Audrey takes a bow with The Smiths…Muse, Coldplay, Foo Fighters, etc.


Picture copyright Leicester Mercury

There’s a smidge of a lady talking in the middle of The Smiths’ Pretty Girls Make Graves.

“Oh, really?” says the voice. And that’s it.

Many years later and the identity of that voice’s owner is still adding intrigue to numerous Smiths’ biographies.

Each time, the writer invariably points to one person; the track’s cellist who, politely and emphatically, has told them it wasn’t her.

“It wasn’t me,” says Audrey Riley again, and this time over a cup of tea at the Chapel Cafe in Town Hall Square.

“Although, I’ve heard it said so many times I’m starting to doubt it myself. My brother says that if he thinks of one of the things that I say all the time, it’s “Oh, really?’”

All said and done, she’s more certain about who’s saying what with her latest big name band.

“The new Muse DVD, the one that comes with the new album,” she says, “that starts with me saying “Ready?” – and it really is me saying it.”

Audrey Riley is a Loughborough spawned cellist with really big names on her CV: The Smiths, Muse, Coldplay, Foo Fighters, The Cure, Nick Cave and the list goes on. You know that old indie anthem Tonight Tonight by the Smashing Pumpkins? Audrey arranged the strings.

But Audrey’s always had a way with music. Back in 1983, as a music student in London, her first time in a recording studio was with Morrissey, Marr, Rourke and Joyce.

The band, she says smiling to herself, were mouthing and gesticulating at her through the silencing partition glass. They were pointing, jabbing fingers, smiling at her. And there was Audrey. First time in a studio and not really sure how things worked.

“I’d no idea what they were saying,” she says. “I couldn’t hear them.”

And then the penny dropped. Audrey slid on a pair of headphones hung on the back of her chair. Bingo. Stephen Patrick Morrissey responded with a grin.

“I saw him a few years ago,” adds Audrey. She was performing at a gig, a big event. He was there. After she finished, he came over to say hello.

“He remembered me. That was nice,” she says.

But Audrey has more than one string to her bow. She doesn’t just do cello for bands.

“Contemporary music, that’s what really drives me,” she says.

“I don’t believe in genres, stylistic boundaries, I don’t believe in the words ‘no, you can’t’. I’m just very excited about new music.

“I’ve reached a happy place now where I’m able to do rock stuff. People say that makes you two people, but it doesn’t, it’s one person. There is no division.”

Her career, she stresses, hasn’t happened because she wanted it that way – working with all these bands; the limousines picking her up from the airport in LA, taking her to recording sessions. That’s the part that baffles her.

“Have they got the right person?” she says, throwing a mock look behind her.

She dare not even call it success. It’s not, she says, how she sees things.

Before sitting down for a cuppa, Audrey meets me at the 14th century Trinity House Chapel, a gorgeous building within De Montfort University’s sprawling city centre campus. Why here? Between arranging, recording, teaching and performing, the woman with one of the least portable instruments in music is doing a PhD at De Montfort University. She’s wangled use of the venue through being on the books.

It is a beautiful place to launch of Tre Laude Dolce, music composed for Audrey by Billesdon’s Gavin Bryars.

The chapel, says Audrey, has the most amazing acoustics. With Audrey on cello and James Woodrow on electric guitar, their music fills every nook and cranny of the room. People close their eyes to hear it better.

Back in the 80s, when she was living in London, Audrey was in a band with her brother Richard, who played guitar, and a bass player, also from Leicestershire. They’d perform together in Covent Garden, trying to earn some money.

“That was where we met Virginia Astley, Pete Townsend’s sister-in-law,” says Audrey, “she was interested in the crossover between classical and contemporary.

“We played for her and one of the first things that happened, someone heard me play and Geoff Travis at Rough Trade said he had a band in a studio in Wapping who could use me.

“He paid me £30, turned up in a van and took me there – and that band turned out to be The Smiths.”

Afterwards, she got more studio gigs and people told her she was fantastic, but wouldn’t it be amazing if she could arrange music as well.

“I didn’t know how to – I almost said ‘I can’t’” she reveals.

“But being with The Smiths, I really loved it, it was very quickly done. It was after that I thought ‘that’s what I’m going to do’.”

Today, working with bands, dance companies and her solo project Icebreaker, keeps her busy.

“There isn’t anybody I haven’t enjoyed working with,” she adds. “What I do is very blessed. The string arranger comes in at the end of the album. They (the band) have done their blood, sweat and tears. Yours is the session where they get the Champagne out.

“The times when it’s been a tough cookie, the times when it hasn’t been so easy to do, it wasn’t plain sailing… with anyone who knows what they want, there’s a dance you have to do.

“I love working with Muse, they’re super. It’s pure music. For me, I like the fact they have a sense of humour as well. They are extremely intelligent, kind, interesting people to work with and they’re fun. And they’re very respectful and nice to me.”

And the creative process, the music?

“It just happens,” she says, “I just have it straight away. It’s there. I can hear it. Because I’ve been doing it so long, I absolutely trust my intuition.”

Audrey, as you can imagine, was a precocious talent. Growing up in a house where both her parents were skilled amateur musicians, she’d listen to her father, a GP, play Liszt and Chopin.

She’d sit on the floor with the radio on, and her hands would reach up to the keys of their upright piano and she’d happily tinker away.

Her parents did the sensible thing and got her piano forte lessons.

When her parents moved to Loughborough, she joined Mountfields Primary School. It was here she met Mr Harrup, the next rung on her musical ladder.

“He was visionary, he was really special,” says Audrey, warmly.

At Mountfields, she became connected to the world-famous Leicestershire County School of Music, the brainchild of the brilliant Eric Pinkett, a man reverentially known as Mr Music.

“People came from across the world to study in Leicestershire and take away the knowledge of their system of doing things,” says Audrey.

“The time I was involved it was at its zenith. Sir Michael Tippett was its patron.”

The county music programme meant that every child in our education system had free music lessons. Imagine that now, eh?

Those who prospered had their instruments paid for and the children performed in concerts across Europe.

It seems incredible, but school children from across Leicestershire performed in front of huge audiences and had the likes of Andre Previn and Ted Heath conduct them.

“We thought that was normal – that was what children did all the world over on a Saturday morning. Leicestershire should be so proud of what it did back then.”

When Audrey joined the county youth orchestra she was told she would play the cello.

“I didn’t have a choice,” she says, “but it was instantly addictive – you pluck the strings, they resonate, they’re under your ear.”

She became principal cellist, she toured Europe – one year in Florence, the year before Yugoslavia, then France.

They made records, they featured on the telly. It was great fun.

After Mountfields she went to Our Lady’s Convent School. “A mistake,” she says. “Total waste of time. I used to draw pictures in the exams.”

Then she went to Burleigh Sixth Form College. “The only time I was there was playing in the youth orchestra!”

Teenage Audrey became a truant. Evenings were spent around friends’ houses or at her home, listening to music; Aladdin Sane or Ziggy Stardust spinning at 33rpm, or there were the gigs, such as Yes and Deep Purple.

And then her A-level results arrived in the post…and Audrey spent the next year working at a factory in Loughborough, and as a barmaid and cleaner, saving her pennies for London’s Guildhall School of Music, where she’d been accepted.

The move from being principal cellist in Leicestershire to then studying in London proved, to begin with, hugely disappointing.

“In Leicestershire, we were playing all this new music, and at the Guildhall, we were back playing Nimrod, which we’d done when we were 11.”

However, Audrey’s new teacher was Leonard Stehn.

“He was absolutely remarkable. He gave me technique, the chops, the prowess, and things about cello playing and music making. It was so invaluable – I was with him for five years.”

While at The Guildhall she made friends with a student called Guy Chambers – Robbie Williams’ main songwriter.

Audrey and Guy have since made an album together.

Growing restless after decades in London, she decided to re-establish a connection with the East Midlands when her father passed away in 2005 – Audrey believes his ill health was brought on by his attempts to stop Thatcher privatising the NHS.

And then, around this time, she went to see friends in Rutland.

“I was sitting in their garden and I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t living here. So I came home in 2009.”

And the work, the ability to make music, with any number of artists or companies, continues. There’s always music, always new sounds.

Performing with La Scala in Milan, making arrangements for Moloko, Feeder, Brendan Benson, Spandau Ballet…

She’s had her arrangements feature on three Grammy award-winning singles, and then there’s her first film score, The Third Letter.

“But it is, and always will be, about the sound. That first sound,” she says. “I work with all these amazing people, but in the end,” she smiles, “it’s all about the sound.”



Originally published in the Leicester Mercury 2015. Although  I’ve totally rewritten it for this blog. What appeared in the Merc was a bit on the rubbish side.

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