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Unexpected Conversations: James Boston

At UP Studios, we’ve been busy preparing ourselves for the premiere of our recorded theatre production of Looking Down on Me. This enchanting original show was praised by audiences at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which inspired us to reproduce it as a digital resource for charities and schools, to use as a respectful talking point on the subjects of grief and bereavement.

Film is an inherently collaborative process; many different components must be considered in order to achieve the right mood, including camerawork, performances and sound. Back in 2019, our production’s original music was produced by James Boston, a talented composer and sound designer based in South East London. We were delighted to collaborate with him for a second time to build on the production’s original music for this very special film remake.

Originally producing music for theatre companies, James also has a wealth of experience creating recorded sound and music for film, animation, games, and online content.

Our Creative Content Producer, Caroline James, got in touch with James to find out more about the work he has done for Looking Down on Me, his creative process, and his advice for people interested in pursuing composing as a career.

Caroline James: When did you begin composing music professionally?

James Boston: That would have been about 12 years ago now, so it was quite late in the day. I was 27 at the time. I’ve been interested in music since I was about 13. But I’ve always enjoyed writing music and it just took me a very long time to realise that that was a feasible career path.

There was quite a big drama department in my school, and I wanted to get involved in writing for theatres, but I didn’t have the self-confidence; a lot of theatre people are quite extroverted, and I was a bit of a shy child. I did something completely different at university, then graduated and had no idea what I wanted to do, but I started playing live with bands and I also got my piano grades, which helped. I’d recommend a bit of formal training for anyone interested in composing professionally. You can learn it the traditional way, you can write for orchestras if you’re lucky enough to have access to them, but for modern composers, it’s more a case of using software and sample libraries. That’s the other thing that’s changed since I was younger – computers didn’t exist.

The first job I got was for a theatre company called The Cat’s Grin, and it was a little production of Aladdin and I was so excited! So, yeah, that’s where I started and I’ve just built-up bit by bit since then; working for different theatres, as well more commercial clients, for projects like adverts and video games.

CJ: Which instrument would you say you’re the most proficient at playing?

JB: That would be the piano, which is good for a composer, because the piano has the full range of the orchestra on it. It’s a very visual instrument; every pitch on the piano has a particular note, whereas on a guitar there are different ways to play the same pitch. It’s a very organised instrument, the piano. My most expensive possession is my piano – and if I ever moved house, I’d have to pay to have it moved and often knock a few holes in the walls as I’m doing so (laughs). So, it’s a bit of a liability, but I wouldn’t swap a real piano for anything else, they’re just amazing. Amazingly complicated, idiosyncratic instruments that I just find inspiring to write on.

CJ: What’s it like working as a freelance composer?

JB: It’s really good! I mean, it’s hard work because you have to make your own work, so you need to promote yourself a little bit; you get periods where not much is coming in and then you get periods where you’ve got too much work, so balancing workflow is quite tricky. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster, but I love it. I think the connection between reward and effort is much more direct when you’re self-employed and that’s something that really generates a lot of drive and makes it a great thing to do.

CJ: What was the process of composing the original music for Looking Down on Me like?

JB: The original touring production took place in 2019 and that was a very different project compared to this. When you have footage to work with, you don’t have to use your imagination as much. With film, you can see straight away whether the sound and the images match together, but in 2019 that was just a straight-up piece of theatre.

I just remembered that I had to write an original song for this project! I’d never done that before within theatre, just make a pop song, that was brilliant! That was a lot of work, because to make a produced, finished recording takes time; incidental music for theatre doesn’t take as long, it doesn’t have to be as richly layered, but something with a rhythm section and harmonies and a verse and a chorus takes a little bit longer. It was a lot of fun and I think Rosanna (Looking Down on Me’s Artistic Director) liked the first idea I came up with.

There was also a lot of variety, in terms of composing some incidental music and foley. I also loved doing the music for the animated sequences. Jess’s animation reminded me a lot of children’s animations from the 1970’s; the 70’s is my favourite era, so the music had to have that 70’s feel to it!

CJ: My final question is, what advice would you give to someone looking to forge a career out of the music industry – specifically composing, performing, and teaching?

JB: Don’t be intimidated when you’re young. Because when you’re young you will be bad at the things you want to do to start with (laughs gently). You will have an idea of what you want to do and you won’t be able to do it straight away. So be extremely patient, don’t be intimidated by people you feel are better than you. Be prepared to be flexible, because you will need to earn money as you hone your skills, so teaching the arts, in my experience, is a wonderful thing to do.

Be open minded – performing helps you become a better composer as well, because you’ll meet a lot of people, share ideas, and be introduced to different bands, artists, and musical genres. Don’t just play around on your computer; be prepared to learn other people’s music and do some kind of classical training if you can.

And enjoy it! Make sure it’s fun. Make sure it never stops being fun. A “composer” is a big word, it’s a word with a lot of gravity and it’s quite easy to be intimidated by that. Don’t let it become too laborious, don’t take yourself too seriously. Wherever your curiosity takes you, that’s probably a good place to go.

You can find out more about James Boston and his music on his website

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