For Sheridan Tongue, the news that he would receive the Outstanding Contribution to Music Award at this year’s Northern Ireland Music Prize came as a complete surprise.
‘I have to say, I was not expecting it,’ he says. ‘I was on holiday in Donegal, and I thought I’d better check my emails, because I hadn’t checked them in a few days. And an email came through saying I was going to be given this prize. I had to read it three times. I didn’t believe it.’
These days Sheridan is an Emmy-award winning composer for TV drama, films and documentaries, with an ear for the dramatic and surprising. Growing up in Belfast, he was already sowing the seeds of what would become his career in film and TV composition, even if he didn’t know it at the time.
'Kids from Belfast never became film composers so it was not on my radar. I just thought, “Oh, that’s never going to happen."'
‘I used to play along to all the records of James Bond, and work out the chords playing by ear. Someone like John Barry was a huge influence. I loved the idea of music and film, but you know, kids from Belfast never became film composers so it was not on my radar. I just thought, “Oh, that’s never going to happen,”’ he says.
Largely undeterred, he tried to find another route into the industry. ‘I loved exploring sound and textures and colours, and working with musicians. So I thought, let me explore.’
This exploration, he says, involved a lot of loitering around in the music shops of Belfast, scoping out the merchandise. In the afternoons after school he would stop in either Matchetts or Crymbles music stores, getting to know their gear and drum machines. It was an education of sorts – being able to learn about the equipment without having to pay for it himself. ‘I mean, I could never afford any of that,’ he laughs. ‘I was probably their worst customer.’
That curiosity paid off down the line. Sheridan’s work has often been praised for his use of unusual techniques and unexpected instruments, partly inspired by his early work as a producer and remixer for more pop-leaning artists like Blur. ‘Those production techniques influenced my own style of writing and producing. I learned a lot from that experience,’ he says.
He had plenty of opportunities to learn. After undertaking a music and sound degree at the University of Surrey, he spent ten years in the industry making cups of tea and doing a lot of hoovering, recording his own music after hours in the studios. By his late twenties, Sheridan began to realise he had built up a good foundation and become valuable to producers. ‘I was a keyboard player. I could do string arranging, I could programme, I could engineer, so I was a useful character in the studio,’ he says. ‘Gradually, I got asked to do more and more sessions in London.’
After a while, Sheridan realised that what he really wanted to do was make his own music. He made a demo CD and gave it to a production company who specialised in music for TV commercials. They took him on as a composer. ‘That was quite a big break for me. That was how I got my foothold in the industry,’ he says.
‘Over the last 10 or 15 years, the creative arts in Northern Ireland have really flourished.'
Though much of his time in the pop industry was centred on London, Belfast still looms large in Sheridan’s musical history. It’s always a point of pride to be recognised by your peers, of course, but to be recognised by the Northern Irish music industry in particular is, he says, ‘a massive honour.’
It’s also gratifying to see how much the creative industries in Northern Ireland have developed in recent years, he says. ‘Over the last 10 or 15 years, the creative arts in Northern Ireland have really flourished. You've got NI Screen, you've got a lot of film and television companies like HBO filming in Northern Ireland. So, there's a massive creative industry, and it's fantastic that it's now finally being recognised on the world stage.’
‘I think music is obviously an incredibly important part of that,’ Sheridan adds. ‘We have so many fantastic artists, singer songwriters and composers coming out of Northern Ireland. Belfast, UNESCO City of Music – that feels great to be able to say that.’
‘For every composer, it’s a very, very different path. There’s no fixed way you can do this to break into it.'
It’s not as if Sheridan considers the work done, though. He’s also keen to play a part in nurturing the city’s musical future.
‘I try and get back to Belfast as much as I can to do work-shops or any positive things I can to help the next generation of up-and-coming talented composers,’ he says.
One such appearance was at PRS for Music’s recent Belfast Members’ Day, where Sheridan spoke about his career path for other composers. ‘For every composer, it’s a very, very different path. There’s no fixed way you can do this to break into it. Especially for young composers, it’s good for them to hear people’s stories about how they made this journey, and possible advice on how they can get into such a competitive field,’ he says. ‘Because it is extremely competitive.’
He may have been recognised for his Outstanding Contributions to the industry so far, but Sheridan Tongue is not about to pull the ladder up behind him. It’s been a long journey, he says, but he earns a living from composing. Kids from Belfast do grow up to become film composers after all.