Dave Bainbridge has enjoyed a long, diverse and fascinating career. As his latest project Celestial Fire takes flight with a new DVD/CD, he’s preparing a UK/USA tour with The Strawbs, and continues to produce a phenomenal quantity of session work, live duo projects, and side projects with the many musical friendships he has built over the years, including former Iona bandmates.

We first learned about Dave’s roots in the blues, celtic music, and his passion for instruments. Last time we talked, Dave shared his compositional big picture process with us. This time, we asked Dave about his experience with film music, his career highlights, and current array of projects.

But first, Dave’s faith has long infused his musical expression. The well known Celtic/Prog-Rock band Iona was saturated with the ancient tales of the early Celtic Christians, and Dave reaches for the spirit in every note he plays:

Q: Dave, we’ve so enjoyed getting to know you here on Musical U. Let’s dig a little deeper this time: what is the role of spirituality in your music? What role does spirituality play in your relationships with fellow musicians?

For me, the physical and spiritual realms are interconnected rather like the strands in a rope. It’s not a case of one or the other. I’m convinced that great art awakens something very deep within us, that can remain dormant for much of the time. My belief as a Christian leads me to describe this as our spirit.

Talking to other musicians about this, many I know have experienced this moment when the music they’re playing transcends the time and place they’re playing in. It becomes a bridge into a deeper experience of what it is to be human. It opens up new perspectives and bonds with the listeners.

Musicians who don’t share my faith have described exactly this, but just in different terminology.

So, rather than describing music in divisive terms (e.g. “Christian” and “Secular”), my belief and personal experience is that the God I believe in creates everything – every atom. Therefore we can find his presence and glory everywhere – if we are open to looking. Music can open us up to this reality.

Tell us more about the Island of Iona and how that history played into the creation of the band Iona.

I could write pages on this! But briefly, around 1987/88, David Fitzgerald and I were doing a lot of touring with singer-songwriter and visionary Adrian Snell. After soundcheck each day, we found we had a lot of time to jam together and we became very excited about the soundscapes we were coming up with, with the combination of David’s saxes, flutes, whistles and ethnic wind instruments and my keys sounds.

We decided it would be great to do something together musically, so we started thinking about possible names for the project. The works we were performing with Adrian centred on the Jewish roots of the Christian faith and, both David and I realised that although we shared a mutual Christian faith, neither of us knew much about the roots of Christianity in Britain.

To cut a much longer story short, (you can read more on the Iona website (in the History section), we both felt led to find out more. This led us to the discovery that in the 6th century, Columba, an Irish monk, set up a monastery on the tiny Scottish island of Iona. From here, Christianity spread throughout Scotland and Northern Britain in an amazingly organic way.

We discovered incredible stories of faith, courage, and miracles that inspired us to name the new project after the island.

We discovered a rich seam of our faith that these Celtic peoples outlived, that seemed more earthy and real than much of the version of Christianity that we had been presented with. We both visited Iona and spent some time there soaking in the atmosphere and history of this beautiful, remote place. We read everything we could find on its history and about Celtic Christian saints like Columba, Cuthbert, Aidan, Brendan and Patrick and others.

Much of the music on the first Iona album was inspired by these exciting discoveries and the beautiful landscapes of the islands of Iona and Lindisfarne. There is so much more I could say, but that’s it, in a nutshell!

Q: Your career has included a constant theme of long-standing meaningful relationships with other musicians. What is your advice to other musicians in developing that aspect of their careers?

There are now so many different college and university courses you can take – seemingly on every aspect of the music industry, but it’s very rare that anyone employing you as a musician, certainly in the musical fields I work in, will be bothered about whether you have a musical qualification. That’s not to say that qualifications are not important. They are, but more because to pass them you have to attain a certain degree of skill, which you can then use to be able to interpret your musical ideas.

What is equally as important is getting on with people and developing your own unique sound or skill set, so that a) people will hear you or your work and see something in what you do that is different to anyone else, and b) they will enjoy working with you and want to work with you again.

It is rare that you find someone whom you really click deeply with on a musical level, but, when you do find that someone, it is worth hanging onto that relationship and developing it, because it will lead to great music happening. Over my whole career so far I’d say it’s only happened to me perhaps five or six times, but it’s birthed much music I’m very proud of.

Q: How did you start with film music? How does it fit in your career?

I’ve always loved the relationship between music and film and how the two can work together in a unique way to create a powerful art form. Not that long after finishing music college, a friend of mine, also a keyboardist and producer, passed on a job to me that he didn’t have time to do. It was to write some music for a corporate video for a building company – nothing groundbreaking!

I went to this audio visual studio which was fairly near where I lived and met the studio owner and the client, who had come up from London. I had no previous experience at writing for film, but the recommendation from my friend, plus my obvious enthusiasm got them to let me have a go.

They were very pleased with the music I came up with and, after that, the studio owner booked me regularly for all his AV jobs.

This was in the mid-1980s and although they could have used library music, the studio’s unique selling point was that every production they did, no matter how big or small, had music specially composed for it. I probably did getting on for a 100 jobs for that company over the next 10 years, writing music for all kinds of short commercial films and ads, and they still occasionally call me up if there’s enough budget to commission new music (it’s now run by the original studio owner’s son!).

The most recent I did for them was a music installation for a museum on the island of St Kitt’s celebrating the life of John Newton, who wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace”. That was about 16 minutes of orchestral style music and I was also able to get the amazing Scottish singer Mae McKenna to record a new arrangement of the hymn.

What doing all these often fairly small commercial films taught me was that every note of the music has to serve a purpose, to reflect and enhance the message of the film. It also really expanded my musical palette, as I had to write in whatever style the client wanted. Although I’m known through Iona for a particular style of music, in my film work, I’ve had to write in styles including contemporary dance, club, rock, jazz, blues, 18th-century Italian aria, 1920’s Dixieland, early 20th century English string quartet, soul, stirring Gustav Holst style orchestral, Marx brothers type madcap piano, Bach type organ music – to name a few!

The commercial work led to jobs for other types of film work – some short more art house type films and animations written for film festivals and a few TV commissions.

I realised many years ago though that if you’re really serious about being a film and TV composer, you have to pursue that to the exclusion of everything else. There is so much competition that you can’t just dabble in it. I came to the point after my first BBC TV commission, where I could have gone down that route, but at the time Iona was really taking off and that was where my heart lay – playing in my own band, playing live, playing my own music.

So these days I don’t actively pursue film work, as I’m busy with writing, producing and mixing CD projects and touring. But I really enjoy doing it whenever I get the opportunity and would still love to do a whole feature film, if it was something I really believed in.

Q: What projects are you engaged in now that you would like to share with our readers?

As I write this I’m sitting in a tour bus, on the road in the UK with the band the Strawbs, with whom I’ve been playing keys for over a year. They are a great band – their original keys player was someone called Rick Wakeman! Dave Cousins, the singer and main writer has written some great songs and it’s an honour to be part of the Strawbs long musical heritage.  We have two UK tours this year, a US tour in November, then we’ll be on the Moody Blues (Moodies) cruise, sailing from Miami next January. We did that last year and it was great fun.

As Iona is sadly no longer a touring and recording entity, I’ve formed a new band over the past year or so called Celestial Fire. We play Iona songs, music from my solo albums and much more. It’s a really great band and I recently finished mixing our first release – a live DVD/CD recording called “Live in the UK”. You can now order it from Celestial Fire. There’s a promo video on Youtube and we hope the DVD will really help raise awareness of the band, so we can do more touring.

Additionally, I do quite a few keys and guitar sessions from my studio and have played guitars on the excellent forthcoming album “Cardington” by British band Lifesigns. I may be doing some live dates with them next year as well. I will be doing some live dates for them next year, in the UK and Europe and also on the Cruise to the Edge in the Caribbean.

Currently, I’m also mixing a few other projects for people and hope to get into writing an album for my Celestial Fire band this year.

I’m also working on a new Strawbs studio album and will be working on the album with acclaimed producer/engineer Chris Tsangarides in a few weeks time.

Q: Can you give a brief summary of any of the highlights of your multifaceted career that we’ve missed?

Well firstly I’ve been very blessed to have been able to sustain a career in music for so long and I think being able to diversify has been the key for me. There have been many highlights and surprises which continue to be very exciting. Being able to earn a living from writing and performing my own music, which expresses my own musical vision and reflects my faith has been huge and not something I take for granted.

Here are some highlights off the top of my head (would probably be a different list on a different day!):

  • Hearing my own orchestral arrangements of my music played by an orchestra
  • Hearing a renowned string quartet playing music I’d written
  • Meeting many of the musicians I’d admired so much in my teenage years and in some cases finding out that they are now fans of my music
  • Working with the late, great Jack Bruce
  • Hearing from so many people around the world how the music has touched them so deeply
  • Hearing how one young man, contemplating suicide, decided to continue with his life after listening to an Iona song
  • Headlining in front of 25,000 people at Cornerstone festival in the USA in ’96 or ’97 and playing the Star Spangled Banner with Troy Donockley (uilleann pipes) just as a fireworks display went off (it was Independence Day)
  • Releasing my first solo piano album “The Remembering” last year
  • Playing with blues legend Buddy Guy
  • Recording Moya Brennan’s incredible voice for an Iona album. I was a huge Clannad fan and first met her when she came to an Iona gig in Dublin
  • Living through the amazing revolution in music and computer technology – things that can be done now were the stuff of science fiction when I started off
  • Touring the world and meeting so many amazing people and experiencing different and diverse cultures
  • Seeing how amazingly faithful God has been and how, when I look back, I can clearly see how perfectly he has interwoven the strands in my life

What fantastic list, Dave! Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom, inspiration, and talents with us here on Musical U as well – I can tell you this conversation with you is going on my list!

Learn and Grow from Everything

After getting to know Dave Bainbridge a little bit through these interviews, I believe that one of the secrets to his personal success in a life of music is that he has been willing to draw out the learning from every experience. Writing for film showed him the importance of each note. Embracing deep musical relationships deepened both his spirituality and his connections with fellow musicians. And his experience and learning are there for him when he steps into big new projects.

Would you like to get to know Dave a little better too? Enjoy the vast breadth and depth of his music on his website and Facebook page. Once you peek into Dave Bainbridge’s world, you may even find your own learning and growth.