Best of Both Worlds: Anna Meredith Interviewed

What happens when a classical composer tries her hand at a pop record? Scottish Album of the Year, that’s what – we meet Anna Meredith

Feature by Duncan Harman | 02 Aug 2016

There’s a point, early on in the conversation, when it strikes you just how intrinsically nice Anna Meredith is.

Okay; nice is such a lazy, anodyne adjective, frequently used in the pejorative; it’s very much the Mumford & Sons of descriptive words. So let’s try warm instead. Engaging. Modest

About to Ryanair it to Bratislava for a festival set, the Edinburgh-raised artist has a way of talking that highlights the enthusiasm she applies to her craft – and enthuse she may, what with picking up this year’s SAY Award for the delightfully playful Varmints (an album The Skinny has been banging on about for an age – but what do we know?).

“It’s been amazing,” Anna explains down the phone of the past few months, accommodatingly finding the corner of her studio’s lobby with the sharpest mobile signal. “I didn’t want to expect too much in case nothing happened – the worst thing would have been that nobody was into it; that would have been a very hard thing to pick yourself up from. That people have loved it – it’s been a really humbling, amazing thing, especially when the SAY Award shortlist was so strong and interesting that I didn’t allow myself to even think about winning.”

Yet win she did – deservedly so – and without wishing to second-guess the judging panel, the album’s appeal is multi-faceted. ‘Cute, erudite electropop rich in grace and glide’ is a description that works on one level, but more than this, it’s Meredith’s ‘day job’ as classical composer that speaks of a musical fluency, and the extrapolation of themes and ideas within different contexts.

Pop vs classical

“I think that context is the right word. Quite often people ask me about different genres – 'Oh, so is this your pop record?' – and that’s not really how I see it. For me, the musical ideas are really similar to how I’d write for kids or a piece for orchestra; I use the same sort of harmonies and rhythms across what I write. I’ve always loved writing and I really just want to represent these ideas as a sort of statement about being where I’m at. I guess that was my starting point; what things could I not, not include.”

Ideas that include a lithe 80s feel to the record: “I suppose I’m a child of the 80s and 90s. I love my trashy synth. I love a trashy dance anthem, and I suppose that those sounds are in there.” But on the flipside, “I definitely didn’t go out to be looking for them as specific reference points.”

Instead, it’s the fertile cross-pollination between two culturally distinct (or at least perceived to be distinct) art forms that makes Varmints such an engaging listen. Genre politics can be a dull and self-defeating subject, yet by engaging orchestral patterns in a pop setting, there’s certainly a sense of artist subverting rigid notions of what different musical styles represent (not to mention the unusual prominence of a tuba on an electropop disc).  

“There’s tons of overlaps if you actually step back and don’t worry about ‘That’s got drums, therefore it must be pop,’ or ‘That’s got a violin, therefore it must be classical.’ That’s a very black and white way to look at stuff. I’m definitely not someone who could give you a brilliant snapshot of where we’re at, but I do think that right now we’re in a very healthy place where you see lots of people experimenting on their own terms. Not out of fashion but out of curiosity and wanting to develop themselves in either direction, whether that’s bands wanting to have different instruments or arrangements, or those wanting to work with electronics in their classical stuff. Sometimes it’s just semantics that make things sound more segregated.”

(Continues below)

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“I can kind of understand why people might want to categorise something – ‘that’s post-modernist prog art house’ or whatever – but I think that’s just to help people make sense of stuff. Much more challenging – but I also think much more exciting – is to try to look for the similarities. You can listen to big symphonic works and it’s got loads of things that you might enjoy in pop or a dance track. They’re probably there in the classical repertoire – you just have to look for them in a slightly different way.”

So how does Anna Meredith the composer coexist with Anna the pop star? Is there much compartmentalisation going on?

“It sounds a bit ego-y, but that’s why I didn’t give myself a band name; it’s all me. I do know people who write really well when they’re wearing different hats – different versions of themselves that focus upon different incarnations – but I’m maybe not flexible enough for that. This is kind of how I write, and there are variations of that; the way my musical interests can lead to music that can sound quite different.

“There are things to take into account, of course – the instruments that you’re writing for, what kind of occasion, how much money you’re getting paid,” (at which she laughs). “When is the deadline – there’s lots of stuff to factor in, but ultimately I try not to think about it too much.

“I took time off from commissions,” she explains of Varmints’ origins. “I had to carve out distinct months, so it wasn’t one big onslaught. I’ve had residencies at the Aldeburgh Music Festival in Suffolk, and they’ve been amazingly supportive in giving me space and a writing room, and even then – and it feels much crazier now – there was all this admin, so going to Aldeburgh was a brilliant way to think about the album rather than, 'Where’s my tax return?'”

Anna Meredith on performance

The growing pile of admin becomes a recurring (if humorous) theme of our chat – expect to see an advert for help in the situations vacant sometime soon. Admin that includes the ephemera of organising and playing live – again, a contrast to the day job.

“I’ve done some workshop stuff at huge classical gigs where I’ve worked with the audience, but otherwise you’re thinking, hands sweating, nervously watching a performance of which you have very little control and direct input because your work is done. So playing with the band is a huge change. It’s great that we’ve started to move from the tiniest venues to bigger ones, although I’ve a total soft spot for those sweaty, higgledy-piggledy gigs that we’ve done. The music actually works best on a huge sound system with space for everybody to get into a bit of a tunnel and focus on it with a bit of room to breathe. In an ideal world there’ll be humungous stages with humungous PAs but it’s starting to move a little bit, which is great and that means you can start to look at all aspects of what the performance can be.”

With festival dates sandwiched by spring and autumn tours, and an itinerary that doesn’t let up on the classical side of things (amongst other projects she’s currently finalising arrangements for the Bowie Prom, as well as working on a piece for the Kronos Quartet), it’s certainly been a hectic period.    

“This year has definitely been unlike any other. Next year is a bit of an unknown; I’ve deliberately kept quite a lot of space… writing for film, possibly/probably album two.” Yet the overriding impression is one of a writer/performer thrilled to be doing what she’s doing (and receiving recognition as a result). “I have a bit of a habit of giving anything a go. If someone asks me to write something I’ll normally say yes and then think about how I’m going to do it later on. I’ve had many weird and wonderful commissions where I’ve just figured out the practicalities of what it is after I’ve agreed to it.” The good news being that in whatever field she finds herself working in, Anna will keep saying yes. She’s nice like that.

Varmints is out now via Moshi Moshi. Anna Meredith plays Glasgow CCA on 2 Nov