On her Instagram account in 2020, Isabella Summers posted a screenshot of a question from the quizshow Pointless: “What is the nickname of Florence Welch’s musical collaborator, Isabella Summers? A) Magician B) Machine C) Maestro.” Underneath, Summers supplied her own answer: “All three, mother****ers”.
She wasn’t wrong. As the co-founder and keyboardist alongside Welch, she was the Machine. Still is, in fact. Despite her absence from this year’s Dance Fever album and tour, she hasn’t officially left the band – nor, it seems, officially explained her absence to Welch, but more on that later. Magician? Well, she may have written, produced and remixed tracks for Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson and Juliette Lewis, among many others, but Summers is able to move through the world invisibly.
If her flame-haired counterpart were here in the Cy Twombly room at Tate Modern on a busy Tuesday during half-term, she’d be mobbed. But even when Summers is regaling me with tales of attending Beyoncé’s songwriting camp in the Hamptons (Jay-Z and Bey’s dinner party game of choice: What have you stolen?) no one realises they’re in the presence of British rock royalty. The anonymity doesn’t bother her. “No, that was never the MO,” she says. “The idea of being a performer wasn’t necessarily at the forefront of my mind. I like to be able to … sit behind.”
But it’s the maestro in Summers that we’re here to talk about. In the last few years, the 42-year-old has reinvented herself as a composer of film and TV scores. In 2012, she and Welch co-wrote the end credits song for the fantasy film Snow White and the Huntsman. Then in 2018, a friend of hers, the director and producer Sam Levinson, asked if he could use her song Rage in his film Assassination Nation. Having studied film at London’s Central Saint Martins, she loved the idea. “I thought, this is where I want to be,” she says. “Then suddenly people were saying, ‘Hollywood needs you, music supervisors need you. You’re a badass, you’re a woman, you’ve got cinema in you, just do it.’”
Music supervisor Mary Ramos hooked her up with the prolific composer Mark Isham for the Netflix series Little Fires Everywhere and the result was a 2020 Emmy nomination. Since then she has solo-scored two series of Apple TV’s Physical, Paramount Plus’s series The Offer, about the making of The Godfather, and five feature films including Phyllis Nagy’s Call Jane and Netflix’s new adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre.
While a lot of eyes will be trained on the nude alfresco antics of stars Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell in that film, Summer’s modern classical score is a delight: delicate and considered, spare in parts, using full orchestra and single instruments. “Laure wanted to do something that was very intimate and simple,” she says. “It was really nice to experiment with just a single violin and interesting to play with instruments against the constrictions of what was played at the time [the novel is set in the 1920s]. I went down a rabbit-hole about when the first bass guitar was used – actually the 40s – and I thought ‘I can’t use it’, but it sounded so modern and cool. Then I ended up working with synths and Laure loved that, so it all worked out.”
She describes the score as “me trying to be intelligent about music”. Perhaps the slight self-consciousness comes because unlike other performers turned composers – Jonny Greenwood, say, or Mica Levi – she is entirely self-taught. “I have to trust in somebody else to translate correctly what my demo sounds like, because I can’t write out notation on page,” she says. She was nervous seeing the film for the first time at last month’s London film festival. “Obviously I toured for 14 years, we played stadiums, but this was a different context. I was like: Oh my God, I’ve been making this stuff for a year in an intimate scenario all by myself and now I’m sitting in a cinema with my own score coming out in this huge space. It was epic.”
Summers is ridiculously likable. With pre-Raphaelite wavy hair cascading over a long black coat and heeled boots, she revels in being born on Halloween and has a penchant for the gothic. We meet the day after her birthday, which was celebrated in a Soho pub, during which she read out bits of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to her friends because, to her delight, she’s also scoring the forthcoming 1980s-set Lisa Frankenstein. “It’s like Drop Dead Gorgeous, a romcom with black humour.”
The reason we’ve met under Cy Twombly’s bloody dripping canvases in Tate Modern is not only because Summers is passionate about art – and when touring would always visit galleries on her days off – but because she is also now Twombly’s unofficial composer. In 2019, the Gagosian gallery invited her to compose a score to accompany his work, incorporating the Rainer Maria Rilke poetry Twombly used in his paintings. “I wanted Samuel L Jackson to do the poems because that would have been more gangster but they said it had to be me,” Summers says wryly. She has performed the 12-minute work alongside Twombly’s sculptures in LA and smaller-scaled works in Rome, and on 5 December will perform with a full orchestra in front of his paintings back in Los Angeles.
That collaboration came about after Summers walked into the Gagosian one afternoon with “a handbag full of cash” and attempted to buy a $45,000 lithograph by Ed Ruscha. The person at the desk turned pale and quietly suggested she might pay in a more official manner. “It was hilarious, but the word went round and they were like, ‘We wanna take this rock star with us,’” she grins. “The idea came up of doing something with sound.” It also led to her going for dinner at Larry Gagosian’s house, “surrounded by blockbuster paintings, early Basquiats and Warhol”, and inevitably meeting Ruscha there. “I said, ‘I bought one of your pictures for cash’ and he said” – she adopts a growly American accent – “‘It’s the only way to do it …’”
Summers grew up surrounded by art and music. Born in London, she moved with her parents and brother to Aldeburgh in Suffolk when she was eight. Her mother, Liz, is an artist and bookseller and Robin, her late father, was an actor and a huge influence on her. She adored him. “Every single celebration since my dad died has been a tragedy,” she says. “It happened two months after the Emmy and it’s still epically fresh.”
As a kid she was heavily into Madonna and then discovered hip-hop. “I remember being 15 and the boys having decks and I was like why can’t I play on the decks?” Inspired by the RZA, she wanted to be a music producer or maybe Quentin Tarantino, studied film and made music on the side. One of her projects at the end of the 2000s led to her meeting Welch. Summers suggested they write some songs.
“From the moment Florence and I sat down, the melding of our two brains together made it what it was. That was it, that easy,” she says. “And it never got complicated. We could sit down with a laptop and in half an hour have made something amazing.”
After her dad died she found a mixtape he’d made. “It opened with our demo of Between Two Lungs and it made me hysterical. I was like, ‘This is so beautiful – we didn’t even know what we doing.’” Those early days were “chaotic and creative and exciting, full of romance and glitter,” she says. “I wanted to be a producer in my studio but also realised that this music would make us see the world – and it did, over and over again. What’s beautiful is that it will keep returning.”
So she hasn’t left? “I’ve not left. But I also don’t want to give an official line. It’s natural to take a step away from something. I actually didn’t really think about it. I was having meetings, booking all these jobs and then it was like ‘Florence’s tour starts’ and I was like, ‘Who am I supposed to be at this moment?’”
So she had to tell her she couldn’t do it? Pause. “I didn’t. I actually didn’t. It was just unspoken. It’s a deep connection we have. We don’t need to, because the love is so real, so sisterly. We’re inked on each other’s souls.”
In the meantime, she has a few things on the slate. Alongside Lisa Frankenstein she has Stefon Bristol’s futuristic sci-fi film Breathe; the cartoon series Strange Planet; Mrs Davis, a Warner Bros series about artificial intelligence; and the third series of Physical. She likes this new world of having “lots of jobs”, visions to interpret, deadlines to meet. “I’ve been able to be an adult,” she says. “I mean, it’s the best thing ever, playing stadiums, and I really miss dressing up,” she says, “but because I went to art school, I love the making of stuff the most. I wanted to be able to expand my imagination and I’ve got so much more to give.”
Lady Chatterley’s Lover is on Netflix on 2 December
• This article was amended on 1 December 2022. It was Mary Ramos, not Sam Levinson, who introduced Isabella Summers to Mark Isham.