Red Stewart chats with composer James Edward Barker…
James Edward Barker is an English composer who has been working in the film and television industry since the mid-2000s. He is best known for his work on the movie Heist. His latest score was for the British indie drama Lean on Pete, which opened in the United Kingdom on May 4th.
Flickering Myth had the privilege to speak with him, and I in turn had the honor to conduct it.
So, you’ve frequently collaborated with Andrew Haigh, but one thing I found interesting was that in your first collaboration, Crack Willow, he was not the director but the editor. Considering composers work closely with the director over other departments, how did you build up a friendship that resulted in him wanting you to help him with his subsequent projects?
That’s a good question. I don’t know really. On any given project you work very closely with the director and the editor because you’re frequently going in to see edits of the film: you’re doing everything in the cutting room, and so the editor is always there.
So I guess I built up a relationship with Andrew just by default really. And on that film Crack Willow there were three very different distinct musical styles, because there were three very different stories that didn’t really intertwine. And I guess Andrew was attracted to my minimalistic approach that I put to two of those stories… and my use of sound and music design. I guess ultimately its always about personalities and characters, and the odds were aligned and we got along.
It’s amazing that you’ve gone from that one-time joint effort to being his frequent collaborator, so congratulations. I’ve noticed that, in addition to being the composer for a lot of these pictures, you’ve also been credited as the additional sound designer. And I found this noteworthy because, from talking to past composers, I’ve gotten the general idea that the sound department and music department typically don’t interact much. So what exactly does your role as additional sound designer entail?
You’re right that they don’t intertwine as much as I would like them to be honest. I’ve always loved the gray area between music and sound, and on any given film I have to watch my enthusiasm because there is that dangerous straying into the sound department realm.
But then you have projects like Lean on Pete, for example, where Joakim [Sundström] and I talked frequently, and he gave me a lot of advice and helped me work out the score in the same way Andrew did, and I was really grateful for that. It was great to have that dialogue with him.
But with regards to me being credited as sound designer on past projects, that’s just really that I’ve shown the ability to be able to do sound design and work in that area, and then I’ve been asked to step in to that department. It’s not the other way around where I go into a project asking to be in the sound department. It’s just something that’s happened very organically.
But yeah, I do love sound designing. There’s a real art to it, and it’s just as fun and creative as writing music. But it just comes naturally to me because I’ve always based myself in that grey area between music and sound.
That’s interesting to hear that you’ve worked to make that area grayer. But sort of going off of that, I’ve noticed that In recent years you’ve taken up producing films that you compose for. What’s that new role been like and how has it impacted your music compositions? Or has it not impacted them?
To be honest, way back when I started film composing, I was building out relationships with some directors, and I got in conversations with some of them about what they wanted to do and what projects they were working on. And so I managed to source little bits of private development money for them to develop their passion projects. And I actually developed one with Andrew, it was a horror script called The Vanishment, which I had been working on with Tristan [Goligher] as well.
But the producing side really came about because it was just about trying to help the directors who were close to me work on projects that they weren’t necessarily getting the support to develop elsewhere and ones that I found interesting and exciting… And by doing so, it created more opportunities for me to compose.
So the end goal of producing was always to create more chances for me to compose, as well as obviously helping the filmmakers. And I’ve never produced a project that I wasn’t involved in the composing of. And that’s how Mara and Precious Cargo came about.
Also, so far, the producing hasn’t taken up time that I could’ve been composing, and if it did, I would certainly try to bring in help for the producing so that I composed. For example, on my projects so far, Scott Mann and I have partnered on the producing.
It’s always intriguing whenever people in the industry float between one aspect to the other.
Yes, its a shame it still confuses some people, but we all need to do what we need to do to survive! But I would never just Produce… I have to and need to compose, it’s who I am.
Now let’s talk about Lean on Pete. It had its release in the UK pretty recently, and it has earned nothing short of critical acclaim so congratulations. It has a very relatable story, but I’m wondering what exactly about the project spoke to you. Was it the narrative, was it the environments, what was it?
I think for me, what I love about certain projects are ones that have a strong emotional arc and character. And also stories that tend to lean towards the darker side of things. Those are projects that, when composing, it comes naturally to me to write music for.
And so with Lean on Pete, its got an incredible heart to it and amazing character stories in there. But [Charlie Plummer’s] story in particular was such an incredible journey. But above all, it was another opportunity to work with Andrew, who is an incredible storyteller and filmmaker. He has such compassion and empathy, and I think that really comes through in his stories. Lean on Pete has such a big heart. There’s a lot of positivity in there, as well as the darkness.
So yeah, it was incredible to watch and write to, and I am very grateful to be a part of it.
No like I said, it’s a story that I feel everyone can relate to in some aspect, even if you didn’t grow up with these particular circumstances. I think we’ve all been through a similar journey thematically speaking. But I was reading an interview you did for the film and you said something that I thought was both amusing and intriguing at the same time. You said that you actively worked to make sure the film didn’t sound cliche by experimenting with the synergy between the score and sound design. However, you also noted that you typically don’t have time to do that on a smaller budget film. But I feel like indie films, compared to Hollywood blockbusters, are a place where filmmakers can be more creative without worrying about isolating audiences. Is this a catch-22 or am I overthinking things?
The problem is there are still delivery dates that you have to hit, so there’s still a tight turn around and then there’s the limited size of the budget… but then again, some people would argue that the constraints and restrictions can sometimes induce more creativity. And its true, you can be more creative sometimes when you have the handcuffs on. But I think I was talking in terms of the final mix itself. Unfortunately, because of schedules and budgets on low-budget films, you’re always squeezed on the final mix. And for me, I just find it frustrating in a way because as a writer you develop a project for a number of years, and then as a director you come on board, and the filmmaking itself will take around a year. And so you’ve got a project that might have been in development for 3-4 years, and then it’s taken a year to make, so it’s 5 years now. And then that’s all condensed into just 5 days for the music. And I just think it’s counter-intuitive in a way to the whole process. And maybe it’s a budgeting issue from the producing side, but if films were given a little bit more time in the mix, the creativity that the sound designers and the composers would put into the film would enhance it as a final product.
And that just goes to show on Lean on Pete. I know that Lean on Pete isn’t a low low-budget film compared to other movies, but Tristan helped budget 3-4 weeks for the final mix. And there were even breaks in between as well. I think they mixed for 2 weeks, took some time out, then went back, did another week, took another break, and then came back for the final week just to keep reviewing it to make sure it was how Andrew wanted. It’s really commendable, that process and that structure. I think a lot of other films could learn from it.
You talked about how it was an interesting process to blend the line between music and sound, and so I’m happy that Lean on Pete provided that opportunity, along with the longer time for the final mix.
When I was looking through your biography, I noticed that you are a vocalist, and that you used to sing in some of your smaller films. And this actually took me back to my high school band teacher who he said that taking a chorus class is actually beneficial as a composer as it allows you to hear the different melodies better. Has that been the case with you, or would you recommend composers take up music classes for other reasons?
Well, I’m 90 percent self-taught! I did end up taking some vocal coaching when I went to university because I did a performance part of the degree. And yeah, I love using vocals in my scores: I love the ethereal, non-descriptive vocals, and I’ve done a lot in my scores in the past.
But I think it differs among people. A lot of people study music from a young age and are very academic, and they then end up creating a certain style. And then there are others that have never been particularly academic in music …(or maybe even they have never had the opportunity to be), and so they’re more self-taught, and that’s where I am from. And so I try to stay away from judicial techniques and forms.
So, I don’t know what the right answer to your question is to be honest. *laughs* But I think it depends on the individual to determine what their best study is. I think the one thing that I did take away from going to university was just meeting other people and learning from them. I met the members of my two bands when I was in uni, and I learned so much from those other musicians. And for me, that’s the greatest study in life in terms of music: just playing with other people and seeing their styles.
But that’s just me. I’m sure there are other people who would argue differently.
No definitely, people differ. I remember growing up with that whole left brain/right brain idea.
So just a couple more questions. I noticed that you have a lot of diversity in your filmography. You’ve done feature films, television, television movies, documentaries, and so forth. For you as a composer, is there a big difference between doing these different projects? Or is the process the same?
No, I think they’re very different. And they affect you differently as a composer as well. Doing an action film is very intense because a lot of the time the music has to be very energetic and chaotic… and the layers in the music are very complicated in addition to it being a huge mix. And doing a very dark film can have an effect on you mentally! Watching the same dark scenes over and over again… you have to be built a certain way to be able to deal with that repetition.
But I think in terms of the different genres, my approach is the same. The creative process is talking to directors and figuring out what they want. This is only from my experience, but so far I’ve found television projects that I’ve worked on to be slightly less creative in a way, but that only because the shows I’ve worked on have been more factual programs and so there’s less freedom because they have their own style already, so I wasn’t able to branch out as much. IN films, I’ve found documentaries to be very liberating. And Short films you may think are simpler, but actually they are fairly difficult because you’ve only got 5-15 minutes and that’s a very short space of time to form an identity for either the character or story as a whole. But it doesn’t make it any less fun!
It’s interesting that you’ve developed different mindsets for each type of project that you approach. It goes to show how talented you are to be able to compartmentalize the pros and cons of everything.
Thank you, that’s very kind of you.
Now my last question, and this is just something I like to ask every composer I speak to, but what are three compositions that have had the greatest impact on you as a composer? It can be movies, video games, music albums, whatever.
Oh god, okay. I’m going to stick to albums, because its hard enough as it is. So I’m going to choose The Exorcism of Emily Rose by Christopher Young for its experimentation and music design; Big Fish by Danny Elfman for its beauty and richness, and OK Computer by Radiohead for its sheer complexity and aggression.
It’s a tough question man because there are so many!
Thank you so much Mr. Barker for taking the time out of your day to speak with me. It’s been fun to learn from a great composer like you.
You’re too kind, thank you!
Flickering Myth would like to thank Mr. Barker for sitting down with us.