NYF Radio Programs & Promos Awards Spotlight Interview: Natalie Oram, Composer/Performer, Rockbarn Media – Part One

The NYF Radio Programs & Promos Awards Spotlight Interview series showcases respected game-changers from the radio community, exploring their individual formulas for success and their thoughts on the ever-changing world of all things radio. This week’s interview we shine the spotlight on award-winning composer and performer Natalie Oram of Rockbarn Media, UK.

Natalie runs her award-winning  music production company, Rockbarn Media, with partner Jon Dennis. Together they create original, bespoke music for commercials, trailers, films, documentaries etc. plus do post-production editing and sound design and are also regularly writing tracks for release under their artist name Vayron.

Natalie Oram, Composer & Performer, Rockbarn Media UK

In 2012, Ms. Oram earned the Gold award for Best Music Special in the New York Festivals International Radio Programs & Promos Awards® for her documentary for the BBC “World Piece.”

NYF: Rockbarn Media creates original music for commercials, trailers films and documentaries.  What was the impetus for you to launch Rockbarn Media, and any advice for creative artists looking to break into the business?

NO:I could wax lyrical all day about the impetus to launch Rockbarn Media as it is an incredibly long story, one that could actually have the potential to crash the internet! Being mindful of this, I will cut it very short! Essentially, Rockbarn is the realization of a dream that I have had ever since I can remember. I first started playing my soulmate; the piano, when I was three and instantly started not only playing other composers’ music, but making up my own. When I was probably about 5, maybe 6, I was asked that favoured school-time question of, “What would you like to be when you grow up?” My answer was delivered with absolute certainty and 100% conviction, “I want to be the female version of John Williams. I want to write music for film.” Ambitious, yes, but I always knew that this was not only possible, but what I am planted on this earth for. Still to this day I have the same conviction and determination – although I rather like being my own version of me now, and I don’t mind if it’s not just the female version of John Williams now; Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, heck, Beethoven, they’re all fine too!

Of course, there are plenty more things than just film that you can write music for and through my school education, gaining my First Class Honours Bachelor of Music Degree from Royal Holloway, University of London where I specialized in Composition and concentrated heavily on every aspect of music available to me and through gaining my Masters in Broadcast Journalism with distinction from Falmouth University, I learnt and explored as many avenues of commercial music-writing that I could. Consequently, Rockbarn doesn’t just concentrate on writing film-music, but much more openly concentrates on writing original, commercial music which can accompany anything in the media world.

I also have a deep passion for media and Rockbarn has another arm which is documentary making – as you guys at the NYF know all too well! – and I’m now expanding my broadcasting side still further (together with the music side) by branching out into audio books and narration.

I truly believe that one way or another, Rockbarn Media was always going to be born and will be ‘that thing I do’ for the rest of my career, nay life! As it happens, the launch was initiated by my redundancy from my staff broadcast journalist job in local radio which formed part of the largest commercial network of radio stations in the UK. I, together with a considerable number of others at my station and across the group, were caught up in a mass-restructuring of the overall company and so just over two years ago, I made my final broadcast and left with a small redundancy package. With that, and considerable help from my dear Daddy (!) I built my professional spec production studio in a barn (made of rock – hence the name, Rockbarn!) and together with my wonderful partner Jon Dennis (who is also a highly successful professional, commercial musician and producer) maneuvered ourselves into the position we are in today where we successfully work with the real big players and big names in the commercial and media industries on a constant basis, most importantly, writing and creating commercial music and voice over’s/broadcasts.

With regards to advice, all I can say is determination, stoicism and dedication and a tough skin will get you to where you want to be as long as you are a pleasant person about it and actually genuinely want to be there for reasons beyond self-aggrandisement and that you have honed your skills to carve your individual place there. This is not an industry to go into if you get easily offended at someone not liking your idea! It is terrifically subjective, competitive and there are lots of capable creative people involved who all have their own creative ideas.

‘Living the dream’ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s pleasant all the time! You will question yourself and you will doubt yourself, but I find the ‘why not?’ factor helps and I believe to my core that I am on the path that is meant for me and I shall keep striding!

NYF: Your contemporary and classical work has reached international acclaim across the world on many international stages, and you toured Europe and America with your compositions and as a performer. Share with us your working method as a composer. How do you determine the starting point for a piece?  Do you enjoy composing or performing equally?

NO: You are all genuinely going to think I am mad with this answer, but I have a resident symphony orchestra in my head with resident soloists, duos, trios, quartets, ensembles…plus rock bands, samba troupes, jazz artists, electro stars and disco divas, on and on the list goes!! They’re all very nice and forthcoming with ideas and play/perform beautifully! Genuinely, this is absolutely true and these lovely little musicians have been there ever since I can remember but were really unleashed when I started the piano at three years old. It’s very weird, I know, and what’s more bizarre is as a very young, growing musician, I didn’t have the notation skills to keep up with the musicians in my head! For instance, when I was thirteen, I was riding a camel in the Gambia (as you do!) and (again, you’re going to think I’m mad!) the movement of the animal, the surroundings, the sun, sand and everything just ignited my inner-symphonic comrades and they started playing the most wonderful, rather epic, symphonic orchestral accompaniment that I then was manipulating and writing in my head!

At the time, I told myself, I must remember this theme. I have a little theory you see. I get music flitting in and out of my head most of the time, if I really like something and it’s developing well in my head with my little instrumentalists, then I think to myself how I must remember it. If I’m near a piano or have a piece of manuscript paper handy, I’ll make some notes, jot it down and come back to it later when I have more time. If however, there is no piano, no paper, I don’t know how I remember it, but it’s like I compress it into a little zip file and store it on a server in my cloud head! Sometimes though, I try to open that zip file and ooops, I saved an empty file…can’t remember a thing that I had in my head! My theory therefore is that those things I can’t remember, were not any good anyway! Those that I do remember are therefore, good ideas. You can never get disappointed this way!

I hasten to add I remembered the camel theme. I remembered it for 2 years until I was finally able, through having learnt and honed skills and developed that little bit more as a musician/composer at 15 years old to start writing down that theme and realizing it in a full orchestral setting. What I wrote when I was 15 was the opening movement to what I knew was going to be a symphony and what I suspected was going to be a really rather epic one…eek! Two years later, during my music degree, after even more development as a musician/composer and having studied orchestration and composition at a massively elevated level, I revisited my ‘baby’ symphony and was finally able to take it to the place which has always been in my head. There are still many elements in the symphony that are original to my 13 year old and 15 year old’s realization, but during my degree, I really found the skeleton key to every lock and could give my symphony the composition it deserved!

Things are a little different when it comes to commercial music briefs. Generally, there is at least some kind of directional idea that gets put forward in the brief when it arrives at our doorstep. We always look at the script and/or film if we have it and try to get inside the story and try to accompany, illustrate, emphasize and sculpt the music to compliment that story.

As for performance and composing, I love both! I’m not a composer who locks themselves away and becomes an anti-social, grumpy hermit (well at least I don’t think I do..!), I enjoy working on my own, but I also enjoy working with other people. I thoroughly enjoy participating in music with other people be it playing in an ensemble/orchestra/band etc. together, or performing as a soloist and participating in music with the audience. I love playing music, enjoying what others have written and crafting my performance. It’s all part of the same world for me, performance goes hand in hand with composition, I learn through performance, gain great satisfaction through performing, get to pay homage to great composers/artists through playing their music, get to entertain and involve people and all this feeds into composing. For me, music is very much a shared experience and I’m also lucky enough to have a backstage pass!

NYF: In 2012 you were honored with the New York Festivals International Radio Programs & Promos Awards Gold Trophy for Best Music Special for your documentary for the BBC “World Piece”. What was the inspiration for this piece and what did achieving this award mean to you?

NO: Honoured, yes that is definitely the right word! I am completely honoured by the interest and support that the New York Festivals have given me and the beautiful award is just unbelievable, I am still flabbergasted and utterly grateful and flattered!

The inspiration for ‘World Piece’ is a little random, but quite an amusing story! A few years ago, I was sent an email about this amazing global competition for young performer-composers which was being organized by the Transatlantic Arts Consortium (consisting of CalArts (CA, USA), Idyllwild Arts (CA, USA) and Dartington Arts (UK)) and headed by the genius, pioneering American experimental composer David Rosenboom (Dean, The Herb Alpert School of Music; Richard Seaver Distinguished Chair in Music; California Institute of the Arts). As I read more of this email, I got that little burning desire thing again and thought, “Well, I’m within the age-group they’re looking for. I do perform, I do compose…why not?!”

I often find myself doing slightly less-than-ordinary things, sometimes I do wonder why, but often I shrug my shoulders and say, why not! You do only live once after all. So I entered this worldwide competition to be in with the chance of being chosen to be one of 10 young composer-performers to be brought together from across the globe to form a team of composer-performers to write a piece of music together over the course of a year or so and then eventually perform it in Los Angeles. It was a crazy idea and I loved it!

I genuinely didn’t think that I would stand a chance of being chosen, this was after all a global competition and it would be ridiculous to think that I could even be in the running. But, if you don’t ask, you don’t get and at the very least, entering gave me the valuable impetus to collate and organize my portfolio, update my CV, get up-to-date references and generally organize myself and the things that all too often we all let lapse a little!

So, as you can imagine, I was both delighted and seriously surprised when I received an email a few months later that I had been chosen as one of the 10 young-composers and will soon be jetting of to America to begin what would become over a year-long global music project!

It just so happened that this all coincided with the last few months of my Masters degree in Broadcast Journalism and I needed a subject on which to focus a 20 minute documentary! I had a back-up idea of course, in case my gamble of entering a worldwide competition and actually winning a place didn’t come off, so, in other words, I had already started working on my other idea! Alas, that wonderful email came through, back-up idea got ceremoniously thrown out of the window and I pitched my documentary idea to my course leaders which was to follow the story of this amazing, never-been-done-before global music project which, whoopsy-daisy, I’ve just become involved in! They loved the idea.

My Masters project documentary gained me a distinction in my Masters and became the first incarnation of the documentary. It went through another before the version you hear today! After the conclusion of my Masters, I could easily have left the documentary there, but I couldn’t leave it. This music project had to be documented, it was too good and too deserving not to be. Life was pretty busy at the time, I had my full-time staff job as Broadcast Journalist, I was still conducting a regional youth orchestra and I was of course, making the most of my participation in the on-going music project. Piled on top of all that was also continuing to collate and construct my documentary, but I did this with relish!

The documentary actually originally got commissioned by a national radio station within my radio group, but due to company restructuring, which re-jigged broadcasting/programming structure and also included a considerable number of redundancies, including mine, the MD of the radio station and I decided that it would be best if I took my documentary elsewhere and now I was leaving the company, I was free to take it anywhere. I have a wonderful friend and former colleague who is now at the BBC, so I spoke to him. He already knew about the documentary, my involvement with the project, the fact I was making the documentary single-handedly, writing the complete soundtrack etc. etc. and thankfully, he still loved it! Very quickly he snapped it up for BBC Radio Devon and suggested to me to really embrace the personal story-telling route saying, “It is ok for it to be about you!” (I cringed, but it did make sense!) And cutting a very long story short (ish!), that’s how we got to the documentary as it is today; broadcast twice on the BBC and winner of that AMAZING golden retro microphone trophy!

It means the world to me to have been awarded Gold for Best Music Special at the New York Festivals International Radio Programs and Promotions Awards. You may be relieved to read that I can’t really put it into words! Entering my documentary was another one of those leap of faith, “why not” moments! I entered it myself (what a great business expense to account for!) and just took the chance! Again, very much like the worldwide music competition and the project itself, I never thought I would stand a chance, but again, if you don’t ask, you don’t get and it would have been very easy not to enter. But I did, partly because I believed in my documentary sufficiently to think that I’m not going to embarrass myself for entering, mostly because I seriously respect the New York Festivals and it’s principles and allowed myself to dream momentarily, but also, in a slightly amusing way, I wanted to acknowledge the symmetry of the documentary beginning with a global competition and now concluding with one!

I am beyond grateful and flattered to have been recognised by the New York Festivals, in many respects it still doesn’t seem real as on the face of it, it’s all a bit of a bizarre journey! It is an honour that I will be able to take with me for the rest of my life. So, yes, achieving this award means a vast amount to me.

Stay Tuned for Part 2 of NYF’s Spotlight Interview with Natalie Oram.

The New York Festivals International Radio Programs & Promos Awards® is open for entries. Entry Deadline is March 18th, 2013.

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