Composing Light in the Shadows: In Conversation with Josh Hill (The Hillside Project)

In a previous article, I reviewed The Hillside Project’s cinematic album ‘The Available Light’ and was offered to interview Josh Hill, the project’s creator. The Hillside Project is an experimental space for composer and songwriter Josh Hill to dissect neo-classical sounds combined with cinematic and pop-adjacent freedoms, akin to the likes of Kate Bush, Ludovico Einaudi and Hans Zimmer. The recent album was released September 29th on all major platforms and reintroduces Hill’s eclectic style presented in earlier works; however, ‘The Available Light’ emphasises this through newer string timbres, orchestral sonic spheres and electronic spaces.

Johannah Mathew: How did you get started as a musician?

Josh Hill: I guess there was just an inevitable path for me to take, which was always music. There was never a kind of Plan B. I didn’t really grow up in a musical household, but my parents were incredibly supportive. My dad was music mad but didn’t play a note. We would listen to music all the time and swap discoveries and then my mum was just really supportive. Whenever I practised the piano, she would always sit with me, and I realised later what a huge fundamental effect that had on me. I took music at school and as a degree, gradually becoming more specialised, then came out of that figuring what path I would choose. But yeah, I always knew it was going to be music.

JM: You mentioned you and your dad would share music. Do you have any memories of which artists you shared?

JH: He had a really eclectic taste. For someone who wasn’t musical, he was really into complexities in music. He loved The Beatles and you know, straightforward pop music, but he was always looking for something a little more complex. So, some classical music and musically complicated progressive rock, he played me Coldplay before I’d even heard about them! He was fascinated in finding something he didn’t really understand but connected with him. I think that really impacted my taste in music.

JM: Do you think that’s what prompted you to start writing?

JH: I think it came at the same time as I was learning piano. You know, you’re told to play something and something resonates with you, and you want to find out what that is and how that was done. It’s a sort of revelation that you don’t have to just play other people’s music: you could do your own thing. Around the age of 12 I was regularly making, writing and recording stuff. Plus, I didn’t really like performing, composition was a means to avoid that and have more creative control.

JM: Do you think your writing process has changed?

JH: I hope I’ve become less derivative. I think in the early stages, I was figuring out what other people were doing and essentially copying them, whereas now I try to make something that’s more ‘me’ and that I haven’t necessarily heard before. I’d like to think I was more thoughtful and intentional about the whole process. Most of the time I’ll sit down at the piano and work instinctively and that’s remained unchanged. I’m not the sort of composer who goes on a walk and comes up with a melody or chord sequence, I need to hear what I’m doing, in some sort of sense.

JM: When you’re writing music, are you already thinking about the project it’s going to be on?

JH: I haven’t always, but for the album I recently released I had this thought that the musical ideas would fit together into this structure, which guided me down a certain path and made me make decisions in a particular way that I might’ve made differently had it been a series of disparate pieces – that was really helpful. The idea of a totally blank canvas is totally terrifying and really unhelpful. Whereas if you have some parameters, whether arbitrary or specific, it can be really helpful: they make you it focus.

JM: Has there been anything recently that has changed your writing process?

JH: What sparked the first few notes of this whole project was the process of felting a piano, where you put a layer of felt between the hammers and strings and it softens the sound. It’s currently quite fashionable and it’s beautiful, kind of soft, and I hadn’t done that before. I was expecting to play really quiet, peaceful music, but actually found myself very much not doing that. I was playing really loudly and fast and percussively and loving how that felt – that’s where this album started from.

JM: Do you ever see your music through images or narratives?

JH: Yes, I think a lot of my track names reflect this. There was this light imagery running through the album. When writing, my mind was this kind of gloom and darkness, but there was this light emerging from it all. So yes, from both a visual, but also very emotional sense.

JM: How do you choose the finishing touches to a project, like the artwork and song and album titles?

JH: Some tracks were titled from plucking words out of the air to save a recorded file, whilst others took a lot more thought. Sometimes they’d come from something I’ve read, or something I’ve thought about. There’s a track that’s always been called ‘Sparkler Dims’ that came from a passage in On the road by Jack Kerouac, it’s from the last page. It’s just this incredible little section that’s resonated with me for years. So yeah, sometimes it doesn’t mean very much and sometimes it means a lot to me. The artwork was a different approach. I connected with an artist called Snow Skull, whose work I’d seen on Instagram. We had lots of conversations and I sent him the music and for around 2-3 months, he immersed himself in that and then made this art. The artwork covers the conceptual themes of the album, you know light and dark and everything else.

JM: Are there any other pieces of media you could correlate with your music?

JH: The book All the Light We Cannot See is amazing. I think it kind of does, not just because it’s got light in the title, but I love the idea of multiple layers fittings together. Part of the album’s process was wanting a thematic unity between the tracks and not to give anything away, but in the book, there are 2-3 different storylines that seem to have nothing linking them, but as the book progresses, you see these threads coming closer together, converging and then diverging. Structurally, I loved that.

JM: Do you have any new releases coming up?

JH: I’m still very much working in the world of The Available Light and I’m wanting to explore it a little more. I’m releasing some demos so you can understand a little bit more about some of the songs’ evolutions. One track is for violin, and another is solely for strings, however they both started as solo piano pieces, so I’m releasing them on piano. I’ve also given 4 tracks to four different artists, whose work I really love, and asked them to make new versions of those pieces using whatever elements they like, in their own kind of style.