Composer Damian Montagu and his new album

PUBLISHED: 15:47 01 July 2016 | UPDATED: 12:03 04 July 2016

Hugh Bonneville & Damian Montagu (Photo by Oli Green)

Hugh Bonneville & Damian Montagu (Photo by Oli Green)

Oli Green

Composer Damian Montagu didn’t expect a countryside walk to lead to a chart-topping album, as he explains to Duncan Hall

When Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville selected the track The Path Towards Tomorrow as one of his Desert Island Discs in February it shot straight to the top of the iTunes classical chart.

The piece of music comes from the album In A South Downs Way. The music was inspired by walks composer Damian Montagu took with his dogs in the countryside around his Rogate home. And sitting in the Cowdray Farm Shop on a bright spring morning Damian, 46, is still trying to process the music’s journey from humble beginnings to being played on the longest-running show on BBC Radio 4.

“The album came about without a conscious decision to make an album,” he says. “The process of walking in the landscape brought out the melodies. It was a very pure form of composition – it was the beauty of the Downs that brought on the music. If you were spiritual you could say it came from the land. I have never written like that before.”

The resulting album is based around piano lines, brass and string arrangements, field recordings of countryside sounds and Hugh’s spoken word contributions – all originating from ideas Damian recorded on his mobile phone as he walked in the countryside. “It was such an incredibly enjoyable process,” says Damian. “I hope that when people listen to it they will get a sense of peace and fulfilment.”

It is the first in a projected series which Damian and brass arranger Stewart Prosser, from Petersfield, Hampshire, hope to continue across the country. “We didn’t envisage sitting here talking about it or having a number one on iTunes,” says Stewart, 57, who in the 1980s was part of the touring band for Paul Weller’s post-Jam project The Style Council. “It was always a work of love, something to have fun with. Nobody commissioned us.

“When we first played parts of the album live at Glastonbury to an audience who didn’t come from the South Downs we started thinking about doing something which reflected other parts of the country too.” Currently in the works, in what is being called the Walk Upon England series, are albums based around the West Country and Yorkshire. The pair plan to work with individuals with strong connections and passion for the different areas to provide a spoken word element, as Hugh did with In A South Downs Way.

Hugh, who lives near Midhurst, became involved in the project through his long friendship with Damian and Stewart. “We were having our usual ‘what are you doing at the moment’ conversation,” says Damian, who had originally toyed with the idea of using the words of Sussex poet Edward Thomas to accompany the music. “Hugh came into the studio to read some lines. He went away and did a bit of research and it wasn’t long before he suggested using some of his own words.

“It was a natural progression from there.” Both Damian and Stewart are keen not to describe Hugh’s contributions as poetry. On the album they have the feeling of reflections or thoughts about a place he has described as “God’s own country”. They add an extra element to a meditative sound which is set very much at a walking tempo. “What Hugh produced sat so beautifully with the music,” says Stewart. “It comes in and out of the music – we felt that it completed it.”

Everything was recorded as live as possible in Damian’s home studio, with few overdubs. The field recordings of birdsong and countryside sounds, which Damian and Stewart captured in different areas of the Downs, were carefully mixed in to avoid the whole project turning into a soundscape.

“We didn’t want it to be anything more than evocative of the Downs,” says Damian. “It has been blended very carefully. The birdsong was there when I wrote the music while walking along.” The sound of the album is very much analogue, with no synthesisers or electronica. String arranger Robert Sword performed Damian’s piano lines, which were augmented by Stewart’s brass.

The strings are provided by The Tippett Quartet, another link made through Damian and Stewart’s friendship with the quartet’s founder Bozidar Vukotic. “We wanted to use as many local musicians as possible,” says Damian. “We wanted to source everything as locally as possible – including the artwork.” The album cover has been designed by another mutual friend, Katie Blunt. The pair are working on a CD box which is packaged to reflect the spirit of the music rather than a standard jewel case. As well as standard music shops, Amazon and iTunes, they hope to sell the album through bookshops and local stores. They have also made initial contact with a local film-maker to promote the album with a short movie online and create accompanying visuals for future performances. “The thought is to perform in places that are reflective of the South Downs – stately homes and churches, places like that,” says Stewart.

Although the project began as a labour of love the pair were approached by major classical label Decca to get the album out to a wider audience. Damian is keen to stress it is not solely a classical album though – but the product of both his and Stewart’s long background in music, taking influences from classical, jazz, folk and pop.

Damian’s background in music began when he gave up “a boring office job” to focus on becoming a composer. He had an early break when he remixed David Bowie’s Sound And Vision for a Blockbusters advert. “I started getting commissions and moved into film and commercials,” he says. “I tried to do as many art projects as I could when that was possible.” One short film he worked on, 1999’s The Cookie Thief, starring Jack Davenport and Honor Fraser, was nominated for the best short film Palme d’Or in Cannes. And this is not the first time he has topped the iTunes classical chart. Damian produced the 2013 charity single Waiting For You by Jonathan Goldstein, featuring the voice of Victoria Beaumont, as heard on a Christmas Sky TV advert. His homebuilt studio has been used by the likes of Minneapolis soul singer Alexander O’Neal and former X Factor finalist and chart-topper Jahmene Douglas.

Stewart’s early interest in music was focused on hearing brass bands playing in London. In the early 1980s he was a session musician, which he combined with a career in communications working with major corporations including Chase Manhattan Bank, AXA and Peugeot. “Moving back to this area really triggered a resurgence in the music side,” he says.

“I had continued to play and work under the radar over the last few years, but playing with Damian and others like him around here has really helped bring the music out again. Music has always been a big part of my life – I’ve been doing a lot of teaching brass and writing courses for young players.”

And this is somewhere the pair would like In A South Downs Way to go – as a teaching aid for young musicians. “Music is taught in a very linear fashion,” says Stewart. “We would like to take the album into schools, provide the score for students and get the children to write their own words to the music.

“The potential of the project could go beyond just the music and CD.”

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