Words by Jim Ottewill
Classical pianist, vocalist, electronic musician and now screen composer, Morgan Kibby’s musical journey has taken her to an array of unpredictable places. From scoring interludes with Lady Gaga on her Chromatica opus to creating the stunning soundtrack to hit new period feature film, Mothering Sunday, Morgan’s musical vigour stems from a love for collaboration. The energies she takes from these creative bonds have helped push her music into new and exciting places.
“It was always a struggle for me as an artist to find my voice,” she says. “From my experiences in an electronic band, as a songwriter and now as a composer, I’ve realised I do my best work when I’m working with others. I like feeling as if there is a glass ceiling to bump up against with my music.”
Morgan’s CV is certainly a colourful one - she was a core member of French band M83 writing, recording and performing, then released her own solo material as White Sea. But it’s in this latest chapter where she feels more comfortable. “I love being in service to a larger vision,” she explains of her recent scoring projects. “Once I have a certain set of parameters in place, whether it be a sonic palette or just the right adjectives to describe the project, I love being able to push them to see how I can make something unique.”
Morgan’s musical virtuosity has seen her flit skillfully between different genres and styles. Beginning in musical theatre, she pursued classical piano, then the cello as a teenager. Although she had an early appreciation for the scores of composers like Jonny Greenwood on Paul Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, it was after some time spent touring and performing that Morgan felt like she had come to a career crossroads. “I hit this wall,” she explains. “I wasn’t feeling that I was growing creatively, I was about to turn 30 and realised that I couldn't stay on the road forever. Touring in a band like this is brutal on your body, soul and relationships.”
This moment coincided with her friend director Eva Husson on the brink of embarking on her first feature film, Bang Gang. Morgan’s proximity to her friend’s work meant she wanted to get involved. “I wasn’t consciously thinking this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life but I had been inspired by the script,” Morgan states. “We were very conscious that we were best friends and that can be dangerous when working together. I said I would score the script’s first ten pages and if it moves you, then hire me. If not, then don’t and we’ll never talk about it ever again. Thankfully, she ended up really loving what I came up with.”
I like the immediacy of just being able to sing, even into a voice note sometimes. I always have my phone near me and it’s always ready to go if inspiration comes.
The success of the 2015 film and their collaboration led to Morgan landing a place as a Sundance Composer Lab fellow, an intensive music residency and another positive affirmation of her compositional skills. “I felt like I had been banging my head against a wall in terms of being a performer, then all of a sudden I was at the Sundance Labs,” she says. “It was a massive deal, especially as I’d not experienced higher education. I was surrounded by people who were all better than me and I loved that - it pushed me to be better.”
Morgan’s latest film, Mothering Sunday, follows previous collaborations on ‘Girls of the Sun’ with director Eva Husson alongside ‘Bang Gang’. Morgan says that the compositional process involved exploring the sensuality and warmth of the script, the themes of grief, love, physical love connection and how that felt in relation to the sounds. “We landed on a smaller kind of chamber group that was heavily reliant on cellos and violas,” Morgan says on unpicking the sound from the script. “We’ve always loved the flute and thought this was a great place to explore that. There’s a sensuality in the film which we wanted to capture in the score and it really helped us find the palette.”
As a composer, entering a project early on in the film-making process is usually seen as beneficial. But while Morgan became embroiled in ‘Mothering Sunday’ as it was still being shot, this led to extra challenges alongside opportunities. “When they started editing, it was really clear that they were trying to find the film’s thread so I decided to take a step back,” she says.
Morgan cites the influence and inspiration of her collaborators - mixer and music editor Warren Brown and soloist Rob Moose - as integral to the finished score once she threw herself back into the project. “I couldn’t have done it without them,” she says. “But I stepped away, then came back a little bit too late. I was pulling 20 hour days in the end and lost my marbles a little. It was brutal and I’ve never really worked harder but I love what we’ve come up with.”
The palette of a score dictates how Morgan tries to find her way into a piece of music. It’s from this point that she will explore the texture and scope of a project’s sonic needs. “I explore what the score requires - is it warm analogue sounds or fast and digital?” she states. “Then, I like to sit down and use all my libraries. I love Spitfire as they have wonderful catalogues that can really spark ideas.”
Morgan utilises her skills as a vocalist to capture those initial thoughts, a method that lends a sense of immediacy to her process and how she feels her best concepts emerge. “My microphone is next to my desk so I tend to sing a lot of melodies,” she reveals. “It’s easier than picking it out on the piano as my voice has always been my first instrument.”
Working quickly like this helps Morgan respond instinctively to a brief. She will then often return to work through different iterations and versions of these first ideas. “I like the immediacy of just being able to sing, even into a voice note sometimes,” she states. “I always have my phone near me and it’s always ready to go if inspiration comes.”
I am malleable, my resume speaks to that but I want to get hired for things where I am the right person for the job.
The reception to Mothering Sunday has been overwhelmingly positive, a warm appraisal Morgan is both surprised and delighted by. “I threw myself into it without fear and I’m really proud of what we did in a short amount of time on what is a beautiful film,” she says. “It’s moving to know that it touches people - it’s a cherry on the top of a wonderful experience.”
Morgan’s CV now adds up to a dazzling cacophony of high-profile on-screen projects. With Mothering Sunday, she feels as if she has turned a corner with her compositional work. “I am malleable, my resume speaks to that but I want to get hired for things where I am the right person for the job rather than just a sound space filler,” she says. “Directors are now curious to have me come on board as they know I’ll bring a specific voice and take. More than anything, I’m excited about bringing my point of view.”
Alongside ‘Mothering Sunday’, 2020 saw Morgan collaborate with musical heroes in the form of Beak> and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and his musical accomplice Ben Salisbury on Amazon show, ‘Hanna’. “He was so generous,” Morgan says of her work on the show. “He realised that Eva, who was working as a director, has this great, creative relationship with me and made room so I could get involved.”
She says that working with Geoff and Ben meant creating a new musical world with them both to drape around the programme. “I was blown away by this and the moment we spoke, we clicked,” she explains of the collaboration. “I couldn’t wait to get in there to create these demos, it was all vocals-based and I had never really explored this to this extent back then.”
Lady Gaga is another big name she’s recently shared studio space with. This creative union came via Morgan’s previous collaborator producer Bloodpop. Friends on social media and past co-writers, he called on her to help create some orchestral interludes towards the latter stages of the ‘Chromatica’ project. “He hit me up to see if I’d be interested in writing some interludes for Gaga’s next album,” she says. “Of course, I said yes as I’m such an admirer of the universe she’s created. It’s something that I loved being a part of.”
The sessions were intense but productive with the parts recorded, remixed and revised over 24 hours of recording. “Gaga was so funny, kind and welcoming to me when I came into the studio,” Morgan explains. “She kept me cracking up the whole time but she really respects people when she’s in a collaboration with them. You sometimes have those moments when you have to pinch yourself. Who knew that following this path would lead you to such places?”
After some downtime in the wake of ‘Mothering Sunday’, Morgan is now busying herself with the new Netflix project The Watcher starring Ryan Murphy and Naomi Watts. According to Morgan, she feels this ongoing success is down to following her instincts, something she believes all emerging composers should do with their music.
Taking herself out of the touring cycle and exploring a new musical world has been a life-changing moment. “You can be inspired by people around you - whether it’s work ethic, or their body of work - but ultimately, you make your own path,” she says. “You need to pay attention to what makes you feel like you’re doing your best work. It won’t look like anyone else’s career and that’s a great thing.”