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'Great Gatsby’ Composer on Working With Baz Lurhmann, Florence Welch and the xx

Former Massive Attack collaborator Craig Armstrong reveals plans for next solo album

Craig Armstrong
Courtesy of Symphonic Ltd.
May 23, 2013 1:20 PM ET

While Jay-Z has received most of the attention for the music for Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the score was created by Luhrmann's longtime musical collaborator, Scottish composer Craig Armstrong. Luhrmann and Armstrong have developed a working relationship in the same vein as Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, with Armstrong being the director's music man on William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, for which he won a Golden Globe.

That is how most people know Armstrong, but he is also a gifted solo artist who's collaborated with Evan Dando, the Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser and Massive Attack, among others. Those pairings set him up well for Gatsby, for which he worked with the xx, Lana Del Rey and Florence and the Machine. Armstrong spoke to us about those collaborations, how this film differed from his other works with Luhrmann and his own future solo plans.

Gatsby surprised everybody with the huge opening. Do you keep up on that, or once the music is done, have you moved on?
I heard it did really well and that's fantastic, because a lot of people put a lot of effort into it. I'm really happy for Baz it's done so well.

When Baz approached you and said "I want to do a musical adaption of the great American novel," is the response, "Yeah, that's awesome," or "Dude, you're crazy, but I'll do it with you"?
[Laughs] I think you definitely felt a little bit of trepidation, in the sense that I knew what the novel meant to a lot of people, and also to myself – it's a good work of art. It's a little bit like when Baz took on Romeo + Juliet by Shakespeare, it's a similar brave thing to do. So when he asked me to do it, you definitely did feel the weight of responsibility to the subject. And, of course, we just wanted to make it as good as you can possibly make it and write as good music as you could do.

'Great Gatsby': Baz Luhrmann Wonders What Fitzgerald Would Think of Film

Were you a big fan of the book?
In actual fact I never read the book until I started working with Baz, but I was familiar with the story, and I'd seen the original movie. It was only really in 2011 I read the book, and once I read it I was really mesmerized and absolutely loved the book, which made it even more nerve-wracking. It made me realize this is really a great work of art, and in another way, it was typical of Baz to choose a novel that has so much emotion and depth. So I totally understood why he was fascinated. Also, for me, writing music for it – in a way it was a great opportunity, because the book deals with so many complicated subjects emotionally. You have the obvious love affair, but behind that a lot of philosophical questions, and of course the whole thing of time passing and life passing. So musically it was a very, very rich subject. People really aren't making movies like that anymore, and there was a lot of time within the movie to really develop the themes for the characters. So I thought it was a really special opportunity, and also a chance to work with Baz Luhrmann again. So it was slightly scary, but also very exciting.

Did you get a chance to work with Jay-Z?
I was working on a Jay-Z track at the very beginning, but then Baz did say to go for a sort of different interpretation at the beginning of the movie, so that track didn't actually happen. I haven't actually met Jay-Z, and from that point on, really the pop artists that I was involved with were xx, Lana Del Rey and Florence and the Machine.

I am a big fan of your solo work. Could we see more of your solo material where you work with vocalists?
I just actually finished a new album in the same vein as those records you're talking about. I've literally just finished recording an album like that. It's mostly instrumentals, but I work with Brett Anderson from Suede and Paul Buchanan from the Blue Nile.

Is there a timeline for when you think people will hear it?
I'm hoping to release it round about September, so that's the plan at the moment.

Any chance of your doing a show Stateside with all these vocalists?
When I released these two albums initially on Massive Attack's record label I did do a few shows, but mostly in Europe, especially in France. But you're right, I've never done anything in America, so I'd really like to do that.

How have all the other things you've done in that time, be they scores or orchestral pieces, influenced the new material?
I really meant to get back to doing that a little bit sooner, but I don't want to rush it, and I don't want to ever repeat exactly what I did before. And so I took my time doing that, and getting people like Paul and Brett to do a track, I worked with the electronic artist Vladislav Delay. And so by the time everybody's schedule gets together and you pick a time . . . I recorded last year, and I recorded a lot of tracks so I had to decide what's in, what's out. It has taken a little bit of time. One of the main reasons was I did an opera last year, a Scottish opera for the Edinburgh Festival. And that took up a whole year, and obviously I did the bulk of that work before I did Gatsby, but it's just I've been busy, and by the time I get refocused on a new solo record, time seems to pass so quickly.

What did you learn working with the pop artists on Gatsby that may apply to other projects?
The track that gave me the most room to play with was the xx track "Together," because they really had a wide-open canvas and just said "do what you want." The Lana track was a more traditional beautiful song, and with Florence, Baz and I worked with her in the studio with that track. That was a kind of improvisational experience. I would say with the xx track I tried not to think of it as a pop track or commercial track. I just saw it as a piece of music, and what I did was quite kind of abstract, and I think it worked pretty well.

Were there things about the artists that surprised you?
I never realized how beautiful Florence's voice was until I heard it in the room, because I'd heard a lot of her records and stuff, but I hadn't really realized she has a real magical quality. On a lot of her records she's singing quite forcefully, and in actual fact I thought it was really nice to hear her sing delicately and beautifully. And with the xx, when I was working with them, they have a particular sound and that was different, because they're a band, and of course a big thing that Baz wants me to do is to try and integrate the sound of the songs into the score, because in a way the score of the album is really quite traditional and each character has its own voice and its own melody. And so one of the games we were trying to play was to make sure the songs and the score have orchestrally the same world.

What would you like to see Baz do next?
I'd quite like him to do something very simple in a way, sort of like when David Lynch did The Straight Story. It wasn't so epic and so broad, and I think I'd really like to see him do a very simple English love story, one very pure. Gatsby is very pure, but the way he approached it had a very big canvas. I'd like him to do something like The Straight Story – just a little, small idea.

Who would you like to see work on the music for this hypothetical movie?
I always think Baz would be great working with David Bowie. I know he's a huge fan of Bowie, and I can see that working really well. I was a big fan of David Bowie's new album, and I think the exploration I started with the xx was very interesting. I think that definitely could go further. 

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