Twelve years is a long time to go between albums. It’s long enough for entire careers in the music industry to rise and fall — The Beatles’ recording career lasted eight years, while blues guitarist Robert Johnson was only around for one before his soul was reclaimed by the devil. Apparently it’s not long enough, however, to be forgotten by Japanese fans, as demonstrated by The Cinematic Orchestra’s standing-ovation, sell-out show at the 2,000-seater Hitomi Memorial Hall in Tokyo last Friday.
The Cinematic Orchestra burst onto the U.K. music scene in 1999 with the critically acclaimed album “Motion.” Signed to Ninja Tune, the band was well-kept in the company of artists such as Bonobo, Amon Tobin and Coldcut on a label known for its eclectic curation of U.K.-based downtempo and experimental music. “To Believe,” released in March, is the group’s fourth studio album and first since 2007’s “Ma Fleur.” That album featured the band’s best-known single “To Build a Home,” which gained a following after being featured in the television shows “Grey’s Anatomy” and “This Is Us.”
Though the touring band consists of eight members, The Cinematic Orchestra has mostly been the project of one man: Jason Swinscoe, 47, decidedly British, well-dressed and with a nostalgia for the physical format.
It has been over a decade since “Ma Fleur” was released, but Swinscoe has been anything but unproductive. In that time, he scored a film for Disneynature, recorded with a 70-strong string section at Air Studios in London; toured regularly with both The Cinematic Orchestra and his other projects; released a compilation album for the “Late Night Tales” series; and wrote and recorded this latest album, a four-year endeavor.
“After I recorded “Ma Fleur” in London and Paris, I moved to New York in 2006 to mix it in the old Def Jam studios in Manhattan,” says Swinscoe ahead of his Tokyo performance. “When I arrived in the city I moved to an area called Fort Greene. Walt Whitman used to live and write there, the Art Ensemble of Chicago used to hang out there. It’s historically a very black neighborhood, full of art, literature and music.”
It was in a cafe in Fort Greene that he met Larry Brown (stage name Grey Reverend) who is now part of The Cinematic Orchestra’s live band and features as a vocalist on “Zero One/This Fantasy,” a tender track reminiscent of Zero 7’s later albums.
“In the two years to 2011, I wrote a whole record in New York with Larry that I ended up shelving,” says Swinscoe. “It was a tough call; there were about 15 to 16 tracks and the writing was really good, but the production went in the wrong direction. It became much more of a live band recording, which was a step away from the sample-based background I’ve grown up with.”
That experience left Swinscoe disheartened and it wasn’t until he moved to Los Angeles four years later and started working with his manager, Dominic Smith, that the foundations of “To Believe” were laid.
“I moved to LA in 2015, and that’s when we started again, turned the sampler back on and began from scratch. That’s also when I started working closer with Dom. He’d been there with me since the beginning at Ninja Tune, he sequenced my first record, and really championed the music.”
Though Swinscoe and Smith had a long working relationship, it had been in a very different capacity, with Smith managing Swinscoe and The Cinematic Orchestra in his role as an A&R man at Ninja Tune.
“When Dom and I started writing, it took a little time to find each other’s energy and skills and strengths and how to apply and communicate those,” says Swinscoe. “Before, Dom oversaw things from the background, and it took a while to work out how to put our two disparate heads together when it came to him being involved in writing the album.
“During the process we got into a rhythm; we have two records worth of material actually. This first one, ‘To Believe’ is out, but we want to get back to the second stack of material next month. There was so much material that we had to force ourselves to stop writing because we were having so much fun.”
The product of Swinscoe and Smith’s efforts is a well-crafted album that feels more mature than The Cinematic Orchestra’s earlier records. The jazz influence heard on “Everyday” has been replaced with a more introspective sound. Vocals are used sparingly and effectively but when they are you can feel the close creative relationship Swinscoe nurtured with each guest vocalist, who include Roots Manuva and Moses Sumney.
“When we wrote the title track with Moses, we sat down with him and talked about the concepts of the album and he’d go away and write,” Swinscoe explains. “He’d come back, share it, we’d work on it together, both lyrically and on the melodies, and that process happened with every vocalist. We talked about politics, art, social culture and religion. Whichever topic or topics resonated with them, we’d find a way to go in from there, into a world of metaphor and ambiguity. It was a very collaborative process, but one that yielded a lot of good results I think.”
But what really stands out from the album is the delicate orchestration that runs beneath each track. For this, Swinscoe turned to Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, an LA-based orchestrator who is a frequent collaborator with artists such as Flying Lotus and Thundercat.
“Once we decided on the first tracks we were going to focus on for ‘To Believe,’ we took them to Miguel for orchestration and then mixed the album at Electric Lady Studios with Tom Elmhirst. We’ve stepped up the production side with each album and put a lot more effort into a more contemporary production for this record,” says Swinscoe.
“I was quite privileged in that I didn’t have to release an album until it was ready. A lot of artists have to release every couple of years to maintain credibility and to finance their art, but I had the space and time to make a record I hope will last.”
“To Believe” by The Cinematic Orchestra is available now. For more information, visit www.cinematicorchestra.com.