Interview – Jennifer Thomas, award-winning composer.

Jennifer Thomas, LDS musician and composer, is on FIRE! She recently won Park City Film Festival’s Gold Medal of Excellence for Original Music in a Short Film  for her work in Minuet. There were over 200 films selected for review this year, and it was Jennifer’s first film score.

Before the excitement of winning had even slightly worn off, she received a Hollywood Music in Media Awards nomination for her classical crossover arrangement of J. S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. There is a version of it here, and it is also being re-mastered for Jennifer’s new album. The HMM Awards honor film scores, commercial music composers, video game composers, and independent musicians in every musical genre. It is the only awards platform of its kind, and it will be the real deal: red carpet, media coverage, and after-parties. Jennifer humbly says that even if she doesn’t win, it will be a great experience to meet others in her field.

With all of the projects she has going on, she still found the time to let me interview her. I was thrilled.

You recently won the Gold Medal of Excellence in the Park City Film Music Festival. How did you get into film scoring?

I’ve had an interest in film music for years – to the point where I’d go to the theater to watch a movie and pay more attention to the musical score than the actors.  My soundtrack collection has always outweighed my other music collections.  Some of my very favorite scores I started collecting when I was a teenager included movies like Danny Elfman’s “Edward Scissorhands”, Michael Convertino’s “Bed of Roses”, and Basil Poledouris’s “The Jungle Book”.

As you know, I didn’t start composing my own music until I was about 25.  I had 20 years of classical music training under my belt (in both piano and violin), and when I released my first album a couple of years later, the most oft heard comment I received was in reference to how much my music sounded like a movie soundtrack.  Personally I felt that my music had a stronger classical influence, but everyone else was hearing movie soundtrack material.  It was a huge compliment that people would even think that! I could only dream of making the sort of music that belonged in movies.

As my album slowly reached more and more audiences, my “network” grew and I started meeting filmmakers and film composers alike.  I started reading books about film scoring and also writing pieces of music that were my own “exercises” in film scoring (Berklee’s Complete Guide to Film Scoring by Richard Davis is excellent by the way).  For example, I would take a certain emotion and then write music trying to portray that feeling.

But I also saw a lot of negative aspects to the film scoring industry and wasn’t really sure if it was something I wanted to pursue.  I had actually considered going to PNWFSP (Pacific Northwest Film Scoring Program) and later changed my mind.  Ultimately, I decided to not pursue it too much and rather aim for song licensing in films while continuing with my own composing.

For Minuet, the film that won the Gold Medal of Excellence for Original Score in a Short Film, I was approached via email by the director Ryan K. McNeal.  He had been a fan of my music and told me that he had written the script while listening to my album and felt that due to the amount of influence my music had on the landscape of the film, that I should be the film composer for it.  I actually turned him down at first. At the time, I was pregnant with our second baby and the timing of the film would put me finishing the score right around the time that I was due.  However, with some sweet-talking and a lot of compliments from him regarding the quality of my music and how this film needed it, I agreed.  How do you say no to that?

 

What are the differences between writing for film and your normal method of composing?

Ahhhh, where do I even start with this question?  The difference is huge.

With my own music, it is all based on my moods, what is going on with my life at that particular time, the music that is influencing in that moment, what I’m in to, etc.   It’s all about spontaneity.  I have free reign to create what I like and when I like.  I love that.

With film scoring, it’s a much more focused effort.  You are given a topic and you have to write something specific.  I must have watched Minuet at least 20 – 25 times with and without the temp tracks just to get a sense of what I was hearing in terms of the possible music.  And then after I’d started to get ideas, I’d watch the film several more times while jotting down very detailed notes as to timestamps in the film, where certain “hits” needed to happen, or where there just needed to be silence.

After finishing the initial score pre-production, I’d have a list of songs that needed to be written, what character they each individually involved, exactly how many minutes and seconds the cue needed to be, when crescendos or diminuendos needed to occur and at what exact timestamp, and more.  After I had that detailed list, I could then start the composition process.  And even then, it took a lot of syncing and effort to match the film.  I might write a beautiful piece of music that is two minutes long, think that it’s going to work (because I’d been testing it with the footage while composing), go to sync it to film and realize that I need to cut eight seconds of it.  I’m asking myself “which eight seconds do I cut?  I can’t just stop in the middle of the theme, and I can’t speed it up or the hits don’t line up!”

So yeah, it’s a completely different way of composing.  Film scoring involves more than just yourself and you sometimes have to get over your ego and be willing to adjust and re-do things (even if you think it’s a masterpiece) to make them work. But in the end you hope to get a beautiful score that will complement the film and emotionally affect the audience as well.

 

Do you remember the first thing you composed? What was it? How old were you?

It was “Old Movie Romance”, and I was 25 years old.  It sort of just came to me one evening after attending a Christmas concert.  Up until that point I really didn’t think I had any ability to compose music whatsoever.  I’d been trained in classical music for years and years. I had it engrained in me that other people composed the music and I was simply a performer.  After that inspirational concert, I came away with an overwhelming desire to do that – to compose my own music and share it with others.  I suppose up until that point I had just never realized that desire and therefore never unlocked the ability to grow it.

 

What is your favorite piece out of everything you have written? Why?

That is always such a funny question to me because I have my list of favorite songs from other composers, but for my own music? Honestly sometimes I have to stop and have this little conversation with myself (yes I talk to myself sometimes),”Yes Jennifer, you are actually a composer now and you are actually the one coming up with this stuff.”  It’s sometimes so weird, yet incredible.   Half the time I wonder if the stuff I come up with is only awesome to me, or if others will find enjoyment in the music as well.

With that said, I really do love “A Beautiful Storm” from my first album. I loved composing it.  I love to play it.  It is my most popular song both digitally and through purchased sheet music.  But more recently, as I continue working on new material for my next album release, my style keeps growing and evolving.  I’m really enjoying a song I’ve written called “Etude for the Dreamer”.  Only a select few have heard it so far.  I’m excited for when I’ll eventually get to share with everyone else.  It is probably the most technically difficult song that I’ve written to date.  It has a lot of intricate fingering, as well as some Chopin-esque runs that go all over the keyboard. I try to play it at least a couple of times every day so I’ll be ready to perform it when the time comes.

 

Has being a wife and mother made any difference in how you write? When do you find the time?

Wow, this is an excellent question – one I’ve been asking myself a lot lately! When do I find the time? (or rather when am I ever again going to find the time?).  I’m kidding – I do find the time but it is not easy. I’m married to a wonderful man and we have a 3 year old son, and an 11 month old son.  We have unwavering support for one another when it comes to the things that we love and are passionate about.  He is an ultra-marathon runner (runs races that are longer than a marathon) and the boys and I go to all of his races and support him (with team t-shirts even!).  In turn, he is very supportive of me with my music career and knows how important it is for me to be able to develop that and grow in it. Honestly I couldn’t ask for a better companion in this life and in the next.

As far as finding the time for my music – it has definitely become more difficult with two children. In case you didn’t know, having two is more time consuming than having just one.  Haha, at least that has been my experience so far.

It is important for me to be a good mother to my boys and to be sure they are being well taken care of, but something I’ve realized lately is how important it is for me to get that time away from being a mom to be able to work on my music and to do the things that I love as well.  You can ask my husband – he’ll start to notice I’m heading into mindless no-man’s land if I’ve had too many mom days and not any music days.  Music is a huge release for me and I really need and crave it.

Before having our kiddos, I would spend countless hours on my music – all day if I chose to.  If needed, I would stay up through the night to finish a project.  When babies entered the picture, I quickly learned that it doesn’t matter if I stayed up until 2 a.m. composing, I can’t sleep in because my kids still wake up at the same time every morning and need my attention.  I will still occasionally stay up to work in my studio knowing that I’ll just have to sacrifice my sleep. Sometimes it’s the only chance I get.  But if I can make it work (and get both of them to sleep simultaneously), I’ve found that naptimes are a wonderful little window of time to get some work done.

However, if I really want to get anything substantial done, I usually need to hire a babysitter for the day or call on my wonderful mom to help watch the boys so that I can have multiple consecutive hours in a row to work on a project to keep my head in it.  A lot of what I do – the composing process, but also the orchestration process – involves repetitive listening and concentration and it’s almost impossible to do with constant interruptions.  More on the orchestration side than anything, because I’m able to sometimes sit at my piano and compose even with little voices talking nonstop around me and little hands pulling at my pant legs.  But orchestrating takes a lot of concentration and listening.

 

You are working on a new CD, Illumination.  How close are you to completing it?

I’ve been working on this album for three years now, and completed another album in the interim (The Lullaby Album). I’ve set so many different deadlines for this album and not met them, that I finally had to stop stressing myself out about it and just allow the music to get done when it was ready to be done.

For a while there, I was constantly getting asked when the album would be done and I started to feel this pressure to get it done and out there.  However, I have learned that quality has far greater importance than quantity.  I know artists that release a new album every 6 months, but I have to wonder where the growth is in their music.  I also feel strongly that releasing music that is not as good or better than your previous release will lose fans. And most of the time they won’t give you a second chance.   That’s just the reality of this business.  It’s hard to come back from a bad release.    I certainly don’t wish to experience that, and the music on Illumination has been some of my greatest growth and accomplishment.  I truly have the highest hopes for this release and want it to be the best possible.

Many of the songs are in the final mastering stages, but there are also songs that are still not yet fully composed.  Some still need to be recorded and orchestrated.  Many of the talented musicians that are making contributions to this album are also busy with successful careers in the music industry involving film scoring and stage performances, and so certain details are not always up to my own schedule.

Another big aspect to this album is the artwork going on it.  It plays a huge role both in the theme and in presentation/content.  We are still traveling and capturing the photographs for the album. We are also planning to film my very first music video for the title track “Illumination which will coincide with the release of the album as well.  The filming is tentatively going to happen early 2012. With all that said, I’m hoping for an early spring 2012 release.

 

I listened to the short version of the song on your website, you mentioned that you had lengthened it?

Yes, I lengthened the song “Illumination” to just over 4 minutes. I’m so excited for people to hear it I can hardly contain myself!  I had originally written it for a luxury car commercial, which is why the clip you can hear right now on my homepage is only a minute long.  I was actually pretty excited that they decided to ultimately not use my song, because it meant I would still retain copyright on it and be able to expand on it and use it for myself.  I wouldn’t have been able to do anything with the song had it been licensed for commercial.  This song is full of excitement in epic proportions.

 

What’s the difference between classical and classical crossover?That depends on who are you asking.  If you were to look at the nominees in the Grammy Awards each year in the classical crossover category, you would conclude that “classical crossover” is simply when a classically-trained artist decides to play music that is not classical. For example, violinist Joshua Bell decides to play music from Porgy and Bess and it’s considered a crossover album.

However, when referring to the music itself and not the artist, classical crossover references music that has classical elements, or actual classical songs that have been merged and crossed with modern nuances.  Take the string quartet Bond, for example.  They mixed classical music with electronica.

It took me a couple of years to finally realize that my music genre was classical crossover.  I wrestled with the label of “New Age”, because that is not what I wrote, nor what I aimed for.  People would ask me what type of music I played and I always stammered over how to explain it. Thank goodness within the last few years there have been some very popular artists like Myleene Klass, Craig Armstrong, and E.S Posthumous who have made the genre of classical crossover more known and sought after.

 

How much of what you learned on violin makes it into your music? Do you play any of the strings on your recordings?

I have my training on the violin to thank for my skills in orchestrating. I started playing the violin at the age of 5, and performed with many symphonies over the years.  It is from those valuable experiences where I got to hear the balance of an orchestra first hand. And I know what each instrument is good for and in what combinations. I use a mixture of sampled string libraries as well as live acoustic stringed instruments, my own violin playing included.  Playing a stringed instrument myself has helped me immensely when recording with the virtual sound libraries because I know if it sounds real enough or not.

On my upcoming album “Illumination”, I’ll be playing the violin in a couple tracks as part of the orchestra or as a soloist.

 

Do you have a favorite key that you write in?

The Key of F.  I don’t know why but I often default to it.  I’ve had to transpose songs to different keys after I’ve realized they were all in the key of F and I couldn’t have them all sounding like continuations of each other. Ha.

 

You said on your website that your inspiration comes from family experiences and dreams. How do you turn an experience into a piece of music?

Gosh, Kirk.  You really do ask some tough questions, don’tcha?  I’m not sure how to answer this one.  It just happens.  Sometimes my songs are technically driven and I write them for the excitement and challenge of playing them.  And then a lot of my songs, as you said, come from feelings and experiences.  When those moments happen, I feel myself so wrapped up in the emotion behind the music that it seems my feelings might come spilling out in the form of tears because it’s so strong.  It’s almost like my mind’s eye sees a movie reel playing with the music – images of my children, happy moments with my husband, times of trials and how we were able to overcome them, or feelings of the Spirit and the love from my Heavenly Father.  The music is simply an
extension of my inner voice, and it says the words I cannot.

 

I like all the bass notes in A Beautiful Storm, it reminds me of a cross between Beethoven and George Winston. Who are some of your influences? Old and new? Do you like any styles outside of classical?

I have been greatly influenced by the classical composers, obviously.  I am partial to the works of J.S. Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin.  I have written several arrangements of Bach pieces because I find them so rhythmical.  He was incredibly mathematic in his approach to music and it works well as crossover music for that reason.  Beethoven was just so full of fire and passion – as am I with my playing and compositions.  I would love to meet him in the hereafter. Chopin evoked great emotion in his music but with a brilliant and delicate approach.  I’ve never heard any music like his.

I love film music!  Particularly the music of Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, Danny Elfman, James Newton Howard, John Powell, Craig Armstrong, and Dario Marianelli.  I just think there needs to be more female film composers!  I have found, unknowingly, that I orchestrate very similarly to how Hans Zimmer orchestrates.  He uses a lot of french horns, and so do I.  He uses passionate strings and big elements. So do I.  I realized that perhaps one reason I love his music so much, is because he thinks like I do. I listen to his film scores and think “I get you.” My absolute favorite movie soundtrack right now is “Inception” by Hans Zimmer. I’m listening to it right now actually.

I also have my favorites in pop, which include Linkin Park, OneRepublic, Coldplay, and don’t laugh, but….um….yes. I like Justin Timberlake.

 

For more about Jennifer Thomas, visit her website to keep up with all the amazing things she is doing. You can also purchase songs and sheet music.

 

 

 

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Interview – Jennifer Thomas, award-winning composer.

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