Author Steven Heighton releases Cohenesque single

Queen’s alum talks upcoming album ‘The Devil’s Share’ and why poetry and song make great bedfellows

Steven Heighton in Jasper, Alberta with his prized guitar (1980).
Credit: 
Bruce Ecroyd

Eleven years ago, award-winning author and Queen’s alum Steven Heighton almost lost the ability to speak. Now, he’s releasing an album.

It might seem surprising that the author of 17 books would suddenly decide to make music, but Heighton is simply returning to his roots. He’s been an aspiring singer-songwriter since high school and during his undergrad, he even performed gigs at The Queen’s Pub—formerly The Quiet Pub—in the JDUC.

“The journey started at Queen’s—that was the first place I’d played publicly with a microphone,” Heighton told The Journal. “Now I guess I’ll be doing that again if we ever get to sing publicly.”

From 1981 to 1986, Heighton took a Bachelor of Arts and then a Masters in English. During that time, he performed folk covers of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and the like with two of his classmates and a guitar he’d bought while hitchhiking the Gold Coast of Australia.

However, over the course of his English studies, Heighton abandoned music to fully devote himself to the craft of writing.

Read More: Queen’s alumnus Steven Heighton discusses ‘Reaching Mithymna’

“I started to get the feeling that my lyrics were better than my tunes, and then I just really wanted to master poetry on the page,” he said. “Basically, I put my head down and by the time I looked up again, [15] years had passed and I’d stopped playing guitar and I’d stopped writing songs.”

In 2010, Heighton fractured his larynx in a recreational game of hockey. The doctor told him he might never talk normally or sing again. Thankfully, his voice recovered, and the healthy dose of fear pushed him to get back into music.

On Dec. 8, 2020, Heighton released “2020 (Cohen’s Future),” a song he’d been working on since the death of Leonard Cohen four years prior. “2020” is available for streaming on Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, and the Wolfe Island Records website.

The single is a quasi-homage and follow-up to Cohen’s “The Future,” which is an indictment of the sick state of the world in 1992 and a warning of worse things to come.

“I remember hearing the song when it came out and at the time I really liked it […] but it struck me as just a little too dire and apocalyptic […] Ironically, pretty much since the time of [Cohen’s] death, which came the day before Trump’s election, we’ve seen a lot of those things come true—that sense of polarization and partisanship, violence, general anxiety, and COVID was kind of the capper to all of that,” Heighton said.

As Heighton points out in his music, Cohen’s grim prophecy of the future sadly came true.

One stanza in “The Future” goes, “There'll be the breaking of the ancient / Western code / Your private life will suddenly explode.”

This line could be interpreted many ways—it certainly applies to cancel culture and the public shaming that happens on the internet.

Heighton sings his reply: “No Christ to spoil the stoning / When you’re online being hateful / And if you’ve found a good stone / Well, I’m sure you mean to aim well.”

Like Cohen, Heighton is a deeply gifted poet and it comes across in his lyrics which poignantly and scathingly blast contemporary society. “2020 (Cohen’s Future)” is chock-full of clever references to current events and recent tragedies, making it chilling to listen and unpack them all.

“I wanted [the song] to address the increasing virtuality of the culture and the dissonance between people,” Heighton said.

In all, The Devil’s Share will be 11 pieces: 10 songs and one instrumental.

While Cohen’s death and Trump’s election were the catalysts Heighton needed to pick up songwriting again, he was also motivated by creative boredom.

“I think a lot of songwriters who stop for a long time and then get back to it in middle age will say that something cracks you open emotionally,” Heighton said.

He quoted legendary songwriter John Prine: “The heart gets bored with the mind and it changes you.”

While Heighton feels his long hiatus from singing was necessary to help him master the written word, he now finds that songwriting is an excellent way to experiment with the form of poetry.

“When you think about it, poetry is like a song,” he said. “There was no poetry on the page even a thousand years ago, or very, very little. Poetry was basically song. They were words that were meant to be sung or spoken with musical accompaniment like a lyre or lute.”

According to Heighton, while rhyme schemes can look hokey on the page, they’re essential to good lyricism.

“If you start working with a rhyme scheme, it’ll force your imagination to go farther […] You have to keep searching till you find exactly the right word, the rhyme word. Sometimes that produces something that looks artificial and mechanical. Other times, it creates these magical moments where you just discover something and you didn’t even know you knew because the rhyme forced you to look farther.”

In his English studies at Queen’s, Heighton picked up the skills for literary analysis that helped launch his writing career, and those skills are serving him well in his foray into the music industry.

“It’s paradoxical,” Heighton said of writing with a rhyme scheme. “Often limitations are what create creative freedom […] it’s almost as if by having a closed form, you create more power and energy inside that form. If there is no border, if there are no limitations, the energy just disperses and diffuses over a huge area.”

The Devil’s Share will debut later this year. One day, when the COVID-19 pandemic is over, Heighton will finally perform on stage again.

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