'Twenties' Composer Amanda Jones On Making Music For Ava DuVernay, Lena Waithe And Robin Thede [Interview]
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Awards , Television , Film , Interviews , Features

'Twenties' Composer Amanda Jones On Making Music For Ava DuVernay, Lena Waithe And Robin Thede [Interview]

Amanda Jones has had a whirlwind year, including winning an S&A RISING Award for her musical composition work in film and television. The documentary short she composed for, St. Louis Superman, has just been named to the 91st Oscars shortlist for a nomination.

Her pathway as a composer started out when she made a partial transition from her indie rock band, The Anti-Job to film and television composition. Throughout her career, she has learned the business of composition from notable composers like Hans Zimmer, Henry Jackman and John Powell. She has worked on popular TV series such as Orange Is the New Black, Nashville, Dear White People and Greenleaf.

All of this has led to where she is now, composing for Lena Waithe's Twenties, Robin Thede's A Black Lady Sketch Show, Ava DuVernay's Cherish the Day and Sujata Day's film, Definition Please. Other film credits include Andre Hörmann's Ringside, which premiered this year at the Berlin Film Festival and short docs like Sami Khan and Smriti Mundhra's St. Louis Superman and Robin Cloud's Passing: A Family in Black and White, both of which premiered at this year at the Tribeca Film Festival.

In a conversation with Shadow And Act, the RISING Award winner divulged how her life has changed since winning the award, the state of the industry for Black composers and how it's changing for the better.

Congratulations on winning a S&A RISING Award 2019. How does it feel to win this recognition?

Amanda Jones: It feels pretty amazing. To be honest, when I first received it earlier this year, I couldn't believe I was in the same room with Barry Jenkins and Logan Browning and all these other amazing, talented folks. I was really nervous that day but it is a beautiful honor and I'm really grateful.

Looking back at this year, that was the moment, the precipice. I feel like Shadow And Act had more of an insight into my own trajectory than I did. Since then, I've done a feature film with Sujata Day, I'm working with Ava DuVernay on her new series, Cherish the Day. I did A Black Lady Sketch Show for HBO, I did Twenties with Lena Waithe on BET. It was just back to back. I did an ad campaign for Nike, so it's kind of like this year was the breakout year. I've done things with Apple TV and Adult Swim, so I'm grateful, it feels good. I feel much more sure of myself, much more than I did earlier this year.

You've done so many projects including the ones you've mentioned. What does it feel like to be able to work with these big names in Hollywood?

So much has happened so quickly! It feels like the natural next step. It always felt incremental and working with Ava now feels like the natural progression of things; It doesn't feel awkward. I'm at an interesting place in life, there's been so much going on in my life. I got married this year in July. There's been so much happening that I've been numb in a really good way. I've just been keeping my head down and churning through as much work as I can. I'm trying not to think of it too much because I feel like I'm walking on a tightrope. But it's exciting and so far, so good. The work is great and the music is beautiful and everyone's happy. I'm just happy to have made it through some kind of door to be on this side of my career and it's all just beginning. Now I'm just trying to make sure everything's perfect, no mistakes.

A lot of the big names we know in the composing world are mostly white men. What do you think about the landscape for composers of color? When could we have Black composers who are as recognized like Hans Zimmer and John Williams?

I'm part of this group called the Composers Diversity Collective. It's cofounded by myself and Michael Abels. I feel like he's going to be the next Hans Zimmer. He's done the music for Get Out and all the music for Jordan Peele. I think he's working with other directors and other studios also. He's the sweetest guy and he's doing things at such an extraordinary level and I think he will be comparable within the next year or two. We have this collective and we host mixers at different studios to help fix the "pipeline problem" with hiring and we use our contacts to help our other fellow composers. We've even held a mixer at Netflix. Hopefully, we'll do other mixers at other studios, but it was an extraordinary experience. It's [comprised of] composers of all ethnicities, it's awesome. There's probably 70 of us in Los Angeles but there are so many more of us joining all over the world. So, I've gotten spoiled interacting with a lot of composers of color.

But to answer your question, people want to work with who they know and historically, people in a position of power have been white and they draw on their own community to staff their projects. It's up to that person who's hiring, if their community is diverse, it's likely that the people they stack their projects [with] are a multitude of people, voices, ethnicities. But if their community is very insular and they're drawing on a very tight group of friends of a specific ethnicity, if it's white, then it's likely the entire production is going to be white. [But] it's changing, which is beautiful.

I can definitely attribute my success to African American creators caring about who the composer is, who's in post-production, what are the editors like. I know Ava DuVernay is very committed to it [and] Lena Waithe [and] Robin Thede.  I think the head of every department was a Black female. It's only recently where I've experienced the crossover [like] at Apple TV, where subjects of the work I'm working on are white. The same with Adult Swim. It's great that people are opening up their community and the ways that they find creatives for their shows. They're not pigeonholing people or thinking I can only do hip hop because of the way I look. I think it's definitely changing and I can feel the shift happening. I can see myself being less and less pigeonholed each day. I have such an open palette for music, so I'm excited to be staffed on projects that allow me to run wild with the things I can do musically.

Though there are some differences, film music has sounded roughly similar for the past few decades. Do you think with more voices at the table there will be a different identity coming into the composition world?

The fact that we have a term called "film music" is weird. It's a Hollywood film sound. That's bad. Basically it means that film music is not creative, and there's been a sound in Hollywood that's existed for quite a while. But yeah, I think with the infusion of Black voices or otherwise, the palette will change. People are drawing on their backgrounds and the whole world. I feel like if you start hiring people from literally all over the world, you'll get these cool ideas and the tone will shift. I feel like you'll have more creativity.

Even if the directors are all saying the same thing--"I want to be emotive in such and such way"--it's up to you as the composer to interpret what the emotion means. We all carry our own history and our baggage and emotions and pain and our story with us and as we interpret what certain emotions mean, it's different for everyone. So I feel like the more varied the voices are interpreting the emotion, the more you're going to have a varied film music palette that comes about. I'm definitely hopeful and excited and the music will change for the better. I can hear it changing, which is nice.

Films like Black Panther and The Lion King have had accompanying albums curated by Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé. Do you think that an influx of hip-hop into film scores will help change the musical landscape of film?

Yeah, I definitely do. A big part of my sound is actually using producer elements in a score. I use something from Native Instruments called Machine, which is typically for DJs and producers. I definitely have infused elements like a swell you would hear in a Rihanna song. It's an ethereal texture, and I can definitely use that in a film score. That's what's so cool about a film score, you can use whatever libraries and tools that you have to create the emotion you want to convey. I like it a lot because people love hip hop music and if you're hearing some of those elements in a score then I think people will really enjoy it because it sounds familiar but unique enough because we haven't heard it in the film scoring sonic palette.

I also think contemporary music can definitely dictate what film scores sound like. I feel like in the '60s and '70s and '80s, you definitely hear the rock band in film scores. Or, when thinking about films like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Ennio Morricone's [soundtrack had] the electric guitars and that was the Western sound. And then you'd have operatic singers on top of that [sound]. I definitely think the music of the time will dictate what film music will sound like because you want it to be relevant.

Do you have any advice for other Black aspiring composers who want to get in the industry and to where you are in your career?

I feel like being social is important and being present in the creative community is very important. I also think t's also really important to authentically connect with the type of art you want to work on. If there's a director you really admire, you have to authentically connect with their work. Reach out to them. I'm not afraid to reach out to people--a lot of the gigs I've gotten have been from messaging someone on Instagram or emailing them or seeing their contact info on IMDbPro. Just don't be afraid to reach out to people you admire and you intensely care about their art. It's not about you; its about how you'd love to be a part of what they're creating in the future.

And study your craft. That's first and foremost. Make sure you practice. Make sure you do as many short films as you can. I'm always doing short films. I care about the next generation of directors and I always take the time to do a short film because that person will probably be pretty big in the next four years. Stack your deck with up-and-coming directors, middle-tier directors and go for the gold, see if you can reach out to the Lenas of the world, the Avas of the world. See what happens, see if you can help make their next project because you never know. And continuously write. That's why I don't mind doing demos at this point in my career because even if you don't get the gig, you have something cool you can add to your reel. So continuously adding to your visual composer reel and your music reel on Spotify or Soundcloud or any kind of playlist. Practicing your instrument, continuously writing scores for shorts or otherwise, do the demo--hopefully, it's paid--and be social. I think it's important. Find a line of communication that works best for you. You can only get so far from behind your computer, so you want to be present and support the work that inspires you.

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