A Q&A with Film Composer and Songwriter, Becca Schack

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  1. You graduated from the Juilliard School, where you studied with Christopher Rouse among other notable composers. What were the main takeaways from your time there, and could you talk a bit about how you forged your own path, away from the formal training and more towards electronic music and pop?

    It feels like I’ve lived many different lives since my Juilliard days, as my path has been far from linear. I think my main takeaway since then is that everything is what you make of it and life is vastly more interesting when you’re constantly learning and trying new things. I’ve chosen an industry where we need to keep up with ever-changing technology, apply found sounds in new ways, and utilize the best plugins for what we’re trying to accomplish musically. Studying with Rouse was amazing, and his music inspired me just as much as our lessons. He challenged me to find my own voice, trust my instincts as a composer, and make sure I was always telling a story. He helped me hone in on how important rhythm and percussion are to a composition as well and that’s continued to inform, and become a strong feature in, a lot of my music. Another musician who was extremely influential during this time was the avant-garde composer/performer Elliott Sharp who’s part of the downtown scene in NYC. I vividly remember a masterclass of his that sonically blew my mind; he was playing guitar with an EBow, layering sounds with max msp, and incorporated a video that enhanced the music. I became fascinated with melding acoustic and electronic instruments – such as amplified strings – and genres, which is something I’ve continued to explore in writing hybrid orchestral music.

    Having formal training was invaluable to my growth, but at that time I felt stifled by the traditional approach the Juilliard training represented. I missed writing and performing songs – something I had always done growing up. I started to find bands in NYC to perform and collaborate with, including starting my own solo project, making records, and playing at clubs and festivals. I joined a women’s choir and was commissioned to write for them and composed other concert pieces for instrumental ensembles such as brass quintet, percussion quartet, and symphonic band. I poured my heart into performing my own music and creating a visceral experience both sonically and visually by integrating video, lights, and dancers. It felt really invigorating to see people moving to my music and working out their emotions on the dance floor. Quite a change from classical composition, but I felt like I had found my voice and sound. In 2014 I moved to Los Angeles and continued performing while exploring the music scene here with my solo projects and other songwriting collaborations. What’s been exciting is during the last few years is that I’ve fallen back in love with composing and have pivoted into scoring where I can apply all my experiences and skills.

  2. You’ve transitioned through different genres in your career- from classical to pop to cinematic. How did these styles influence your writing for visual media, and do you ever find yourself borrowing elements from one genre into the other?

    I think they very much inform each other! Several of the projects I’ve been scoring this fall have also called for writing songs for certain scenes, and sometimes they’ve become an integral part of the storytelling. Treating the song as part of the score, you find different ways for key emotions to be both heard and felt. In a lot of my music, I find myself gravitating towards melodies I can sing, and my experience improvising on the piano and writing hooks has stayed a natural part of my process when I compose. Stylistically I find my sound from the pop songwriting world still comes through – such as a subby bass to add heavy low-end frequencies or singing vocals to layer on top of orchestral music. It’s definitely in my wheelhouse to work in these sound worlds, but I think taking advantage of my experience as a vocalist and electronic artist is a plus when it comes to what I can bring to the table on a project.

  3. You recently booked your first indie feature thriller. What can you share about the film, and what’s your approach for this score?

    Working on a thriller has unlocked a whole new world of sonic landscapes for me, and it’s been

    really fun to delve into genre films like this in my prep! It’s about a woman who struggles with

    her inner demons and a life of solitude when her husband mysteriously leaves. The film goes to

    some really interesting places, twists and turns, as their story unravels. I can’t say too much

    more about it, but I’m really excited about how it’s turning out! I’ve been staying open to discovering my workflow in this scenario, as this score is the most music I’ve written for any project (around 70 minutes). On anyone’s first feature there is a lot to learn and not much time to do it, and I’m so grateful to have the support and advice of a few wonderful mentors and friends to guide me along the way. It’s been the best kind of challenge learning all these new skills and tools, and I already can’t wait to score my next film. One thing that has been crucial to the success of the project has been making sure I’m always communicating regularly with the director and producer, who have been wonderful to work with, and getting their feedback to make sure I’m on the right track. I don’t normally watch horror/thrillers so I had to go through a crash course in studying the scores and musical tropes of the genre and pick up the tools that composers use to create tension and build suspense. Surprisingly to me, I got really into them and never imagined that I would have this much fun scoring them. I got so into it that I even scared myself! There were many nights scoring alone in my studio when I actually had to close the closet door…just in case…

  4. Alongside your work as a film composer, you’re also a recording artist who released many singles and EPs, often featuring intimate lyrics, catchy beats and synth, and an ethereal sonic sphere. You recently wrote a branded song for Bounty and were also commissioned to write a song for an upcoming film. Can you take us through your songwriting process, and also talk about writing for sync (and sonic branding that you’ve been doing)?

    I like to be in motion when I’m writing songs, so I’ll often start by taking a walk. I find that my brain is more agile and open when I’m not staying still. I’ll come up with an idea and record it on my phone, then go home and start sketching from there. Other times I’ll be improvising at the piano and come up with a melody on top of it. If I’m co-writing, I’ll either start at the piano or with a beat / instrumental and write a topline over that. When I’m working with a client such as Bounty, there’s usually a phrase or subject they’ll want me to integrate into the song. It’s important for me to somehow relate that message to myself and make it unique in some way. The whole pitch for the “Quicker Picker Upper” song was that it should just be a great track people loved to listen to. It’s been amazing to read some of the YouTube comments for it, with people saying they couldn’t believe this was an ad and wanted to listen to it on repeat. A few listeners even said it was about overcoming depression. And that’s what is great about music: everyone can interpret it in their own way through their own personal lens and they’re all valid. Making music that moves someone whom I’ll never meet makes me feel like I’m making a positive difference in their lives, and for me that’s the whole point.

  5. You’ve worked with some notable names such as producers Morgan Wiley of Midnight Magic, Luxxury, and remixers Ashley Beedle, Klic, and Madeaux, and gained much praise from Flaunt, Galore, and Stereogum. Over 50 radio stations played your songs, including NPR’s ‘The Essentials’ and LA’s famed KCRW station. What are you most proud of in your songwriting career, and what do you wish you knew about songwriting before you started out?

    I’m most proud of the little things, all the meaningful interactions with people that I’ll carry with me forever, and the records I made that helped me get through a lot of hard times. I love the process of making music with creatives of all sorts. I’ve also really enjoyed performing on runway shows and curating music for designers. I love the fashion world and would be interested in finding future opportunities like that again. Also, when I think back to the music videos I made, they were each like mini films and helped me realize how much I enjoy working with a team of people to create a shared vision. I’ve always loved creating cinematic experiences for people so it’s great to get to now be writing for all sorts of media. I’m proud of the new production skills I’ve acquired during lockdown that have helped me start this new creative chapter. And if I could have known one thing about songwriting before I started out, it would have been how to produce my own music. I’ve loved all my collaborations I’ve had with producers and have learned a lot from all of them, but it’s really empowering to be able to make music that sounds exactly the way I hear it in my head. I’m excited to be doing more of that now, taking a track or an entire score from sketch to final mix.

    Interview by Nami Melumad

Spotlight Archive

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Becca Schack (November 9, 2021)
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