Razorlight's Andy Burrows is the new Aled Jones
The Snowman and the Snowdog: How do you rival The Snowman and, more terrifyingly, 'Walking in the Air'?
Thirty years since it first aired, Raymond Briggs’ ‘The Snowman’ has become a Christmas staple. So how do you go about writing its long-awaited sequel? What do you do if you are the man tasked with penning the song that will have to rival 'Walking in the Air'?
Sunday 09 December 2012
A wintry day at Abbey Road in north-west London. Outside, the permanent gaggle of tourist Beatles fans stride back and forth across the zebra crossing, cameras forever clicking, pens poised to grafitti greetings such as “Paloma from Madrid” on the white perimeter walls.
This grey afternoon, all the visiting Fab Four apostles, reassuringly, are wearing shoes. Well, it is cold underfoot. Inside the famous studios, another snip of musical history is being made. It’s obviously nowhere near as epochal as any of the albums The Beatles made here.
But for people of a certain, younger age – and for those of a more sentimental hue – a different landmark is being recorded. For today is the day that “Walking in the Air” is consigned to the recycling bin of nostalgia.
“Shall we have all the strings for the magic bit?” says Ilan Eshkeri. The young British soundtrack composer is perched on a seat in the control room of Studio 1.
He is talking to producer Steve McLaughlin, sitting a few feet away at a huge mixing desk and, via a microphone, to Andy Brown, conductor of the London Metropolitan Orchestra, whose 60 players are arrayed in the huge live room. Soon, the swelling sound of strings, brass and woodwind fills the air. Above them, a TV screen shows a rough pencil animation of a snowman and a boy flying through the sky.
“Shall we have one more for luck?” wonders Eshkeri, whose last cinematic score was for Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus. “No!” barks McLaughlin, in a former life a punk musician but for the past 25 years a Grammy-winning music producer and supervisor (he worked on About a Boy with Badly Drawn Boy). “We don’t have time.”
“Right,” comes the voice of the conductor. “We’ll do ‘Finding the Shed’.” “Sled!” shouts Eshkeri with a shake of his head. Tucked at the back of the control both, a straggle-haired rock star grimaces slightly, before scurrying up the stairs.
“I’m out of my depth here,” whispers Andy Burrows. On a technical level, he might be. But Burrows – the former drummer with Razorlight turned solo artist – is the reason everyone is gathered here this afternoon. Thirty years since Channel 4 presented Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, a sequel has finally been made.
The Snowman and the Snowdog is being shown this Christmas, a tentpole piece of programming in the festive schedule helping mark the broadcaster’s own 30th birthday.
And Burrows is the man charged with crafting a song that must do for the new animation what “Walking in the Air” did for the original. “From a visual and audio point of view, it’s great to have a feel of the first film,” Burrows says as he sips tea in Abbey Road’s canteen next to members of the Vaccines (here recording a live TV show).
“But we needed to do something completely different. ‘Walking in the Air’ is one of the most incredible bits of music ever,” the supremely affable Burrows affirms with his customary, snark-free sincerity.
“Every Christmas it comes around and everybody knows it. As soon as I’ve told anyone I’m doing this, they all go [choirboy trill], ‘ We’re walking in the air!’ – that’s the reaction. Or they say, ‘Oh, are you gonna ask Aled Jones then?’ It’s iconic. It’s part of the fabric of this country.”
Writing for The Snowman and the Snowdog is, then, snow joke. Burrows couldn’t flake out or drift. He had to give the commission his all. “I think we really wanted to come at it from a slightly more… modern angle,” the 33-year-old continues.
“We wanted the soundtrack to feel like a cohesive thing. It had to be fully respecting of the last one, but also move it on a bit. I think it’s a tiny bit more contemporary. And when I say contemporary, I don’t mean it’s got a rap in the middle of it,” he smiles.
“But it’s certainly not so choirboy-ish – there’s a little bit more of a pop element going on.” Burrows and Eshkeri have collaborated on the whole score for the new animation.
They’ve called in some indierock pals, including Tim Wheeler from Ash to add guitar and singer Emmy the Great to help with choir vocals. Plus, for a scene involving a helter-skelter snowmen ski-race, Burrows has recorded a “drum duel” with his close friend Dom Howard of Muse.
But the central song, written by Burrows, is “Light the Night”. It soundtracks a flying sequence (the details of which the producers have asked me to keep quiet). So that makes it, effectively, “Walking in the Air 2”.
“Effectively, I suppose,” says Burrows reluctantly. “Although that’s an absolutely terrifying thought. And bizarrely the only voice you hear in the whole film is mine.” Which makes Burrows the new Aled Jones.
“Well, no – especially because he didn’t sing the original in The Snowman. He sang the re-recorded version.” And therein lies another winter’s tale. raymond briggs’ The Snowman was published in 1978. The acclaimed children’s author’s book had no words but artfully, beautifully told the story of a lonely boy who builds a snowman that, come the stroke of midnight, sparkles into life.
In the words of Hilary Audus, director of The Snowman and the Snowdog and a member of the original animation team, “All Raymond’s stories are about growing up and loneliness and friendship and loss.” To date the book has sold 8.4 million copies worldwide.
Four years later, an animated adaptation of the book was one of the first commissions by the fledgling Channel 4. The Snowman was first broadcast on Boxing Day 1982, and has been a Christmas staple ever since. “ Walking in the Air” has proved just as resilient.
In the 27-minute short, the song – composed by Howard Blake – was sung by St Paul’s Cathedral choirboy Peter Auty. But on the single version Welsh chorister Aled Jones took over, and the song reached Number 5 in the charts in 1985. For much of the intervening three decades, TV producer John Coates tried to persuade Raymond Briggs to allow a sequel to the Oscar-nominated Snowman to be made.
Coates – who died of cancer in September – worked on most of the TV adaptations of Briggs work, from The Snowman onwards. For the 20th anniversary version of the original film, he convinced Briggs to sprinkle snow on the end credits – to suggest, says The Snowman and the Snowdog co-producer Ruth Fielding, “that there’s the possibility that The Snowman might return”.
“Whenever people like producers have success,” says Briggs by way of explaining his reluctance heretofore, “they always want to cash in on it and do number two and then number three – which I thought was just, as I say, cashing in on it. So I kept saying I didn’t like the idea.”
As the 30th anniversary of both broadcaster and film approached, Coates redoubled his efforts. He said he would get as many of the old team together as possible, including Audus and Joanna Harrison, who is the art director of the new film.
“And Raymond melted,” says Camilla Deakin, Fielding’s partner at Lupus Films, pun quite possibly intended. As Briggs puts it, “It is such a huge gap of time, that it is hardly cashing in on the first one.”
In February 2011, Deakin and Coates went to see Jay Hunt. She had just started as Channel 4’s chief creative officer. “She’d commissioned The Gruffalo, so we knew she liked animation and Christmas specials,” recalls Deakin when I visit her and Fielding at Lupus Films’ studios in Islington, north London.
“And she almost fell off her chair – ‘A sequel to The Snowman? Of course! What can I do to make it happen?’”
Coates and the producers at Lupus insisted that any new film had to be done in the same way as the first: “traditional, hand-crafted, all made in one studio in Britain,” recounts Deakin.
“I’m really glad she got it, and knew there was no point in trying to cut corners or computerise it or ship it out [to foreign animation teams]. So consequently it was expensive for Channel 4 – very expensive. But I think they realised they could show it for another 30 years. And it has huge value off-air as well,” she adds, referring to DVD sales, merchandising and general marketing exposure.
Indeed, the seasonal iteration of the channel’s floating “4” ident is being animated in a Snowman and the Snowdog style. There will also be an audiobook, read by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Hilary Audus and Joanna Harrison, well-versed in the world of Raymond Briggs, were commissioned to write a new story. The pair knew that their reboot needed to add another character to the story. But what? At one point a hamster was mooted. Wisely, they persevered.
“There are a thousand ways that you can take this story,” Audus tells me in the Abbey Road canteen. “You could have a girl instead of the boy; maybe she was a cousin. Then we thought about some love interest – a snow-woman. But Joanna and I both have dogs, and we were aware that we were constantly being distracted by our dogs wanting to be let out, or come in. So we thought, ‘Hang on…’”
They began writing in the spring of last year. By the autumn, they had a script with which they were happy, and to which Briggs gave his blessing. Why didn’t he write the story himself?
“I think he felt it was in good hands,” replies Deakin. “He writes books. Well, to be correct, he illustrates books. And he doesn’t write TV and film scripts. He’s always trusted John and his team, and in this case our team. But he is overseeing the whole thing.”
In January this year, the production began. As more than 50 animators and background artists toiled in the Lupus studios, Fielding and Deakin turned their attention to the music. They knew they needed a soundtrack score and songs – “two entirely different disciplines”, says Deakin.
“And with the burden of the expectation of there being a hit song within the film,” adds Fielding, “we thought we needed someone who could do both.” Ilan Eshkeri’s name figured early and prominently.
He had worked with big stars such as Shirley Bassey, and has scored all Matthew Vaughn’s films, including X Men: First Class and Layer Cake, and had also worked with Take That on “Rule the World”, which was written to play over the end credits of Vaughn’s Stardust.
“We wanted the score and the song to be integrated,” says Fielding, “a seamless mix from one to the other. So the composer had to in effect commission the songwriter. So Ilan came up with a list…” “I said to them, ‘You need to go enormous, get the hugest band you can find,’” remembers Eshkeri.
“Or you have to discover someone amazing, and nothing in between. If you go for the really huge, sure, you get all their fans and a media buzz. But you have much less control.”
“Big names were bandied around at the start,” admits Deakin. But the producers were concerned: a big artist casts a long shadow. A huge rock or pop act might “hijack” the film.
Plus, the filmmakers would be at the mercy of the A-lister’s schedule, record-company politics, and egos. “And with The Snowman, the story is king,” states Deakin. “ Also, because of the hand-crafted nature of the film, we wanted something that felt quite folky and handmade. We wanted it to feel honest.”
If you were writing Andy Burrows’ personal and musical CV , you couldn’t come up with a better description. As a member of Razorlight, the Winchester-born drummer was the likeable, you might say acceptable face of the British rock group.
Led by the turbulent mouth and trousers that was singer Johnny Borrell, the four-piece quickly became one of the biggest bands in Britain in the years following the release of their self-titled 2004 debut.
Borrell was a great frontman, a handsome, skinny, electrifying presence in the great English tradition. He was also a prize pranny, infamous for his gobby proclamations ("Dylan is making the chips, I’m drinking champagne") and selfish egomania.
Eventually Burrows - who is also an accomplished singer and guitarist - had had enough. He had a big hand in writing two of Razorlight’s biggest hits, "Before I Fall to Pieces" and the number-one hit "America", but felt there was little room for his songwriting contribution to grow within the band.
He left in 2009. "I was all out of coping mechanisms," he told me the following year, "booze being one of them...I was doing things like having counselling just to cope with it."
In 2010, Burrows released a solo album under the name I Am Arrows. It showcased his effortless way with a sweet melody, and was followed last year by an album collaboration with his friend and north-London neighbour Tom Smith, the singer with Editors.
Released under the name Smith & Burrows, Funny Looking Angels was a Christmasthemed collection of new songs and choice covers - but, as another Burrows pal, James Corden, recently tweeted, it sounds fantastic at any time of year.
This year Burrows relocated to New York with his wife and three-year-old daughter. There the ever-prolific muso completed work on the new album by We Are Scientists - he’s the touring drummer with the American duo - and finished his second full solo album, Company, which was released last month.
But still. With the best will in the world, Burrows is hardly the obvious choice to score such a high-profile, big-budget animation. Even considering he and Eshkeri's friendship - Burrows’ wife used to be the composer's assistant, and Eshkeri hired the musician to help him on his soundtrack for Johnny English Reborn – Burrows was far from the obvious choice.
The man himself agrees. "Obviously it was hugely flattering," Burrows tells me when we meet in a north-London pub one Sunday evening. He’s thinking back to July, when Eshkeri called him in New York and told him he was being seriously considered for a key musical part in a Big British Animation. "And in some ways bewildering," he adds. "But maybe that’s also because of the way I am.
But it was weird – I heard who else was on the list. There were some big names on there.” Coldplay? “Yeah, yeah,” he nods. “I think in the end that was who they were after…” he says. “Well, I’m sure that’s who any film-maker right now would like to write their music.”
But in the end, when it looked like he was on the shortlist, “I thought, ‘Bloody hell, this is a very bizarre scenario – I don’t want Coldplay to say yes to this, because I want to do it!’
Because when Ilan said it was The Snowman, I literally fell over. I’ve always been a quite a Christmassy, homey, homely bloke. So the idea of getting stuck in with this is utterly dreamlike.”
It is this enthusiasm – plus, particularly, last year’s Christmas-themed Smith & Burrows album – that spoke most loudly to the Lupus team. “The fact that Andy has been so passionate about it means a lot,” says Deakin, “because we’ve poured our heart and soul into the production.
And what you don’t want is someone turning up going [rock’n’roll sneer], ‘Oh, yeah, how much are you gonna pay me?’ You want someone who loves it as much as you do. And Andy really does – you could almost tell he was writing this with his daughter in mind.
And he has a dog just like the snowdog. That was all a very winning combination.” Even the snow-elephant in the room held no fear for Burrows. “What we liked about Andy is he was never frightened of ‘Walking in the Air’,” continues Deakin.
“Some musicians we spoke to were like, ‘Oh my God, it’s such a challenge, and such a burden of responsibility.’ But Andy found it exciting. And he didn’t feel he was trying to go head to head with ‘Walking in the Air’. He and Ilan just went ahead and did their thing. He’s got enough creative confidence in what he does that he’s not freaked out about it. Fair play to him, because it is quite a challenge, and it is something that we’ve been worrying about.”
As he finishes his pint in the north-London pub, Burrows considers the near future. Before the year is out, he’s touring Europe as a support act for both Muse and Amy Macdonald. Tonight, in another pub across the road, there’s a small unveiling of the video for his new single “Hometown”, which appears on both Company and, in a re-recorded orchestral version, on The Snowman and the Snowdog soundtrack.
Former Spice Girl Mel C and TV presenter Gail Porter will both turn up to encourage this well-liked, well-connected musician. And then there’s “Light the Night”, the twinkling, soaring new composition that should – should – light up Christmas telly. “I’ve written it from the perspective of a child who’s watching,” he offers, “a child who is in on this adventure too. And who knows if that’s worked?” he says with a slight gulp.
“We’re following in the footsteps of something hugely iconic, and I don’t expect for one minute that it will be the same as ‘Walking in the Air’. But we have done something straight from the heart. I couldn’t have felt any more involved in a film, purely because I just love the original so much.”
In the Yuletide clamour of special programming and “event” TV hype, bristling with sleigh-bells and whistles, The Snowman and the Snowdog is being pitched as a moment of calm and wonder.
For Andy Burrows – songwriter, dad, big kid – it couldn’t be a better gig. “It’s simple and old-fashioned. It’s got all the values both within it and around it. You wanna be in there flying to the North Pole. But you also want to be sitting by the fire eating a crumpet watching it. It’s an incredible honour to be involved.”
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