Want a career writing music for the media? We ask an award-winning soundtrack writer and producer to share his secrets
orn in South Africa and raised in London, where he’s spent much of his adult life, Peter Raeburn carved out a successful career in writing, producing, sourcing, remixing and performing music for use in film, television and commercials. Although he achieved several music production credits on films such as Breaking The Waves, it was the sourcing and remixing of Leftfield’s Phat Planet for the Guinness ‘Surfer’ advert in 1999 which won several awards and kickstarted his career. This also marked the start of a regular collaboration with film-maker Jonathan Glazer who went on to direct Birth and Sexy Beast, hiring Raeburn to produce the soundtracks.
As well as writing and releasing his own solo material, Peter has set up a production company, Soundtree, where as creative director he nurtures talent in other songwriters. Songwriting caught up with him after a recent job for whisky brand Chivas Regal, who wanted an original piece of music to soundtrack a series of short films. As we soon discovered, this is Peter’s forte and provided an insight into the world where advertising, film and music industries meet.
How did you get into music? How did it all start?
“I was brought up in a very musical background, especially classical music. My grandfather was an opera singer and songs were always a part of my childhood, so I learnt my fair share of instruments early on and realised the power of song as I started growing up. I remember being hit by certain pieces of music as the teenage years kicked in.”[cc_blockquote_right] WHEN I DISCOVERED THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MUSIC AND PICTURE…I REALISED THAT WAS IT [/cc_blockquote_right]
Can you remember a particular song?
“I remember putting on Hunky Dory [by David Bowie]. My sister bought me the vinyl for my ninth birthday. I didn’t have a record player so she made me a cassette of it as well and she kept the record. It was love at first bar! It was just the effect it had, that first song – Changes I think. It says it all, and it’s fun. It’s uplifting…effortless. There’s no production because it’s so beautifully produced, you know? I remember it having a profound effect. Until then I’d heard a lot of other people’s music… that felt like my music. And for me it became clear that communication, sharing and songs were one and the same thing.”
Until that point, were you deeply involved in classical music? What sort of instruments were you playing?
“I could play some cello and some trumpet, but I wouldn’t say I was deeply involved. I think I was deeply involved in growing up, of which music played an important part. But I wasn’t a virtuoso classical musician, I was an intuitive musician. I was interested but I didn’t think it was my vocation.
So when did it start becoming a serious thing?
“I think it became serious when I wrote my first song. I think that was like… first formal song, first formal break-up. I was sixteen I suppose. Until then there’d been lots of jamming, lots of playing guitar. I’d always had melodies in my head and words in my head, but it was only when I picked up a guitar and figured out a few chords that I suddenly realised there was a clear throughway for these things that were trapped in me. That was when I was 12 or 13, that I went from classical instruments to more song-based music.”
When did you feel that you were onto something and that you could do this as a job?
“The moment I realised I had no other choice was after university, where I’d read philosophy and politics. I was really caught between the ‘thinking’ academic world and the musical world. But then I realised they were the same thing anyway, and I had an opportunity in the recording industry. I didn’t realise it was going to be career. It was inevitable I suppose looking back, but it wasn’t pre-planned, and it was only when I discovered the relationship between music and picture that I realised that was it.”
Can you talk a bit about the ‘opportunity’ you had?
“It was the experience of finding other people’s songs for a film. It was then I realised the relationship between song and film and stories – that cross-fertilisation and potential for counter-point and potential for so many interesting artistic nuances. Then I realised that was a relationship I was fascinated in.”[cc_blockquote_right] WRITING A NEW SONG IS LIKE MAKING A NEW FRIEND [/cc_blockquote_right]
What was the first project?
“Breaking The Waves, a film by Lars Von Treer in which he was interested in songs from the ’70s. I was working for a music supervisor called Ray Williams and that’s where I learnt about the application of music for film and TV, and I learnt about orchestral production, which has been very important for me. I’m a songwriter but I’m also a producer so I spend a lot of my time doing that stuff too. And now I also help develop other people’s songs and writing, as a creative director here [at Soundtree]. So championing other people’s songs and expression is just as important as getting it out of me.”
Do you find that almost more satisfying?
“No I think they’re different. I think writing a new song is like making a new friend. It’s like one you’ve always known. Allowing someone else to do that is a different experience but it’s very rewarding as well. Co-writing is also very rewarding. It’s Our Time, a song which Nick Foster and I wrote for Chivas Regal, is a culmination of what happens when two people work together on a song. I also love working alone, but I love collaborating, especially with a few very special people. It’s very personal, it’s very intimate and you have to be very comfortable with them. You have to be confident and vulnerable.”
What’s your personal creative process? Do you have a particular routine or a place you like to write?
“There isn’t a set formula. Sometimes the melody comes first and I then have to find the chords and the words. Sometimes the whole thing feels formed. Generally speaking it’s when there’s a hook that just needs to exist – that’s when I know I’m doing the write thing. I think there’s a feeling that it’s inside, and it’s a case of creating the right creative environment, in different ways, so it can be captured and developed, and catch the waves while they’re at their peak. Otherwise it feels too much like a job. I think inspiration is important. We could churn out lots of music if we wanted to, but I’d rather churn out less that’s more special.”[cc_blockquote_right] WE HAVE TO DEVOTE OURSELVES TO WRITING SONGS. IT’S NOT A HOBBY! [/cc_blockquote_right]
Do you have a preference between melody and lyrics – do you find one easier than the other?
“I find coming up with the initial lyrics is just part of coming up with the melody – they feel part of the same kind of rock formation. But finishing the lyrics and the final touches seems to take a while longer.”
Do you have a set songwriting time and then you go ‘right now I’m producing’?
“No it’s a bit more organic and chaotic than that because there’s lots of things going on here – there’s films we’re scoring, or we’re writing commercials or there’s some TV work. It’s quite a diverse situation. For example, I just sat down to write a song for something and I ended up concentrating on a French horn melody! I stressed over it for 20 minutes.
But I am clear about having the right spaces. I have to have a space at home where I can write and produce, and a space at work. They have to be quite sacred in a way. The one at home is very homely and extremely natural. At work it’s simple, it’s minimal and comfortable. They need to be quite special and we have to devote ourselves to writing songs. It’s not a hobby!”
Do find what you write and what comes out reflects that at all?
“I think it’s about having a space where people can be themselves, and doesn’t overly colour or influence it. You know, these moody studios can influence the music and so what we’ve done with Soundtree is create these studios that are like an empty, warm, clean canvas. Lots of lovely instruments.”
I was going to ask, what sort of instruments and songwriting tools do you use?
“Guitars of all kinds – electric and acoustic, old and rich-sounding. Lots of beautiful pianos, French horns, trumpets and obviously a kick-ass sounding drumkit. Also lots of weirder instruments, different stringed instruments, lots of toys and lots of lovely people. We try and create a collaboratative, band-like environment, even in the songwriting process, because that’s where things are spontaneous. Spontaneity is a very important part of the creative process, and that’s something you can’t really contrive!”
Do you ever suffer from writers’ block?
“Not really. I’m sure I will. I’ve certainly suffered from writing-less-good-stuff block! I think for me it’s more about trying to switch off rather than switch on. It’s more about having space and not working, which I think fills us with inspiration. Having time for my family and I’m also married to a songwriter, so it’s in the home as well.”
Any tips to impart to aspriring songwriters out there?
“I think everyone’s got at least one really special song in them. Just stay away from impersonating other people, and just be inspired by what you love. Realise that people have got some important things to say, and songs are a wonderful way of saying it. They’re so personal. Some people find emotions challenging. Songs are a great way of helping us through that.”
Before you play your songs to anyone, do want them finished or are you happy to let them listen to ideas in progress?
“I do share ideas with other people, definitely, in amongst our creative group here at Soundtree. I think it can inspire them and help them. Certainly when you hear music through other people’s ears, you can REALLY get it and how it’s going to ‘go down’ and how it communicates.”
It’s a simply melody or a theme, something you can literally play on the piano – a little motif that captures something – then I’m happy to share that with clients, directors and collaborators at its most basic level. One has to be able to write on the spot in those situations, so you’ve got to be pretty unprecious.”[cc_blockquote_right] WE NEED A GOOD TEAM BETWEEN CLIENTS AND PRODUCTION. GET EVERYONE WORKING TOGETHER AND HAVING THEIR SAY, AND EVERYONE CAN MAKE IT BETTER [/cc_blockquote_right]
So tell me about the soundtrack project for the Chivas Regal films.
“The concept came from a really exciting collaboration between the agency and the director Joachim Back who’s an Oscar winner and a very ambitious thinker. I think the result of collaborations is chemistry. It made everyone feel there’s an opportunity here to try and do something really good. So the search began for an effortless romance song – a song about your mates, loving them, needing them and it being okay to be emotional with other men. About getting through life together and how important friendship is, without it being too cool for school. So we started looking at songs and of course there were the famous ones which come to mind immediately from the 60’s and even more recently there’s been some really good ones about brothers and brotherhood, but none of those felt right to us. They felt like really great clues, but they were all very downbeat or political, in a Marvin Gaye sort of way.
“We at Soundtree love to explore and we’re fascinated with planting seeds in the creative process. So that felt like a nice challenge and there was a sense that this could be a commission for a composition, rather than finding something. We’re always open to which way is best and in the end the director Joachim looked at me and looked at the exciting live room where we’ve got the old wooden guitars and instruments, and he said ‘you’ve got to write this’. So we got to work!”
Is it a challenge to find music that hasn’t already got a personality, or is coloured by people’s perceptions of the meaning?
“The baggage that comes with music has to be helpful baggage, otherwise it gets in the way and I think that’s probably right. We felt it would be nice if they felt this was their track, rather than somebody else’s. So we got to work and came up with a hook. We felt like it had to represent a kind of boundary-less, eternal friendship that goes beyond teenage life – your kids and their kids are gonna be mates, you know? I think that’s friendship at its best – carefree yet reliable.”
Are there any lines in the song that you think managed to sum that up?
“I think probably the chorus. It feels like it represents the idea of things stretching, growing and going beyond what we can see. I think that’s one of things Nick and I found exciting.”
What order did the song come together?
“It came about with Nick and I sitting guitar in one hand, piano in another, me singing, us talking then me singing some more. Very late one night that chorus slipped out, words and melody together.”
It’s very apt way to write a song ab0ut mates getting on together…
“Well yeah, Nick and I are friends so it was perfect for us to write the song together.
“I’m very grateful for all the people on that [Chivas Regal] project. I think that’s very important – we need a good team between clients and production. Get everyone working together and having their say, and everyone can make it better. And then with a bit of luck everyone gets a bit more than they bargained for.
“What was interesting about this was the version that went on the ad was a demo! I was like ‘let’s produce this thing and get a vocalist in’ and all they wanted was the demo. I auditioned lots of fantastic singers and we could’ve got in more, but they were like, ‘That’s working, why change it if it’s not broken?’.”[cc_blockquote_right] IT’S UNDERSTANDING STORY-TELLING, TO KNOW WHEN MUSIC’S NOT NEEDED…MUSIC OFTEN PLAYS A SUPPORTING ROLE [/cc_blockquote_right]
How do you find keeping the balance between being an artist and being a business? How do play those two different roles?
“I try to make those roles merge and fuse so that creativity and delivering work for clients and film makers and whoever we’re working for can get the best of our creativity. When they’re happy and we’re happy, then we’ve got a result.”
“It’s hard, it’s very hard. That’s a constant process and struggle – to carve out enough time. It’s all very well making music, but what we’re really here to do is to try and make magic and that takes a little longer sometimes. That’s when those hooks sneak up on you and we’re not just work-for-hires! That’s why private time and being in touch with what we are as people and being in training in different ways is very important, because then you can turn the tap on when it needs to be turned on. Some of that comes from not spending every hour of every day writing. I do do other things and I have a life outside of work being a husband and a father and a friend. Singing and playing music is for fun! It’s a life, not a job.
“Private music that isn’t for any commission of any kind is about being disciplined and saying I’m going to spend these two hours working on that, and nothing is going to get in my way.”
Any advice for getting into making music for film and TV?
“I think it’s a very interesting industry, although it’s getting increasingly saturated. There are a lot of people who probably are doing well because of their marketing abilities more than their musical abilities. The thing is to develop one’s own musical communication skills with an understanding of what people respond to musically. Otherwise we just work in vacuums and we get frustrated by the fact that people aren’t loving the work and we can’t progress in our career.
I think when you play a piece of music to someone on a film or on an ad, it’s important to have one’s own opinion first and foremost. The next important step is to try and see it through the eyes of other people. When you can make that connection then that’s a sweet-spot to differentiate yourself from all the other people doing this work. It’s understanding story-telling, to know when music’s NOT needed, and understand that in that context music often plays a supporting role. But a very important role.
There’s so many different roles that music can play within the visual world and being aware of those different roles is the key to succeeding in this medium. Sometimes the brief will come from clients and directors and sometimes those people rely on us to make a lot of decisions, and they can respond to that. ”
Is it time-sensitive?
“Massively. I’ve got something I’ve got to deliver by this time tomorrow, and if you’d asked me how long it would take I’d probably say two weeks! It depends because it’s very hard to work quickly and thoroughly. It’s important to come up with fresh ideas – we’re feeding music to people and they need freshness. Recycling is great when it comes to inanimate objects. There’s a big difference between being inspired by something and just repeating oneself or copying. Originality is essential and we all need encouragement, including myself, to constantly freshen up what we’re working with, otherwise people get stale.”
Are there differences between writing for film, TV and advertising?
“There are. A good analagy would be in athletics where you can be a long-distance runner or a sprinter. Commercials are like sprinting – you need to be able to do a huge amount in 30-60 seconds. Even though some commercials take months to do, ultimately you are talking about a sprint. How to tell the story in that amount of time, how to give people the feeling that they want, etc. That’s your stomping ground. Whereas with a feature you’re a long-distance runner – there’s the opportunity for a full architectural, emotional narrative, with different roles and themes. There’s so much room for exploration. It has more in common with making a record.
Although they’re both equally challenging, they are very different and television is different again. All these different disciplines co-habit quite well. They’re all about the power of music and what it can do. The ability to be able to hit the nail on the head and reach people in a short period of timing. And getting it right is a very satisfying feeling.”
Do you find working with a particular agency or director leads on to other work?
“It depends. Some of the best work we’ve done has been with the same client repeatedly – you get to know them, they get to know you and you develop a sort of creative shorthand. Then we have shared standards, shared ways of working and develops a whole different way of operating. When collaborations work then people want more of them, because they’re so exciting.”
That’s what happened with Jonathan Glazer wasn’t it?
“Exactly, Jonathan and I have worked together ever since the Guiness ‘Surfer’ ad and I’m working on his new film now. So you can see, these collaborations grow and then we grow. People who can bring the best out of each other is a wonderful thing.”
So if there’s a songwriter who has a body of work and they specifically want to get into writing for film and television, who would you suggest they approach?
“Publishers and music companies like Soundtree, who are interested in unique talent. Production companies and, if people are ready to go, then advertising companies, TV production companies are all there and they all need music. Music is needed in a lot of places and it’s incredible how much music there is. It’s everywhere! It’s easier to make music now than ever before which means real talent and real conviction has even more opportunity.”
What do’s and don’ts would you suggest to songwriters before they send any material to you? What are your pet hates and what do you look out for?
“Something that feels generic is a turn-off for me. Music that goes through the motions is a turn-off, but also something that feels like it’s showing-off. What I like is originality, conviction and something that feels inevitable. If something sounds like it has to exist, then it’s one of the most wonderful things in the world. Emotion is a very overused word in this business, but it’s something that you can’t fake. You can’t fake it, you have to feel it. It doesn’t matter how they present it – whether it’s a CD, or a download link, or whatever. It’s getting it to the right people and standing out. I’m sure there’s a lot of great music that doesn’t get heard in the right way, because people are very busy, so you have to stand out somehow.”
The music industry is shrouded in a lot of mystery and seems deliberately difficult to break into. Can you help de-mystify the path into the business?
“I’m not sure that’s possible. I think the key to things might be more abstract and mystical than we’d like them to be! I don’t have that answer. It is more personal and about creating an opportunity. Creativity isn’t limited just to writing – it’s about how we present ourselves and how we think about how we get things out there. Creativity shouldn’t be limited to the studio. And I’m not talking about marketing ourselves, I’m talking about presenting ourselves. We have to talk about the music and talk with a director about what they want music – to speak about it and feel it in that context…and then you can go into the studio and make it. It’s about building up the confidence in using the language about music. Being able to understand music and what it’s doing. In terms of getting into this industry, if people know this is what they want to do and what they have to do, then all you can do is maximise the chances of it working… and it needs a lot of perseverence. But it’s also a hell of a lot of fun!”