Isobel Waller-Bridge on Music, Fashion, and Film

Isobel Waller-Bridge can’t wait to lock herself away. The celebrated composer – whose recent credits include Emma, Black Mirror and Vanity Fair – has recently finished building a brand new recording studio. The first project to be produced there will be Isobel’s debut album for Mercury KX, slated for release in 2021.

The crown in Isobel’s career to date is arguably Fleabag, the hit stage play turned streaming TV phenomenon that introduced the world to her music, and to the show’s creator and lead actress (Isobel’s sister) Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

ZoneOut’s Cassandra Paz spoke with Isobel about her creative process, composing for film, her fashion influences, and the long-awaited return of her archived baby grand piano.

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FILM

You have a distinct flair for fusing classical influences with contemporary soundscapes. Can you guide us through your general creative process for composing for film, TV, theatre, ballet, or fashion.

It’s all about collaboration for me. If I creatively connect with the project, and if the chemistry is right with the director, then I trust that it’s the right project for me.

My process really starts with (hopefully) being involved as early as possible so as to allow time for experimenting with ideas for the score. It’s in those early stages that you can really get to know the material and the director’s vision for the project, without the time pressure that will intensify once you’re in the edit or technical rehearsals.

Ideally, I like to give the director a bank of sounds, motifs and moods to use as a temporary score. That way my music can be established into the fabric of the piece from early on, and I can then work on developing and enriching those ideas. ‘Temp’ scores sourced from other people’s music can be a complicated thing to replace.

For composers who are collaborating with directors and other creatives for the first time, what would be your advice in terms of navigating that delicate relationship?

Honesty, generosity, trust, patience, bravery and compromise.


FASHION

You collaborated with Alexander McQueen at the SS2020 show during Paris Fashion Week. How does one compose music for fashion?

I respond very intuitively to visuals. For me they inspire mood, pace, atmosphere and instrumentation. When Sarah Burton showed me her process for designing the SS2020 collection, she showed me everything from her early stages of research – materials and textures such as hair, and wood, rough fabrics, photographs of rare flowers, to early embroidery. There was such exquisite detail and drama present in her early research, that when she then showed me the collection, I already had a layered experience of the feeling of the clothes, and how Sarah wanted to present them.

Isobel Waller-Bridge’s single ‘September’ can be heard on the Mercury KX compilation album FLOW.

In all my collaborations I use images to focus. I am quite a method composer, I think. From project to project I will often create walls of images, postcards, printouts of pieces of art – anything that connects to the project.

It’s a bit like when you go into a rehearsal room for a play. All over the walls will be pictures of design features, costume ideas, landscapes – things that illustrate the world you’re inhabiting. So when you’re in the room, you are held by these images in the creation of the work. I like my studio to feel the same way project to project.

Speaking of Alexander McQueen and fashion, what fashion brands are you into at the moment? Do you think there is a connection between your music and fashion style?

I find McQueen’s aesthetic strong and feminine. The fact that those things are not mutually exclusive in their designs makes their clothes always a go to for me.

Day to day, I don’t have a huge sense of fashion style – my main priority is comfort, and most of the time I think I dress quite androgynously. Project to project, I tend to dress in the aesthetic of the project. Not in an exaggerated way, but little things that connect me to the world in which I’m absorbed for that time.


BABY GRAND

What prompted the decision to retrieve your baby grand piano from storage after eight years for your debut album on Mercury KX?

Returning to the piano represents a returning to self. The piano is where it all began for me. It showed me my direction, and taught me much about my own personality. Most of all, it became my primary means of expression from a really early age. The relationship I have with the piano is probably the only relationship that no-one else can interfere with. It is my place of solace, strength and inspiration. I trust it totally. Day to day I’m quite an introverted person, but performing with the piano I feel relaxed, in control and free. I can let go.

Retrieving my baby grand is meaningful because it is the only piano I’ve ever owned. It supported all my hours and hours of practicing and early days of composing through my teens into my twenties. I confided in it, argued with it, and found my path through it.

It went into storage right at the beginning of my career because it wouldn’t fit in any of the tiny places I was renting. It is emotional to me that it’s been waiting there patiently while I’ve been building a career with music, and now we’re reunited for a new chapter of work to create, in a space that we’ve earned together.