Writing number a one hit with pal Ed Sheeran saw 31-year-old Fiona Bevan go from unsung hero to multi-platinum selling songstress. Acoustic caught up with her as she surveyed the future, preparing to launch her album in Canada.
If rock and roll for women lands somewhere between Nancy Spungen and Janice Joplin, then Fiona Bevan is so charming and engaging as to be incongruous. She looks like the girl next door, talks like a primary school teacher, plays guitar like she was born with it in her hands, and writes songs which will suck you in, grab hold of your heart, and use it to dangle you off a cliff. You may not yet have heard of her, but she’s already been part of a band who were protégés of Adam Ant, and co-written a hit for One Direction with Ed Sheeran.
How did you come into playing music? Was your family musical?
I had some instrument lessons as a kid, on piano and violin, because I pestered my mum until she said yes. I was only four, and I was lucky that my mum was really into music and the idea of me having lessons. As a teenager, I stopped having lessons and just started making things up myself because I realised I got more out of that than playing other people’s music. Around that time my friend was putting a band together, and I taught myself bass because that’s what they needed, and I ended up being the singer too. When that band broke up, I taught myself guitar because I still wanted to do gigs and I thought acoustic guitar would support that.
I read that your family used to sing old movie songs together. What impact did those early experiences have on your writing now?
I think it was really important actually; it’s a very sort of “together” thing to do, and I think it did bring us all closer. We would all sing together if we were cooking or just hanging around together at home. I think it was important to my learning, but I didn’t think there was anything special about it – I thought that everybody did that. It really got me thinking about harmony because we’d cook up these four- and five-part harmonies by ear. The way I write now is really aural – I don’t write things down and I think it came from that. I’ve never studied music in a formal way, so those things really were my musical education.
You seem to have developed quite a network of contacts without having yet broken through commercially, how did that happen? It’s almost what you see with Brit School graduates.
I’d play every night in a random bar in London, and I’ve met a lot of my contemporaries through gigging a lot, playing open mic nights, and just getting out there. I wish I’d gone to something like the Brit School, because it can give you a grounding in how the industry works, and I had to learn that stuff the long and hard way. I’ve always been someone who says yes to things, collaborations particularly, which has led to me doing modern classical music in art galleries, playing jazz stuff, and that’s helped me find my sound.
You’re a very capable guitar player; do you think of yourself as an instrumentalist as well, or is it just a vehicle for the songs?
I’m not a virtuouso at all; I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, instrumentally. I can express myself in different ways on all sorts of instruments. There’s something liberating about not having had lessons; people have always thought it was strange the way I make my chords, and every time I find a new chord, it inspires me. I have really big hands as well, so I can do really big stretches, which people find mind boggling.
What sorts of things trigger you to write?
Well, it could be anything really – if I come across a new riff or a chord on guitar, then that can create a whole new writing sequence for me. There’s a song on my album called ‘Gold’, where I started with a riff, and played it a lot and started to figure out what it was about; I love it when everything, the chords and the melody and the words are about the same thing. Sometimes I start with a line or two, or sometimes it all comes at once. Watching old movies inspires me; listening to music doesn’t, because it’s too close, but all other art forms do.
Having co-written a hit for One Direction, you could make a comfortable career writing for other people. What keeps you performing?
Actually, it’s not a love of being up on stage, but I’m drawn to it as a self-expression thing. A gig is like a communication loop with the audience, where you give out and see what you get back, and I find that really important for trying out new songs. Sometimes I just get offered gigs I can’t say no to because of all the fun I’ll have and the people who will be there. Also there’s a social side to it; at the moment I’m writing a lot, and so I’m tucked away in the studio, literally underground, and it’s nice to get out into the light and play a gig. My album came out just about a year ago, so for me, I’m at the end of a cycle, and I’m thinking about the next thing and the new songs, but of course a lot of people haven’t heard it. Unless you’re Coldplay, and you’ve really made it, you need to keep your face out there.
What would success look like for you?
I would like to make it to old age, which in the music industry is a success in itself, and I’d like to look back and feel proud of the albums I’ve made, that they were the best I could have made, and that some of them might have a timeless quality to them. There’s something special about making an album that’s going to be there when I’m long gone. I’m not thinking about what success is. I’m just trying to do my best, write great songs, enjoy playing with people, and just really enjoy the moment I’m in because that’s really all you’ve got. The other thing I’ve been thinking about is women in the music industry, because only 13% of songwriters are female, so I’ve been getting involved in encouraging other women to write, so I’d love to be part of helping get that balance to 50/50. There are so many wonderful women behind the scenes now in publishing, but not sound engineers, interestingly. It was wonderful to be on these workshops, and meet all these women and help demystify the music business for them.
Tell us about the guitars and gear you use?
When I play live, I play this incredible nylon string Martin with a pickup, which was built in, I think, 1967; it’s small bodied, and has a really lovely tone. I don’t use much gear on stage, just a tuning pedal and sometimes a stomp box to keep the beat. I use some really weird tunings, like I’ll tune down to C#, with a ninth on the top; there are some songs where I’ve written a song in a particular tuning, and loved it so much that I’ve ended up writing more songs in it. I use different tunings to make more and stranger chords, to keep inspired, and keep it fresh. I do occasionally play electric guitar on stage; I’ve got a ridiculous sparkly gold Italia Maranello, which is a really good guitar, but really trashy looking in a very cool way, which is why I love it. I feel like certain guitars draw different things out of you, and make you play in different ways. I feel like old guitars, which have been played a lot by a certain person are worn away in particular ways which make you want to play certain chords.
What are your future plans?
There will definitely be another album, which is in progress in my brain and on Logic, but I can’t give you a definite date. I’m doing a lot of writing at the moment, with lots of young musicians, helping them find their voices, which is really rewarding. My album is about to come out in Canada, so I’m going to do some dates over there, and I’ve got a few gigs lined up back here, but I’m very much at a transitory point, and excited about what the future will bring.
Fiona Bevan’s Talk To Strangers is out now.