Acclaimed British music makers Solomon Grey return in 2020 with EP Music For Picture: Vol I (Parallels), following the success of their original soundtrack for the hit BBC and Showtime television series Back To Life, which made many ‘Best Of’ lists on both sides of the Atlantic at the end of 2019.
London-based duo Tom Kingston and Joe Wilson are simultaneously lauded for their commercial releases and composition for TV and film. Working on both side-by-side, they combine contemporary production and classical composition to create a unique and distinctive sound.
Tastemaker labels Black Butter, Kitsuné and the illustrious Decca have helped push Solomon Grey’s commercial releases to the masses, whilst their work for picture across television, movies, trailers and commercials includes original soundtracks for BBC TV series The Casual Vacancy (adapted from the J.K. Rowling blockbuster novel), The Last Post and Back To Life, syncs on TV series Power, Animal Kingdom, How To Get Away With Murder, The Tunnel, as well as trailers for Pacific Rim 2, The Pass and Dheepan, to name but a few.
“We’re incredibly fortunate to create music for picture without compromising our sound as artists. We get to be in a band and also write for orchestras, arrange strings and work with opera singers. As musicians, we feel like we’ve come full circle,” says Tom.
Joe adds: “Creating soundtracks made us more experimental and aware of what we are capable of. The music we’ve always made has lots of elements that ‘shouldn’t’ go together.” With that in mind, while you’re listening you might hear the sounds of the car ‘The Weight’ was originally recorded in, spot the on-location recordings used in The Casual Vacancy score including rivers, lawnmowers and Morris dancers, and appreciate the juxtaposition of an operatic vocal over stacked synth recordings on ‘The Drowning’.
Classically trained musicians and long-time friends from Oxford, Tom and Joe originally met as performers in a local covers band. They have since gone on to forge a signature sound as Solomon Grey that evokes a plethora of emotions, transporting the listener into a serene space, combining intensity, power and sheer vulnerability. Solomon Grey’s music is always stunning: whether you’re a muso, a movie buff, or someone who just has to Shazam that track on the TV, their music seeps into your psyche and connects in a way which is unlike many others.
The journey of Solomon Grey has seen the duo up sticks on more than one occasion, progressing from Oxford to London, finding and cementing their sound of the time with the first track they wrote as Solomon Grey ‘Last Century Man’. Later on, musical bases took in the Australian outback and a lighthouse in the south west of Ireland, before returning to their current studio spot in South East London.
Solomon Grey have been touted as one of Britain’s most exciting new electronic acts, with their debut release ‘Gen V’ via Black Butter Records in 2013 carving a path for a debut ‘pop’ album, but the serendipitous opportunity for soundtrack work gave them another outlet for their music.
Next up was Decca-issued mini-album Selected Works - a mixture of original music and songs which featured parts of their breakthrough score for The Casual Vacancy. Solomon Grey’s eponymous full-length debut followed in 2016 - a milestone in realising their persistence and sheer determination.
Album two, Human Music (Mercury KX, 2018) is a poignant collection of intricate and transcendent songs, encompassing the themes of choice, love and loss following the death at Swiss clinic Dignitas of Joe’s mother Sandy whose characterful trinkets and paintings adorn their London studio, alongside Jimmy the plant and Terry the Terrier. The album features the same luscious sounds provided by the 22-piece Hungarian orchestra and vintage CS-80 synth which feature on the soundtrack to the BBC/Amazon production The Last Post.
2019 was another abundant year for Solomon Grey’s sync and soundtrack work with the song ‘Home’ featuring in multiple hit US TV shows, and BBC/Showtime critically acclaimed series Back To Life - which topped end of year polls in Vogue, The Times, The Guardian, Digital Spy, TIME, USA Today and more - bolstered by their original soundtrack. “Carefully crafted soundtracks enhance the connections you make with the characters and overall emotive quality,” says Joe. “We’re delighted Back To Life has resonated with so many people across the UK and US.”
For 2020, Music For Picture: Vol. I (Parallels) serves as the first of a series of new works, written for and inspired by moving images. This first instalment showcases the duo’s more euphoric cinematic side, with featured track ‘The Return’ (composed for Sony PlayStation’s 2019 dystopian advert for their Virtual Reality platform PSVR) reminiscent of their earlier work ‘The Rift’, which has become synonymous with Vue Cinemas' "This Is Not A Cinema" pre-film ident. Each volume in the Music For Picture series promises to explore a different part of Solomon Grey's sonic landscape, giving glimpses of the rich visual world their music evokes.
This EP series precedes Solomon Grey’s next project, to be released as a fully immersive 360 audio listening experience later in 2020.
Fresh from their latest big-budget, TV-screen success as composers of the soundtrack to BBC One’s The Last Post - Peter Moffat’s lavish, six-part, 1960s-set drama - Solomon Grey are back being a band, but only their focus has shifted. Human Music, their second album, is as powerful and ambitious, as visual and visceral as their sought-after soundtrack work.
Sonically, there are parallels between Human Music and The Last Post score. The same 22-piece, Hungary-based orchestra played on both. A vintage CS-80 synthesiser was central to the two. The dynamic Clouds appears on both, albeit in different versions with diverse purposes.
Experiences from each influenced the other - not surprising as they were written at the same time, with Solomon Grey sometimes switching between the projects on a week-to-week or even day-to-day basis.
“The crossover between our own songs and our soundtracks has always been there but it’s shifted slightly,” says Tom. “An influence on this album was definitely working to deadlines. Making soundtracks, you have to produce a lot of material really quickly. You have to become less precious. Rather than torturing yourself trying to produce the perfect piece of work, we embraced the moment. Human Music relates the events of a specific period of time.”
That time was the summer of 2016. Solomon Grey had just been commissioned for their second major BBC series – their first was 2015’s The Casual Vacancy, a three-part adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s blockbuster novel. They had confirmed the label Mercury KX for their next album. Both Joe and Tom had recently become fathers for the first time. Their lives were about to become stupidly busy when Joe’s mother Sandy was diagnosed with a brain tumour and given three months to live.
“She had been complaining of headaches for some time,” says Joe. “We’d been touring in the States and when we returned, it was clear she wasn’t her usual self. Two days later she was in hospital and that’s when we discovered it was a brain tumour.
“What’s incredible was that Sandy was fine about it. She wanted to have a good time then go. She wanted to be at home, watering her plants, drinking tons of tea, watching Die Hard and dancing - so that’s what we did. It was lovely. There were sad moments, of course, but it wasn’t a sad time. It was a beautiful summer.”
Human Music’s spectral, soulful opener The Weight was conceived immediately after the diagnosis, in Joe’s car, outside the hospital.
“The song just came to me” he says. “No contriving. How could I? It just happened and I recorded it on my phone. You can still hear the car in the background.”
The album and soundtrack projects both got underway, at speed. Sandy had asked if she could hear some music, but she died before any of it had been recorded. Leaving the place where she passed away, sensing her absence in the taxi seat beside him, Joe had another song come to him. The Departed, with its otherworldly voices, swelling strings, propulsive piano and grand symphonic sweep, closes Human Music.
The nine tracks in between document Sandy’s journey, Joe’s experience of the events which unfolded, Tom’s reaction to what had happened, as well as the sadness, joy and absurdity of the situation. Most were written after her death; some were – as Joe puts it – ‘retro-fitted’. Human Music is both a time capsule and a tribute to Sandy, although Joe laughs at the thought “I’d shy away from using the word “tribute”! Sandy would have told me to fuck off. That’s the type of person she was.”
An intense six months following Sandy’s death with a second race against time having begun. “We were still working pretty similarly to how we always have, in my mind anyway,” says Joe, “but I had so much to get out that it was hard for Tom to find his place within that. I could feel the energy coming from me – I was probably quite forceful. It took a while for us to find our flow.”
“It was challenging,” admits Tom. “We had 18 songs on the go for the album and 30 sketches for the soundtrack and we were definitely in different headspaces. We had to recalibrate. But there was pleasure to be had in the fact that it was a challenge.”
Human Music is a bewitchingly beautiful album, whether you know its gestation or not. There are dark moments among its sumptuous, spellbinding songs, but more often it’s uplifting, a celebration of life rather than a document of death.
The celestial Closed Door was inspired by Sandy’s ability to see the positive in any situation – she raved about the facilities within the NHS although they couldn’t cure her. Several songs deal with specific events. Inside Outside deals with how Sandy chose to spend her final weeks. The shimmering Willow House describes a lucid dream in which Joe hugged his late mother, prompting the realisation that he had finally accepted her passing.
Clouds, which features opera singer Susanna Fairbairn and was The Last Post’s goosebump-inducing theme music signals both an ending and a beginning.
“We didn’t intend to include Clouds,” says Tom. “It just fitted, perfectly. On The Last Post, it introduced a foreign land. On the album, it describes a similar emotional jump.”
The CS-80 synth, initially booked to use on The Last Post score, fitted perfectly too.
“What it does is give the music an alien quality,” explains Joe. “Not as in UFO alien – as in something you recognise, but can’t quite figure out. A surreal clarity, if you like.
“After Sandy’s diagnosis, I was visiting the same places, doing the same things but, it all felt very weird, as though the world I was in wasn’t real. We played with that by messing up sounds, vocals and words – they’re familiar, but you can’t quite tell what they are.”
Human Music was mixed by Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, The Flaming Lips, MGMT) in the States in August, with Solomon Grey on hand to give guidance.
“We love his work,” says Joe, “but this was such a personal album, we gave Dave descriptions for every song, down to some quite specific details. On The Weight, for example, that the synth was the sound of a pulsating brain.
“On the day we mixed the final three tracks, I cracked. It was a year to the day since Sandy died. I’m not one for anniversaries and I can joke about dark stuff, but that was hard. I had to step outside to compose myself.”
In the autumn, The Last Post – in which Joe, also an actor, had a role – aired on the BBC and won Solomon Grey a new army of fans. Human Music, which the duo will tour from February, is set to do the same.
“We’re incredibly fortunate that we get to do both without compromising our sound,” says Tom. “We’re both from classical backgrounds, we both play instruments. We get to be in a band and also write for orchestras, arrange strings and work with opera singers.
“Writing for soundtracks has blown the doors open for us. It has removed the usual boundaries of being in a band. As musicians, we feel like we’ve come full circle, only the circle has become a lot bigger.”