Fiona Brice talks to Mill Magazine about her journey in music
Over a 20 year timespan, Fiona Brice has become a standard-bearer in orchestral arrangements for contemporary music. Now a resident of Kilmacolm, she speaks to us about her incredible journey.
There’s simply never knowing where natural talent and creativity will take you and if anyone’s career is a testament to that, it’s Fiona Brice’s. A classically trained violinist and pianist, the Northampton-born artist has played alongside or crafted arrangements for a who’s-who of seminal talents ranging from David Axelrod and Kate Nash to Beyoncé – who she enthusiastically describes as a “force” – and Kanye West.
When we catch up with her at Cairn in her adopted home of Kilmacolm, she’s fresh from providing her deft orchestral affectations to Kelly Jones of The Stereophonics’ recent solo project. Prior to that, she was on the road with Sophie Ellis Bextor during her Songs from the Kitchen Disco tour and will soon be embarking on a lengthy jaunt with Elbow.
Despite her considerable acclaim as a composer and arranger, Fiona is quick to point to the sense of serendipity that she believes has defined her career from the outset.
“I was always a musician and felt like one since I was really, really young, but I just didn’t understand how it could be a job,” she remarked. “I grew up in a small village and my family weren’t musicians, while careers advisors were saying that you should be a doctor, a lawyer or something else practical like that.
“careers advisors were saying that you should be a doctor, a lawyer or something else practical”
“I was a bit obsessed with Prince and I’d watch his videos back-to-back. But I just didn’t know how you’d get from your mum’s front room to that. Because I moved to London for university, I reached a point where I started to meet people who were in bands. At that point, it was like ‘oh ok, this is actually tangible’.
“Because I could write music, some of them would ask me ‘could you do some strings for this?’ And I really enjoyed doing it. Over time, it just kind of became my thing. It chose me more than I chose it in some ways. The great thing about it is that it’s grown organically and I’ve always tried to have a lot of integrity around what I do. Whether it’s well paid or not, you always aim to deliver the same standard.”
Although she considers herself “more of a writer than a performer”, Fiona Brice has strode out on some of the biggest stages in the world. Not least of all, during her decade-long duties with alt-rock icons Placebo in which her talents didn’t just become an integral part of their studio arsenal, but of their globe-trotting live show too.
“A lot of one-off gigs are quite impersonal, but things became a bit more serious when I went on tour with Placebo,” she reflected. “The first orchestrations I did for them were on Meds but I actually knew Brian and Stefan before that as we’d always be at the same gigs. Playing across the world with them was a whole different level.
“Before that, I always had other jobs but that allowed me to phase them out completely and make it all about the music. When you’re on that sort of schedule, you just experience the music industry and the world in a completely different way.
“But if you walk out in front of 10,000 people and you don’t feel anything, something’s wrong,” she said of her decision to end her time with them in favour of focusing on the recording of her debut solo album, 2017’s Postcards From.
“The guys completely understood and I actually did work with them earlier this year, but it was just time for me to stop. A decade passed so fast with them, so it came to a point where I knew that I’d never be able to do any of my solo stuff if I stayed on that treadmill.”
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Unencumbered by any hint of jadedness, Fiona’s passion for both her own work and her contribution to that of others exudes from every excerpt from her career. And despite the fact that she’s done it countless times now, the process of liaising with another artist is one that never fails to yield surprises.
“You have to understand their music pretty thoroughly and put your ego to one side.
The arrangements have to serve the song so it’s not about what I want. I approach it mostly in the same way, but it’s almost like different languages. The kind of thing I’d write for John Grant is the opposite of what I’d do with someone like Passenger.
“With John, I know how far I can push him. I can be quite dissonant or edgy and he’s going to love that whereas other people might be like ‘hmm that’s a bit weird’ (laughs). When you work with an artist more than once, it becomes easier and you understand what’s going to click.
“I’m lucky that I have the balance between recording and live performance, but as a writer, I just love the studio. It can be quite high pressure. For me, if you’re in somewhere like Abbey Road or AIR and you’re conducting the strings, it doesn’t get better than that.”
Although much of her time is devoted to adding grandeur and emotional resonance to the work of others, 2022 is a momentous year for Fiona as an artist in her own right and one project in particular is of immense personal significance.
“I’ve got two things going on. Piano Preludes is an album that I wrote in lockdown. It came about as I just had to set myself a project and try to use the time as I’d be annoyed at myself if I didn’t.
“Then, there’s my next proper LP which is coming out on Bella Union in October,” she proclaimed. “That’s the big one, as it’s been ready for ages but it just kept getting postponed. They’re a label that’s all about vinyl and that’s one of the reasons that I like being with them. I guess I grew up in the era of records so it just feels like a proper piece of art to me when it’s there.
“I made a few significant calls on it,” Fiona elaborated, “one being Dimitri Tikovoï who we did Meds with as well as Julian Simmons [Ed Sheeran, Guillemots, The Staves]. They’re great producers who do slightly different things and I just wanted to have both (laughs).
“Then, I called [Dazed & Confused founder, world renowned photographer] Rankin. I loved this series of flowers he’s been doing, so, I contacted him and asked if he’d let me use some of that artwork and once we got talking, he made a video for me as well.
“He’s someone I’ve known for a long time who has been quite influential and he’d photographed me in my twenties, so it just felt like a full circle thing. It’s quite a retrospective record in some ways with everyone that’s come on board. It just felt like if I’m not going to do it now, then when will I?
“I was waiting until I realised that I didn’t know why I was waiting! I just wanted to make sure I’d expressed myself fully,” she concluded, “as I know I’d be kicking myself in later life if I didn’t.”
Quickfire Q&A with Fiona Brice
Favourite place for lunch? Definitely Cairn!
Favourite place for Dinner? I really like Saffron in Kilmacolm or if I go into Glasgow it’s Crabshakk on Argyle Street.
Best gig? The Orchestral Qawwali Project with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at Celtic Connections, Royal Concert Hall earlier this year. Cross genre performance at its best.
Album everyone should listen to? Beck’s Sea Change. Amazing sounding record with great string arrangements by his father, David Campbell.
Favourite song/piece of music? Dmitri Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1 (recording by Maxim Vengerov / London Symphony Orchestra).