Even if you’re not yet familiar with the composer Natalie Holt, you’ve definitely heard her music.
Over the last five years, she’s soundtracked some of British television’s most important primetime dramas and worked on films including Paddington and Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel.
Bolstered by her fruitful creative partnership with composer Martin Phipps, Natalie has built an impressive soundtrack CV which takes in Scandi noir Wallander and the Ivor Novello Award-winning music to BBC One’s 2014 flagship series The Honourable Woman.
We recently spent some time with the violin ace, multi-instrumentalist and composer to learn more about her musical beginnings, recent experiences and tips for emerging screen composers…
How did you get into composing?
I have always loved making music; early age knocking about with a spoon on a pan type thing. My mum is a music teacher and plays the cello, and apparently I started asking to learn the violin when I was three. For me there was never any other option of doing anything else. Definitely watching ET as a five year old and hearing that amazing soaring theme in my head on the way home from the cinema was a deciding factor.
When I was 17 my boyfriend at the time was a runner at Abbey Road on his gap year. I got to sit in on a few sessions which was a life changer, and I remember Trevor Jones and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman sessions, sitting in on a huge orchestral recording and being amazed… and Trevor invited us both to the film premiere! I also met Andy Brown at the London Metropolitan Orchestra, and the composer Michael Price, and they both gave me some advice and let me sit in, put out the scores and make cups of tea.
What’s been your biggest inspiration/influence?
There is so much amazing music which influences me… Nina Rota, The Beatles, Bach, Bjork, Brahms, Radiohead, Lalo Schifrin, John Barry, Ennio Morricone, Mahler, David Shire, Jon Brion, Yann Tierson and, of course, John Williams.
I recently discovered the beautiful score for the Merchant Ivory version of Howard’s End by Richard Robbins. I re-read the book and I just had the soundtrack on in the car for ages. The opening sequence is just heartbreakingly beautiful, perhaps because I just moved house and it’s about a sense of belonging. I could go on for ages about film soundtracks but generally I am always really drawn to a melody.
I also get inspired by working with musicians, and the incredible musical skills people bring to a recording session. Recently I worked with an Irish singer called Una Palliser, her voice really led the way I wrote the end credit music for My Mother and Other Strangers. She came into the studio and her voice just did these breaks and added this richness, which you can’t really imagine until you have the person there singing.
When and how did you get your first break as a TV and film score writer?
Getting a place at the National Film and Television School (NFTS) with a scholarship in 2005 definitely gave me the confidence to enter into music writing in a more serious way. Before that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play violin professionally or compose and I had no clue of the route to any kind of job in the industry.
But those two years just to experiment with no pressure was just the best preparation and then I got a job as an assistant. I remember chatting to a director friend from NFTS, Yann Demange. He said everyone gets a break at some point… it’s just about recognising it and making the most of it. I really agree with that (Yann has certainly made the most of it – ’71 was such a great achievement). There have been some crazy times where I have just dropped everything and made big sacrifices to deliver on a project.
What’s been your most memorable project so far?
I recently worked on a series for BBC1 called My Mother and Other Strangers, and it was just such a joy to write. The director Adrian Shergold was a breath of fresh air to work with because he isn’t bothered about conventions or playing safe. He likes to experiment with the way he shoots scenes, like the camera coming in between two actors so the audience is right there in the middle of a moment and the actors are looking right into camera. He really likes to trust people to do their job and gave me a lot of freedom. It was also really nice to have some time on set and connect with Belfast where the show was set.
How did you come to work with Martin Phipps?
I contacted Martin and we met for coffee one day and he liked some of my string writing. He rang up ages later and asked if I had time to write some music for BBC1’s Great Expectations. At the time I was playing violin on a Royal Variety show in Manchester (which I didn’t actually tell him about because I wanted the job!) but I had my iMac in my hotel room and wrote music all night after the concerts. I remember turning up to a few orchestral rehearsals a bit late!
That was the first time I had written something for a TV show and it was such a brilliant experience. Martin gave me a theme to write for Pip and then that developed through the show. Martin then took what I wrote and added his own ideas and the collaboration just seemed to work really well. I’ve learned so much from him… probably way more practical stuff than my two years at film school!
You’ve won an Ivor together – why do you think your partnership works so well?
Martin has a really clear way of writing, he’s quite zen and I’m quite chaotic. I always throw loads of ideas down and then I have to simplify things. So I think that might be what worked. He liked my experience of being a violinist and I’ve played on quite a lot of tracks, which for The Honourable Woman seemed to work particularly well.
I have a huge amount of respect for Martin, he is a lovely guy and I feel so grateful to him for making my contributions visible. There are a lot of composers who have assistants that they don’t credit but Martin is much more of a collaborative composer. He has a collective called Mearl, who I recently worked with on ITV’s Victoria and he is always trying to find new sounds and do something a bit different. His score for War and Peace was just brilliant. He sent it over and I just couldn’t stop listening to it.
How do you like to approach a brief?
In a sort of ‘how long is a piece of string’ kind of way!! There never seems to be a method which works for every project. It always feels like you have to invent a new method for each project. I think that’s what is great about this job. I think it’s about finding a way of communicating with the director, understanding the script and just getting into the drama. If the director isn’t particularly musical I think it’s about trying to talk on an emotional level. Working with Hans Zimmer was really interesting. I felt quite privileged to see him take a meeting with a room full of execs and the director on Woman In Gold. He above all is a communicator and a master at creating and selling his musical concept. He also seemed to have a fabulous velvet trouser collection.
Where and when do you prefer to write?
Unless I’ve got a crazy deadline and I have to just work flat out, I’m a night owl. My concentration isn’t great in the morning. I have to just knuckle down and then afternoon and into the night is when I feel I’m at my peak. Not great for my health probably. I like working in my studio. But sometimes I just need to go for a bike ride or a swim and see what comes into my head. I also like to slip on a pair of velvet trousers… (joke!!!).
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever been asked for?
Doing a really experimental short film, lots of dance, basically silence, except for some music. The director asked me to make the music ‘more purple’ at one point. I remember being a little stuck as to how to go about that.
What’s been the most challenging project you’ve been involved in?
Paddington was pretty challenging. I was asked to come and help out at the last minute as there were some problems with the score. They were having a ‘fix a few bits’ recording session, the composer’s assistant had to leave and I had to take over and get into someone else’s working method really fast. The composer had been on it for months and was quite exhausted. I say no more, the whole situation and lack of sleep was a challenge, but I look at the end result and feel so grateful to have been involved. That film turned out so well in the end!
What’s keeping you busy at the moment?
I’m working with Philippa Lowthorpe (who directed Swallows and Amazons last summer). It’s called Three Girls, and it’s a BBC One drama based on the true stories of victims of grooming and sexual abuse in Rochdale. It’s such a gritty story. I was in bits after I read the script and wasn’t sure if I could handle working on it, but when I met Phillippa I knew she would tell such a powerful story, and handle it brilliantly. There are lots of women working on the project, and it’s lovely to be working with editor Una Ni Dhinghaile again, who I worked with on the final series of Wallander with last year. It feels like a really good team.
Do you have any tips for upcoming composers?
Not really, I am slightly baffled by life and how I’ve managed to muddle through it to somehow now be making a living as a composer. I suppose that you just have to put the hours in. In the past, I’ve spent many hours playing as a violinist on sessions at the big studios like Abbey Road, Air, British Grove and Angel, working with many wonderful musicians and composers, and with Andy Brown at London Metropolitan Orchestra, so to finally be recording my own score at Abbey Road this year was the fulfilment of a long journey.
I think having an agent who you really trust and feel actually works really hard on your behalf has been great. I joined SMA Talent just over a year ago and Olav and the team have been really instrumental in bringing work in for me. They also represent directors so it was great that the BBC One series Redwater, which I just finished scoring, was kind of in-house with one of the SMA directors, Jesper W. Nielsen.
Generally when I hear people moaning about work I can’t identify… because writing music all day is basically the best thing in the world.