A Q&A with Toronto-Based Film Composer & Music Producer Steph Copeland

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  1. Your journey throughout the music industry has been so fascinating to me. Could you provide some insights as to what your musical background is, and how it has impacted your career overall?

    Thank you so much for having me Alex! I started as a singer songwriter in high school and gravitated toward electronic production where I was performing as a solo artist and with groups in Windsor/Detroit. As a kid I took private lessons for vocals, piano, guitar, went to choral camp and sang in choirs, but didn’t take music in high school or post secondary. I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the school setting and didn’t want the same relationship with music. Performing live, experimenting with home recordings and creating “DIY” albums to sell side-stage was a big part of my foundation. I am still pretty “DIY” too.

  2. What I love about your music wheelhouse is that it’s not just pertaining to one specific area; you are an accomplished composer but you also work with artists as a brilliant producer and singer/songwriter. Would you speak to what your creative process looks like for these art forms – are there any similarities or differences (or overlap?) Further, do you have a preference or favourite of these music spaces to create in? 

    I find scoring and songwriting similar in that it’s all about inspiration.  For a film I’m motivated by the tone of the story, the characters and their motivations, the spaces and cinematography, the director’s musical vision; when I work with artists co-writing or producing songs I’m similarly motivated by the story in the song, the artist’s character, inner voice and vision for the music.  Creating subtext with sound is where the creative process overlaps for me.  Tapping into an unconscious language that translates into something interesting and exciting and hopefully moves people.

  3. Your score work ranges across a wide range of genres in film, however, you have a particular affinity for the horror score space (I want to add that your scores for “Vicious Fun” and “The Retreat” are so fantastic!) How did this “flair for horror” come to be? Was creating in the horror space something that was a particular goal of yours at the off-set? 

    Being able to score for horror was a very happy accident. My earlier solo music was fairly dark — heavy beats and moody chords — and I was in a place where I was getting experimental with electronic production, wanting to continue exploring a musical path away from live performances. My partner (who’s DOP) was working on an indie horror film about a computer virus that turned people into zombies and had shown some of my work to the director, who believed it would translate well into the dark-electro score he had in mind. Without any prior experience in scoring, I essentially cut my teeth in horror, which sparked a love affair with the genre.

  4. Throughout your work there is a distinct presence (and often feature!) of synths. Can you speak a bit about how you got into synth work, and some of your favourite synths/synth sounds at the moment? 

    I started getting into drum machines, samplers and gear in my late teens, and synth was always at the center of that. I was so broke all the time, I had to be efficient with my purchases to achieve the sound I was aiming for. In 2000, my setup consisted of a Roland 303 Groovebox, a Zoom ST224 sampler, a Roland VS840 multitrack recorder, and Fruity Loops on a Dell PC laptop. A little later, I added a Nord Lead 2, Micro Korg, and finally, a Mac mini running Ableton. Beat making, crunchy bass synth, and anything I could oscillate or arpeggiate was my focus. Now I’m fairly “in the box,”which solves two problems: the lack of Toronto real estate to house walls of dream synths and the need to make quick adjustments for fast turnarounds. However, my next purchase is the Lyra 8, and I’m currently in Slovakia tracking one down; it’s bare bones and completely haunting. I’m looking forward to using it on a horror film that starts post October2023.

  5. Branching from synths, is piano your primary instrument? Do you play other instruments as well? 

    Vocals, computer, piano and guitar are my primary instruments in that order. When I was performing solo my set-up would be mic, laptop, guitar, Nord Lead and Micro Korg. I’ll still pick up an instrument when I need something for a score but having worked with so many fantastic players over the years I’ve become totally spoiled and want better instrumentalists to fill those parts. Though I do use a pawnshop viola that comes in handy for traditional horror scores.

  6. Are there any projects (genres, music spaces) that you’d like to explore more of? What are the projects you’d love to work on most, if you’re not already? 

    Scoring for feature films definitely ticks off a lot of boxes. Being able to tell a complete story musically, the experimentation period at the outset, and condensed format compliments my personality type.  Certainly a darker dramatic series like Severence, True Detective or Ozark where I could craft pieces that evolve with the characters over a season would be fulfilling in a new way.  It would be nice to spend time with characters a little longer and evolve with them further. I’m currently recording my first feature film score with a 55pc orchestra in Bratislava and we just wrapped day 1. Now I have the unique problem of figuring out how to bring in full orch for all future projects!

  7. There are so many wonderful aspects of the music making process (and respectively, challenges that can also arise). What are some of your favourite parts of this process? What have been some obstacles you’ve had to face and overcome along the way? Additionally, have you found that your creative process has evolved over time, or has it really stayed fairly consistent from the get-go? 

    The experimentation that happens at the beginning of a project and the “aha” moment when a theme is discovered are my favourite parts of the creative process. The approach completely depends on the story and collaboration with the director, so it varies from one production to another. Sometimes it’s about finding a tone or a palette to start, other times it’s melodically driven with traditional instruments so it really depends on what the project calls for. The jumping off point is always different. Any evolution to my creative process can be attributed to how open and adaptable I am to responding to the unique demands of each project. There’s also a lot of self discovery that happens in the whole process and over the years I’ve learned to listen to myself and trust what comes out, as opposed to trying to sound like something or someone that isn’t true to me.

  8. You live in Toronto (fellow Torontonian!) but I also know you travel sometimes for work. What are your thoughts on the Toronto scene, and the way it impacts your creative process and/or career overall? 

    There’s an incredible community of composers in Toronto who get together frequently through the Screen Composers Guild of Canada, Canadian Film Centre, or who just hang out to talk shop. You don’t realize how important it is until you become a full-time “studio hermit.” Just knowing there are others putting in long hours, going through similar challenges and being able to share solutions is invaluable. There is always something to take away, even if it’s the fact that somebody else knows what you’re up to in the wee hours of the morning for a 9am delivery.

  9. Do you have any recent or current projects that you are especially excited about – and if so, are you able to share any particulars with us?

    Yes! I’m currently in Bratislava recording a 55pc orchestra for a feature drama called “A mame, co see chceli” for a Slovakian-Canadian co-production about the 1993 peaceful separation of Czechoslovakia. It’s my first feature film score with a live orchestra conducted by Tono Popovic and we are recording in the historic Slovak Radio Building.

    Check out the AWFC profile page for Steph

    Interview by Alexandra Petkovski

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