Few artists straddle the line between classical and electronic music with as much success as Anna Meredith. We talk to her about the creation of her recent Mercury‑nominated album.
How does a composer with an open disregard for the fetishism of synthesizers go about creating an album that is as dependent on its hypnotic electronics as it is on classical instrumentation? For London‑born, Scotland‑raised Anna Meredith MBE, the musical success of Mercury‑nominated second album FIBS was never going to hinge on a specific choice of sequencer or the hunting down of any ‘must‑have’ legacy synth. “I am a bodger,” Meredith warns me with a laugh as we, along with guitarist and producer Jack Ross, sit in the quad of London’s Somerset House, which also happens to be the location of her studio. “I’m not a compositional bodger, but I am a bodger with some of this stuff!”
The idea of a ‘second album’ is something of a misrepresentation of Meredith’s remarkable career trajectory. Many will doubtless consider 2016’s Varmints something of a breakthrough, yet the composer has been garnering the respect of both sides of the so‑called classical and popular divide for the best part of two decades; far longer than such a slim catalogue of original studio albums might suggest. From 2012’s body‑percussion piece HandsFree, which saw performances at the BBC Proms, Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie and beyond, to high‑profile soundtracks for such shows as Netflix’s dark comedy starring Paul Rudd, Living With Yourself; it’s almost remarkable she has managed to find the time to work on any self‑commissioned studio records at all.
“I was doing a few little residencies,” Meredith explains. “Really focused writing of little ‘nubbins;’ little cells, germs of ideas. Not too fleshed out, but things I thought had the potential to become stuff. I brought the whole band down, five of us, to the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, and we listened to a few things and chatted about these ideas.”
It wasn’t long, however, before a succession of impossible‑to‑ignore commissions became incumbent on Meredith and demanded that the album be temporarily shelved. Projects like ‘Five Telegrams’, commissioned for the BBC Proms (complete with projection mapping onto the exterior of the Albert Hall), the release of Anno (“Half my music and half Vivaldi’s Four Seasons,” the composer says, “kind of half electronics and half string orchestra”), and the soundtrack for Bo Burnham’s coming‑of‑age comedy Eighth Grade demanded the lion’s share of the composer’s 2018. “So, I put the album to one side,” she explains, “and then it was just like, clear the decks. Stop touring, let’s make some kind of schedule to make it happen.”
From August 2018 to January 2019 Meredith retreated to her London studio to begin work on the album, which stemmed from an almost completely abstract place. Testament to her exhaustive composition process, at least half the overall time devoted to creating FIBS was spent without recording a note.
“I don’t think: ‘I’ll make 30 tracks and pick the best 11,’” she explains. “It’ll be: ‘I’m going to make 11 tracks; and they’re going to be fast instrumentals and slow instrumentals, and there’ll be a vocal for me and vocal for the drummer, and there’ll be a group vocal...’ I know the things I want in it, so then I’m trying to work out the pie chart — the balance of energies — of the album as a whole, so they all balance up. I keep that in check before I’ve written a note.”
Indeed, there is a key stage of Meredith’s process that takes place before any writing occurs at all: drawing. ‘I do these graphic drawings of the shape of the track, the energy of it. I do this for every kind of music I write. They almost look like rockets! It’s like, a non‑musical way to get the pacing right. Initially they’re almost like mood boards. So, I’ll have an A3 bit of manuscript with a little squiggly shape and a few adjectives, and it’ll have a few bits of notated rhythm. It might say something like ‘stabby’ drawn into a shape, or it might say ‘big bass here?’ and then I might notate underneath a little example of what that might be — a few chords or something, or a rhythm. So, it becomes almost like a schematic. I never think about genre. It’s never about a ‘techno track’ or a ‘rock track’. I only think about the compositional ingredients. Something that builds up in a particular way.”
The route Meredith’s ideas take from compositional ‘nubbins’ to sounds in a DAW is an unconventional one by today’s standards of studio recording, yet nonetheless highly musical and even traditional. “It’s always in Sibelius,” she tells me. “It’s always notated. Years ago, when I started writing straight into Ableton, everything just became layers. There was no direction. So I thought, ‘OK, what is my skill set?’ I know how to notate music, I know how to control bars and time signatures and pace stuff well, so I made a decision to go to electronics right at the last minute. It’s not designed for playback at all, Sibelius. It does it, but it uses general MIDI, so it sounds awful! But I kind of like that, because it means that if the ingredients are good, then I know that when I upgrade it with real instruments, it’ll be a lot better. It’s a way to test whether or not things works compositionally. So, when I go into Ableton the hard work is done. I’m not relying on synths to provide the character. I’m relying on composition.
“In my studio… there’s like, no gear in it! It’s a little MIDI keyboard, a computer, a desk, some manuscript and a piano. It’s not filled with synths or drums machines — none of the material things. In fact, the opposite. I’m a little bit daunted by some of that stuff and not particularly interested, it doesn’t help me write good music. I used to be quite panicked and felt that was what I was meant to be doing. Almost, ‘You’re writing electronic music so you should be getting really into this stuff,’ which is why it’s been great for someone like Jack [Ross] to be on it. I’m good with big brush strokes, but not good with tiny brush strokes; so I kind of need someone to help me do the stuff I’m not very good at, and… slightly struggle to care about, which is sort of embarrassing!”
Anna Meredith: Having a classical background, when I’m writing for an orchestra, I know every instrument. I know the range of what they can play... I think about the mix of electronics in a similar way.
When it comes to listing her synthesizers, Meredith’s vocabulary is refreshingly off‑kilter and creative. As if barely concerned with the names of things beyond their musical value, she recalls: “I’ve got a lot of ’90s ravey synths that I really like: analogue, kind of chiptune‑y. Because a lot of the music is very fast, I can’t have too many wet sounds. So, I’m drawn to a lot of beepy, short, percussive, vintage‑y sounds. I’ve got a lot of packs and plug‑ins of vintage sounds and old computer game sounds, lots of the Ableton ones, some Roland stuff, some Super Nintendo‑style ones, some Kontakt stuff... Nothing cool! I guess I just don’t let the software daunt me too much, because it then overwhelms the music.
“I think, having a classical background, when I’m writing for an orchestra, I know every instrument. I know the range of what they can play, but I’m not going to think ‘What can a violin do that’s never been done before?’ I’m thinking ‘I’m writing for a violin.’ So, I think about the mix of electronics in a similar way. It’s like my old friend... I start with a preset! I’ll move it around to make it my own thing, but it’s very simple: ‘fizzy synth A,’ or ‘big fat squelchy synth B.’ I’ll have these ones I keep coming back to because I like them. It’s about finding a functional sound and using things I already know, which function well.”
Jack Of All Trades
Guitarist and production aficionado Jack Ross has been working with Anna for a decade. As the composer considers her unconventional approach to electronic instruments he interjects, with equal parts gravitas and encouragement: “Anna, you’re different to some people who get buried in technology, but you are no slouch with Ableton! You know how to move around in there and get things that you like. But it’s your way round, which is a good distinction to make.”
The term ‘production aficionado’ may seem somewhat hackneyed, but as Meredith points out, “we’ve struggled with the word ‘producer,’ because it seems to be a very confusing word. I did all the electronics — nobody else wrote the electronics or had any input on them ‑ but Jack produced the recording. We’ve really struggled, to be honest, to find the right language. In the classical world, if you’re called the producer of a string quartet album, in that sense you’d be the only producer because nobody’s composing anything. It’s all about recording pre‑existing material. But, if you’re working in lots of different kinds of commercial music... it feels like it could be many things.”
The recording proper started modestly, in Meredith’s own space. “Tuba, cello, guitar, clarinet, all the voices, some pitched wine glasses... basically it was all done one at a time, in a tiny room, layering up, editing,” she tells me. “But it was great for me, because I find it hard to listen to anything beyond the composition. When we’re listening back to takes, and Jack is trying to talk about which one is slightly better here or there, I’m just thinking, ‘What a great line! Smashed that!’ So it’s so important to have someone who can listen in that way.’”
Laughing, Ross remembers one instance where choosing a take was particularly easy. “We’d done one take of pitched wine glasses, and then went in to have a listen. We shut the door to the vocal booth that all the glasses were in, and the primary glass just fell over and smashed. It was like, ‘Yep, guess we got it!’
“You get in the zone of listening to EQ or the character of the microphone... and I love being in that rabbit hole. It’s quite an addictive sensation!” says Ross. “The studio facility at Somerset House is fairly rudimentary. It’s got a tiny space, almost a vocal booth, really, for separation; a pair of Yamaha HS7s and a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2s; a Midas M32R desk; a handful of microphones... Mic‑wise it was, like, three SM57s and a couple of EV RE20s. Also a really nice valve mic with a particular character, an sE Z5600a II. It’s pretty bright but with plenty of body, and we used it for all vocals. We used a DPA 4099 on cello and clarinet, because it’s a great little thing that you can get really close; very detailed and perfect if you don’t have a lot of room to play with. And then I stuck the sE mic in front of both instruments as an option, a different character. We also had an Aston Spirit. Great mic, great company. They’re really versatile. We used that on guitar cabs, tuba and cello at different times, depending on what character we wanted to capture.
“I’ve always been really interested in studios and the recording process,” he reflects. “I agreed to record all of the acoustic stuff except for drums. I think you really need to do a good job of that. You need a studio with someone who really knows what they’re doing in that specific space.” Enter decorated engineer Shuta Shinoda, at East London’s Hackney Road Studios. “I’ve done loads of stuff with him over the years,” says Ross. “That guy, in that room... He really knows how to record drums and make them sound fantastic. He’s got beautiful mics and preamps that he knows just how to work. Lovely old SSL [4000E] desk, big [ATC 100a SLM] speakers... we had a great time recording in there. In that situation, my role was to keep track of take sheets, give Sam [Wilson, drummer] feedback about what he was doing, think about sounds, talk to Shuta about mics and mic placement.”
Carefully nurturing the project over that hard‑to‑define threshold, from individual composition to instrumentalist collaboration, Meredith had prepared well with her players for this stage of the recording process. “I would have a few days with each person,” she says, “so, with Sam, we would have written the drum parts together, figuring it out. It was the same with Jack and the guitar, Maddie [Cutter] on cello and Tom [Kelly] on the tuba. Figuring it out, just in a studio somewhere, away from recording, and then by the recording stage things are quite fixed. There isn’t too much improvising.”
“It’s about getting good takes,” adds Ross. “Solid takes that are going to work well with the electronics. It is an album that is driven by the electronic content that Anna has generated. But all of the instrumental parts need to find their place and need to support that, and you’ve got to find where they, kind of, blossom out of that electronic texture and take the spotlight, and also where they just sit back to help the trajectory of it. That was the challenge, really.”
Anna considers: ‘We’re quite internal. We definitely keep stuff in‑house.” Turning towards Jack once more, she continues, “I was able to talk to you guys more than with Varmints. When I was writing, I was thinking, ‘Sam’s got a great voice, so he’ll sing a track,’ and then you [Jack], me and Sam can sing a track because I know our voices work together… And, I’m also thinking of what Maddie the cellist can do...”
I suggest to the pair that this approach almost harks back to a bygone era of composition; where composers would be more likely to work with the same players time and again, as opposed to the common practice today of working with by‑the‑hour freelancers. “We all love working in that way,” responds Ross. “There are players who wouldn’t even consider it, they’d just be like, ‘Get back to me when you’ve got a playable part!’ So, that back and forth relationship is really important. Tracking this stuff, we know what we’re aiming for. We really know what we want to achieve with it. We know, ‘That bassline, that’s got to be a tuba, leading that!’ So we’ve then got to find a way to get it to punch through, or to fill a gap in this or that synth sound so that it suddenly feels huge. You lose all of the extraneous stuff, that sense of trying to feel your way through things. It becomes about direction and capturing sound in the right way so that it will translate. It’s like, ‘Let’s figure out how do it,’ and then you get your head down and you do it!”
When it came to mixing, the crew enlisted the skills of one Marta Salogni. “We were all there the whole time,” Meredith says. “I think she was quite surprised as normally people just come in at the end, but we were there for weeks, all day every day!”
Ross describes Marta as “no ego, just skills.” He continues: “Her EQ skills were phenomenal. It’s dense music, so you have to make space in it. And she’s just masterful. I did some incredibly rudimentary test mixes of stuff and sent it over with all the stems, and within about an hour of working with Marta, the low end is tight, the mix is warm and it’s sparkly, you can hear all the parts — and that’s just EQ. She’s amazing. I don’t think we’d even gotten onto conversations about the stereo field or creating space in other ways until a bit later on. It just cleared the path for conversations about creative effects and processing. She’s just a really great person to work with.”
Needless to say, Salogni was the right engineer for the job. A resourceful approach and respect for the finite elements before her made for an effortlessly contiguous mixing stage, demonstrative of the crew’s maxim when it came to making FIBS. When it came to mastering, it was down to John Webber at AIR studios; perhaps best known for his work on a vast array of iconic jazz remasters but also, aptly, responsible for finishing the epic soundtracks of films like Alien: Covenant and High‑Rise.
Looking back on FIBS’s recording and mixing processes, Ross reflects: “It was a lesson. Use the stuff you’ve got really well. Know what you’re trying to achieve rather than getting a new plug‑in that you think might solve your problems. It’s the same as with Anna; she’s in pursuit of the impact of the sound and the sonic experience, rather than using gear and plug‑ins to inspire something that might be something. You want to be thinking: ‘I know what I want to achieve, so now I’m going to work out what I need to do.’”