Musician extraordinare Justin Nicholls
PUBLISHED: 10:27 21 January 2011 | UPDATED: 20:31 20 February 2013
The prolific and popular musician whose instruments include a bedstead and an oil can
Sharon Chilcott meets the prolific and popular musician whose instruments include a bedstead and an oil can.
There is at least one musical instrument in every room in Justin Nichollss riverside cottage but even so, the highly original and inventive Wye Valley songwriter and composer has still been known to play the furniture.
In fact, he reveals that inspiration for the atmospheric and chilling music he composed for the British Academy Award-winning series The Force came from his metal bedstead. Justin was short-listed for Best Original Music for The Force, which last year won a BAFTA for Best Director and the Grierson Award for best documentary series.
I am very proud of that and no-one, except the director, knew I was playing a bedstead. Ive worked with Patrick Forbes for 15 years and he said, I dont want to know, just make it work! It produces a horrible sound but it was great for creating tension. The reason it worked was it was a very cold subject and this produces a very cold sound thats why I was inspired to use it.
The idea came upon Justin when he was putting together a new bed he had just bought. I started playing it, like I do everything, and thought, thats the sound. It was that simple.
The next step was to have a special musical bedstead made to his specification by a blacksmith in Somerset, by which time he had imagined the whole score in his head and knew what sounds he needed to achieve. We took one and customised it. He just welded stuff on and I got him to cut bits off to give a different resonance. I played it with an adjustable spanner because it sounds best.
The new bedstead, which he says not only produces the sounds he wanted but looks cool, became the central instrument for his score, which also used the contrasting warmer soundsproduced by African drums.
Justin works in a studio at his home in Llandogo, surrounded by what he refers to as his musical palette, a selection of drums and instruments, with a vocal booth in the corner. I use my voice as an instrument, he explains. He will often buy an instrument specifically for a given project. I feel it enhances the soundtrack and provides something at the centre.
For one of his latest projects, From Haitis Ashes, about the rebuilding of the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince after last years earthquake, he has chosen traditional African folk drums and the Spanish guitar for the central themes. For the award-winning CBeebies animated series Numberjacks, he uses an electric guitar made out of an oil can, inspired by some he had seen in South Africa. Its called a tinkade. I commissioned it from the Bristol luthier Jonny Kinkead. It sounds very African, very warm and I use it principally in the music for the kids show Numberjacks.
Justin talks warmly about his work for this series, which is a worldwide hit with children. The best thing about it is that I have lots of little fans and they are the most honest audience I have. Although Numberjacks is made for three to six-years-olds I dont speak down to them musically. The music is as technically sophisticated as any other. Its full of orchestral sounds, full-on, not baby music, although its more chaotic, full of madness and fun and silliness. I think that is really important as a composer never to underestimate your audience, even if they are three years old. Music is understood more directly by children and they tend to understand the abstract more than older people.
Justin should know about musics appeal to a three-year-old, as thats the age he was when he started playing the guitar, or so he is told. I cant remember, he says. But I started writing songs when I was seven and I played the guitar, accordion and drums all the time.
Justin was born in London to a father who was a mechanic and a mother who worked as a cleaner, but when he was three and a half they moved to Suffolk where there was more space and Justin could make lots of noise.
He didnt learn to read music until he was 12, but from the age of 14 was teaching others to play the guitar and at 16 he had reached Grade 8 and had formed his own rock band, Freeway, which played at Glastonbury, and for which he was the lead guitar, singer and song writer. I had five different recording contracts and even though nothing ever took off with that and the band folded, by the time I was 16 I felt like a veteran in the music business.
Meanwhile he had left school to follow his passion and spent his late teens studying classical music with independent composers and teachers. I badly wanted to go to the Royal College of Music but I had a rude awakening when I went for the interview. I realised I was from the wrong background, my dad was unemployed at the time. I was very upset but I have since had a big realisation that they were right and I would have hated it.
Despite this setback, Justin continued his studies and by the age of 20 he had persuaded his bank to lend him enough money to set up his own studio in his council flat in Camden Town. I got my very first commission when I was 21, for a kids TV programme for Channel 4, which is where I met my wife, Mel. We have been together 21 years now.
He went on to score a host of Discovery Channel series and to establish a solid career in London but by the age of 30 was looking for the next challenge, so moved to Los Angeles to try to establish himself on the film scoring circuit. However, his innovative and individual approach to his music meant that a second rude awakening was in store. When I was living there I saw things from a different perspective and I am now more grounded about the movie thing. I would still like to do one but you have to have the right partnership and what I didnt want to do was end up composing by numbers for huge amounts of money never getting to voice my own sound. I would rather do documentaries for the BBC where I can move people with something that I have formulated and thats new and unique. Thats more important.
Despite not breaking into movies, he had a successful career in LA scoring for US TV series and writing songs which were used in films, most notably Chris Nolans psychological thriller Memento, released in 2000.
Under his pseudonym Monc he was also the first artist to launch himself on the web autonomously with his own label and an interactive, animated website. (www.monc.net). He secured backing of $100,000 from private investors both in the UK and US. It caused quite a bit of noise, he said. It was just me and an art student friend in his apartment making this website before any bands really even knew what that was. It was in 1998 and no one even had email in the UK. I had three top ten releases across the US on the College Radio Charts against all these huge label-backed bands all of my albums T-shirts and promotional material read:Made with no corporate interference. The funding eventually dried up in 2001 and unfortunately we couldnt find anyone to take up the slack. Monc however still exists and my songs are still used in many TV series, particularly on MTV & VH1.
Back in this country, at the Wye Valley cottage which he bought eight years ago, his work has included the music for the award-winning series The National Trust, a BAFTA winner in 2004, and the soundtrack for One Born Every Minute, last years BAFTA winner for Best Factual Series. He is now working on the soundtrack for the second series. Those who work with him particularly value his ability torelate sound to image and in describing a current project, he gives an insight into how he works: With a documentary you really dont know what you have got until half way through. I am writing the music as the director is still filming. I have to project ahead and imagine a lot. I see some very rough footage and come back without it and write the music by imagining the main themes. I like doing that. I like the freedom of inventing something completely new.
He describes his approach to composing as driven by his gut first, head second, continuing: I feel it right here in my stomach and then I use my head and then my skills to hone it, thats my approach.
In the past two years, alongside his work for TV, Justin has written two community musicals performed locally. The latest, The Forgotten, about the Chartists, was performed in Newport last year and funding is now being sought to allow it to be toured to schools. He developed his first musical, The Grim Grey Ogres and the Butterfly Kids with Llandogo Primary School and Chris Ellis, creator of Numberjacks and he is also hoping to tour that to more schools, sharing his enthusiasm with those as young as he was when he took his first steps towards making a noise in the music world.
Pictures by Shaun Thompson