Anna Meredith review – a careering getaway ride from musical convention

EartH, London N16
Mixing musical styles with skill and verve, the classical composer turned left‑field pop artist’s exhilarating live show is a feast of sonic possibilities

In 2016, shortly after the release of her celebrated debut, Varmints, Anna Meredith revealed her top tip for composers. “Learn to play Happy Birthday. As soon as people hear you’re a musician they’ll ask you to play it, and I’m always the muppet using one finger going ‘ner-ner-ner’… ‘You had seven years of classical training and this is what we get?’”

Four years on, as a truly hellish version of Happy Birthday (in honour of guitarist Jack Ross) reverberates around this dark basement room, Meredith – composer, producer, all-purpose noisemaker – seems long past caring about anyone’s expectations. “Don’t sing a note that sounds like anyone else’s,” she urges the audience. “Make it sound as horrible as possible.” Being invited to deform this most basic of melodies is, like the rest of tonight’s show, weirdly exhilarating. Meredith and her four-piece band (tuba, guitar, drums and cello, plus Meredith on electronics, clarinet, extra drums and whatever else), clad in a uniform of warped and broken prison stripes, are a careering getaway ride from musical convention, veering through club synths, grungy guitar, sweet pop singing and giant blasts of orchestral brass.

It’s been a long, strange road to get here. Made a junior fellow of the Royal College of Music at 24, Meredith spent more than a decade as a classical composer, writing left-field pieces including music for Hong Kong park benches, Manchester shopping centre lifts, and a sarabande for the resurfacing machine at the Somerset House ice rink. Despite the variety of her work, a hunger for more creative control – the composing life is dependent first on commissions, then on performers’ interpretations – she signed to indie label Moshi Moshi and on two EPS, birthed a new voice, brassy, dynamic, and staccato, typified by the romping, mutating Nautilus, with its sudden eruption of 80s gated-reverb rock drums. Before too long, Meredith became probably the only musician to have played both the first and last night of the Proms and Austin’s South by Southwest festival.

For Meredith, this is matter-of-fact stuff. “Is it classical, is it pop? I don’t really think about it that way,” she’s said. “There’s a beat, there’s a rhythm. Who cares about those distinctions any more?” And she’s right: it’s tempting to affect astonishment at her crossing of the streams, but the conversation between pop and classical worlds has been lively for as long as they’ve both existed, from Shostakovich’s jazz suites via prog rock symphonies to the shared territory between post-rock and contemporary classical. What distinguishes Meredith, and fellow travellers such as Nico Muhly, Mica Levi or Mira Calix, is the fearless gameness with which she throws herself fully into both establishments, highlighting the artificiality of musical boundaries irrelevant to how we now listen.

‘At one point the crowd breaks out in a chant of “Tuba! Tuba! Tuba!”’
‘At one point the crowd breaks out in a chant of “Tuba! Tuba! Tuba!”’ Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Her first two EPs, 2012’s Black Prince Fury and 2013’s Jet Black Raider, were named after imaginary horses from her mother’s childhood; her songs gallop just as free and fantastic through sonic possibilities. Tonight, as she lets loose the mighty Bump, from her last album, Fibs – even bigger, even brassier – tuba player Tom Kelly parps out the giant footsteps of a marauding cartoon monster, and Meredith jabs the air jubilantly with her finger before hammering wildly at the drums by her side. It feels like freedom, but also, in 2020, totally natural.

It’s a night of irresistible builds and delicious wrong-footing, flitting from style to style. Written first in classical notation software before being dressed in synths and beats, Meredith’s songs rarely cleave to pop or dance structures, and she claims to barely listen to new music. If you pick up snatches of other artists in her restless rhythms – the nervy glam-techno assaults of Of Montreal here; the warped, rearing bangers of Battles there; a hint of Björk’s Utopia in the wild, spacious beauty and creaturely calls of Moonmoons – it’s more likely to be your brain desperately searching for patterns than her intention.

Watch the video for Sawbones by Anna Meredith.

One constant, though, is momentum, a dynamic rush: Inhale Exhale, pairing Meredith’s clear, bright vocal with hammering pads and scintillating trancey synths, is hugely uplifting. Her earliest musical memory is working out the melody of a Satie Gymnopédie and leaping around on her bed in joy, and these songs retain that combination of airy and lairy. The only appropriate dance is a happy lurch; at one point the crowd breaks out in a chant of “Tuba! Tuba! Tuba!” Killjoy, sung by drummer Sam Wilson, makes complicated fun its manifesto, its final line, “I don’t buy it,” serving as a kiss-off to po-faced sneering.

And if you weren’t clear yet that Meredith has no truck with the self-consciously serious… she usually closes with a cover, and tonight there’s a medley: Daniel Bedingfield’s Gotta Get Thru This, Abba’s Lay All Your Love on Me – complete with voguing choreography from Meredith and cellist Maddie Cutter – Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe, O-Zone’s Moldovan pop “classic” Dragostea Din Teï, and, in a lovely little detail, the tiniest snatch of the lock-in countdown music from The Crystal Maze to finish. Tonight, though, Meredith has once more safely escaped both the classical, the electronic, the pop and the rock zones to continue on her own weird way, hands laden with gems.

Kitty Empire is away


Emily Mackay

The GuardianTramp

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