Creatives In Lockdown #1 — Jac Cooper, Composer
The COVID-19 pandemic has irrevocably changed the working lives of UK arts industry professionals. In a wide ranging series of interviews, conducted during the UK’s ‘hard’ lockdown, I learn how creatives have adapted their practice and daily routines in order to maintain their creativity, solvency and sanity.
My first four interviews feature a variety of musicians. First up is Jac Cooper, a composer for video games, theatre and film. While being mostly London-based since originally training as an actor at Bristol Old Vic, he spoke to me from Wales where he is locked down with his family. Find links to Jac’s social media, along with a few things that have been keeping him busy during lockdown, at the end of the interview.
What were you doing in mid-March as the arts industry began shutting down? And how did the subsequent lockdown initially affect your work?
My girlfriend Poppy and I were working on a play she’d written and just got Arts Council funding for. She’d been on the funding trail for a while and, at the second time of applying, secured £12,000 — when she called me, it was one of the happiest moments I’ve ever heard from Poppy.
The day they started rehearsal was the Monday Boris Johnson made his infamous “don’t go to the theatre” speech. On Tuesday and Wednesday it started getting a bit: ‘what’s the point of rehearsing if no theatre can put it on?’. Then it was Thursday night and we were packed in the back of my brother’s car ready to go to my parent’s house in Wales. We thought we’d rather lock down there since they have so much space, and thought we might be stuck in London if we didn’t leave as soon as possible. Sure enough, three or four days later, they locked down the whole country.
That was tough for both of us but in general it’s been so much harder on Poppy. Pretty much every creative, unless you’re incredibly lucky, has their steady income and their intermittent projects. But Poppy’s steady income is working for a kids party company and her passion project was this play. Both of those were cancelled. Whereas for me I can keep working on the theatre project because a lot of what I do is on my computer, writing music remotely. So I’ve kept working on that. And I’ve continued teaching guitar which is now over Zoom.
What’s it like teaching guitar over Zoom?
So first of all it depends on the connection, if it’s dodgy, it’s agonising. Secondly the age difference is magnified. The difference between teaching a 9 year old and a 14 year old is already quite clear, but over Zoom it’s incredibly hard to keep a 9 year old with a short attention span on track. It can be pretty tough but I’m just grateful to still be working.
Have you been able to retain the majority of clients and continue earning?
Yes I still teach most afternoons and my schedule is basically unchanged. There’s also been two incredibly fortunate things: one is that our landlord waived our rent, the second is that I landed my first video game job. At the start of this year I decided to diversify into composing for other art forms [beyond theatre]. So I was just ecstatic about that. It paid about four times as much as any theatre job I’ve had and wasn’t impeded by lockdown. It couldn’t have happened at a better time and has been keeping me busy. I’ve been working just as much as normal which I think probably makes me incredibly fortunate.
How much of your music kit did you take to your parent’s house?
When we left London I had just one suitcase with a couple changes of clothes for Poppy and me, and she had my desktop computer on her lap. But a few days later I realised we didn’t have enough stuff to last through a potential lockdown, so I drove back to London to collect more clothes and also decided to bring back nearly all my music stuff.
Have you been able to set up a studio space at your parent’s house?
Yes they have a spare room I use. My London studio is just the corner of our living room whereas here I’ve a lot more space, it’s really nice. It’s demonstrated the stark difference between living in or out of London. To put it simply, in terms of one’s career: in London you have networking, outside London you have space. And it particularly matters to me as a composer to have a studio where I’m able to cut myself off from the world. In London I’m always in a situation where I’ve got headphones on in the corner of a space being used for something else. It’s always a compromise when you come into a rehearsal room and you’re in the corner quickly trying to rustle something up. It has made me consider more the possibility of not living in London.
Have you been able to take advantage of any Government financial support scheme? If so, how did you find the process of applying for it?
I got a grant from the self-employed income support scheme. It was unbelievably straight forward. There wasn’t that much to fill in, it was just like: ‘click here… fill in your details… the money’s in your account’.
What is your lockdown-adjusted daily routine?
I don’t think it’s any different from my normal routine to be honest, although the one big change is I’m living with my family and we all have dinner together. But basically I compose from 9am to 1pm, go for a walk, then teach guitar from 3:30ish. But like I say, I’m very lucky that it hasn’t been thrown all that much.
Do you find you’ve become more or less disciplined?
I think the thing that’s made me most disciplined is — and this is quite a strange answer — but now I live in a house with more room, I’m more disciplined about shutting myself off for certain habits. Meditating and working are easier when I’ve got a room to myself, whereas in London you can’t find a room where no one else will be coming in. Meditating is really important to me, so I always have to negotiate with my housemates. Having more space here has made me more disciplined but I suppose I already had to be because all of my work is self-motivated.
And I suppose composing for a video game comes with set deadlines you have to work to?
We agreed I’d produce about two hours of music and then put monthly deadlines in the contract. So I know by the end of each month I have to deliver half an hour of music. With those timestamps in my head I know when I need to put my foot on the gas a bit here or I know I’ve got some extra time to play with there.
What, if anything, can you tell me about the game?
It’s basically a cafe management sim. You’re running this trendy little cafe and have to expand your empire by following trends, getting the latest kind of coffee and hipster foods like sourdough. It escalates into higher and higher levels of absurdity — eventually you can get a church organ, a 10-pin bowling alley, and even a Bucking Bronco. The way the music functions within the game is that there are four radio stations you can tune into. They’re all hipster genres: cafe jazz, Brian Eno ambient-style electronica/synth, lo-fi chill beats, and spaced-out/psychedelic stoner guitar music.
How did you land the job?
The way I got the job was another incredible stroke of fortune. It was my New Year’s resolution to go to more networking events, there’s one run monthly out of a pub in London and the second time I went I got chatting to this guy and he was looking for someone to write some music for a new game. We exchanged emails, he sent me a little brief, I gave him a couple of demos, and then he was like ‘yep, let’s go!’.
Finally, I’m interested to know how you would describe your occupation? What job title do you give yourself and does it ever change depending on the context?
I’d say composer, although I cringe inside when I say it because you get this image of Beethoven or Mozart and that’s a million miles from what I do. It’s mostly making cool sounds with a computer. I also drift in and out of sound design, plus I teach guitar part-time.
How Jac Is Keeping Busy
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Little Friend by Donna Tart
Talking to my Daughter about the Economy by Yanis Varoufakis
Natives by Akala
The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells
Planet of the Humans YouTube
Tiger King Netflix
Wild Wild Country (for a second time) Netflix
Rabbit Hole podcast from The New York Times
Waking Up meditation app
Originally published at jamesrmcandrew.com on June 29, 2020