Music & Sound Design: Abi Leland
shots cover star Abi Leland chooses the music that makes us weep every Christmas. Taken from shots 169.
Choosing the right music for a spot may not be rocket science, but it seems to baffle plenty of people in the industry. Not music supervisor and Leland Music founder Abi Leland, though.
David Knight meets the co-creator of one of the most recognisable music styles in adland, to learn how she went from door-knocking to company director to picking Christmas number ones
“Music isn’t like other areas of production where people hesitate to offer an opinion,” says Abi Leland. “Everyone has an opinion about music.”
She should know. She’s spent around 20 years making her opinions about music count as one of Britain’s top music supervisors, working on bringing music to feature films and TV, as well as some of the most memorable British commercials of the past decade.
Her job, put simply, is to find the right music for film, whether that requires researching, discovering and licensing existing music tracks, freshly re-recording existing music, or commissioning original scores.
Leland’s credits include supervising original scores for Honda spots and sourcing music on numerous ads for Tesco. And she has played a crucial role in reducing a nation to emotional mush for the last few Christmases, having worked on every festive John Lewis ad since 2010.
“It’s not rocket science, putting music to picture,” says Leland. “But it is a bit of a sixth sense. You need to have that instinct for what is right and what’s not.”
A few days before Christmas, with Buster The Boxer bouncing on British TV screens and across the internet, she is reflecting on another big year, which included work on Channel 4’s blockbuster Paralympics promo We’re The Superhumans; her company Leland Music supervising their first British TV show Crazyhead for E4; and setting up an independent agency to represent a curated selection of composers, Leland Originals.
Tell everybody this is your song
Leland describes her role as helping directors and ad creatives fulfil their vision. “We like people to use us, not as a walking talking database of music, or to be reactive to changes in the brief, but really to guide the process.” A good example of the ideal scenario was the We’re The Superhumans project.
She was invited into the process at an early stage by director Dougal Wilson – who had already had the idea of recording a real band of disabled musicians – and provided song suggestions from a range of musical genres. The oldest and least well-known was the swing number Yes I Can, originally performed by Sammy Davis Jr, a “wild card” that she hoped they would go for. “It’s an amazing message, and it’s a great song. Dougal latched onto it and everyone loved it.”
The song also had to be recorded before any footage was shot – the commercial was effectively made like a music video – with Leland supervising the recording of a band that had never worked together before, at Abbey Road Studios. “I wanted it to be a good experience for everyone there – people are so excited when they go to Abbey Road,” she says, describing it as “a great and humbling experience” working with disabled musicians recruited from all over the world.
Leland found her calling back in the late 1990s. The daughter of writer/director David Leland, she left school before her A-levels and worked as a runner and promoter of techno gigs, then got a job at a label that re-released classic movie soundtracks. Wondering who chose the music for the films, she “started knocking on doors and asking questions” and, still in her early 20s, discovered the role of music supervisor.
Her friend, the film composer Simon Boswell, was working on the movie Women Talking Dirty – produced by Elton John’s partner David Furnish – and heard they needed a music supervisor. Leland was offered the job. “Obviously I said yes,” she says. “You kind of have no fear at that age.”
She survived that experience, and her early career saw her working on a succession of modestly-budgeted British feature films alongside licensing expert Dan Rose. In the early noughties she joined Soundtree Music, run by Peter Raeburn, and was introduced to the world of commercials, “suddenly working on great scripts”.
She stayed at Soundtree for a relatively short period before forming Leland Music in 2005. From early on she attracted prestigious work, collaborating with Wieden+Kennedy on spots for Nike and Honda. Being able to build her own team, creating a new generation of music researchers, really inspired her. “That’s now a big part of what drives me – running the business and having a team of people… seeing them being able to fulfil their ambition.”
adam&eveDDB asked Leland to music supervise her first John Lewis commercial in 2010. “We looked at different options, and one of those was to take existing songs, redefine the song, and cover it.” Out of that came Fyfe Dangerfield’s cover of the Billy Joel song She’s Always A Woman for Dougal Wilson’s ad of the same name. Then came her first John Lewis Christmas ad A Tribute To Givers.
She had to fight for Elton John’s Your Song, covered for the ad by Ellie Goulding. “I think people thought it would be too cheesy. I was sure it wouldn’t be.” She asked a few artists to demo, but Goulding “nailed it”.
And so, the unmistakable template that has done so much to help embed John Lewis Christmas ads into the public consciousness was established, although, Leland says, “It wasn’t as if they decided that this was going to be the route for the next so many years. Even now we still always explore what it is because creative people will always question what they do.”
For Buster The Boxer, she says, Dougal Wilson had put One Day I’ll Fly Away on an early animatic and “it just worked”. But she felt it needed a very different approach from previous tracks, with their stripped-back arrangements. “I was looking forward to doing that song – the over-the-topness of the comedy moments lent demanded a big orchestration – so we mocked up an orchestral arrangement first, and then the artists demoed to that.”
"It's not rocket science, putting music to picture. But it is a bit of a sixth sense. You need to have that instinct for what's right and what's not."
The artists in question were up-and-coming band Vaults. Landing the job gave the band a big publicity boost, but the process is not driven primarily by the need for a hit. Leyland says an important part of her job is making sure the music comes first. “It is, first and foremost, what works for the film.
Devaluing music doesn’t benefit anyone in the long run. You want artists to be involved because they think it’s a good use of their music. A constant part of my role is to positively promote the use of music in the best way possible.”