Every great TV series has a composer whose music not only backdrops the characters, it embeds every fiber of the show; especially as music ties the carefully edited scenes together and provides emotional tethers by which the audience follows the story and the footsteps of each character. Bringing those emotions together in Netflix’s new series DEAR WHITE PEOPLE is composer Kris Bowers. In an exclusive interview Kris shares the key elements of what drew him to this project and the sounds he employed to enrich this new world of DEAR WHITE PEOPLE.
How did you get connected to or approached in composing for DEAR WHITE PEOPLE? What was the initial appeal of the project?
KRIS: I actually saw the film when it was first released in 2014, so I was excited about the opportunity as soon as I heard about it. The film not only spoke directly to many of my own experiences as a young black man, but the idea of turning it into a TV series couldn’t have come at a better time. After submitting a handful of scoring samples to Lionsgate to be considered for the show, Justin [Simien], Yvette [Lee Bowser] and the producers put forward an incredibly unique request for a demo. They provided me with the show bible, a script for episode one, and a Spotify playlist Justin created consisting of about 50+ tracks ranging from Liszt to Sonny Rollins to Aphex Twin. Given that, I was simply asked to compose a piece of music inspired by the material. So, I ended up composing something I felt embodied as many of those sounds as possible: a Classical-leaning theme, an instrumentation consisting of analog synths and strings, jazz improvisation/bebop vocabulary, a strong low-end/sub presence, etc. Although it seems to have been this demo that won them over, we completely abandoned the sound for the show! I think this just gave them an idea of my range and understanding of these different genres.
Are there any specific challenges composing DEAR WHITE PEOPLE and, if so, like what?
KRIS: The biggest challenge is that Justin sets an incredibly high bar with temp score. He’s inspired by the way directors like Kubrick and Spike Lee use music, and so in the temp would be a Schubert orchestral piece or Dizzy’s Salt Peanuts. I’m quite a perfectionist, so this essentially became a challenge every week to write music that was put up against masterpieces.
For you, what are the rewards for you composing for DEAR WHITE PEOPLE?
KRIS: The reward is in being a part of a project where I’m invigorated by and whole-heartedly believe in the message and how it’s conveyed. We’re in an exciting time where artists are challenging societal views on gender, race, sexuality, etc. and it’s an honor to be working on a show that adds to that conversation.
Is there a scene or sequence that you composed for in Season 1 that are most proud of that you can talk about and reveal why it resonated with you?
KRIS: That’s a tough one! There are so many cues and moments in this season that are special to me. If I had to pick one, I’d say the introduction of Reggie’s [Marque Richardson] episode (episode 105) which is an uptempo jazz cue in the style of late 1940s era bebop. Many directors shy away from having so much activity and complexity behind their picture, and it’s very rare that you hear this sound authentically represented in film/TV. I think we did a good job of that here.
What instrument(s) did you find were key in this particular to set the tone or musical theme you were striving to achieve for DEAR WHITE PEOPLE?
KRIS: A felt piano and strings became strong voices throughout the entire series, and although it only appears from time to time, I think the tenor saxophone is very noticeable and impactful when it is present.
Were you given freedom to choose the sound for the project or were you under specific parameters to work within?
KRIS: Once Justin and I had conversations about music in general, and spoke about some of the music in his Spotify playlist (which he updated throughout the season), he gave me a lot of freedom in choosing the sound and direction for the score. There were a few moments where he specifically asked for a sound (orchestra, jazz quartet, etc), but even then, that was about the extent of his creative direction. There was an immense amount of trust there.
How fast do you work when given a project of this scale? Are you allowed considerable time or is it kind of a rushed thing? Did it take days or weeks to compose for?
KRIS: I was fortunately brought onto the project pretty early. So, I was able to visit set and start composing themes while they were still shooting. However, once we got deep into post-production, I had about 4-5 days in between delivery days.
When looking for a project, what is something you look for? Do you take everything that comes along can you pick and choose?
KRIS: Ultimately, years from now, I’d like to look back at my resume and strongly believe in everything I was a part of. I think about that whenever looking for or being considered for a project. This is tough to do for someone in my position being so early in my career. The initial thought is take any and everything that comes my way. But whenever I study the biography of some of the greats, they never seemed to compromise. Or at least from my perspective. That’s what I want for myself. No asterisks here.
What is an essential element of being a music composer for film and television that makes the job easier for you?
KRIS: Being quick to pivot and checking ones ego to serve the picture. Having a background as a jazz pianist, I think I’ve been uniquely prepped for the job in two ways. One, I need to be able to improvise in the moment. That comes in handy when you’re told a cue doesn’t work and they need an alternative ASAP. Secondly, as a jazz pianist, you must be a leader AND an accompanist, and be equally as comfortable in both positions. Your job is to find the best way to serve the soloist or vocalist, first and foremost. That’s the same when it comes to being a film composer and serving the picture.
What tools and equipment do you rely on to get the sound you want?
KRIS: The most important thing is my ear and intuition. I’m not one of those people that likes hunt and peck until I find a sound or something that works. I find I work best when I can sit quietly, and zero in on what I’m hearing in my head. Then I go to whatever piece of gear I know will get that. The “hunting and pecking” is done whenever I first buy a new toy or when I am gathering sounds when I first come onto a project. I’ve found that if I’m doing that during the composition process, I’m in trouble.
What are some of your favorite instruments to use? What makes each so appealing?
KRIS: I love analog synths. It’s a new obsession of mine, so in my studio I have a Juno-60, Prophet 08, an OB-6, and a Moog Model-D. I also have a go-to friend that has a lot more if ever I need a certain sound, or an afternoon of fun. What attracts me to them is the warmth of the sound and how malleable they are. Also, for the DWP score in particular, I found myself using the Spitfire Felt Piano pretty heavily.
What in your background inspired to pursue a career in film/television composing? Was it a conscious decision or did you kind of fall into it?
KRIS: I’ve known I wanted to be a film/TV composer from a very young age. As a matter of fact, I told my parents when I was about 12 that I wanted to go to school for jazz performance, perform and tour with some legendary musicians for a short while, release my own artist project and tour, and then transition into film composition. I don’t know how, but I’ve managed to do that! My dad wrote for film and TV, and so growing up, film played a big role in our household. It was unusual if we didn’t see a new movie the weekend it came out, and my dad loved sharing some of his favorite films with us whenever he could. Playing piano from the age of 4 or 5, I think music was just the lens I saw everything through. So I quickly became attached to the scores of some of these films.
What kind of advice can you offer to others seeking to pursue a career in film and television composing?
KRIS: Work incredibly hard and be a genuinely good human. They say that success is when preparation meets opportunity, and so I’d suggest spending any and every moment of free time “preparing.” Studying scores, films (many composers overlook the study of film, but it’s integral to communicating and understanding a director and their vision), and honing your craft overall. However, you won’t get many opportunities if you’re known to be a difficult and/or unkind person. Most, if not all, of my work early on has come through the recommendation of friends.
Are there any cool perks of where you are in your career right now?
KRIS: I guess there are a few. Free or heavily discounted gear and clothing. Interacting with some incredible people/celebrities. But the biggest perk is being able to spend every day playing and creating music and getting compensated for that. The clothes are nice too though.
Has there been any great advice you have gotten?
KRIS: This wasn’t about scoring in particular, but playing with Marcus Miller he once explained to us the importance of being comfortable in our own musical “skin.” He likened it to looking in the mirror every day and either criticizing every part of you that isn’t perfect, or learning to be comfortable with and embracing every part of yourself. It seems simple, but that had such a profound impact on me. After that moment, I decided to take a deep look at the things that made up my musical identity: heroes, style preferences, compositional tendencies, and view them as unique strengths that set me apart as opposed to limitations.
What advice would you offer to other upcoming and aspiring television composers?
KRIS: Be able to talk about more than composition! Whenever I meet a new filmmaker, we connect much quicker if we’re able to talk at length about current events, other films or TV shows, art, or overall life experiences. It’s our job to translate all of those ideas and feelings into sound when the time comes, but if all you can talk about is music, you’ll only be comfortable talking to other musicians.
Do you have any other upcoming projects that you can share that fans should keep an eye out for?
KRIS: At the moment, I’m working on a reworking the Ray Charles album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music with the fashion designer Mark McNairy and a handful of special guests, another documentary about Kobe Bryant in his final season with the Lakers, and a couple of other things in the works.
To hear Kris’ fine work, be sure to check out the first season of DEAR WHITE PEOPLE currently available for binge-watching on Netflix.