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Guest Column – Strings Attached? John Metcalfe on how to arrange pop songs

Guest Column – Strings Attached? John Metcalfe on how to arrange pop songs
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Having added strings to the likes of Blur’s The Universal, Morrissey’s Everyday is Like Sunday, Coldplay’s Oceans and Bat For Lashes’s Lillies, John Metcalfe knows a thing or two about arranging pop songs – he was in Durutti Column after all. Ahead of his own album The Appearance Of Colour release on 8 June (featuring Natasha Khan among others), he’s written Q a guest column about playing second fiddle (or not) to some of the world’s best songwriters.

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To me the arranger has to be a chameleon – occupying an opaque zone between the band and the session musicians – a musical multi-linguist translating band’s, producer’s (and personal ) ideas into dots on a page that elevate and influence, sometimes at a profound level, the mood and connection of a song. A great arrangement means you get more of the musician’s soul, more of their human-ness. Listen to classic motown or jazz tracks and you can feel the vibe , the muscle and heat off the players. That sound taps into the non-verbal part of the brain and makes a lyric or vocal take on a whole new dimension. It deeply shapes the record.

Arranging takes many forms. It can mean a simple transcription of an existing idea or a more fundamental interpretation of the music. If I’m coming to a song that’s mostly finished I look to add something a bit intangible – not so much in the way of theme but perhaps texturally that puts lines and atmospheres into sharper contrast. Blur’s The Universal, for example, came with the main string riff already written by the band (Damon Albarn used to play violin in a Colchester youth orchestra if I remember correctly) but the added high violin lines bring something quite ethereal and delicate. Other times there’s no starting particular starting point. With Coldplay’s Oceans the band gave me a totally free hand. And although I’ve now done this a lot I’m always a bit nervous when the band first hear what I’ve done – particularly with the session musicians and a control room full of the band, producer and technicians sitting there. Luckily with that arrangement they liked it.

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Occasionally the arranger is profoundly involved at the outset with the development of a song. With Peter Gabriel’s orchestral albums, (Scratch My Back and New Blood), where we were re-interpreting very well-known songs from the ground up there was a huge amount of freedom to take things in very different directions which fundamentally changed the ‘window’ on the emotion and intent of the narrative. But however complex or stripped-down the instrumentation got the lyric and melody remained the key, the control in the experiment.

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In the recording sessions things vary from band to band. I did some arrangements for Morrissey’s Viva Hate and after the first take on one of the songs he came in and said that was the one – that it wasn’t going to get better than that. It was cool because he knew what he was after and in this case he heard a vibe that he liked – maybe something spontaneous that was going to quickly disappear if we started pulling things apart to try to make it better. Other times the emphasis necessarily shifts to detail as, for example, the track has had some new elements added between me meeting the band to discuss the song and the session itself. Producers have a massive input as well. Stephen Street, for whom I’ve done a lot of arranging, is always exceptionally clear about what he wants so the chart gets in shape quickly which leaves more time to get the performance right.

It can get scary – I’ve had to do arrangements on the spot with the band and producer listening to a different track in the control room with a 60-piece orchestra sitting there waiting for you to provide music to play. It’s nerve-racking but hearing something you’ve written coming back at you live performed by outstanding musicians is always intensely thrilling.

John Metcalfe@JMetcalfeBand


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