Feature: Elliott Wheeler
Written by Alana Mazurke
Elliott Wheeler is an adept composer and producer who works out of his self founded Turning Point studios based in Sydney. Earlier this year he released his debut solo album The Long Time which was a notable effort after the lengthy six year wait for its completion. The album consisting of nine tracks features prominent female vocal talents throughout and showcases Wheelers apt concept of blending modern folk pop to an orchestral setting. The result is nothing short of stunning.
“…it’s a wonderful part of the industry and I think we’re living in a particular time where we just have the most incredible creative freedom; particularly when you have the luxury to be able to start with the real players and go from there.”
I was fortunate enough to speak to Elliott recently to give some insight into the making of the album. I was especially intrigued as to why it took so long for the release. “It was partly a project I had to keep interrupting and coming back to as I was working on other side projects …either screen or studio and would sort of put it down for a little while. When I’d come back and I would revisit with fresh eyes; or something I’d learned off the last job or from an artist I’d been working with on my screen work and find a new drive for the album.” Despite my original beliefs, the fact that it took six years in the making held only slight relevance to the title The Long Time. “…The tracks themselves are quite slow moving songs that take a little while to get into and build momentum. It’s not an album of songs that necessarily jump out of the speakers at you straight away so that may be why it’s an appropriate title”.
The album was produced at Turning Point studios (formerly known as BJB studios) by Wheeler and long time friend and fellow screen worker Emma Hoy who “…had been very, very involved the entire way through from being a creative sounding board and planning each process of the album.” The album was also partly recorded at studios 301, Trackdown Scoring and Linear where a lot of the orchestral pieces were recorded. With this album banality is nonexistent; five of the nine tracks feature an array of female vocalists splaying the idea of a single genre title for The Long Time. Caitlin Park, Sui Zhen, Loene Carmen, Melodie Nelson and Kristin Berardi all of whom acquire personal successes add a special dynamic to the album.
“I often found that if I’ve worked with someone and could imagine what they would sound like singing a song, it became much easier to write for some reason. I could all of a sudden hear the phrases much easier in my head; in a way where I could actually imagine a particular voice singing it…because also there’s things sometimes that when you work with someone you hear a certain part of their range or certain way of phrasing that they have then you can sort of hear that; that sort of particular area could be something you could explore and sort of push in a direction that you may not go necessarily into in your own music it’s a really nice way of creatively writing…”
Wheeler himself has been likened to that of notoriously ethereal lead singer Anthony Hegarty of Anthony and The Johnsons; a comparison to which he is very humbled. Regardless of trying otherwise, Wheeler’s voice sits naturally at high soprano or falsetto. “It’s for some reason where my natural range sits and where I naturally hear melodies. That’s probably why I write so much for females; I don’t know why really, it’s almost like one of those things where you’re running away from your own voice…”
Having completed his studies in composition and brass at the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney, Wheeler continually expands his knowledge of music by transferring between screen works; film scoring, composing and creating his own music. This array of experience opens the dynamic of the album giving it a superbly professional finish. I was intrigued to know how Wheeler, a revered composer, deals with going about producing in album where modern day technology is vital to making an album. “It’s something that as a modern composer that’s very, very much a part of your life. It’s an area that I’m extremely comfortable with and is a big part of my own experimentation. With this album we were lucky enough that on quite a few of the tracks if I had managed at the end of a recording session with the orchestra for a separate screen project to finish early, I’d ask if the players would mind playing an album track or two so I was lucky enough to hear an orchestra play the album live. I’d then focus on bringing those sounds back into the studio and fiddle around, treating them and filtering with them…playing with them that way.”
First single off the album is track ‘Baker Man’; not to be confused with the nursery rhyme. “Although the reference to the rhyme is there, I’d rather let people take what they want from the story.” The film clip to the melodically beautiful and daunting single was created by fellow Sydney based artist Marieka Walsh, an AACTA award winning animator, to stunning results. “She just had this very, very clear concept of it being under water and the way it was set …which wasn’t any way at all how I had wanted to do so it was all very much her idea.” Not only had the gifted Walsh perfectly captured the mood of the song, she delivers it so seamlessly; making every piece of the clip by hand. “It took her a long, long time. I was very, very lucky she poured herself into the project…I’m just so ecstatic at how incredible it came out.”
“There were so many wonderful memories I mean working with Baz [Lurhmann] and taking a musical brief from him… He had such an incredible idea of what he wanted the music to be. You’ll literally be standing in front of a scene and he’d be there singing and conducting everything whilst still directing.”
Most recently, Wheeler had been working on blockbuster film ‘The Great Gatsby’ providing both collaborative and self made material for the soundtrack; working with names such as Jay Z, Jack White and original film composer Craig Armstrong. One of his most memorable experiences was over in London, meeting and collaborating with the legendary Bryan Ferry. “It was so incredibly amazing…he had this group of 1920s style jazz players that we did a lot of work with throwing all these 1920’s jazz sounds around. Even just hanging out at the Roxy Studios with him was absolutely amazing experience.”
Wheeler works a lot in scoring or assisting the production of film. I questioned him on just how hard it was to sit and watch a film after working on the sound; whether it was even possible to fully enjoy the movie rather than sit and critique your own work… “It can be an excruciating process because no matter how much work you’ve put into it and how wonderful the overall product is you always notice everything happening in the soundtrack when it’s your own music. Particularly when you a see a film and you’ve mixed it in a certain way, when you hear off so many different speaker systems there’s a process of your ears adjusting to the new and to what the room actually sounds like. But then you have those, particularly when it’s a project like Gatsby where there are so many different people involved… you do have that wonderful moment where you suddenly realise you’ve been watching the film for 20 minutes and you haven’t just been listening to music; you’ve just been caught up in the story particularly when it is a compelling and well told story. That seems to be happening more and more often but still, you’re always very, very aware of what’s happening sonically.”
Watch the single ‘Baker Man’ here: