Dorset Lives – a life in music
David Callaghan takes a look at the multi-faceted musical career of Simon Lole
Published in December ’15
There’s no feeling quite like that of coming home and if for some people home is a very fixed and certain place, for others it can be a lifetime’s quest to find it. Others still, such as musical arranger and orchestrator Simon Lole, know where home will be and order their lives to get there eventually.
‘I’ve loved Dorset for a very long time, since childhood, but now that we’re living here I find it the most magical, almost spiritual place. This is home. The kids love it and even my wife, who is fiercely Irish, feels a real affinity with the county. The North Dorset countryside is incredible, breath-taking in fact, but then I could spend hours on the Jurassic Coast just staring out to sea and thanking God for making the earth so beautiful.’
Simon is fortunate in that he is able to do that more often than most. Whenever he’s not on tour, or otherwise committed, he plays the organ and directs the choir at St Mary’s Church in Swanage and likes nothing more than to take his sandwiches up on cliffs between services and lose himself in the view.
‘Every musician needs peace and quiet and Dorset is the most restorative place I know. The first book I read studying English at A-level was The Return of the Native and I’ve loved Hardy with a passion ever since, I think I could have lived in the 19th century – I would’ve had to have been wealthy though!’
Simon’s home, tucked away off the beaten track near Stourton Caundle, is shared by wife Gwen, three children – Caitlin, Laoise, and Fionn – and three lively dogs. He has a studio there and plays every day, working on freelance commissions from writing anthems and orchestrating songs to creating new arrangements or helping shape the careers of classical crossover artists such as new close harmony girl group Celeste. For the last six years he has been musical director for Aled Jones, although he has known him for much longer.
‘We’re surrounded by fields and my very favourite thing is getting out there with the dogs. Aled has been here to stay and he always asks why we live here, but it’s not as remote as he thinks. The train service from Sherborne is great for getting to London. I have elderly parents in Bristol, cousins and good friends in Glastonbury and Wells and once you get to the M5 I can drive to the BBC in Manchester relatively easily.’
Simon’s life has been immersed in music ever since the mid-1970s when his father took him to join a parish church choir. The choirmaster duly recommended he try for a scholarship to St Paul’s Cathedral – ‘I still say the five years I had at St Paul’s were the best of my life, I absolutely loved them,’ – from where he went on to formal music training at Guildhall School of Music and then Kings College. Having forged a career as a professional church musician, he was Director of Music first at Sheffield Cathedral and then Salisbury, his dream job.
‘I cannot put into words how much that meant to me, even to be shortlisted for interview was beyond my comprehension, never mind to get the call from the Dean to offer me the job. I never quite got over going to work in the most beautiful cathedral building in England, working with incredibly talented choristers and performing music of exceptionally high quality to an audience that is used
And yet he resigned after eight and a half years.
‘I was very ambitious in my church career and for me there was nowhere else to go. After a while it becomes very cyclical – you work a choir up to a certain level then the senior choristers leave and you have to start again and I didn’t want to get stale. I can hear it in other choirs sometimes and I’m just not programmed to work that way.’
Following a spell teaching at Jesus College Cambridge, Simon next threw himself into the media career that had long attracted him. He is one of the main musical directors for BBC Radio 4’s The Daily Service, regularly conducts for Songs of Praise and is a judge and choral advisor to BBC TV’s Songs of Praise Young Choir of the Year. He has presented The Early Music Show on Radio 3 and stepped in front of the camera for features on Songs of Praise.
‘I love that thrill of live broadcasting, whether on radio or television and I’d love to do more of it. I’m quite a gregarious person and I love performing although I always get nervous about playing, it’s what gives you an edge, but I’m fine when it comes to speaking either to camera or in front of an audience. I had this idea of making a programme about people who had once been choristers – for instance Keith Richards sang in the choir at the Coronation. The producers loved it, but Aled ended up presenting it, although I did get to make a piece about it for Songs of Praise.’
As well as working with Aled Jones and Celeste, he has toured with Hayley Westenra and prog-rock band Archive, conducting a live orchestra in front of 65,000 fans at the Rock En Seine festival in France. Simon has also worked for Gary Barlow’s record company arranging for Camilla Kerslake and written and arranged for hit girl choir All Angels.
‘I really enjoy all that work and have some incredible experiences – Gary Barlow was very supportive of what I was doing with Camilla Kerslake. He knows his strengths so he basically gave me carte blanche and just offered his business acumen.
‘But all that’s a long way from Dorset and it makes my heart glad to come back. Three weeks before Remembrance Day a few years ago I realised we didn’t have anything suitable for the choir at St Mary’s that we could learn in time, so I just went home and set Laurence Binyon’s words to something really simple. After we performed it one of the choristers came up to me with tears in his eyes, thanked me and told me that in sixty years of singing in the choir that was the only time they’d had a piece that was written especially for them.
‘It meant the world to him and that’s what I love about being in Dorset.’ ◗