When Anna Meredith goes into the studio to record new music, she brings with her two things. The first is a graphic map, a sketch of the “shape of the album.” The second is an ardent, unshakeable sense of denial. “I’ve developed this quite finely-honed ability to not really think about any pressure or expectation,” she explains over the phone from her home in London. “I just need to focus on what I think is going to work. Anytime I start thinking beyond that, it immediately makes the music bad.”
You’d forgive Meredith for letting some of the pressure slip past her wall of denial. After releasing her critically-acclaimed debut, Varmints, composing the soundtrack to Bo Burnham’s film, Eighth Grade and many, many public commissions, Meredith has become a musical darling, somehow able to straddle the two words of classical music and pop bangers. Now with her new record, FIBS about to be released, she’s equal parts nervous and excited. “I don’t want my music to just float away into the air,” she says. “I make music for people to listen to.”
Meredith begins her writing process with what she likes to call a song’s “nubin,” the centre of the piece. “I don’t really know what that means, but it’s like the cell, a single musical idea,” she explains. “Then I can move on, knowing there’s some germ of an idea for that piece, until eventually I have 12 or 13 tiny bits of ideas and then I nudge those all forward, flesh them out, do a big sweep and finish them all. Then at some point, I blitz them all and get them all to the finish line.” This all sounds surgically planned. “Yeah, I’m not the sort of person to write 50 songs and then pick the best ones. I knew the 11 things I wanted to do when I went into the studio. I’m kinda writing to my own brief.”
“I’ve got a kind of masochistic desire to work my ass off and to push further.”
The high control Meredith has over her musical projects – “I’m unbearable,” she laughs – expands to the recording studio, but she admits she’s got better with collaboration. “There’s definitely no jamming or improvising or any of that stuff in the studio. But I work closely with my band and play them bits at the ‘nubin’ stage and get their thoughts.” She takes one day at a time, the instruments and vocals. Then the layering begins. Meredith is so good a planner that there’s very little editing, even at this stage. She’s simply slotting everything she’s had in her head from the “nubin” stage into place.
FIBS continues many of Varmints’ themes, notably the mixture of fast and slow, as well as the hybrid blend of classical and pop influences, but pushed to even further extremities. “I’ve got a kind of masochistic desire to work my ass off and to push further,” she says. “The pop-ier songs are stronger than last time, which I’m chuffed about because that’s been one thing I’ve always wanted to do and given my best shot. I love pop music. I don’t listen to much music, but I love a good pop song.”
Does Meredith see many similarities between her music and chart pop music? “I often get people saying my stuff is experimental, but I really don’t see it that way. I write music to make it accessible. I don’t want people to think it’s an exercise in alienation. I’m always trying to write music that I find physically moving. Literally! If it’s energetic, I want to get up off my seat and move. I want to follow the trajectory the music is taking me on.”
With FIBS, the music’s trajectory fits its name well. “I don’t see the album as a lie per se, but I like the word and I like the ambiguity of it. It’s like a white lie, not good or bad. And it’s that denial thing as well – I lied to myself and told myself this will be easy! I like things that are a little ambiguous and not one thing or another. And the album is a little bit naughty, like the name; it’s a bit cheeky.”
After taking on one-off projects for the last few years, Meredith is thrilled at the opportunity to tour FIBS and, ever the perfectionist, to play the same album every night. “Everyone’s so busy and the world is so fucked-up at the moment that the fact that anybody comes to a gig and knows your stuff is really humbling. And you get to experience that every night – that’s amazing!”
Photo by Gem Harris.