35. Chris Tolley: Finding inspiration as a composer

Sue Stockdale talks to Scottish television and film composer, Chris Tolley, about where he gets his inspiration from.  The interview includes a track from his latest album at the end of the podcast.

Chris Tolley studied Ancient History at St Andrews, and had a couple of music scholarships along the way. He moved to London where he worked for a number of years with Really Useful Group, and progressed from photocopying music to managing the music dept. After this he went to BBC Radio 2 where he managed and judged an opera talent competition with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and worked on Friday Night is Music Night, their flagship live classical music programme.

After moving back to Scotland, Chris worked for Yamaha pianos. They wanted to do a Classic FM advert but there were all sorts of rights issues with music licensing so Chris offered to write the piece. It was well received by Global Radio, who own Classic FM so he began writing for them as a part time freelancer, writing radio ads. Chris then moved into television composing full time after landing a couple of documentaries, and signed with a music publisher and record label which has enabled him to focus on writing. He now releases commercial recordings on top of his television and advertising work. He released his first album Beneath the Surface in 2020 and his second album Home was released in January 2021. A track “Snowfall” from this album is included at the end of this podcast.

Find out more about Chris Tolley via Twitter and Instagram and his website. 

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Chris Tolley transcription

Sue: [00:00:00] Hello, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to the access to inspiration podcast. The show where you can get inspiration from people who may be unalike you, we hope their stories and insights enable you to transcend your day-to-day challenges and reflect on what you are capable of achieving. Well, if you have ever wondered, have a composer gets inspired to create great works of music then you might get the answer here from today’s guest. Chris Tolley. Chris has always loved music and used to read music scores in bed as a child. He has worked with the Really Useful group, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s company, and today composes music for film, television, and advertising. Chris has kindly provided a bonus track for us that you’ll find at the end of this podcast, it’s a track from his latest album Home, which was published in January. So keep listening. To hear the track titled Snowfall at the end of our conversation. So welcome to the podcast, Chris Tolley.

Chris: [00:01:16] Thank you. It’s nice to be here

Sue: [00:01:17] Now into your world of composing. I’m really fascinated to find out more about this Chris today, particularly when our podcast is focused on inspiration. And I imagine that that’s a really important part [00:01:30] of the composition process. What inspires you to compose a piece of music?

Chris: [00:01:35] Well, there are a couple of answers to that really in a really general way. It’s where I live. I live in the middle of nowhere in rural East Lothian, and almost everything I write is inspired in some way by the landscape and nature here that I get to have a look at.

I can look out my studio window every day and see something interesting, like a bird of prey or a deer, or it can be totally silent one moment. And then suddenly the weather will pick up and it can be incredibly dramatic. So. It’s a gift, really? The inspiration that comes to me just from living here. Then if you’re going to dig into what I do for a living as a I’m a television composer, I write music for picture.

It gets a bit more complicated because at this point you have to fully immerse yourself in what’s happening on our screen. And my job is to not take over from that picture is to accentuate it. And sometimes there are absolute emotional gifts on that screen, and sometimes it’s more complicated, it’s a technical job and that you’re having to fit music into a story that’s constantly evolving so very often. And you’re having to look for your cues within the picture to where to lift something or to deflate something or to create false drama. And that involves the tempo changes, key changes, dynamics changes, and lots and lots of gear changes.

Sue: [00:02:46] So just in terms of that process, Chris, then when you’re writing music for television or film, do you have to watch the whole film and then think about where you’re going to put the music in, or are you watching it sort of shot by shot and then working out at that [00:03:00] moment how you’re going to translate what you’re seeing into the music?

Chris: [00:03:03] Two answers to that depends on the producer. Because the producer or director might send, if it’s a, you know, ‘on the fly’ kind of job where they need something yesterday, they’ll send it as they’ve done it. So scene by scene, we’ve got a brief and it could be for example, the scene where they’re rebuilding world war two aircraft and the aircraft taking off. So you’ve got the drama to create that. Or sometimes they’ll send you an hour’s worth of music and say, if you’ve got to know the producer very, very well, they’ll say. Off you go, no brief, fill your boots kind of thing, and get on with it, which is interesting. Sometimes when you do that, it’s sort of, you’re solving a problem for them.

Sue: [00:03:37] And what’s your preferred way of working then? Do you like that effectively blank sheet of paper, Chris? Or do you like it more clearly defined.

Chris: [00:03:44] I like a blank sheet of paper when you’ve got that relationship, somebody and you know them really, really well. And they know your music really, really well, and they trust you just to go and do what you want. And you’re not going to do it anything crazy with it. Because as I said before, you know, the whole point of my existence is not to take over from something. It’s to bring something to life. Sometimes it can feel a bit regimented. If somebody sends you a two minutes, They called cues, a two minute cue and tell you what to write to it. Then, you know, they’re pulling away the creative freedom with that. So ideally it’s more complicated, but I prefer the whole shebang at once because then I can do what I really want.

Sue: [00:04:16] Fascinating to learn more about the whole composition process. So let’s take a step back. How did you get into your career in music in the first place, Chris?

Chris: [00:04:24] Well, it’s been a long and quite windy and windy road because I actually didn’t [00:04:30] start writing full time until probably half a decade ago. So I started off, uh, so left school went and studied at university because that’s what you’re supposed to do. I suppose it didn’t really engage with what I was studying. It was ancient history. I was studying, I was interested in it, but not from a real academia point of view. I grew up and really, really got into playing music, interested in playing music professionally, or being in a professional environment. At university where they gave me a scholarship to study classical piano.

And then I went to America for a summer abroad and met a jazz pianist over there. And that’s what really, really focused me in, into understanding that I wanted to do it as a career because he taught me that music didn’t have to be following what’s written on a page as classical music is it could be improvised and, and there was a huge amount of freedom and stuff.

And I’m a creative musician rather than a technical one. So that really got me interested in that really got me the bug. And then I moved to London, decided I wanted to find my career in the music industry and got a job working for a West End production company, which is owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Worked my way up there. And I was working basically planning West End shows, the music side of West end shows and editing song books and planning concerts and all that sort of stuff. And so I was working quite closely with the composer at, at points and working as a rehearsal pianist with these amazing West End stars.

And that was infectious. Then went to radio 2. We worked very closely with radio 2, who used to put on a lot of our concerts and I worked on an opera talent show with Dame, Kiri te Kanawa there. I worked as a judge on that and kind of planned the [00:06:00] whole thing. Listening to these pieces of music that I’d never really listened to before these  Puccini arias, these  Verdi arias, these, I could list them and you know, everybody who knows opera knows what I’m talking about and the melodies in them were just amazing  and coupled with the West end stuff. I started to really get ideas in my head about how I wanted to work. And I started to think, actually, I can do this. I can write melody. I enjoy doing that sort of stuff.

Sue: [00:06:25] It sounds like there was quite a few key moments of inspiration along the way, there with the jazz pianist in America with your experience with the opera and so on. Would I be right in saying that those were inspirational moments for you?

Chris: [00:06:37] Absolutely. And in very different ways, I will always focus on that jazz guy as being such a sort of minor moment in the history of the world. This guy who was just in new England, we just sat and we’d  just sit and have a beer and we talk about jazz and he taught me about jazz. And I’ll always focus on that meeting this jazz pianist as the big, big inspiration for me, because it really opened up a whole new genre of music to me. You know, from the age of six to the age of 21, I had never given any other genre of music the time of day, I was always sat there playing Rachmaninoff, playing Mozart, listening to all this stuff.

And I used to sit in bed as a kid, as a ten-year-old and read Mozart scores. Nothing else was allowed in because I was so in love with this stuff that nothing else mattered. So to have this sort of thrust upon me and then heard the guy play and I thought, Oh, hang on a minute. This is really cool. And that just made me open to all sorts of things.

And then [00:07:30] if you go down the, the Lloyd-Webber route, honestly, I don’t like musical theater, particularly as a genre of music. I respect it. I wouldn’t sit there and listen to it. You’re not going to turn down that kind of opportunity. So I went and I, and I did it, and I did it for five years. And. As I say, I respect it. And I saw the way that that kind of stuff was written and the way that it all came to life. And then the opera stuff. I mean, my word, you sit in a room with a 25 year old soprano singing these Arias. It’s just takes your breath away. That I would argue that Puccini is the greatest  writer of melodies that’s ever lived, in his amazing things.

And those three things are very interesting points that have really have, I would say all of them was genres of music that I wouldn’t ordinarily have sat down and listened to, or studied. Whereas now I listened to, well, all of them bar the.  After five years of working on a particular composer’s music, you tend to retire from this to that sort of stuff.

Sue: [00:08:24] So, how did these points of inspiration and broadening your input of musical inspiration. How did that then all come together and you doing it for yourself?

Chris: [00:08:35] The first thing I ever wrote was for my wife to walk down the aisle to we got married, because that music was so important to me that I didn’t necessarily want it to be the traditional kind of bridal marches and things. So I wrote this piece of music and it was obviously emotional doing it. And it was all right, looking back. I wouldn’t have written it in the same way, but back then, 11 years ago, it was good. And in that environment as well, nobody’s going to tell you, they don’t like it at your wedding. So I had this [00:09:00] ego gets the lift moment. I thought this is brilliant. I want to do this for a living. And so a couple of years down the line, we left London. London wasn’t great for me. I’m not a city kind of guy. I grew up in the countryside. We both felt that we wanted to move away from London. So we kind of hit the reset button left London, and I got a job working for Yamaha working three days a week. And it was very, very relaxed, very chilled selling these amazing pianos. These really posh pianos. And they wanted to do an advert for classic FM and they couldn’t get hold of the music they wanted to use because of a rights issue. And so there was a bit of humming and hawing and I just gently put my hand up and said, look, can I have a shot at this? I think I could do it. It’s only 30 seconds. You know, that nice gentle thing. And they said, fine. Yeah, you can do it. We’re not going to pay you for it. But you can do it. And so I did it, it went down really, really well, but most importantly, it went down really, really well by the owners of classic FM who are Global Radio, who came back to me and said, this is really cool.

Do you fancy joining our roster of freelancers to write ads? So I did it and, um, started to build up enough of an income frankly, were writing these commercials for them. So I went freelance and then I signed a publishing deal quite early on. I was really, really lucky, which means that I had essentially an agent, somebody who could look after all my work and then they would look after all the income format. And then I signed a recording contract. Which has meant that I can, on top of my TV work, it means I can write the stuff that I want to write. So it’s been this sort of really quite fast flowing jigsaw puzzle. That’s come together pretty quickly after having worked on the industry [00:10:30] side of things. I’m now able to be the artist instead of being the guy who supports the artist, which is great.

Sue: [00:10:36] Hi, sue here. Well, to ensure you don’t miss any of our other episodes of access to inspiration, make sure you’re subscribed on Apple podcasts or sign up to our newsletter by going on over to our website, access to inspiration.org and you’ll see the sign up box, not the foot of the homepage. And I know that you’ve kindly given our listener a download of attract from your latest album that was published in January.

Chris: [00:11:04] That’s right. Yes. That was released on the 1st of January. It was a bit of a long time coming because I wrote it in March during lockdown because all of my work, my paid television work just evaporated overnight. It was gone. And it was a funny situation to be in because it was a sort of stress-free kind of thing because everybody was in the same boat and you couldn’t really whinge about it too much. And I thought, well, what am I going to do with my time? I can’t just not, I can need to keep my skill levels up.

And so it sort of gave me this gift of time. When I could work, obviously I have to look after the kids and stuff. So I sat and I, beginning of spring, I wrote this first track of the album, which is called first light because it was a beautiful sunrise. And the young kids were up very early in the morning. So you get to see a lot of sunrises. So I wrote that and this sort of idea formed of writing about loosely, about the duration of a day. And I say loosely because there’s a track on there called snowfall, which was released as a single back in December. So you dont get snowfall in March. So it was this sort of imagining of a day, [00:12:00] one day throughout the year as it were.

And it was great because I could just sit and write about all these. I talked about the inspiration around me is amazing things like the birds of prey and. Go for a walk an hour walk, and there’s your inspiration. There. You’d go home and sit and write it down. So it was this sort of lovely sort of free flowing gift that I got.

Sue: [00:12:19] That’s fantastic. So out of what might have seen a difficult circumstances for some the lockdown that we, many of us experienced with COVID. You took that opportunity to actually use it as an inspiration for a new piece of work.

Chris: [00:12:33] Yeah, we were best placed here out of anybody. And certainly any of our friends, as I said, we live in the countryside, we’ve got nice big garden, all that kind of stuff. But also my wife works from home. She’s worked from home since we moved from London and obviously I’ve got the studio in our house and I love this place as well. And we weren’t allowed to leave it.

Sue: [00:12:51] Perfect.

Chris: [00:12:53] It would be churlish to say that it wasn’t stressful because people were dying, people are dying. And so there was like obvious stress going on and that sort of bigger picture, but the stuff that you can control within our four walls in our house, that was something that we worked out, that kind of system where I would work in the morning and Anna would work in the afternoon, cause she’d work on American time and hang out with the kids and the focus was on the kids. So you didn’t really focus so much on the news and you’d kind of put your phone in a drawer sort of stuff. And. I did think, what are you going to do? You can’t just sit and winter about the whole thing, do something creative. And I’ve got all this equipment here that I can use. And there’s a real release being able to do it. [00:13:30] Yeah. Certainly.

Sue: [00:13:31] One of the challenges that creative people can face is a level of perfectionism in that their work has never, ever really finished. How do you manage with that challenge? Or is it not something that’s an issue for you? When do you ever say it’s done?

Chris: [00:13:44] Well, I mean, that’s a deadline, isn’t it? Deadlines are always, will tell you when something’s finished. It’s a funny one for me in everyday life. I’m a walking disaster, tidiness, I’m awful and organization and things, but you get me in my studio and shut the door, then it’s perfectionism and pedantry frankly, you know, listening to stuff, but there is a point at which you have to, and I’ve learned how to do it. The point at which you gotta say look that’s all right. That’s all right. It’s going to be signed off because of course, almost everything I write is for somebody else, you have to work out the way at which you’re going to say, okay, that’s going to fit that perfectly. And the reality is somebody is not going to come back to you and say, can you just make that B flat clarinets a bit sharp at the top of bar 17 kind of stuff. You know that to my ears, it is. But you know, you’ve got to relax a little bit and just let it go.

Sue: [00:14:30] And how did you do that when it was writing your own album? Because I’m imagining, do you have somebody else’s deadline to work too? Or is it whatever you produce yourself is the deadline?

Chris: [00:14:40] Well, the deadline with that was more of an industry focused one, the reason it’s taken so long to get the album out is that focus on finding the record label to release it. And they’ll come back and ask to change stuff suggests that this is doesn’t quite fit. That, that, that sort of thing. But eventually what I did was I signed with my publisher has a record label, [00:15:00] and resigned with them for this album.

And so that made it all a little bit easier because it’s all in one place. So the actual writing of the album took two weeks, something like that because it was all just. It’s all stuff that is already there because it’s stuff that’s outside your window, but it’s also, it’s, it’s something that comes purely from within my creative mind, because nobody’s asking me for anything else. And this was before a record label was involved. So the actual music was done very, very quickly.

Sue: [00:15:25] Do you have a signature style, Chris, you know, if you think about than other musical genres, certainly in my mind, Carlos Santana or  Eric Clapton, they may have a very clear signature style of music that you can always know. It’s a track that they’re playing on. Do you have such a thing with your music?

Chris: [00:15:41] I think so it’s  what its turned into, I mean, my first album really changed or focused my output. I wrote my first album about my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018. I wrote it as a form of therapy because various things were going on here. My wife had to be away. So I was at home looking after my son, before all of this, I was writing, orchestral music, and I sat at the piano and I wrote this album and it really, really helped me in a sort of mindfulness way. So if I’m playlisted by the BBC, but by Radio 3 they always call it neo-classical or contemporary classical, which frustrates me a little bit because I mean, what is contemporary classical music?

People have to categorize stuff and it doesn’t have to be in a category. And actually with that album, that first album it’s somewhere between, if you’re going to look at BBC radio stations, is it focused for genres it’s between radio three and [00:16:30] between Six Music, there’s kind of alternative stuff and Classic FM loved it. But it wasn’t quite classical enough for them, but we’re not going to say it defies genres because it’s rubbish. I would say it’s probably melodic contemporary classical music.

Sue: [00:16:43] It’s interesting how we try to put words to something that’s an auditory sensation. And I think you’re describing that the challenge of doing that, being able to sort of define something in a particular way. I’m also wondering, Chris, how do you measure success?

Chris: [00:16:57] Frankly? It has to be financial. There’s more of a stream to this so don’t panic. I’m not a materialistic person, but the end of the day, forget that I’m doing something creative. It is my job is my income to do stuff, to write music for television. So the more income I get from it, it means the more successful I am. So that. Is the primary reason I do it.

Sue: [00:17:17] But I suspect that even if you received income from another source and never ever had to write music again, to earn money, you would do it because you love it. I imagine.

Chris: [00:17:25] Oh, absolutely. Something happened to me recently. That was that really? This is, I mean, this is the ultimate measure of success to me. I got an email from somebody saying that that family member had been very ill and sadly had died and they listened to my album in the last period of their life and it brought them great comfort so much so that they played the piece of it at the funeral. And that for me, that’s the biggest compliment, I think I’ve ever been given. That has to be the goal, because if I’m writing just for financial gain, then, then that takes the purity out of it. Doesn’t it? Obviously that has to be there. There has to be an income from it, [00:18:00] of course. But the reality is as somebody who’s writing this stuff, the point of it is to make sure people react to it emotionally or for people to enjoy it emotionally for me to get that email was a huge, huge thing. And it’s something that I will treasure forever. The other thing that makes a huge difference to me is my, sometimes my five-year-old will come in. My oldest will come into my studio and he’s picking up you know, he’s really interested in the piano, He’s just started piano lessons and he’ll come in and say, daddy, can I listen to what you’ve just been writing? And I love it because he will sit down on the sofa and my studio and his eyes, you know, you’ll see this, I’ve got a massive screen in my studio is a couple of massive screens in my studio. You’ll see all the kind of spaceship stuff kind of light up on the screen. And then you’ll suddenly hear a a hundred piece orchestra coming out of the giant speakers I’ve got.  Just seeing that from him. I mean that, for me, it’s, it’s quite a twee sort of thing, but I love the way that he reacts to it. I wouldn’t say that’s how I would define success, but it certainly makes me tick.

Sue: [00:18:56] I think what I’m hearing you say, Chris really is that when you get a bit of feedback and you see the emotional impact that your music has on others, that is really satisfying. It reminds me of the value of this podcast. I love it when we get feedback from listeners to say the impact that this podcast and the stories that we have shared with them have had on how they look at the world and their everyday lives. So I’m imagining there’s a sense of that for you as well, when you do get feedback

Chris: [00:19:20] a hundred percent. Yeah. It’s the ego thing as well. I don’t have a big ego. It’s not the sort of wandering around stomping and shouting at people and things. It’s just the satisfaction where somebody [00:19:30] says they like that.

Sue: [00:19:31] Well, I hope that we’re listeners listen right to the end of this episode and get the bonus track from you from your album, Chris, that perhaps they’ll then get in touch afterwards and tell you that the impact that it has had on them.

I’m hoping that that will be case finally, moving on to some of the practical elements of composing and thinking about it completely different world and the world of elite sports people. Athletes and so on often have a routine that they would do before preparing for a big race to get the best performance out of themselves. So I’m wondering whether you have any routines that help you to be in the best possible position to be a great composer?

Chris: [00:20:06] No, I wouldn’t say strict routine. I know what you mean. And athletes, there’s obviously the physicality, that sort of stuff. They’ve got to be in prime condition. I do the scales and stuff the warm-ups on a piano if Im writing. Outside of that, the studio stuff. Actually, one thing that I did when mum got ill, and mum, I should say is keeping very, very well, is I started running. I hadn’t really been a runner before that, but I had a bit of counseling from Maggie centers. And they suggested to me to go start running because of levels of hormone. I think it’s called cortisol and how to kind of counteract that cortisol and general anxiety. Anyway, I go for runs regularly long runs three times a week. And that helps me both in a emotional sense, but also the rhythms of it and the aforementioned inspiration that’s around here, you’re keeping fit, but you’re also all the while thinking I never listened to music when I’m running.

Hearing all these sort of sounds whether that’d be farm machinery or [00:21:00] anything, really. And so you’ve got this hour long run where you’re keeping fit, but you’re also go home and you’re massively more focused than when you went out on the first place.

Sue: [00:21:07] And I’m also imagining that it sounds like you’re a bit of a morning person to do your composition, or are you like Elvis Presley, recording late at night?

Chris: [00:21:14] Never late at night. I mean, if we’ve got two kids, one’s 19 months, ones five, so you’ve got to manage your day and be in your bed by 10 o’clock. So yeah. It’s funny. Cause pre-kids, I would have been there the late night writing with a glass of rioja kind of guy, but no, it’s now it’s the mornings. Cause you’re up and you might as well get on with it. Yeah.

Sue: [00:21:30] Fantastic. If you were to experience the perfect day, Chris, what would a perfect day look like for you?

Chris: [00:21:36] Oh, that’s easy. Can I have a season as well?

Sue: [00:21:39] Absolutely.

Chris: [00:21:40] I think I was like Scandinavian in a previous life. Cause I love chopping wood and being outdoors and the kids would be playing outdoors. I’d be chopping wood. That’d be a pulled pork in the slow cooker, not controlled by me. Actually, my wife’s got this amazing pulled pork recipe where she puts iron brew in it, which is it’s just that little aside.

Sue: [00:21:58] Scotlands National Drink!

Chris: [00:22:00] and we’ll eat together. And the fire will be on in the evening. And Anna and I would sit and have a glass of wine him. Sort of half, half a conversation cause we’re tired, but it’s a nice kind of tired, you know, fulfilled. So that’s it really pretty simple,


Sue: [00:22:14] a lovely picture for us to finish on a picture of contentedness and satisfaction and doing some of those things. It really provide inspiration for you. Chris you’ve certainly inspired me today from our conversation. And if our listener wants to find out more about you and your music, how can you do that? On social [00:22:30] media?

Chris: [00:22:30] The website is chrisTolleyMusic.com.

Sue: [00:22:33] Brilliant. We’ll put all the links to the social media sites on the show notes from today, and people can find you on your website as well, Chris. So I’ve really enjoyed our conversation today. It’s been fantastic. Thank you so much for your time.  I hope you enjoyed the conversation with Chris Tolley and here’s a track from his latest album home. This track is titled Snowfall. And maybe you will imagine that scene as you listen.

[00:25:30] Next week. I will be talking to Caitlin Crommett, a millennial who is intent on creating greater connection between the generations and even founded a nonprofit to do just that look forward to connecting with you again, then.