AN INTERVIEW WITH COMPOSER, JULIET MERCHANT.

Juliet Merchant is an emerging talented and versatile composer who has written for television, film and online productions. She is signed with EMI, Finger Music and Motus Music and her music can be heard on BBC, CBBC, ITV as well as on a number of  international short films. Her style can be described as a hybrid of the traditional classical genre fused with a modern electronic twist, however she can prove that she is adept in writing in a wide variety of genres. She is a classically trained pianist and achieved grade 8 piano ABRSM by the age of 16 and went on to perform professionally.  Her recent TV credits include Country File (BBC), Horrible Histories (CBBC) and Jeremy Kyle (ITV). She also created the audio logo for InCrowd in the USA that has an international online platform.
She has worked with a variety of filmmaker,s and has been commissioned for the feature film Bathroom by Hansal Mehta. Her short film scores include: Glove (dir. Joel Court), Bad Wolves (dir. Robert Barron), A Bad Summer (dir. Samiira Garane), Fill The Silence (dir. Brock Elwick), The Last of ‘43 (dir. Ibad Shaikh), Dissociation (dir. Jenny Collins) and The Inevitable (dir. Ibad Shaikh), which was shortlisted for the BFI short film selection.  She is comfortable playing and composing in a variety of genres including: classical solo and orchestral, soundtrack, electronic, ambient, neo-classical, jazz,  traditional Indian music, ethnic Eastern European music, medieval and ancient music.

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Can I start by asking you when you first decided that music was going to be in your life as a career?

I was always told that music could never be a career, for it was an unattainable goal. Musicians do not make money and the dream is only a dream. Whilst this has some truth in it, a career in music is not just about luck. Your strategy and how smart you can be can vastly change the path of your career. I remember the specific night when I decided. I was pacing my dirty, student-flat kitchen at 3am in the morning during the heatwave with my best friend sat with a piercing look in her eye. She asks me, why don’t you do music? I answer, because it isn’t practical or lucrative. She asks, but what if it was? And that tiny inkling of hope bestowed in me by somebody I love dearly was enough to open the doors into what I always thought was the impossible. So far, her advice has paid off and I’m grateful for that.

When you are asked to write music for a project, whether it be film television or just as a piece of stand alone music how do you begin, by this I mean do you focus on any one thing that might inspire you or give you any hint of where to begin the composing process?
I start with the idea. I sit at my midi keyboard with a strong idea of what I want to make, and more specifically, a feeling I want to put into it. I then create a sound, whether that comes from a synth or a manipulated classical instrument. Then I play. I am unsure of how to describe where my hands move to, but what I know is that I never create what I originally intended. I create something I didn’t expect every single time. My inspiration comes from the people that I love and the everyday banalities.

 

What is your main source for working out your musical ideas, do you use keyboards or a more modern way to bring your ideas to fruition?

 

I use a midi keyboard plugged into my laptop with a variety of VSTs to create different sounds. I guess that just is an extension of where the traditional composer would once sit.

 

What do you think the purpose of music in film is?

 
This is where many people disagree, but I believe that film is 50% visual and 50% music. Although, I am biased because music affects me perhaps overly so. For me, music brings the essence of feeling, whereas the script, characters and visual bring the details.

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What musical education did you receive, and do you come from a family background that is musical?

 

I practised piano at home with a private tutor from a young age. My brothers played the piano too, but I was the most enthusiastic and obsessive. My family aren’t musicians themselves, but we all love music passionately. We aren’t the type of people to listen to a bit of this or that, instead we blast music on full volume in the car and drive around aimlessly.

 

 

Do you think that there is any truth in the idea that a good score can save a bad movie and vice versa?

 
There have definitely been times where I’m watching a film and I think “why am I bawling? This isn’t even sad!”, but that may just be me. I think there can be a compromise: if the visual is not too bad, music can make up the quality, and vice versa. If a film is terrible, or if the music is terrible, there is no saving it.

 

 

When working on a film or any visual project how many times do you like to see it before starting to sketch out any ideas about the music as in style, sound and where it should be placed?

 
I like to watch it twice or three times. I am looking to capture the essence of the project and not to over think it and burden it with information. You have to keep your impression just above the clouds to transform it to music. It’s like poetry, where everything is described as it is not. The emotion of a piece can be tender and hard to grasp. However, it is also necessary to find the pauses and moments where the music must pause and write them down to incorporate.
Do you think that it is better for the composer to be involved on film projects as early as the script stage or is it more productive for them to be brought in at the rough cut stage of the production?

 
It’s better to have an idea of how a project manifests itself from the start. It always starts off with an idea in the director’s head, but will always result in an amalgamation of coincidence. This is why I will not start writing the music until we have a screen lock, because the end product is what the music will match. Also, the pauses and places for nuance are important to know in order to create a powerful soundtrack.

 

What composers would you say have influenced or affected you as in the way you write or even approach assignments?

 
Hans Zimmer has always been my inspiration. He creates huge sounds that can tear up your heart, which is what I aspire to. Although I look up to many composers and musicians, it would be hard to say that they influence me. I don’t particularly understand what I make and where it comes from, and I think that is an essential part of my process. Perhaps if I had some more control over it I would start replicating others more out of admiration. My main influencers are people in my life and my relationships with them.

 
In recent years the DRONE sound has become more and more prominent in movie scores, the theme it seems is fading away from this area of music, is this a trend that will pass or is it here to stay do you think?

 
I’m sure this has Hans Zimmer right in the heart of the question. I think we are exploring new areas of music that could be described as sounds rather than music. I like the fact that we’re stretching the boundaries of music and incorporating into the canon pure percussion or atonal synths. It is the current trend but only a part in the process of reaching all corners of what music could be.

 

Female film music composers or Female composers in general, I think are not given the opportunity to work on large scale projects, simply because the film music profession is dominated by Males which of course can also be said of the movie making industry, what are your thoughts on this?

 

As a part of the very small percentage of the composition industry that is female, I’m trying to embolden younger girls and women to work with music computer programmes and the industries related to them. The music industry is only accessed via technology and complex computer programs, which is typically seen as a male pursuit. I personally would have never started a music career if a man in my life had not shown me how to work with the program (even though, of course, any man or woman could figure it out, I just never considered using complex programs because “computers are for boys”).
Aside from the technology stigma, there are other reasons why we don’t hear women’s music today. Due to the oppression women experienced in the past, the traditional music canon is constituted by men. Women who wrote music would either have to publish it under their husband’s name or a pseudonym, otherwise their music would not be seriously considered. Now that music is centred around money, we live in a world where what people have heard before is what people will pay to hear again, and this means that the canon continues to be male. We need to rewrite history and show that women also wrote great music. We should promote novelty in music so that people move away from the prestigious canon and empower women to enter the music composition industry.

 

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Have you encountered the TEMP track at all, where the producer or client installs a temp music track to give the composer an idea of what type of music they want, if so do you find that this can be helpful or is it a tool used by producers etc that can also be distracting?

 

I have, and I believe that it is more distracting for the client than the composer. It has often felt as though the client, actually, wants that precise piece of music. The closer I get to the temp track, the happier the client is and this does not leave room for expression. When somebody gets an idea in their head, they’re often susceptible to narrow mindedness.

 

 

Do you conduct at all and do you also work on orchestrations or do you pass your music to an orchestrator?
I can orchestrate and conduct, but this isn’t always necessary because my sound is heavily electronic. Even when I use classical instruments, I’ve distorted them in such a way that it would be very hard to replicate in a live recording.

 

Is there a set way in which you work on a project, by this I mean do you start with a central theme and build on this, or do you write the secondary themes and base your core theme on elements of these?

 
I generally start with a melody and then orchestrate. Although, if we have a dance, such as a waltz, it’s easier to put the beat in the background as a setting to play along to. Sometimes I orchestrate thinking it’s the melody, and then realise that I completely want to change it. The process will always be unknown to me. The creative part of me I cannot access or control.
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What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve recently become very aware of the inequality of females in the composition industry and have become an advocate in advertising this idea. I want to work with other female composers who may have only just started to build their craft. I am working with a director who is writing a series of animations about female discrimination in Peru and I will be writing the soundtrack for that in the same aim.

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