands since I was about 14 and I started writing songs when I was about 12, 13. I’ve done solo stuff from when I was about 20 at uni, and ever since then I’ve just been doing my own solo stuff and writing songs for other people.

My first ever song that was cut by another artist was the song I wrote with Ed Sheeran, and it was a number one for One Direction and it was called Little Things. That was the beginning of my being a songwriter full-time, because before that I was working loads of part-time day jobs and gigging everywhere and selling CDs and really hustling and really grinding. And then that just changed everything. I managed to get a publishing deal, become a full-time writer. So I’ve just been riding that really. And since I got back from touring my last album I’ve just been writing, writing, writing and meeting all these incredible people and getting to work with them, which has been such a joy. But it’s gonna be really gorgeous to get out there and do a bit of my own music again, and it’ll just help balance it all out.

You’ve mentioned Little Things as the song that changed everything for you. How was working with Ed Sheeran on that song, and what was like finding out it had reached number one?

Oh, it was totally amazing working with Ed. We’ve known each other since we were 16. He’s such a sweetheart and he’s very down-to-earth and lovely. I asked him, “do you wanna come round and write a song?” and he was like, ‘yeah, OK’. He just came round and we wrote that song. We kind of wrote it for him actually. It was a little bit too late for his first album and it was a little bit too ballad-y, but then like a year later I was like, ‘oh do you remember that song we wrote?’ and he was like, ‘oh yeah, OK, I’ll demo it’ and he demoed it on the tour bus on an iPad [laughs]. And then he ended up meeting One Direction at the Olympics opening ceremony because they were all hanging out backstage and playing.

Then he gave that song to One Direction and they absolutely loved it, and they put it out, and it went to number one. It’s the most extraordinary sequence of events. I was working so many part-time day jobs, I had so little money, everything I owned had holes in it. I’d been so poor for so long, just grinding away as a working musician, and when it went to number one I just cried so much. Happy, but crying! [laughs] Because I just knew that was gonna open so many doors and me being able to survive and really make a career.

What’s the one song you wish you’d written?

It’s probably Jolene by Dolly Parton. I absolutely love that song. And it means so much to me as a woman. It’s such an interesting viewpoint and it’s not hating on this girl her husband is in love with, it’s pleading with her. It’s one woman asking another, ‘listen’. It’s such a strange wonderful angle and I’ve never heard another like it before or since. So I definitely wish I’d written that song! [laughs]

What do the next few months look like for you?

So after the tour there’s Christmas and everything, but I suppose I’m gonna be writing a new EP. It’s already shaping in my mind. It might turn into a whole album, but at the moment I’m very interested in EPs because it’s like one splash. You can try out a different sound on an EP. My current EP, it’s almost like a concept EP, so I kind of want to do that again. Because of the #MeToo I’ve been writing a lot about what it’s like to be a woman in the world and in the music industry, and that’s making the songs very powerful and meaningful to me.

You have to get up on stage and sing them every night, and for that to be real and electrifying every night I think the songs have to be so deeply meaningful and charged with political meaning or personal emotional meaning. So I just wanna write stuff that really connects with people and matters. I’m describing the world around us and what it’s like to live here, and what it’s like right now. So that’s what I’m up to. I’m just writing a lot, basically. Maybe I’ll do some more touring, I might make another EP, and definitely loads more collaborations because that just really rings my bell [laughs].

Is there anyone in particular you’d like to collaborate with in future?

I’d love to do stuff with Bjork and Bon Iver. I’d also love to do stuff with Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu… That’s a good place to start, isn’t it? If any of those happen I’ll be so, so happy [laughs].

Fiona Bevan’s new EP, Wild Angels Sweet Demons, is out now.

See Fiona on tour in the UK with The Wandering Hearts this November/December:

30 November – The Globe, Cardiff
1 December – Arts Club – Main Room, Liverpool
3 December – Riverside, Newcastle Upon Tyne
4 December – The Caves, Edinburgh
5 December – O2 Institute2, Birmingham

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