I can distinctly remember the first time I heard Stephen Caudel’s music, because it stopped me in my tracks. Passing from kitchen to sitting room, a few stray chords from a television slot arrested my senses and my progress with the ferocity of an aural tripwire. Once I had identified the source as Stephen’s symphonic rock epic, The Earth in Turquoise, I bought the CD, and have given thanks ever since that it was not recorded on vinyl, because if it were it would surely be worn out by now.
Feeling as passionate as I do about the music, meeting its composer, sole performer, arranger and producer – a stranger, yet someone of vicarious familiarity – was something I approached with a jumble of emotions, chief of which was trepidation. I need not have worried; he turns out to be very tall, very friendly.
We meet at Stephen’s home where he lives with his wife, Shelagh and son Oliver on the impossibly romantic Naworth Castle estate; in contrast to this historical backdrop, Stephen’s studio is packed full of enough computer wizardry to terrify a technophobe. Guitars and Pre-Raphaelite prints vie for wall space as Stephen begins to explain how he single-handedly simulates the sound of an entire symphony orchestra right in this room. Synthesizers create sounds electronically, ‘sampler’ computer CD Roms linked to his keyboard replicate the sound of obscure instruments, then there is the final masterstroke – Stephen’s brilliant and evocative performance on classical and electric guitars.
The spellbinding Earth in Turquoise narrates episodes from the life of legendary King Arthur in music and sits in a league of its own way above the rest of my personal Desert Island pile. It may be beyond conventional classification, but it is indisputably music on a grand scale, music which reaches into the soul. Production of this magnum opus “took 11 months of full time work, endlessly looking for exactly the right sounds.” Precision is, I begin to realise, everything to Stephen. He confesses to being “obsessively perfectionist” and it is a claim I do not doubt.
By playing every instrument in the orchestra himself, Stephen may have freed himself from the irritation of substandard performers but he also subjected himself to an extraordinarily intense and exhausting 11 months. Gesturing towards the multi-track recording deck which just hints at the complexity of recording and mixing, he explains that whilst the inspiration to write beautiful music has always been fluent, the actual recording is a huge endeavour. “Really, it was the ultimate indulgence for a creative artist.” So, was it worthwhile? ” Absolutely, also, doing it myself, I saved about a quarter of a million in terms of studio time.” He picks up a guitar and improvises a few chords from the ‘Forbidden Love’ track; it is a spine-tingling sound, a sensuous wedding of velvety richness to crystal clarity.
Creatively and financially it has made sense, the music business, as George Michael’s long and bloody battle with Sony reminded us, is a murky one. Record companies, dealers and shops all take about seven times as much from the sale of each CD than the performer, who ends up with a dismally parsimonious royalty of about £1 per sale. These days, Stephen circumvents this by marketing his recordings on the Internet, at the same time sparing shops the dilemma of wondering where on earth to put his recordings – progressive symphonic rock being challenging stuff to pigeonhole.
Almost by accident the Internet has provided him with a secondary career. Designing his own distinctive websites has generated commissions to do the same for others and although a diversion from mainstream composing he envisages the two paths converging in the not too distant future ….
When I press the rewind button on Stephen’s life history, I learn that he was born in Sheffield, and studied Classical and Jazz at music college in Leeds. In London he worked as a session musician and then formed a Swing Jazz Trio “250 gigs in one year, including one stretch of 31 nights without a break.”
Turning his talents to composing, Stephen started work on his first major symphonic work, Wine Dark Sea, in the wholly un-rocky atmosphere of a London bedsit. A chance ‘right time right place’ encounter with John Whitney, MD of Capital Radio, led to his sessions being broadcast on Alan Freeman’s Friday Night Rock Show to positive popular response. When Capital enquired why, precisely, it should hitch itself to the Caudel star, Stephen recalls mentally invoking the spirit of his hero, Richard Wagner, whose picture, he informs me, he carried around, talisman-like in his briefcase. “I had tremendous cheek and I said something like, ‘this is bigger than Capital. This is ART’. I can remember thinking that that is exactly what Wagner would have said!” Of course, there was a slight technical problem – he hadn’t actually written the score, but 12 weeks later, working 16 hours a day with the help of a friend who took musical dictation, the score was complete, the Victoria Palace’s 2,000 seats had bottoms on them and Louis Clark conducted the World Premiere of Wine Dark Sea.
After the rapturous reception that Wine Dark Sea received, it was reasonable to suppose that a major record deal would naturally follow, but in the fickle music biz, genius is no guarantor of success. No signing materialised until another encounter of the ‘time and place’ kind; bumping into Tom Newman, producer of Mike Oldfield’s phenomenally successful album Tubular Bells led to Stephen working with Newman to record Wine Dark Sea first on Nick Austin’s Coda label. Its second pressing is still under the Coda banner, but on the Art Of Landscape label – Landscape which made a series of visually beautiful films accompanied by stunning music for television.
Now Stephen was dividing his time between live gigs at prominent London venues such as Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club and composing music for films, videos and commercials ….
Back in London, a fire started by a builder with an over-excited blowtorch rendered Stephen and Shelagh’s home in London’s fashionable Little Venice temporarily uninhabitable, but a silver lining to the cloud of smoke became apparent when neighbours introduced them to high-profile agent Richard Cawley. It was 1988 and Cawley was finalising arrangements for an Art Garfunkel tour on which he needed a backing musician; Stephen had other ideas, and with Cawley’s full support telephoned Art (as you do) in his hotel suite, and said really, he would much rather be an independent supporting artist than a dull old backing musician. Enigmatically Art responded: “I’ve heard your music; it’s like a glass of fine white wine.”
Stephen and Shelagh duly accompanied the great man on tour, he in his chosen role as a support act, and she as Tour Manager. “Things had come full circle,” he reflects, “because when I first met Shelagh she was singing ‘The Boxer’ by Art Garfunkel in a folk club.”
Art and Stephen played all the big venues, finishing up with three nights at the Royal Albert Hall, where, of course, Stephen had the smaller dressing room, but as it was also the older one it was steeped in musical tradition. “Everyone from Tchaikovsky to Hendrix had used that dressing room. It had a real sense of history,” he remembers.
He rummages in a drawer and hands me a photograph. “Look at that one.” As a collision of worlds, this picture of a half-smiling Art Garfunkel – Art, co-creator of the anthemic seventies soundtrack, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ – standing on the front at Blackpool, would be hard to surpass. With affecting modesty, Stephen adds that he never “dared” ask Art if he could have his photograph taken with him. Another rummage in the Caudel picture archive reveals a performer’s eye view of the Albert Hall auditorium, an image sufficient to induce stage fright by proxy.
Despite Little Venice being the epicentre of the rock universe, with neighbours such as Annie Lennox, Chrissie Hynde, Boy George and sundry members of Duran Duran, Stephen and Shelagh were ready to leave London for the very good reason that it was hardly the place to raise a family. A house hunting weekend in Cambridge was abruptly cancelled when Shelagh left her handbag complete with their flat keys, in a Regent’s Park coffee shop and although the bag turned up, the weekend so carefully kept free of engagements stretched emptily ahead. Cambridge, they deduced, was not meant to be, and the Caudels decided on impulse to take up a long-standing invitation to visit an old friend, guitarist Mike Chapman, who lived near Hadrian’s Wall. The love affair with Cumbria had begun.
“I was creatively dried up,” Stephen admits. But the move to Naworth, set in dramatic swathes of landscape which turned out to be every bit as “wild and wonderful” as Mike Chapman had claimed, rekindled the inspiration which had deserted him. The Earth in Turquoise could not have been written anywhere else.
Website designing may have brought Stephen a sabbatical of sorts but he remains first and foremost a gifted creative musician and composer and readily acknowledges that with this profession comes a sort of immortality. “I tell my son that even when I’m long gone, I will still be around, through my music.” It is a powerful concept.
As I listen to The Earth in Turquoise yet again, I can understand that he feels it would be unrealistic to attempt to improve on this matchless work. But I would still be dreadfully disappointed if I thought that the collected works of Stephen Caudel are yet complete.
Interview by Jacqueline Moffat in October 1999 – Back to Main Biography