TV MUSIC COMPOSER ON HOW TO FIND YOUR VOICE
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds
Where did you grow up?
In the area. I was born in the old Middlesex Hospital. Back then I was the third heaviest baby in London: 11 pounds 11.
Is your family musical?
My grandfather was a great amateur pianist and singer. And my father's an excellent jazz pianist. Some of my relatives worked in film and TV. My uncle's a scriptwriter and my great uncle was a famous actor, Dennis Price (Kind Heart and Coronets). When I was young, my mother worked at the BBC for Barry Norman on his film programmes.
Make the music that only you can make
Have you always been a composer?
No, after university (Oxford), I worked in film development as a script reader and did copywriting – I'd studied English – but then I moved into music research and music video production.
What instruments do you play?
First piano, then trombone and singing lessons, and I got a guitar at 13. I became obsessed with production and recording. This was before you could compose on your laptop so I got a 4-track recorder when I was 14 and learnt a lot. Now, I compose on a keyboard or guitar, and do all the percussion. I often use an electric bass.
Have you played live?
Yes, but my real love is composing. Once I recorded an EP (extended play, a short album) and promoted it. Trouble was, I'd played all the instruments so I had to hire a large band to play it live and plan the tour. I realised I didn't want to be a manager. By then I was composing for friends who needed a favour for documentaries or trailers, and I had the equipment, so soon I was composing full time.
If you could be in any band, which would it be?
Bon Iver (indie folk). Or Wu-Tang Clan (hip hop).
What have you composed?
Corporate films (e.g. Louis Vuitton, Waitrose, John Lewis, BT) and TV music. I mostly do documentaries, such as Storyville (BBC), and children's programmes (e.g. 150 episodes of Waybuloo).
Does having 3 kids help?
Yes, I've definitely tested ideas on them. Children’s reactions don't lie. Our kids are 10, 8 and 4. It's very obvious if they love something or equally don’t like it.
Do you have a house style?
I wouldn't say a house style as that evolves with each project, but a house approach. It's a hybrid of mixing acoustic and electronic instruments with unusual sound sources.
What's the process?
I'm usually hired by a producer or production company. Sometimes I'm sent the final cut, but I like to get involved early, at the script stage or even before. A great brief can happen in a good conversation or even a single sentence in an email. It works best if the producer or director knows the mood they want and have a clear idea of the characters, while not being too prescriptive musically. It's my job to interpret what they want, to come up with options. It's a privilege. I see myself as a fellow filmmaker, just like a cinematographer, but in my toolkit is music.
What if they hate it?
That can be incredibly useful. A clear reaction is very helpful. It can be difficult if the creatives can't locate what they want. Then again, we all try to avoid decision by committee. I avoid group emails. And notes (reviews) by email are not ideal. A conversation is better. The most creative people know their own taste and how it relates to the project. It's a great gift to articulate a clear vision.
Are deadlines stressful?
My wife Rachel would have an interesting answer. The job does come with its pressures because music is one of the last stages. Most productions go over budget and over schedule as they're made by passionate people obsessed with getting it right. And some people think modern technology allows everything to happen in minutes. You can estimate how long production processes take, but coming up with the right idea is a variable. Sometimes it takes an all-nighter, but there's an attraction to that sort of adrenaline and a bizarre satisfaction when you pull it off.
How do you come up with ideas?
I go for walks, I read around the subject, experiment in the studio. What you're really doing is waiting for that moment when the idea pops into your head. You have to increase the chances, put in the time, show up every day, even when it's not flowing. Those sparks can come when you're distracted. Or in total silence and stillness. Or complete overload. I sometimes go into the city to be bombarded with different sounds. There are rhythms and notes all around us.
What's your best advice for aspiring musicians?
In one phrase, I'd say know thyself. There are easier ways to earn a living more reliably, but if you have a compulsion to do it, be honest with yourself and learn if you can thrive despite the pressure and sacrifice. You have to find your voice. There are so many gifted people out there. If you want to make music, you need to make music that only you can make.
How and with whom do you relax?
With my family, playing with our children. The kids are getting into music and my studio is in my garden so I can help them make their music. It's a lovely perk of the job. I can also see them as soon as the working day is finished. And I play football, a school dads' seven-a-side. I'm no good but I love it. The other ways I relax, seeing art and movies with my wife, reading, all feed back into my work and waiting for those ideas. Perhaps I'm not relaxing enough. But music is a spell. When it combines with moving images there's a strange alchemy. It's an addictive playground.
Thank you, James. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
Interviewed Feb 2019