Simon Pipe: “We Need To Work Together As Artists.”
Walking into Simon’s quaint home studio, the ambience of creativity immediately overwhelmed me. Art, photographs, posters, and musical instruments are strewn around the space known as Creek Productions; his innovative home base where he has worked his magic for years.
After numerous stints as a backing guitarist for a handful of bands, Pipe became a household name with his hit “Only These Walls” taking the island by storm back in 2011. The monster single not only ushered in his debut album “Ya Probably Shouldnta – which he performed, wrote, and produced all of the songs by himself – but an illustrious career that has seen him work with the island’s top talents across our eclectic musical diaspora.
As soon as we sat down to begin our talk he assumed his all too familiar “guitar across chest” pose. Strumming away at the acoustic instrument in the periodic lulls of the interview, each riff removed every ounce of pre-talk nerves I had during our hour long chat.
He was very open as we discussed his beginnings, the importance of collaboration between artists, his inspiration to keep him going, and more.
Interview by Victoria Greaves | Image via Facebook
Victoria Greaves: Let’s start right at the beginning of your life and career, how did you get into music?
Simon Pipe: I was always into music from very little. My dad is a big music fan even though he’s not a musician, so I always heard a lot of music playing in the house. When I was about 10 or 11, I got involved with a youth group in a missionary organization called ‘Youth With A Mission (YWAM)’ and they had access to instruments.
Church is actually a really great place in Barbados to learn music because they always have instruments. A lot of [musicians] that I know came out of church. I wouldn’t have been able to purchase drums, guitar, keyboard, or whatever, but [at church] I could use their stuff.
So for the first five years of me playing, it was all in the context of worship bands. I led worship at a church, and then the youth group, and I was in a couple of Christian reggae bands.
Sometimes with YWAM we would go on tour in a way. We went to St. Lucia and Trinidad, just doing little gigs and spending time in the community.
I was still playing in worship bands until I was about 18, and then that’s when I left to go to the [United Kingdom].
Did you study music in the UK?
I did audio engineering. To be honest, my parents – like probably most parents [in Barbados] – were skeptical about music being a career option. So I kind of saw audio engineering as a good middle ground.
They were okay with it because it seemed like more of a job. It wasn’t like ‘Oh you going to just play a guitar and see what happens?’ I thought it would be helpful for me too so when I go in a studio at least I know what’s going on. And maybe I could get into recording other people and so on, and it has panned out that way.
I got into production… but to be honest, before I even learned how to record properly, I was already recording [other people]. But, obviously, it opened a lot of doors when I went to the UK. And honestly, not just school, but hanging around with people in the studio and just going to any session that I could get to.
I recorded a lot of my friends… and basically lots of people I recorded for free, or for very little money, but I learnt a lot in that time. I was one of the live engineers at a church there as well.
You did audio engineering but now we know you as a musician. I do believe you have other business that you do?
The studio is my main earner. I do a lot of production and song-writing for other people, and I do a lot of advertising for radio and television. It takes up most of my day, so my creative time happens after all of that.
So after University you came back to Barbados?
I didn’t intend to come back here to live. I had a job in the UK and it was going pretty good.
It wasn’t a big job at all. It was pretty bad, but I really enjoyed it. I was around a lot of good people and [the job] was in the music industry. It was fine for me at the time because I was single and just chilling.
I came back here because the company went under. I had been saving a bit of money – which was strange, because I wasn’t thinking about coming back here – so I thought I would just come back here for a couple of months and get back on my feet and maybe do some work.
I did, and it was kind of annoying. I was doing construction work and I worked in the bank for a little bit. I didn’t intend to stay here too long but then Buggy [Nhakente] and the Fully Loaded Band called and asked me if I wanted to come and play guitar with them.
I was doing some engineering for a couple of other people as well. And then people started to get to know me as a guitarist; so I got calls to gig and play in different bands. And all of this happened while I was working at the bank.
I met up with Carlie [His wife] and we had a son on the way so I was like: ‘Yeah I’m just gonna stay here and start a family and make a life here.’
Do you think you have a specific sound? I always think it’s a cross between ambient, chill, reggae, and it has an alternative vibe too. That’s hard to categorize.
I make a lot of different styles of music. I don’t release most of it under my name – because I make music for ads, television, film, and so on – so nobody knows that I’ve done them.
I think because I dabble in so many different styles of music that sometimes that just ends up seeping into my own stuff. I don’t really know what the style of music is, I guess I just play with different genres, but I feel like if my voice, for whatever reason, it’s fairly distinctive. So it ties all those songs together even though they may be in slightly different genres – hopefully [laughs].
I don’t know that I could describe it as one particular thing. There are definitely reggae essences in there. There’s alternative and rock in there. I love ambient music on a whole so that’s why that’s in there. But I wouldn’t say its one thing.
Your first big hit was “If Only These Walls.” How did you feel about the reception?
I felt like the floodgates had really opened up for local artists and local music.
Around that time there was a lot of debate; a lot of artists were complaining that local music wasn’t playing on the radio, and people weren’t taking them on at all. Basically, if you weren’t from overseas, you weren’t going to get airplay. And it was just a lot of that kind of talk around at the time.
When we put the song out I thought there was a good chance this isn’t going to get listened to by the programme managers -and then it started to play.
There were a few different people who were influential in that song getting big, in terms of radio deejays; but I would have to say Lil Rick was one of the biggest ones. He used to play it every Saturday on his show. And with so many people tuned into his show that really brought the song to a bigger audience.
He wasn’t the only one, but he was definitely one of the more influential ones. Getting support from people like that was a big deal to me at the time, and it still is.
I didn’t think the song was going to go anywhere so it was nice to see that it could. And in a lot of ways it got my foot in the door. From there I was able to experiment more and try different things and send them to radio. Not all of it plays, believe me. I send a lot of music that doesn’t play on radio, but a lot of it does too.
I’ve collaborated with a lot of different people and I keep doing it because I think that it should be a natural thing that happens between the artists – especially in such a small community.
Unfortunately in Barbados we don’t have the togetherness that we should have. It’s quite strange to me because when I was in London people banded together because they had to. You can’t make it by yourself. We need to work together as artists.
You have to build the community yourself; it’s a lot of Do-It-Yourself. It’s very punk rock actually: do it yourself, create your own fan base. I feel like there’s a sense of entitlement here a lot of the time, and really I don’t know why because we are a very talented group of people but no more talented than anyone else.
There’s a lot of great music out there, you only have to go online to find that out. There are thousands of new songs and new artists coming out all of the time. I think collaboration is something that is really important if you want to build the community and you want to grow the art form.
Certainly more useful than complaining: ‘Oh, things aren’t going my way’. Well, do something about it. Something that I’m now starting to get into is working with other artists to put on our own events. I haven’t dabbled in that before so it’s kind of a scary thing for me. If you’re always going to be at the mercy of some promoter, then you’re going to be stuck.
They’re going to pay you what they want to pay you. Especially in these times of economic hardship, you have to create your own avenues to get paid and to be creative. So collaboration is really important to me.
You’ve worked with BalconyTV Barbados. How did you get into that? It’s putting [Bajan artists] out there as that is a global platform with so many artists.
I think [Balcony TV Barbados] is a great thing. Kishmar and Damian [of NuVisual Media], the guys who shoot the videos for Balcony, were shooting the pilot and asked if I would come and perform on it. But I couldn’t do it that day and I felt kind of bad because I wanted to do the show, but it didn’t work out.
So I decided to go online and look up the company and [see] what they did, and I was really impressed. I thought it would be cool to get involved on a deeper level because I think this is something that could really help a lot of the artists here, and help Barbados on a whole. And it just went from there.
I offered to do the audio for them, which I’ve been doing for almost all of the shows. And [also] as host for some of them just because I really believe in the project.
It would be cool if corporate Barbados would jump on some of those things and support them because we are really trying to expose the audience outside of Barbados to what’s going on here.
Balcony is definitely up there and it is one of those things we need to push and so far we haven’t had that support from corporate Barbados. But from the artistic community and the public in general, a lot of people have come and said that they really appreciate what we’re doing. I think like anything else, it will grow over time.
[Editors note: Balcony TV Barbados is no longer active.]
Following on from that, do you think we as a country -corporate Barbados, the government, etc. – are doing enough to encourage people to get involved in the arts, or are we just sitting back on our laurels?
I don’t think that it’s the government or corporate Barbados’ responsibility to support our artists, artists should just do what they’re doing. I don’t create music in the hopes that the government or corporate Barbados is going to support me. I make music because I want to make music.
But having said that, I really wish that we would be a little more progressive. [Minister of Family, Culture, Sports, and Youth, Stephen Lashley] was very heavily involved in putting on [Caribbean Music Summit (CMS).] I don’t know the deep ins-and-outs, but I know he was involved. I think that that at least is a step forward. It shows that something is happening.
Hopefully we can be a little less narrow-minded and more open. I feel like we wait until things have been done and then jump on board but its too late. You have to pioneer things. As corporate Barbados, you can’t sit around and wait until somebody gets big and then try to jump on that bandwagon.
I don’t see many bajan brands supported and promoted by Rihanna, because they waited too long! You can’t wait until that happens again to decide that you’re supporting.
That said, they do support certain artists and certain things – it’s not to knock them at all. I mean, going back to what I said before, our responsibility as artists is to create the art and to be creative. They can do what they want to do with their money.
[Laughs] Really and truly that’s the bottom line!
Yeah so I can’t stress about who jumps on board and who decides to support me. Whoever does I would be loyal to, and whoever doesn’t, sorry!
I guess Barbados is still quite focused on certain times of year. Like the soca guys would get some pretty good sponsorship because that’s a big time for Barbados.
The rest of us not so much. We have a little more work to put in if we want to get somewhere.
Are there any specific experiences, maybe a performance or a particular time in your life, that really shaped who you became as an artist eventually?
There are a few different things. I think even though I’m not involved in performing or playing in worship bands anymore that definitely opened my eyes to how music can be used to create experiences for people. So I’m grateful for learning that in that environment.
I guess that would be one of the bigger ones because that was such a large chunk of my life. The club scene taught me how it can be… it can be pretty rough out there, and there are a lot of traps for musicians and artists to fall into.
So it taught me, through making mistakes, that you have to be focused on what it is you want to get out of making music.
If it is that you want to have a lot of drinks and play in bars all the time, then you’re set. If you want more than that it’s going to take a lot of focus and a lot of work. I would say, not directly music related, but having my son was a big eye-opener and game changer for me. It really made me think about what legacy I want to leave and what I want to pass on.
It’s changed the way I look at everything but definitely the way I approach my work and my music.
What do you mostly draw inspiration from? Do you just sit and it just comes or do you have a specific space that you like to be in? Some of your songs are based on social ills and so on, so what is the process like?
Something that I’ve picked up over time is just to write and record all the time, as often as I can even if I’m not feeling it at the time.
There are times where you know some of your best work will come in 15 minutes and the whole song will be finished and that’s always good.
Sometimes you labour over it forever, and you don’t like it and don’t think that its good. But I think if you want to consider yourself professional; you have to approach it like a professional and do it every day. I find inspiration just comes. It could be from a thought, it could be from taking a walk on the beach – that often happens.
I find inspiration tends to strike me at 2 and 3 ‘o clock in the morning or some ridiculous time when I really don’t feel like being inspired. Or sometimes just watching the news or hearing what’s going on around me.
One of the songs that I performed at the showcase for CMS was Building a Wall, and that started out being inspired by some poetry and some music that I had come across by an artist Anais Mitchell. But then things like Ferguson came up; and different events that made me think this song is worth something.
There’s also a book by Shane Claiborne; his writing also inspired that song. Just a lot of different things coming together that I decided to write about so its more social consciousness.
‘Building a Wall’ was actually my inspiration for that particular question because I heard it and I thought this song has a really deep meaning.
Those songs are always funny because it’s very difficult to promote them – nobody wants to hear that [laughs].
Nobody wants to hear about doom and gloom and sadness. Yes, you’re far more likely to have a song that people really pay attention to if you sing a love song.
If that’s your topic, you’re going to be good. But, the thing is that at the end of the day it depends on your goals. For me personally, I don’t want my legacy to be just that I wrote lots of really pretty songs that people enjoyed.
I would like to be able to say that I left something a little bit more; that I sparked a thought in somebody; that I made someone think for themselves.
I have to write those songs because they’re important to me even if they don’t get as big as some of the other songs.
So, what’s in the future for Simon Pipe?
I have a lot of stuff on the table but nothing that I can really talk about yet but there are a lot of opportunities in the works. I can say that I’m working on my second album right now.
The first one I did entirely by myself but this one I decided to try to work with a few other people in terms of the production and mixing and mastering because really one person shouldn’t write, record, mix and master, you just don’t have the objectivity you need to create a better album.
Barry from CoverDrive is one of the other producers on the album and I’m working with SynchAudio. I’m also working with a few different artists in terms of production for them.
Victoria is a contributing writer who studies law part-time. You can follow her on Twitter or contact her at email@example.com