09 Jun Meet Helen (H.) Robertson: Composer & Multi-Instrumentalist
We caught up with composer Helen (H.) Robertson about her career in music, key influences & the composition process.
Melodie: Hey Helen, thanks for taking the time to chat with us! What have you been working on lately?
Helen: Hey Selin, my pleasure! Thank you very much for this interview.
I’m currently working on an album of dramedy cues. They seem to be everywhere on TV now and are fun to write. I’m also working with a couple of very talented songwriters on some vocal tracks. Collaborations are always interesting because it forces you to work in a slightly different way, and often ends up with something that neither of you could have produced without the other.
You couldn’t have said it better! Tell me, how did you come to start playing the piano at age 7?
I have two older sisters, who play violin and piano, and who I very much wanted to emulate. The piano teacher didn’t take students until they were 7, or I’m sure I’d have started earlier.
It’s hard to say whether the music drew me in, or if it was wanting to be like my big sisters, but either way, it stuck and I’m very glad of it!
We’re equally glad it did! You play a wide array of instruments – which one is your favourite and why?
It changes from day to day, but at the moment (possibly because of the dramedy cues I’m working on), I’d say it’s the clarinet. I took it up about 5 years ago and started lessons, intending to just take a few to get rid of bad habits (I played the bassoon as a child, and every so often, my teacher still has to remind me that I should be reading treble clef, not bass), but found I really enjoyed the lessons.
What was the first album you bought?
The Sensual World by Kate Bush. I think I was about 10 and had discovered Kate Bush from my neighbour’s CD collection. I used to play the cassettes and sing along in what was probably a rather screechy voice. I think that may have put my sisters off Kate Bush for many years…
Oh wow, cassettes – what a throwback! When did you first start writing music for picture?
The first was some music I co-wrote with the writer of an animated short film in 2008. I have done intermittent pieces since but started to get serious about it around 2 years ago.
And what do you like about writing music for picture? What made you get serious about it 2 years ago?
Writing for picture, particularly library music, where you’re writing for someone to use with pictures, rather than writing specifically to a film/scene, is really interesting because it’s kind of where the artistic anything goes meets the more specific brief of what works, both in terms of genre and timbre (making sure there’s not a big loud important instrument right at the frequency where spoken voices need to cut through) and in terms of form (making sure there are good edit points for editors to cut in and out with the tracks). I find the challenge of sticking to the rules while breaking them just a little really fun.
As to what made me get serious about it; I have been writing songs for many, many years. I have a few friends through that who write for film and TV. I started out writing a load of songs, mostly with collaborators, and then went to a conference (taxi road rally) and to a seminar about writing music for trailers. The guy running it was showing some of his sound design techniques and turned the sound of his puppy whining into a big monstrous roar. I found this so exciting and came out of that seminar with a huge enthusiasm for learning to do the same. Pretty much every other session in that conference, I wrote the title and then doodled. That one, I have about 8 pages of notes from. I didn’t end up going the trailer music route, but the sound design definitely got me!
What a great story! Can you take us through your writing process?
It varies from day to day but usually, there will be some seed of an idea – a melodic line, or a sound, or a rhythm – and once I have that recorded, I’ll start to hear the other sounds that would work with it, so try to lay those down too. One of the tracks I have signed to Melodie (Relics from the Abyss) started as a 5-second sample of some twangy country guitar, which I stretched, pitch-shifted and distorted so it ended up sounding like a low roar, and then I tried to build an audio picture around that.
Best thing about being a composer?
I really enjoy playing with sounds and getting them to work together. There’s something quite magical when you get it just right. Also, it gives me an excuse for watching a load of films and TV and calling it research…
Oh I definitely need a similar excuse… What DAW do you use, and why is that your go-to?
Logic Pro X. I guess my first DAW was a Zoom digital four-track recorder, and some bespoke software that came with it to mix what you recorded on it. I was mostly writing acoustic songs at that stage, so the most I needed was a rhythm guitar, lead vocal and perhaps a harmony or two and it worked for that. It broke, so I moved onto recording on Audacity, which had pretty much the same functionality, although more available tracks. I moved from that to Reaper, because it was cheap and did everything I needed. I then used FL studio for a while, because two of the people that I was writing with most used it and it made it easy to share projects. I never got on with the workflow in FL, though, but I loved that it came with a tonne of sounds in the box, so I moved to Logic, which has even more sounds, but also the workflow seemed so simple and intuitive. I can’t imagine ever wanting to use anything else.
Amazing 🙂 And what keeps you busy outside of music?
Aside from the day job, more music, really. I play in two bands and am very much looking forward to getting back to performing with them.
Favourite band/artist and why?
I can’t say that I have one favourite, but I’ll pick Sleater-Kinney. The raw energy combined with the intricate interweaving of the dual guitars and dual vocals is something special.
Favourite track of yours in the Melodie library and why?
I think “Embers to Ashes” is my favourite. I really enjoy doing sound design; taking a sound and manipulating it into something completely different, and I think that track showcases this well.
Great choice. Thanks for your time Helen 🙂