Interview: Neil Davidge on Slo Light, The West Wing and the Magic of Music
Award winning record producer, songwriter, musician and scorer, Neil Davidge, goes “solo” on his new album, Slo Light, to be released on February 25th. With collaborations with some of the most talented up-and-coming artists, including Stephonik Youth, Karima Francis and Cate le Bon, the album offers a fantastic track list that’s sure to blow you away. mxdwn had the pleasure to take a first listen to the new album and chat with the wonderful Neil about his inspirations, the magic of music and the honor of having a song featured on the West Wing.
After years of working as a record producer, songwriter, musician, and film and video game scorer for the likes of Massive Attack, David Bowie, The Matrix, Assassins Creed and Halo 4 (just to name a few), you are about to release your new solo album, Slo Light, on February 25th, via The End Records and 7 Hz Productions. I’ve had the pleasure to listen to it already and I’m in love; I can’t get enough of “How Was Your day” featuring Karima Francis and “They Won’t Know” featuring Stephonik Youth. The album has a fantastic mix of mellow, heartfelt songs and harder dance songs. How was it to release your own solo album?
That’s really good to hear! It’s always nice to hear people seem to like what I do; I don’t take it for grated at all. I guess in some ways I tried not to think about it. I didn’t really want to think of myself as releasing a solo album after all these years. I just wanted to make the best music I could make and get the best out of the musical collaborations that I had going on this album. So, in that way it was very much the same as what I’ve been doing all these years. I never felt particularly as though I haven’t been creatively fulfilled from the projects I’ve worked on before. So it doesn’t really feel like my first solo album; it almost feels like my fourth or fifth album because I have musical collaborations on this album and the album I previously did; I know they went under a different name, but for me, at least in the process of making the new album, it’s very much the same thing. What’s different about this album is it’s me doing the interviews.
How is it doing interviews? Is it comfortable?
Yeah it is, I’ve always felt pretty uncomfortable talking about my work, I have to be honest. There’s a part of me that when I’ve actually finished a piece of music, that’s it, it’s done and out of my system and I want to move on and do something different. And actually, talking about the music I’ve made is a strange new thing for me to get my head around. But, you know, so far everyone I’ve spoken to has been lovely and it’s nice to speak to people, isn’t it?
How were you able to put such a versatile record together?
The albums I used to listen to as I was growing up and even the albums that’ve always valued to this day are very eclectic. I mean from listening to Beatles albums or Stevie Wonder albums or Marvin Gaye and more recently, albums by a band like Radiohead, who have extremely eclectic tastes and bring in bits of jazz, bits of funk, bits of rock, bits of avant-garde electronica and kind of throw them together. I kind of come from that same place. I don’t like just one style of music. I like all sorts of styles of music and I have ideas and sometimes the thing that I’m feeling that I’m trying to communicate, it feels more applicable to use an orchestra to convey that feeling than a guitar. So, I’ll go to the orchestra or I’ll sit down at a guitar because that’s the way I get to the nugget of what I’m feeling and what I want to communicate. I use whatever sound feels right and whatever comes into my imagination.
I’d never scored for an orchestra before working on film scores, but there was a voice that was needed in those movies, so I had to set about learning how to score for an orchestra. I had good people working with me, so they got to help me when I fell over and made a fool of myself. I learned a lot as I went along and my whole career has been like that. I’ve tried to work with the best people I can and I stay open minded and learn what I can from the experiences. I experiment and keep pushing myself and go “Okay, well today I did this, but, tomorrow I’m going to do something completely different and see what that produces.” That’s probably why the album is so eclectic because I want to keep challenging myself.
I think that’s what made the album so refreshing. It seemed like with every new track it was something new and it wasn’t just the same thing over and over again. So, that’s what I really enjoyed about it.
Good and I’m really glad that that comes across because it’s one of those things that I’ve always loved about great albums. You know, you don’t put it on and by the third track you’re thinking “Okay, I’m done now.”
When beginning to write and compose the 11 tracks on the album, did you have a specific theme or sort of end goal in mind or did you simply allow them to form organically?
I would say it was more organic than anything. There was an end goal, but the end goal was that it felt right. I’d be working on sketching out ideas and I always come up with a lot more than I actually use at the end of the day, no matter what project I’m working on. I get to a point to where it feels like I’ve got all of the pieces of the puzzle and then I move forward from there.
I think the final piece of the puzzle for this album was actually the track, that’s probably actually not on the main version of the album, but it’s a track that I’d written and I’d loved for a long time, but couldn’t find a home for. And I reached out to a friend of mine from Bristol [Patrick Duff] who used to be in a band called Stangelove and said, “Hey, what are you up to? Do you fancy popping into the studio and just listening to a couple of pieces of music?” and it’s a track called “Hummingbird.”
I don’t know if you’ve heard that one because I think it’s an exclusive track for the iTunes download.
Unfortunately, I haven’t.
It’s one of those pieces that I thought I’d like to have somewhere related to the album, but I couldn’t find the right voice for it. But, he came in and instantly I told him the story of why I’d written the piece and he completely got it and we wrote the song that afternoon. It’s just when you feel like you’ve almost got the pieces of the puzzle all in place and you can look around the corner and you go “Okay, yeah, that looks the way I want it to look” and you look around the other corner and you go “Yeah, yeah, that’s still looking good.” It’s a bit like, I guess, like a good outfit; you know when you’re going out at night and you kind of look at yourself in the mirror from different angles and you go “Yeah, I’m doing it.” It’s a little bit like that for me when I’m working on an album project and it gets to the point where it just feels right.
I feel like I’ve got the right balance. When it goes up, it goes up in the right way and when it comes down, it comes down in the right way and when I want to sit with it for a while, I can sit with it for a while and when all those pieces feel like they’re in the right place, then I’ve got something and then I play it to whoever I have to play it to convince them that it’s right too.
I noticed that several of the artists featured on the album are on multiple tracks; for example, Stephonik Youth is on the title track as well as two others and Claire Tchaikowski has two tracks. Were any of the songs written with a particular artist in mind or did you write them and then find the perfect fit later? Was there anyone that you definitely needed to have on the album?
It was a little bit of both, actually. There was a track that I wrote called “Anyone Laughing” and I did write that with Claire and in mind. “They Won’t Know” I definitely wrote with Stephonik in mind; I’d worked with her before on the track “Slo Light,” the title track we’d done some years before and I really felt like I wanted to work on something else with her. So “They Won’t Know” and “Zero One Zero” were two pieces that I definitely said “Okay, these are two ideas that I would love Stephonik to get involved in” and she did, she loved them and she’s genius. And actually the other track that I did with Claire Tchaikowski, “That Fever,” I kind of had her in mind for that one as well.
“How was your day”, [featuring] Karima Francis, was a track I had for a while. I loved the instrumental idea and I’d written a bunch of songs with Karima, mainly for her projects, and I really wanted to do something with her that’d push her out of her comfort zone. Most of her stuff is very singer/songwriter and I just really fancied hearing what she’d sound like over something that was maybe a little atonal at times, a little disjointed harmonically and something that was very much a groove based thing. I put the track on and she got it straight away; she’s very fast, she’s great to work with and very inspiring.
But, yeah, it’s a bit of both. Sometimes I write the music first and go “Who would sound great over this?” It was that way for Cate le Bon in “Gallant Foxes.” I started that track before and then was looking for someone to work on it. At the same time, when I work with a singer I tend to give them a fairly open piece of music to work around and I want them to make it their own and then from there I work on the piece.
Most of the artists you have featured on the album are fairly newcomers to the music scene, with the exception of the legendary Sandie Shaw. Was that all a coincidence or did you intentionally decide to go with bright new acts?
It wasn’t necessarily intentional. I’ve never ruled out working with someone who’s well known, but I just wanted to work with people who would inspire me, people who would challenge me and I gave myself the opportunity to imagine who I would like to work with. I even put together a list for my management company because they’d been sending me CDs and .mp3s for quite a long time of different artists, different singers that they’d think I might like and almost systematically I’d say to them “Why the hell did you send me this? It’s not the thing I’m into.” So, in frustration one day, they just said “Well, write a list of who you’d like to work with, then” and I went “Okay, I will.”
So, I put together a list and I think out of probably 20 different names, 10 of those people were dead; I just wanted to work with people that would inspire me and so I had to put down people like John Lennon, I had to put down people like Nina Simone because these people already had inspired me. And that’s the kind of voice I want to work with, but looking around the industry and looking at all the artists that maybe have a little moment in their schedule to collaborate on some things, I found these artists and for the most part they were fairly unknown (at least in the US, they were pretty unknown). So, that was kind of coincidence, but possibly by design at the same time because these people were fresh and all passionate and inspired themselves and were all looking to do something different. So, yeah, kind of by design as well.
Yeah, it definitely seems that with the evolution of electronics and new discoveries in music, everyone has a fresh new approach, so it made me wonder if maybe you were drawing some inspiration off of that.
Yeah, to some degree. I think so, yeah. Each of these people are working in areas of music, or have been working in areas of music, that I don’t work in, so that was cool. Patrick [Duff] might bring a folk aspect to a track, Cate is kind of garage with a bit of Serge Gainsborough in there, Claire’s previous work was maybe a bit more mainstream than I’ve been working in, Karima is a soul singer and Stephonik does electro-pop. All of these people work in areas of music that I don’t necessarily work in, although maybe I do draw some influence from, and it was fun to do that. And Sandie Shaw is a ’60s icon. So, they all affected me in some way. It was a two way thing; I gave as much as I took.
How would you say the artist selection, composition and recording of the tracks for Slo Light differed from those of the advertisements and television, movie and video game soundtracks you’ve previously done?
When you are working on a movie score, a game score or an ad, you have a client to satisfy. In this instance, I’m both the composer and the client when I’m working on an album, so ultimately I have to satisfy myself. That can be tricky because from day to day I change my mind about things. One day I listen to a piece of music and I go “Wow, that’s great!” and the next day I go “What was I thinking?” When you’re working on a job for someone else– a film score in particular– it’s almost like someone else has written a song and I’m writing the arrangement for it and I can get creative with that because the actors are saying something on the screen, but I know they are thinking something else and I can say that in the music.
You have a lot of fun and it’s a bit like when you have a song and you come up with an arrangement for that song that maybe goes against the song a little and contrasts the song and that’s kind of what I’m doing with a film score. I’m working with something someone else has created to begin with and I’m adding my thing to it. But, when I’m writing an album, it’s a blank piece of paper and that can be really tricky. Generally, what I do is that I just go into the studio and make some noise until I find that it’s not a blank piece of paper anymore and now I’ve got some material to work with.
Can you describe your technical process on this album and what kind of gear you used to compose and record? Do you think you used more synthesizers and computers versus live instrumentation?
A lot of the album began working in Pro Tools using virtual instruments and Kontakt sample instruments to create a bed of sound to get the raw idea down. And gear, processing things with a lot of different plug-ins and a lot of software until I feel like I’ve got a picture and something that emotionally triggers something in me when I’m actually listening to that piece of music. From there, I may just finish up the track completely on the computer and some of the tracks there were no live players at all, but on other tracks I may have felt that the song would benefit from guitars or strings. Several tracks on the album we orchestrated. Andrew Morgan, who I work with, is a cellist and a trained composer and arranger. We’ve worked a lot on projects over the years (he worked on the Halo 4 score) and he and I would work together and if it feels like it needs an orchestra or if it feels like it needs live drums or it feels like it needs just the electronics, then that’s the way we’ll go.
I’m talking and talking about the creative process, but for me so much of it is gut instinct. As I’m working on a particular song, I’ll pick up a guitar and just start hitting it more than actually planning it because it feels like the right thing to do. I followed my gut instinct on all of these songs until it feels right. I don’t really think there’s any technical thing that I do that is valid, really, because the magic is not in the technical side of it. The magic is in the ideas, in the inspiration and in the doing; that’s when magic is created.
I feel like that’s the mark of a true musician; sometimes technicalities can get in the way of the music and it’s nice just to let everything flow organically.
Yes, exactly. Like in the bass line for “Walk on the Wild Side,” for instance, the guy who plays the bass on that is one of my favorite bass players, an incredible musician. He knew the very simple bass run was right for the track and it was the bass for the whole song. I think the great musicians know that it’s not always about how many notes you play, it’s not about the technicalities of it, it’s about what it says, that’s the important thing.
In the past, you’ve worked with various brands, ranging from Jaguar to Smirnoff to Levi’s to David Beckham’s fragrance Instinct to provide enticing tracks to their visual experiences. How are you able to craft music that captures the essence of the product so perfectly in those few minutes? Do you have a type of routine you follow to get you in the right mind space?
Yeah, normally when working on an ad campaign, the agency gives you a brief and you get to see a rough cut of the actual ad itself to begin with and they’d say “Have you got anything that’d work with this?” Whenever I work on a project, I tend to do a lot of sketching in the early stages. When someone first suggests an idea to me or shows me a film or shows me an advert or I meet a bunch of creative people, I’ll get a moment of inspiration and these moments of inspiration are precious. So, I’ll take as much advantage of that inspiration as I possibly can and write as much music as I can until I kind of run out and I’ve actually exhausted myself and I need to go to bed or I need to have a bit of a break.
And when an ad agency will say “Do you have anything that would work with this?” I’ll generally go through my archives of material and put stuff against the picture and see if I’ve got anything as a starting point, as a piece of music to begin the conversation, that would work for the ad. I’ll send them a bunch of ideas, maybe half a dozen different ideas, sort of edited from a music sketch that’ve done years prior and from there we’ll begin the discussion of What do we do next? How do we make this work? And it’s not just for doing ads, it can also work for films and albums as well. I’ve taken tracks that I’ve maybe been playing around with for an album and get to a point where I’ve thought “No, this really isn’t an album track.” Then, I’ll be working on a film score and I’ll go “Hang on, what about that idea,” and I’ll pull it out and play it up against the film and I’ll go “That works, that’s great!” and then I’ll play it to the director and he’ll go “Wow, I love that! That’s perfect!” And then we’ll progress to finish that off.
Sometimes I’ll write something for film and I’ll go “It doesn’t feel like a score piece of music, it feels more like a track” and so I’ll put it to one side and maybe play it to a singer and say, “Does this inspire you?” “Do you get ideas when you hear this piece of music?” Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t. So it’s great. It can often be the thing that really saves you when you’re a jobbing composer, jobbing writer to have a big archive of material. It doesn’t have to be a finished orchestral piece, it can be 16 bars of something, just a cool idea, and that can help you get over that hump of “Oh, right, so I need to do something for this and I’ve got no ideas. What am I going to do?” and the panic sets in. And of course, sometimes you watch something and straight away it kind of screams an idea at you and you go “Yes, I know exactly what to do” and you just get in there and you just start writing. But, there are other times you have to pull on those resources that you have and if you’ve been doing it for a while, then I think naturally you probably will have a lot of ideas that you just put to one side like a lyricist.
A great lyricist walks around with a notebook and every day they jot things down. They hear a phrase, think of an interesting idea and they jot it down and when they sit down to write a song, sometimes the song will just come, but other times they’ll have no idea and they’ll look back at the things they’ve jotted down and go “Oh, that would be great.” So, yeah, I think as a jobbing composer, jobbing producer, jobbing film score writer, jobbing song writer, whatever, you need to have your resources.
Did you follow a similar process when you worked with Massive Attack? Are you still producing and writing with them?
I’m not working with them at the moment. I decided a while ago, towards the end of the last album, that we needed to do something different. That we should not work with each other for a little while. There was no falling out or anything, we are still good friends and we are still in contact, but we were starting to predict what each other was doing and I said, “It’s time for us to do separate things so if we do get back together and start working together on something, we inspire each other and we surprise each other.”
But, yeah, in a similar way, that was going on with Massive Attack, as well. Maybe not in the very early days because I hadn’t worked with them before and they hadn’t worked with me so we will building it all through scratch. So, on the first album, Mezzanine, we were struggling to get an album’s worth of material. It seemed crazy after that amount of time working on it, but to get the tracks, the right tracks for the album, we had to lay out a lot of material to find those pieces for the album. So, we got to the end of Mezzanine and then we thought, “Well, hang on, we actually have got a bunch of sketches here that we haven’t done anything with and some of these are really cool” and some of those did end up being used for other projects. It’s where I started doing film score work with them; I did a lot of the scoring.
The first film work we did was “Danny the Dog”– that was the first full movie we scored. There were quite a few things for that score that were maybe general ideas for a previous Massive Attack album. It’s a great way of working, it can really save you when you’re, I don’t know, feeling ill, been working ridiculous hours and you’ve another piece to write for a scene and you’ve run out of ideas. To be able to turn to a body of work and go “Hang on, maybe there’s something here” can often save you!
You’ve made some great tracks with Massive Attack. I just started watching Luther the television show and I was so happy to see that their title track was actually a Massive Attack song.
That’s right, they’re using “Paradise Circus,” aren’t they? Yeah, that’s very cool! It’s always been quite a buzz when I might not know a piece of music that I’ve made is actually in a film and I’ll sit down and watch a film with my daughter or on an evening just to relax and halfway through the film, there’s a piece of music that I’ve written. And I’m like “WOW!” It kind of shocks you for a little while and it really takes you out of the movie and takes a while to settle back in.
I’m a huge fan of the West Wing. I’ve must’ve watched it so many times, I love it, and it was such a buzz I think at the end of series four. I was just right there watching the episode and it was getting to the really tense bit towards the end and certainly a Massive Attack track started and I was like “WHAT?” My favorite show in the history of all television and a piece of my music was used on it. Yeah, it’s very cool. It’s quite surreal! I almost feel like if I watch that series again and it comes to that episode, I almost feel like I have to skip it in a way because it really takes me out of it and I’m not able to watch that scene properly and really experience that scene because that piece of music is playing. It’s a really cool thing. I love watching movies and it can be a little distracting when my music is on there, but it’s a huge honor at the same time.
Do you think the combination of your experience with commercial advertising and the experience you’ve gained arranging and producing with Massive Attack had a great impact on the way you approached the production of Slo Light?
Yeah, I think I’ve been really lucky in my career that I’m able to work with people who’ve commanded a lot of respect and have been trusted. Certainly in the case of Massive Attack, they have been trusted by the music industry, by their record company and by their management to make something special and something unique. We’ve been trusted to be brave to do something different and left to our own devices and I think that experience has made me a lot more confident when it comes to making music. When I know something’s right, everyone in the room can tell me “No, that’s not working,” but when I know it’s right, it’s right. I don’t care whether people say if it’s commercially acceptable or people say “No, you can’t have the music as long as that.” If I know it’s right, then I know it’s right and it’s only from having those experiences.
I remember speaking to all the top guys from Adidas and they wanted to use a Massive Attack track for one of their adverts and I remember having a conversation with them about the advert and saying “Yeah, the music works for it, but the sound effects you’re using really don’t work for the advert, they really don’t work with the piece of music. They’re clashing. You need to change them.” I was pretty young when I was having that conversation. I’m not arrogant, I listen to people all the time, it doesn’t matter who it is. The cleaner used to come into the old studio and I’d say “What do you think of this?” and he’d go, “I’m not sure about that” and I’d go, “You’re right” and change it, so there’s no ego going on there.
But when it feels right to me, I know it’s right and it’s through working on those albums and really pushing things and testing what people consider to be the popular music and it becoming successful and it becoming the mainstay of a lot of movie scores and it inspiring a lot of different movie composers, as well as other artists. It just gives you confidence to believe in your gut instincts, have faith in the process and allow yourself the time to go “Okay, this doesn’t feel right. Okay, then, I need to do something about it.”
It’s not that I can’t take criticism. I actually really enjoy criticism. I find that criticism is a really important part of the process. I learn a lot of hearing from people coming in working, but when I know it’s right, I know it’s right.
We at mxdwn are great fans of all the work you have done throughout your career and are excited to see what you have in store for us in the future. Can we expect to see another solo album coming out soon?
It’s definitely an idea to work on another album. I’m currently focused on finishing the film score on a film called “Good People.” I’ve got another film score that I’m probably gonna be starting in the next month and I was also consider doing some live shows for this album. As I am working on all these different projects, I will be again putting tracks away and thinking, “Maybe that will be good for an album project.” I have it in the back of my mind, but I will start another album project in the next couple of years.
Exactly when I actually properly say, “Okay, alright, in the next six months we are making an album”– I’m not quite sure when that will be, but it is in the back of my mind. I am thinking about musical ideas, thinking about who I might like to collaborate with, whether I continue to work with the people I work with on this album or maybe look for someone else. So, it’s in the back of mind that I’m going to make another album, but just not yet. I think it’s good to let this one settle and work on something different. Then, I’ll come back, do it and be refreshed and have fresh ideas and surprise myself and surprise the other people I work with.
Do you have plans for an upcoming Slo Light tour? Please say you will be doing a show in L.A. because I’d love to hear the album performed live!
Yeah, L.A. is definitely one of those places we were thinking about. We need to visit at some point. I’m not exactly sure how we are going to do that. We talked about the idea of playing the album live, but we haven’t actually really talked about “Well, okay, so we are going to do it live, but how?” I think that comes next, but it’s one of the things we’re kind of discussing at the moment. And hopefully over the next couple of weeks, we’ll make up our minds on how exactly we might do that.
Yeah, I guess, it’s one thing to do it in a slightly different way, the way people might traditionally tour an album these days. I mean, I don’t want to be sat there with a laptop and I’m not sure a traditional live band would be a right way for it either. I have a few ideas about how we might approach a live tour, but I don’t know how much it might cost. So, I’ll have to talk to the people who tell me how much money I’ve got to do these things and when they tell me how much money I got, I’ll go, “Okay, we’re gonna have to find a different way to do this” and I’ll come up with something. I just want it to be different and I want it to be special so that when someone comes to listen to the album performed live, they get an experience.Search for Cate le Bon albums on Amazon
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