The Cinematic Orchestra were formed in 1999 by Jason Swinscoe, who was an employee at Ninja Tune at the time, responsible for export sales. The first album, Motion, produced while Jason was still working for the famous independent, was voted album of the year by listeners to Gilles Peterson’s Radio One show. A remix album followed in 2001, and then Everyday in 2002, and The Man With the Movie Camera in 2003. Put it this way – they’re the kind of act that if you like at all, you like an awful lot and probably even revere. But then at the end of the ‘Movie Camera’ tour it all went a little…quiet.
So after a (nearly) 4 year break, fans were wondering when, or if, they were going to hear new Cinematic material. Thankfully, 2007 sees their return, with ‘To Build a Home’ released as a download-only single (you can hear it in our 7th Audiosurgeon podcast), and ‘Breathe’ to follow on April 9th. The album, ‘Ma Fleur’ is set to be released on May 7th.
We got chance to speak with Jason about the two preceding singles, his thoughts on the new album, and some other stuff in between…
PIXELSURGEON: Hi Jason, how are things? we’ve been fans of The Cinematic Orchestra for some time now, so we were very pleased to hear you had returned.
Things are very well thanks…
It’s been (unbelievably!) over four years since the Everyday album, and three since your Man With A Movie Camera soundtrack, but you’re well and truly back in 2007. Presumably you’re excited to be back with new material?
Don’t tell me about it. It has been a long time in the scheme of things. But time did pass pretty quickly….
What have you been doing in the meantime – presumably you’ve not just been working on the album all that time?
During that time, well many things… Actually it was a great time at the end of 2004 to take a break from it all. I felt personally, that my life had been taken over. Too much touring, not enough time settled in one place gets to us all at some point…. Therefore we finished the ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ tour in Russia, where the film was made and then back to London for the final gig. it seemed an appropriate time psychologically.
After that, I suppose at some point I started thinking about the next record… By the way, I am not a writer or producer who can sit in the studio everyday and come up with the shit! I need to formulate some ideas and allow them to mature and resonate within me… If they stay with me then I know there is something worth pursuing. During this time, I was seeing shifts in the musical scene and also learning and listening to new music and being much more open and receptive.
So actually to answer your initial question before I go somewhere else. I have been doing many things during this period. Travelling, sitting back and writing, but not on demand!
The first (download only) single from the album was released recently – how would you describe ‘To Build a Home’ to people who haven’t heard it? And would it be fair to say that it’s quite different to anything you’ve done before?
I would say it is a song. Stripped back to just vocal, piano and some stringed accompaniment is a little bit of a departure in terms of simplicity, but I feel the journey or the story instrumentally is the same. The words and the open meaning of the lyrics have been the focal point for me, and how to support this musically. This is where I see one of the major shifts in the new record.
Patrick Watson provides an amazing vocal for the track. How did you meet, and did you write the piece with him in mind?
Patrick is a force unto himself. His music was introduced to me through some friends. I contacted him, explained some ideas and plans for some tracks and then we began to work together… To Build a Home was mapped out in a basic instrumental idea first and I sat down and worked with Patrick.
It’s a sad, yet comforting piece of music. You collaborated on the lyrics with Patrick- how did you explain the piece to him in the first place?
I needed to play the whole record to Patrick and explain all the ideas before we could find a meeting of minds and ideas. From there, we then engaged in the process of working together and writing words which resonated for both of us and to as many people as possible. The process was not about self-indulgence, but about opening up and explaining a story that we all experience in some form.
The song is a synopsis about life and how we have to feel pain to know what happiness is. It is like the ying -yang thing.
Phil France’s strings swoop in towards the end, and it’s like the Cinematic Orchestra have never left. How does Phil score these parts- does he actually write the music?
I work with Phil as a co-writer for many of the tracks and albums. Here Phil scored some string parts on the basis of what’s there. I expressed what I would like to happen and the feel and he came back with a couple of ideas, which I then sequenced….
The other track we’ve heard is ‘Breathe’. This is to be the first ‘proper’ single, and it’s released on April 9th. It’s great to hear Fontella Bass in your music again – presumably it was great for you to be working together once more?
It was a wonderful experience. I actually spent far more time with Fontella and her family this time round…. It was even easier, I am living in New York, where she is only 2 hours away by plane to St.Louis…
Sadly we hear that she wasn’t in good health when you recorded with her. But that voice can still send chills- maybe more so given the circumstances. But even without knowing that, it seems to be a song that’s very much about mortality. What does Fontella bring to your music that no-one else can?
Yes, you are right there about the sentiments with the song. I felt Fontella was the only person I could really trust with this one. For me not to be explaining far too much, but just to be there with her and record the vocal and melodic ideas. I think her performance here, outweighs anything I have done with her before. I mean that the time and place aspect was crucial with this piece. Also, her commitment and the trust we have together is something which becomes explicit within this piece….
The album, Ma Fleur, was written as the soundtrack to a specially commissioned screenplay for an imagined film. How likely is it that the film will be made?
That is correct. The film, oh the film… It is not really important at the moment for this to be realised visually… It was a narrative that I used to help piece the music together.
Your music went back and forth from the art director, who was writing short scenes based on your music ideas. This must have been an invigorating way to work, as you were both shaping the direction of the pieces…
It was a great process. It gave me more purpose and direction for this lp. I needed more cerebral stimulation than just writing another album for the sake of it. It is more like an art project where a rough narrative was worked out on the basis of some musical sketches I made. The sketches and the narrative were developed in parallel with the script writer until completion.
After this point was reached the narrative was then envisaged with a photographer here in New York as a series of stills for the artwork.
Is Breathe characteristic of the album tone as a whole? Or does it paint a particular mood that’s unique to one ‘scene’ from this story?
They are all pretty unique pieces I think. You tell me when you hear it!!
The vocalists you use have always been important in terms of defining each piece. Was this even more the case with Ma Fleur?
Sure was… As the script developed, the focus and intention of each piece became more defined. Therefore the choice of instrumental and vocal tracks became defined too. This also led to the question of lyrics relating to the narrative and finding the right people to represent this.
Who else have you worked with this time?
The other contributor vocally is Lou Rhodes, ex-Lamb. So all together, Patrick Watson, Fontella Bass and Lou Rhodes.
Well thanks for your time Jason – we love the first two singles, and can’t wait to hear how the whole album fits together. Good luck with the release, and hopefully we’ll get to speak again at some point.
Thanks! I hope you enjoy the album when it arrives…