A Q&A with Composer Amanda Cawley

  1. How did you get into music and storytelling, and what inspires you to write? 

    I knew I wanted to be a composer from about 8-years old when I got my first keyboard. I was always writing my own tunes, and my parents really encouraged it; my dad even bought some XLR cables, microphones and a Cubase software to help me record my first album when I was 10 years old. Like many others born in the 90s, I grew up watching Disney animated films, I absolutely fell in love with film music after watching the Lion King, Toy Story, Mulan and all the classics. I would listen to the soundtracks over and over and was fascinated with how music brought the world to life. Growing up, my heart stayed set on film music and I spent my teen years dissecting Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings score, along with many Danny Elfman scores. I’m lucky in that I always knew I wanted to be a film composer. I wanted to be a part of these rich lavish worlds that were boundless and help create that for other people too since it was such a gift in my life. I now take inspiration from whichever project I’m working on. I get lost in the story, in the setting, and listen to what’s being said, using my voice as a composer to enhance the project and build the world even deeper.

  2. Your music is incredibly versatile, in both orchestration and feel, ranging from large-scale epic music, to very intimate and emotional moments. It feels like every track takes the listener on a big adventure. Can you discuss how you ‘world-build’ through music? How do you find the right elements and soundscape for each project? 

    Thank you so much! I really try to find a unique bespoke pallet for every project, and the process of creating that looks different every time. That’s what’s so exciting about this career, no two projects ever unfold the same way. Sometimes I start with a melody, sometimes I start with distinguishing the instrumentation and sound pallet, but really it all comes from listening. My first step in any project is to listen, get absorbed in it as much as I can, observing artistic choices, camera angles, colour pallets, all these things will influence the music I create, and then I really just trust in the process and let the music unfold organically. Once I understand the project, I feel like the music just writes itself. For me, it’s mostly about channeling the creativity and getting lost in the project.  

  3. Your latest animated short, ‘Ostinato‘, has just premiered at the Oscar-qualifying Spark Animation Festival in Vancouver. How did you come on board this women-led project, and what was it like to score a film in which the main character is a composer?

    There’s this really incredible program through Women in Animation called ACE – it is a program that puts women in key creative roles in animation to create a short film. I was lucky to be selected for this past iteration, along with seven incredible women in key creative roles (writer, producer, director, storyboard supervisor, art director, animation director, editor, and composer). Together we created the short film, and it happened to be about a composer who develops tinnitus and her story with overcoming the challenge. It was such a cool opportunity for me, as I am also a composer who struggles with tinnitus, so I connected with the lead character a lot. The process of composing the music was very different, because in many cases they needed the music to create the animation, because the character was shown playing the piano and composing. I got to compose music at the beginning of the project, working with storyboards, artist boards and the script. I sent videos of myself playing the piano, along with my scores, and I got to watch all of it come to life in animation. It was important to everyone to make the film as authentic as possible, so they even matched the animation to play all the exact notes on the piano, which is quite unique and requires a lot of coordination. Since this film was about a composer, I experimented with method acting a little bit. The lead character, ‘Nuha’, and I had different tastes in music, different surroundings and we are different people, so I did my best to immerse myself in her world, listening to music that she would listen to, and composing from her point of view instead of my own; it was a fun, fascinating journey! 

  4. You recently composed the score for the video game, ‘Siegebreaker’, which will be released on December 1st 2023. The main theme is already featured on your website, and it’s absolutely stunning! What are you most proud of about this score? 

    Aw thank you! This was my first experience composing for video games and I absolutely loved it. I’m really proud of how it all came together. Composing for games differs from composing for films in that it’s not always linear. I was often writing three separate tracks for the same piece of music, a low intensity, medium intensity and high-intensity version. They would all seamlessly work together and would cross-fade, depending on what scenario the game player was in. Thinking about music working in this way, as well as still writing linear and expanding the world, was like a jigsaw puzzle. It was very engaging and a lot of fun to see how all the pieces fit together. Siegebreaker has four main biodomes – forest, desert, arctic and volcanic, so it was a lot of fun developing different sonic pallets for each biodome using unique instrumentation and experimenting with different scales. I’m excited to see this game out in the world, and looking forward to continue composing for games. 

  5. You’re currently co-composing music for animated series, Fireman Sam – Season 16- you’ve already completed 78 episodes! What are some of the challenges this score presents, and how do you keep it fresh and exciting every time? 

    Fireman Sam is a show I used to watch when I was a kid myself, so it’s really special to me to get to compose music for this series and create that excitement and joy for other children now. Honestly, you would think it gets tiring after co-composing 78 episodes, but it really hasn’t! They do an incredible job with the writing to keep every episode fresh. There’s always a different storyline and distinct precarious situation that someone needs rescuing from and so I really get inspired by each episode. We like to bring in different sonic pallets where we can, for example, if the episode takes place on a farm, you might hear a banjo, or if they are racing robots, you’ll hear more synths. My favourite was a double-length Christmas special in the 14th season.  

  6. What tips do you have for those who wish to follow in your footsteps? 

    I think something that’s really helped me along the way is having a clear goal of where I would like my career to go. This helped me easily see opportunities and stepping stones to get there. Apply for everything and anything that aligns with your vision. Don’t ever take yourself out of the running if you don’t know if you qualify or don’t feel like you’re good enough. There’s no one path to creating a career in composing for media. Everyone’s journey will look different, so try not to get discouraged if something doesn’t go the way you thought it would or the way it went for someone else, because there’s a reason it happened that way. 

    Check out the AWFC Directory for Amanda Crawley

    Interview by Nami Melumad

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