Name: Frances Shelley
Occupation: Composer, pianist, improviser
Current Release: Frances Shelley's Songs Of Possibility is out via Manners McDade. Buy at her own shop.
Recommendations: Kenny Werner, Effortless Mastery. (Ive read it at least 4 times); Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time. (just brilliant about creativity)
If you enjoyed this interview with Frances Shelley and would like to find out more about her and her work, visit her website. She is also on Instagram, Soundcloud and twitter.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started making up my own tunes (is this composing?) at 6 or 7 years old. I had heard a piano played at my village school for country dancing classes – and for some reason I was mesmerized by it and plagued my parents to get me a piano.
An old upright duly arrived in the nursery – to my immense delight. I also started having lessons. Then we went on holiday to stay in Invernesshire with an elderly relative, where I spent most of the time playing her lovely John Broadwood grand piano. When she died only a year or two later she amazingly kindly left the piano to me in her will. I think I can honestly say that this generous gift changed my life – I couldn’t believe it when it arrived on the lorry, which in those distant days took 3 days from North Scotland to Gloucestershire!
For most artists, originality is 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?
Hmm ... for me, ‘making up tunes’ was always way easier than learning to read notes and re produce other’s music. I was just entranced (still am) by the sounds and how beautiful the relationship between one note and another is. Melody has always been central for me, and I guess I was hearing melody in church (we went a lot) or sometimes on the old gramophone we had, though in my family music was hardly ever played. But ... I think I'm a bit of an unconscious parrot.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Definitely when I allow myself to feel like a ‘composer’ it's way easier to get into the flow. After a long period of stifling my creativity, in favour of doing more ‘sensible’ things, I had to literally pretend to be a composer! I played imaginary games inside my head, imagining myself as Chopin or Liszt, and sitting down and thinking ‘what would come from my fingers if I were them?’ I still sometimes do this and these days its way easier as there are women composers that I can emulate – it was pretty hard with only old guys, dead ones at that!
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Without a doubt the main creative challenge for me was that I was not supported in my own compositions. No blame of course, in those days ... things were so different .
While I was indeed applauded for my renditions of the classics, my own work received a stony silence from my family as they hoped that would encourage me to ‘practice’. My teachers at boarding school would come in to the practice room if they heard me playing anything non regulation, and slam the lid down on my hands. This was deeply confusing! I knew nobody else who did what I did ... and yet I loved it so much I couldn’t entirely stop doing it. So I got to only composing in private, and keeping the whole thing a secret, which led to feelings of shame ...
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
I don’t work with complicated time signatures as I like my pieces to sort of easily ‘sing’. Equally I don’t really like working with beats as I find this a bit limiting. However delay is my favourite thing, and playing in 4/4 against a delay set to 3 bars is very interesting for me.
I think this might be most apparent in my recent release Stay With Me, which is the third track on my new album Songs of Possibility which comes out in full on 02:07:21.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
The sound is everything for me. I can't compose the music I want on a harsh sounding piano, or one that is too loud and clangy. The dampened felt piano sound is my absolute favourite. I have had times when only an old abrasive sounding piano was available to me, and then I have made very different music - ok but different and I felt that’s not my real voice.
I am by nature quite a quiet person, and I think the best and most authentic music is when a person’s nature is reflected in their work.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
I now love collaboration – now that I have got over the ‘shame’ and am able to freely share my abilities with others. The best (and of course most scary) way for me is to sit down in the same room with someone and just jam through some ideas until we come up with the magic.
During lockdown of course I have been forced to collaborate online – as in with Richard Hellgren on "Love Your Very Soul", another single from my new album, that came out a month ago. This was very inspiring and wonderful to realise that geographical location is not everything. I also worked remotely with composer and producer Cedric Vermue on this new album, and its been such a rewarding experience. I love being around other like minded mad people!
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I think my pattern is a seamless blend ... everything morphs into music in my life now.
My routine is as follows -
Cold water swim first thing to wake up
ten mins yoga
15 mins meditation (morning and evening – sometimes mid day too)
tea and toast (all vegan of course) while I write my morning pages.
free play for a bit – try and stop after 20 mins.
All the above is pretty invariable.
Then I address my essential admin, social media etc ... promo ... getting it done as fast as possible in order to get back to the piano, or computer ... where I will get involved in writing / editing, somehow progressing with my current project.
During the day I will definitely take at least one walk up into the woods, or I might drive to the beach ... Where I live is wild and beautiful here in Sintra Portugal and I am in a huge garden, so I feel nature is all around me. My mini studio looks out onto trees and distance ... I'm so lucky.
I might visit my daughter and her family who live nearby for lunch, take a break in the afternoons ... get back to a bit of music in the evening, maybe see friends or watch a movie ... and go to bed incredibly early if possible as I love to sleep and dream!
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I think deciding to approach a publisher with my work was the breakthrough moment. I wrote all the music for my 2020 album A PLACE THAT EXISTS and was going to just self release as I had done with my previous albums.
At the time, I had composer Lubomyr Melnyk to stay and play at a concert that I curated in my home at Butley Priory in Suffolk [Read our Lubomyr Melnyk interview], and after dinner we sat by the fire and he promised to personally shoot me if I did not come out of hiding with my work!
Other people had also encouraged me of course, but this was the deciding night. I had the music all ready, and the next day sent it to Harriet Moss and Bob Mcdade from the publishers Manners Mcdade, who I had been following for years as they publish all my favourite artists. I was incredulous when they asked to meet me, and in fact somehow knew all about me anyway! I think being signed by them gave me the confidence I needed to share my music with the world, which has been such a hugely rewarding experience.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I still use the ‘imagine’ strategy. Kenny Werner is so helpful about this in his amazing book Effortless Mastery ... Basically it’s now called neuro plasticity ... getting yourself into a state where you believe you can do a thing means you find yourself magically able to do it! I do believe that it is only our minds and beliefs that limit us. Broadening these is the challenging thing.
Hypnosis, meditation, breathwork, all these methods help. But for me listening to some of my favourite artists is the best tool, and imagining I am them! Crazy huh? Olivia Beli, Neil Cowley, Luke Howard are the people I am mentally streaming this week ... but it changes of course ...
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I don’t have any experiences where music itself caused hurt. Our responses can hurt, such as trying, forcing, not feeling good enough, or worst case scenario giving up altogether. Because of the shame I felt around making music due to my early experiences, I have had long periods in my life where I made a conscious decision to NOT play music or make up tunes. I think this was deeply hurtful to me, and no doubt made me a not a very nice person to be around! I actually believe it made me physically ill.
I think a lot of people give up playing because they feel they are ‘not good enough’. School and teachers have a lot to answer for, added to these days of course by social media.
I believe that everyone has their own unique creative voice either in the realm of music, painting, cake making, business or finance, and the important thing is to do what you love. That’s what heals, in my opinion, and brings us into closer contact with our Creator. Big subject!
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I don’t think I'm qualified to answer this, as really I don’t think about it at all. Music is to be shared and how if pieces of it come through another individual’s work that is just fine by me, as long as it’s authentic and not a deliberate attempt to copy. We are all inspired by each other are we not ?
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Interesting question ... one I hadn't thought about till now. The obvious answer is that hearing is the sense that most directly and immediately translates into our emotional state. It's amazing to me how music can make me feel anxious, calm, excited, happy and all different shades of sad and yearning. I don’t know much about the science but it's clear that through our hearing we receive invisible vibrations that we are naturally programmed to respond to.
Yesterday my adorable 4 month old grand daughter was having a difficult day and live music, drumming and singing particularly was the only thing that would relax her and stop her crying. Recorded music didn’t do this. So interesting.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Well ... In my case I wish it did lead to more engagement, as for me it’s the exact opposite.
Yes it's marvellous how music can be used to inspire better ways of living. I am passionate about animal welfare and veganism, believing that animal farming is an appalling crime that the world chooses to be blind to, from habit, greed, lack of information. My music I'm glad to say has been used for a couple of animal welfare campaigns by Compassion in World Farming (@ciwf) but on the whole it’s a very unpopular subject. I know this will change in the future and animal farming will be viewed in 100 years time in the same way as slavery is now. Thank God the younger generation are all waking up to this.
Im also of course a passionate environmentalist ... this is really the ONLY subject politicians and world leaders should be addressing. Who will care about Brexit etc. and petty squabbles when the earth we live on is destroyed ? Don’t get me started ...
Along with so many other musicians I try and integrate some message of environmental consciousness at least into my music. Let's hope somehow it helps.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Everything! Words, painting, photography and dance are all great too ... but everything is made up of vibrations apparently, and music is the sort of culmination of this – the way the vibrations are most directly transmitted to us, and through us.
In answer to your question, beauty, magic, transformation, connection to our higher power ... these are all more directly expressed in my opinion through music ...