In Conversation: Isobel Waller-Bridge

On her creative practise, the impact of Fleabag, and her new EP...

From TV sensations like Fleabag to film period dramas like Emma, Isobel Waller-Bridge has an impressive CV under her belt. A versatile and in-demand composer, Waller-Bridge has worked across TV, film, theatre, the concert hall and now, with the arrival of her latest project, ‘VIII’, has her own EP. A deeply personal and intimate collection of tracks performed by the 12 Ensemble, Waller-Bridge seems to truly pour her soul into every project she scores, including her own.

As wildly intelligent as she is incredibly humble, Isoebl Waller-Bridge sits down with Clash on a particularly grey Thursday morning, to talk burnout, ballet and bucket lists.

Have you been up to anything this morning?

I am just working at the moment so I’ve just been listening to some mixes. I’m scoring something at the moment so I’m just, you know, dragging myself through that. No [laughs] it’s great, I’m really enjoying it, it’s all good. The days are rainy and I love this time of year so much.

First and foremost, you’ve got this new project coming out, very exciting. Tell us all about it, fill us in.

It’s an EP that I recorded with the 12 Ensemble who are an amazing group of musicians. I wasn’t really sure what was going to come out when I wrote it, I knew I was going to write a collection of pieces but I didn’t kind of know what the form would be, actually.

I sort of think of it as a body of work rather than tracks I suppose, and it was interesting because when I started writing, I was really focused on trying to figure out what should be the subject of it, because my whole thing is responding to material the whole time in scoring. So that was my instinct like, ‘oh I need something to respond to’.

Then I just started writing and realised things were coming out that were very internal feelings, that were almost invisible to me and they were coming out in music… which was an interesting journey because then I just wrote really freely without in any way being contrived about it.

They’re all kind of odd lengths and they’re really not what I expect to do. I don’t know if you find this, but sometimes when you finish something you kind of come out of it and go ‘oh there it is’ and sort of not really remember it… so it was funny stepping back and seeing what I had made.

This must be an opportunity for you to go, ‘let’s see what happens’ which is really exciting. I read somewhere that you found creating these works very cathartic, can you touch on that a little bit more?

As I was writing it I realised I was having all these reactions to certain stages of the writing, and then I was feeling quite, I don’t know… I try not to say ‘angry’, but I was propelled in a personal direction just to write spiky stuff and to not worry about being soft or anything. Then I realised that actually these were aspects of my personality I think, that I very rarely put on show. Then I started thinking about the duality of a person and what we present and also what is also going on underneath the surface, which is the same, I believe, for everyone. There’s no such thing as a simple soul.

So then I actually started working through some of these feelings, feelings of frustration, and so actually writing the pieces was very cathartic in that way. They made me move through an emotional journey. It sounds so introspective and I’m not usually this introspective; that’s sort of why I almost feel self-conscious about it because I’m not used to really talking about myself, I’m much more used to looking at other subjects. But I found it very cathartic to look at the multi-faceted, multi-dimensional, idea of the self. I’m really interested in Jung and the psychology behind all of that.

Do you ever find it difficult transitioning from working for other people to working for yourself?

I find it hard. I don’t know if other people would find it hard but I definitely find it hard because I think they’re totally different skillsets. The role of the ego is totally different in both of them so that when I’m scoring, the collaborative part of it is so important to me, that you want to bring yourself to it – because that’s why you’re in the room, I suppose. That’s why you’re collaborating with these people because they want a part of you. But you’re also serving a much bigger picture and essentially maybe somebody else’s vision.

So when I’m writing for myself it takes me ages to be able to focus a bit more on the self. I think that’s why I found writing the pieces difficult because I was thinking, ‘I’m thinking about myself much too much…’ but maybe that’s okay. The good thing about collaborating is that you have a lot of direction and you also have parameters and what I found really exciting is being able to follow my own instincts and create my own kind of rules and that was, I loved that so much.

Do you find it quite solitary at all, going from big collaborations to kind of you, does it ever feel quite solitary kind of going from one to the other?

To be honest both are really solitary, because even though you’re collaborating with other people, the writing has to happen on my own, so I’m very used to that actually. I really like it, I don’t know whether I do because I like solitude or because I’ve come to enjoy solitude because of that but they’re different types of solitude.

There is a little bit more interaction, but definitely with a film I’m only interacting with one person which is the director. I think that’s why I love doing theatre so much because you’re doing it in the room with five other people and you’re all making it at the same time. That’s why with this EP the solitude was really important. I mean, that’s true in both cases, but certainly with this, it was important to be able to go down the rabbit hole without feeling like I’m being watched, to be able to do things without sort of feeling like I’m being judged actually and experiment. I really love the solitude but you are basically alone.

You’ve mentioned theatre there, you’ve mentioned film, you’ve obviously got this EP, there’s such a huge, eclectic mix of things you’ve done. What draws you to certain projects?

I definitely don’t feel like I can pick and choose. I feel so lucky if something comes my way that is inspiring and that I really want to do, that’s always so thrilling, there’s really nothing better. I think it’s really whatever the narrative is, so if I’m going to be involved in telling a story I gotta really want to be part of telling that story, that’s really the thing and then it’s the collaborators. If I get along with the collaborators and if we’re a good fit that feels really good, but it’s definitely story story story, all the way.

The scale of it never sways my reasons to do anything. You spend a big amount of time and you are totally on your own and you give everything each time and so you want to feel like it’s nourishing you somehow.

Is story really important to you? Music is a form of storytelling, after all…

Stories are really important to me. I do read… [laughter] I do read… It’s funny because stories aren’t always in narrative form to me.

It doesn’t have to be totally narrative, I love any expression of story so ballet, for instance, where there’s absolutely no dialogue, usually, and it’s visual storytelling and is what really gets me. It’s why I love films so much because it really stimulates all those senses for me and why I really get excited when I work with artists, painters, because of the visual storytelling aspect of it. I probably started telling stories, writing stuff down, making little radio plays, when I was really young and then everytime I wrote a piece of music it always had, definitely when I was younger, it always had this huge story behind it.

But that’s what was interesting when I first signed with Mercury KX, I said whatever I do it has to be an enormous expression of my soul, I was suddenly thinking because story is so important to me, what could it be. I remember we were talking about it and there was sort of this revelation that it only has to be small, a story doesn’t have to be an epic thing, you can have the smallest moment and within that moment can be an epic or very important revelation or turning point.

I’m going to ask to briefly talk about Fleabag – has the ‘fame’ or clamour surrounding it died down yet?

Fame is a weird word to me because obviously for my sister it was very impactful in that way. But I just wrote most of that in my bedroom and I don’t feel like – yes, definitely, there was a certain amount of visibility. But my world is very small – very very very small – and that hasn’t really changed, and I’m not very good at being in front of people. I’ll always avoid being in the shot. So weirdly for me the journey doesn’t feel… it’s been quite steady in that way, because my personal world didn’t really change. But what’s really important about work is evolution and that feels really cool to see, certainly with that show, the work that’s followed it and that I find really, really thrilling.

Does your process usually start at the piano? What does your process look like, especially for this EP?

It’s usually at the piano when I’m writing for myself because I have such a really really deep and trusted relationship with the piano. I feel like I know it really well and it knows me. I’ve had the same piano since I was a teenager so I like to start there and generally what I’ll do is just improvise for hours. Usually I’ll record it and I’ll go back and see whether there’s anything in there.

Usually when I am writing what happens for me is that I have to be very, very relaxed. It’s almost like a trance basically and instinctively if something feels interesting or touches me somehow I will just start repeating it, and that repetition will lead to a development of it. So when I’m going back through the recordings I can find these moments and usually I would have to have some sort of imagery in my mind, like perhaps a painting… but honestly with this EP because I didn’t have anything like that, I actually thought I would write something quite soft and then it sort of transferred from the piano – I do remember at one point moving over, because I write a lot with pencil and so just picking up the paper and starting to notate what I had written on the piano on strings.

I know it sounds really weird but I actually can’t really remember it in that much detail because I’ll come out of it five hours later and realise that I’ve written something, genuinely. But the other thing I also find is that the thinking about it – and conceptualising of it – is the lion’s share, and then the actual sitting down and writing it actually happens quite quickly. So, I’ll do a lot of walking around and looking out of the window and pretending that I’m working, but actually I am working – it just doesn’t look like work. And then I’ll write it usually quite quickly.

Is your environment really integral to that process?

Yeah massively. It’s really important. Usually, actually, I’ll turn all the lights off and certainly when I was writing this I wrote quite a lot of it in the dark. It has to be very minimal, I can’t write in a cluttered place. I do find it useful to go away to write because, certainly if ever I’ve been stuck, changing the environment really unlocks things which are really important and colours, I like greens and reds. It’s that sort of synesthesia which I have, anything that I’m looking at will sort of pour itself out into what I’m writing. If I nip out for a coffee and I see something amusing that would probably find its way in somehow. You’re constantly collecting.

In Conversation: Isobel Waller-Bridge

Do you ever get nervous when you release things?

Yes, definitely. It’s totally a different kind of nervousness. I think because the music is part of a work with a film, you’ve all sort of made something together so it’s a little bit more diluted, whereas with something like this yeah, it’s really scary. It’s really scary. It’s that thing where you go ‘oh maybe I just shouldn’t put it out’, much too scary to do. Then actually, what was lovely is that I realised that it’s okay, because often I think about an audience so much when I’m scoring and it was a really interesting experience to let go of the audience a little bit and just write honestly, and – I can barely say it – but just write something that felt that I had to write and that completely came from me, and that kind of released me from a tiny bit from some of the fear. There’s a lot of fear around it definitely.

Is there anything that’s still on the bucket list?

Oh my gosh definitely! Forever there will be things! The album is the next thing. The experience of writing this EP was really important because it kind of showed me a different way I can work. A ballet. I would like to write an opera. That’s the thing about storytelling, the medium will always be interesting to me if the story is interesting, there will always be things on the bucket list. Always.

Is there any particular ballet that we would want to work or is it anything that sort of inspires and works?

I’m actually starting one next week which is exciting, it’s at the Opera House and will be on next year. It really depends on my state, sometimes I really like Gothic fairytales and sometimes I really like cold modern things.

I like being able to look at things through a different creative lens, it definitely keeps me experimenting and evolving and it keeps it all feeling new. I would like to do something to do with Angela Carter.

Do you ever feel burnt out? I know lots of these things happen over a long period of time but do you ever feel that sense of burn out and panic?

I’ve got quite good at knowing my own stamina and being able to pace myself. When I was starting out I didn’t really know what my stamina was and I didn’t understand the rhythms of the work and how intense it can get, so there were some times when I was starting out when I was really struggling with the pace of everything. But now I know myself and know what I can do and the time it takes to do it so I can sort of manage it.

I’m really afraid of burn out, actually; I think it’s really important to take breaks… and I don’t mean coffee breaks, I mean big breaks. You also have to let other stuff in otherwise. What I don’t wanna do is feel like I’m repeating myself, and I think if I was doing too much back to back then I would just start repeating myself… and I don’t ever want to do that so having breaks to reboot is essential.

Isobel Waller-Bridge will release new EP ‘VIII’ on November 25thorder it online.

Words: Grace Dodd
Main Photo Credit: Sophie Harris Taylor
Inset Photo Credit: Jérôme Favre

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