Interview with Anna Meredith
Classical composer, pop musician, electronic artist, producer...Anna Meredith isn't just defying musical pigeonholes but ripping them into tiny pieces. We met the multitalented, self-confessed geek for a quick cup of tea ahead of her biggest headline show to date in London.
Anna is stuck in traffic and running about five minutes late from our interview at Somerset House. She keeps sending hugely apologetic texts and tells me I’d recognise her by her “ridiculous purple hat”. It’s clear before we even meet that her ego is sub-zero.
Although she’d probably get away with an inflated one, too: her debut album Varmints (Moshi Moshi) was named the best Scottish album of 2016, she’s constantly praised by Pitchfork and the like and just about to play at Iceland Airwaves – a festival known for its achingly cool and eclectic line-up.
As a classically-trained-composer-t
So yes, there could be an ego but instead, there’s a silly hat, a pot of tea (which she later insists on paying for, and when I refuse, runs to the counter and gets me a discount with her Somerset House membership) and talk about pragmatic inspiration, slime and exploding kittens. Obviously.
Your background is in classical music but you haven’t exactly chosen the most traditional career path. Have you always been a misfit?
When I was a teenager, I never stuck to just one genre of music. I played in an orchestra but also in various bands. When I studied composition, I did think they were two separate things. At college, I made some really good composer friends and we set up this Camberwell Composers’ Collective. Instead of just waiting for the big orchestras to come to us, we were going to do our own thing, from informal concerts to all kinds of experiments. It was great to take it all a bit less seriously.
Would you say you had a kind of young indie band attitude but in the world of classical music?
Yes, we had a healthy environment to try stuff out, share new writing, remix each other’s pieces. When you got mates doing the same thing it really helps you feel safer. Even now they are the people I soundboard my stuff. Some are in the classical world, some are singer-songwriters…everyone’s started doing their own stuff.
Do you feel like a trailblazer?
I’ve never thought of it like that. I suppose I want to encourage especially young women to do production and electronics. I’ve encountered some assumptions of having a guy do my production, and it took me awhile to say ‘hey, this is what I’m doing, you might not like it but I’m happy with it’. When you’re studying, you learn about female singers and writers like Kate Bush or Madonna, but you don’t hear about female composers or producers.
What does the classical world have in common with pop or electronic music scene?
Loads! The so-called superficial stuff seems very different, like the venues and the etiquette. But in terms of music creation, not so different. I start every piece with graphic sketches, then draw a timeline and literally map out the storyboard and the energy of the piece. Be it a band track or a classical piece, the musical tools are the same. I once wrote a piece, which, to me, clearly had a beat in it but played by orchestral snares and drums. One reviewer kept talking about a march I had written. I didn’t write a march, it was a beat! But because it’s classical music, you have to say ‘march’. There’s lots of semantics still involved. But if you listen to a lot of techno, you’ll probably like a lot of classical – it’s just packaged up differently.
You have done some astounding, outlandish genre-defying projects. What inspires you?
Not music. I find it distracting when I write. A lot of ideas come from other people or just from being practical. For example, the body percussion piece was originally going to be just clapping, but then I realised clapping is bloody painful, I don’t want to clap for 12 minutes! I had to start thinking what else I can add in. I don’t go out looking for art or poetry or shapes. Maybe adjectives – I might want a piece that will be slimy up to five minutes and then all that slime will be sucked out and it’ll be incredibly dry and sparkly.
How would you describe your music to a toddler?
My nieces and nephews are around that age. My brother was playing one of my pieces to them and they said ’daddy, it’s not music!’. They like stuff with singing.
Quite the traditionalists!
Yeah, if you’ve only grown up hearing nursery rhymes then that becomes music. I didn’t realise, even as a teenager, that compositions are a living thing – I thought they were all old pieces from Beethoven or Mozart and that you were dealing with some historical masterpieces with silk gloves on.
Who did you listen to as a teenager?
I was into a lot of orchestral music but also Nirvana, Blur, Teenage Fanclub and Pulp.
You said music isn’t your inspiration but do you think those bands have indirectly influenced you as a musician or a producer?
Yeah, especially because it was during the formative years. I also loved that trashy 90s Ibiza dance stuff, like Snap, even though I’m not a massive clubber. That stuff is somewhere in there.
When’s the last time you were out raving past 3am?
Oh god, the last time was probably at a wedding. I stayed up playing cards though. Does that count? Me and my band have become obsessed with this Exploding Kittens card came.
If I come to your gig, what can I expect? Any specific emotions you’re trying to evoke?
I’ve given up trying to achieve a specific thing because I get such different responses. In classical sit-down venues everyone is quiet and claps at the end, obviously. And when I play the exactly same set to a wasted audience in a club, everyone’s screaming and shouting the whole way through. At a recent gig in Bristol, there were some people that came to see their first even string orchestra and some people to their first ever band gig. I’m really excited and humbled and honoured by that. I wish people didn’t worry about ’getting it’. It’s just music, without any genre constraints.
Words MARIA KIVIMAA
Photo MARK KEAN