A Composing Prodigy: Interview with Tom Farnon on Telling Stories Through Music

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By Jessamy Baldwin

Did you always know what you wanted to do with your life? Probably not, most people don’t realise straight away and some never do. Sure, you may have had dreams of becoming a prima ballerina or fighter pilot at eight years old, but how many of you reading this actually ended up fulfilling those early visions?

But, some people do. They have a calling and they follow its tune unwaveringly. I recently sat down with Guernsey born composer Thomas Farnon, who has known what he wanted to do for as long as he can remember.

London based Thomas has already written music for films such as The Legend of Tarzan, Hacksaw Ridge, Wonder Woman, Neflix’s TV show The Crown and video game Assassins Creed 3. He’s worked on Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, Dreamwork’s Madagascar and Paramount’s Terminator Genisys. He also co-produced the score for the Warner Bros film Lego Batman movie and has written over 400 pieces of production music featured on shows such as Oprah, Saturday Night Live, The Late Show, The One Show, Gareth’s Invictus Choir and BBC News.

And he’s only 27 years old.

Inspired by two previous generations of composers within his own family, Tom’s life was filled with music from an early age. What’s more, he didn’t just want to be a composer, he wanted to be a storyteller.

“Since I was very young, I think I’ve always known that I couldn’t and didn’t want to do anything else. My dad was very inspiring to me. He’s also a composer and sat with me for hours when I was young practicing all the boring scales on the piano when I really wanted to improvise.

“My Grandpa, Robert was also a composer and although he died before I became a professional composer, he would talk to me about music and listen to me play the piano. Listening to his and Dad’s music when I was young was a big driving force behind me becoming a composer myself.”

As a young boy, Thomas used to watch films such as Where Eagles Dare and Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines and said that whatever he was watching he would spend the entire time “being amazed by the music”. Then, when heard a live orchestra for the first time, he was hooked.

“I started piano lessons at three years old and went to a specialist music school in England when I turned 16. I then studied at Trinity College of Music and started at the bottom of the professional ladder once I left.”

His ‘big break’ came when he started working the nightshift assisting the composers on BBC’s Sherlock. It was here that he met renowned composer Lorne Balfe.

“I then started writing bits on video games like Assassins Creed, some TV shows and then films. Working with Lorne led me to work with Hans Zimmer and Rupert Gregson-Williams, two very successful film composers known for films such as The Lion King and Wonder Woman.

“I also have a fantastic relationship with a publisher in London called Soho Production Music who took a chance on me at a young age and gave me the chance to write music for great orchestras. Together we have recently set up Soho Scoring House, a cusThomas music house specialising in music for advertising.”

Thomas says he’s been fortunate enough to learn from some of the best in the business.

“I think that more than anything, they have taught me how to look at a film not only as a composer, but also as a storyteller. As far as films go, I make sure I respect what is already there, and let the visuals do the hard work. The music is there to give people the chance to feel; not to necessarily strongly dictate how you should be feeling. I don’t like to overwrite –unless that is what is needed.

“Over the last few years I have learnt to trust my instincts over formal theory and training. Learning to take criticism on board is important, especially in films, as you will often have to re-write a piece of music multiple times before everyone buys into it.”

Every day is different for Thomas and he’s honest about his nocturnal routine.

“I’d love to say I get up at 6am every the morning and finish by lunchtime but I usually find if I’m on a film, I will get up at about 9am. I’ll normally go for a walk and think about what I need to write, then sit down and get on with it. I find the writing takes a lot of concentration so I’ll lock myself in my studio, eat far too many carbs and drink a lot of diet coke until the early hours of the morning, when hopefully I’ve produced something I’m happy with.”

When I ask him what makes him stand out as a modern composer, he’s reluctant to blow his own trumpet (no pun intended). “I think that’s for other people to answer,” he says.

“But I think the biggest compliment you can pay a composer is that they have a unique musical voice that people can recognise. This is something I am continually working on and trying to evolve.”

Music encourages us to engage with our emotions he says. It has the power the transport our minds elsewhere.

“Moving someone with a piece of music is definitely something that drives me. For me, music evokes emotion and I want to do the same for other people. If I’m sitting on my sofa listening to a piece of Elgar, I’m suddenly in a green field with a spitfire flying past.”

At only 27 years old, Thomas’s achievements are phenomenal, and there are moments that stand out. Working on The Legend of Tarzan (directed by Harry Potter film direct David Yates) was a real highpoint he says.

“I really learnt a lot on that film. Having worked on it for over five months, going to watch the finished product at the Imax was special. Working on the Lego Batman Movie out in Australia last year was a lot of fun too. I did some stuff I wouldn’t usually do on a score like sing and play penny whistle.”

Last year, Thomas wrote an album of orchestral music that was recorded by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, which his dad conducted. “That was a really special moment for me as he has always been my biggest musical influence and confidant, so I was very lucky to have him conduct it and work with him.”

Currently, he’s working with fellow Guernsey gem Empara Mi’s on her new music.

“I’m also writing an album of orchestral music to be recorded later this year and start on a new feature film in November.”

Thought he’s undoubtedly living his dream, his aspirations have changed over time.

“I always thought that I wanted to one day win an Oscar for Best Score and score a James Bond film but now, more than anything, I want to create music that people enjoy listening to and that moves them.

“In terms of my personal life, I’m working on potty-training my new dog Dudley – he’s still banned from the studio,” he laughs. “I want to travel more and I’m still holding out to be picked as England cricket captain.”

When he’s back in his hometown of Guernsey, Thomas loves nothing more than getting out in the fresh air and on the open sea.

“Guernsey is very special to me. My parents and family are all on the island, so I try to get back as much as possible. I love the sea, so if I can get out on a boat when I am home, I’ll be happy. I spend a lot of time feeding my parents’ pack of bassett hounds extra food on the sly, and then denying it’s my fault – so now they’re all morbidly obese.”

A sense of humour and hard work ethic have certainly contributed to the success of this young man, it seems. For Thomas, it always comes back to the music however. “I think it’s largely down to music being my hobby. I work all day, every day and I love it”.

And for anyone out there with a dream: “remember that opportunities rarely come to you and if you don’t ask you won’t get”.

Get to know Tom a little better…

What’s your favourite quote?

“Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious” Oscar Wilde

If you could only listen to 3 pieces of music for the rest of your life what would they be?

Elgar Finale from Enigma Variations – “I have to ration how much I listen to this one”.

Ravel Piano Concerto in G major – “so relaxing”.

Joni Mitchell – A Case Of You “it’s the perfect song”.

Who inspires you?

I think a lot of people in different ways. Dudley Moore, Freddie Mercury, Richard Burton, Peter Sellers and Lionel Bart to name a few. I love reading about people and working out why they were so good at what they did. Musically, Ravel, Elgar, Vaughan Williams were hugely inspiring to me.

Favourite book?

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2009

Favourite movie?

Where Eagles Dare

Favourite colour?

Dark blue

What’s the best place you’ve ever travelled to?

Barbados

Describe your perfect day off? 

Probably playing a bit of tennis, watching some football or cricket, a huge dinner with my girlfriend then off to Las Vegas Arcade in Soho to win at car racing.

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