Name: Colin Baldry aka Ambient Jazz Ensemble
Occupation: Composer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer
Current Release: The Ambient Jazz Ensemble's London Fields is our via Here and Now.
If you enjoyed this interview with Ambient Jazz Ensemble's Colin Baldry and would like to keep up to date with his work, visit him on Instagram, and Facebook.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I’ve been writing music every day for at least 25 years so I think it’s now part of my DNA.
Ambient Jazz Ensemble is my passion project so there’s a constant impulse to compose with that particular palette of sounds. I love to visualise a scene or a story which informs either where the music comes from or goes to, and there have been films that have influenced pieces.
For example "Breathe It In", which opens the AJE album, was inspired by the film ‘Into The Wild’.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I usually begin with a solid idea ans can visualise exactly how the finished piece will sound, but this is often only a fragment, maybe 4 or 8 bars.
This may stay the way it is or a day later, due to either chance, sounds or change of heart, may have morphed into something completely different.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions’?
Not really, although I’m increasingly finding I record onto my phone or create very skeletal early versions before I forget an idea.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
The blank page scenario can be terrifying! I’ve written and recorded four Ambient Jazz Ensemble albums now and currently the idea of starting a new one seems daunting.
However, I’m constantly storing ideas, either written, recorded on my phone or simply remembered, so I tend to delve into these for that initial burst of inspiration. I’ll often sit at the piano to decipher what I’m hearing before committing to recording anything.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
I’ll sketch whatever seed of an idea there is by programming it in the studio. I’ll then probably get lost in it all day, at the end of which there’ll either be a developed version of that idea or a completely new thread or sometimes both.
I let the idea develop as organically as I can with the Ambient Jazz Ensemble palette of sounds in mind.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
Sometimes it's as if the music takes you where it wants to go and I'll let that happen. Maybe I’ll save the song at this point so I’ve a recall of the original direction but I’ll happily be led into the unknown or unexpected, it happens more often than you’d imagine.
Some days it’s like picking at a stitch or a knot which refuses to budge, then when one tiny thread emerges a cascade of solutions and directions appear, which I'll instinctively follow. Call it chance or hard graft, but often solving those puzzles is well worth it, and it certainly feels like you’ve been led by the music.
A great example of the narrative being out of my hands is "London Fields" from the new album, which started as a rework of a piece that I’d previously rejected and ended up being a complete re-write.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
If I have a strong idea and can visualise the sound of an overall section It’ll be hard to shift me away from that. But if new ideas are sparked then I’m happy to let them take me in another direction, they often become a new section within the same piece or even a new track (see previous answer).
The track "Rise" from the Aura album was conceived in this way. The opening harp figure (which I re-recorded) belonged to a different track initially.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
It is described at home as being ‘lost' or 'in my bubble'.
I’m not sure about spirituality but the one thing I’ve experienced many times is when you’re trying to force an idea music rarely makes it easy for you. However, I’ve found when I take a break and do something completely different the subconscious takes over, a solution or inspiration comes out of nowhere and has me rushing back to the studio to record it.
I’ve also lost count of the times I’ve been awake at night and my head begins to swim with ideas for an Ambient Jazz Ensemble track I’m working on.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
There is a process with Ambient Jazz Ensemble tracks involving scoring for and recording live strings and brass along with soloists. After choosing and editing takes instinct tells me when its finished and ready for mixing.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
As with most studio composers these days, we will tend to build our mixes as the tracks are recorded so once the whole picture is achieved there’s little refinement left. However, by this stage I’ve lost a bit of objectivity, so with every Ambient Jazz Ensemble album there’s been a hiatus before mixing.
At this point it is easier for me to re-evaluate. It’s usually subtle, often editing out or adding in a section, but there have been some brutal decisions at this stage such as ditching vocals from a song in favour of an instrumental version.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
Production and the sound world I create for Ambient Jazz Ensemble is as important as the writing for me.
I recruit a mix engineer, George Shilling, to mix my music from scratch which means the mix I’ve built up over months is largely ignored, albeit used as an initial reference. It’s a vital part of the chain where I can distance myself and re- evaluate the sound of the tracks.
I get involved in the musical aspects of mix but not the sonics so much and I will always have a view regarding the mastering but ultimately leave it to the expert.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
There is always a gap between finishing an album and release and a good chance in my opinion to take a break and refresh. It has been the case with the last couple of albums that I’ve had a surge of new ideas exactly at the time of release. Maybe it’s because there is a fresh focus on Ambient Jazz Ensemble prior to release and a renewed excitement on my part, putting me 'in the zone’.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Music communicates, excites, touches people, the 'mundane' can never achieve or convey such emotion.
When writing a piece you are subconsciously aiming for your music to reach out to the listener. I always believe if it moves me then it will communicate the same to others, so I write for myself in the hope that listeners will be on the same wavelength and feel the same.