Anna Meredith: “I try to write music that sparks joy”

As well as film scores and orchestral commissions for the likes of the Proms and International Festival, Anna Meredith has found time to make an ‘incredibly personal and important’ new album of electronic music, she tells Fiona Shepherd
Anna Meredith PIC: Gem HarrisAnna Meredith PIC: Gem Harris
Anna Meredith PIC: Gem Harris

Much like her vibrant, propulsive music, the playful one-take video for Anna Meredith’s recently released track Paramour goes like a train – specifically, a camera mounted on a toy train which trundles along a serpentine track passing metronomes, synthesizers, glockenspiels and pot plants, with musicians appearing track-side right on cue to deliver their carefully tooled parts.

“We were tippy-toeing behind the train trying not to be seen by the fish-eye lens,” says Meredith. “We were putting fresh batteries in the train for every take but it was still running at different speeds every time so it was all quite fraught.”

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The meticulous Meredith, brought up in South Queensferry but long since London-based, is no stranger to such precision-planned artistic operations. No matter what the job – be it a premium grade orchestral commission such as her 2018 International Festival curtain raiser Five Telegrams, deconstructing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the Scottish Ensemble for their audacious Anno collaboration, or producing one of her own punky EPs or Scottish Album of the Year Award-winning album Varmints – she applies the same working method.

Meredith performing at the 2016 Transmusicales music festival in Saint-Jacques-de-la-Lande, western France PIC: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty ImagesMeredith performing at the 2016 Transmusicales music festival in Saint-Jacques-de-la-Lande, western France PIC: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images
Meredith performing at the 2016 Transmusicales music festival in Saint-Jacques-de-la-Lande, western France PIC: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

“I’m quite geekily disciplined with how I write,” she says. “I make little maps of the music before that help me plot out where elements are going to come in. I work really fast and hard and quite unhealthily. I don’t see mates for months, just sit here in the studio eating crisps in my pyjamas. It’s a bit of a martyrish work ethic.”

That work ethic has yielded an enormously rich catalogue of progressive, evocative pieces over the past decade, making Meredith one of the most in-demand composers of her generation, moving seamlessly from opera (Tarantula In Petrol Blue, with a libretto by playwright Philip Ridley) to body percussion (the stunning HandsFree for the National Youth Orchestra) to a beatbox concerto, written with Fringe favourite Shlomo.

Unsurprisingly for someone who writes so visually and spatially, Meredith’s work has also featured in films such as The Favourite and the Palme D’Or winning Dheepan. Earlier this year she released her first full-length soundtrack for Bo Burnham’s beautiful, empathetic Eighth Grade, starring the revelatory Elsie Fisher as Kayla, an awkward early teen navigating the horrors of high school and social interactions while her single dad does his best to support her.

“The music is really loud, it’s definitely not cutesy in the background,” says Meredith. “Bo wanted the music to take her anxiety seriously and lean into her discomfort.”

Meredith’s music can also be heard in new comedy series Living With Yourself, which has just premiered on Netflix, as well as running free on her new album, FIBS – named, she says, after “the tumultuous lies I had to tell myself to make the whole thing happen – things like ‘it’s nearly there’, and ‘yeah, you’ve definitely got enough money!’ ”

The SAY-winning Varmints is a hard act to follow but the equally dynamic FIBS is a bold, brassy and bouncy mix of escalating electro-acoustic instrumentals and hypnotic songs on which we hear one of the lesser spotted instruments in Meredith’s armoury – her pure, fragrant voice.
“For me the album has four areas – fast instrumental stuff, slow instrumental stuff, more upbeat vocal stuff and quieter vocal stuff,” says Meredith. “I had those four points of the compass and if we had a track that was loud, fast and instrumental, I wanted to balance it out with something quiet and keep the whole shape of the album in mind from the outset.

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“I try to write music that sparks joy. I’ve got a litmus test – if I’m out of my chair and clenching my fists and pacing round the room then I know that it’s got the right ingredients in it, stuff that will make me have that visceral response, a little quiet whoop to myself and a little dance about in my studio.”

Meredith will get the opportunity to test that theory on the road as she heads back out on tour with her band, and rekindles the sense of adventure she and some of her composer contemporaries tapped into when they were students at London’s Royal College of Music, hosting their own experimental music nights in small spaces more suited to rock music.

“The vast majority of my adult working life has been writing music on my own in a room,” says Meredith. “It’s quite solitary and I love that performing has become part of my life. There’s something about constantly generating new stuff that is amazing but exhausting so I’m glad to be able to balance it up with repetition, which is a weird concept to me, playing music that people know. That’s something that never would have occurred to me before, coming from a background of everything being a premiere that’s probably only played once.”

Meredith easily straddles those contrasting musical worlds of the prestigious Proms commission and the energised experimentation of her albums and gigs which happen without the safety net of subsidy. Her SAY Award prize money went on funding a US trip for her band and once again she submits herself to the vagaries of the commercial market in all its unpredictability.

“It couldn’t be more different to the Classical world where everything is booked up years in advance,” she says. “This all seems to be quite nerve-wrackingly based on how well the album does. That’s the case for the vast majority of bands putting out albums but it was a complete eye-opener for me in terms of the effort and infrastructure and self-belief it would take to get that off the ground without some big arts organisation pushing it through.

“There’s definitely an extra weight when you’ve had to carve out time and sacrifice a lot so it feels incredibly personal and important. I’ve worked really hard to create stuff that I hope feels free and joyful and exuberant. I definitely don’t want the music to be pretentious or alienating in any way, I hope it’s immediate.”

FIBS is released by Moshi Moshi on 25 October. Anna Meredith plays Glasgow School of Art on 8 February.