It was the year that the composer parked her classical commissions to release her first LP, and our favourite of the year – ‘Varmints’
In January 2016, I drove Sam Walton and Gem Harris into the Suffolk countryside to interview and shoot Anna Meredith for the first Loud And Quiet cover story of the year. Anna was based at Snape Maltings, the rural head quarters of Aldeburgh Music, an organisation that nurtures the development of composers and classical musicians who you’ll find dotted around in barns converted into orchestra rooms and theatres. Anna – a jobbing composer since graduating from the prestigious Royal College of Music – was working on a commission based on Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’, but was about to put her classical career on hold for the year, in order to release her debut solo album, the experimental, electronic ‘Varmints’.
Until then, she’d only created music when somebody asked her to, for a concert or recital or arts program, but never for herself. She had no idea how it would be received, or if anyone would even hear it, and if they didn’t, she’d think twice about making another record.
Almost 12 months on, ‘Varmints’ is our Album Of The Year – a constant source of surprise, which we’ve come to understand could only have come from her: a young composer whose decision to not listen to popular music has allowed her to make such a lawless debut, where a twee indie track can butt against an instrumental of outrageously bombastic tuba and the odd piece resembling stuttering techno, but played on distorted Grade 8 clarinet. “There’s a real delight when you’re listening to a piece of music and it completely pulls the rug from under you,” she told Sam in January. It still feels that way as 2016 comes to its bumpy end, regardless of how many times you’ve already listened to ‘Varmints’.
Stuart Stubbs: When we did our cover feature with you in January, can you remember how you felt about the fact that you were about to release your debut album, and how you envisaged 2016 playing out?
Anna Meredith: Yeah. You guys coming out there was an amazing thing because up until then all the work I had been doing had been just me and the band. It had been very much led by me and I’d started to get very panicky about this idea that it could just disappear, because I’d been looking at other people being like, ‘I’ve got an album out!’ And then it’s just gone. That lack of impact started to freak me out, because I’d been working on it for a couple of years. And then when you guys came out it was all ready to go, but no one had really heard it, and it just felt lovely, because I sat and had a lovely, long chat with Sam about it, and he asked all these really interesting questions. He was so positive about it, and it felt a little bit like the first sense of ‘here we go!’.
Sometimes I’d listen to [the record] and I’d think who is actually going to listen to this?
SS: Did you feel like that because it’s not a record that comfortably fits in the classical world you know, nor is it instantly recognisable as an electronic pop record?
AM: I’ve never really thought like that. I suppose I know that other people do, but when I’m writing I’m not trying to think about where my stuff fits. I just knew the musical ideas that I wanted to put in it – it’s built out of musical building blocks, but I know that other people can easily get freaked out by the simplest things. “Oh my god! There’s a clarinet?! I HATE IT!” Or, equally, for classical people, “Urgh there’s a drum beat?! IT’S NOT FOR ME!”
I hoped that people wouldn’t be hung up on the fact that there are a lot of instrumental tracks, and that a lot of it isn’t in 4/4. To me, who cares?