Anna Meredith

The Musical Earthquakes of "Eighth Grade"

Aug 03, 2018 Web Exclusive
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Eighth Grade, the feature film debut from comedian Bo Burnham as writer and director, chronicles the last week of middle school for Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), an idealistic and socially awkward 13-year-old vlogger. One of the challenges for Burnham was to make a film that endeared viewers to Kayla and had laugh-out-loud moments but ultimately didn't seem cute. The director wanted the film to feel visceral, and he achieved that thanks in large part to British composer Anna Meredith's pulsating, kaleidoscopic score.

On July 13, the day that Eighth Grade opened in New York and Los Angeles, Meredith was in London helming her five-movement orchestral composition, Five Telegrams, for the first night of the Proms concert series at Royal Albert Hall. The spectacular music-and-visuals collaboration, which commemorates the end of World War I, will be performed again tonight to open the Edinburgh International Festival. Later this month, Moshi Moshi will release Anno, a collaboration between Meredith and the Scottish Ensemble that fuses her original pieces with Vivaldi's Four Seasons. The London-born, Edinburgh-raised composer also has begun work on the follow-up to her 2016 debut LP, Varmints, which was awarded Album of the Year by the Scottish Music Industry Association.

Under the Radar spoke with Meredith by phone last month to discuss her Eighth Grade score, which was released by Columbia Records.

Chris Tinkham [Under the Radar]: How did Eighth Grade come to your attention?

Anna Meredith: Bo had been looking for the right person or had in his mind the type of collaborator he was looking for, for the film. He listens to tons of music, and he'd been doing lots of listening behind the scenes. I don't know who he reached out to initially, but I was really excited because I'd always wanted to do a film and couldn't be happier it was going to be this one.

What sold you on the project?

Bo, whose work I knew. I think I had the script, but I also had some scenes that had his demo music on it, which I loved and thought worked brilliantly. He wrote all the demos before, and got what I felt were the intentions for each scene and felt immediately that I could do something with them. So yeah, I immediately I felt very excited and dropped everything I could to try and make it work.  

So how did the scoring process begin? Did you see a rough cut of the film or receive individual scenes that needed music?

Initially I was given just scenes, and there was some back and forth from there. Eventually, Bo came out to London and spent just over a week with me here, working just on music with me. It was brilliant being in the same place and being able to make those decisions in real time together. I've never written so much music in my life so quickly. It was really speedy. It was fantastic working with him—he's so musical—just talking endlessly about the scenes, what we felt they needed. It was an amazing, crazy week.

Did you identify with what you were seeing? What were you like at 13?

One hundred percent. I would say I was instantly less cool than Kayla. She's very relatable in terms of wishing to be cool and wanting to be loved, wanting people to like you. I was definitely like that but even less cool, even more on the wind band vibe. I was like the clarinet kid with braces. She is so relatable and loveable, and I felt very protective of her musically in a weird way. I felt like it was my job to take her seriously, and take her moment, her brain, and her impetuses and her fears and hopes musically as seriously as if they were earthquakes or the big romances, because they are those things to her. I tried to give them the weight that they deserved.

How was it decided that some of your existing compositions would be used?

I think he'd always had "Nautilus" in mind for that pool scene. I love that scene. It's just like looking at this circle of hell where she's standing, watching all the awfulness unfold beneath her. A couple of other bits, yeah again, they were just something he felt would work.

Did you get a crack at the scene where Enya was used, or was that always earmarked for "Orinoco Flow"?

Yeah, that was always earmarked. I feel lucky that there wasn't much that I tried that didn't get used. So yeah, that scene I never even saw til the final film, and it works brilliantly. The juxtaposition of Enya and [Kayla] scrolling through content is an amazing match. That works great.

I saw you perform in Los Angeles In January. That was the first time I ever heard "Nautilus." At the time, it made me think of a circus parade, maybe elephants like in Fantasia. I was so pleased to see how the track is used in the film, because that pool party is kind of like a circus, a bit of a freak show. You called it a circle of hell. I was curious, what was the inspiration for that composition originally?

I don't really work with musical influences in that sense. All I was trying to do was write something brassy, and I wanted to write something where you feel one way, and the drums come in, and you feel a different way. So it was all just setting up that switch of meter, that switch of time. I always wanted to write something brassy and rising I guess.

Do you imagine visuals when you compose? Do they come to mind?

No. I write visual sketches, graphic sketches of the shapes of the music. I have these mini maps of whatever kind of bit of music I'm writing that help me plan out the drama of the music, and maybe just some adjectives. You know, "this is going to be a punchy bit, or this is going to be a silvery bit or oily bit" or whatever to help me make a mood map. But it's not imagining seahorses. [Laughs] It's not that sort of stuff so much. Maybe later on I might try it, but to make the actual music is a little less fun unfortunately and, I was going to say academic, but it's more making little mini briefs for myself. You know, I want to do something that has this feel and see if I can come up with the right thing that fulfills the function that I'm after.

"Putting Yourself Out There" works really well in the film because it sounds like a heart pumping at the end, just as she has a panic attack. Was that the idea?

Yeah, not so directly. It doesn't matter if you don't hear it that way, but the speed of it felt right for that, definitely.

"Honeyed Words" also works great in the film. I think it's used twice. Is that correct?

Yeah, that's right. There's a little snippet of it and then a longer bit later on where she's looking back over her old stuff.

In the film, "How to Be Confident" plays while she's practicing conversational small talk, and then the music pumps up when the scene switches to the outdoor sunlight where she's taking selfies. Is that a collaborative process involving editing?

They mixed the music after I'd written it. It was all written to that, and Bo wanted it to get really big by the end of that track. That's one of the longest cuts of music. It's a little over two minutes, that bit. He wanted us to feel that growth towards her feeling like she was going somewhere and things were going well for her. So yeah, I think he said he was really going to push it.

The banana scene gets a big laugh at the end when you see the film with a crowd, but Bo has talked about how seriously he and the crew took that scene on set. I think your track reflects that. Did you discuss that with him?

Yeah, definitely. She's not doing it to be funny. She's doing it out of fear and curiosity and a sense of a world that she doesn't totally get, daunted. Even though it's a funny scene, and what's happening on paper is funny, he kept [describing] it to me as a magical moment for her, not joyful but something positive. Not something setting up a joke.

How did the cover of "Enter Sandman" come about for your band shows?

I've always just loved that tune. I always thought that it would work really well for us as a band, thought I could do a good arrangement of it. We haven't played it loads, but it's quite fun. We enjoy that one. There's something slightly of the rock opera about the whole show anyway with our stupid outfits, the pompousness of the music feels a bit over the top. Yeah, it felt like the right kind of cover.

And there's something else that you integrate into it?

Yeah, there's a 1980s-90s British cop show called The Bill, which has a brilliant theme tune. As a band, we were obsessively listening to that tune in our little tour bus as we did lots of European shows. We all got a bit fixated with it. And I said, "You know what? I'm going to try and shoehorn that into our 'Sandman' cover," which goes down really well in the UK and baffles basically everybody else.

You've been in the studio this summer working on your second album?

I have, yeah. I've mostly been doing an orchestra piece, which opened at Proms last week, and then it goes up to the Edinburgh Festival next week, so that's unfortunately why I couldn't come out to the Eighth Grade premiere, 'cause it happened on the same night as my big orchestral piece. I've been doing the cycle Five Telegrams. If you have a moment, you should check it out because it was really fun. They projected visuals onto the outside of the Albert Hall. But yes, I've been doing that and then I came back to the album later in the year.

How would you describe what you've recorded so far?

Nothing's really recorded. It's all just like little demos. I haven't got the band in. It's all still pretty varied. Some of the stuff feels quite over the top. Some of it feels quite contained. It's hard to know exactly what it's all going to be, what it's going to turn into eventually but I think the ingredients feel like the right kind of stuff for a really good mix of tracks.

Are you interested in scoring again?

Definitely. So much of what I do is me up at the front, being the main person. It was great to just be part of something bigger and working collaboratively with an amazing team who were all telling the story, where none of us were more important than Kayla and her world. I absolutely loved changing my perspective to work on that scale. It was lovely.

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