Simon Cliff: hymns, boats and peach farms

Simon Cliff

Photo: Si Ciff

Simon Cliff is a singer-songwriter with many talents. When he’s not strumming his Ibanez acoustic guitar and singing on-stage with The Si Cliff band, he gives music lessons, leads youth groups and children’s clubs at churches, composes film scores and even plays the drums on the side. Despite his impressive career, Simon says he only started taking music seriously when he was 17.

“I was a late starter. My first instrument was actually the drums back when I was in primary school,” says Simon, pointing at his electronic drum kit in his New Cross home studio. “Like most kids I was in a rock band. I can’t remember why I picked up the drums. I also played piano until grade 1 but I hated it. I quit right after, but I regret it now. It would’ve been helpful for what I do now.”

Born and raised in Sandbach, Cheshire, Simon  took drum lessons at school and taught himself guitar through the internet. At 17 he decided to take an AS in music. ”I think I went in over my head,” laughs Simon.

“There was Mozart and all this choral music. I love those pieces but at the time I had just started to get going, so my knowledge of analyzing orchestral music was obviously very limited. I did a performance on guitar for my final assessment and I got high marks.”

The Si Cliff Band – Memories (Live version)

Encouraged by his good grades at school, Si started getting involved with the local folk scene. “A big festival is held each year called Middlewich Folk & Boat Festival, where the place is surrounded by canals. My parents owned a canal boat company and that’s where I worked, which is how I got to know the people involved with music.”

“In each town there’s a folk club where people would gather round in a pub, pull up chairs and just start playing. First time I played was at one of these folk clubs, where they’re really supportive. They’d tell me to sing louder, strum quieter, back then I strummed way too hard.”

How did Simon feel about his first performance? “It was really nerve-wracking. I played at a pub not in my hometown, where I stood way far back from the mic. There was good feedback from the crowd, but I told myself I’d never do that again because it was that scary. I don’t know what brought me back. I guess you just get stuck into the folk scene somehow.”

After a summer of touring around Chester, Liverpool and Northwich, Si decided to take a B-Tech course at Mid-Cheshire College in Commercial Music. “I wasn’t ready for uni yet, so this course was great for introducing me to pop music. I got familiar with studio work and how to think about music professionally. I also met loads of great people including this great sax player, Phil Haywood. We’re doing a project called Alternate Perceptions. It’s very jazzy stuff.”

Though Si primarily plays folk-influenced acoustic songs, he is not confined to one style. “I’m still really into that honest acoustic-songwriting stuff, but I’ve been influenced by jazz a lot lately. The jazz progressions and walking bass lines, that sort of jazzy groove, I love that. What really broadened my horizons was coming to Goldsmiths though, being able to work with so many musicians from all around the world.”

“Coming here made the most sense as I wanted to pursue music as I wanted to be a stronger songwriter. It’s been nothing but amazing, being able to work with people like Eska Mtungwazi and Matthew Herbert. Studying music academically was also helpful, especially since I was self-taught.”

“Goldsmiths was also where I met the members of my band. Their inputs are really valid for my music. They seem to get what I write, we have this great synergy,” says Simon, who writes all the material for The Si Cliff Band. “They’re amazing musicians in their own right and they all have creative input. That’s how I like to work. I would give them a sort of musical flavour and we would work with that. Music is a very creative thing for me. They have to be involved, and I think everyone should be doing something creative as much as they can.”

As a vocalist, guitarist, drummer and composer, Si has involved himself in a myriad of creative works and projects. “I played several songs live on BBC 1 TV. It was a service for Pentecost where I was playing live to camera with an audience and a click track and everything. I recently performed on this ’18 Guitars’ project by one of my tutors, which was a post-minimalist style where 18 guitars were doing different things on-stage.”

Simon on the fields of Goldsmiths College

Photo: Simon Cliff

“I also worked with NHS on a documentary about human error in medicine and its prevention where I made the main titles and sound beds and such. It’s challenging in a different way when you’re writing for someone else, you have to have these sync points and work with what the director wants and doesn’t want.”

Simon led the Goldsmiths Christian society last year and regularly leads youth clubs at churches; do his religious beliefs influence his music? “Yeah, all the stories, choral hymns and songs influence me. Not directly, but the songs about love and tolerance have a lyrical influence on me. Church is like a big family of creative people, so some of my creativity comes from the different people there.”

Si says there’s many ways to find creativity. “I find a lot of inspiration from films and art and the people I meet, especially at church where you find a lot of broken people who need support and people willing to help them. Nature inspires me as well. My dad’s British but my mom’s from British Columbia in Canada, where the scenery is beautiful with peach farms in the summer. I’d sit on a lakeside surrounded by mountains and just play.”

“These religious aspects make me think about musicians as role models as well. I think musicians are responsible for influencing people in a good way. Emotions in music just run so deep. It takes you to places that would otherwise be quite bare, and I feel my music influences people in a positive way. I also like teaching kids because it feels like I’m doing something good, there’s something about taking young kids to teach them from knowing nothing to getting them really good.”

Simon is currently working on a short ‘flipbook-style’ animation film, and plans to tour around London with his band this summer – watch his Myspace for gig dates.

To find out more about his composition works, visit his official webpage.

A live album is planned for a late-summer release.

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