Joe Wilson and Tom Kingston don’t draw a line between the music they make as a band and the scores they compose for film and TV. Or if they do, it’s a faint one. As Solomon Grey, the classically-trained long-time friends have a sensual, cinematic sound that is their calling card for both, a beguiling blend of synths and orchestration that can evoke any emotion, capture tiny moments in time and summon scenes both real and imagined.
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.”