For this special Q&A, Local Spins spotlights the noted composer who splits his time between London and West Michigan while creating documentary and drama soundtracks for television and film.
Splitting his time between a home studio in Grand Haven and a “replica” work site in London, 53-year-old Sheridan Tongue has earned a stellar reputation and industry plaudits for his work as a film and television composer who’s scored soundtracks for a wide swath of documentaries and dramas.
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The musician and Belfast native’s film work over the years includes Prof. Stephen Hawking’s acclaimed TV series, the BBC’s “Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History” that recounts Northern Ireland’s unrest and its “Silent Witness” crime drama, National Geographic’s “Narco Wars,” PBS’ “The Lost Artifact” and many more. He also last year released his second album under the IN-IS moniker.
After marrying Spring Lake native Pam Jelier in 1995, Tongue settled in West Michigan a decade ago with his wife and two sons.
He’s also a member of the board for the Michigan Music Alliance, aiming “to help musicians try and move up the ‘music industry’ ladder” and “happy if my career experiences can help artists in any way.”
With that in mind, Local Spins profiles the noted musician today, exploring the unique musical niche he’s carved out in the industry and what it takes for artists to follow a similar path.
Local Spins: Give us a short history of Sheridan Tongue. You grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but how did you first get involved with music?
Tongue: When I was about 10 years old, I remember taking apart my dad’s portable cassette recorder and I discovered that removing the erase head turned it into a multitrack recorder, so I began to write and record my own compositions from that early age. I grew up in a house filled with music, as my father Alan was a conductor and music producer for the BBC and my mother Maddie was a dancer. I studied clarinet, saxophone and piano, but also picked up guitar and bass guitar. I formed a three-piece band called Plectra with my mates Patrick on guitar and Ian on drums, using a borrowed Minimoog to perform our only concert for friends and family.
I went on to play in the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra and Stage Band and I also formed a saxophone quartet called Saxophone Madness. We busked on the streets of Belfast playing our own arrangements of jazz standards and pop songs. That exposure led to bookings for weddings and festivals and funded new instruments for me as well as a fabulous train journey around Europe.
Tongue: I am best known as a composer for film and television, writing scores for dramas and documentaries worldwide. One of my proudest accomplishments was writing the soundtracks for many of Professor Stephen Hawking’s television series including ‘Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking.’ At the press screening for this, his daughter Lucy told me my music sounded like I had managed to get inside her father’s mind. It was a huge compliment and she then introduced me to her father, which is something I will never forget. Growing up during ‘The Troubles’ conflict in Northern Ireland, it was also a huge honor to be asked to score the BBC landmark documentary series ‘Spotlight on The Troubles: A Secret History’ recently.
I also compose under my artist moniker IN-IS and I released my second album ‘2068’ last year which was a very personal project I started in 2018 to explore what the world might look like in 50 years. I took an unconventional approach to 2068 composing the music first and then reaching out to eight vocalists I admired from around the world to write the lyrics. I feel their vocals add to the intimate and unique sound I wanted to create. For my first track, “Daydream,” I worked with Irish folk artist Ailbhe Reddy, I love the hauntingly beautiful tone she brings to this track.
VIDEO: “Daydream” by IN-IS (featuring Ailbhe Reddy)
Local Spins: How did you end up in West Michigan?
Tongue: My wife is called Pam, her maiden name was Jelier and she grew up in Spring Lake with a large extended family in West Michigan. When Pam was at Michigan State University studying mechanical engineering, she spent a year studying through MSU at Surrey University in England where I was studying music and sound recording. I lived on the ‘boy’s floor’ below Pam and we met because the only phone in the building was in our kitchen, so when a call came in for one of the girls, one of us would have to run upstairs and look for the person, we got to know everyone, the magic of old technology brought us together. We got married in 1995 and have two boys, Tristan (22) and Ryan (19). We brought them up in Cambridge in England but moved to Grand Haven in 2011 for a year to give them, and me, a taste of what life would be like living in the US near Pam’s extended family. We all loved it so much we simply stayed on!
Local Spins: How often do you travel overseas back to England for business? Can you achieve most of what you do remotely these days?
Tongue: I usually spend about half the year in the U.S. and half in the U.K.; it depends a lot on the projects I am working on and where I need to be to record musicians or orchestras. With today’s technology I can do more and more remotely and there is less of a need for me to travel as clients are very used to Zoom meetings since COVID struck. Although I did spend seven weeks last autumn in my London studio which is a complete replica of my U.S. studio, so I can work seamlessly in either location.
I actually have two studios in a building called Netil House in London Fields, East London, which is a very trendy area — although I am probably the least ‘hip’ person based there. Netil House is home to a community of creative people running small businesses in fields as diverse as fashion, architecture, design, film, music, publishing, marketing, wellbeing, hospitality, textile and photography. My next door neighbor is a Finnish graphic designer who designed the artwork for my IN-IS “2068” album, so the whole building is a great melting pot of artists and I always look forward to spending time there, although it is much much quieter now with tougher COVID restrictions now in place in the U.K.
Local Spins: How has COVID-19 changed your work and how do you see things playing out in 2021?
Tongue: The first thing I noticed was deadlines being pushed back, as many TV productions had to delay or cancel their planned shoots while they figured out new ways of filming. Editing was also moved to editors’ own homes rather than the typical complex edit suites we were all used too in London. Composing is a solitary profession, but I am used to bringing in people and working remotely, so from my point of view very little changed in how I composed music for film and TV. Producers are now used to hopping on Zoom for a quick catch-up and often we communicate via email and Dropbox with clients’ sending me rough cuts of their pictures as each production progresses, so I can upload a section of my overall soundtrack for feedback. I think you get the best results when music and picture are developing at the same time.
I am currently working on a major new series for AMC and BBC America and this involves liaising with a graphics designer based in the UK who is sending me rough graphics of the opening titles sequence so I can send him various revisions of my opening titles theme. Together we are beginning to get somewhere very exciting and special. He is reacting to my music and I am responding to his images and narrative.
Composing the music for a television series or film it is not just about creating beautiful music to fill up the space. It’s about finding a reason why the music should be there at all, what role the music should have, what the soundtrack should be saying and most importantly, it needs to take on board the wishes of the director about the story being told. Every part of my soundtrack has to be incredibly well thought out and considered, only then can I manage to create a cohesive score that complements the film. The big difference between creating a soundtrack and composing a record is that I’m just one tiny cog in a giant machine, so I have to take onboard the viewpoints of the production team for the machine to run smoothly. Whereas a solo artist can release just about anything.
But it’s working in a team that is one the things that I love most about working with moving pictures. I get to work with very talented directors, producers and editors, collaborating like this with great talent, raises my game and I find it both inspiring and rewarding. I remember a director telling me that we are always trying to create something that is greater than the sum of the individual parts and very occasionally magic happens: the script, the acting, the photography, the editing and the music create a wonderful moment. When that happens, I know I am achieving my best work.
It really shook me to see the impact the pandemic had on musicians virtually overnight both in Michigan and the UK. Musicians are incredibly important to me as they bring my music to life. Income for freelance musicians globally just ceased as their gigs and sessions were canceled.
Local Spins: What projects are you currently working on and where might we see your work displayed over the next year or so?
Tongue: I am currently working on a documentary series for AMC and BBC America. I can’t say too much about it at this stage other than it is a very new genre of show for me. I have a new series airing on National Geographic called “Narco Wars” and I also have a science documentary feature on PBS called “The Last Artifact” about how scientists around the world spent years working to redefine the actual kilogram weight, a hunk of metal in a Paris safe, to a new formula.
Local Spins: What advice would you give to young artists if they want to get involved in scoring and soundtrack work — getting their songs placed in TV, commercials, etc.?
Tongue: Reach out to filmmakers, editors and young directors; they are always looking for new music. I have seen many channels on YouTube where the pictures and content is superb but the music doesn’t fit.
Approach You Tube channels and filmmakers you admire online where you think your music could work for them; always worth sending a quick message and link to your own music. Steven Spielberg approached John Williams to work on one of his first feature films as a young director and then continued to work with John for virtually all of his films, including “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones.” If you can find a director that really engages with your music as an artist then that can lead to many great things.
Try and build connections with creatives in the business. They may not be looking for music right now, but if they like what they hear, then they may come back to you when the time is right. Reach out to music supervisors that you think may like your music. Music supervisors now play a really important role selecting not only the composer for a series but also the source tracks in a series (or synchs). They are always looking for new music and artists all the time.
My first break came when I got to score a short film while on a year’s placement as part of my university course, at a 24-track recording studio in London called The Chocolate Factory. I made many connections in the music business during that placement year and one of them was a Japanese singer called Kazuko Hohki and her group The Frank Chickens who knew of a short film being made where the composer needed someone with a little bit of ‘classical’ experience to help out. Kazuko knew that I liked Prince as did the other composer, so I got my first film credit as a co-composer on “The Kitchen Child” by Angela Carter.
Local Spins: You’ve had a successful career in the business. What’s the biggest mistake you think you made and what common mistakes do you see others in the industry making?
Tongue: Don’t be afraid to reach out to people in the music business. I remember being nervous for years about making an initial call to a composer’s management company who I really wanted to represent me, as I could not bear the thought of being turned down. When I eventually plucked up the courage to make the call, they were very pleased to hear from me and invited me in for a meeting. Within a few weeks, I had the representation I always wanted.
Local Spins: What’s your impression of West Michigan’s music scene? How do you hope the Michigan Music Alliance might further propel that scene?
Tongue: I have met so many talented musicians since moving to Michigan 10 years ago. Not only are they exceptionally talented, but they often have really beautiful, hand-crafted instruments. I have recorded many of them performing my work on soundtracks and I look forward to meeting more and working with Michigan musicians over the coming years.
I became involved with the Michigan Music Alliance to help musicians try and move up the ‘music industry’ ladder and I am very happy if my career experiences can help artists in any way. I would love to have connected with a television composer in my younger years, but that all seemed out of reach back then to a young lad from Belfast who just wanted to make music.
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