Tom O.C. Wilson writes fascinating, complicated pop music. He also teaches composition at Royal Holloway, London, where he studied for his PhD. I talked to Tom about his music, and specifically his recent album Tell a Friend.
PK: I’d like to start by asking you about a biography for you I found on Soundcloud, which begins: “Tom O.C Wilson is a London-based composer of lovingly crafted, infectiously playful arthouse pop.” There’s a subtly provocative edge to it, I think: the first thing you say is that you’re a composer, but most people writing and making pop music would probably call themselves singer-songwriters. So how come you’re specifically a composer?
TW: I suppose there are two aspects to it: one in terms of why I’m in music at all, and one to do with the process by which I write it. Let’s start with the first one. My early memories of music were listening to pop music, and that was the 60s pop records like the Beatles that my parents had at home, plus some other bits and pieces like Talking Heads and Bruce Springsteen. At that almost pre-consciousness stage – I was very very young – that was the music that spoke to me first, before I really knew what any of the words were about. So I have a great attachment to that style of music, and that attachment is first and foremost about the musical choices, as opposed to either the identity of the performers, or the lyrics.
My way into music has always been about making musical choices; I suppose I see my first responsibility as coming up with sequences of notes, rhythms, chords, that will trigger the same kinds of emotional responses that I had way back when listening to those records. I think of it very much in terms of bringing music into the world that didn’t exist before. So that’s quite a composery thing!
Secondly, I think that the idea of pop artists being composers is something that’s become more common – perhaps partly as a result of pop artists coming through some kind of university music training, as I did. One thing that has definitely impacted my working methods is that I use notation – again, that’s something traditionally more associated with pen-and-paper classical composers. But as I was researching my PhD, I found, to my surprise, that this was more common than I thought. To give just one example, there’s a guy called Robin Richards, who is the main musical architect for one of my favourite bands, Dutch Uncles. He will score out the band parts completely, in Sibelius, before they even start to workshop any music – that is very similar to the way I work.
PK: I find your phrase “musical choices” really interesting, and I see how it’s a very composerly way to look at making music. But isn’t a more conventional pop-based “songwriter” making musical choices in a similar way?
TW: Yeah, that’s exactly how a pop songwriter works. I suppose I was deliberately using the word “composer” because it isn’t generally attached to the way we talk about pop music, but I think it should be: they’re bringing into existence music that wasn’t there, as a result of their own compositional choices.
“There’s a debate in songwriting about how much music theory is useful, and how much is too much – my approach to that has always been to think of it as extending my palate”
PK: You’ve gone through the compositional career arc of doing a PhD, and now teaching composition as well. Did you always want to study music in this more classical way, and become drawn into composing pop music after that, or was it more that you thought that this was the best way you could create the pop music that you wanted to make?
TW: It’s maybe more the second. When I was doing A-level music, that’s really the first time that I engaged with classical music in any serious way. The first piece of classical music that I remember getting a really strong emotional reaction to was The Rite of Spring, which is probably a fairly common first album, as it were, for classical listeners. I remember at that time thinking, OK, this is creating the same sort of experience for me as pop music had prior to that – but with a completely different set of sounds, and a completely different musical vocabulary. So I made a conscious choice to listen to a wider range of music, because I felt that it would broaden my palate, and make my own music richer.
Then, it was a simple choice of going to university to do something that I really enjoyed, and it was just this great explosion of discovery. I suppose I’ve enjoyed being in that classical world, but not of it, in the sense that I get to go to those concerts and hear those discussions, and hear that music, but I’m not writing that kind of music. I’ve found it a constant source of stimulation.
PK: And the tools that you’ve learned to use through your training – I’m thinking of, for instance, the compositional craft of a score like The Rite of Spring, writing so well for orchestra, notating complex rhythms – that must be an extraordinarily rich set of resources for a composer of any sort to have, right? Is that another reason you’ve stuck with the classical side of things?
TW: Yeah, I think I probably wasn’t thinking of it as a conscious choice, but of course it was. There’s a debate in songwriting about how much music theory is useful, and how much is too much – my approach to that has always been to think of it as extending my palate. I’ve never worried that it’s going to kill the magic for me. The fact that I know how to do certain things doesn’t mean that I always have to do them – it just means that when the music calls for that, I’m able to do it.
PK: There’s an interesting comparison with the Beatles. I remember reading that Ian MacDonald book, Revolution in the Head – he’s really strident about the idea that they were only able to create this great music because they couldn’t read music; he’s really passionate about them having a sort of naive, totally intuitive approach. There’s sometimes a sense that pop musicians almost shouldn’t know these things…
TW: I really wouldn’t want to be making the “should” and “shouldn’t” choices for other composers; I feel quite strongly that what matters in music is the outcome rather than the method by which that was achieved…
There is the idea that if you restrict one area of expression you’re forced to find others, and that might yield interesting results; I can imagine that as a starting point for writing something, ruling out certain musical parameters. But personally, if I felt that actually, you know what, I said I’m not going to use an F sharp, but it really really needs an F sharp – I would always put an F sharp in there, because the outcome is what I’m most interested in.
PK: That’s quite an interesting way to look at some simpler pop music – you could almost think of it as an experiment in how to make something interesting despite only using, say, three chords.
TW: Yeah, and it still is interesting – the number of songs that work like that continues to grow. But I always tend to put the fourth chord in there, just to see what happens.
“I set myself the task of creating an arrangement where no two instruments ever played at the same time”
PK: You picked out “A Plan” (listen below) as a song to talk about from your album. Why that one in particular?
TW: It’s quite a clear example of the way that my compositional process pivots between the conceptual and the intuitive. This jumping back and forth is a really key part of my aesthetic.
The conceptual starting point for the song was that I wanted to create something that had more space in it than the other songs on the album. So I set myself the task of creating an arrangement where no two instruments ever played at the same time. So, throughout most of the song, the entries are staggered, but I’m constantly changing the order in which that happens, section by section. I find this can be a fruitful way of working: to create a really basic conceptual idea that can be worked through in a lot of varied ways in different sections of a song.
That’s the conceptual side of things. The intuitive side of things: firstly, there were inevitably areas where I decided to break the rules I set for myself. In this particular instance I think I was more rigorous than normal, but there are some moments of climax where I wanted everything to come together at one point – there are a few moments like that.
PK: Where the outcome is more important than the process.
TW: Absolutely. And I suppose the more conceptual I got with my writing, the more I became aware that that buildup of tension can have a wonderful release to it: if all the time you’ve been hearing staggered entries, then suddenly when you hear them together, it has an impact that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Elsewhere in the song, there’s a sound that comes from a joke that me and my brother had when we were about five and ten. Of course, no one else in the world would get the reference, but for some reason that sound came along in my head, and I thought it added to the expressive nature of the track, somehow. So “A Plan” is a good example of the really rigorous, logical bit of my brain, that knows exactly what it’s doing, coinciding with a really illogical bit. And I think that a lot of music that I like acts on a similar pivot between the cerebral and logical, and the completely intuitive and illogical. I find that very exhilarating, to be in that space.
PK: One of the compositional styles that it seems to recall is experimentalism. Having only one instrument playing at a time – it’s an experimental concept, right?
TW: It is, and this is also quite an interesting example of the different levels at which influence can function: there’s stylistic influence, and there’s conceptual influence. Before I started writing “A Plan”, I attended a performance of a Morton Feldman piece – Extensions 3. So there’s a stylistic influence from that, but of course my method is completely not the way Feldman would work; from what I’ve read about his working methods, he was a very intuitive composer. So I have this stylistic influence from one school of composition, and I have a conceptual influence, but, as you say, it’s much closer to an experimental way of working.
I suppose the difference in my music is that the concept is never really there on the surface. If you think about something like one of the early Steve Reich pieces, he was very keen to make the process itself audible. I find conceptual ideas really interesting as a way of generating material, but it doesn’t really matter to me if the listener isn’t able to detect that there’s a particular concept being used – as long as they like the musical effects.
PK: And I guess you’ve still got quite a clear idea of the sort of sound you want to create generally – you don’t want to abandon that for the sake of a concept.
TW: Absolutely, yeah. But I think there’s often quite an interesting friction between those two imperatives, and I find that very stimulating as a composer – it’s a bit like nervous energy, the tension is a very nice thing to work with.
PK: Normally, I guess, if you ask a pop songwriter what a song of theirs is “about”, they might well talk about the lyrics. But that seems very much not the case for you?
TW: I’m actually experimenting at the moment with trying to do this a bit differently, but traditionally the way I’ve worked is that I write the music entirely first, including the vocal melody. There might be dummy lyrics or even just vowel sounds. So the music doesn’t start in the sense of being “about” something… but the lyrics are about things. I suppose what I try to do is find lyrical subject matter that will heighten the emotional impact of the music, and vice versa.
PK: Do the lyrics to “A Plan” have a subtly self-referential element? Is the “plan” like the concept, behind your compositional process?
TW: It’s definitely a self-referential song. Essentially it’s about the micromanaging aspect of my own personality: I find it difficult not to pre-plan things. So the song was about that; it wasn’t a deliberate metaphor for my compositional process, although it definitely is one. I think that’s very evident in what we’ve been talking about: I am someone who works at the micro level of craft. There are these moments of spontaneity, but they occur within a very rigid structure.
“I don’t feel a great sense of mission, that there’s a wall that needs to be broken down”
PK: Have you encountered much snobbery from the classical establishment?
TW: It’s generally been very nice. I think people quite enjoy discussing something that’s different for them. The places that I’ve played live tend to be places where many different styles of music are programmed anyway – somewhere like Cafe Oto in London; I think the people who turn up there, often without knowing very much about the artist they’re going to encounter, are very open-minded, and kind of willing to look for the best in whatever style they’re confronted with.
PK: Do you think of yourself as a kind of ambassador between the pop and classical worlds?
TW: Not that consciously. To be honest, I don’t feel a great sense of mission, that there’s a wall that needs to be broken down. I think people kind of take what they need from other fields. I would also say, I’ve become aware that this sort of multi-disciplinary way of working that I have is becoming more and more typical. Whereas in previous generations you had the tradition of pop songwriters going to art school, more and more songwriters are now coming out of bachelor’s music programmes. My sense is that that’s to do with a landscape in which people have had the opportunity to listen to a wider range of musical styles: in a BA music programme, pop songwriting might be just one of the possibilities on the table.
PK: So it’s a world that’s becoming less divisive – it’s not so much about tearing down the boundaries, more that the boundaries don’t really seem to be there any more?
TW: That’s very much my sense, yeah. I can’t actually remember many, or any, instances of having conversations with people who felt that songwriting wasn’t a valid form of artistic expression.
I’ve always been very clear that I’m not a classical concert composer, and that has perhaps helped. Maybe if that was my claim – which would be a ludicrous claim – then people would, justifiably, raise questions. But I think that, because I’m not from that world but take great stimulation from it, people have generally been very open to what I’m doing.