The David Sylvian of 2004 is a long way from the post-punk / new romantic era of his Japan days and his music has gone through artistic changes which most musicians would never have the confidence (or talent) to consider.  He is now recognised as an enigmatic artist who embraces the world of music, poetry and visual art.  Sylvian's music can be atmospheric, melodic, haunting or uplifting.  A loyal collection of fans have followed and appreciated his diverse work over the years - throughout Europe, in America and in Japan he is still in great demand from those who tire of an era of disposable pop.  His carefully crafted songs, his ability to mix acoustic instruments with electronica, his atmospheric vocal style (and it is his voice which so many people most appreciate) are all components of the complicated equation that is David Sylvian.

David Sylvian - everything and nothing:

David Sylvian

  Vocals, Keyboards, Guitar

  (Born:  David Batt - 23.2.58, Beckenham, Kent)




Big in Japan   

Sylvian was initially a lyricist, composer, guitarist and vocalist with Japan, a band which started as a post-punk outfit but developed into one of the most atmospheric, influential and underrated British bands of the early '80's.  It took until 1982 for them to achieve major success with the album Tin Drum.  'Ghosts' gave them their biggest chart hit, reaching number three in the UK singles chart.

Exorcising Ghosts  

"Writing Ghosts was a turning point for me," Sylvian recalls, "So much of what we created in Japan was built upon artifice. With that song I'd felt I'd had a breakthrough, that I'd touched upon something true to myself and expressed it in a way that didn't leave me feeling overly vulnerable."  The decision to go solo was made shortly afterwards, "because I knew that I had to find my own voice, and because I also wanted to strike up different relationships with other musicians."

Japan had finally achieved success but decided to end it there.



Forbidden Colours   

Early in 1983, the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto asked Sylvian to write and perform a vocal version of the theme from his award winning score for the film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.  The result, 'Forbidden Colours' was Sylvian's first international chart success. "I was very impressed with Ryuichi's broad musical knowledge, and his ability to put that into practice, particularly in the orchestral arrangements, which at the time I'd had little experience with." Sakamoto has been a source of help and inspiration ever since.



Brilliant Brilliant Trees

In August 1983 Sylvian recorded his first solo album, Brilliant Trees, at Hansa Studios in Berlin.  Collaborators included Sakamoto, Holger Czukay, bassist with the German avant-garde rock band Can - as well as two pioneering trumpet players from the experimental fringes of the jazz world, Jon Hassell and Kenny Wheeler.  Sylvian also asked former Japan colleagues, drummer Steve Jansen (his brother) and keyboard player Richard Barbieri to work with him. The poetic strength of Sylvian's vocals and strong melodies was matched on these recordings by innovative arrangements which at one point featured Czukay on an IBM Dictaphone.  High points included 'Pulling Punches' and 'Nostalgia'.  Released in June 1984, Brilliant Trees went straight into the UK chart at number four.

The Brilliant Trees sessions produced a rare B side featuring Jansen and Sakamoto.  'Blue of Noon' was a smooth jazz number with laid-back piano and shuffling drums.  Virtually impossible to get hold of but regarded as a real gem - worth looking out for.

Preparations and Perspectives

Before his next solo album, Sylvian revisited his interest in the visual arts, first with a limited edition book of Polaroid collages titled Perspectives, then in a documentary video loosely based on an exhibition of the photographs which took place in Tokyo.  The soundtrack for this video, Preparation for a Journey, featured performances by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Masami Tsuchiya and Steve Jansen, along with traditional pieces by the now popular Bulgarian Women's Choir.  Back in London Sylvian reworked part of the soundtrack with Hoger Czukay, Robert Fripp and Kenny Wheeler under the new title Steel Cathedrals.  This was released at the end of 1985 as part of an EP which also included a new instrumental piece, recorded with Jon Hassell, 'Words With The Shaman'.

"After Brilliant Trees I really wanted to further explore the relationship with Jon Hassell and Holger Czukay, developing themes which surfaced during the recording of the album" Sylvian explains, "as everything I do tends to contain the seeds for the next project."


Back on Earth

 For the double album Gone To Earth he got in touch with guitarists Robert Fripp and Bill Nelson, both of whom had played key roles in defining progressive rock.  Gone to Earth contained seven vocal tracks and ten instrumental pieces, attracting the same critical acclaim as Brilliant Trees when it was released in September 1985.  Highly recommended for 'Taking the Veil', 'Wave' and 'Before the Bullfight'.





The next 18 months proved to be a prolific period in terms of songwriting, and David Sylvian soon found himself with a new collection of material.  This time he arranged the songs mainly for acoustic instruments with strings, woodwind, and brass.  Ryuichi Sakamoto worked closely with him on the recordings which were produced at Studio Miraval in the South of France by Steve Nye.  As usual Sylvian had put together some phenomenal musicians including Danny Thompson on double bass, Phil Palmer on acoustic guitar, Danny Cummings on percussion, Mark Isham on trumpet and flugelhorn, David Torn on electric guitars, and Steve Jansen on drums and percussion.  The resulting album, Secrets Of The Beehive, (released in October 1987) is possibly the greatest of Sylvian's works - strong melodies, haunting arrangements and wonderful lyrics.  Highlights include 'September', 'Orpheus' and 'The Boy with the Gun'.

This was to be the last David Sylvian solo album for 10 years. "After Secrets, music took a bit of a back seat in my life.  I was deeply troubled. There was a whole private search going on."





Plight and Flux

For the next few years Sylvian worked on a range of joint projects.  He worked intermittently with Holger Czukay at the latter's studio in Cologne recording improvised performances with Jaki Liebezeit and Micheal Karoli (both ex-Can) and Markus Stockhausen, son of the famous modern composer.  The recordings with Czukay surfaced on the Venture record label as Plight and Premonition (March 1988) and Flux and Mutability (September 1989).

He also undertook a 1988 solo concert tour, In Praise of Shamans, which took in 80 cities around the world and had Sylvian fronting a seven piece band.


1989 saw the release of a five CD boxed set Weatherbox (designed by the artist Russell Mills) containing the majority of his solo work.  To accompany this release Sylvian put out a single, ironically titled "Pop Song", which featured the use of microtones and the piano improvisations of John Taylor.  The Weatherbox set is a rare collection of carefully packaged CDs in a beautifully designed box with wonderful inserts.  Highly valued.



In the spring of 1989 Sylvian decided to call together the former members of the group Japan. "This was something I really wanted to do. The kind of thing I'd been doing of late, particularly with Holger, had opened my eyes to the potential of group composition via improvisation." When Sylvian proposed this idea though he insisted on a change of name to Rain Tree Crow - having drawn a clear line between the work he produced with Japan and the musical direction of subsequent projects.

The album got underway in September 1989 at Studio Miraval, France.  Guest musicians included Michael Brook and Bill Nelson.  The recording was completed in April 1990 but, for financial reasons, the mixing of the work by Sylvian and Steve Nye was not undertaken until December of that year.  The album was finally released in April 1991. "Despite the difficulties we had making it, I'm still very proud of Rain Tree Crow," said Sylvian.  'Blackwater' and 'Every Colour You Are' are real highlights.





In December 1991, after having heard an advance tape of Sakamoto's Heartbeat album Sylvian decided to adapt one of the pieces "Tainai Kaiki".  Contributing melody and lyrics he invited the guitarist Bill Frisell and vocalist/poet Ingrid Chavez, then signed to Prince's Paisley Park label, to join Sakamoto and himself for the New York recording sessions (Sylvian has contributed some wonderful material to Sakamoto albums). 

In February 1992 just two and a half months after meeting, Sylvian and Chavez were married in Minneapolis where they lived for the next 4 years.





Shortly after his marriage, Sylvian struck up a fruitful musical partnership with Robert Fripp. Tours of Japan and Italy, with the Chapman stick player Trey Gunn, were followed by a studio album, The First Day, which appeared in July 1993.

A second tour, this time as a 5 piece band, spawned a fantastic concert at the Royal Albert Hall and a live album, Damage, in Autumn 1994.  "What I got out of the relationship with Robert was the pleasure of performing live, which had eluded me up to that point.  The energy Robert puts out on stage is quite palpable, and, I found, very inspiring."





An indirect result of this collaboration with Fripp was a short solo tour on which Sylvian performed alone on stage accompanying himself on either acoustic guitar or keyboards.  The experience was a milestone for Sylvian in as far as it strengthened his belief in himself. "That tour," Sylvian admits, "was a massive hurdle to overcome for me."  Recordings of this 1995 tour show Sylvian as a brilliant musician and performer.



Work on his new solo album began after this tour and took just over four years to complete, a process which Sylvian found "a bit frustrating, although I always knew that the material was strong.  A lot of the material for this album grew out of writing sessions for Ingrid.  The big challenge for me as a songwriter is to draw something essential out of myself."

Sylvian's meticulous approach eventually paid dividends with the album which he named (after Secrets Of The Beehive) Dead Bees On A Cake.  The tapes started rolling in Ryuichi Sakamoto's studio in New York City, moved to Peter Gabriel's Real World complex near Bath and ended up at Sylvian's own home studio in Sonoma.  Many of the featured musicians were old friends, like Kenny Wheeler, Steve Jansen and Bill Frisell.  Despite the long gap between the release of Bees in Spring 1999 and Sylvian's previous solo outing in 1988, the album was generally acclaimed as his finest to date, and it produced a UK top 40 single in the wonderful ballad, 'I Surrender'.



While the world was eagerly digesting Dead Bees On A Cake, Sylvian was busy working on an album based around a piece he had originally devised for a Japanese installation.  Darkly ambient in tone and gorgeously rich in sound textures, Approaching Silence appeared in the Autumn of 1999, a perfect pre-Millennial summary of Sylvian's ambitions as a composer of meditative instrumental music.



And then came a substantial collection of old material - not a greatest hits but a retrospective of old work, new recordings and tracks which have resurfaced.  Many of the 29 tracks on the Everything And Nothing double CD had never been heard before on disc, several of the rest appeared as re-mixed versions, 'Ghosts' had re-recorded vocals.

"I couldn't consider compiling a 'best of' in the traditional sense" says Sylvian, "I've had minor hits with Red Guitar and Forbidden Colours but much of what appeared on singles didn't constitute my best work.  The approach I decided to take was that of an overview.  To bring to completion compositions which had been dropped from various projects due to contextual, budgetary and time restraints.  And to return to works for a fresh crack at them for what I'm guessing will be the last time.  Pieces that have lain in the vaults for years." 

Among many surprising inclusions on Everything And Nothing was a version of the legendary "lost" Japan tune 'Some Kind Of Fool', intended for Gentlemen Take Polaroids but not finished in time for its release, and 'Ride', a track recorded for the Secrets Of The Beehive album.

"I never look over my shoulder at a prospective audience when working but this project was different.  This was to be an overview for those who'd seen me fall off the face of popular music back in 1982.  For those who have yet to hear a note from one of my (solo) recordings. The title makes light of the notion of the compilation itself and of course the fruits of a lifetime's efforts.  'You do the best you can and then you let go with no attachment to the outcome of your efforts.  Not an easy lesson but one I've become more comfortable with in recent years."






After the release of Everything And Nothing, Sylvian realised that he had been feeling somewhat straight-jacketed in his otherwise fruitful 20 year relationship with Virgin Records. He was now out of contract with Virgin and he decided that he needed to take on new challenges.  He wanted a new label and a new environment.  He had recently relocated to New England with his wife Ingrid, their two daughters and his stepson, where he set about transforming a sprawling property into a new home and studio.

In 2001 Sylvian completed a compilation of his instrumental work over the past twenty years, a collection called Camphor which stood as a companion piece to Everything And Nothing.

Then came a new re-mixed version of the 1993 Sylvian/Fripp live album Damage (re-issue).  Robert Fripp mixed the original album, inevitably from a guitarist's point of view.  The new version told the story of the same concerts from a singer's perspective.  Sylvian also decided to include Jean The Birdman on the album as an alternative to Darshan. 




Fire in the Forest

In 2003, on his own Samadhisound label, Sylvian released the haunting album Blemish.  Stark, full of electronica and with Sylvian experimenting on the edge of music.  He followed this up with the Fire in the Forest tour which included a full outing of the album (performed with Steve Jansen) and then launched into an acoustic set with 'The Other Side of Life' from the Japan days. 

The tour also included the first performances of a Sakamoto collaboration 'World Citizen' - an indictment on the West's treatment of the rest of the world and the events of 911.  It took Sylvian and Sakamoto to write the perfect political comment and make it part of such an excellent song.




Sylvian is now working on a range of new projects.





January 2004

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Source:  Biography, Everything And Nothing press information, internet sources.

David Sylvian is represented worldwide by Opium (Arts) Ltd, 49 Portland Rd, London W11 4LJ, U.K.

Opium Arts also manages Robert Fripp, Bill Nelson, Michael Brook, John Paul Jones, and others.