John Metcalfe, composer

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I got paid 2p at primary school by Vicky Sinden to play the opening bars of ‘The Entertainer’ which meant I could buy a bun at break time. That and ‘Computer World’ by Kraftwerk.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Kraftwerk, most of the string quartet repertoire and being offered free viola lessons when I was ten.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Playing in tune, and the fact that that social media doesn’t allow for modesty of any kind.

What are the pleasures and challenges of working with other musicians?

Mostly the main challenge is real life getting in the way. What musicians bring into the room that isn’t about the music can be a stumbling block but it’s a lot to ask human beings to be in a totally musical zone 100% of the time. And that applies to me too of course! One of my deep pleasures working with other people is being bound together by touring or recording or rehearsing but the time we also spend away from the music. Humour is really important to me and if I can share that with other musicians it’s great.

How would you describe your compositional/musical style?

No idea how to do that – sorry! It’s kind of Schumann meets Kraftwerk meets Eno meets LTJ Bukem meets Metcalfe. Most of the time I’m reluctant to attach a meaning to the music – I’d rather let the listener have a narrative-free listen so I’m particularly cautious about lyrics – I agree with Brian Eno when he said that lyrics can debase the mystery of what the music is doing.

As a composer, how do you work?

I use to be very haphazard because I had the time – writing was a hobby really as I spent most days rehearsing and performing. Now it’s different. The 9 to 5 approach really does work for me. I don’t pull all-nighters anymore and I try to be organised, make lists of things to try or develop. Sounds really dull but it does sometimes lead to properly creative moments. Despite this approach the inevitable noodle is never far away and sometimes also yields some cool stuff.

Tell us more about your album ‘Absence’….

The original impetus was to make this more of a band record – one that was easier to translate into a live situation because Daisy Palmer, the drummer, Ali Friend, the bassist and Rosie Doonan, the singer are amazing musicians – great to be in a room performing and working with because it’s rewarding and seriously good fun. So the core sound is a pub 4-piece with strings. I’ve gone into more detail with the electronic side of things compared to previous records but in quite a subtle way that’s hopefully an enhancer rather than a distraction.

The aspect of loss certainly underpins the record but it’s primarily a series of imagined conversations between people who are going through the process of separation/death. I like to think this is not all about despair and grief but also about memory, rage, hope, love and happiness. I tried my damnedest not to make it mawkish or soppy so there is variety in mood and style – a very classical record in that sense.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Being moved and moving other people. Making enough money to buy iced buns.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Don’t despair, don’t be a berk, be good at what you do and turn up on time.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Tutukaka coast in NZ

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being with my family and friends on the Tutukaka coast in NZ, and doing a good gig with my band.

What is your most treasured possession?

My viola.

What is your present state of mind?

Caffeinated and hopeful

John Metcalfe’s 5th studio album ‘Absence’ is available now on the Neue Meister label. John plays at the Playground Theater (London) on the 7th of February. More details


Composer, multi-instrumentalist, producer and arranger to the likes of U2, Coldplay, Peter Gabriel and Blur, New Zealander John Metcalfe is one of the most sought after musicians in the business. In addition to his collaborations with a huge range of artists from pop, electronica and classical and his work in radio/television he tours and records with his own band and as violist with the renown classical Duke String Quartet. He was a member of cult band Durutti Column and alongside Tony Wilson launched the pioneering Factory Classical on Manchester’s legendary Factory label. He also performs and records with the Max Richter Ensemble.

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