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Complete Control

28 June 2016, 09:00
Words by Andrew Hannah
Original Photography by Anthony Keiler

Composer Anna Meredith tells Andy Hannah how she became a puppet-master in creating her astonishing debut album.

I’ve been in, oh, about four or five rooms when Anna Meredith has started her show with the blaring and unsettling horns and bass of “Nautilus”, the track which opens her debut album Varmints in such magnificent sit-up-and-take-notice style.

Each time it’s been a small joy to look around the room at the various jaws which have dropped to the floor, the eyes which have considerably widened and the bodies which are immediately compelled to move to this sound.

For this to happen to, or for a late-thirties composer who has written music for the Last Night of the Proms, the BBC’s Scottish Symphony Orchestra and been commissioned to write music for an MRI scanner, to have that effect on an audience, it’s testament to the power and sheer confidence of Meredith’s first foray into the “pop” world.

Varmints was released earlier this year to much acclaim (it's one of the nominees for the Scottish Album of the Year Award, due to be announced on 29 June), and it followed the EPs Black Prince Fury and Jet Black Raider (2012 and 2013 respectively) which announced the London-based Scot to the world as an electronic musician to keep an eye on.

Yet when I meet Meredith in Brighton’s Brighthelm library ahead of her show at The Great Escape, two days after I watched her play her first headline show in Scotland at the tiny Hug and Pint venue in Glasgow, I recall the first time I experienced her music.

“I was really nervous, really nervous…” she laughs, knowing what’s coming.

As a support act for Anna Calvi, Meredith appeared alone with a laptop (there may have been one other musician onstage supplementing), recreating the songs from her EPs and finishing with a cover of Erasure’s “A Little Respect” which gave an outing to what turned out to be a high and pure singing voice, but wracked with nerves and displaying more than a little quiver. At the headline show in Glasgow, though, with that cover still intact at the end of the set, Meredith was a woman transformed. Full of confidence, chatting with the audience and conducting her band with effortless ease.

“I dunno if I’ve got better at singing,” says Meredith. “I think I maybe care a little bit less. Maybe I’m more focused on having a good time.” Of that voice, though, she has no problems with asserting her chops: “I’ve sung a lot in choirs; I’ve got a very good choir voice. It’s very high, very pure, moderately in tune…but I’ve never been a solo singer.” That fact did not deter Meredith in the pursuit of the sound we find on Varmints. “I think I’ve always been someone who is happy to take on a challenge,” she says. “I kind of look and say ‘right, what’s next…yeah, alright…singing!’ The thing is, I love it. I absolutely love it so I’ve just had to work around what I can do. Like moving a track into a place where my voice can sit.”

The first time we hear Meredith’s voice is on “Taken”, the second track on Varmints. Lighter in tone to “Nautilus” it trots along powered by Marnie Stern-esque guitar taps and a metronomic beat, with Meredith’s vocal acting as a secondary percussion, the words “the heat they said would sweep the land has failed to touch” beating two at a time on the track meaning there’s no primary focus as the ear is drawn to beat and the word because the beat is the words. Meanwhile, the euphoric “yeah” of the chorus and the outro steps into a void vacated by an upwards whoosh of a synth or the drama of a swooping violin. Very few artists spring to mind when you try and compare what Meredith does with another musician. Perhaps only a beatboxer would manage the same trick with their voice or words.

“I’ve never had a big powerful singer songwriter voice,” says Meredith, “which is maybe a good thing, because I never wanted to be a singer songwriter. It’s nice that the voice sounds like another instrument in the band.” This is reflected in the way Meredith assembles her band around the stage: “I deliberately don’t stand at the front, it all feels to me very equal and all that sort of stuff. It’s meant to be a semicircle….” When there’s enough space, which wasn’t the case at the Glasgow show. “You have to come to a gig where we’ve got more space!”

Lyrically, Varmints was a challenge for someone who has spent her life as a composer largely working on instrumentals. So, smartly, Meredith generally seems to have taken an approach of economy and brevity. Also – crucially for an artist completely new to song writing – the Scot has avoided over-sentimentalising anything that she sings. On “Taken” there’s talk of tension alongside the line “was meant to be this nice idea; it's not the moment that we hoped, we'd check our phones, our eyes could meet…” It’s just vague enough to leave the listener asking questions: what is this nice idea, what was this moment and why wasn’t it all it was cracked up to be? “Something Helpful” has the choir girl lines, over pulsating beats and twinkling xylophone, “it’s just a different point of view from how you see, no need to get upset”. Almost mundane in its approach to conflict, it again leaves us with enough doubt. Meredith explains her approach, saying:

“It’s been a new thing and it’s definitely quite daunting. It’s about finding a place where you feel okay with it, I guess. One of the tracks, ‘Dowager’ is written by a friend and for the two that I did, I think I treated it quite syllabically. I was trying to work it out rhythmically with the word setting and not trying to be….I think it would be really fake for me to suddenly adopt a kind of ‘hey, baby’ persona so I kept everything a wee bit dark, but also bittersweet and tried to work out what worked syllabically and what would set well – melodically – and I kept it quite controlled. There’s no big, expressive lines that clicked.”

"I never wanted to be a singer songwriter. It’s nice that the voice sounds like another instrument in the band"

Meredith’s less-is-more approach chimes with the music on Varmints. While there may be a lot of sounds on the record, the trick the composer pulls is to make it sound like the opposite through her use of repetition. The feeling is a minimal album born out of a maximalist construction, a composer or musician exerting complete control over every aspect of her art.

“I think every aspect of my writing would always be starting from a place of total puppet-master like control,” agrees Meredith. “I want to control every aspect of this thing, whether that’s the sound, the melody or the pacing….so lyric-wise, I would hate that to dominate. Like, if someone asked me to write a piece about what’s going on in Syria, I really wouldn’t know what to do with that so it’s better that it’s very controlled and feels its way out from there.”

In explaining her approach, it sounds like Meredith has taken the notational approach from her classical composing over to Varmints. Yet she still stands alone, unique against some of her contemporaries: “I definitely know some other composer friends who make their material in a much more organic way,” she reveals. “One friend sits down at the piano and noodles around, but that just doesn’t work for me. I’m not someone whose fingers can communicate what their head wants; I’m crap at a party. I’m not one of those people who go ‘Wonderwall, you say?’….which is no bad thing haha! I’m always asked what my one tip for composers is and I now say ‘learn to play Happy Birthday’. As soon as people hear you’re a musician they’ll ask you to play it and I’m always the muppet using one finger going ‘ner-ner-ner’ and there are all these faces dropping with disappointment…’you had seven years of classical training and this is what we get?’.”

It’s not a surprise that Meredith failed to hit on an instant formula to allow a seamless transition from the classical world to the pop sphere. The sound of the EPs bears out that transition and the composer is quick to agree. “I guess it has been trial and error; everything is tightly controlled, everyone is playing their parts – notated parts – and the thing which is most important to me is the pacing, the dramatic timing. If I lose control of that and it becomes a ‘do what you want here’ moment, it becomes a different thing. Not necessarily a worse thing, just a thing with less impact. I’ve been writing so long now it’s just evolved into what I’m doing.”

When I start to say to Meredith that Varmints feels like an extremely varied, yet completely cohesive record, citing the difference between the bombast of “Nautilus” and the woozy, string-laden respite of “Honeyed Words” (and everything in between from grunge guitar to club banger) she is quick to cut me off and set a few misconceptions straight: “Sorry to interrupt but I just don’t see it like that!” is the swift riposte. “It’s not a mistake to say that, it just that it’s been really interesting to hear people say ‘oh yeah that one is whatever-meets-whatever’ or that one is a bit techno-y, because mostly I don’t know about these genres because I don’t listen to music much. I wouldn’t know where to begin if someone asked me to write them a techno track. You’re right, there is a lot of variety but also if you look for certain kinds of rhythm they are in tons of the tracks….”

"I want to control every aspect of this thing"

Although I get some agreement on how varied – and I stick by that – Varmints is, Meredith continues to point out the similarities: “Even with ‘Honeyed Words’ the chord progression is really similar to ‘Dowager’, and the harmonies are very alike. I hear this ‘oh my god it’s really varied’ and I can see that on some level but on other levels I hear loads of connections.”

My point about variety was a lead-in to ask Meredith whether she feels it’s easier to experiment with styles in the pop world, compared to writing a classical composition. There’s a, perhaps unfair, label on the classical world that comes from the music of that genre which the general public are most likely to hear (BBC Proms, Classical Music Awards) of conservatism and an unwillingness to listen to something which is barely upsetting the traditional applecart. However, Meredith reveals she’s never felt shackled: “I can write whatever I want for an orchestra,” she affirms. “Nobody says ‘oh you can’t do that’…you’re restricted by the instrumentation I guess, and maybe someone might ask for a ten minute piece for particular instruments but there’s definitely no sense that I can’t write like that. I used to worry as a student about what other composers might think but I’ve trained myself to not give a shit! You are right that some people will say ‘is that a beat…there shouldn’t be a beat’”

Having spoken to The National’s Bryce Dessner, another composer working in two genres, we had discussed conservatism in the classical world and the potential hangover from the Schoenberg approach. Yet Meredith is in agreement with Dessner and the evidence is plenty. She has composed music inspired by an MRI scanner (with Mira Calix), a body percussion piece which uses, as you might expect, the body as an instrument and music for park benches in Hong Kong, and believes Schoenberg’s approach is one that’s had its time: “I think that’s quite old fashioned now. That music has its place; the twelve tone, atonal sound is still very much part of a certain kind of contemporary classical music, but what’s really nice about the whole landscape at the moment is that we have such a mix of people drawing on all kinds of stuff, having beats or pop influences, going in both directions. You’ll find loads of festivals celebrating that stuff.”

Meredith continues, explaining just how accessible contemporary classical music has become: “I’ve written for Last Night of the Proms and some people are horrified because you’re shaking their concept of what the institution is,” she says, “but I try not to worry about what people think. But it goes the other way too. If I play stuff to people here they could suddenly say ‘it’s too experimental’ without really thinking why that is, or they see a clarinet and think ‘I’m not going to like this’ and not actually listen to the music. I’ve always found that a frustrating atmosphere, when my granny goes ‘will I get it?’…it’s just sounds! Keep an open mind and see what you think.”

Despite there being a few closed minds on both sides of Meredith’s working environment, she sees routes in and grounds on which to develop: “I think there’s some people, with some of the classical stuff I’ve done [who are willing to accept new sounds]. I’ve definitely got bolder and brought some of the slightly more stripped-down and rhythmic stuff to my orchestral pieces over the years and I’m increasingly using electronics in them as well. I had an amazing review in Classical Review of an orchestral piece with blatantly like a bass drum-snare-bass drum and they called it a ‘march’ in the middle! They could not conceive of calling it a beat! But that’s just semantics. Some people are going to hate it on either side but there’s a really exciting landscape of people who aren’t going to let the definitions scare them.”

We’ve touched on song writing from a lyrical stand point and we return to that topic for the construction of the songs on Varmints. The record is almost unique in the past few years in terms of how the songs, and by virtue of that the album as a whole, are as close to perfectly paced and built as one could conceive of. That comes in part from notation, but also from the way in which Meredith writes her music and sees her ideas. “I write all this music as notation; I tried to use Ableton and then I decided to play to my strengths,” she explains. “My strength is being able to control dots really well. Now I write everything with Sibelius [music notation software] and I export the midi; my reasoning is that if I can make it sound good there, then it’ll be even better when I get it into Ableton and muck about with it there.” And when Meredith is doing this, it’s purely about the music; there’s no thought of the listener. “I really don’t think about what boxes this is ticking or who it’s going to alienate,” she states. “I just want to write strong, exciting, beautiful stuff. I’m sure everyone would say that but I don’t see…I use the same ideas in a piece for kids, for the band, all the sketches which I do.”

Meredith has written previously for Best Fit about how she composes, and it’s a fascinating approach. I try to get the composer to explain a bit more about the visual approach, how a sketch becomes a song. As we’re sitting at a table with two cups of tea in front of us, I ask Meredith to expand on how she might use one of the cups (she has of course written music inspired by and for inanimate objects) as the inspiration for a piece. Clumsy, sure, but the wonderfully good natured and frequently hilarious composer humours me: “Everything has a sketch to help me control the global pacing of all the elements,” she explains. “So, if I was asked to write a piece about a cup….I mean, I could be really practical and take the shape of the cup. I’ve done pieces where I’ve taken the shapes of trees and put them on their side and used that as the shape.”

“More likely, like when I’ve done work with body percussionists, if something’s there you’ve got such a limited palette of options…so maybe I could smash it, I can pour stuff in it, I can tap it…but I’d like it to make a beautiful melody. So it’s about how to create the best story, the best journey out of the limited palette you’ve got. With the body percussion stuff, you [pointing at me, or my body] making the shapes helps me pace it out: here they’re just going to do these sounds [Meredith claps twice in quick succession], at this point I’ll bring in the voices as a new element, at this point a big movement, at this point a beatboxer – just to make sure there’s a development happening.”

It’s something you can hear, sure, but Meredith also puts this soundscape down on paper, visualising the shape of the song and how it develops, where big moments come in. You can imagine “Nautilus” as one huge block on the page, “Honeyed Words” as a gentle sine wave, “Taken” as a jagged collection of stalactites and stalagmites. “The graphic thing…quite often there’s a lot of blocky shapes,” she confirms, “and it helps when you have a tiny idea. Like I can hear something very silvery, slippery and amorphous and then I think ‘where in this shape does this slippery and amorphous thing come…okay, it’ll come after this brutal thing so I have a real contrast. It’s just like telling a story, you work out where to put the punchline, where to build a bit of suspense. So it’s definitely not so visual that I’m going to write a piece about this [Meredith lifts a bowl of sweetener] sugar but I will find a way to take that sound and write about that rather than a piece about….Syria.”

"I don’t know about these genres because I don’t listen to music much. I wouldn’t know where to begin if someone asked me to write them a techno track"

Such an approach might seem detached to some observers but Meredith is adamant that this is emotional music, as much from the heart as the head. And she is completely right. This is moving music, physically and emotionally and she moves to the edge of her seat as she begins to talk more about her process: “I mean, it’s definitely not an academic exercise. To me it’s the opposite. I sometimes get a bit upset when people say this is music written from the head rather than the heart – it’s not. I love this music and it’s taken such an effort – and I’m sure everyone says that – and I am definitely not a detached smartarse trying to show off.”

Meredith continues: “I’m not trying to bamboozle people; there are moments of complexity but they’re there to add contrast and relief to the moment, to show intimacy and to create a contrast. For me, it’s a very visceral thing. When something feels like it has power and I can feel it building, I can actually feel myself getting out of my seat and moving, clenching my fists quite often. That’s almost like my test, a litmus test for what I’m writing…if I can feel it, I’ve got it! And I believe anybody can feel that. I’ll play it to the band and see what they think but I feel like it’s got a universal sense to it – unless you’re like ‘I absolutely don’t want to listen to this’, and then you’re never going to get through that barrier. But if you get people prepared come with you on a journey of a build or on a [Meredith takes a breath] letting out of air or an exhalation, then that’s a wonderful communal experience. Like when you’re dancing together but even if you’re all following a progression. I did a great gig in Paris the other night; there was a bit more space and people were dancing and then it got to a certain point. You could tell they were coming with you on the journey. That’s an absolute joy, to do that.”

When Meredith notices this happening, it’s a reminder that taking the audience with her wasn’t always a given at the start of her journey in this pop world. The EPs, while brilliant, are the sound of an artist finding her way in this new sphere, and Meredith agrees: “I definitely think I’ve got more confident, more explicit perhaps at times,” she begins, “and there’s obviously the vocal stuff and instrumentation. Maybe the EPs, one was four years ago, one was two years ago, maybe that was me trading as a composer. At the time it didn’t feel like I was being cautious and I don’t have any embarrassment about the material.” What stands out as a difference between the EPs and Varmints is the length; as Meredith became more confident it sounds like she was able to put more faith in the power of a shorter suite of music. She explains that “quite often the longer pieces are there because they need the space. But I was trying to create a couple of intense, short little moments to contrast against the long, rambling bonkers narrative ones. There’s definitely been a development in my own confidence of what the song is or what the material is.”

With that development comes more pressure, whether it’s larger shows or an expectation to follow up Varmints with something else equally as special. But for someone who’s spent time as a composer-in-residence, a large audience is not something to daunt. Indeed, it’s inspiring for Meredith. “It’s lovely; I mean on some level this is all very small compared to forty million people at Last Night of the Proms,” she says. “Not to belittle it [the smaller shows], but it’s a different kind of pressure and expectation and I love it. I’ve given so much of my time, energy and money to this thing. There’s no doubt in my mind it was the right thing to make this thing, and make this band, and make this happen. It’s been absolutely, hands-down the biggest thing I’ve ever done in terms of commitment. But you can’t worry too much…the ‘me’ that writes music is super-confident and when I get into the headspace of writing I don’t hold back.”

“I look it in the eyes and grab it by the horns and any other metaphors you want! I have been doing this for years and I’m ancient but it’s also an evolving thing…it has moved on from the Anna Calvi shows, but it’s not a huge change. When I first did it, it was me peering at a laptop in panic – and that was so not fun…because I always want to play. Now I get really into it and I have tons of samplers…I know it sounds really stupid but I think what people want to see is someone loving the music, and I try to create those conditions for myself.”

Varmints marks the first time that Anna Meredith – composer, musician, and artist – has a physical end product for her work. Being a contemporary composer, Meredith can spend hours, days and weeks creating something only for it to be performed once, perhaps never recorded and lost to the mists of time. So to have a copy of Varmints and to be able to play these songs over and over again is a completely new experience. “Totally!” she exclaims. “It’s another thing I’ve really taught myself: to let it go, and say something is done. I’ve got friends who have had pop projects on the go for fifteen years – it’s never ready, never done and they’re always saying it’s not good enough. I’ve developed a quite good ‘ah! There it is!’ feeling for when something is done, and that’s been a really unusual thing for me. Yeah it’s been a fucking ton of work but this is a moment in time and I can’t think about album two at this point! This is a collection of things that I’ve made and I love that there’s this physical thing which you can own. That was one of things with the classical stuff which felt strange; this idea of months and months of work, gone unrecorded, nothing to show for it. People ask me what I’m doing next – and I just need to balance that.”

Repeating the same set is entirely new for Meredith, despite having spent years in various venues playing music before becoming the composer we now know her as: “Even before I first started doing anything in concert halls,” she begins, “me and some composer friends got some gigs in jazz clubs and we were writing new pieces for every gig, trying stuff out. The idea of repeating anything was never in my mind….”

I ask if Meredith is someone who is constantly thinking, looking to improve or to implement new ideas: “Yeah, I am thinking the whole time and I have got high standards for myself,” she confirms. “Also, every venue is different so I don’t think I’m ever in the perfect place to assess everything. You always have to make compromises, whether it’s timing getting in, the sound, something not going quite right onstage…I am thinking the whole time about what we can do, little upgrades. Everything is quite lo-fi at the moment. But I’m very lucky that the players are amazing, they’re brilliant. They can take on the complexity and virtuosity of the music…that’s exciting for me. These guys are all classically trained and lots of them play in orchestras. I have a couple of pools of people because they’re often doing other stuff. But there’s always sheet music for the parts so I can rehearse with them and different people.”

"There’s no doubt in my mind it was the right thing to make this album, and make this band, and make this happen"

It’s fairly common knowledge that successions of governments, particularly of the Conservative variety, have ignored grassroots music – the sort you’d find in small venues up and down the UK and right here at The Great Escape – in favour of more “highbrow” pursuits like opera, theatre and classical music. Meredith was aware of the money in a classical commission, but was taken aback by the gap in funding: “The bottom line is that I want to have a band but it’s a load of work for hardly any money,” she says, “and they all have really successful classical careers so I have to be practical when I can and compromise.”

I ask if it was a shock to find out how artists cope at the level we’re surrounded by today, with fellow Scots Catholic Action sound checking through doors behind us. “Yeah it’s quite shocking in a way to me I guess, the reality of bands,” comes the sobering reply. “They are just doing it, either for the future belief that they’re going to be massive or just the love. When I tell people I funded my whole career from my contemporary art music, people are shocked because they think there must be oodles of cash [in the pop world]. I mean, I’m sure there is tons of cash at the very top but where I am now, the fees for gigs are terrible and for that money I’ve got to get six people and a sound guy up and down the country and stay in hotels…the money you get paid for gigs doesn’t cover it. I’m used to these more arts funded things where there’s support for that sort of stuff.”

It feels like Meredith has accepted a compromise; that for every commission she takes on, it means she’s able to create music which is more communal: “It’s not quite as clean [in terms of the commissions]…it’s not that it doesn’t matter if people don’t turn up, that’s not necessarily the point of it. The point is to make a strong piece of art rather than a commercial transaction. It’s hard to work out what to do sometimes; the cellist today has flown over from Copenhagen especially because I think he’s so good, but I have to pay for the flight for him and the cello because it needs a seat as well! There’s a lot of cost for gigs like today…but hopefully it’s worth it.”

The composer has been given a helping hand by PRS for Music Foundation and their Momentum Music Fund: “It’s so good that there’s stuff like Momentum now,” she agrees. “That’s what is paying for this tour…it’s going to run out but I have to hope. I cleaned myself out making the album and there comes a point when you’re doing this that people are going to want it enough that you’re not going to lose money. I don’t feel like that aspiration is overly-dickish, I’m not trying to be rolling in money haha! I have such respect now for the personal energy and commitment from every band I’ve met.”

Meredith has to leave to sound check for what’s a pleasingly packed out show at 3pm on a Thursday afternoon. I look around and see those dropped jaws, wide eyes and moving bodies and I hope Meredith feels the same as I do. That it’s the well-deserved end of the beginning for the composer, a towering musician who has achieved something special in two disparate genres.

Varmints is a vital, energising and probably award-winning album and there might be more to follow, although Meredith tries to avoid the question I vowed not to ask: “Always I’m juggling,” she says. “I have big commissions and that’s great because I do love that work. Some people are like ‘composer ditches classical music!!’ It’s not as simple as that; I love classical music and the commissions that I get. I’m very lucky to be asked to write stuff and I get asked to do lots of stuff which is nuts, really fun ideas – that mixture of things is really amazing. I don’t know when a kind of stock take about a second album will occur, or when I can afford to do it again…I’m sure I will. I just can’t do a shit job with this.”

Varmints is out now on Moshi Moshi. Anna Meredith leads the Brighter Sound residency - aimed at young female musicians - as part of Manchester's European City Of Science 2016 celebrations. It takes place between 18-21 July. Apply for the residency. She also plays End of the Road festival between 1-4 September. Tickets are available.
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