AWFC Membership Spotlight
A Q&A with Composer and Filmmaker Austin Ray
Thanks for being here, Austin! You are a composer, musician, and filmmaker. Could you dive into your origin story, and how you got into music and filmmaking?
I grew up on a fish farm on the California-Mexico border in the middle of the desert. I was far removed from any connection to the film music world, yet, as a young girl, I discovered composers like Rachel Portman, Ennio Morricone, and John Williams through films. Beforehand though, I think my curiosity was truly first sparked when my mom bought Philip Aaberg’s solo piano album Cinema, featuring a range of music from films like Cinema Paradiso and Romeo & Juliet. We would play it all the time in the house and these scores were the catalyst for my passion towards film music. Drawn to music and the creative arts like a magnet, I ended up at film school where I could combine both loves.
You work closely with your sister, Westin. What is it like working with a sibling? Do you always work together, or do you both do separate things as well? What is your process together, vs. separate?
As children, my sister and I merged our imaginations together to invent stories, write plays or music, and experiment with photography and art, so the official start date of our first collaboration is pretty blurry. After film school, we forged a partnership to co-direct films under the moniker RAY SISTERS. We’re brutally honest with each other, yet are typically on the same page when it comes to quality or taste, so it makes for efficient decision-making. When not co-directing together we hone our own separate skills: she’s a writer, and I’m a music composer.
Your recent EP “Minerals” is gorgeous. My favorite track is “Opal”. I’m curious what inspired you to make this record, and what the composing process looked like?
Thank you! In many ways, Minerals was like a mood board of my mind at the time. Some parts were half-written while quarantining in London with a piano at the start of the pandemic, then finished in California by the Pacific Ocean, and finally recorded and mixed in New York. This project first arose out of silence, nature, and isolation from the outside world. The exploration of the unknown, and the journey of finding our way home resonated with me, inspiring this EP. I wish for listeners to feel similarly reflective, and transported to faraway horizons. The majority of my past work has been shorter film score cues, so with Minerals, I had the freedom to explore full-length versions of ideas that have been bouncing around my brain. It’s been so rewarding to hear it out in the world. Initially it was a steep task for a non-engineer like myself to mix and master, but I gathered a variety of opinions and advice from experts and friends in the field, and studiously implemented their notes. Though it was challenging, it sharpened my ability to get the mix to sound similar to how I envisioned it.
Aside from composing, and co-directing, I’ve heard you are an avid and longtime surfer. I am curious if surfing plays into your work at all?
Absolutely. I think we all have passions or hobbies outside of music that give us clarity and perspective, and for me that’s always been surfing. The time I spend in the ocean always leaves me with a new appreciation for the practice, incremental progress, clear headedness, and steadfast determination that a creative career requires. Surfing can be tranquil, rewarding, and energizing….or it can be tempestuous, unpredictable, and freezing cold….the version you focus on depends upon your mindset, more so than the wave conditions.
What sort of films have you worked on in the past, and what sort of films do you love working on most? What would your “dream career” look like?
Great question! I’ve gone between a variety of mediums: narrative dramas, documentaries, advertisement, animation—and a lovely benefit of this is that it means you never get sick of one type of film. I’ve always been drawn to strong storytelling, cinematography, and character development. Projects that creatively stretch me into new directions are my favorite, too. Before I composed a feature, the sheer length of the film scared me…but afterwards, it was less scary, naturally. When I signed on to compose a Pixar-Disney-style animation last year, I hadn’t done anything like it before, but afterwards I had a new skill in my toolkit.
My dream career would involve being surrounded by a tribe of creatively driven, kind humans; growing as a composer and artist—and owning a grand piano! In regards to the creative tribe, I have been lucky enough to find that with the Alliance for Women Film Composers, and hope to continue fostering a community of composers and filmmakers. I also admire composers who have forged longtime working relationships with directors, like Carter Burwell and The Coen Brothers, Clint Mansell and Darren Aronofsky, and John Williams and Steven Spielberg.
I’m curious to hear what you’ve been up to lately, and if you have anything coming up that we should keep our ears out for?
I just wrapped production on a short film starring Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight, Suits, Babylon) and Kate Sumpter (BBC’s The Little Drummer Girl) that I co-directed with Westin. Soon, I’ll be composing its original music, as well. Early next year, I’ll be releasing new music as part of an exciting, collaborative ambient album called X2 with Canadian label Little Symphony Records, featuring some of my favorite new neoclassical artists!
Check out the AWFC Directory for Austin Ray
Interview by Connor Cook