She has performed, toured, recorded and worked with some of the biggest names in the music industry, both commercial and indie, and is also a well-respected writer, producer and orchestral arranger in her own right. Yep, we’re talking about the lovely, gracious Fiona Brice. A classically trained musician (she is a graduate of both Kings College and the Royal Academy of Music), most recently Brice has been seen adding a touch of glamour and elegance to indie rock trio Placebo’s live show.
Despite a heavy load of touring commitments, somehow, in between tour stops and getting mobbed at train stations and airports, Brice has also managed to write, arrange and record an album of classic pop songs, as reworked by a string quartet. She’s a busy bee, is Fiona! After a somewhat difficult entry into the world, The Separate was released earlier this year on Setanta Records, and is a wonderfully inspired reimagining of some of the most recognisable pop songs of the last few decades.
I spoke to Fiona recently to find out how The Separate came into being, what she thinks are the best and worst aspects of touring, and what she loves about the world of rock music as opposed to classical.
Congratulations on The Separate! You must feel very happy now that it is finally released.
Thank you, yes, its release took a lot longer than I expected, but I’m glad people can now hear it.
Tell me a little about the recording process for The Separate – did you record it over a period of months, or was it recorded in an intensive session?
It was recorded at a few different studios in London over a period of many months. We recorded the string quartet first, rehearsing and recording three or four songs at one time, then I would go away to work on the next batch of arrangements. This writing is fairly detailed, and technically tricky for the players to perfect. Once we had finished with the string sessions we had to record all the vocals, which took a while as the featured vocalists’ diaries were busy with their own touring and recording schedules. Finally, I spent some time in the studio with producer Rob Kirwan adding some keyboards, backing vocals and other instrumentation, and then both Rob and Paul Kendall took tracks away to mix. Quite a complex process, really.
On The Separate, Brian Molko sings a wonderful version of ‘West End Girls’, Mark Lanegan sings The Cure’s ‘Close To Me’, and Patrick Wolf sings Phil Lynott’s classic ‘Old Town’ – quite inspired song choices. How were the songs on The Separate chosen and then matched with their respective singers?
Keith Cullen sent me a long list of songs and then Rob Kirwan and I listened to the originals and made a list of the ones we felt would work best. We had certain singers in mind but there was not a big budget, so once we had recorded the string quartet we had to approach them with an MP3 and ask if they would be interested in performing on the record. We basically had to pool our personal contacts to make this happen, but I was delighted that so many high calibre artists wanted to be involved.
When The Separate was released, Keith of Setanta Records put out a statement explaining why he was bowing out of the music business after decades in the industry – do you think you could ever envisage a point where you might feel the same, ie, preferring to simply be a fan rather than working in the industry?
I don’t think I will ever be able to separate (no pun intended!) myself from music. I have written and performed music since I was a kid, regardless of salary or my involvement in any industry. To cease to write or perform would be to give up a large part of my personal identity. But I really do understand Keith’s decision. There is much less interest in long term artistic development now, and it is much harder to survive as an independent label. As a freelance musician in the UK I am lucky to be able to live on my earnings from music right now, but there are still no guarantees. Sometimes I wonder whether I should have chosen a different career because my daily life would be a lot less stressful and my future would be more secure. I would probably be able to get a mortgage, insure a car and have a pension. Great. But then I travel to Moscow or Paris or Kracow and walk onstage to thousands of screaming people with love in their eyes and I understand what my purpose is. So I’ll keep doing it as long as possible.
Do you have a favourite song on the album?
If I have to pick one then ‘Close to Me’ is my favourite because I really pushed the arrangement until it had totally transformed the original song into a different musical world.
You’ve worked with a huge range of great musicians and bands, including Patrick Wolf, Placebo, Jay-Z and Kanye West. Is there anyone else who you’d really love to collaborate with?
Of course! Off the top of my head this morning, how about P J Harvey, Radiohead, Jack White, St Vincent, Gonjasufi, Anna Calvi…loads of people. (Eds. note – I’d love to see any of those collaborations, too!)
You’ve spent the last couple of years touring extensively with Placebo – what are some of the best and worst things about such hard-core touring?
Travelling worldwide is wonderful because you learn so much about different countries and cultures, and playing huge rock gigs is obviously a massive buzz. On a more introspective level, the best things are the many experiences we share together as a band – whether intense, bizarre, exhilarating or infuriating – which bond us as close friends in a way that is hard to describe. Negatives? Constant motion and living on adrenalin for months at a time can challenge your immune system, making demands on your physical and mental health. There is no recovery time so if you get sick or run down you just have to keep going. Being away from friends and family for extended periods make you feel very out of touch with everyone else you know and love, and no one can really understand what you’re experiencing unless they happen to be in a band themselves. When you get home, it takes quite a while to adjust and find your own routine again. But I’m fairly convinced that the positives outweigh the negatives.
When Placebo arrived in Moscow recently, you were all mobbed at the train station by hundreds of screaming fans – how do you feel about and cope with that aspect of ‘celebrity’?
That was a hilarious experience. Initially it was completely overwhelming because I was not expecting so many wildly excited fans to be on the train platform. It was a challenge to get all of the band members and their suitcases off of the train and we got split up in the crush so we had no idea where we were supposed to be going to meet our transfer vehicles. If we had known this was going to happen I think we would have employed some crowd control at the station. But no one meant any harm and no one got hurt. All the fans I met were polite and friendly and just happy that Placebo had arrived. In general, as long as people respect your personal space and the fact that you might not always feel comfortable having your photo taken, then signing a few photos and tickets is just part of the job. However, if I ever had to deal with the level of ‘celebrity’ that involves paparazzi camping outside my front door 24/7 then no, that would not be at all cool.
Given all your recent touring obligations, how do you find time to work on your many other projects?
I do some scoring work whilst I’m on the road – you can do a lot with a laptop and an internet connection – and when I get home I just try to keep working! I have so many music projects I want to do, I feel like there is never enough time.
You are a graduate of King’s College London as well as the Royal Academy of Music – what attracts you to the world of rock/pop music? What interests you about the intersection between more classical forms of musicianship, and contemporary music?
Yes, I am a classically-trained musician but I do not come from a family of musicians, so as a kid I was just exposed to pop music in the same way as most people – from my parents‘ record collection, from TV shows, magazines and films, and from my friends. I always loved listening to pop, but I chose to play violin and piano at school which meant having classical lessons, but then I would come home and try and play Madonna on the piano or something, so the two worlds overlapped in my brain from an early age. Whether you play in a classical ensemble or a rock band, you’re really just one part of a team. I have always liked that aspect of music. As a performer I do prefer the immediate energy and drive of rock music. That energy exists in some classical music too, but an orchestral musician rarely gets to express it in the same way. In a sense I think film music is the perfect marriage of the two worlds, because it can be popular and orchestral. It is a world I am keen to be involved in.
I’ve heard that you are a great knitter – what is your favourite thing to knit, and for whom?
Well, I’m not really a legendary knitter, but I do enjoy it. I make things for myself mostly. I like doing accessories and sweaters. I am into making clothes too, but there are not enough hours in the day to focus on this right now.
When/where are you happiest?
Probably when I’m recording in the studio, or waking up on the tour bus and enjoying a mug of tea as the landscape of a European country drifts past the front lounge window. That always feels good to me.
What are you currently listening to/reading?
What are your plans for 2013?
I don’t exactly know yet! There will be more Placebo, of course, and I have just signed with new management (140dB). I am hoping to do an orchestral project with Annakin, too.
Thanks, Fiona! We’re looking forward to hearing more from you soon.
You can listen to The Separate here: