When I was about 7, my sister got a tape recorder for her birthday. I thought it was cool how it could record sound and play it back, and I was a bit jealous [of it],” begins Simon McCorry when I ask him to describe his musical upbringing. “So at school, when all the kids who could play the recorder were asked to put up their hands, I [put my hand up]. And I ended up playing the recorder.” It’s the first example of what McCorry labels “accidents” that would lead to him making an impressively quick rise through the Centre for Young Musicians to the prestigious London Schools Symphony Orchestra and beyond into soundtrack work, compositions for dance, sound design and theatre.
McCorry, of course, is today well-known as a master cellist, with the recorder but a distant memory. “I quickly learnt how to read music,” he recalls of his school days. “I was lucky to grow up in London at a time when music was considered important in state schools, so all the kids who played the recorder got the chance to learn another instrument. Mum ruled out the trumpet – we lived in a small flat and were already annoying the neighbours. She suggested the cello instead; I’d never heard of a cello, so I was not sure.” Regardless, the cello it was, and McCorry quickly picked it up, with small group work and one-to-one tuition leading him to embrace “theory lessons, string quartets, choir and stuff like that,” and a year studying music at London’s Morley College. Family doubts over the viability of a career in the arts, however, led to McCorry changing tack again. “From my parents’ perspective, being a musician wasn’t on the cards as a profession,” he remembers. “Neither had been to university, so that I went was important. I went along with their wishes to study physics [and] the cello went into hibernation.”
It was here, however, that McCorry’s musical horizons were broadened even further. Reggae in particular caught his teenage ear and encouraged him to learn to play bass guitar. “Reggae was part of the soundscape where I grew up,” he says. “When I first came across it, it really changed what I thought it was to be a good musician. The music is vertical rather than horizontal… one line does not dominate, each part seems relatively simple but they interlock to create something extraordinary.” This music, he says, still marvels him today, as evidenced by his selection of Bob Marley’s “Sun is Shining” for his playlist. “This version, with Lee Perry and the Upsetters, is my favourite version,” he says of his choice. “I’ve been coming back to the work of Perry and King Tubby again recently. I’m struck by their mastery of quality of sound. Each part is played with absolute care and feeling and each musician is so aware of everything else around them and how what they do is part of the whole. And Bob Marley is just an amazing vocalist, lyricist and presence…”
Inspired thus, McCorry joined bands as a bassist through part of the 90s, before he says “a period of despondency” spurred him to unearth his cello again. “I practised like mad to get back up to speed,” he recalls. “I started working with a producer who introduced me to electronic music [and] I created a piece with Sonia Ben Achoura, whose thing [at the time] was using UV paint and performing in a massive latex balloon, and a percussionist called Thierry Besson. [After] a performance of that at an event called Cult UFO, two friends said I should write music. One of them was married to a ‘proper’ composer, and being told that gave me the confidence I never had when I was younger. The other introduced me to the actor Oliver Senton and we started setting poetry and short stories to music. From that I found my way into working for theatre as a composer and sound designer.” The chance meetings, serendipitous decisions and youthful naivete had finally started to add up. From here McCorry rarely looked back.
Until recently, McCorry concedes, his own music “became secondary” to providing for others, with a long list of beneficiaries including Javaad Alipoor, Lemn Sissay, Satoko Fukuda and Guy Davies across dance, theatre and film. “Now my own work is central and everything else I do is to assist that,” he goes on. “I continue to explore how music holds the story of human migration and how the border between things gives the possibility to existence and creativity at both cosmic and personal levels. My last two albums, Song Lines and Border Land followed [that] thematic thread [and] in And Where Are You Really From? I take a question I – and many other people – are confronted with and twist, reorder, undermine and subvert it.”
Being part Indian, McCorry has faced struggles with acceptance over the years and recently took a DNA test in an attempt to settle a few lingering uncertainties. “[There were] no surprises,” he reveals, “but confirmation and maybe more of what I already knew. A friend’s story prompted me; he got a hard time in the press a few years ago. His story is more extreme than mine, but not dissimilar. It did lead me to reassess a lot of stuff about identity, belonging and otherness, and question the history I was presented with at school and through the media when I was growing up.”
McCorry says the music from And Where Are You Really From? proved suitably amorphous in its lengthy creation, with several tracks taking “years to pin down” and revealing a tendency to mirror his ancestral explorations in their somewhat nebulous, snaking nature. “Themes of water play a big part,” he says. “Water connects times and places. ‘Migrations’ is about human journeys – whether over generations, or of an individual, or a set of ideas, or a story or a musical phrase being passed from traveller to the next and down one generation to the next. A human river if you like. ‘Music Like Water’ is the journey of water from spring to mountain stream, and from there to meandering river to estuary and to ocean. Great rivers flow through many countries and cultures.” Elsewhere, the mournful “Bold As Love” came together “pretty immediately,” influenced by William Dalrymple’s White Mughals. “There was a human story of love that created children of two cultures,” McCorry recalls. “Images of East meeting West and the children of these marriages – which are the ancestors of my Dad’s family – and how we fall in between worlds belonging to neither and not fully accepted by either. People always shifted from one place to another, and met and exchanged. That solidity of belonging to a place was a lie depending on what scale of time you focused on.”
McCorry says his playlist tracks are similarly reflective of his fascination with journeys and the interactions made within. “Generally these days I don’t think about how a piece [of mine] is going to sound, I just try to follow it to the conclusion that it leads me. I think all the things I have loved listening to feed into that in some way, too, whether it is a snatch of phrase, or a rhythm, or a structural idea. I think if a work is too guided by thought it loses something, it loses the chance of a life of its own.”
And Where Are You Really From? is available now via Polar Seas Recordings.