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Composers in Conversation


Three inspiring artists answer questions from the Jazz Executive Committee.

Colin Towns, Guy Barker and Zara McFarlane have influenced and inspired many songwriters and composers. And BASCA’s Jazz Executive Committee – Emily Saunders, Issie Barratt, Mark Lockheart and Jason Yarde – had the opportunity to talk to their heroes in an intimate setting at Seven Dials, London.

Learning never stops
Despite the many accomplishments of the three, it was reassuring to hear their humility as they all agreed that the learning process never stops when creating music. Colin Towns, described by Mark Lockheart as a “bold and uncompromising” composer, began playing jazz piano at the age of 13. He is clearly as obsessed with music now as he was in his teens, and has ventured into many different art forms – including ballet. He’s someone who “never tires of learning and discovering”.

Guy Barker, who remains one of the most in demand composers and arrangers in Europe, still finds himself marvelling at particular orchestral sounds and arrangements – wondering how they were created. He says, “There are always more people who can inspire me, and the struggle to become a better composer never stops.”

MOBO-winner Zara McFarlane has released two albums on Gilles Petersen’s Brownswood label but still considers herself a “new songwriter”. She tells us she is now working with a producer, which is a new experience for her. “Normally, I can hear in my head what I want the sound and overall mood to be but I’m now much more open to the idea of working with someone who will create a different sound.”

Finding your own voice
From an early age, Colin had many influences. He learnt a lot from listening to records and analysing musicians’ techniques, but became intrigued by the idea of songwriting. “The only thing that matters is discovering your own individual voice – what’s the point in copying? I’ve spent a lot of time avoiding pastiche.” Colin also advises not to take on board negative comments. “If I’d listened too much to other people, I wouldn’t be here. Follow your dream – it’s yours.” Guy offers a word of caution to discovering your own voice, which is not to become “imprisoned by your own work”. He elaborates, “I had a teacher point out to me once that I was ‘rather fond of the semi tone’. I had to admit he had a point when I looked over my scores. Don’t get too stuck in your comfort zone or what you know you’re good at.” As a composer/songwriter, your voice cannot be the only one to dominate though, at least not when you’re writing for clients. Guy says, “You need to serve the situation you’re in. If you’re working for a singer, serve the singer and then serve the song – as long as you’re being yourself at the core.”
Zara adds “When I’m performing my own work I know the goal of the session. This contrasts to working on clients’ projects as I need to listen to what people like and embrace different approaches. It’s important to have different palettes to draw from.” For Colin, it’s important to wander in the wilderness a little, whether it’s a ballet or chamber piece he’s working on. He says, “If we know where we are, we’re in the wrong place. If we don’t know where we are, we’re on the right road.” He adds, “Rules can be broken – you need to be able to fail and experiment.” The importance of storytelling in composition When you’ve got a deadline looming it can be tempting to quantify a successful day by how much you have written. For Guy, the focus is whether or not he has “told the story correctly”. He often collaborates with writer Rob Ryan, who contributes narratives and inspiration. Guy explains, “Rob often gives me the story and title, which helps inspire the direction of the piece. Through that I’ll depict characters, emotions, and create graphs for composition, before I start writing.” Zara finds inspiration in her own personal experiences while also creating stories around other people. Overall, though, the vibe, mood and emotion are the strongest indicators to Zara that the song is on the right track. “I’ll usually evaluate its success by asking myself if the musicians have carried my original emotion through the piece. How I feel at the end of the song is far more important than any technicalities.”