Anna Meredith thinks about music differently to most other people.
To her, sound is a playground. She hears music in shapes, writing maps to take her to her desired musical destination. Using years of classical training and a decade-long career in composition, she manipulates the tools in her toybox to bend sound and create challenging new forms that dance on the edges of genre.
The music she makes is unapologetically maximalist where much modern classical leans to the minimal: shot through with punky blasts of surprise that play games with our ears.
And it’s none more true than on FIBS, the follow-up to ‘Varmints’, her Scottish Album of the Year winning debut studio album. The eleven little figments that form her fibbing are self-contained stories all: alive and crackling with life and joy. Take first single ‘Paramour’, which hurtles towards a lightning-speed 176 BPM build, before an unexpected tuba interruption performs a 180 turn on our expectations.
It is a sound that thrums with invention: always playful, and never expected. And from an artist who’s written for beatboxers and international orchestras, flash-mobs and symphonies, why would it be anything else? For when a composer writes to her own brief and boundaries, the opportunities to play are infinite.
We meet to talk about finding a voice, the ‘sound’ of a triangle and how it feels to have an MBE.
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Could you tell us a little bit about the album and how it came to be?
I knew I wanted to write stuff post-Varmints, and push myself a little bit more with it. Obviously, though, I’ve been writing music the whole time - doing film stuff and classical stuff in-between. In a way, the hardest bit was clearing a bunch of time to just focus on this project, and find the money, and turn down other work and stuff.
It was a really big thing to do. I’d either forgotten (conveniently) or had wishful thinking that it would be quick and painless. I guess because I care about it so much, I’m so invested in it that it felt like a really big thing to do. But I’m very happy with it.
What was inspiring you? What were you drawing on?
This could not be less of a sexy answer! I deliberately don’t really look at anything else. I’ve learned this over the years - if I listen to anyone else’s music, or watch some films, or read a book, or look at some art - it just doesn’t help me write.
I get anxious because their stuff’s so good - I worry that I’ll do a watered-down, shitty version of their thing. At the beginning, it all sounded like pretty terrible James Blake, because I just didn’t really know.
I’ve learned that the best thing for me to do is take my own ideas of what I need and create almost little mini-briefs that I write for myself. So like, I want to have a quiet instrumental brief that has a shape that it’s split into, then a section that does something else. Or I want to have a full thing that’s about self-censoring.
It was more like a little set of briefs that I set for myself, as opposed to a new set of conditions. Giving myself a set of challenges is how I write everything, really.
Is it the same writing process whether you’re working on a commission or your own material?
Exactly. Everything, it’s exactly the same. I do these little graphic sketches. Almost little timelines, with big abstract shapes like big triangles, and I do those to show the pacing of the music.
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Is it like a map?
Yes! I’ve posted them around - you can tend to see them about the place They sort of look like the cross-section of a spaceship, because there are lots of builds in my music. There’s always a line in the middle of the timeline, and then lots of different triangles, big squares that show another section. It’s just about me controlling the sound.
The pacing is the thing that I really care about, and want to get right, and plan. I’m definitely not improvising any of it. So yeah. I spend a bunch of time doing these drawings. And I’ll do them for a remix, or a film score, or an orchestra piece. It’s all the same building blocks for me.
I read that you see sounds (or a piece of music) as having a certain shape. Is that what the shapes you draw correspond to?
Yeah, exactly. I’m looking at them now on a big whiteboard. We’ve got a piece of A4 for each album track. So I’ll create the brief, and then I’ll create the sound to fit the shape.
I’ll be thinking, ‘We’ve got a triangle up here, so it starts small and ends big. We’ll be building with this sort of material, adding these elements or changing these chords, to reach the part where the triangle changes to a big square...
And they’re little markers?
The album’s titled ‘Fibs’, which you’ve said are little lies concocted for your own amusement. Are all of the tracks individual little stories, or is there more of a theme?
I think it’s maybe less of a concept-y, more of a general sense. I like the idea that it’s not one thing or the other. A fib isn’t black and white, good or bad. Again, with a lot of this music, I don’t see it as ‘pop’ or ‘classical’. Along the way of this whole process, I did tell myself a lot of fibs.
Ones like: oh, you’re nearly there! Yeah, there’s loads of money left! Motivational lying.
I’ve got a little list of words on my phone that I pick up along the way that I like, that I think would match each track. But it isn’t like each track on the album is a different lie to match each track. It’s grey area music.
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You’ve said that you don’t see your music as fitting neatly within a certain genre. It kind of occupies an interesting space on its own, between classical and dance. How do you feel about being pigeon-holed in one category?
I don’t really feel like I have, to be honest. I get such a variety of people’s opinions. I’ve sort of stopped. I used to get sort of upset, or at least angry, about people’s interpretations.
Thinking “oh, you’ve clearly heard this” or “you sound so much like this”. But because I don’t really listen to other people’s music, because I’m a weirdo, I’ve never heard what everyone else has heard of. So I don’t ever feel guilty that I’ve ripped someone off.
I don’t really mind. I suppose, I see now that depending on where people are coming from, their interpretation can be completely different.
For a lot of classical people, a lot of this music can seem incredibly monotonous and not particularly interesting. Whereas, for lots of people who come from a pop background, they might think: oh my god, there’s tonnes going on. It’s so bonkers and experimental.
But for me, it’s neither of those things. I’m just trying to do my best. Do stuff underneath little rules that I’ve set myself. I don’t feel like I’m forging some big, bold path. I feel like I’m doing the only thing i know how to do, I guess.
It’s true that there’s elements that can be attached to things - this could definitely be called a pop song, or this is a big long instrumental track. But I love that there seems to be lots of places that this music can sit. Lots of people have come to see orchestra shows of mine because they’ve been to a band gig, for example. Or that the music can be used for a fashion show. There’s lots of options for where people want to take it.
All of us want to try to contextualise things anything we see, and that’s totally human. But I try to filter most of it out.
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The thing that really struck me was how playful it is. In the nicest way possible, it kind of wrong-foots you - but it’s so pleasing the way that it does it. Because it mashes up so many different sounds that you don’t necessarily always hear together. It’s a constant surprise. It genuinely does feel very new to me.
Oh, thank you. That’s what I was going for. Maybe, it’s partly because I’m not trying to tick any box of what music ‘should’ do. If I thought, I’m writing a trance track, so that would mean it would need to be this sort of speed, and have this detail…
Maybe because I’m not ticking off any list of ingredients...and because I’ve got these map things. I guess I like being transparent. If the music is building up, I want it to be clear that’s happening.
There’s definitely not an academic distancing. I want people to come along with it. But it also means that you can surprise - you think, if I’ve built this thing up, wouldn’t it be interesting to have it do a hand-brake turn and take it to a different place?
And you can, because you’ve given yourself the gift and done the hard work of doing the build up. I like doing that sort of thing with quite a lot of my music: create a lot of direction, one energy, and turn it on its head if i can. Put a different feel on it, layer something else up with it. Yeah, that playfulness is something that I take really seriously - whilst simultaneously not taking it seriously at all.
I’m always looking for stuff that feels joyful.
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How do you visualise this playing out live? I know live performance is really important to you, and you’ve performed an orchestral scoring of Varmints.
Well, I’ve got a consistent band that I’ve been touring with for a number of years. And we’ve been touring as a five piece for a while, and they were a really big part for me of making the album. Now I’ve got these particular people, and I know their strengths. Last time, we toured but also did the orchestra version. Definitely, we’ll mostly be working up new versions to adapt the stuff to live. But mainly I’m just excited to get out on the road.
Are you going to sing on the road? How did it feel to sing on ‘Inhale-Exhale’?
I’ve gone through a whole big process with me singing: on, with and through Varmints. The fact that it’s me now feels more authentic and important than the fact that I’m definitely not the best singer. I have a quiet, squeaky voice and it’s my voice. And it would have felt weird to get someone who had an amazing big voice. And I love singing. I’ve adjusted the songs around my range - everything is quite high. With Inhale Exhale, I’ve sort of ‘doubled me’ - that works well. I feel like I’m working round what works for me.
And I love it! In the same way that we play live, and I get to play my clarinet and smash the drums, and do the stuff that I like to do, I also like singing!
All the band guys sing too, and none of us are proper singers. And that feels like it’s part of the joy of the whole thing.
How did it feel to get your MBE?
Oh yeah! Totally bonkers. You know when you have that day-dreamy stuff in your head, thinking like, wouldn’t it be amazing if this happened? I hadn’t even had that on my radar as a thing. It’s just totally nuts.
I haven’t had the ceremony bit, the whole going to Buckingham Palace and getting the big medal. That’s in January. There’s all sorts of rules. You have to wear a hat, and I have to find something posh to wear. Who knows, maybe it’ll be hugely underwhelming. Just a glass of squash and then go. . I’ll report back in January!
And a handshake from the Queen?
You know, I thought it was something to do with swords.
That’s being knighted, is it not?
I think I was flattering myself! Give it a couple of years...
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Words: Marianne Gallagher
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