Music & Sound in association withJungle Studios

Thinking in Sound: Toby Williams

Music & Sound
London, UK
Having recently worked with Samsung and John Lewis & Waitrose Partnership, Leland music supervisor Toby discusses the importance of collaboration and the magic of music to elevate a story

Toby’s music career began at London based electronic music brand Defected Records, before joining Leland Music as a music supervisor in 2013 where he sources and creates music for Film, TV and Advertising. Recent commercial highlights include campaigns such as Aviva 'It Takes Aviva', Samsung 'Inspired By A True Photo' and John Lewis & Waitrose Partnership 'Give A Little Love'. Film / TV credits include Top Boy and The One (both Netflix) and Kevin Macdonald's 'Life In A Day 2020’.

When you’re working on a new brief or project, what’s your typical starting point? How do you break it down and how do you like to generate your ideas or response?

I’ll aim to connect with the story, the message and the perspective of the director and client – before getting too bogged down in musical category. After all storytelling is at the heart of what we do as music supervisors. In most cases this takes precedence over showcasing a prescribed musical style, for example. Once I’m comfortable with this, instinct should kick in and I might identify certain sounds that will complement or add value to the visual...and explore, experiment, and challenge from there.

Music and sound are in some ways the most collaborative and interactive forms of creativity - what are your thoughts on this? Do you prefer to work solo or with a gang - and what are some of your most memorable professional collaborations?

Collaboration is certainly key, after all our aim is to add value to a director’s creative vision. Understanding their motivations is always the starting point. The most satisfying creative processes involve a lot of communication and mutual experimentation, even where there is pre-existing understanding and trust. There will be moments of independent work along the way (we all enjoy the 'rabbit-hole' of creative exploration) but the results of this are connected back to a broader team and a shared intention.

What’s the most satisfying part of your job and why?

There is a certain magic in elevating a story through music. It’s a tricky thing to describe as it can take so many different forms…I understand it as being two languages (visual and audio) communicating despite their lack of common ground. The most satisfying moments are where a connection develops and helps create a greater whole. It’s a very rewarding process!

Who are your musical or audio heroes and why?

My heroes have usually been defined by curation – either through exploration or a focused identity. DJs like Theo Parrish, Craig Richards and Benji B have meant a lot to me, as have record labels with especially strong identities…there are loads. Recently I’ve loved leaning into the expertise of amazing reissue labels like Music From Memory, Light In The Attic and The Numero Group. Otherwise there are of course landmark artists from growing up – like Sonic Youth, D’Angelo, and Bjork probably most of all. Honourable mention to a school friend who made me a cassette tape when I was about 15 (accompanied by an A4 sheet of notes detailing why I should like each track!).

When you’re working on something that isn’t directly sound design or music are you the sort of person who needs music and noise in the background or is that completely distracting to you? What are your thoughts on ‘background’ sound and music as you work?

I actually think there are several ways to listen to music and while 'background' seems like a negative I think it’s an entirely valid characteristic for great music that functions in a different way. For example I find that some instrumental or ambient music can have a focusing quality - in the same way that some music works so well for a long journey, or at a party. I’m OK with the idea that music can have a practical application and still be art. Having said that, there are certainly styles that demand too much and are probably best saved for full attention!

On a typical day, what does your ‘listening diet’ look like?

I’ll usually start the day with a trusted radio show (Charlie Bones’ excellent breakfast show on NTS, for example). I find I’m less distracted in the mornings so I can handle more variety without losing direction. From there my day’s music is usually dictated by the projects I’m working on... Listening for work is definitely a different kind of listening, it’s goal-oriented and probably a bit more ruthless!… In calmer moments or evenings I might find time to take in a new album release or investigate an artist that I’m not familiar with. I do love a good label playlist to really connect with an overall vision.

Do you have a collection of music/sounds and what shape does it take?

Spotify and other streaming services are amazing tools and make it so easy to explore and organise, particularly in a work context. While I don't think I’m the biggest vinyl nerd I am a collector and this offers a nice distinction - in that shopping for / listening to records feels more invested and personal. There’s a weird kind of reverse engineering where that extra commitment to listening changes the experience. I remember in the CD era I’d pour over every tiny moment from my favourite albums and I think that might be lost with streaming to some extent.

Outside of the music and sound world, what sort of art or topics really excite you and do you ever relate that back to music?

I’m really interested in concept vs application and the interplay between the two. I suppose all art is ultimately an attempt to realise expression through a particular language whether that's sound, or image, or anything else. I’m often most engaged by grand themes expressed through a limited 'toolkit' (deliberately or not). Perhaps it's a young artist working with specific resources or maybe they just have a super focused approach to their creativity…  but I think that this combined with fresh, authentic or profound subject matter is especially exciting.

As we age, our ears change physically and our tastes evolve too, and life changes mean we don’t get to engage in our passions in the same intensity as in our youth - how has your relationship with sound and music changed over the years?

I’d say that music has been a uniquely consistent presence in my life! Tastes have changed for sure, but I think I’m as excited by listening as I was 20 years ago. I find that my understanding of certain things evolve with age… There’s music I obsessed over in the past that I still feel strongly about but the context has changed. It might be that I understand more about what influenced that sound or what came next, or it could be that I have a better understanding about my perspective at the time. I have a deeper understanding of the technical side of music making now, but the pure joy of listening hasn't changed much at all.

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