From classical licks and pop tricks to anything goes rave anthems, Anna Meredith’s new album shows just why she is one of the finest exponents of the electronic arts

Anna Meredith has big, shiny, pop star dreams. In person, the 41-year-old Scottish composer appears shy and nervy, a self-confessed geek schooled in the sedate salons of contemporary classical music. But put her on a stage with her brassy, booming band behind her and she becomes a larger-than-life avant-pop diva, belting out classic Metallica and Proclaimers songs between her own exhilarating electro-orchestral anthems.

Away from the creative strictures of the symphony hall, Meredith writes the kind of vivid, propulsive, post-EDM bangers that deserve to fill huge arenas, complete with eye-zapping laser show and animatronic dragons. She already has a silver sci-fi stage cape that even Brian Eno, in his full Roxy pomp, might have deemed a little too outlandish. Pure glam rock.

“Yeah, sometimes I’ll flounce on with my cape,” laughs Meredith. “I think the music works well scaled up, and to a certain extent the bigger the venue and soundsystem, the better. I think there is a potential to be massive if anybody wanted it. I’d love to do big shows, but I don’t want to sound like a massive conceited dickhead. This is obviously not something everybody is going to be into. But yeah, I love a big over-the-top theatrical performance. So sure, bring on the dragons.”

We meet Meredith in her neat studio space beneath Somerset House in central London, an airy atelier crowded with wall charts, posters, computer screens, instruments and cute personal memorabilia. From this unassuming musical engine room, she has produced a kaleidoscopic body of work including Proms and operas, chamber pieces and film scores, classical remixes and techno symphonies, not to mention site-specific soundscapes for department store lifts and ice rink smoothing machines.

But right now, Meredith is poised to don her pop star cape once more for the launch of her second solo album ‘FIBS’. A sequel to her prize-winning 2016 debut ‘Varmints’, this wide array of lustrous avant-rave anthems, muscular drum ’n’ bass stampedes, dancing tubas, trilling clarinets and roaringly melodic synthtronica is a fantastically rich collection, easily one of the musical peaks of the year. Even though her default mode is self-deprecating modesty, Meredith seems beamingly proud of her new baby. 

“When I listen to the songs, I still love them all,” she says. “Having listened to them a billion times, I’m really relieved and proud about that. You could quite easily be sick of it by now. Getting it right makes me very happy. I find it really joyful, I’m always looking for something visceral, something that’s really going to make me jump out of my seat and say, ‘Oh yeah! Smashed it Meredith!”

Anna Meredith has never been a soul-baring confessional singer-songwriter. She briefly mentions her boyfriend during our interview, but she is otherwise guarded with details of her private life. And yet some of the vocal numbers on ‘FIBS’ feel very emotionally direct. 

The delicate, shimmering beauty ‘Divining’ is about the end of a relationship, while the sacrcastailly cheery ‘Killjoy’ skewers Meredith’s own self-sabotaging nature, and the sublime glitter-pop crescendos of ‘Inhale Exhale’ unpick her neurotic introvert anxieties about other people’s scary idea of fun. Her most personal lyrics yet?

“Probably,” she says. “That feels quite new and exposing. I’m quite a private person, I don’t share a lot of personal stuff online. A lot of the songs are quite self-critical, or at least a little bittersweet in some respects. So I tried to balance it, I wanted the album to end on a positive heads-up note. ‘Varmints’ ends quite sadly, and I wanted this to end in a more optimistic way. So I put ‘Unfurl’ at the end, which is all about being optimistic… it feels quite fucked up given where the world is right now.”

Photo: Flore Diamant

As with almost all of Meredith’s music, ‘FIBS’ was composed on a computer before a single note was played. The super-sized Mac screen in her studio blazes with the precise grid design of old-fashioned musical notation. This is Sibelius, the best-selling notation software on which she does 90 per cent of her composing work.

“All this stuff is written in Sibelius before I go anywhere near Ableton or Logic,” she explains. “I just do a better job of getting it right on this. Also the sounds on Sibelius are shit, so it’s like a litmus test. If I can make the songs work like this, I know it will be alright. I’m not trying to rely on amazing production skills or bring in some beautiful analogue synth or whatever.”

As well as using professional software, Meredith has developed her own language of musical notion. Her studio wall is pinned with hand-drawn graphics that map out tracks as linear landscapes, each one a symmetrical design peppered with snappy instructions like “bendy synth”, “party synth” and, my personal favourite, “massive joyful”. Every wiggle pinpoints a change of tone, texture, rhythm or melody.

“It’s just like storytelling, working out what the best reveal would be,” she explains. “I think if you looked at those and then heard the track, it would make sense to you. But what makes absolutely zero sense is why I’ve done it on both sides, like a mirror image. There’s no need for that, I’ve just always done it. Ha!”

Due to her unusual back-to-front career path as a successful classical musician who then embraced electronic pop, Meredith views her solo albums with a certain hard-headed commercial detachment. As with ‘Varmints’, the months of creative work she put into ‘FIBS’ was largely self-funded and involved turning down more secure, lucrative commissions,.

“There has been the odd moment of thinking, ‘What am I doing?’,” she laughs. “I’m in the position where my commissioned works funds my pop music, and I think people are expecting it to be the other way around. All my classical mates expect me to be rolling around in a bed of fivers! It has been really eye-opening for me, really expensive and difficult. Hats off to anyone who makes an album. It’s a nightmare.”

Photo: Flore Diamant

Since ‘Varmints’ was released, three years ago, Meredith has become intensely busy with multiple commissions, soundtracks and collaborations. In 2017, she composed her first movie score, for the American director Bo Burnham’s acclaimed coming-of-age comedy ‘Eighth Grade’. 

“Bo found me, which was lovely,” she says. “I was incredibly flattered. He came here and we worked together for eight days. I wrote some stuff before and after that, but I worked my arse off for those eight days. He is very musical.”

Last year, Meredith reworked Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ with the Glasgow-based Scottish Ensemble for their joint album ‘Anno’. In summer, she also performed her Great War-themed collaboration ‘Five Telegrams’ at both the Proms and the Edinburgh Festival. And she also just completed her first TV score for the darkly comic drama ‘Living With Yourself’, starring Aisling Bea and Paul Rudd, which premieres this month on Netflix. With so much demand for her music, she must have ways to prioritise which commissions to accept. Has she ever taken on a job purely for the money?

“I have definitely pitched for things that haven’t happened, or nearly happened, that would have been in some ways for the money,” she admits cheerfully. “And I kind of felt OK about it. I think me 10 years ago would have been more worried about making music for an ad or something. If I can give myself a little narrative about what makes it interesting musically, while acknowledging that it is generated from the money, then why not?”

Crucially, one extra skill Meredith has finally learned recently is how to say no to work. This is a perpetual anxiety for all freelancers, even highly successful artists.

“It has taken me a long time,” she says, “but I’ve come to realise it’s important to say no if you think you’re going to do a shit job. For a very long time I said yes to absolutely everything, and lots of big things, months of work for each one. So you’ve got to weigh up whether it’s going to be interesting and worth it. And I’m always scared about doing a shit job, so I’m getting quite picky now. I’m very lucky to be in that position.”

Born in London in 1978, Meredith moved to Edinburgh at the age of two when her journalist father became Scottish correspondent for The Financial Times. Growing up “between the bridges” in South Queensferry on the Firth Of Forth, she first began playing clarinet, violin and drums at her comprehensive school, initially more as a geeky refuge than driving passion. 

“I honestly could not have been a less cool teenager,” she grins. “I think I took sanctuary from my slightly scary school in the music department, where I learned my clarinet with all my slightly geeky friends.”

Meredith left Scotland in her late teens, first to study music at York University, then to pursue a Masters at the Royal College Of Music in Kensington. Settling in south London, she was already an established classical composer and Proms veteran by the time she made her first tentative shift into electronic pop in 2012 with her debut EP ‘Black Prince Fury’ on the Moshi Moshi label. 

She was initially looking for a solo project to indulge her “control freak” side, away from the more formal, hands-off process of chamber music.

“The first EPs I did were just electronic, no instruments,” she recalls. “I decided to learn about electronics because then it’s all me, start to finish. I was just going to make this thing in my bedroom and since then it’s grown into something I have to perform, and I’ve built up a band. 

“I can definitely still write orchestral stuff, but actually I like working this way because this draws on all my skills. I can get involved in a way I wouldn’t be able to otherwise. When you write an orchestral piece and you hand it over to an orchestra, that’s the end of it. Here I can honk on a clarinet, sing in my squeaky songs, work with a brilliant band. It’s a really time-consuming, but joyful thing.”

Photo: Flore Diamant

Meredith grew up listening to 90s chart music, grunge, Britpop, Ibiza dance anthems, but usually for a composer her listening habits have narrowed rather than broadened in adulthood. Shrunk down to zero, in fact, to avoid the risk of feeling influenced or intimidated.

“I really listen to no music,” she says with an apologetic wince. “I actively know that it doesn’t help me. I know the headspace I need to be in to feel confident, and that helps me write good music. My confidence gets knocked when I’m listening too much other good music.”

This form of mental decluttering may sound extreme, but Meredith is not the only musician to take this stance. Ralf Hütter from Kaftwerk and Mike Oldfield have both told me similar things. 

“It doesn’t feel like a big sacrifice,” she shrugs. “It might sound narcissistic and self-obsessed, but as I’m writing something I’m thinking about music the whole time. So quite often I have to listen to audiobooks just to turn my head off.”

For all her self-deprecating manner, years of ambition and hard work have made Meredith one of Britain’s most eclectic and respected composers at the relatively young age of 41. Back in June, she was awarded an MBE for services to music. Does that feel like an achievement? What does success look like? Can she relax a little now?

“I don’t think it works like that, the goalposts keep moving,” she says. “I thought when I did ‘Varmints’, that I would have some black and white sense of success or failure, whether this was good thing to be spending my time and money on. It doesn’t work like that though. But I have just taken a bit of time off and bought my first ever games console purely for fun. I’ve got a Nintendo Switch and I’m absolute obsessed with playing ‘The Legend of Zelda’. I can’t get enough. And I’m doing up my house, seeing friends, all the things I haven’t had the time to do for ages.”

After years of workaholic overload, Anna Meredith’s OCD Soundsystem is finally taking a much-needed break. But don’t worry, she will soon be back. Early next year she plans to tour ‘FIBS’ with her band, hopefully with a full arena-sized laser show and shiny sci-fi costumes. Dust off the silver cape. Bring on the dragons. 

‘FIBS’ is released by Moshi Moshi

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