The Hot 100 2016: 1 Anna Meredith
2016 SAY Award winner Anna Meredith is a musical jack of all trades and master of many. David Pollock talks to her about a dazzling body of work
This year has belonged to Anna Meredith, but not in ways you'd know about unless you were paying close attention. Her debut album Varmints was released through well-regarded indie Moshi Moshi back in March to very modest fanfare, yet when it strolled to the Scottish Album of the Year Award three months later ahead of more renowned contenders like Young Fathers, Chvrches and C Duncan, no one who'd heard it was begrudging.
Later the same month she composed Marc Almond's versions of 'Life on Mars' and 'Starman' at the BBC's David Bowie tribute Prom. In November, Anno, her in-the-round recomposition of Vivaldi's Four Seasons with the Scottish Ensemble and visuals by her sister Eleanor, makes its Scottish debut with shows in Glasgow and Edinburgh. She's played her first live band shows at festivals like Simple Things in Bristol and Airwaves in Iceland, composed the music for Loop.pH's 'public sleep laboratory' at Manchester International Science Festival, and has finished the year composing for the Kronos Quartet.
She's a jack of all trades and a master of many, yet for those whose ears are attuned to the classical music scene, she's not so much a rising talent as an established star. Trained at the University of York and Royal College of Music, Meredith's first composition for the BBC Proms was heard at the Last Night of the Proms in 2008. Since then, she's composed an opera with Philip Ridley, written a concerto for beatboxer Shlomo, seen her 'body percussion' piece HandsFree performed at the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, and written music for recorder, jazz orchestras, and for performance in a service station.
Our time together is short, because Meredith is racing across London for her latest engagement – not a promo appearance on broadcaster Stuart Maconie's BBC 6 Music radio show, but a full-blown guest-hosting turn in his absence. For many, 'radio presenter' would be the only string their bow needs. For Meredith, born in North London, raised in South Queensferry, and now back in London since her return there to study, it's just one more project.
'You do what you're doing in the moment,' she says, looking back on her career. 'You may be thinking six months or a year ahead, but you never really fixate on this one thing that you want to do. I don't ever remember a "this is what I do now" moment. Even this year has been so different to any other year, it makes me wonder why I should bother restricting myself in terms of what I want to do. Normally you narrow stuff down, but I like to keep my options open. I like to give stuff a go.'
Meredith learned violin and recorder in primary school, then moved on to clarinet (she thought at first about playing professionally, but didn't believe she was ever good enough) and drums in secondary. 'I wasn't whipping out symphonies at the age of four; I wasn't one of those composers. But Edinburgh's state schools had an amazing after-school music programme. It was a social thing, more than anything else; somewhere to go after school and hang out with like-minded geeks.'
She wrote her first music for standard grade, but it didn't occur to her that 'composer' was a job for living people. Instead, she had 'generic ambitions' like ballerina or circus member. Now she's been a composer for 20 years and an electronic musician for ten (the EPs 'Black Prince Fury' and 'Jet Black Raider' preceded the wonderfully cross-pollinated Varmints album, in 2012 and 2013 respectively), and she puts the breadth of her work down to the strange commissions people approach her with.
'I tend to say yes and then figure out how I'm going to do it later,' she laughs. 'There's much less emphasis on genre these days, which stops people dismissing something as being "not for them". I never wanted to be pigeonholed, so I use acoustic instruments to write for electronic and electronic to write for acoustic: I think that's really healthy.'
The SAY Award was a huge boost to Meredith's confidence at a time when it was really needed; despite those years of experience, Varmints was her first major statement in a more popular, electronic style. 'It's been really heartening and humbling, but also a relief,' she says of the reaction to the album. 'There was a point at which it was all written and going through the mixing and mastering where hardly anyone had heard it, and it had been the product of so much work and money and time. "What if nobody likes it?", I thought. "What a waste of energy and hope … " So yeah, it's been amazing, and I'm just enjoying it for what it is. That's what I always wanted; not to present any kind of big statement, just to do what works for the music.'
Anno is performed at Tramway, Glasgow, Thu 10 & Fri 11 Nov; The Hub, Edinburgh, Sun 13 Nov. Her composition Fringeflower will be performed at Making Waves: 30 Years of Scottish Composition at the City Halls, Glasgow, Sun 27 Nov. She plays CCA, Glasgow, Thu 2 Feb, as part of Celtic Connections. Varmints is out now on Moshi Moshi / PIAS.