A Q&A with composer Michelle Richards

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  1. Congratulations on the release of your latest score for the psychological thriller NIGHT NIGHT. Tell us a bit more about your process for starting work on this film and deciding on a palette of sound.

    Thanks so much! Man, this was a fun one and it all started with the incredible director Niki Kossvision for the score to embody the dark feminine perspective of the film. The storyline is all about a woman (Brenna DAmico) recovering from a traumatic accident and shes not sure if the concerning things shes seeing are in her head or if someones messing with her in real life.

    I come from the a cappella world so my strong suit is using my voice instrumentally, often times in odd and unexpected ways. So I leaned into that a lot, playing around with unique reverbs and echoes, warping sung vocals and breaths, and doing a ton of layering to create atmospheric soundscapes that reflect the uncertainty of what is real.

    I also tried to use different techniques to make the viewer uncomfortable – at one point I was in my studio scraping a knife on a cheese grater and screeching into the microphone. Very subtle within the context of the score, but enough to bring another layer of disorientation and hopefully raise a couple of arm-hairs.

  2. You have had several transitions in your career thus far. Firstly working with the team at Jingle Punks, then moving on to run the production team at Burnett Music. What has it been like to go from being an executive to being a creative?

    Its been amazing. I taught myself how to compose and produce, and having had the prior experience of seeing the post-production process from the admin side was invaluable.

    I did have a lot of incredible mentors on the business side teaching me how to be a good creative executive, but I didnt have a ton of mentors on the music side, so I really credit the composers that I worked with in inadvertently teaching me how to be good. Listening through a multi-thousand-cue library and then seeing the cue sheets and understanding what was placed really gives you perspective on what clients are looking for and how to correctly interpret creative direction.

    Here are my best tips for composers writing for production music libraries:

    -establish the vibe of your cue the second someone presses play

    -the first :30 of your cue and the final end sting are most important

    -the vibe and genre is for the director, but the structure, arrangement, and transitions are for the editors.

  3. Your music is the soundtrack for so many awesome reality tv shows like Bravo’s Below Deck and NBC’s Making It. What is it like to compose shorter form cues and stings in comparison to composing for more long form narrative projects?

    With short-form cues, you have exactly 1 millisecond to nail down the vibe, and you typically keep the same mood/energy going throughout the entirety of the cue. Thats fun because it really feels like youre embodying the project. Whether its a :90 anticipation cue for a game show or a :30 big commercial track, every micro-decision youre making from the tempo to the chord progression to the instrumentation have to be reflective of that project.

    But for long-form narrative projects, you can let things simmer and develop. One of the cues that I wrote for Night Night was literally just a drone mixed with the humming sound of my microwave for 30 seconds. But it worked for that moment and with the overall haunting ambient sound of the film. Its cool to have the space to allow things to build slowly and to reveal different layers with each new track you write.

  4. Recently you scored Women & The Vote, a documentary about the past 100 years of womens political equality, particularly focusing on the 19th amendment. What was it like to score a piece about such an important topic?

    I think as composers-for-media, it is so important to put as much energy as you can into projects that affect the greater good. The director Linda Moroney is as passionate and wonderful as a human can be. It was so refreshing and enlightening to work on a project that mattered so much, and Linda made sure that the team she was working with was reflective of the story that we were collectively telling.

    Ive also never scored something that taught me so much. Susan B. Anthony, Mary Talbert, Alva Belmont, Harriet Tubman, Narcissa Cox Vanderlip, and Shirley Chisholm have paved the way for womens voting rights, and it is because of them and the other suffragettes that we have progressed to where we are today.

    And to tie it all together in a nice, subtle way – it is because of the brave and incredible work of women in music over centuries that I am here today, and I am so inspired to be part of this generation of composers paving our own path in our own way.

  5. How did you find your creative voice as a composer?

    I originally came at composing from a chameleon standpoint – in production library music, your job is not to stand out, it is to blend in to the larger composing team and make your music perfectly fit a referenced vibe. You can show bits of personality to keep a cue interesting and give editors fun moments to play around with, but only within the context of the specific ask.

    Then when I started working with commercial and film clients, everyone encouraged me to submit tracks that showed off my unique voice’… and that took a long time for me to develop (I still am).

    I have worked really hard at allowing myself to play around and be weirder, looser and show more personality within my tracks – because I truly gravitate to weird, wacky, big, fun scores. The composers that I look up to the most (Keefus Ciancia from Killing Eve and Made For Love, Labrinth from Euphoria, Cristobal Tapia De Veer from The White Lotus) take a lot of sonic risks and infuse a ton of personality and style into their tracks.

    So just experimenting with creative production tricks and big dynamic weirdness have really helped me develop who I am as a composer. If moments in my tracks are making me laugh as I create them in the studio, then thats a good sign.

    Interview by Julia Piker

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