Richard Stirton: A new album and our coolest interview yet!

Interviewing artists to this point has been relatively easy. I ask the questions, they provide the answers and then boom…content! Sometimes I’ve interviewed artists who I loved but the manner in which they approach the interview leaves a bitter taste in my mouth which somehow makes their music less appealing to me. You know how people often tell you never to meet your idols? There’s a strong element of truth to that. It’s often after experiencing such that I wonder if meeting somebody who is super pleasant would make their music more enjoyable. Turns out it is and I learned this through a conversation with Richard Stirton. Even if I wanted to plug questions and answers in here, I wouldn’t be able to as I became too submersed in the conversation, so this is a recount of my experience, sitting on a couch with the winner of the Voice SA 2016 as he’s just released his debut album, Middle Ground.

On First Impressions

About three weeks ago, I found myself heading to Universal Studios in Johannesburg to interview Richard Stirton armed with a warning that he’s a diva and prepared to take the conservative approach to the interview. It didn’t take long before I came to realise that my intelligence was false and, gratefully, I was then able to ask the question that everybody else has been too polite to ask. For those of you who are still wondering, Stirton uses Rosemary shampoo to keep his hair as fabulous as it is.

My next impression was the amount of value he places in his loved ones. Encouraged by his long term girlfriend to enter the Voice having had just been booted off early on Idols, Stirton claims that he almost felt out of his depth surrounded by so much talent. You’d expect the winner of a premier competition with so much fame thrust upon them to be conceited, egotistic and condescending but not this dude. He was still in a state of disbelief despite being in Universal Studios having just recorded a 10 track album. When quizzed about how it feels to be at a studio which has signed such tremendous artists, he claims that “…what I like about Universal is that the people here are really real. They care. It’s not just a case of these artists go do this and that.” He even elaborated on how a staff member offered him a place to crash at his own house given that he’s from Cape Town but had to remain in Johannesburg following the victory.

Since all four judges wanted to be his coach, I had to ask if, growing up, the 22 year old ever would have thought that Bobby van Jaarsveld would want to coach him. After a chuckle he explained his choice.  The “hype and vibe” of what’s going on back stage is aided by the fact that you don’t see the coaches before and when they turned, the feeling was surreal because they looked like figurines with all the TV/stage makeup on. The feeling was made more intense by the realisation “knowing that they know I exist because you don’t think that people at that level would even know who you are”. It turns out that the first show Stirton ever went to was a Parlotones show in Kirstenbosch so, despite the anxiety, the choice was destined to be Kahn Morbee.

On Writing

Of course, I had to do my homework so I got an early taste of the album and identified “call it luck” as my favourite track. It’s one of those songs that puts a cool spin on finding the perfect person and having discussed his girlfriend’s influence, I had to ask if he wrote the song about her because there was a reference to a “ball and chain” in the lyrics which could land him in romantic troubles. Without flinching nor hiding anything, Stirton volunteered that it was one of the songs which was written for him. I recall being taken aback thinking how many artists have quivered at the thought of admitting that they didn’t write their own song. Not this dude. He’s happy to be honest about the facts in the knowledge that he’s a rising talent and will have ample opportunity to write more in future. Stirton claims he wrote a number of songs on the album, a fact which he owns, but in the three weeks afforded him it was impossible to write all 10 and still record and master them.

While the sincerity was flowing, he did elaborate on how he’d at least added his creativity to all the tracks as he’s never thought of himself as a generic artist so he insisted that he’d have a message in all his music. The album contains two covers, two that he wrote himself and another cowrite. For the remaining sourced songs, he explains, his team took the demos and changed lyrics, chords and progressions to make it fit and feel better. Being earnest, he explains that it was difficult for him to accept because obviously one would want to write all of their own songs but the industry is simply not like that and the example he jumps to is that Cee Lo Green’s Forget You was written by Bruno Mars.

He did manage to sneak in his own guitar playing which adds to his personality on the album…For one cover it was recorded in a single take to maintain the raw feeling.

On Choice and Support

As I gathered that he had made peace with the business demands of the industry, I remembered that some of my better intelligence had informed me that he was pursuing a business degree at UCT which he describes as being “on hold a bit for now”. I wanted to prod him further on this as most millennials in his position would be presented with this sort of fork in the road (yes, reference was made to the Interstate 60 film…multiple times) in a world of increasing opportunities. One may assume that his decision was a simple one but he explains that he had had no formal music training at all in his early days and was all about playing rugby instead of doing vocal warmups until 2013 when he joined the Barnyard Theatre but was fired after one show because he couldn’t dance. Apparently playing flank for Rondebosch first team doesn’t bode well for theatrical dance. Who would have thought? After being kicked out of Idols he decided that he didn’t want to enter the music industry without a plan and some structure so he opted to do a year of business science and then took a gap year while working at Stardust Restaurant where he learned a lot. His metaphor was amazing; “I tried to be a bit like a sponge. You just want to take from everybody else because a lot of people have a lot to share so it’s just about learning from others.”

Continuing his admissions, it turns out the guy couldn’t even play a full song on the guitar at the beginning of 2014 but persisted in his learning until returning to university. In 2015 he only played about 3 gigs and was naturally feeling unprepared for the Voice. Stirton took to heart the experience and support of his father though and shares the story about how his father wanted to become a professional golfer but was encouraged by his father to just try a year of university.  In the all too familiar story, his father got trapped in the university system and ended up not playing golf professionally despite his growing success at a provincial level. He explains further that his dad said, “Dude. Just go for it!” which made the decision easier.

Support seems extremely foundational to the young lad yet he also dishes it out. He spoke of how he and his girlfriend have been together since matric and that “with every stage that we’ve been through, you help the other person” so as much as she’s supported him “a hellavalot”, he enjoys supporting her through her degree in the same way that they supported each other during matric finals.

A massive 90% of his success he attributes to the support of his loved ones who would maintain contact with him even in the times when the competition and subsequent work would make him feel isolated.

Worst Selfie. No photo credit desired

Worst Selfie. No photo credit desired

On the Future

Stirton is well aware of the short attention of the market so his focus is on the brand and he’s pushing himself as much as he can to build it. He wants audiences to feel like they’re his friend because “it sucks going to to a show and feeling disconnected from the audience”. He also wants to show appreciation to his fans, even if it means driving to Bethlehem which he seemed to enjoy, even though it’s “2 and a half hours away from anything” because, as he explains, “I’d rather go there and play for fans than get on a high horse and say well come to me because I appreciate that without fans and an audience, I’d not be able to do what I do.”

He still seems intent on finishing his studies in the pursuit of developing his brand and business while learning all the nuances of the corporate world.

As we were concluding the formal parts of our chat, I couldn’t help thinking what a cool oke this oke is. I knew that I’d be listening to his album on my way back to the office enjoying it even more than before in the knowledge that the man behind the voice is a genuinely good and sincere person. I had to ask him one more thing.

I recalled an interview between Ali G and Donald Trump where Trump was asked, “What is the most popular thing in the world?”. In a moment of wisdom, despite being prodded to answer ice cream, Trump responded, “Music!”. I tend to agree with Trump on that. I asked Richard Stirton if he felt the same and that now he’s in the powerful realm of music whether he feels a responsibly of any sorts on his shoulders given the current state of the country. He responded…