Stephen Gallagher: Learning from failure

Stephen Gallagher
"A cup of tea...that's a good metaphor for my career so far." Composer Stephen Gallagher sums up his stellar career as like striving to make the perfect cup of tea.


Stephen Gallagher is an award winning composer and music editor based in Wellington, New Zealand. His music is haunting and he’s one of those people that makes it look easy. Of course in reality his life as been one of dedication and hard work. In this episode we talk about the process of writing soundtracks, how Stephen’s career came to be, his work on The Hobbit, The Lovely Bones and Human Traces, his collaborations with Brian Eno, Peter Jackson and Ed Sheeran and how the international hit I See Fire was casually written right in front of him.

How have you learned from failure in the course of your career?

I fail. A lot. There are lessons to be learned from failure on a daily basis. I hope that there is still so much more failing and learning to do. I am grateful for both.

In broad terms, over the course of my career so far, I have learnt that failure can be a great thing if you think about it in the right ways. It can offer a great opportunity to reflect, reassess and formulate new approaches and ideas, or improve on old ones, in your respective process. I do fail in my work everyday on some level. Luckily I am not a commercial air line pilot, a brain surgeon or a nuclear scientist.

Perhaps to really acknowledge failure, we need to have some kind of idea of what success means to us. To define our idea of success means that we can better define what failure, or lack of success, means to us, on our own terms. Once we know these things, perhaps it helps us to look at our failures and see what illumination they offer us toward realising our journey to success....what ever that is. ...whether it's trying to compose a musical cue that pleases the film director you are working with...or making a killer cup of tea.

A cup of tea...that's a good metaphor for my career so far. I always thought that I liked tea until, in my 20’s,  I started working as an assistant to composer David Long. On our first meeting, Dave made me a cup of tea that blew my mind. It was fucking amazing. My whole life of tea drinking and this was the finest tea I'd ever had. Now I loved tea. This tea that Dave had made was, clearly now, the benchmark of what good tea was. This was what I needed to learn how to do. One of my jobs when assisting Dave was to make tea. Now I had to learn to make tea as great as Dave made. Sounds easy? Ha. You’ve never had a cup of tea made by David Long.

I tried making tea that good every day for months…and most days I failed. Miserably. Nothing cuts as deep as the look on someone’s face when they take a sip of tea, that you’ve slaved over, and slightly grimace before setting the cup aside never to be touched again …it’s crushing.  I could not get the tea to taste as good as Dave’s did. I tried and failed and tried and tried …and tried. I observed Dave’s method and tried to replicate it…every day…too strong? Too much tea in the pot? Too little? Too much milk? Cups not warmed enough? Every day I’d fail and try to reflect on how to make better tea for Dave … I’d go home and experiment on my flat mates, my girlfriend, dinner guests…I’d research different methods of brewing on the internet…I’d try different blends of tea …it became an obsession. All of this research, trial and error led me to realise that, the more I found out about tea, the more there was to know…and it seemed the world of tea could never be fully mastered in one life time…it was illusive and oceanic.

David Long had attained high level tea mastery through constant dedication and work. I had to do the same. I still strive to make a cup of tea as great as the ones that David Long can make, seemingly effortlessly, and I am getting closer although I know there is still a long way to go. Thanks to my tea failures, I have had the  opportunity many times to reflect and reassess my journey to tea making nirvana.  I know the idea I hold of what success tastes like…it’s that first sip of tea that I had back in my 20’s on my first day as David Long’s assistant. Anything short of that is failure. I know what failure tastes like too…and it can taste different…sometimes it can taste weak and watery…sometimes too strong and tannin sharp…sometimes there is too much milk in the taste of failure …all things to take in and learn not to repeat… fucking hell I have made some terrible tea…but everyday I still have the drive to try my best to make a good one.

What is your number one tip for surviving and thriving in the creative industries?

Be nice. Often.

What has inspired you?

People! My family, my friends, my mentors and teachers are the people who have inspired me and shown me how high the barre is to aim for with regards to making work and being a good person.

I love that I get to work with some amazing people who are generous, patient and super focussed. David Long, Dayton Lekner, Chris Ward, Mark Willsher, Nigel Scott, Victoria Kelly...the list goes on and on...who have inspired me and shown me what can be possible through hard work and a bit of luck.

The directors  that I have been fortunate to work with and learn from, so far. Their vision, work ethic and understanding of story telling across various mediums is a constant source of learning for me. This all helps me to understand how I can be better help to them, and others, with regards to music and score serving their respective projects.

The community of screen composers and musicians in Wellington especially are a very supportive and inspirational group of people and I feel honoured to be a part of it...also very humbled because they are all incredible at what they do!


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