JOHN Metcalfe’s album, The Appearance of Colour, is just his fourth solo release in 30 years. But don’t let that fool you, writes Alan O’Riordan.
Since moving from New Zealand to the UK in the 1970s, he’s been a member of the post-punk band the Durutti Column, founded and still plays viola with the Duke Quartet, started the classical imprint of Tony Wilson’s Factory records, and carved out a successful career as an arranger of pop music, with Blur, Morrissey, Simple Minds, The Pretenders and Peter Gabriel featuring a long list of collaborators.
That kind of range is reflected throughout The Appearance of Colour. At times, you could be back at a 1990s drum’n’bass club night. At others, a shimmer-bright synth line evokes the rising sun, or a piano riff is jostled about like a kite in the air.
“I guess we are all products of our pasts and influences and it’s about how you choose to use that stuff,” he says.
“I’m never particularly trying to, say, sit down and think, right, I’m going to fuse Brian Eno and Bach, or cross Krafwerk with Shostakovich, that’s not my remit. I sit down and if I’m moved to write something, I’ll do it.”
Metcalfe is taking the new album on the road with a quartet, joined by drummer Daisy Palmer, bassist Ali Friend and singer Rosie Doonan.
And, despite his pedigree working on such pop classics as ‘Every Day Is Like Monday’ for Morrissey, or ‘The Universal’ for Blur, Metcalfe admits that having a singer, having actual lyrics, is a new departure.
“I started working with Peter Gabriel on the orchestral project a few years ago and we spent a lot of time reworking songs, and of course you have to look at the lyrics while you’re doing that. It’s such a crude thing to say, how important the lyric is.
“It’s the narrative of song. But up to that time I’d always resisted it. I felt that I didn’t really want words or ideas to limit my imagination and my response to the music. I appreciate the skill of a great lyricist, but even now, I gravitate towards instrumental music. I’m more interested in words as sounds and timbres rather than constructing a narrative of what a song should specifically be about.”
The album is testament also to Metcalfe’s own quasi-synaesthetic way of seeing the world. He readily ascribes scenes to the tracks: snow falling in France, a tree in autumn, a beach in Wales, while the title says it all.
“One of the elements of this particular album, and of how I write music generally, is to associate music with colours,” he says.
“When something is in D major, for instance, I think of a strong green. And I have colours I associate with all the keys on the scale. In some ways that’s really cool but in others in can be quite restrictive. Because I have perfect pitch, when I hear a key I immediately see that colour. So what I try to do now is try to break that up, to change the background screen of my computer and stuff like to that to try to get out of having the same responses.”
Metcalfe was born into a musical family. His father was an opera singer, and he was classically trained as a viola player. He still plays with his quartet and the Max Richter Ensemble, arguably the UK’s leading contemporary music group. Yet, he describes himself as a “noodler” rather than a truly classical composter.
And, of course, he has his abiding interest in popular music. “I like drums and guitars,” he jokes, while also pointing out what he relishes about working on a pop songs.
“It’s one of those things that’s a craft really. Quite a lot of the time, as a composer you’re sitting down to write and you’re noodling away thinking, this is quite hard. But when you go to arrange a song that is already there it’s a real craft to add an extra dimension to it but without clogging the song up.
“I really enjoy that aspect of it. It’s never boring. Each song is different. And I like pop music. I like drums and guitars; and of course, they pay me!”
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