I never actually planned to go the Academy. During my time at school I was writing and performing songs as a singer / songwriter, and that’s what I was going to be…. or so I thought. My first success as a songwriter came when I won the Kent Young Composer of the Year Award, first in ’86 and again in ’88 and from that time I put all of my efforts into performing, making demos, sending them to labels etc. In the meantime, I was working in a local music shop.
During that year, the music shop closed (not my fault, honest guv) and I never got the record deal! What I did get was an invitation to be the first (and only) student on a brand new course at the RAM – the Commercial Music Course. It transpired that one of judges for the Kent Young Composer Competition was Paul Patterson, head of composition at the Academy, had recommended me to Nick Ingman, founder of the new course. I decided to take the leap and go to the RAM. The course was brand new and I was very much the guinea pig. It was a mixture of ‘straight’ composition, commercial composition, jazz and elements from the performance BMus course. In addition to all things musical, we had weekly lectures from lawyers and music business professionals about the ‘real world’. The lectures were open to all (there was little point in me being the only one to benefit) and were soon full of students from other courses who could clearly see how incredibly useful these lectures were.
Another fantastic thing about the RAM was that I was able to write for various ensembles (Big Band, Symphony Orchestra, Choral groups etc) and actually hear the pieces performed. This was absolutely vital as so many composers and arrangers do not have this testing ground to see what actually works. As you know, something can ‘sound’ great on paper but the finer nuances of the voice or instrument are so much harder to get to grips with. For instance...is there enough breathing space in the vocal part? Which of these 2 string voicings will work best? There are so many questions that can be answered when you have the ability to audition arrangements, couple that with the business sense I learned and (almost most importantly) the people I met, the experience was the perfect springboard into a career in the industry. The course has sadly since been removed from the syllabus. I feel privileged to have been one of the few students to have graduated from the RAM with that particular degree.
From there what did you want to do immediately after graduating?
I was still keen to perform but decided that a career in arranging was something I should consider in tandem with my popstar desires!
So did find yourself doing that first?
On leaving the Academy, Nick Ingman continued to mentor me. I started doing transcription work and meetings on his behalf and after a while started picking up the odd job that he didn’t have time to do. The first session I arranged and conducted was for a double glazing company (ooh, the glamour!). It was a jingle arranged for brass and strings recorded at Angel Studios in Islington.
Love it! Just up the road! How did you make the link up with publishers, labels and other artists? Was that an easy step to make?
I would attend orchestral sessions with Nick as often as I could. It was a great way to understand studio etiquette and industry do’s and don’t.
Which led to further production work?
One of the most prolific producers of the time was Nigel Lowis. He was having huge success with Dina Caroll and is a true gentleman. I met with Nigel and subsequently started working as a session vocalist on various projects of the time including 911, Louise and Eternal. He also gave me some of my first arranging opportunities. It was through Nigel that I met John Reid (Nightcrawlers) with whom I wrote for a few years, which led to my first publishing deal.
Fabulous! To those budding composers producers and music arrangers graduating and wish to follow the same footsteps as yourself what would be your advice?
Be flexible. Have the widest skill set possible. Say ‘yes’ to everything (despite the fee).
Before we delve deep into the Cliff Masterson songbook, how do you feel the genre's of pop and of classical music bind together? As in…what do you think marks them as good bedfollows - ripe for re-arrangement (or rather borrowing from the dance lexicon remixing)?
Classical music is essentially pop music that is really old. I believe that all music builds on the foundations and traditions of what has gone before. I also believe that a good melody transcends the genre. From very early on in pop, melodies have been ‘inspired’ by or simply lifted from classical works. Elvis’ “It’s Now Or Never” is the same melody as “O Sole Mio” (also used in a famous Cornetto ad), Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic” is a re-working of Chopin’s Prelude in C Minor (Opus 28), and more recently William Orbit covered “Barber’s Adagio for Strings”. At the end of the day our Western musical scale is home to 12 notes, only some of whom are ‘friends’ so there is a finite number of variations. Good music, music that makes you feel something, will always be re-invented.
Your relationship with string arrangements in pop songs started off pretty early-on. In Private Number by 911 - i think was the first big ole pop song (& yes i did say we we were gonna step back in time). What was that experience like?
Back to Mr Lowis. 911 were flying high in the charts and wanted to record a cover version. The song “Private Number” was selected and it was indeed my first pop string session back in 1998. I will always remember the horrific moment I climbed onto the podium to run through the chart with the strings and it sounded terrible… The leader of the orchestra, Gavyn Wright, had organised a ‘baptism of fire’ for me and the entire string section started playing in a different key to the track (and each other). Thanks Gavyn!
How did that experience working on a boyband album help define your work later when writing for primarily pop artists who wanted that bigger sound?
Well, working on a boyband album certainly help me decide against the artist career once and for all!
When I say bigger sound - let me explain what i mean... One key narrative than runs through your songbook whomever you work with, is a delicate sound yet that is also be big, polemic and emotional. A proper poptastic orchestral experience. Standing back do you think this is the case? Or do you think its more co-incidental...
I love melody. I think it is THE most important part of music. As someone once said, “you don’t whistle the words of a chorus”. As a string arranger it is always my goal to add something to the song that wasn’t there before. That can be in the form of a hook, emotion, beauty, character or fragility and stillness. Strings can add another dimension to a song if scored sensitively.
Your work with the likes of the Opera Babes, Ryandan, Il Divo, Bond, Vanessa Mae, Forte and most recently Susan Boyle and the London 2012 Olympic work, all expose this bigness in your arrangements and productions. Where do you think this originates from?
I am a great film score lover too. If there is ever an opportunity to add something epic or filmic to an arrangement, I never pass up the chance. Film music never fails to add a depth and excitement to the visuals it accompanies, I try to add that same excitement with the arrangements I write.
In the beginning when you found yourself working on pop projects how did you best embed and push this classical and orchestral "bigness" or rather "grandness" into the pop realm?
There is definitely a pattern of ‘bigness’ but I like to think of it as emotion that is sometimes (ok, often) big. I remember many of my briefs from Nigel Lowis were “make the strings sound real”. I suppose that is one reason I have always tried to give the strings enough to do (but not overcomplicate them) so there is no mistaking them for samples.
Your work with Steve Anderson really does highlight this (whether it be for RyanDan or more recently Kylie and Susan Boyle). This brilliant collaboration of course began some time ago - but critically on the Matt Dusk album Two Shots. What was it like working with Steve initially and secondly, what did you make of the Matt Dusk experience (which actually sounds like a fragrance - "The Matt Dusk Experience")?
The first session I did for Steve was actually on a Liberty X track, “Willing To Try” with the Matt Dusk collaboration soon afterwards. Working with Steve was a joy from day one. I think we are both quite similar (in fact there are some fairly remarkable similarities in our ‘journeys’ (I hate that word but can’t think of a better one) that often lead to ‘separated at birth’ type gags). One of the things about Steve that I think has helped to make him one of the most successful producers and arrangers that the UK music industry has ever seen, is the fact that he gives his creative team a strong direction and then enough room to do their thing. By that I mean, he doesn’t over manage productions, he picks a team he trusts and gives them the freedom to create to the best of their ability. It’s a creative freedom that many producers try to tame and in doing so, so often stifle the creativity of the individual.
What was that like with Matt?
Working with Matt was great fun. He has a timeless voice that can compete with the best in the genre. He also has excellent taste in Whiskey!
And his fragrance?
If he were a fragrance, it would somehow capture the authenticity of dusty old 78s, much like his voice does :)
Both yourself and Steve of course worked on Kylie's seminal Abbey Road Sessions album. This truly was an epic moment when the classic remixed the pop. How did you approach her work and re-arrange and remix them into epic orchestral symphonies?
There are very few opportunities to embrace a fully orchestral re-working of songs in this way. It was fascinating pulling apart and analysing some of the most well known pop songs in history. I never really appreciated how clever some of the structures and chord sequences were – the writing on those PWL songs is incredible, almost Gibb like in the way such a hooky melody can sit so comfortably on top of a chord sequence that travels through some complex key changes and lifts.
Were you trepidatious at all? It is such a massive body of work and what you were doing hadn't really been done before. So many people are attached to the material. What where the biggest challenges with it?
Steve very much guided this project and having been working with these songs for a while, clearly had some really strong ideas arrangement-wise that he knew the fans would love. I just breathed a little bit of life into them!
Where there any songs that made you go - "hmmmm, how on earth are we gonna reconstruct and convey this one"?
“Cant Get You Out Of My Head” was an interesting title to work on. The original version is so minimalist in its construction, so finding a way to re-work the track with the orchestra was a challenge. We picked up the tempo by a few BPM and used the staccato string ostinato to bring all of the excitement and pace to the track. A few sweeping lines and transitional runs later and the arrangement came to life!
God yes. Another for me was the adaption of On A night Like This and how it transformed into a bond-type song. That was immense. You, Kylie, Steve and Colin Elliot. How do you conduct a re-arranged On A Night Like This that was re-imagined to be so intense?
Colin did a great job on the score for the AR version, which I felt was even better than the original. When we took this title to the Proms we decided to use it as the opening number. Never missing an opportunity to add something extra (as Walt would say “plus it”) I added the intro – as you say, a Bond-esque setup for Kylie to make her big arrival!
Part Two Soon!