My first 18 months at Musiversal as a Session Pianist
Hello, my name is James Graham and I live in Bristol, UK with my wife. I have a studio with a live room 20 minutes cycle ride from our house, where I write and record music. This is also where I do my online session work for Musiversal 🎵
My first memorable musical experience was walking up the stairs in a stranger’s house, for my first piano lesson. I have four brothers and sisters, and my Mum had a thing about all of us taking piano lessons. Only one of my siblings continued lessons, my older brother, who now works in marketing. All my other siblings, although they were perhaps more willing than me, didn’t continue for more than a few months.
Myself on the other hand, rebelled for only the first few lessons and then very quickly became obsessed. I remember hearing songs from my Dad’s record collection and playing along. My first ever performance was playing the Beatles song ‘With a Little Help From my Friends’ on the piano in a primary school leavers concert.
Here’s a picture of my two nephews and their Dad in my studio. They loved learning how to make music for the first time
I then started playing guitar, which really annoyed my brother as it was his guitar, and he hated me running into his room stealing his things. I used to go into his room when he wasn’t there and listen to his CD collection. He had everything from Guns N Roses to the Notorious B.I.G, but when I was in my pre-teens, I really loved his Red Hot Chili Peppers records. I must have been about 11 years old when I first worked out how to use his Hi-fi. I remember just picking the records that had explicit content written on it and showing my other 11-year-old friends!
Anyway, it got me interested in playing guitar. One of my brother’s friends came round one day and started playing the riff from the Hendrix tune ‘Foxy Lady’, pulling a guitar face. I asked him how he learnt how to play it and he told me there was this thing called Google, on a computer, where you can type in any song and it shows up the guitar tabs for it. So that’s what I started doing. Once I figured out what the internet was!
My mum was pleased that I loved music so much. She took me to all the examinations, and when I passed my Grade 8, she put my certificate on the wall next to the piano. Even though I loved Classical music, I didn’t take to the disciplinary aspect of it too well, and always hated the sightreading part of the examinations. So, whilst I was learning the notation, I used to go on random musical journeys with the pieces, improvising in the style of the piece, until I began writing my own classical compositions.
Music A Level seemed like an obvious choice, but I didn’t do as well as I should have. I never listened in class, and I suppose, because music was very personal to me, I always wanted to do it the way I wanted to, which wasn’t really in line with the syllabus. I remember spending hours after school writing my first Piano Concerto. I was listening to Prokofiev and Debussy a lot at that time, getting more into 20th century classical music. I focussed so much on that piece that I didn’t do any other work. I got a C at music A Level in the end. But I was more obsessed with music than I ever had been before.
I went to a few University auditions and interviews, the most memorable one was Birmingham Conservatoire of Music. I applied for the piano performance course, and took my Piano Concerto along with me. The examiner stopped me before I’d finished the first page and told me I’d failed, because one can’t perform one’s own piece at a performance audition! To be fair, I was veering away from the score whilst I was performing it. It was clear I wasn’t cut out for that kind of thing. I was pretty gutted. But he asked me to take the piece into the composition department at lunchtime and see if I could talk to someone there for 5 minutes who could help me. I spoke to the head of composition, took him through my piece with a passionate speech, and a month later received an invitation to the Conservatoire.
That really affected me in a positive way, because it was the first time I had faith in what I was doing musically. I kept getting hit with these barriers throughout my education, and that was finally a door open rather than a door closed.
When I left University, I began playing in bands, and I was determined to make my career from music. So that meant picking up all the gigs I possibly could. Luckily for me, Bristol has a thriving music scene, and it’s not as big and daunting as somewhere like London, so you can find your feet pretty quickly as a performing musician. Once I’d had the thrill of being on stage and seeing a crowd react to the music I’d written with my mates, I just wanted to perform again and again; and get paid for it too, so I could quit my day job in the coffee shop.
In the summer of 2008, I went to a few festivals and met a touring venue called the People’s Front Room. They asked me to travel round with them, playing the piano and setting up the venue, for a free ticket to the festivals. My professional musical life really began then. I met a bunch of people my age doing exactly the same thing as me, and we started a band. That lead me to playing outside of Bristol, and from there, I was approached by the group ‘Hannah Williams and the Tastemakers’, who had contacts outside of the UK. My first tour abroad was with this band. In 2013 we went to Spain. Eventually, the band leader left and Hannah asked me to step into the role.
I wrote furiously for two years, sculpting my craft as a soul song writer, which was no mean feat! Eventually we put out a record, and it did well enough for us to sustain touring as a 9-piece band. We toured continuously from 2016 – 2019, myself and other members touring with other bands too. Those years went by in a flash. Then the pandemic hit.
Hannah Williams and the Affirmations on stage in Germany, 2018
Musiversal and me...
I was devastated when the reality set in that we couldn’t tour anymore. For us Brits, it was not only Covid-19, but Brexit that scuppered our plans. The band really took a hit, because we had just began touring our 2nd album when everything stopped. I desperately needed another stream of income. A friend of mine introduced me to the online musician platform SoundBetter, and I created a profile.
I got one or two jobs in 3 months, and thought there wasn’t much hope for me in the online session world, until a received a job offer from Musiversal. I couldn’t really believe it at first. I looked up the company address on Google Maps, and it took me to a remote part of Portugal. The phone number at the bottom of the message looked unfamiliar. I thought, knowing my luck recently, it was probably a hoax.
But then the phone rang, and I was speaking to a real person, who was very friendly and enthusiastic about offering me a chance to work for this exciting new company.
I was asked to attend an online audition, and given clear instructions on how to prepare. I had no studio space, so I spent the week franticly setting up a makeshift studio in my living room, much to the annoyance of my housemates. I had my Hammond, Wurlitzer, Piano, and recording equipment rigged up in there for a week! However, Musiversal were extremely supportive in helping me find a professional space to work from. In a few months I’d found an awesome studio live room in the centre of Bristol, with no sound disturbance.
This really was a diamond in the rough, as I went through countless spaces, phone calls and meetings trying to find somewhere, and nowhere came even close. I had to make my own free standing acoustic panels and sound diffusers, which was a totally new experience for me. But I’m glad I found somewhere suitable to work from in the end. I am slightly envious of horn players and singers as It’s a lot easier to set up than the massive rig I’ve got! I’m a sucker for vintage gear, and always have been, which I suppose makes me slightly more unique than other players, but it’s a huge labour of love. Everything weighs a tonne, breaks easily, costs lots to repair and takes up a lot of space.
But it sounds like the real thing, because it IS the real thing! And even though they can be quite annoying sometimes, I love my instruments a lot.
My piano and Hammond set up in my living room for the Musiversal audition
Nowadays I work 10 hours a week for Musiversal, and (usually) it’s a breeze getting started. I have everything ready to go before the sessions so I can just plug in and record. I’ve played on hundreds of sessions. I’ve done every type of session you can imagine, from reciting classical piano notation, film score notation, jazz piano chord charts, punk rock Hammond, country blues Hammond, orchestral sound-scaping, Hip-hop synths, layering up house music, writing texture parts for pop music, funky clav for old school funk and soul tracks, the list is endless.
I love the diversity and freedom the job brings, and how surprising it can be. I love meeting new people and helping them create their vision for their music. Sometimes people aren’t as skilled in music theory or production as they would like to be, and it leads them to think they’re not a good enough musician because of this, and it’s really not the case. Just because you haven’t picked up those skills yet doesn’t mean you’re not talented and creative. And that’s where my job role at Musiversal can really make a difference.
I enjoy showing people that they can make great music and turn their ideas into a reality very easily by just working for half an hour. It rings true for me, because for most of my musical upbringing I didn’t value what I was good at, because I didn’t jump through the hoops in my education. But I’m a firm believer that what counts in music is creativity, and you don’t need to be a music theory wizz to be creative.
My studio set up in 2021
Musiversal offers a helping hand to people who come up against brick walls when they want to make music. There are a lot of them in this industry. You need a studio to record in, you need to know your way around computer software, you need to know how to play all the chords, and how to explain them to other musicians. You need to find a record label, you need all the best musical instruments, blah blah blah. It all just becomes too hard. Trust me I’ve been there!
But Musiversal relieves this daunting pressure and shows a new way of making music that breaks down all these barriers. It even has Mastering engineers, people who can score your music for you so you can present it to musicians without needing to know what the theory is. And mixing engineers who can help solve all the problems you come up against when dealing with music computer software. Also, the ability to connect in real time with musicians all over the world is astonishing, when you think only a few years ago this was impossible.
For these reasons I think Musiversal stands alone in the industry and is paving the way for future music making. I’m glad to be a part of it 😊