Keith Semple is an incredibly talented and multi-faceted musician. After winning a spot in the band One True Voice in 2002 on the UK TV show Popstars: The Rivals, Keith has gone on to a career in the US as a solo artist and frontman for the band 7th heaven. I recently caught up with Keith for a quick chat.
You have an energetic stage presence and seem totally comfortable having all eyes on you. Was it always like that or was getting comfortable on stage something that took a lot of work?
I was always comfortable being the center of attention but as for performances on stage it really came down to the old cliche “practice makes perfect.” It was like getting all the kinks out to figure out what worked and what didn’t. The trick is to “appear” relaxed at all times (laughs).
Some of us struggle to become proficient at just one instrument. You feel at home on four instruments in addition to being a top notch singer. What’s your secret?
It’s simply love for the instruments. I love the nuances of all instruments and what they bring to a mix. To be honest though the voice has been the hardest thing to become proficient at. It took a lot of practice and I felt like it had all been worthwhile when I was regularly called upon to do session vocals by top London producers in 2003 and 2004. But I meet so many talented musicians that are much better than me every day.
As talented as you are, it’s interesting to hear you say that you meet musicians who are “better than you.” One of the fallacies that I’m trying to expose at WhyISuckAtGuitar.com is that professional musicians, at some point in their development, reach a level of proficiency past which lies a panacea called “good enough.” At this point, goes the fallacy, frustration disappears and is immediately replaced by supreme confidence. Care to comment on this? Do you still get frustrated from time to time? Do you still want to get better and find yourself challenged to do so despite your incredible proficiency with your voice and a multitude of instruments?
Unless you play in Dream Theater I think you always have a lot more to learn (laughs). We all get that same feeling no matter how good at an instrument we get. People I have written and performed with have blown me out of the water on instruments and you just have to respect their abilities and get on with what you can do yourself. No matter how good you are you have to keep at it.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone who was frustrated and struggling to improve at his/her chosen instrument, what would it be?
I would say the problem is often what type of musician you look up to and want to emulate. If you love country guitar and want to be the next Brad Paisley then you are in for at least ten years hard practice and even then you might never have the natural feel that he does. Or you love Rush and want to be the next Neil Peart. You just have to keep at it and not be afraid to play the things you can’t do well. The musician’s curse is to get comfortable at one thing and not work on the things that give you trouble.
That’s an interesting conundrum because so many people start playing an instrument as a direct result of some virtuoso.
Yes and I feel they go about learning the wrong way because of this. For example a drummer will work on nothing but double bass when he should be working on his independence with basic beats or syncopation and forming steady grooves first… or a guitar player tries to learn Steve Vai before learning basic chords. I think you should know why G and C and D go together before you try and solo over them (laughs).
You grew up and started your career in Northern Ireland. How are you enjoying your stay in the US so far?
It’s two different worlds to be honest. I love both countries for their history and heritage but as for the music scene there really is no contest. I mean, I have performed to over three million people since arriving in the US in 2006. That is more than twice the population of my entire country (laughs)! I love the American attitude to life and feel very at home here. I have a beautiful new family and wonderful friends and couldn’t ask for more.
You auditioned for American Idol and had your “golden ticket” taken away due to a residency status issue. That experience must have been a huge emotional roller coaster. Have you developed any strategies for staying off the perpetual emotional roller coaster that is being a professional artist, or at least not being affected so much by it?
A healthy level of self-confidence is all I could say here. I have had my talents “verified” in small ways that have satisfied me over my years in the business. Whether it’s my writing, performing or ability on instruments, I am satisfied with what I have done so far. The trick is to set yourself what I call Plan A’s, Plan B’s, Plan C’s, etc. and be happy with whichever one you achieve. As long as you know you tried your hardest to get to Plan A. You have to love music too. This is key or else you will give up at some point.
So by Plan A’s, Plan B’s, and Plan C’s are you referring to various types of outcomes that might be achieved? Can you give us an example of how you do this for yourself?
Yes that’s exactly right. In my case, Plan A is to be the best I can be. I want to be touring arenas, with platinum selling albums and be as successful as the likes of John Mayer or Keith Urban. I would be happy if I never move on from my current standing but Plan B would be to write songs for these big acts instead and so on… so there is a hierarchy of potential “outcomes” to my career, but I am always striving for Plan A.
When you compose, what typically comes first for you, the words or the music? Do you ever try to force yourself to compose in different ways for creativity purposes or have you gotten comfortable with one way of composing?
I have one rule when writing: THERE ARE NO RULES. I do not think anyone should write in any order ever. It encroaches on the creativity of the whole thing. Sometimes I will write a riff and a song will follow a year later. Or sometimes I write a whole song from vocals to drums within a half hour. Or perhaps I’ve written words about a subject that matters a lot to me and will base the style of the song around this theme. It’s always different. I would like to think my songs mirror this fluidity. I have very few songs that sound like any other and take pride in this fact. Although, everyone is different and there is no “right” or “wrong” way.
Tell us about some of the projects you’ve got going on right now.
Well as always I am gigging more than almost anyone in the USA with around 190 shows this year with 7th heaven. After 6 years of this I’m not always happy about this fact but I’m not complaining either (laughs). This is not including my solo unplugged shows which I love doing as the freedom of musical expression is fantastic and I will be bringing out a full 88 key keyboard for shows after September this year. My creative side is getting its release with a lot of writing with my favorite writers in Chicago including Kerry Ridout and hopefully later in the year with Chris Bobrowski.
I have finally gotten around to starting up my publishing company “Sempleton Productions” which is taking up most of my time now. I am writing songs for some TV shows, sports teams and others who have shown an interest in my writing as well as writing for some big names in the music industry. This is almost too much fun to handle (laughs).
My EP “Slow Down the World” is selling well on iTunes and through my website (www.keithsemple.net). I play songs from this EP and many of my other originals at my unplugged shows. I need 30 hour days to get all this done (laughs).
What should we be on the lookout for from Keith Semple in the next year or so?
My next music video will be coming out soon in the summer for my song “Makes My World Shine” from my current EP, which will be followed shortly by another video for one of my most successful songs “Hand on My Heart” later in the year. Keeping on gigging and working hard with 7th heaven and writing more songs after the summer schedule slows down.
So thanks for letting me have the chance to ramble on and I hope to see everyone out at a show soon.