- Do you prefer writing songs or score?
I don’t prefer either one. I’ve been a songwriter for as long as I can remember. I’ve been fortunate to have had my songs covered by several artists. My move to Los Angeles from Philadelphia was for the express purpose of writing songs and score for television and film, which had been my dream forever. As a child, I was fascinated by the music in Twilight Zone, and years later was able to work with an incredible musician who’d written and played on a few episodes. I loved jingles as well, and for a time, wrote and produced the animated ads that appeared before the shows on the WB network. I also wrote main titles for two shows on ABC. Little by little, I was able to score a scene here and there for other composers, and eventually was hired to score shows and films on my own. Music can give immeasurable heart to a film, and it’s always an honor to be chosen to do that. I take that position very seriously, but never so much that I lose my sense of humor.
You have experience in several forms of music. Do you have a preference in style?
I love a vast array of musical forms and styles: classical, jazz, pop, r&b, folk, bluegrass. There are bits of all of these informing my sense of musical self. When working on a project, my music is in service to the film, show, or particular album. Whatever personal preference I have takes a back seat to the project. It was so much fun scoring “Any Day Now” because there were time travels between the mid ’60’s and present day, that opened up a huge stylistic and instrumental palate.
I’ve done work on short films that were vastly different in styles musically. One, called Reign, was situated in Iraq. It was a love story between an American soldier and Iraqi woman. I had fun using instruments, harmonies and time signatures of that part of the world.
My scoring is always organic. I put an intimate chamber group together and only when needed are synths used to enlarge the group sonically. The main sound is real.
- How do you approach working on a film or television project?
After meeting with the showrunner and/or director/ producer to narrow down a preferred genre, sound, and instrumentation, I try to become a chameleon and jump into the music as an actor would a role, watching each scene for its “heartbeat and breath”. If my internal harmonic sense peeks through, and the showrunner or director goes for it, it’s icing on the cake. But if not, I don’t push for my take on things. Writers call it “kill your darlings”. It’s a very important lesson for a composer/ songwriter as well. I’ve learned over the years how to discuss musical nuance with people in film/tv production who may have little or no knowledge of musical theory or terminology. It all comes down to feelings emotions and how that can be conveyed musically.
You have worked with songwriting collaborators, such as Denise Donatelli. What are the challenges of collaboration and what are the benefits?
Music is a very personal expression of who I am, what I hear, how I hear it, and how I pass that information along. It’s sort of like playing ‘whispering down the lane’ with myself. So it’s incredibly fun to be able to share that experience with others. I write music and lyrics, but sometimes am asked to do one or the other. The challenge of collaboration is diplomacy. When I’m approached with half a song and asked to finish, I’m looking at it from my own head and heart. How do I express what I’ve been asked to do, lyrically? Or if given lyrics, what do they say to me musically? The key is to find the commonality between the collaborators. It can be a profound connection between creative people, especially in music.
Another benefit of collaboration is the opportunity to use humor. I’ve had the pleasure and honor of working with Sandra Tsing Loh on several of her projects as a songwriter.
I wrote and performed both music and lyrics for her live Science show that workshopped for KPCC. Modeled on Prairie Home Companion, these shows were solely Science-themed, and my songs dealt with whatever story was discussed that particular show.
- What advice would you give a younger Susan?
I guess maybe, “be a man”? I’m joking, but at the time it probably would have made it easier to break in. That said, I never would have traded my approach to writing, which in a lot of ways is pretty gutsy. Actually, I’ve had quite a bit of good opportunity thrown my way as a female musician, considering when I arrived in Los Angeles (1980’s). As time passes, it appears the gender aspect of the work matters less and less. And hallelujah to that! I would tell her, have confidence. Go talk to that producer, this director, meet with these people. Ask until they say yes.
- What projects would you really enjoy working on in the future?
If I have a musical bucket list, it would include two things:
- I would love the opportunity to score more independent film and documentary. They’re currently favorites to watch. Diving in musically would be a joy for me.
- Working on a musical comedy for theater. I haven’t done a long form in that genre, and it would be a dream come true!
Interview by Valerie Manahan
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