A Not So Lyttle Year

Ahead of a closing showcase in Derry, musical Renaissance man David Lyttle looks back on the highs and highs of his year in residence at the Nerve Centre

After almost a year as Musician-in-Residence at the Nerve Centre your tenure is soon drawing to a close. Can you give us an outline of what the year has involved?

David: I've been collaborating with a wide range of people in the city, from rock, jazz, singer-songwriters, and they've been coming up to my studio to write, record and have a space where they can try to create something a bit different from what they normally would.

Did you have a plan in mind going in?

It was always going to be about that initial idea so we've kind of stuck to that in that we've been trying to do something special - not trying to change the face of music but trying to do something that's a little bit more unusual, for them and for me.

David Lyttle

Have you found yourself having to work far outside of your comfort zone?

I'm always trying to do that, I think you do that with anyone different that you work with and I don't find writing with people to be difficult. I like all sorts of music and as far as chord progressions and melodies go, they're fairly universal across all sorts of genres. It's when you start adding things, the feel of the music and what instruments are used, those are what can define the style.

So the writing process for me is never really an uncomfortable challenge, but because I'm a producer as well when it comes to taking a song and doing something unusual with it production-wise I'm always trying to leave my stamp so that it reflects what I'm into as well. So I suppose the challenge has been balancing that with creating music the people I've been working with get something out of as well, so that it doesn't just sound like one of my songs but reflects that up-and-coming artist.

How has the experience of working with and mentoring emerging musicians and young novices compared with the collaborations you’d be used to with more distinguished names?

To me it's all the same. Younger people are obviously less experienced and aren't so sure of what they want, which can be a challenge as well. There was a couple of them where I thought I'm not going to go down the road I'd like to go down, because I feel that it might not be good for them. They might like it now but in two years time feel like it doesn't represent them, and that's a difficult thing as an artist as it takes a while to evolve and work out who you are.

All of the young people I've worked with have been very talented and forward-thinking in the sense that they're happy to do something a bit different with me. But then they're very open-minded and their parameters are so wide that you have to decide what might be good for them as an artist down the line, because I want them to feel this represents them and not just as someone singing a song with me.

How have you found the Nerve Centre as a space for music development and creativity?

Brilliant because they've trusted that I was going to work hard and do good things, and have left me to it. Whenever I've got ideas they've always embraced them and as a result I've been coming up here much more than we both thought I would, and that's because I've got a great place to work out of and great people to help me structure the whole year. It's been a very positive experience.

With the residency and your own career, as well as your record label and various other things, how have you managed to maintain so many projects at once?

It's been demanding of my time, definitely, but at the same time if I wasn't doing this I would probably just have been promoting my album, which I have been doing. I don't think I've sacrificed anything in that way. I've been a lot busier than I would've been, but it's kept me in a creative mode and kept me writing. When you do an album the tendency then is to sit back.

I spent a year making the album and releasing it, there's overseeing that then touring it and then there's been things like the award nominations. They've been great but it requires time to maximise the exposure from something like a MOBO nomination, and as I'm the label, again I'm overseeing that. So in a creative way it's definitely been my best year.

David Lyttle

You've been working on original music with both emerging and established artists throughout your residency. Can you tell us what shape this will take and when the public might be able to hear it?

We're going to release a compilation album of all of the tracks we've recorded, and it's going to be very diverse. There's some stuff that's coming out of hip-hop, there's some coming out of jazz and some based in singer-songwriter pop, which I've tried to put all together with coherency.

We'll probably bring that out on vinyl but at the minute we're doing things like working out what the artwork will be, as we want that to be very much in the same spirit of the music. So we're trying to find designers and artists to collaborate together on that. There is a retro element to my own music so this project has been about bringing people back to that slightly more interesting approach of how it was in those days.

Will your experiences there have any resonance on your own career down the line?

I think creatively I've used a few approaches on this project that I'll definitely use again. I don't usually work with singer-songwriters either and from this year evolved an album and a live project with singer-songwriter VerseChorusVerse, Tony Wright. For me that's different and lots of new and exciting things have developed from it.

Your set at Stendhal Festival of Art in August featured many of those you've worked with at the Nerve Centre. How did that then translate to such a unique live setting?

It was quite unusual and very diverse but I really enjoyed it and I think the audience did too. It can sometimes be a bit weird with so many different people, and it's kind of what my live band is like as well, though they aren't quite as diverse.

So sometimes you're wondering if that was too much or if the audience was really into it, but that gig was good as it was the first time performing those songs live and it gave us the opportunity to make adjustments before recording them.

Amongst your standout moments this year are surely the nominations for both a MOBO and an Urban Music Award. Were you disappointed not to have won or were the nods alone ample recognition?

I was just really happy to have been nominated. It would have been nice to have won but I wasn't disappointed. It was quite tense leading in to it because initially I thought "This is great, I've got nominated, lot of exposure", and then the pressure started getting to me as I found out I was the first person from Ireland to be nominated and a lot of people wanted me to win, probably more than I did. So thankfully the jazz category was announced first at the ceremony so I just enjoyed the rest of the night.

But the nomination has been great for next year. We've booked a lot of dates abroad and though winning probably would've bumped things up a level, it wouldn't have been much more. At the same time I don't want everything to be happening in a short space of time. I don't want to be hitting 40 and have achieved everything already, so hopefully the next album will be even bigger to give us something to work towards.

David Lyttle

You sharing the stage with Neil Cowley was significant in that it was a collaboration between past and present Musicians-in-Residence. Did that feel special to you?

Neil's a very talented and creative person and similar to me in that although he comes out of jazz he doesn't call himself a pure jazz musician and does other genres. But he embodies the spirit of it as well as rock music and collaborating, working with Adele and all these different people.

I really like that because when I was getting into jazz I was sort of surrounded by purists and elitists who didn't like this idea of the music being watered down as they saw it. But what I'm trying to do is be me as a jazz drummer but also do other things and Neil totally understands that.

Cowley saw his time as Musician-in-Residence as both the biggest challenge and honour of his career. How does the past year sit amongst your canon of work to date?

It's a great honour to be trusted for a year with the job of encouraging creativity, which is essentially what it's been about. To be encouraging people to be active and inspiring people in my own way, as well as just being a part of people who are going places and hopefully leaving an impression. 

It's definitely been a challenge. I've done residencies before but not for a full year, and for a year you really have to maintain the momentum. It's flown in and I haven't at any point felt like we're off the tracks. Plus on a personal level it's been nice to be based in one place for a length of time and to feel part of a scene. So in many different ways it has been a career highlight for me as well.