Name: Fiona Brice
Occupation: Composer / Arranger / Violinist
Selected Projects: Placebo, John Grant, Anna Calvi
Current Releases: Postcards From on Bella Union
Musical Recommendations: PJ Harvey and St Vincent (Annie Clark).
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started early. My Mum’s job involved audio transcription and she gave me an old cassette recorder to play with when I was 4 or 5 years old. It had a microphone and I used to make up songs and record them. From then on I took up whatever was offered at school; recorder, singing, violin and later piano. I wrote and performed songs and chamber music at school. My earliest influences were obvious ones; the records my parents played (The Beatles, Abba), TV themes, 80s pop. I was introduced to classical music through violin and piano lessons and got excited when I discovered Bartok, Shostakovich and Debussy.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
When I was 15 I wanted to be Prince. I listened to his albums fanatically (particularly Parade, Purple Rain and Sign of the Times) and I just thought: “I understand this language”. I also wanted to be Shostakovich and simultaneously Debbie Harry. I wrote both songs and orchestral pieces. It was obviously a challenging mix and it took me a while to make any sense of it. Then I studied Music & German at Kings College London & the Royal College of Music where I had all enthusiasm for performance drained from me to the point where I gave up the violin for a summer and stopped writing songs. It was only after I graduated and started playing with rock bands in London that I rediscovered any joy in music.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
The single biggest challenge to my creativity was the necessity to earn money. I am not from a wealthy background, and after university it was a daily struggle to earn enough to pay rent in London. I did office work and then would write or play gigs in the evenings. I worked extremely hard; it was the only option. It took me a decade to phase out the day jobs and the debt and to earn a living solely from music. I knew I just had to keep going until I could call it a career and devote 100% of my time to music. It took a lot of determination and guts. Gradually I found myself very busy writing orchestrations for other artists, and the challenge became more about finding time to concentrate on my own writing. Despite having written a huge amount of music, this album (Postcards From) is my first solo release. It won't be my last though.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
My laptop is my studio. I travel worldwide when touring and I have a minimalist portable set-up. I take manuscript and my violin everywhere. I use Sibelius and Logic and I love the Universal Audio Apollo Twin. You can achieve a lot in a hotel room with basic equipment, you just need a good idea. I use real instruments wherever possible. I pay to record pro musicians in a decent studio whenever I need to. I don't let technological fashions (popular sample sounds or plug-ins) dictate my sound.
Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? What do you start with when working on a new piece, for example, how do you form your creative decisions and how do you refine them?
The melody for "Postcard from Berlin" came to me when I was practicing violin in a hotel in the city. I immediately wrote it down in a Sibelius score on my laptop. Then I added harmony and counter-melody, and when I returned to London I went to DIN Sound to record the entire piece on violins with cellist Vicky Matthews and producer/engineer Julian Simmons. That is quite typical of my writing. I get a fast initial idea when playing violin or piano, often a fairly complete melodic idea, and I try to capture it there and then, either by recording it or with pencil and paper. When I come to refine it, I may well be in a different location, which gives me a fresh perspective. Simplicity, space and precision are important to me. I question the purpose of each note.
What, if anything, do you personally draw from the cosmos of electronic music and digital production tools that is inspiring for your daily practice? In how far do you see the potential for a mutual creative pollination between the two?
Not at the conceptual stage, but technology may influence how I then choose to record a piece. For example, I might choose to use tape delay or reverb to create the texture of quavers if it sounds more interesting, rather than just playing quavers.
How do you see the relationship between timbre and composition?
The composition of a piece and the performance of that piece are two very different things. A melody played on an oboe has a very different emotional effect to the same melody played on a xylophone. No two singers will perform a piece in the same way, and nor should they. Music is open to interpretation. The great thing about recorded music is that you can create the definitive version, it is the best chance you have of realising the sound that is in your head. Subsequent live performances will differ in emotion, tempo, accuracy, but the dots on the page remain the same. They are the map.