Interview with film and TV composer Kris Bowers

Kris Bowers is one of the youngest composers currently working in mainstream television and also one of the most prolific. He's currently scoring music for TV shows Dear White People and For The People films Monsters and Men and Green Book and recently scored the end credits music for the latest entry in the successful long-running Madden video game franchise, Madden 19.

At 29, Bowers has already won a daytime Emmy for his work on animated film The Snowy Day, scored music for basketball player turned TV and film producer Kobe Bryant, collaborated with ballet movement United America and even created music for Michelin Star chef Fredrik Berselius. He has worked with a rage of artists including Q-Tip, Aretha Franklin, Marcus Miller, José James, Ludacris, Christian Rich, Jay-Z and Kanye West.

With a Masters in Jazz Performance from Julliard, he's performed globally, won the coveted Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition in 2011 and even performed for the Obamas in the White House.

I had the pleasure to chat with Kris Bowers about his work on Dear White People (which just gained a season three renewal) and his wider career.

Kris Bowers with Dear White People actor Marque Richardson

How does it feel to be the youngest composer currently scoring a network show?

It's pretty wild. I have a lot of friends that were very young when they started; my friend  Ludwig Göransson did New Girl and Community when he was pretty young and there's a couple of other people like that. I think at in the beginning it makes you question whether you are ready for it; and question whether or not I was ready for the pressure and how intensive it would be. But once you get into the flow of things, it all feels pretty normal.

And what are your big musical influences?

Ah, that's kind of all over the place. I originally started as a jazz pianist and my influences ranged from Kirby Hancock to Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans. But when it comes to film scoring; when I was younger it was John Williams and Howard Shore and James Newton Howard and John Powell. And most recently I've been inspired by a lot of people that are coming out of the music performance world into the film scoring world; people like Jonny Greenwood and Trent Reznot.

Let's talk a bit about the soundtrack to Dear White People season two. There's quite an eclectic mix there of RnB, Jazz and classical piano. How did you approach the soundtrack and were there any lessons you learned from the first season?

So, one thing that we did differently this season, that the show's creator Justin Simien wanted to do, is establish a set of colours that were all based on these paintings that were done during the civil war era. They were meant to get black men to join the army. So we looked at these paintings and pulled colours from them and established a sort of meaning behind each of those colours.

And so before we even started shooting, he explained to me that these colours would infiltrate the set design the costumes design; and every time the characters were put in one of these positions he defined these colours to be, those colours would be much more present. For example, gold represented true self and so any time there's a lot of gold on screen, this was the point when we would establish that we needed to use the 'true self theme'. Justin would ask me to write a theme for each of these colours before they even shot and then we were able to pull from those themes as we were going.

So that was one thing; the second thing was that I really relief heavily on my tendencies as a jazz pianist when it comes to accompaniment. I think last year I was trying to do the very traditional thing of setting up the proper tempo and setting for click map, and then following that click map to write my piece.

But then this year I kind of did the opposite, where I would start playing along to the scene - and watch it over and over again - and play as though I was accompanying the dialogue, or accompanying the movement. So I felt much more like I was playing along to a dancer or a singer and obviously the actors; it actually helped me have a bit more fluidity or malleability to the pieces that I was writing. So I would write something that would have these pauses and these stops and starts that might not have naturally happened if I had set up a click; they naturally happened because I was playing along to what I felt.

So I guess in terms of creating the music, did you have the scripts first or did you react to what you were seeing filmed on screen?

I had the scripts and I had read the first four or five as they were shooting. But after a while I kind of liked being able to let the story unfold for me jus as much as it would any audience member. Because I felt the way that it looks and the way that it is shot for the show, has some much influence on how these themes feel. So I wanted to be surprised, I wanted to watch these scenes and have be able to pull from my initial reaction with my writing rather them already knowing what's happening in the script.

That makes a lot of sense. I also understand that you were a fan of 2014 movie and that’s what led you to work on the Netflix series. Was your work influenced by the music of original composer Kathryn Bostic or did you creatively decide to go out your own?

We kind of decided to go out on our own. That was something Justin really influenced on the first season; he told me he wanted to change the sound and pull from different references.

So one of the main things we mainly took from the film is that a lot of it is influenced by traditional classical pieces and some specific pieces by Shubert and Chopin. Some of those references still were references for us during the show. The film had much more of a fusion sound but we wanted the series to differ. In the show when we're in the classical world it should sound classical, in the jazz world it should sound jazz. Every now and then we blurred the lines a little bit but it's not as fusiony as the film was.

There were some really beautiful moments in the tracks; I was listening to What's Stopping Us and It's Just Us and there are some really beautiful moments in those. And I also really loved the liveliness of the jazz piece Cultural Imports as well. Can you tell me a bit how you approached them?

So with Cultural Imports a lot of it is trying to figure out - or with any of the jazz stuff really - how to make the shape of the jazz pieces still fit the picture. Because with the jazz piece we still have the constant tempo that shifts very much because it's going to make it feel awkward. We can't have two many pauses or stops and starts without it feeling a bit strange; especially because Justin likes, in everything I compose, to feel like it can function as music on its own in addition to score. he doesn't really like us to catch every single little beat. And so a lot if it was trying to write these jazz pieces that had these sections, where every moment is still commenting on the picture even though it is moving along like a train and not really stopping to comment on the picture but finding how we can do that with the composition.

And then with the classical pieces I think it's a little bit more easier because you can have a bit more push and pull; most of the solo piano pieces, they're done out of time, because I wanted to be able to it to picture and not to a click at all.

Did you actually perform any of the pieces yourself?

Yeah all the piano is me, but that's about it this season. Last season I had to a little bit more, but this season I just played piano and we were able to get people in to record all the other stuff.

Let’s talk about your wider work then. You won a Daytime Emmy for ‘Outstanding Music Direction and Composition’ on The Snowy Day. What was that like to work on?

That was pretty awesome. I've never done animation before and so it was cool because one, I got to be a kid again, feel like an eight year old and be nostalgic working on something like that. And especially because it was Christmas music; I remember my room mate that I was with at the time was annoyed at me because I was listening to Christmas music all day for inspiration and it was September. But that was a lot of fun.

The other cool thing was that they allowed me to try and figure out how to infuse the sounds of the city, of Detroit; try to figure out how to make it sound urban in the sense of the genre and not urban hip hop or anything like that. Urban in that it sounds like it is of the city and try and do that and still make it sound fun and Christmassy and opulent. That was a cool challenge.

I understand you performed for Barak and Michelle Obama in the White House back in 2016. That must have been something quite special?

Yeah definitely. There's a national jazz day every year in April and the Thelonious Monk Institute put on the concert that featured a lot of jazz artists from up and comers to incredible legends, people like Aretha Franklin and Sting. And it was hosted by Morgan Freeman.

I actually met Barak when I won the competition back in 2011 and they took me to the Oval Office; so meeting him and Michelle and being in that space, especially that final year was pretty special.

Amazing. I’ve also been reading up on some of the other work you’ve done. I read that you worked with Bang & Olufsen to create an original score to a multi-course meal by Michelin star chef, Fredrik Berselius in 2016. What was that like to work on? Did you have a different approach to your work on television?

I was so inspired by the way Fredrik would describe these dishes; a lot of these he would describe in a very colourful and somewhat cinematic ways, so I was able to focus on that image and write from that. Now this was pretty morbid even though it's food, but for example he had a lamb dish that he described as having some ash and smoke; the way he thought of it was if you had hung a baby lamb in a barn and lit the barn on fire.

That's pretty dark!

[Laughs] Yeah and he would describe being inspired by the ocean or the breeze and how the air feels around the ocean. And the more he described a lot of those things really helped the writing process. But it was a lot of fun and I'm trying to do a bit more stuff like that, that has this multi-disciplinary aspect to it.

And you’ve worked with basketball player Kobe Bryant on his ad campaign for sports drink, Bodyarmor. It sounds like you’re not limited to one particular medium then?

No, exactly and with Kobe we're working on a bunch of stuff because I did a documentary about him a while ago and since then I've become somewhat of a musical director for all of his content as he moves into being a film and television producer. It's exciting to see what we're planning for later this year and into next year.

You’ve collaborated with artists like Jay Z and Kanye West. Who has been the most fun artists to work with?

That's a tough one! You know Q Tip was a lot of fun to work with just because he's one of the only people I've been able to be around for the entire part of his process; to see him start from scratch and see him create a piece of music. A lot of other people I've worked with I come in and they've already got a song and I just need to help give some ideas or help just play chords or things like that.

But with him, I was able to see him go through albums and as he was going through them for inspiration, he was talking about artists that I've never heard of. So a lot of it felt like a lesson; every time I was watching him start to work, he'd find something and you'd see how he took inspiration from a sample and then create a whole different track from it. That was pretty cool.

Is there anyone you'd want to work with in the future?

Oh year, sure, like there's a long list. I love Justin Vernon from Bon Iver, James Blake, Chance The Rapper, Florence and the Machine...yeah, there's a lot of people.

I know you played gigs while studying jazz performance at Julliard and you’ve done international Jazz concerts in Japan, Spain and England. Do you still try and play gigs often?

Here and there. I have a few shows here in LA whenever people come to town and right now for myself, I'm working on my next album and trying to work out what to do with that. I'm not really interested in doing shows where I play the small club scene; I'd rather put together a larger piece that can have a multi-disciplinary aspect to it and feels a bit more like an art installation that involves music very heavily and in a few different spaces. Essentially I'm trying to figure out how to put together a larger scale project but do fewer shows.

What do you feel has been your proudest achievement?

I just finished working on a film called Green Book that comes out later this year[and January in the UK] with Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. We literally just recorded the score yesterday [13th June] and it was my first time recording with a 60-piece orchestra. But it's also a film about a pianist and I had to transcribe all of the piano parts; the idea is that Mahershala Ali's character is playing all the piano in the film and they replace my head with Mahershala's head in post production!

So I think that's my proudest moment right now, because it involved so much and on the largest scale that I've ever operated on. So far it's come out really successfully and I'm really excited to see how the film is perceived.

We've kind of talked about this already, but what are your plans for the future?

So right now we've just finished off the work on the Green Book film and I'm working on a show for Starz called Warriors of Liberty City. I'm continue to work with Justin Simien, the creator of Dear White People on a film that he's about to do and there's a couple of other projects that kind of in conversation; and obviously working with Kobe [Bryant] as his head of music on his film and TV stuff. Then there's my next album and I'm working on a project with a chef, so just a couple of things I guess!

Just a few then! Brilliant, well thank you very much Kris for your time.

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