In a career spanning five decades, there is little doubt that one of Midge Ure’s tracks will have touched the lives of many Gibraltarians, from his early, raw sounds, to his embracing of synthesizer technology in its infancy, to the polished sound of Ultravox, to being a solo artist, and his work with Band Aid. He’s now revisited some of his compositions with his latest release, Orchestrated.
Many will also remember his visit to Gibraltar last year for MTV Gibraltar Calling. We started by asking him about his time on the Rock.
MU: We had a glorious time I have to say. It was my first time in Gibraltar. I think we stayed in the same hotel that John and Yoko got married in. And it’s lovely doing those things, because there aren’t many places left that you actually haven’t gone and played before. So being there was fantastic … I mean I don’t know how people stand the heat! I’m a Scot through and through, so I’m not used to the sunshine. And the event itself was really good – beautifully placed right down there beside the water, it was just incredible.
Your latest album is Orchestrated and it would appear to be a bit of a labour of love for you.
MU: Oh yeah
What motivated you to revisit some of your work?
MU: Well it’s not that often you’re asked to perform with an orchestra. I mean over the past few years it’s become a more regular thing, but in the early part of your career rarely do you get the opportunity, so for the past few years every time I’ve been asked to perform or tour when an orchestra is involved, the moment I play one of my songs – an Ultravox song, a solo song, or whatever – the kind of things I write just come to life with the orchestra. The melodies I use, the structure … it’s very emotive, very cinematic when I record them. But then when you do it with an orchestra, all of those things are magnified. All of a sudden, the atmosphere, the textures … so it just became very apparent that when I did one of these things – and I did one weirdly in Glasgow a few years back at the opening of the Ryder Cup where I performed Vienna and it just went viral. People were just raving about how this thing sounded and how magnificent it was. So it got me thinking, ‘if those sound good, what would some of the others?’ … not necessarily the commercial hits, but some of what I would think were the more interesting pieces of music – how would they translate? I set about finding someone who could “speak orchestra”, because I certainly don’t. I needed someone who understood what I do as a rock/pop musician and someone who understood orchestration. Once I found this guy, Ty Unwin, we set about this ominous task of trying to do this. We ended up spending eighteen months making sure we got the arrangements and production absolutely right, so we were 100% satisfied with it. So, yes, it was a labour of love.
Would you say your career has gone full circle, given your varied use of instrumentation in the past?
MU: Probably in a way, yes, it is full circle because I’m looking at the songs in a different light, and I’m obviously using different instrumentation to create it. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s when we had very basic, baby electronics when they were just coming out at first … you know, Ultravox used those things and we used them to great effect. It was all about the dynamics and the atmospherics that you could create with these instruments along side traditional rock instruments. Take Vienna, for example. It’s very electronic, but the piano and violin are the two main instruments. So we could create something orchestral in its own electronic way, but now doing it thirty-five years later with an orchestra, it still has those dynamics even more so, but it’s got a different flavour. It’s still got the feel of the original song, but it’s taken it somewhere else. A lot of the tracks on the album have turned out amazingly, I think. They aren’t necessarily – as I said before – the commercial hits just replicated. Things like Lament, or Man Of Two Worlds, or I Remember (Death In The Afternoon) … things that were obvious album tracks when we recorded them, but [now] they’ve taken on this whole new life – thanks to the orchestra. It’s kind of like when you see a sports car zooming past on the motorway, it’s usually an old guy in it. Because it’s only old guys who can afford them. Maybe you’ve got to wait until a certain age before you’re allowed to go and record with an orchestra!
Getting older, do you think people learn to appreciate classical music more?
MU: To me, it was kind of like black magic, sat in that room with a bunch of absolute strangers who had never heard the song before. And they all get handed a piece of paper with some black marks on it. The conductor waves his baton and all of a sudden this group of people – who might not know each other – all come together in unison and make this magnificent sound. But with all the emphasis and passion and feeling that you would expect one person to have … it’s just an incredible thing.
Using an orchestra isn’t the only way you’ve been reinterpreting your music though?
MU: I’m doing four or five shows [in the US] with just an acoustic guitar, then I’m meeting up with musicians who I’ve never met before, and then we’ll go out and do another five or six weeks of touring with the band. The key to this is all about the songs. If you write a reasonable song, you should be able to record it just sitting at a piano or sitting with a guitar, and you should be able to enthral people just from the performance. If you get the song right, you can do that in any format, whether it’s a full band, or an orchestra. If you don’t have the good ingredients to begin with, it’s never going to sound good. It’s kind of challenging myself. All of these things I do … all the different streams of creativity I do, it’s all about ‘how do I perform this song without making it sound stale and dull and stagnant because I’ve been singing them for thirty-five years some of them?’. The challenge to me is to come up with some way of doing it that still keeps it fresh for the audience.
Orchestrated by Midge Ure is available now from BMG on CD, vinyl and streaming/download formats.