Are there many bigger songwriting projects to take on than scoring a documentary series about the entire history of our planet? If there are, Paul Saunderson would probably like to hear about it.
'The more I read about the show, telling this 4.5-billion-year story about Earth, it was always going to be epic,' the composer tells M Magazine about scoring the BBC's latest natural history programme, Earth. 'I've always been interested in those bigger questions of how we came to be and how we got here, and I've loved previous BBC shows like The Planets, Universe and Planet Earth. Because you're stepping through such a vast time period and visiting these completely unrecognisable, alien-like worlds that are time periods of our Earth, it gives you free reign to create something unique both musically and sonically. I was really drawn to this opportunity to do something special.'
After premiering last month on BBC iPlayer, today (22 August) sees the release of Earth's original soundtrack album, which features Paul's full sweeping score.
'There's this linear story [in the series] from the creation of Earth to where we are today,' he adds. 'But through all those different times, the Earth became frozen and stuck in a snowball; it was very volcanic; it was covered in water; the first atmosphere was born, then the first plant - there's all these micro-stories. There was such a world to explore in each of the episodes, and I was trying to give each episode a sonic quality while also having a through line melodically that tied them all together.'
'I was really drawn to this opportunity to do something special with Earth.'
A project that took the best part of two years to complete ('You're so invested in it by the end that you want to do it justice'), Paul's score also includes a collaborative original song, Never Close Enough. Written with and featuring the rising Birmingham artist SIPHO., the composer considers the track to be 'an extension of the score'.
'In the BBC's previous natural history shows, you'd see a song being licensed in the trailer or the title sequence. I suggested the idea of writing an original song for Earth while the producers were still working out whether there was going to be a title sequence!' Paul explains. 'I created a backing track for this proposed song, and then tried to find a voice that would fit this music that is huge and epic of scale. It was a daunting challenge!'
Having reached out to BBC Introducing for leads, Saunderson was put in contact with SIPHO. and found himself being completely awed by the 'otherworldly quality' of the latter's vocals. 'There's a fragility and a power to it, as well as a huge amount of character that fit the project, as the Earth story is all about these struggles, tensions and releases.'
After connecting in the studio, the pair swiftly wrote Never Close Enough. 'It has a double meaning: essentially it's a song about our Earth, but you can also view it as being about our human relationship with the Earth and the struggles that one comes into contact with here,' Paul says.
'We sat down for two sessions, and actually recorded the final vocal during the writing session: sometimes, there's a little bit of magic that happens when you capture that performance. Our full-length song then ended up being used in the Earth trailer, and you can hear all of the same themes and melodies in the score, so it's all connected.'
With over 80 major film and television credits to his name, including the BAFTA-nominated 2018 documentary Three Identical Strangers and the BBC's recent rap drama Champion, Paul reveals that Earth was 'one of those rare occasions' where the project found him.
'Through working on shows like Trying, a BBC Studios production that was very different to this, I came to know music supervisor Catherine Grimes, who knew people who were involved in Earth,' he explains when M enquires about the typical commissioning process. 'I'd also worked on this album, The Space Orchestra, at Abbey Road with Tom Furse and Samuel Sim, which was essentially library music but had really great scope and was otherworldly. Catherine forwarded that album to the Earth producers, and it was one of those things where you connect the dots. Then this e-mail popped up and I was just like, "Yes, this is great!"
'But it rarely does happen like that, as you usually pitch to be involved in any project,' he continues. 'I think the work I've been doing recently has started to feed back as people have reached out. There's no right or wrong way, though: everything's always different. From my experience, I found the best and most enjoyable projects to work on have happened organically and come through people asking me to be involved in it, rather than trying to shoehorn your music into something that maybe you're not quite right for. It makes the process way more enjoyable when they reach out to you at the beginning, as there's obviously something that you do that they like. Subsequently, the music you then write for the show resonates in the same way.'
This was certainly the case for the aforementioned Champion, which saw Paul work closely with the grime producer Swindle (Loyle Carner, Ghetts) on the soundtrack. 'I was a little bit nervous, to be honest,' Paul says now about how he approached Champion. 'In terms of style, it was so different to anything I'd done before, so I had to take a step back and think, "If I just apply the same thing that I do on any project, then I know how to work with any artist". If it's a collaborative project, then that collaboration is happening for a reason: you just need to enable the sound. Swindle has a sonic voice and a language, so my job at the beginning was adhering to that. Then it became about: how can we take that, and make his world and my world come together? We then went about creating this new sub-genre of cinematic grime to underscore these moments.
'We got on really well in the studio: the first half of the first day we just spoke, connected and told each other our back stories, as well as what kind of music we liked. After that initial period of writing music and finding out as much information as I could from Swindle's music and this particular project, I then showed him how we could turn his music to score as we were writing simultaneously. We were both learning from each other while creating. Stylistically, it was a very different [experience], but as an approach I'd been in that situation a few times before. I enjoy this kind of collaborating, because there's always something that I learn from it that I would never think of.'
'If you're working on a collaborative project, then that collaboration is happening for a reason: you just need to enable the sound.'
Having dipped his toe into the rap world and soundtracked the history of Earth this year, Paul is already at work on a number of other projects, including the sequel to Prime Video's Your Christmas Or Mine? ('A really fun, very warm and beautiful film'), an untitled action-comedy movie made by John Wick producers Thunder Road Films and the upcoming fourth season of Apple TV+'s Trying. But while he's always eyeing up his next score, Paul isn't averse to looking back on his accomplished career. Indeed, when M asks him to highlight three particular projects from his extensive back catalogue, he beams when describing his proudest songwriting moment to date.
'I'd probably say Earth,' he says. 'I've worked on a variety of different programmes and films which have all required different needs, but with this project the style of music I was writing was the kind of music I've been wanting to write for so long. I'd never been on a project for two years before, which was insane. I was doing different projects during the same time and going back and forth, but I'd say I'm most proud of Earth out of everything I've ever done.'
What about his biggest challenge as a composer? 'I'd probably say Three Identical Strangers,' Paul replies. 'It was actually the first feature documentary I'd ever scored, so it was quite a learning curve of understanding how music can play very differently in a documentary. Aside from nature documentaries, you don't have these big cuts in documentaries where you play the big theme: you really have to adhere to the dialogue and support these characters.
'It was a challenge for various different reasons: it was a very small production at the beginning, and it exceeded everyone's expectations. I invested most of my budget into getting it done and recorded live, as to me it was one of those projects that needed that organic, human feel, and I needed to put the project first. I'm really proud of that score, and I'm so glad I persevered with it because it went on to be BAFTA-nominated and was screened at Sundance. So while it was probably the most challenging, it was also the most rewarding.'
Paul also doesn't want his early work to be overlooked when appraising his discography, naming the 2017 crime thriller The Marker as his most underrated project.
'It was a very film noir, indie movie,' he recalls. 'It had a limited budget, so I used that as a tool for what the instrumentation was going to be. The whole score was made out of found sounds, and I really got into doing musical sound design. It has this unique sonic quality about it, and I just love how that score sounds. It's got this edge, because it contains all these sounds that no one else has and it's a relatively unknown movie. Not many people may have heard of it, but it's sat there on my Spotify page!'
As with all of his projects, though, Paul remains motivated to 'give it my all'.
'Sometimes, you do a project and you think, "Was it worth me slaving away all those hours?" But it totally is, because you never know when those things will crop up. Funnily enough, some of those cues from The Marker actually ended up in the writing of Earth, because they had this really interesting, otherworldly sonic quality to them.'
The full soundtrack album for Earth is out now.