Interview with Sarah Warne
Some edited highlights from an interview we carried out during our Score Relief 2021 competition with Sarah Warne, who served as one of the judges. She shared some really great thoughts on what it takes to work as a composer, how to build your career and shared some of her own experiences that have enabled her to achieve significant success so far.
The interview is available in episodes on our Spotify podcast channel.
Hi Sarah! Some people will be familiar with you from the competition as there was a short bio there, but perhaps you’d like to start by giving us a quick snapshot of who you are and what you do:
I am a composer, primarily for television in the UK, based in South London. I’ve been working in the industry for about 10 years now. My work covers mostly documentaries and drama series.
Sarah’s Portfolio: http://sarahwarne.com/portfolio/.
One called Time, for BBC1, which features Sean Bean, and a four-part thriller for ITV later this year. Beyond drama I really enjoy documentaries. They’re very different beasts, requiring a different approach.
I started in the industry doing primarily documentaries and it’s been a sort of a transition into drama. Now I do a bit more drama than documentary, I’m really keen to keep documentaries going, though.
Can we talk about the very beginning: getting into music and your education, how you made that into a profession? What were the steps to achieve it?
Yeah I was always really interested in how people began. What struck me was that everyone had a really different story of how they got into the industry.
I have always played piano and harp since I was little, so I was classically trained initially. And I was sort of a child who loved doing variations on songs and writing music for the school play. So it was always there in the background. But I did a degree in English literature, because I loved stories, I loved reading. So the love of narrative has always been there. But I felt like I wasn’t quite ready to let music go. This is such a competitive industry so I thought what kind of chances I have of finding my way in the industry, but maybe I ought to just give it a go so that I don’t have it as a regret later in life. So that was my approach. I wasn’t expecting a living to come from it, but I thought I’d give myself a sensible period of time to give it a go.
I also applied to a film school. I had no connections in the industry, so I thought I would forge some relationships of my own. I went to the National Film & Television School in Beaconsfield which is an amazing institution. And I did actually meet some really incredible people that I continue to work with today. I graduated about seven years ago and I’m still working with some of them.
Had you been continuing with music while studying English literature?
I played in the university orchestra with harp. But I had this feeling that performing wasn’t the thing that I loved. It was the writing, exploring and creating. I’ve always got a little bit nervous performing, even from a young age. The really wonderful thing about composing is you are performing in private. So once I discovered my love for writing and that it was a very private thing, that was the right area for me.
It was really tough at the beginning. It was very difficult financially to see how this might become a viable means of living but enough change was happening every year that I thought I’m not quite ready to turn away from it and it’s almost without realising, it’s become almost beyond full-time!
How long was the course?
Two years, a master’s. Not like a traditional masters in the sense of lots of essays, it’s very practical. There were lots of directors, producers, editors, heads of department and you were just making short film after short film, really practising your craft, really finding out who you connected with creatively, a lot of feedback, a lot of discussion, so it was a really creative two years. It felt like beginning in the industry, if that makes sense.
Sometimes when I’ve worked with people that haven’t come through the film school system, they’ve been surprised at how collaborative my approach has been. Collaboration has always seemed very natural to me. I don’t just get the material, write the music and ‘thank you very much’. It’s like a constant dialogue and not every director I’ve worked with has had that experience.”
I had a fascinating chat with one of our community, Gilad Lazovski, who won another scoring competition – Pannonia. He said that his approach was to find a part of the sequence that sparked the first seed of an idea and then build it from there.
That’s really interesting. I was listening to Rachel Portman speaking. She was talking about a score that she’d done. She would block out a skeleton score and referred to it as her washing line and she’d hang different bits of melody and harmony off the washing line.
Do you tend to vary your approach?
The skeleton approach is good late at night. I tend not to like going to bed just having finished a cue. I like to put something down for the next cue. I also sometimes do sessions with musicians to create materials.
“Collaboration has always seemed very natural to me. I don’t just get the material, write the music and ‘thank you very much’. It’s like a constant dialogue.”
So you came out of the school with the showreel, network and qualification. What happened next?
There were a couple of things that were really exciting and interesting just as I was graduating. One of them was that I worked on a graduation animation, called “The Magnificent Lion Boy”, directed by Ana Caro Sabogal and that film was selected in Cannes which was tremendously exciting, cause we were all in a team and everyone was in their 20s. That was an enormously exciting experience.
I’d also invited a couple of agents to our graduation show. I signed with one of them for about 7 years. While I was with them, the first key moment was an introduction to BBC Worldwide, who hold a database of working composers in the UK so they present about 8 composers blind and the directors listen and choose. That happened to me. I pitched for a WWI documentary and fortunately they chose my work blind. That changed things going forward because I started to build a portfolio.
Timing and luck are such an elusive thing but I do think that the more opportunities you try to create for yourself, the more ‘lucky’ you become.”
I do think that schemes like what BBC Worldwide have is brilliant and I’ve told lots of young composers to get in touch and pitch for projects.
“I do think that the more opportunities you try to create for yourself, the more ‘lucky’ you become.”
What would you say about agents?
It’s asked a lot. There’s a certain truth in not looking for an agent, wait until they find you, because it means that they are interested in specific opportunities. It’s definitely not essential. I know lots of successful composers who don’t have an agent. But it does remove you from the negotiation process, which can be useful and make sure your terms are fair. It’s really great to have someone fighting your corner but it’s not crucial. Don’t feel like you can’t be successful without one.
“When you find your people, who respond to the way you sound, that is almost unbreakable because your sound is unique.”
Your network from the school was clearly crucial. What about other ways to form a network, such as The Cue Tube.
Two pieces of advice…Work on your own sound, don’t let your own sound get lost by trying to sound like other people. When you find your people, who respond to the way you sound, that is almost unbreakable because your sound is unique.
The other is networking. Do it with intent. Find filmmakers you really admire. Try to create a relationship with the intention of working with them. If you’re genuinely interested in a kind of filmmaking, it shows, rather than blindly hoping for anything.
At the film school it was exciting I was connecting with people who had the same vision and drive. It’s been so exciting because of the memories of what we did at the school which were like an acorn of what it’s become.
I think our year was unusually collaborative. When I was there there were about 80 people across 12 departments. There were four composers! But I know that the film school has expanded.
We’ve most spoken about career rather than creative advice but I think that’s fine – I’m conscious of your time!
Not at all! This is experience rather than advice. This is such a difficult industry within which to give advice because it’s such a different experience for everyone. I guess I just hope that if there’s anyone that thinks “Oh heck, I don’t know anyone. I don’t know how to make a career in music. Should I just give it a go and see what happens?”…that would be me! That’s kind of where I was.
Don’t miss the full interview on You Tube in which we discuss:
- How music became a full-time job;
- Pitching work to Directors at BBC;
- Building a portfolio, creating content;
- The fear of the blank page and decision making;
- What to start with and where to stop and sign off;
- Changing approaches and finding what works better for you;
- Creative process and strategies in writing;
- “People are looking for stories”.
We asked Sarah how she goes about maintaining and upgrading her studio in London:
So there’s a really great company…called Yellow Technology. It’s run by Pete Eaglesfield. He’s fantastic and he’s got a team of, I think, about 5 or 6. They cross over both the computer side and also the audio gear side of things…so they tend to service just composers and producers. They’re so useful because they’re really on top of the upgrade situation.
So you can ring Yellow and find out how many are on Catalina, how many on Big Sur, what seem to be the issues coming up? And they’ve collected this big sort of knowledge forum of how to manage your system moving forward, because things are changing all the time. They’re absolutely wonderful and I’m not unique – lots of UK composers use Yellow Technology as a service and they’re just fantastic. I think it works so well because if they’re helping so many clients, that becomes an invaluable database of challenges that people are experiencing.
Also…there’s a forum on facebook called Scorecast. A lot of the working composers belong to that. It’s a very generous, open forum where people share technical issues, gear issues or sometimes people share like great session musicians and that kind of stuff as resources. That has also been a really great tool and help to lots of working composers because people share even like what kind of fees people have paid for sessions. So people are very very open, which I think is a fantastic resource.
Summary of key points from Sarah Warne based on her own experience:
“Work on your own sound.”
Know what kind of music you like and how you sound.
Because then you’ll find your people — your filmmakers, your producers and people who will respond to how your sound. That kind of relationship is unbreakable.
Find filmmakers that you really admire and try to establish relationships.
Engaging with people who bring out different sides of your creative personality is really great when you’re starting out. Whilst you’re finding out who you are and consolidating the voice that you like to have in the industry is a great thing to do.
Having an agent is not essential and don’t spend your time looking for one, let them find you when they have something that matches what you do.
Interviewed by Bryan Waters
Edited by Yelyzaveta Dembovska
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Stay tuned on our YouTube channel for the full interview and further great content for composers, sound designers and filmmakers.
You might also be interested in:
- Archie’s Diary — our series following a young composer building his career
- Interview with Score Relief 2021 Winner – Denizcan Aktaş