Midge Ure brings orchestral re-workings to solo and Ultravox hits

Midge Ure is no stranger to radically re-working music from his past. On his 2015 “Fragile Troubadour” tour, he proved that even Ultravox classics such as “Vienna” and “Reap the Wild Wind” could maintain their power when stripped down to just guitar and voice. On his new album, “Orchestrated,” Ure goes to the other extreme, re-imaging solo and Ultravox material with the accompaniment of an orchestra.

How did the “Orchestrated” album come about?

Midge Ure: “It’s one of those things where as you get on in life, you’re invited to perform with orchestras at various times. Every time I did one, whether it be in Germany or the UK, the songs lent themselves to that kind of treatment. They were always very cinematic, so doing them in an orchestra was just fantastic. It worked out for me, so I thought about it long and hard, and I really didn’t want to do two things. One was recreate the old songs and just throw some strings on them, which a lot of people do. And two, I didn’t want to ruin the memory of the original records for people, because I know how important it is when you love a piece of music. You don’t want someone to mess around with it; you don’t want them to change it or re-arrange it. So I set about trying to find the right person to do this with, because I don’t know anything about orchestras. I don’t know orchestration, and I don’t rearrange notation. Everything I do is shooting from the hip. So, I needed to find someone who understood what I did but also could translate it into something an orchestra could understand. I found that guy in a friend of Howard Jones, who I met at Howard Jones’ house. Ty Unwin writes music for television and film, but he’s also a massive synth head. He’s got the most high-tech studio I’ve ever been in. He’s got a collection of synthesizers most people would drool over, so he understood totally where I was coming from and where I wanted to go.”

Where any songs particularly challenging to work within this format?

Midge Ure: “Weirdly, one of the ones I instantly thought would work, ‘Reap the Wild Wind,’ because of the big melodic, soaring feel that it has, never worked quite right. Right up until the last minute, we kept trying it and leaving it and moving onto something else. We eventually went back to it at the very end and had a re-think. We managed to get it so that it just felt right. That was a tricky one. Another one that was tricky was ‘Dancing with Tears in My Eyes,’ which I’m very pleased with. It’s a poignant, sad, very different version. It gives the lyrics and the idea behind the song enough space to do what it is meant to do. ‘Vienna’ we didn’t do an awful lot with because it is what it is; there’s not a lot you can do. But the other stuff I was very pleased with. We managed to take them and without annihilating the original records, we managed to make something new and different from them.”

What about particular songs that might have taken on new life?

Midge Ure: “Oh yeah. ‘Death in the Afternoon’ has become a firm fan favorite. It’s was always an album track that Ultravox would perform live, but it was never more than that. It was never a single. It really came into its own. Those lovely chord changes and melodic parts worked just spectacularly. And ‘Hymn’ is very bombastic and very cinematic, and it’s incredibly powerful. It’s the kind of thing you expect to see at the beginning of a Lord of the Rings kind of movie. It’s just a really powerful, dramatic entrance to the album.”

What was the actual process like making the album?

Midge Ure: “As I said, Ty has this fantastic studio where he can create orchestras without actually using an orchestra. He works in television and film, and those budgets aren’t always great. So, he’s a bit of a master at being able to create an orchestra in a room. I had the luxury of sitting there with him in his studio, which is about 17 or 18 miles away from me. I had the luxury of hearing what this was going to sound like before he had to commit to putting an orchestra on it, which is very expensive. So, we sat there, and I was thinking, ‘I don’t know what an orchestra will bring to this,’ because it was so incredibly lifelike, so incredibly powerful. He layers all this stuff up and does exactly what orchestras do. Then we put the orchestra to it much later. We took about 18 months to get all the arrangements exactly how we wanted, and then we went off to Sofia in Bulgaria. We used an orchestra out there because it was cheaper than using an orchestra in London. But they are also incredibly good players. We went to this studio out there for 3 – 4 weeks to record the orchestra. Now, I had never been in a situation where I’m in a studio sitting in the middle of an orchestra when they all fire up and play something you’ve written. It’s the most amazing feeling. I saw people who had never heard this piece of music and they all had these sheets of paper in front of them. The conductor waved this magic wand, the baton, and all of a sudden, these individuals came together as one and created this almighty sound! The emphasis, and the highs and lows, and the passion and the feeling—it was everything you hoped they could do. Of course, the orchestra brought the human element, which was missing from us mocking it up. It was just spectacular.”

When you ultimately worked with the real orchestra, what songs do you feel were impacted most?

Midge Ure: “I think for me, ‘Fragile’ really came to life. I’d never imagined it as anything other than how I’d originally done it, which is kind of cinematic in it’s own right. But when you hear the orchestra playing, there is a delicacy and a fragility about the whole intro section, the whole beginning of that song. It’s like a wedge. It starts at a very fine point, really small and fragile and broken and crumbling, like it could fall apart at any second. And then it builds and it builds and it builds and it just keeps going. It’s just wonderful, because as much as you can do that with volume when trying to make music in the studio or on your own, you try to layer things up to get this dynamic; it’s something that an orchestra can do because it’s a human thing. It’s a very passionate feeling.”

How did you decide which songs to work on for this album?

Midge Ure: “I have to say the song choice process was an odd one. Ty was a huge Ultravox fan, so he knew all the stuff I’d forgotten. I’d suggest things and he’d go, ‘Yeah, but what about ..’ and he’d suggest something that I’d forgotten, something obscure. It was all about the songs that would work in that format. We must have started off with a list of about 50 songs and we whittled them away until we had 12 or whatever it was we ended up with. We keep talking about part 2, if we have the opportunity to do it, because there are many tunes that really would suit that. But Ty had a major say in how this worked. It started off as me working with him as an arranger, and then I saw how good he was at doing this stuff, so we ended up being partners on the entire project. “

Did you consider doing any new material in this format?

Midge Ure: “Well, we did one track. About 2/3 of the way through the process, Ty suggested we try doing something from scratch. We wrote a song called ‘Ordinary Man.’ When we started the process, I think the first song Ty did orchestration for was ‘The Voice’ because he wanted to do it, but like me, he was scared to mess up his and other people’s memories of the original. So, he took a month before he played me anything and he’d gotten the tone of it just right. It was absolutely perfect; it wasn’t too bombastic and it had all the passion and all the elements I wanted in there, plus the delicacy to go along with it. So once we had 2 or 3 of these productions under our belts, we felt as though we had a good idea of how all the others would sound. He suggested we try something brand new. The project grew; it was initially going to be just Ultravox songs and then I wanted to do my solo stuff as well, and we even talked about doing some Visage stuff. But we didn’t. So, it constantly morphed and grew. There’s no reason we couldn’t do new material together. We are talking about trying to experiment and do something new, maybe try a different format.”

Did the process of making the “Orchestrated” album have any impact on your current live show?

Midge Ure: “I’m not sure if it affects what I’ll be doing when I come out to the US this time. But we have discussed the possibilities of trying to do maybe a handful of shows, probably in the UK, with an orchestra. But you have to be absolutely sure you want to do that because the groundwork involved in putting it together is just massive. It takes months and months and months to prep. While the score is written, you wouldn’t just do the album. If you’re going to do a performance, you need more options and you have go back to the drawing board to do arrangements of some of the other old songs. Once you’ve done all that, it’s an easy process to go out and perform with orchestras all around the world, which would be the ideal scenario. I was in Gothenburg, Sweden last year doing a show and I was looking through a magazine with listings of classical performances coming up. There was Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky and then in the middle, there was one that said ‘The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra – An evening with Kate Bush.’ It wasn’t Kate Bush appearing, it was an evening of Kate Bush music. And I thought, you know what, that makes absolutely perfect sense. Orchestras need to perform a wide spectrum of music, they need to get their teeth into something. I could imagine them doing an evening of Sting music or an evening of Peter Gabriel music. And I thought, that is the key to it, once you have done all the groundwork and you have all the scores for the set that you’d like to do, you can then easily go to orchestras. Every city has a couple of really good orchestras and they are all looking for an alternative to just classical music. So the idea is the pipeline to do something like that.”