Can you take us through your songwriting process?
Every song seems to unravel differently. Some of my favorites have emerged from a single streak of motivation, while others have resulted from weeks, maybe months, of pain-staking rewrites that finally end with a “you-have-to-put-the-pen-down-now” moment. That being said, my process usually starts with an idea for a melody and, with that melody, a general sense of feeling carried in it. The rest of my process is then trying to do justice to that initial spark of inspiration.
Above The Noise is an impressive ethnographic-oratorio you’ve composed, which debuted in NYC this past winter. It is such a unique concept! What drove you to create it, and what was it like to work with the ensemble?
Thank you so much! It’s a concept that I’d been mulling over for a while, after an even longer fascination with organized religion and sacred music. At the time of my freshman fall in college, news coverage was focused intensely on ISIL. Against that backdrop, I was becoming aware of the in-group, out-group biases surrounding religious communities within larger institutions, like those on the college campus, like those in our country. I began meeting students with diverse beliefs, feelings about their religious identities, and experiences of their faith being questioned or reinforced. I realized how unique my relationship to my faith was, and how there is no universal truth or single narrative when it comes to religion. With that, I set out to create a piece that spoke to religious identity, something that might speak to a large, spiritually-diverse audience without using any traditional religious text or music.
I’d heard and admired two modern oratorios, “I Am Harvey Milk” and “Anthracite Fields,” and I felt the form had great power. Over the course of 2019 I interviewed over 100 college students whose words and stories formed the basis for the narratives which I later set to music in an oratorio-like format.
I am so, so grateful to project’s off-Broadway ensemble. The performers were all incredibly thoughtful, driven, and patient. Throughout the rehearsal process, as I learned to take ownership of my musical choices, I was also encouraging the cast to take ownership of the themes and voices in the book, and out of these simultaneous practices came a really beautiful synergy.
Do you think your eclectic background influenced your creativity? In what ways?
Absolutely. I feel my writing style is informed by the tensions I internalized from an immersion in both the classical and popular worlds. My dad is a classical pianist and so Chopin, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky were the soundtrack to my childhood. My first lessons were in classical guitar, and then I was lucky enough to attend an performing arts high school where I trained as a classical vocalist. Meanwhile, pop music was always in my ears and my mom was a huge fan of musicals, so I saw lots of those. Towards the end of high school I began exploring jazz and that became a through line in my college experience. My college had a unique ethnomusicology program and so I also took to Carnatic music, including Solkattu and South Indian Voice, while I was there.
I see these eclectic influences most directly in my sense of rhyme scheme and harmonic resolution when I sit down to write. Often I’m at the crossroads of intellect and intuition, predictability and whimsy, refinement and embellishment, and my musical points of reference vary so drastically in adherence to these tenets. More generally, I hope my musical style reflects my favorite parts of the musical worlds I’ve spent time in: pop’s “hook-i-ness,” musical-theatre’s clarity of narrative, jazz harmony and improvisation, Solkattu’s cycle-based rhythmic games, and classical music’s sense of long-term harmonic and lyric payoff.
How did you approach your score for the award-winning film, Karaoke Superstar?
That was such a fun project and a really talented team. Multi-medium collaboration was a whole different ball game for me and I got so much out of it. At my first meeting with Wilson Lai, the director, we walked through his vision for the music which included mimetic and diegetic material, and I was so excited that I started on the score before he even sent me the script (in retrospect, not necessarily advisable…). Wilson also made me a playlist for inspiration that I listened to on repeat for about a week before starting on the soundtrack songs. I sent him back the first passes of the score and soundtrack a few weeks after our first meeting, and to my surprise he was really into all of it. After that we had a couple back and fourths, mostly little tweaks, and the rest was smooth sailing! My favorite thing was working with the actors to lay down vocal takes on the songs. They were so enthusiastic and we had a great time together.
What are you currently working on, and is there anything you wish to add?
I’m very excited to be working on an album with my dear friend and collaborator Chris Peters. We met in 2018 at the Johnny Mercer Songwriters’ Project, and we’ve been writing together ever since. Now we get to explore what it’s like to collaborate and record from opposite ends of the country, and while that’s not ideal, it’s a new frontier and I’m sure we will find it’s challenges rewarding in unique ways – definitely look out for that project and my new single at https://daphnegale.hearnow.com/!
I guess the only thing I’d add is wear a mask, wash your hands, and download music! Let’s spread hope, not germs 🙂