John Metcalfe

Composer, producer, classical violist, guitarist, pioneering A&R man, and arranger to A-list pop stars, John Metcalfe has always been a name worth seeking out, however small the print. Even when he is working in the background, as an arranger for the Pretenders, Peter Gabriel or Blur, his contributions are always special. His ear for timbre and his instinct for musical drama make him a good collaborator - empathetic but never unassuming.

Originally from New Zealand, Metcalfe moved to England as a child and took up the viola, joining his first band at school playing drums. Raised on a dual-mono diet of Kraftwerk and Joy Division, this band influenced his move northwest where he studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. (He later also studied at the Hochschule in Berlin.)

Metcalfe joined The Durutti Column and played in the band for three years, adding his own unique sound and flavour to the enigmatic style of guitarist Vini Reilly. Through Durutti, Metcalfe met Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson, and the two men launched Factory Classical in 1989. Among Metcalfe’s first signings were his own Duke Quartet, pianist Rolf Hind, and composer Steve Martland.

The Duke Quartet, led by Metcalfe’s violinist wife Louisa Fuller, soon attracted acclaim, with its gutsy appetite for twentieth-century repertoire and an adventurous programme of new commissioned work. In parallel with a busy concert schedule, the string quartet frequently worked with contemporary dance companies, pop artists (such as on the Pretenders’ Isle of View) and in film and television.

Since his work on Morrissey’s no.1 solo album Viva Hate, John Metcalfe has become one of the UK’s top arrangers, working for artists such as Simple Minds, Bat For Lashes, Blur, and Coldplay. He provided all the strings for the Concert for Linda at the Albert Hall, working with George Michael, Johnny Marr and Tom Jones. After hearing his arrangement of ‘Angel in The Morning’ for the ‘Friends’ soundtrack, the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde asked John to arrange some of her most famous songs for the Isle of View album — which featured The Duke Quartet.

"I'm old fashioned. I want to just put records out and do gigs. It still feels like a real privilege to actually go and play stuff that I've written." John Metcalfe

In 2008 Metcalfe took part in a project so audacious that those who took part still find it hard to believe — a live improvised collaboration with The Bays and the Heritage Orchestra. Starting with a blank page on an electronic scorepad, Metcalfe, along with fellow composer Simon Hale, wrote an entire orchestral score in real time — a kind of musical ‘extreme sport.’

Soon after that, Metcalfe took on another challenge — arranging and co-producing Peter Gabriel’s orchestral albums Scratch My Back and New Blood. When the project subsequently toured the world, Metcalfe was its musical director.

The Appearance of Colour is Metcalfe’s fourth album under his own name, and follows A Darker Sunset (Big Chill, 2008), Scorching Bay (Black Box, 2004) and The Inner Line (Black Box, 2000).

Further reading

Gallery of the Islamic World exhibition opens at the British Museum

New album by Bokanté + Metropole Orkest out now

What Heat follows the band's 2017 debut, and features Jules Buckley as orchestra arranger/conductor.

Stephen Hague on bringing Big Blue Ball to the finishing line

The New Order producer faced the mammoth task of sifting through years of recording sessions.

Real World Sessions: Totó la Momposina, 20 August 1991

A look back on The Wood Room session with producer Phil Ramone and mix engineer Richard Blair.