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Anna Meredith on “FIBS”

Finding the Balance

Oct 23, 2019 Photography by Gem Harris Anna Meredith
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You’d be hard pushed to find a harder working composer or musician working today than Anna Meredith. The Scottish composer made her splash in the electronic music arena with her debut studio album Varmints in 2016, but that was far from the beginning of her career. Having been educated at some of the highest seats of learning in the UK, she spent her 20s and 30s as one of the most sought-after classical composers in the country, earning commission from establishment staples from the BBC Proms to the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

Since Varmints, things have only accelerated. She still sees her full-time job as being a composer for hire, and one of her highest-profile details to date was writing the score and contributing to the soundtrack for Bo Burnham’s directorial feature film debut, the superlative Eighth Grade (released in 2018). This year finds her releasing her second studio album, FIBS. We spoke to Meredith about the making of the album, the new directions she is exploring, and how it fits into her broader career.

Max Pilley (Under the Radar): What was the genesis of FIBS, when did it start materializing?

Anna Meredith: I guess I write all the time. I’m doing my classical work, or the film work. I wanted to carve out time to do this thing. It took a bit longer than I thought, because other stuff came in. But I’ve been kind of working on it on and off for quite a few years. I went away for a few weeks and got some ideas together and then had to put them to one side. So, non-stop, it’s been the last eight months, but I’d say I already had sketches from a few years ago, 2017-ish.

So it was after Varmints was all wrapped up, and the subsequent tour?

Yeah, exactly. I tend to write in quite focused areas, stuff doesn’t necessarily just pop into my head, I have to be trying to channel the—I want to say muse!—but no, I need to get into a writer-y, composer-y headspace to kind of get it happening. So, sometimes I get into thinking that, “I’d love to write a better pop song,” and then trying to think about what that might be, and letting it stay in the background of my mind, until I have proper time to do it.

Do you see it as a continuation from Varmints? And are these albums separate from the other work that you do?

I sort of see all of the work that I do as part of the same spectrum of writing. Whether it’s orchestral stuff or pieces I write for kids or anything, it all uses a lot of the same musical ingredients, so I definitely use a lot of the same processes, in terms of planning. And the things I’m drawn to for writing are similar right across the board. So I very deliberately don’t make distinctions creatively when I think about the writing. So, in terms of following on from Varmints, I need to find a catchier way to say it, but I guess I just wanted to try to do better. I like the variety of stuff, that’s the way I’ve always written, slow stuff and fast stuff, quiet stuff and loud stuff, so I want to take those points of the compass and push each one to do the best I could, which in turn meant doing new stuff, whether it was different kinds of software or using instruments that weren’t on the first album. But it was always about keeping the balance of tracks in a good blend that worked in an overall shape.

The new album is absolutely crammed full of different ideas. I was getting dream pop vibes from “Inhale Exhale,” for example.

Yeah. I don’t listen to much music, so I definitely don’t set out to tick any particular type of music. But that one, that was me thinking, “I want to write the best that I can do for a proper pop song.” I really like it, it’s got a nice energy to it. A couple of things about it that make it different to a completely conventional song, the bass line and harmonic stuff, just happened naturally, I wasn’t trying to make it happen. And also, I was trying to work around my squeaky voice, so the track had to be quite high. I think I’m bolder at writing than I was before. I think the songs are better this time around, which I’m excited by.

Would you say that’s the first time you’ve deliberately written what you would describe as a pop song?

I think there is stuff on Varmints that I would call pop. I suppose I generally try not to think of things in those terms. I suppose it had a faster energy to some of the stuff I’d done before, a slightly rave-y sound, and I found some synths that I liked and that maybe had some recessed ‘90s dance music gene, some dormant tick that had been awakened. So yeah, it was something I hadn’t quite done before. And also I think I had quite a clear idea for the lyrical side of it, which I feel more confident about as well.

There’s a blend of electric and acoustic throughout the album. The track “Limpet” is an electric guitar track. How do you know what’s right for each song?

It’s a combination of things. I’ve been working with my band for a really long time, so it’s knowing their skills. I’ve got a really amazing guitar player. Sam [Wilson], the drummer, sings the song “Killjoy” too. So having the range of skills really helps. So it’s a combination of knowing what I can tap into and being instinctive as a composer. Here’s a pretentious analogy, it’s like getting a bunch of ingredients and thinking, “I know what I want to do with this food.” On “Limpet,” I thought it would be cool to have a cute, guitar-y moment to break up the other stuff. It was very much written in the context of the other tracks, as a balance to the gnarlier instrumental stuff. I thought it needed something more straight-forward and almost like a high school band. So I thought let’s make the most of Jack [Ross]‘s guitar playing for it.

The album’s called FIBS. Talk me through that title.

I don’t listen to much music but I listen to a lot of audio-books as I have a wander around. I write down words that I like that I think would be good for titles on my phone in my notes, so I’ve always got lots of words that, when I get a germ of an idea, I look to them to see if I can find a fit. So I like FIBS, it’s not an unusual word, but I like the idea that it’s a little bit ambiguous, not black or white but a little bit grey around the edges, not one thing or the other. There’s a lot of stuff lyrically in the album about not being clear to yourself or to other people, so maybe there’s something in that.

You are unbelievably busy. How on earth are you managing?

Yeah, I’m always composing as my job, taking on loads of projects. But it has felt quite relentless. And the hard thing has been the album, because all the other things have had quite fixed deadlines that came externally, either an orchestra is going to be performing on a certain day, or a film is going to be released on time. So trying to carve out time for FIBS was the hardest thing. So it is difficult. Not so much last year, but 2017, we were doing a lot of touring as well, and that was new for me. Before that, I’d just been writing all the time and performing wasn’t really part of my regular work. And I’m not someone who can write on a bus, I need to be quite quiet and focused. So, it’s definitely difficult and I’m absolutely knackered.

Is there going to be a lot of touring for this album as well?

Yes, I hope so. I think next year, we’ll be doing a bunch of festivals and all that sort of stuff. That will be fun to get back to doing that, having done less of it for the last couple of years. Having done two years of constantly generating material and just doing new, new, new, new stuff, then getting to switch headspace into doing, basically, repetition and playing a set of music that people in the audience will know, will be lovely! When I first started doing the gigs, I panicked a bit and said to my manager, “Oh god, we’re going to have to play the same set tonight as we did last time,” and she was like, “Er, yeah, that’s sort of the point!” That was a great revelation. So I look forward to not having to come up with new ideas, because I’m out. I’m out of ideas!

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