1. MUDBOUND is your first feature score, and you composed it in five weeks. What was your process, and what kind of direction were you getting from Dee Rees, your director?
MUDBOUND was my 1st experience composing for film. Dee had a clear aesthetic for the score. Based on my work with my chamber ensemble, she felt that I could deliver it. Her directives are very impressionistic so we talked about the environmental aspects the film; the climate and weather of the Mississippi Delta and most specifically the mud.
She was drawn to the lower range in the arrangements so I made sure to give the contrabass and cello a real presence in the score.
After a private screening I began composing the main theme. This laid the foundation that would allow me to flesh out the cues after a spotting session.
My process from this point was 8 – 10 hour days knocking down the cues one at a time and developing musical threads that followed the characters and their relationships through the film. It was all encompassing, exhausting and rewarding.
2. You come from a background that includes Afro-punk, rock, and hip-hop. You compose for string sextet and voice for your Psychochamber Ensemble. Was it a big leap from artist to scoring the emotional twists and turns of a feature film?
I grew up in Brooklyn in the 80’s so hip hop is definitely part of the soundtrack but in terms of practice; my musical background is defined by classical choral singing in Catholic school and the new wave, punk rock, hardcore and alt-rock I was drawn to as a teen.
The shift from performing/recording artist to film was a matter of acknowledging that I would not be the end all be all for these compositions. As an independent artist I haven’t had the luxury of engaging solely in my art; I’ve had to wear several hats.
This project allowed me to be wholly immersed in the practice. It was the trade off for not having final say.
I feel that the process of bridging the gap between maintaining the compositional integrity of the pieces with the desires of the director was a priceless exercise that developed me immensely not just as a composer but as a human being.
I was fortunate that at the core I was truly impacted and inspired by the film itself. The work was strong from the actors’ performances to the screenplay and the amazing cinematography.
3. I loved the sound of the string sextet in MUDBOUND! The sound was so raw, and yet so refined. I think I’ve never been able to pick out the sound of a solo bass like that, in a score. Can you tell us who the players were? And how did you achieve that sound?
Thank You! I am a 2nd generation musician. My Father was a bass player. He pretty much stopped gigging when I was a toddler but my initial lessons in music came from him and the sound of him shedding, playing his bass through the old TV he converted into a 1 x 20” bass cabinet is a formative sound from my childhood. I have a unique relationship with that instrument.
We recorded the string septet at The Diamond Mine in Long Island City. My co-producer Victor Axelrod aka Ticklah mixed the project. We are long time friends/collaborators. His ears are impeccable and his love of analog was key and the studio is analog favorable. We micd the instruments and recorded in a live room and multi tracked to build presence. The indie budget and time restraints required me to employ all my Guerrilla/DIY skills. It was definitely a trial by fire. I was committed to the process based on the relationship Dee and I had been developing over 3 feature films.
The players were contracted by Juliette Jones for Rootstock Republic; a musician/contractor I’ve been working with for some time now with my Psychochamber Ensemble project. The players were violin – Juliette Jones, Stephanie Matthews, additional violin and viola – Earl Maneein, viola – Jarvis Benson, Andrew Griffin, cello – Malcolm Parson, Niles Luther, contrabass – Chris Johnson
4. You draw your musical influences from different cultures. You are based in Brooklyn, and spent summers in South Carolina, where you were exposed to Gullah culture. How do you feel your different musical experiences play in to your work?
Every person is a synthesis of everything they have seen and heard, I am no different in that regard. Every American has an ethnocultural background they are given by legacy; mine is Gullah and and Southern Afro-Indigenous/African American. Past those initial experiences we develop individual musical tastes. My love for strings was nurtured in popular music from my childhood by artists like Stevie Wonder and the Beatles so the worlds were never truly separate for me. My experiences as a choral classical singer in Catholic school were challenging as that social environment didn’t exactly promote individuality or unique expression but alt rock, punk rock and hardcore helped me to balance that out.
5. You didn’t study music at college, and yet you have a diverse knowledge of many genres of music. What sources do you draw on to learn what you want to know?
I am fortunate to have grown up during a time when there was really great eclectic radio. My father also had a range of albums I had access to at home. That combined with the choral classical training I received starting in middle school helped to shape a broad foundation of music appreciation. My range as a vocalist has allowed me to work with a varied assortment of bands and musicians so the practice itself has taught me a lot.