Most pop songs follow a certain format, a lackadaisical journey that winds its way around some overly familiar territory. It's an accusation, though, that could never be thrown against Anna Meredith. Each song, each work from the Edinburgh-born composer stamps out its own ground, asserts its own identity – a joyous rubbing out of the rules that leads her music down some obscure, unexpected, but always fascinating routes.
Debut album 'Varmints' is like a spaghetti junction, a terminus for these routes, these sonic byways. It's a record that at times sounds grand, ornate, but is actually inspired by the little things in life. “That's partly a defence, a security mechanism,” she admits, bashfully. “If you've got something massive, then all you're trying to do is run around, trying to put lids, walls around it, to contain it, and try to make sense of it.”
“Whereas if you've got something small, or something that doesn't seem like it has much potential, you can put it under a massive magnifying glass and set it on fire; you can turn it into a super-human version of itself, and to me that's much more musically exciting. To take something unassuming and go that way. Or personally unassuming, and really maximise it. Rather than talk about war, or something… I wouldn't know where to begin. It feels too big, and too personal. Too subjective.”
Somewhat oddly for a classical composer, Anna Meredith has always longed to create an album. “I think I have always wanted to make an album, but I suppose I could just as easily tell myself that this is an album of compositions. I don't really mind too much about the distinction of what category or genre the tracks come out of. I like the size of an album. I don't listen to much music, but there are some albums that I absolutely love, as an object. And I guess also to try and draw a line under it as a size, so I wasn't just making 50 tracks, or two. It was a step up from the EPs, as well. I think you could call them compositions, I think that's just a semantic difference. I don't really mind whether they're tracks or songs or compositions.”
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'Varmints' was built over a number of years, with Anna Meredith balancing numerous other projects while still chipping away at the album. As time progressed, with composer began utilising certain dynamic shifts – something her friends named 'the Meredith build'. “Well I do love writing a build, I suppose,” she admits. “You get that in loads of music. I think you have to write something quite transparent, because if you want something to build up but you change it around too much then you don't have anything for people to go with you with. If that makes sense. Nothing to grab on to, so that you can build up with. If you keep chopping from fast to slow, or changing time signatures, then there's nothing to follow the momentum with.”
“But I really like setting up a little cell of an idea, and seeing how massive… how much material you can exploit out of it. How much energy you can tap out of it. I'll be singing it through, so if I've got a little idea then I'll sing it out to myself and I can kind of hear, quite intuitively, how much I can transform it, or mutate it, to be like a ginormous version of something that might start quite simply. It can be any music – it can be club music, it can be orchestral music, it can be anything.”
And 'Varmints' could certainly be anything. A fantastically broad record, it moves from abrasive, hard-edged sound to soothing melody, a wonderfully complex mosaic of hues and tones. Built up across three different studios, parts of the record are honed, refined, while others are constructed in a rather more DIY fashion. “Some stuff had to be done in a proper studio, like the drums. The vocals, and other stuff I just did in my flat, because I could and it was cheaper,” she says. “Definitely wasn't about 'oh, I love the acoustic in my bathroom' or anything. Just being practical, and I guess not being too precious. Like in the same way of using myself as a vocalist, or a clarinettist – I'm a 100% not the best vocalist, or clarinettist out there.”
“It's about wanting to be accountable. Saying: look, warts and all, this is me, doing what I do. Some of it was written on a residency in Suffolk, like a writing residency. Then a load in my flat, and then some at Hackney Road studios.”
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It's about wanting to be accountable…
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The result is a record that never sits still, that echoes the impish energy of its pun-laden title. “I think it had to be quite bitty,” she explains. “Normally with a project I'll just focus on one single thing and then blitz it, get it done, and move on to something else. Not very good at multi-tasking with writing. But with this, because it was such an important thing for me I wanted it to stand up for itself, not have any filler tracks. I wanted everything to feel strong and have lots of character. I did want to get it right.”
“I did bursts,” she continues. “I would do a month and then go off and do something else, write something else, and then come back and do another month. In order to get things done I set myself deadlines.”
It was far from a quick, easy process, as the composer readily admits. “It was long – longer than I would have expected, and possibly harder work than I expected. And I guess by the time you get to recording stuff, it's almost a different kind of process. By then, the material is written, and it's just about using your ears to make sure you get the right takes and stuff. Which is difficult, and exhausting, but it's definitely less creatively exhausting than getting the whole feel for something right.”
'Varmints' sits together with astonishing cohesion, the huge varying techniques and sounds complimenting one another, helping to unlock each other's charms, secrets, through their contradictions. “I definitely don't think in terms of genres,” she says at one point. “I wasn't going: here's a pop track. It's all much more about the musical nuts and bolts, I guess. Definitely, stuff like 'Schill' – I thought of that like a little burst of white noise, almost. It's just relentless. And really in your face, and a wee bit overwhelming, and then straight after that it clears all the frequencies, so you can really focus and zoom in on something a bit more introspective, I guess.”
“That's quite fun to work out, after you've had something long and narrative you can have something a bit more playful. So it's just about arranging the objects that you've got. I knew that if I dropped something then I could, because it didn't fit into the overall story, the shape of the whole thing.”
Even during our brief conversation it's clear that Anna Meredith approaches music in a quite different fashion from most artists Clash would cover. The language, for example, sits quite apart from the way most indie, electronic, or pop artists would discuss their music.
“Sometimes I'll hear stuff and be amazed that people put tracks next to each other,” she says. “Or the same feel, or something. I quite enjoy it. I don't have any problem with going from something loud to something quiet. That can be really exciting. It's just the contextualising! (laughs) The journey, man! That's the fun bit. You've done all the hard bit, that's just arranging your meals into a sensible order, for digestion.”
‘Varmints’ isn’t something to be gulped down; it’s something to be savoured, chewed up and enjoyed gradually. But after the months, years, spent on its construction, Anna Meredith really wouldn’t have it any other way.
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'Varmints' is out now. Catch Anna Meredith at London's ICA venue on March 29th.