This week Lift-Off was gifted the chance to speak with Emmy-winning composer Kris Bowers. He’s scored a ton of films and worked with top music artists but you’re likely most familiar with his work on the critically acclaimed Netflix series Dear White People, which has just been renewed for its third season. He recently completed the score for Peter Farrelly’s latest drama, Green Book, starring Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali and Academy Award-nominee Viggo Mortensen.
We sat down and talked about his work as a composer, what drew him to film and TV and also how views the industry's diversity gap as one of only two African-American composers scoring a network television series right now.
You started playing jazz piano from an early age but what was it that influenced you into scoring for the world of film and television?
It’s something that I’ve wanted to do since I was very young. My dad was a writer for film and TV and so movies and television were a big thing in our house. He showed us all of his favourite movies multiple times. Whenever there was a new movie out we would go see it on the first day it came out. For me, I started playing music at a very young age, so the first way I related to these films was through the music. Watching these Spielberg films for example, I realised very early on that I could listen to John Williams’s score and still get the same feeling of excitement. It would just put me in that same exact place that I was when I watched the movie, and so, connecting those early on it made me decide that I wanted to (become a composer) when I was nine. I told my parents I had a whole trajectory for my career planned. I would go to school for jazz piano, I would tour, I would tour with different artists, I would put out my own album and I would get into film school. Somehow, I’ve been able to make that all happen.
I understand you went to Julliard. Do you think it’s necessary for someone in this industry to pursue that level of higher education, when they’re young, for the sake of their career in the future?
Oh, absolutely not actually! It’s funny that most people I look up to and admire are people who didn’t go to school for this. To be honest, I feel like the most valuable lessons that I’ve learned, I’ve learned after school, in the real world. I think school is great for making connections and for establishing some kind of community because I’ve got a lot of friends…one that I still stay in touch with and work together from time. A lot of my first gigs, the first things that I was doing as a performer, came from my classmates, my teachers and things like that.
And obviously, there were incredible instructors there and the school itself was very good, but I think you can’t really teach somebody how to be an artist. You can’t teach somebody how to be themselves or how to find their voice. You can push them in the right direction but a lot of the time, with school, I feel that teachers have their own ideas of what’s important. There was a lot of times when I was learning something that I didn’t feel like I should be learning! (laughs)
The bigger lessons, the things I think have really helped me, I’ve gotten after school. It was more so, the environment and community that really helped me at Julliard and the fact that it provided a safe bubble while I was in New York. You know, to be able to go to New York and still have the safety of school and not have to worry about how to make it on my own and fend for myself; that was helpful as well.
Just jumping off from that then, how did you go about pursuing this career in the industry?
One thing was just telling everybody about it. Not in an aggressive way. More so, that it was a huge passion of mine so I found myself talking about it a lot. You know, just the fact that I wanted to do it and who I was into. A lot of the first things that I got were because a friend of mine or some friend of a friend that was shooting a film or knew the director of a film and would recommend me. They’d put me up for things because I was a friend of theirs and they liked my music and they knew that I wanted to get into film scoring. So it was pretty much like that at first, you know, just references from friends. It wasn’t until I did a documentary about Kobe Bryant for Showtime called Kobe Bryant’s Muse and that was what really helped me to have a more structured entry into the industry. The music I wrote for that is what made my agent comfortable with signing me. It’s also the music I submitted to get into the Sundance film composers lab. I got a handful of other Showtime documentaries from that, so that was what got the snowball rolling.
From the outside looking in, what’s your day to day as a composer consisting of?
It varies. The first thing to know is that I usually have three to four days to turnaround the scores for these TV shows that I work on. And so, given that the schedule is so tight, usually what I try to do is that I spend the first day just watching the episodes. Sometimes two or three times, just to get a feel for it. You know, what’s going on, what’s happening and to really connect with the story. From there I usually try to find the first entry point into a film or a show and try to figure out what moment in this episode or this film do I feel like I connect to most because it’ll be the easiest to write for. A lot of the time that will mean giving me material to write the rest of the episode for.
On a daily basis I’m usually in my studio by like five-thirty, six in the morning. And then I just write. And especially for Dear White People this season, what I was trying to do is use my skills as a jazz pianist and accompanist to play along to what I was watching. Last year, I would watch things and then figure out what tempo I wanted and I’d create a click track from that tempo and I’d write to the click. But I think this year I just wanted to play… just play along to what I was seeing and then that would actually inform the flow of the piece. I think that allowed for a little more malleability and variation in what I was doing.
From then on, it’s kind of boring. I show up every morning and I write until I have a meeting or something like that and then I’ll go back and I’ll write. I’ll spend all day writing and in the in-between, maybe just looking for inspiration or looking for references. Other than that, it’s just writing all day.
On the subject of Dear White People, you’ve scored now two seasons of that show. You’ve talked there about your process for season two, was it a completely different process then from the first season? Or was it slightly easier the second time around?
It was slightly easier in that I knew what our palette was. In the very beginning you’re trying to find out what the sound of the show is. I feel like you’re walking on eggshells a little bit because you don’t want to step out of that sound too much. Again, with the time being so tight, you don’t have a lot of time for experimentation but I think, being secure in what our sound was this season meant I could push beyond a little bit. For this season, we were pulling a lot from some more obscure refences, some more…complex music, for lack of a better term.
The other thing is, Justin (Simien) wanted it to be completely different. I think there may be three or four pieces of music that were in the first season that are in this season because, one, he had a new idea for this colour palette that he wanted everybody to be influenced by. He decided, before we started shooting, that based on the civil war painting he was looking at…a lot of these paintings that were trying to get black people to join the army. He found colours in each of those paintings that he then chose to give definitions to. Like gold, that appeared in a lot of these paintings, he gave the definition “true self” or “honesty.” And so, with each of those colours, he asked me to write themes before they started shooting. So I had a theme for gold and for blue which meant “confinement,” green for “greed” and white for “concealment.” So, once we had those themes established before we started shooting…when we did our spotting sessions later, we were able to, while we’re watching, just go “Oh, this scene has a lot of white in it!” That will go into the set direction and the costume design. This scene has a lot of white in it so we’re gonna pull from the “concealment” theme here. So that was a thing, this season, that was pretty different from last.
I heard from another interview you were inspired by Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo, the score from that for a climatic scene in the season finale. Can you source any other major influences from your work?
Yeah! Duke Ellington was a pretty big influence this season. Some Oscar Peterson and his version of the West Side Story music. Also some classical composers that we pulled from, that were different from last year, like Penderecki.
As one of only two African-American composers scoring a network TV show right now, do you have anything to say to minority and diverse composers, especially those of colour?
For me personally, this is a fight for diversity in general. So, although it’s just two black composers on network TV, you also have Siddhartha Khosla that scores This is Us, whose Indian. We need all these other people that are just representing other aspects. That’s one thing that’s important to me and as far as young people of colour, just to find what they love and be unapologetically themselves. When I was trying to really get into this, a lot the time, I was trying to fit into other peoples’ boxes. Especially because there aren’t a lot of opportunities coming my way and so if I found an opportunity that came my way, I felt like I had to take it. You know, they don’t come to people who look like me very often but, that being said, a lot of the time, those opportunities came in the form of something that wasn’t me. It wasn’t really something that I felt I could honestly give them with my music. I think the more I’ve stuck to my guns and the more I felt like this was the kind of music I love, the more work actually I got. After you put that energy out there, it attracts the complimentary energies. For young people, again, just to really spend time on what they love and just only doing that and doing that incredibly fiercely…yeah, that’s all I have to say.
So, you’re attached to the up-coming film Green Book about the jazz pianist, Don Shirley. Was there anything, in particular, that drew you to that project? For example, your own personal background in jazz?
Yeah, I think that, and a couple things. Donald Shirley himself was made to play jazz. He was a classical trained pianist who was made to play jazz by his label. They thought it would be a more marketable idea because they thought there wouldn’t be any success for a black classical pianist. Being a black musician myself, I’ve constantly had to deal with, to be honest. People telling me what I should be doing or telling me what my music sounds (when it doesn’t sound like that) or asking me to do things more so because I’m black than the actual music I create or my personal taste. I empathise with this idea that people look at you and assume that you should do something but it has nothing to do with what you’re into and what you actually love.
The other thing is, the story between these two men, and the fact that they were both trying to understand the other side but also being unapologetically honest about their own experiences. I think that, for the average American to watch this film, they’re going to connect to it a lot more because this isn’t a film that’s meant to make either side feel bad or guilty or even to feel that they are right. There’s no right side. It more so presents both sides of this situation and by the end, you feel like, yeah, we both have our stuff but we need to try to understand what the other person is dealing with. That’s the only way we can fix what we’re going through, if we take the time to look beyond ourselves and understand that other people are going through other stuff. If we try to understand that and not to put that against our own issues.
I feel that a lot of times people hear somebody else’s problem and say “Well, I have problems too!!” and then they don’t listen. But I think if we can get past that point and listen to the other side is the only time we can actually get any sort of progress. So, I think that’s what this film in a nutshell is doing.
Completely agree! You’ve sort of already answered a question I had planned about the misconceptions you face based on the colour of your skin. But, do you want to talk more about being an African-American composer in today’s world?
I think, you know, don’t even intend to but…they see you before they hear you. A lot of times people have decided what my music probably sounds like based on what I look like and also that my resume contains a lot of jazz stuff or how I’ve worked with a lot of hip-hop artists. But, that being said, there’s a lot of stuff that I listen to personally, that I write for my own projects that’s influenced by all these different things. It’s nice whenever I work with people that hear my music first and react to that are not hiring me simply because I’m black and they think I can do something. One thing that’s been exciting for me is that I’m being hired based on my music and based on what they can hear and not based on what I look like.
With that I think I’m also just excited for the time we’re in right now because there are a handful of composers of colour right now who are doing incredibly great work. They’re creating successful projects that have nothing to do with the colour they are. It’s just going to provide more inspiration for the next generation, because I think that, for me, growing up I had one person. I could look up to Quincy Jones, as far as a person who looks like me that was doing what I wanted. Obviously I had other heroes who didn’t look like me from John Williams, John Paul and Harry Shaw, and all these other people. But as far as someone I could look at and say it’s possible for me to do this, there was only a couple of people. It’s very exciting to me that we have composers of colour breaking that barrier and people on the other side giving opportunities to these diverse people. I’m excited to see how that progresses.
Images courtesy of Netflix.
Interview by Reece Mawhinney and Lauren Macaree.