Tony Cummings spoke to the Suffolk-based songsmith KEITH SADLER, soon to release a live album
It's crowded at Stowmarket's John Peel Centre For Creative Arts tonight. Keith Sadler and some musician friends are recording a live album and with every note flowing from Keith's nimbly picked guitar and rich vocals it's obvious why this songsmith has become a favourite not only in his home town but throughout Suffolk. Steven Foster of BBC Radio Suffolk Drivetime once enthused, "Suffolk continues to produce great singer/songwriters and Keith is up there with the very best," and few in the audience would argue.
A few days after his gig/recording Keith speaks about the soon-to-be-released album 'Savour Life: Recorded Live At The John Peel Centre'. He says, "I was very keen to record my music live this time, instead of in a studio, as for me music is all about act of communicating with an audience and so I really wanted to capture the music as it actually occurs in a live setting rather than construct it in a studio. I think we definitely managed that. There was a real buzz in the air as we played the songs and I believe that atmosphere will come through when people listen to the finished album. For me that was the best part of the evening, connecting with real people through my music. I was incredibly fortunate to have such amazingly talented bunch of musicians play beside me on the evening, they are all very good friends and it made the performance a real joy. The audience were very supportive. What really sticks in my mind is how patient and understanding they all were whilst we had to do things like take long breaks between songs to sort out technical issues or the times we had to do re-takes of a couple of the songs. Despite these pauses the atmosphere never evaporated, so it's an evening I will remember all my life."
Keith's life began in Ipswich where he was born in 1981. His father was an artist and painted on furniture while his mother worked as a copywriter for the East Anglian Daily Times. Says Keith, "My dad has softened a bit now, but he was a very hardline atheist - Richard Dawkins stock. Although I thought of myself as rebelling against my parents, like a lot of teenagers, in a lot of ways I was a little carbon copy of my dad. I used to go along to the Christian union at my school - Northgate in Ipswich - with the express purpose to disrupt it, ask as many awkward questions as I could, and generally make fun of them for being idiots. I was amazed: even though I went with that agenda, they were very friendly and welcoming and loving. I didn't realise that was what I was looking for, that kind of acceptance; still friends with them all now. That's what drew me to faith: my initial desire to attack it. It was just a little Christian union run by a ministry which is still in Ipswich called CYM - Christian Youth Ministries."
Keith continues, "They invited me to Soul Survivor in 1998; I only went because I fancied one of the girls. I think I spent the first few days not going to anything. There was a couple of other non-Christian guys there, so we just hung out in the tent. They'd snuck some alcohol onto the site, and I think we spent the first few days continuing the making fun of everyone. I went along to one of the celebrations on the Wednesday, and the guy was talking about sin - how some people get caught in a sin cycle where they feel forgiven for something then they go back to that sin. He was using St Peter's words, talking about a dog returning to its vomit. Even though I didn't believe in sin, I didn't believe in God, I felt very touched by that, because there was a particular sin in my life; although I wouldn't have called it a sin then, it was something I didn't want to be doing and I just kept going back and didn't seem to be able to break free from it. He asked if anyone would like to go forwards for prayer; so I found myself going forwards: my legs were moving without me telling them to. I was at the front being prayed for, and I remember thinking, 'Why am I here? All these Christians are going to want to know. They're going to think they've won a victory.' Then the guy came down off the stage and he was praying for me; he said, 'As far as the east is from the west, that's how far your sins have been taken away from you'. In that second, I felt that it was true: my sins had been forgiven - they were taken away - and by the power of logic, if God had taken my sins away then God must exist. It all kind of happened there. In some ways it was gradual - a journey of meeting these Christians and talking to them - but in other ways it was quick, instantaneous. There are other things I could talk about, but I won't rabbit on."
Keith admits that his dad was teed off with his son's conversion. "We didn't talk about it much, to be honest. I don't think he was best impressed; he made fun of it a lot, but that's the extent of our conversations about it. My mother was much softer on it: 'good for you, not for me' kind of thing. She wasn't really interested in it."
Even at school Keith was showing considerable musical ability. He confesses rather ruefully considering the gentle, melodic music he now makes, "I was absolutely convinced that I was going to be a rock star. I was in a band - Headup - that had had some success around the area. It was just at the beginning of the nu metal period; we styled ourselves after Korn. I was very much a growler back then. One of my Christian friends was convinced it was some kind of demon-possession, because I'd be growing and rolling around on stage. I don't think she thinks that now, but there was a period where she was praying for me very earnestly. Becoming a Christian had a huge impact on my life. I stopped being in a band. Although I didn't have a problem with the band, a lot of my friends in the church that I became a Christian in definitely did. When I quit Headup the drummer from the band picked up my Bible and threw it out the window. We were quite high up: we weren't on the ground floor. I did retrieve it. I still have that Bible; it was one of those Youth Bibles that had the rainbow cover. I think that was issued to everyone in church."
Very soon after his conversion Keith began writing songs about his new-found faith. He explains, "I've always been a songwriter, so even when the songs weren't being used or going anywhere, I've always compulsively written songs. I remember my friend sitting me down and saying, 'I think it's about time I taught you some of the actual chords'. Previously it was all power chords, bar chords, tuned down. I had to learn the actual chords to do worship music."
In 2009 Keith was struck with a serious illness. He explains, "It's still an undiagnosed mystery blood condition. I suffer with a very low white blood cell count, so I'm very susceptible to picking up illness. I also have a high quantity of scar tissue in my blood, which leaves me susceptible to strokes and heart-attacks. I'm supposed to limit my activity, but so far God has been very gracious in allowing me to do music stuff. So that started in 2009, and I tried to keep working for a while - I was a secondary school RE teacher. I stopped teaching in 2009 or 2010, and I didn't know what to do with myself: I'm not the sort of person who can just lie in bed. I found it very hard being ill, and it had a huge impact on my self-esteem. Everyone finds it hard to be ill. I decided I need to do something musical, and didn't really have any direction. I went to a studio in Ipswich and said, 'Right, I want to record an album. What does it take?' They took me under their wing. I played all the instruments apart from the drums and the piano, which some friends played. I spent a couple of weeks putting together an album which I called 'Sketches' because it was kind of like a sketchbook. It didn't have any focus - some of it was songs I'd written for worship, some of it was singer/songwriter - it was just a scatter-gun. Looking back, it was a fantastic education because it taught me many of the things not to do. For example, Auto-Tune is a fantastic tool. The studio tried to convince me to Auto-Tune a few bits of it, and I fought them tooth-and-nail; we had stand-up rows about it. There's no Auto-Tune on the album, which is why - surprise, surprise - I'm out of tune on some of the songs. Now I realise that we've become so used to everything sounding perfect that you cannot get away with stuff."
In 2011 Keith recorded a mini-album, 'Live In Bury St Edmunds' credited Keith Sadler Band, but it was his 'Allow Joy' EP, released in 2014, which brought forth an enthusiastic review from Cross Rhythms, who enjoyed ". . .a story song about a dead loved one as on 'In East Anglian Fields' Keith reminds us that her heart is finally home. . ." and the "equally engaging ukulele-driven 'The Best Day'" finishing with the observation that the EP abounded in "strong melodies, lyrics which skilfully deliver their points and a beautifully deft production by Chris Lockington ."
Keith speaks about Mr Lockington, "I met Chris through Vineyard church. He plays with a band called Deafkid, and he's on the tour at the moment with Will Joseph Cook; he was at Glastonbury this year, and Tramlines. Deafkid wouldn't describe themselves as a Christian band, but they are Christians. It's electronic - samples, guitar. Chris has a midi-guitar; he plays it as a guitar but also kicks off samples, plays samples through the guitar. Then he's also a session musician for Will Joseph Cook, who was picked up by Atlantic. He played the ukelele as well: that was before I picked up the ukelele. We recorded 'Allow Joy' at a place called the Recording Booth with a friend of mine called David Booth, a singer/songwriter I met out on the circuit. We took the recordings away and it was mixed and mastered by Chris."
Now Keith is about to release 'Savour Life'. He's keen that it is a real live recording with no post-studio doctoring. He says, "The listener will hear the sounds of the performances as they really happened. For me music is about so much more than the kind of almost 'mathematical' perfection so many artists strive for in their recordings (and there's nothing wrong with that, it's just a different way of doing things). I don't think I'm alone in longing for music to be more 'raw' and 'authentic' again. So I hope people will understand what I'm aiming to achieve with this album and that they will enjoy it as much as we enjoyed recording it!"
The album will feature 10 tracks with 12 being on a limited edition CD release, the additional songs on that being covers of Paul Simon's "Hearts And Bones" and Hootie & The Blowfish's "Hold My Hand". The standard version will be all new songs from Keith's prolific pen. Speaking about his approach to songwriting Keith says, "I have never set out to be a 'Christian singer/songwriter' but rather an open and honest singer/songwriter who writes about Jesus because he is at the centre of my life. That's why there are songs on the album about my relationship with Jesus, such as 'Drop In Slow' which is about 'hanging out' with God, spending the day singing his praises and enjoying his presence, or 'What A love' which is the story of the Prodigal Son re-applied to my own life and 'Jubilee' which is about the party there is in Heaven every time someone arrives. Also there are songs about other aspects of real life, such as struggling with long term illness and depression ('We Are Each All Alone') or a song about coming to terms, as an adult, with events from my childhood ('Running Down The Sides Of My Soul') and even a song about a musician, Lior Shoov, who has had a massive impact on my music making ('Lior').
"I believe that this is why my music works well in many different settings, and why I'm happy to play at 'Christian' gigs as well as any other kind of show, without changing my set list. My music is (hopefully) an honest reflection of who I am, including my faith. I'm not trying to preach to anyone or convert anyone, nor does my music have any other 'hidden agenda'. I'm just a guy singing about what's important to him, and God is most important to me."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.