Fiona… perfecting her bowstrokes!
When you’re watching Top of the Pops and one of the main acts appears with a glamorous, blonde, all-girl string section in the background, the chances are that one of them will be Fiona Brice. Fiona is an orchestral arranger and violinist, who works mostly for pop, rock and indie bands and also does occasional theatre work. She’s played for loads of famous bands including Sugarbabes, Ronan Keating, Kanye West, Enya, Sophie Ellis Bexter, Boy George, Spiritualised, Harry Connick Jnr, Westlife, Simply Red, Russell Watson, and Gorillaz at the Brits 2006… the list is endless! She also does string arrangements for artists in the recording studio and has recently worked on albums with Placebo and Ed Harcourt.
SISSY: What training did you do?
FIONA: Initially I did all the grades up to grade 8 on violin and piano and I did theory as well. Then I did music A level and from the age of about 10, I always played in local orchestras at a Saturday school. I went on from school to do a Music and German degree at King’s College, London in conjunction with the Royal Academy of Music, for three years.
SISSY: How did you go about finding work?
FIONA: Well I’d always written music for the piano ever since I was a child, and when I was at college I was a bit disillusioned with the course I was doing; it was a composition course predominantly with performance aspects as well, but the teachers didn’t seem to be interested in you doing original music outside of their classical curriculum. Then just because I was in London, I met a load of different, interesting people outside university and that was how I started playing for bands.
It almost happened by chance; a friend of mine had a boyfriend who was in a band and asked me to play violin for him. It was a complete change from the classical world I was used to; playing rock music!
SISSY: Did you join any type of agency to get session work?
FIONA: When I graduated I just needed to earn money and I’d never really understood how I could earn a living through music, so for a while I just did temporary office work and played gigs with friends in the evenings. Finally I couldn’t handle that anymore so I took a bit of a leap; got a loan and started really concentrating on trying to work as a musician. Then I sent CV’s, photos and CD’s to anyone in the music business that I could think of who might get me work playing violin. Luckily I got taken on by someone I still work for… it’s a company called Wired Strings run by Rosie Danvers who’s a cellist. She puts together or ‘fixes’ string sections for all the TV shows like Top of the Pops and CDUK. I also occasionally do work through an agency called Session Connection… in fact I probably get TV and touring work through about 5 different people.
SISSY: How can someone starting out find these agencies and get work?
FIONA: The best place is to look on the internet. A lot of the agents, like Session Connection for example, operate in a similar way to modelling agencies; they only open their books once a year for new people so you have to send your details in at the right time.It depends on what you play as to whether they take you on; if it’s a more unusual instrument or something they need a lot of you’re more likely to get taken on, for example there’s not many viola players around. If you’re a male guitarist it’s hard to get on someone’s books because there’s so many of them but if you’re a female harpist… you might be the only one and you may be able to find a niche!
SISSY: Can you tell us about a typical session on Top of the Pops or CDUK?
FIONA: The first time you do it, it seems really fun and glamorous but after you’ve done it a few times, the novelty wears off a bit! You usually get the booking about 4 or 5 days before the shoot and you get sent a CD; you never get sent sheet music even though we can all read it and it would make things easier! You have to pick out your part by ear. Even though you’ll probably be miming on the day, as a string player you have to co-ordinate all the bowing with the other players so it looks right on camera, so you do have to actually learn it properly.
If you’re doing CDUK it’s a really early start; you get to the studios at about 8 in the morning, then you do a camera rehearsal, which takes about 15-20 minutes. Then there’s 4 or 5 hours to wait around until you’re actually on camera. The main artist we’re playing for will generally be there for the rehearsal unless they’re someone really big and they’re too busy doing interviews or something. The purpose of the camera rehearsal is to get all the shots lined up so they know who is doing what at each point of the song. When you turn up, you’re expected to look all glamorous even though it’s early in the morning but before the take you have to do your hair and make-up and change into whatever clothes they’ve asked you to wear… basically it’s hours of preparation and waiting around followed by the actual shoot which is 3 minutes of intense activity, then you go home!
Top of the Pops is similar, except sometimes the camera rehearsal is the day before the shoot, which is ok because you get paid for two days!
SISSY: Do you always mime for these TV programmes or do you sometimes play live?
FIONA: It’s usually a mime although I have done it live as well. I’ve done a lot of work with Kanye West recently and he insisted on us playing live… we’d learnt the part anyway so we may as well! It’s just more hassle for the soundmen in the studio and they generally prefer not to do it. It does give it more of an edge if it’s live because you want to perform well; that’s what you’ve been trained to do so you feel better about it. When you’re miming you don’t really feel like you’ve done a gig.
SISSY: Do you know all the other session string players in London from working on the same jobs?
FIONA: I do now. There are a lot of string players in London because there’s quite a lot of work but you do tend to see the same faces over and over again. With the TV work, there’s a pool of about 20 or 25 people I would expect to see over the year, plus the odd new face here and there.
SISSY: Is the session work well paid?
FIONA: It’s not a good as people think! For an appearance on Top of the Pops or CDUK you might get around £160. And although that’s for a 3 minute performance, if you bear in mind that you have to be there for about 7 hours of the day it doesn’t work out as that much per hour. People might think that you must be rich because you’re on television but it doesn’t work like that.
SISSY: Can you tell us about your touring jobs?
FIONA: I’ve toured with lots of indie bands, which usually means getting in a splitter van and travelling around on a really low budget. But I’ve also done some big tours, like the Sugarbabes, and I’ve just finished doing a three-month tour with Simply Red, which is the other end of the spectrum with a really big budget.
SISSY: Can you tell us more about the Simply Red Tour? And have you got any gossip about Mick Hucknall?!
FIONA: He is a very good performer; charming onstage but not charming offstage! I can say that now because my contract’s finished! He has a bit of a reputation, which is fairly valid in my view! On the tour, we started off in the UK and Ireland doing arena size gigs, which were an average of 10,000 capacity. Then we went to Europe and did Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Hungary, The Czech Republic; it was quite a long tour and a bit tiring on the travel front, but loads of fun!
It was a really big band; it’s quite unusual to tour with a band that size. It was a 12-piece girl string section plus the band itself, which was about 9 or 10 people. So there were at least 20 of us on stage! Plus there was a huge entourage; we had 5 tour buses just for the band and entourage, and a whole convoy of lorries with the set, the stage and all the equipment.It was all brilliantly organised though. When I saw the schedules I couldn’t believe how someone had sorted out the logistics of a tour that big.
SISSY: Who are you playing for at the moment?
FIONA: I’m playing violin for Vashti Bunyan who’s a cult folk singer. She’s a really interesting woman with an amazing story: In 1968 she was a young singer/songwriter; she had songs written for her by the Rolling Stones; she was produced by Andrew Loog Oldham and she released a record which went nowhere. So she got very disillusioned with the whole thing because the style of music that was taking off was rock and roll, and she was writing fragile little songs. She made one album, but then she basically packed up and left to go travelling for the next 20 years in a caravan. She shunned the music industry completely because she wasn’t interested in it.
Then a few years ago, the master tapes of her original album were found in a cupboard at a record company and got re-released. There was a resurgence of interest in her and she’s just released a new album. I have done a few live gigs with her before, including the Barbican, and now we’re going to be doing some European shows. She’s got a cult following here and in Europe; apparently original copies of her first album sell for around £900… it’s so rare that I don’t think even she has a copy of it! I think it’s brilliant that she’s re-starting her career now, in her 50’s. She’s been through so much in her life that she doesn’t care about the bullshit; she’s just carried on doing her music through everything. And she’s a lovely person to work with.
SISSY: Are you currently working on any arrangements?
FIONA: I’m doing some string arrangements for a couple of bands, and I’m writing my own string quartet. It’s classical, but a bit more like film music because that’s what I’d like to do next; write for films.
SISSY: Who do you admire in the world of composing for films?
FIONA: Michael Nyman is a good composer who has crossed over to the medium of film scores brilliantly. I also admire the big names; John Williams, Danny Elfman.
SISSY: Can you tell us a bit more about composing and arranging… how you got started and who you’ve worked for?
FIONA: One of the things I learnt for my degree was how to read an entire orchestral score, and how to write for every instrument. I mainly write for strings because that’s what I play but I have written for brass on albums in the past and I can write for anything if necessary.I’ve recently worked on Placebo’s new album and done some tracks for Ed Harcourt. I’ve also just written some arrangements for the Feeling who are a new band on the scene, and I worked on Clearlake’s album… they’re signed to Domino Records.
SISSY: With pop, rock and indie bands, do you get string players in to record the parts or do you do it on keyboards with string samples?
FIONA: Mostly we get musicians in. With the Placebo album, I wrote string arrangements for 4 tracks and I had quite a lot of freedom in what I came up with. The band had to approve what I’d written so I did demos on computer using a programme called Sibelius, which is for classical scoring. Then I had to fix the players that I wanted to do the session and get them ready. We recorded it at a big studio called Angel studios in Islington. We had 18 or so players and I was conducting, as I don’t actually play on a session like that because I’d be wearing two hats; it’s best to concentrate on the overall thing. It basically involves being the musical director; it’s my responsibility to work with the producer to get the sound he wants in the allocated time. One of the tracks I worked on is going to be released as the European single, which is great!
SISSY: How do you get paid for working on an album? Do you get ‘points’ (a percentage from sales) or a fee?
FIONA: You’ve got to be super-famous to get points on the album. Again, it’s actually not very well paid compared to how much the band are going to earn out of it. For string arranging, you can get paid between £500 and £1500 per track depending on how much work you have to do. I know quite a few arrangers and the going rate seems to be going down lately! If you’re the musical director on a session you will get some royalties as well through MCPS but the players just get the musicians union rates which is £110 for a 3-hour recording session. If the track they play on is released as a single, they also get what’s called a buy-out fee of about £500. But if you think, the record might sell 2 million copies and the players only got a hundred quid, it does seem a bit unfair!
SISSY: I know it used to be essential to be in the Musician’s Union before you could do TV or recording work. Is that still the case?
FIONA: No, you don’t have to join but it can be worth it. They have improved over the last few years; I used to think they were a bit of a dinosaur and completely out of touch but recently I’ve found them quite useful. On jobs where I’m arranger and I have to fix the string section, I’m liable to the musicians for their fees so if the record company doesn’t pay me I could be in trouble. The MU gives me access to legal help to protect me in these situations. And they’ve got some good schemes like free equipment insurance.
SISSY: What are your favourite composers?
FIONA: On the classical side of things, my favourites are probably mostly modern composers like Bartok, Shostakovich, Lennox Berkeley as well as older classical composers like Mozart… my tastes aren’t particularly avant garde. Lots of film music nowadays is influenced by Bartok and Shostakovich.
SISSY: How do you start a composition?
FIONA: I don’t write in a particularly organised way. I might sit down at the piano and come up with an idea, then I’ll use the academic skills I’ve acquired to develop that idea. Sometimes it ends up being rubbish, sometimes not. When it’s good I get a really good feeling about it, it’s a very instinctive thing. If the idea is working, I write quite fast.
SISSY: Do you think that knowing lots of music theory can sometimes inhibit the creative process or the ability to improvise?
FIONA: When I was at college they always said you have to learn all the rules before you can break them and I did find that a bit limiting. While I was there, I stopped writing songs for 3 years because the skill involved in writing songs wasn’t valued at all; they only valued classical composition skills. I think that now, most people would recognise that writing a hit song is actually quite a difficult thing to do and is worth just as much as an art form.
SISSY: Which of the acts that you’ve played for have you enjoyed doing the most?
FIONA: I really enjoyed playing with Kanye West, because it was such an unusual combination of musical styles. I worked on a DVD for him called Live From Abbey Road which was just Kanye with a 17-piece string section. I was involved with the scoring for that as well and it was really exciting because it felt like we were doing something new.
SISSY: With the compositions you are writing now, how will you go about getting interest in your music? Is it very different to the process involved in pushing your music if you’re in a band?
FIONA: A lot of composers just write for the sake of it; they don’t try and push their stuff to get released or make money, they write because they need to write. So I started writing because I wanted to, but now I’m looking around for funding or some kind of Arts Council grant. It’s hard because not many people are interested in giving me money to write a string quartet. So what I’m going to do is, I have lots of friends who are very talented string players and I’ll get a quartet together to record the work. I’ll pay them out of my own pocket because I believe players should always get paid. Then I’ll take the recording and do almost the same thing a band would do; shop it around and see if I can get some interest or some funding for a bigger project. One thing I hope it will achieve is I’m looking for a manager at the moment; I’m at a level now where I need to do that for the writing and arranging side of things, not the session playing… if I had to give someone a percentage of my session fees I’d end up with nothing! And I’d like to aim for getting some film and TV work if possible.
SISSY: Are there many people who work as arrangers and musical directors?
FIONA: I know quite a few people who do what I do but we all have slightly different styles; in fact Ed Harcourt’s new album is a really good example of that because he used 4 or 5 different string arrangers on the album. I did 2 tracks and at first I thought there would be too many strings on the album but because we all have very distinct different styles of writing, you can hear the diversity. I should mention that the string-playing world is a very competitive world, it’s not easy and people will steal jobs and take your credit if they can, just like in any business, but I’d like to think there’s room for every one because we all have our own different styles.
SISSY: Do you think it’s true that there will always be a certain amount of work for string players because it’s less subject to the whims of what’s fashionable than other styles of music?
FIONA: There does always seem to be work around if you look for it. It can be very diverse things, like for example last year I was asked to write some incidental music for the stage production of Billy Elliot, and then I was back doing sessions on CDUK. Or I might get asked to arrange music for someone’s wedding… it’s a really weird range of work! One thing that isn’t so great is you often don’t get the budget to do exactly what you’d like to do. When you think back to the 60’s, most tracks were recorded with a big orchestra… there are loads of string players on things like the Beatles because that was the done thing. Now there’s a lot of cutting corners, like having less players and double-tracking them. You’ve got to be working for a really hot selling band to get the funding agreed for a big string section or orchestra.
SISSY: Has the internet and computer technology had any effect on the world of classical music?
FIONA: I think so, because people have access to so much more music now. There are things you only come across because you can hear it on the internet. For classical music, it’s meant that distribution costs are less so classical artists can sell CD’s over the internet and it’s more cost effective for them, especially as they don’t have big marketing machines behind them most of the time. There is some great software that’s helped with writing classical music; the music publishing programme Sibelius is brilliant because you write the music in a score, similar to using Word for writing letters. It produces scores to publisher standards and you can hear back what you’ve written. They’ve just improved the programme so now you can sync it up and listen to the score over a track you’re writing for. The orchestral samples it uses are a little limited, but at least you can hear what you’re doing, and print the finished scores. I think lots of schools are starting to use it now for GCSE and A level music. If I need to do anything more complicated, I use Logic or Pro-tools. Even Garageband is useful, because I can quickly hear what I’m doing and add reverb to the strings so it sounds better when I play it to someone.
Fiona has to leave us at this point; she’s off to the gym to keep fit for her busy schedule. We wish her luck with her composition work; hopefully she’ll have something on line soon for everyone to check out!