Darren Fung is one of Canada’s most accomplished music composers

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Darren Fung. Photography provided by CW3PR Inc.

Based in Los Angeles, Darren Fung is a talented, award-winning music composer. Born in Canada with strong Chinese roots, Mr. Fung’s music is a medley of the East and the West. His love of music began at the age of three and led him to become an accomplished composer. After a lifetime of living in Canada, Darren Fung moved to the United States to create music for film and TV in a new location.

Fung has a colorful, diverse, and nostalgic music style with a powerful yet gentle effect on the viewer’s senses. “With over 100 composition credits to his name, Darren Fung is seminally gifted and a highly influential composer who is well-respected in the TV and Film scoring worlds. Fung is one of Canada’s most accomplished composers, thrice nominated for a Canadian Screen Award. Most recently, he scored The Great Human Odyssey, a mini-series that explores the roots of humankind. The project opened to widespread critical acclaim in Canada, winning the 2016 Canadian Screen Award for Best Music and receiving a nomination from the International Film Music Critics Association. (The Great Human Odyssey premieres in the U.S. this fall on PBS.) Darren utilizes an epic, large-scale orchestra and choir to bring this special’s score to life, replete with memorable melodies and unique musical colors. His diverse credits also include a recreation of Canada’s second national anthem (the beloved Hockey Theme) for CTV and TSN and the theme music for CTV’s flagship morning news show Canada AM. Additionally, Darren scored Bell Canada’s Orchestra advertisement spot (for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics), which was voted as Canada’s top commercial by readers of The Globe and Mail. Darren’s feature and short film scores have been heard at prestigious film festivals around the world, including Toronto, Cannes, and Sundance. After Fung studied at McGill University and worked full-time as a composer in Montreal, he moved to Los Angeles and is represented by Maria Machado of Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency and CW3PR.”

In 2016, Mr. Fung spoke with local Texas writer, Nicolette Mallow, to discuss the bird’s-eye view of his life lived in music and how he came to be in California with his wife and daughter after many years in Canada.

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Darren Fung and orchestra. Photography provided by CW3PR Inc.

Nicolette Mallow: Will you please tell me a little about when your love for music began and when you learned to play an instrument?

Darren Fung: I started playing piano when I was 3. Music has always been part of my life. After piano, I dabbled a little in violin and then the saxophone. I loved trying new instruments and playing the music in my head.

NM: Yes, I read in other interviews that you tend to create music with a large-scale orchestra. That makes sense, given you learned to play so many instruments… What number of instruments (musicians) entails a large scale orchestra?

DF: A large scale orchestra can be 40, 50, 60 people. Even 90-100. For me, that means anything over 40. Over 40 is a pretty big orchestra…Now, do I prefer to work with a recording group? I also like the challenge of not having a large scale orchestra and doing other things that are not orchestral.

NM: Your online biography states that you “caught the composing bug at age 15” when you wrote a piece for Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s Young Composer Project … Did you always know that music was your life calling?

DF: Yes, and no. I always loved music, but at the age of 15, I knew I wanted to be a composer. But it was hard for my family at first to accept that I am good at this, good enough to make a career of it. My mother is a Chinese tiger mom, and she wanted the best for me growing up. She had a preset idea of what my future looked like. She wanted me to pursue something more secure than music. Music or a creative career was too risky. So, when I first began music school instead of pursuing a life as a lawyer… it was hard for her. Culturally there were some conflicts and it would’ve been easier and more accepted had I chosen to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. My mother is very supportive now and she is very happy for me that I chose music.

NM: I understand the family and cultural aspects of what you just said. My Latina mother was most displeased, if not furious when I said I was going to Savannah College of Art & Design 12 years ago instead of Barnard or Stanford to be a psychologist or doctor. But she, too, is now very happy for me that I chased my artistic dreams.

DF: Yes it can be hard at first to choose your own path.

NM: In regards to music composition, what are some of the most distinct differences between Canada and the US?

DF: The most significant diff between the two is that Canada is more comparable to the Indie film scenes—the budgets are not that big. The AFM calls them low-budget films because we are lucky to get around a $3 million budget. We are supposed to do more with less. However, since we are so close to the states, we have a lot of similar musical influences.

NM: Reading about your career, I saw the phrase “musical colors” mentioned in writing. Can you tell me a little about what musical colors means to you?

DF: Instruments or sounds are our palette. Composers (and musicians) can kind of make whatever we want out of it. Musical colors are why I think I love orchestra so much because there is so much available—so many colors and moods to portray. Not to say other genres of music don’t have that. But I am a classically trained musician, and to be able to take that stuff and play away. It’s endless and I never know what will happen and I love it.

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Darren Fung and orchestra. Photography provided by CW3PR Inc.

NM: Were you nervous or excited to recreate the 2nd national anthem for Canada?

DF: Both. When I recreated the 2nd national anthem for hockey night in Canada, we wanted to pay homage to the original, but with a whole bunch of orchestrations and differentiators. For the longest time, it was a really iconic song in Canada. Everyone knows the song and it’s equivalent to Major League Baseball’s classic tune “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”…At the time I was working with CPC and they wanted to make it their own. I was 26 at the time and I didn’t want the country hating me as the guy who guy who f*cked up the hockey thing… However, I was thrilled to be part of the project. And at 26 I got to work with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and specific members who the company hired to play. So to be given that budget and content for a major broadcast was amazing.

NM: The Great Human Odyssey sounds amazing. What was it like writing for this TV show?

DF: It was 85 minutes of music in 7.5 weeks. There was material to score but we didn’t start writing till 7.5 weeks before we recorded… Niobe Thompson (Producer and Director of The Great Human Odyssey) sort of talked about bringing me on board as he was shooting. Almost two years before he started editing, I saw some raw footage. And I have to admit that when I first met up with Naobi, there was not a lot of money and I was not really sure the resources were available to create what he wanted with an orchestra and choir. But then he showed me the first warrior of this man jumping across ice flows. Drone shots across ice flows, and the backdrop was spectacular. The costumes, everything was visually stunning. And I realized we needed to get the music to match the greatness of the film… Fast forward in time and he then needed trailers. Then suddenly later on I am going to Prague so I can record a couple of cues to cut… Fast forward to the final count down where we are talking frame by frame, intentions, character and motivations; figuring out the music for each character and each scene.  

NM: Do you have any hobbies that you enjoy to keep you balanced outside work?

DF: Hockey and rowing are my two hobbies. Often I get up at stupid-o-clock in the morning around 5 A.M. to go rowing before work. What I love about hockey and rowing is that it’s two completely unrelated things to music. I meet people who aren’t in the business and it’s not a sedentary job. I get to move around and I get to blow off a lot of steam. I keep biz cards on me, just in case, but I like that it’s totally separate from work. Honestly I worry about the day where I might have to give one or both of them up… I find so much sanity and comic relief in hockey and rowing. Im horrible at both… but trying to get physical activity is necessary. And it’s fun to go have a beer with the guys sometimes. 

NM: Are there any genres in film or television that you would like to write for that you’ve yet to work on? 

DF: I’ve been lucky so far and enjoyed all my projects. But I would like to write for sci fi or opera. I haven’t yet had the chance to do either. Also, Animation is something else I am interested in. I like changing things up and I just finished up on an installation work for a gondola ride in Banff. So long as it’s a great project with great music: count me in! I am always looking for new projects and I came to LA to establish myself here.

For more information about Darren Fung please read his online bio. And to hear many songs or tracks from Fung’s music portfolio, please check out his SoundCloud page.

Composer Pieter Schlosser enriches television, film and video games with his musical vocabulary

Pieter Schlosser
Pieter Schlosser. Photography provided by CW3PR.

Pieter Schlosser is an award-winning television, film and video game composer known most recently for scoring NBC’s hit show You, Me and the Apocalypse. Based in Los Angeles, Schlosser grew up traveling the world with his family, enriching his musical vocabulary with each new culture and each new country.

This summer Pieter Schlosser was interviewed by a writer in Texas, Nicolette Mallow, to discuss topics like how world-traveling influenced his music, the differences between scoring for the UK versus the US, what lead him to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston and other miscellany.

Pieter spent a great deal of his childhood traveling, living in Guatemala, Austria, Panama and Costa Rica. He attended Berklee College of Music in Boston before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in television, film and video game composing. A multi-instrumentalist and polyglot, Pieter has had his work featured in the music of Grammy-nominated world music group Editus. Last year, he worked with the Costa Rica National Symphony Orchestra, arranging a full orchestral performance of his original music. In 2014, he won the ASCAP award for Top Television Series for his work on Freeform’s The Lying Game. Pieter Schlosser also composed the music for Lifetime’s The Client List and provided additional music for ABC’s Resurrection and The Astronaut Wives Club. Pieter worked on Desperate Housewives and is credited with bringing the signature Latin musical styling to the show. Currently, he is composing the music for the highly anticipated IMAX film, In Saturn’s Rings. He is also scoring the major motion picture, What About Love, starring Sharon Stone and Andy Garcia, set for release in 2017. Pieter worked in Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions studio for 5 years alongside many high profile composers on various projects, such as Friday The 13th and the Transformers film and video game franchise. In addition to Transformers: The Game, Pieter demonstrated his versatility by providing additional music for some of the most popular video games of this generation with Gears of War 2 & 3 and The Sims 3.”

Nicolette Mallow: Will you tell me about your childhood background in music and how growing up in so many countries influenced your career?

Pieter Schlosser: Music was always around when I was growing up and it was always playing in the house. My mom played the piano; it was an old upright piano that ended up in our home. My dad was always a big fan of music, too. Dad loved to play jazz. My mom favored classical. The love of music was inherited from my parents. When I was in Guatemala, I didn’t play an instrument. I just listened to music and sometimes I even stole my mom’s tapes and records. When we moved to Austria, I was eight and that’s when I began to start playing the piano. There is a mecca of music in Austria. Everyone plays music. I wanted to join the choir and that’s where it all really began. After spending three years in Austria, my family and I moved to Panama. I kept singing in the choir. It was a Swedish choir in Panama and we sang around Christmas time. There was one person who played saxophone and I thought it looked cool and so I began lessons. Then we moved to Costa Rica and I made a friend with someone on the island and I joined band and played jazz. As I became obsessed with music, my grades began dipping… I loved moving around the world, even if my brother didn’t like it so much. My dad worked for BHL and that’s why we moved around the globe so much.

NM: Did you have a favorite place out of all the countries you and your family resided? Was there one musical style or culture that inspired you the most, or did they all equally fulfill your musical talents?

PS: It’s hard to say because, as a kid, it was pretty normal having all these different cultures and musical styles around me. I can’t say or pinpoint one thing that influenced me most. Growing up in Guatemala, Austria, Panama, and Costa Rica is like having a little book of musical notes and rhythms that I can use—and the combination of all these things is a nice balance that enriches my craft.

NM: What lead you to Berklee College of Music in Boston?

PS: While I was in Costa Rica, the Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center had a series of Universities do a Master class followed by a concert. Berklee College of Music in Boston was always there, including many other amazing programs from Miami and Texas. At one point I called or wrote a letter “Hey can u send me a Berklee sticker with the logo?” And I put it on my saxophone case. Suddenly I decided that’s where I wanted to go. It was the only college I applied to and I sort of felt a calling to enroll. Austria was a back-up to study jazz, but I was set on Berklee. So I applied and sent in an audition tape to Admissions and eventually I was offered a partial scholarship to attend. I accepted.

NM: How did your professional career in film and television begin?

PS: After college, I moved to LA. “The Record Plant” (a recording studio) in Hollywood was my first gig and I was a runner: food orders, trash, coffee and other office errands. During that time I met a scoring mixer who works with a ton of composers including Hans Zimmer. At the time he was working on the remake of “Italian Job”. Eventually we reconnected, and he hired me for little things in the studio. I got to attend a scoring session which was amazing. Ultimately, through him and my contacts with Berklee: I became an intern at Hans Zimmer. There’s no other place like working at Remote Control Productions. Anyway, that’s when I met Steve Jablonsky and later on Jablonsky hired me for “Transformers”. And then I started working on other film & TV projects.

NM: What is one of the most significant variations between scoring for television in the US versus music composition the UK?

PS: When we scored the UK version of “You Me and the Apocalypse” there are no commercial breaks. In the US version of the show, it’s 45 mins divided into 5 acts. Most shows in the US have commercials breaks, excluding HBO or Netflix.

NM: Have you always liked video games?

PS: Yes, I like video games. When I was younger, I enjoyed watching my brother play video games much more than I wanted to play myself. I am not entirely sure why I didn’t enjoy participating, but I preferred to watch.

NM: In regards to The Costa Rica National Symphony Orchestra, what original music of yours did they play? Is there a link or audio to hear this performance?

PS: The music community in Costa Rica is relatively small, so everyone knows each other. I became friends with members of a band called ‘Editus.’ In 1998, they were putting an album together titled ‘Calle Del Viento’ and released in 1999. I was just starting to write music then and I dared to pitch them the first piece of music I ever wrote. They loved it and included it in their album! Fast forward 16 years to 2015 and I got an e-mail saying they would be putting on a concert over three nights of that very album but this time, playing with the Costa Rica National Symphony. They asked if I’d make an orchestral arrangement of the piece. You can find the original recording of this piece called ‘El Sendero Menos Caminado’ (or ‘The Road Less Travelled,’ which is a line in a Robert Frost poem called ’The Road Not Taken’). The orchestral piece recorded in 2015, I believe, is currently being mastered and prepared for release. The song can be found on iTunes and Spotify.

NM: Now that you’ve obtained success and first-hand experience within the industry, do you have any advice or helpful insights for other aspiring composers?

PS: The best bet when it comes to writing music to picture, whether its film or television, the best route is to find some sort of mentorship with another composer so you can hopefully be getting paid while learning on the job. I wish there were a more solid answer. But I think it’s different for everyone and you have to figure it out as you move forward. It’s important to remember that there is not one way or one path to success in this field. Just remain passionate and even stubborn to your craft, but keep a smile. It’s tough but hang in there and you’ll persevere.

For more information about Pieter Schlosser, please visit his website at www.pieterschlosser.com. Schlosser also has a SoundCloud page that features various tracks of his music.

Roc Chen: Music Composer and Asian Creative brings cultures together around the world with the magical power of music

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Roc Chen. Photography provided by CW3PR.

Roc Chen is a Sichuan-born, award-winning composer who has created music for film and gaming. Recognized within the U.S. and China, Chen’s music has the power and the beauty to bring cultures together from around the world, which is no easy task. His film roster includes “Chinese Zodiac” with Jackie Chan, “Forbidden Kiss” and the Chinese adaptation of “Everybody’s Fine” (American adaptation ft. Robert DeNiro). Roc also partnered with DreamWorks to create music for the film “Kung Fu Panda 3” and his music is present in the award-winning, internationally broadcasted documentary TV series “A Bite of China.” Chen’s video game work even dabbles into “World of Warcraft” and “God of War” orchestrasas well as the “Might and Magic” series and his latest work underway with “Prince Adventures.” Recently partnering with Danny Elfman to bring music to Disney Shanghai’s newest ride, Alice’s Maze; Roc Chen’s music brilliantly celebrates the fusion of the American storyline of Alice in Wonderland with Chinese culture native to the Shanghai location.

This summer Roc Chen was interviewed by Nicolette Mallow. The two discussed his background in music, technology, and the power of music and how it can feel like time traveling. Mallow also inquired about the challenges and rewards of merging Eastern and Western cultures for film, Disney, DreamWorks and much more. And Chen opened up about how his music can be like an invisible, magic mirror that reflects everything inside the listener’s heart. The written interview proceeded as follows.

Nicolette Mallow: Will you please tell me about your background in music? Did you always know that music composition was your life calling? When did you begin to play music and write music? As a child, what did music feel like?

Roc Chen: When I was a kid, sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night humming the melody from “The Godfather,” and I thought to myself, “Maybe I should be a film composer when I grow up!” Like many kids, I learned to play classical piano at the age of 4, but unlike many kids, I loved to keep the sustain pedal down to create a bigger reverberation (just like in film scores). And, of course, my piano teacher would always get mad at me for doing that. I’ve always known music, especially film music – it’s my life calling. However, I spent my college life in what is considered a Chinese Stanford (University of Science and Technology of China). We had a large and great orchestra band there and the conductor asked me to be the assistant conductor, so I’ve had the chance to learn from each and every different instrument – not from a book but from a real orchestra band. Later on I also obtained a Master’s Degree in Composition from the Conservatory of Music. I consider myself pretty lucky to have a background in both music and technology!

NM: Art has the power to take us places, particularly music. Music can take listeners back in time within seconds. Music can evoke feelings or fantasies within us and it’s almost like time-traveling… What do you feel are the most powerful components of music that allow us to transcend time, space and imagination?

RC: All the components of music such as melody, harmony, counterpoints are powerful enough to allow us to transcend time, space and imaginationbut personally I think the most powerful one is the abstract part within the music. Pop songs take us into a specific world because the lyrics/words are quite specific and straight-forward. But instrumental music such as film scores without any lyrics or words are abstract, so it takes people to their own and unique places, to the different secret places deep within each person’s heart. This is also the beauty of scores. Film scores, though there are specific picture/scenes synced with it, can allow us to re-create those scenes and characters in our own way when we hear music outside of the cinema. It’s like everyone is a director and everyone directing his own version of that film in his brain. This is the beauty of film scoring. And of course, there are certain skills and ways to evoke those feelings or fantasies in the way of composition.

There’s a music piece of mine, “Deep in Their Hearts,” originally composed for the most renowned documentary in China called “A Bite of China Season 2”. It has moved nearly a billion people in China and around the world. I tried to tenderly and beautifully play the piano with a melancholy and nostalgic melody. It was performed by beautiful strings, woodwinds, with some abstract inside harmony, fine orchestration and counterpoint. The result is this music cue, which has moved lots of people and has surpassed pop songs to reach the top of the Chinese billboard. Thousands of fans came to my Chinese Twitter to express their feelings hearing this music to me and it’s actually quite interesting to read those comments. Some people say it reminds them of their childhood loneliness; some say it reminds them of some moving moments in that documentary; some people say it makes them cry with happiness. Some people say the woodwinds in this cue are funny and playful. It’s all different – and I feel like my music is like a mirror – each person saw and found their secret place deep in their heart by hearing this magical mirror.

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Roc Chen. Photography provided by CW3PR.

NM: What are some of the distinct differences between Eastern and Western music styles pertaining to film?

RC: Well, this is a little bit of a huge topic that I could talk about for days and write a book about. The scale of notes and melodies are different between the eastern and western worlds. Still, as for the relationship between music and film: I think one of the most distinct differences is the eastern style is more implicit while western style is more straight-forward and passionate. As I’ve been traveling between LA and Beijing a lot, I also found this difference within people’s behavior between the two countries. I guess one of the benefits of my goal as trying to be the most international composer is I can always get to know more about people from both worlds.

NM: Would you please share with me the challenges of integrating Eastern and Western music? Is it difficult to please both audiences?

RC: Many Hollywood films with pure western music are also enjoyed by lots of eastern audiences, but most of this music hardly reaches their hearts. So sometimes with only a few elements from the East can really move the eastern audience and ironically enough it moves the western audience too! Also, each film project is different and I’m always very careful with this challenge by always listening to the director’s ideas regarding the direction of the film. I always offer my suggestions and opinions on the direction of music but I would respect my director’s opinion because it is the film – a combination of many arts. It’s a whole project we’re going to present to the audience, not just music. There’s a project I did, “Heroes of Might and Magic VII,” the 7th game of the famous “Heroes of Might and Magic” video game franchise. I write some of the cues in a pure-western style and some cues have a little bit of East and West combined flavour. It all depends on the specific occasion.

NM: What lead you to work for Disney Shanghai?

RC: I guess people loved what I did for “Kung Fu Panda 3” as a Chinese music consultant, and then I got introduced to Disney by my friends at DreamWorks. But really, I think it’s because of my specialty of knowing both East and West which lead me to work for Disney Shanghai.

NM: In regards to Asian American crossroads within the entertainment industry – how did you begin to infuse the American storyline of “Alice in Wonderland” with Chinese culture native to the Shanghai location of Disney?

RC: First of all, it’s always teamwork! It is done by Danny Elfman, myself and another beautiful lady from Disney Imagineer. We put Chinese lyrics such as the translation of “Alice Are You Lost” and other lyrics written initially by Danny into the melody and make sure it really sounds great in Chinese. A lot of times, you’ll hear directly translated songs sounding very, very weird after translation. This requires a lot of experience of the Chinese culture and customs along with musical experience of the tone, pitch and rhythm of each note and its relationship between other notes. We tried many different ways to avoid a common phenomenon in Chinese music which is called “Dao Zi,” meaning the pitch of the notes will not violate or conflict with the tone of the Chinese words. I also had my female choir friends at Beijing singing the melody in Chinese beautifully while we remote-recorded them here in Los Angeles. We also did a lot of tweaks during the recording session.

NM: Do you have a favorite genre of music that you love to write? You are talented at composing many forms of music. But do you have a favorite style?

RC: Well… It’s really hard to pick one favorite style for me as I’ve worked in a lot of different styles and genres. But my favorite one is the one that best supports the film. As long as the form of music can do a good job to support the camera and film – that’s my favorite!

NM: Your career is most impressive and I have watched many of these films. However, I must admit that I have a fondness for “Kung Fu Panda”… Was that your first time writing music for animation? What did you enjoy most about this DreamWorks project?

RC: With this film, Hans Zimmer is the music composer while I worked alongside him as the Chinese music consultant. I offered direction and guidance on the Chinese instruments, Chinese musicians, the articulations and specialty of Chinese instruments. I also consulted on how to combine the instruments with Western orchestra music to the DreamWorks music team. I enjoyed turning the song of the last scene of “Kung Fu Panda 3” into Chinese and recording 40 amazing pop choir singers from Shanghai so when the film was released. Everyone could hear the final product of “animal” singing in Chinese happily in the end scene!

NM: Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to highlight?

RC: I just finished recording with an orchestra in Nashville for a new animation feature I scored, and I’m also going to score some new exciting feature films, animations and TV series but due to NDA reasons I’m sorry to say I can’t disclose them right now.

NM: Lastly, I grew up reading the book “Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan about four Chinese American immigrant families living in San Francisco. It’s a bittersweet, tragic and beautiful story that I still enjoy reading in adulthood. Since I was a child, I’ve always been fascinated by the history of China and I hope to visit someday. And of course when the movie came out I enjoyed the soundtrack. My point in mentioning “Joy Luck Club” is because for years, I’ve always wanted to learn more about the roots of classical music in China. But I never know where to start… Is there a book you’d recommend or a certain time period to study for those who want to learn about the roots of music in China?

RC: This is a great question! But frankly, I personally think the best book of Chinese music history or Chinese musicology is not in English but in the language of Chinese. Just like if you wanted to learn the western musicology: you’ll have to read that greatest musicology book in English. When I was in the Conservatory of Music, there was a school book called “History of Chinese music” which nearly covers all different kinds of music from pre-Qin Dynasty times, to Tang Dynasty music, to Qing Dynasty and even modern music of China. It also covers the musicology of a lot of different areas of China such as the music from the north of China – which is so different from the south of China. Music from HeBei Province is also so different from the music from the ShanXi province or the ethnic Uygur group in Xin Jiang areas. I have this book in my Beijing studio and I’ve always wanted to purchase an English-translated version to keep in my Los Angeles studio. Without any luck, I Googled and searched Amazon and didn’t find this book or any book just as great. Maybe some book publisher could work with me to translate a classic book into a new one in English. For those who want to learn about the roots of music in China, most people will probably say the Tang Dynasty is the best time period to study as it is one of the most brilliant time for all kind of arts. But I would personally recommend the eras around the Qin Dynasty such as the Three-Kingdom era, Warring States period, etc. If you research it and dive deep enough, you’ll see music in those ages are clearly fundamental not only to Chinese music, but also to the music of the Eastern world.

www.rocchen.com

SXSW interview with Director of ‘A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story’

nicolette mallow

BECK. Imagery provided by Go-Valley Films.

Directed by Keith Maitland, “A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story” held its world premiere at The Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas during SXSW on Mar. 17, 2016. The SXSW Music, Film and Interactive Conferences and Festivals is celebrating its 30th year. And this year Keith Maitland and his teammates debuted two films for the first time at SXSW 2016. “A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story” is a vibrant, intimate and engaging documentary covering 40 years and four decades of live music filmed for the beloved television show Austin City Limits (ACL). It’s a playful and raw story—an immaculate collection of great artists and their bands that took the stage at Austin City Limits. Director Keith Maitland shares the unique story of how ACL began with ‘janky’ sound equipment and soon morphed into the longest running music show in television history.

Artists that appear within the documentary include the following: Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Ray Vaughan, Beck, Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt, Ray Charles, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Guy, Jeff Bridges, Matthew McConaughey, Lyle Lovett, Sheryl Crow, Dolly Parton, Radiohead, B.B. King, Lighting Hopkins, The Avett Brothers, Talking Heads, Garth Brooks, Thao Nguyen and more. “Long-time producer of Austin City Limits, Terry Lickona, also transcends the TV show and gives audiences a front-row seat and backstage pass to the greatest performances of the longest running music show in television history.”

One prime reason “A Song For You” is described as the ‘ultimate backstage pass’ to Austin City Limits is because it entails endless video clippings from numerous performances filmed live at ACL alongside annotations of those who were there first-hand to experience the performances. The audience is granted the inside track regarding many ACL shows, off-stage and-onstage. Watching the artists and the production team work their magic. Feeling as if we were there, too. Hearing about the highs-and-lows of the non-stop adventure—’the flood of memories’—it’s an adrenaline rush to the heart and soul. Listening to the music, hearing the interviews and seeing it all unfold and come to life at once makes the documentary unforgettable.

Director Keith Maitland did an immaculate job of intertwining 40 years of history into 96 minutes. “A Song For You” opens with Dale Watson solely because he was the featured artist on the final episode filmed for Season 39 by Austin City Limits. Once Maitland sets the scene in present day, the Director takes us all the way back to the beginning when Willie Nelson played for ACL in 1974 and tells the story in a retrospective way. Obviously, music is the core of Austin City Limits: their universal love of music and their never-ending desire to showcase musical masters and the up-and-coming talent. The title of the film is also befitting because without the audience, Austin City Limits wouldn’t have thrived. The show needs the audience as much as we need the show. You won’t want this film to end it’s that exciting, but when it does. As the credits come to a close, there is a video of Ray Charles singing “Deep In The Heart of Texas”. Which is where it all began, deep in the hearts of Texans. Or at least those living in Texans even if born elsewhere… Many of the artists in the film are still living, others have died and passed on. But the story of Austin City Limits will live on forever.

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Imagery provided by Go-Valley Films.

Fortunately, this week the Director Keith Maitland met with Austin Examiner, Nicolette Mallow, at The Driskill Hotel to talk about “A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story” and how this delightful documentary came to fruition. Maitland also touched briefly on his other film, “Tower” that screened at the SXSW 2016 festival, too. [“Tower” is about the sniper in August of 1966 who rode the elevator to the top and held people hostage from The University of Texas Tower for 96 minutes, and at the end of his tyranny he’d taken 16 lives and wounded over three dozen.]

Nicolette Mallow: What compelled you to make a film about Austin City Limits? Do you simply love the show and what it stands for? Or do you have a strong affiliation with the city of Austin, too? I noticed both of your films pertained to Austin, Texas.

Keith Maitland: I attended The University of Texas at Austin from 1994 to 1998. Then I lived in NYC for ten years. About ten years ago, I moved back to Austin. And yes, live music is something I’ve always loved … In the 1990’s, I saw a few ACL tapings. I even sneaked backstage a few times. Once I snuck onto Willie Nelson’s tour bus in 1998. I had a knack for sneaking backstage. And that’s really what I wanted this documentary to capture: the energy and excitement of a wide-eyed fan… How this project came about is that I used to work at KLRU. And then a few years ago, a PBS Executive in DC called me about Austin City Limits and their 40th anniversary.

NM: How were you able to pick and choose a specific list of videos from an endless supply of ACL performances?

KM: That was no easy task and there was simply no way to honor all of the artistic talent that has premiered on the show. Austin City Limits has showcased around 800 performers and their bands. That’s a rough estimate and not an exact number, but my point is that it was impossible to include everyone in 96 minutes. I asked the production crew for a list of their favorites, and that was hard for them as well. So rather than pick out favorites, together, we oriented the set list around pivotal moments of the show.

NM: I noticed the documentary focused a great deal on Beck, Willie Nelson, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. All very big artists that are loved by Austin and around the globe… Personally I loved the footage in your film of Beck’s performance at ACL. And I actually went to middle school and high school with Willie’s nephew, Trevor. Any reason you chose those three to focus on?

KM: Beck is one of my absolute favorite artists and his presence in the film portrays the musical energy of present day. It was so cool to book an interview with him and quite rare for us to get the chance. Beck is very exclusive about interviews. I think it had been about ten years since Beck had consented to an on-camera documentary interview. So that was a huge honor and I know the only reason we were able to book it is because of Beck’s love for Austin City Limits… In regards to the other two artists. There are two statues of musicians in downtown Austin: Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Their names were paramount to the story because they have each cast a shadow over the legacy of this town… Plus, Willie Nelson is the first artist to perform for the show and he’s from Austin. Also, the producers of ACL absolutely adore those two. And I can tell they had a very personal friendship with Stevie Ray Vaughan and that the absence of his presence still stings the ACL family.

NM: Did you enjoy interviewing the production crew, and specifically (the producer) Terry Lickona, from the ACL crew?

KM: Yes. I did. One of my favorite parts of the film is at the end when we are asking all the employees at ACL about what lead them to their job and what their role in the company is… Terry Lickona is just a great person in addition to being a fantastic producer. He is also a live music devourer. And he is always looking to the future and ‘what’s next’ which keeps the show fresh and exciting. He is a people’s people and is constantly out there absorbing the latest news pertaining to music. Terry’s loyalty to the show— and the loyalty of the entire ACL crew—it’s astounding. They’re an amazing team. And come on, it’s a pretty sweet gig to work.

NM: My last question is about your other film “Tower”. The other day I saw “A Song For You” at the Violet Crown and I adore it. But I’ve yet to see this one. My question is, many people have made movies or written stories about the 1966 sniper that murdered people from the UT Tower on the UT campus. What defines your story from all the rest and makes it so unique?

KM: Yes a lot of people have covered this story. What makes my take on it unique is that I don’t focus on the sniper. I focus on the witnesses, the heroes and the survivors of the story. The sniper is obviously mentioned and he’s part of the story. But he’s almost like the shark in the movie “Jaws” and how we don’t really see him until the end. We just hear the music and know what’s coming. “Tower” is a story of humanity at its best and worst. We get to see the people who put their lives at risk to save another. We also get to hear accounts from those who were frozen in fear, unable to help, and the shame they felt for being paralyzed with fear. But it’s very touching to hear the stories. A lot of people risked their lives to come to the rescue of those bloodied, bleeding and wounded… There is a little bit of us all in these characters and I wanted people to be able to relate to the story. Not the sniper.

For more information regarding “A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story” please visit the official website at www.asongforyoufilm.com. To learn more about Austin City Limits (ACL) and to search upcoming performances: please check out their web page at www.acl-live.com.

Note: This article was originally published on Examiner.com in March 2016. 

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Composer Kerry Muzzey talks about writing the score for ‘The Seer’ at SXSW

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Kerry Muzzey. Photography by Simon Whiteside.

World-renowned modern and classical composer, Kerry Muzzey, wrote the musical score for “The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry”, a documentary directed by Laura Dunn and executive produced by Oscar winner Robert Redford and Oscar nominee Terrence Malick. “The Seer” held its world premiere on Mar. 12, 2016 at SXSW in Austin, Texas. Composer Kerry Muzzey and the crew of “The Seer” hit the red carpet several times to promote their newly released, award-winning documentary. The SXSW Music, Film and Interactive Conferences and Festivals is celebrating its 30th year. And this year “The Seer” was awarded the ‘Special Jury Recognition for Cinematography’ for SXSW 2016.

Music is a key element within the world of cinema and Kerry Muzzey knows how to set the scene, musically, with his innate gifts of sound and music. The score for “The Seer” is absolutely lovely and befitting to the story without dominating or overpowering the documentary. On Mar. 15, 2016, Kerry Muzzey consented to a phone interview with Austin Examiner, Nicolette Mallow, to talk more about creating the score of “The Seer” and his musical background that lead him to Hollywood and SXSW.

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A little more about the synopsis of the film in preface to the interview: “The story of ‘The Seer’ revolves around the divergent stories of several residents of Henry County, Kentucky who each face difficult choices that will dramatically reshape their relationship with the land and their community… Henry County, Kentucky, like many rural landscapes across America, has become a place of quiet ideological struggle. In the span of a generation, virtues of simplicity, land stewardship, local economies and rootedness to place have been supplanted by a capital-intensive model of industrial agriculture characterized by machine labor, chemical fertilizers, soil erosion and debt—all of which have frayed the fabric of communities. Writing from a long wooden desk beneath a forty-paned window, Wendell Berry has watched this struggle unfold, becoming one the most passionate and eloquent voices in defense of agrarian life… Filmed across four seasons in the farming cycle, ‘The Seer’ blends observational scenes of farming life, interviews with farmers and community members with evocative, carefully framed shots of the surrounding landscape. Thus, in the spirit of Berry’s agrarian philosophy, Henry County itself will emerge as a character in the film – a place and a landscape that is deeply interdependent with the people that inhabit it.”

Nicolette Mallow: When did you begin playing music? Would you mind telling me a little bit about your artistic background?

Kerry Muzzey: When I was 10 years old I started learning on classical organ. By the age of 11, I began writing music. But really it goes back even further than that because when I was 6 or 7 years old, I recall going to see “Star Wars”. Sitting there in the theater as a kid, when the film started rolling and the music came out of the speakers: it gave me goose bumps. I’ll never forget the feeling, even now. The music blew me away and all I could think about the rest of the day was “Star Wars” and its musical score. I have extreme reverence for John Williams. And I believe many composers can say that John Williams’ music was and is a true inspiration. Right after that movie I went out and bought the soundtrack on vinyl and listened to it on those giant headphones from the 1970’s. The music sounded like classical but it was more specific and inspiring. It was very intense and evocative for a child because it was focused and in conjunction with the picture… As a child I wanted to be a composer, a spy and an airline pilot. I dreamt of becoming many professions just like any little kid would. Yet I always kept coming back to music. My mother raised me entirely on classical and she told me that when I was in her womb: she played classical music for me and held the headphones next to her belly for 30 minutes a day for nine months.

NM: It seems as if you were destined to be a composer.

KM: Yes, and even though I started writing at the age of 11. It wasn’t until I turned 16 that my mother’s friend moved away and gave us their piano. I remember getting that piano and my family could not pull me away from it… Just the sound of a piano allured me. Complex piano compositions resonated with me so deeply even then. Because when you are playing a physical instrument: you can feel the hammers and strings inside its giant wooden case. It resonates in your heart and your hands. You can literally feel the sound as you’re playing music. It’s very powerful. That is around the time I began writing solo piano stuff. Playing the orchestra I heard inside my head. At the time, technology for music was not yet available to create an orchestra inside of a computer. So, it was a little different back then.

NM: I listened to the score you composed for “The Seer” in its entirety, twice. You wrote such beautiful music that compelled my mind to travel through time and feel nostalgic. The song “Daughter” struck a chord with me, in a good way… Was the music meant to be evocative? What is the biggest difference between writing music for a narrative feature versus writing a score for a documentary film?

KM: That is an awesome question. Writing music for a documentary was a challenge that took me quite a few tries to overcome. A narrative film is a completely different process than composing music for a documentary. Writing music for a documentary has to be subtle. The music cannot overpower the picture and it has to stay out of the way of the picture. The score cannot be traditional. For instance, a narrative feature film has a soundtrack of very specifically engineered music. It is written to make the audience feel something at that moment, so when the hero saves the world or the couple finally gets their big kiss: you expect the soaring strings. When making music for a documentary, if you’re too on the nose, or if you’re trying to punch it up too much, it can become a distraction. The audience that attends documentaries and is loyal to documentaries is also a highly intelligent crew. And you cannot use music to try and manipulate the audience into feeling a certain way. The music is simply there to beautify and assist the story as it unfolds in its own natural state.

NM: If you had to pick one song from the soundtrack of “The Seer”, which track encapsulates the spirit of the film? I’m curious to know which song is the beating heart of your composition.

KM: Yes, I can pick one. I believe it’s the sixth track and it’s a song called “Forty Panes”. It’s also the Director’s favorite (Laura Dunn). It’s a song about Wendell Barry and it has piano and cellos in the melody. It was magical to write and it kind of came out of nowhere. I was so in love with it that I actually got my cellist to record it before I even played it for Laura. Which is kind of dangerous because I am paying the cellist for his time. But I loved this cue so much. The way it resonates with the picture and how it struck a perfect balance… It’s the crux of everything and it’s beautiful… I sent the piece out to the Director and I was stalking my email waiting for Laura’s response. Two hours passed by and I feared the worst. And then her email arrived with a response, “I keep watching it over and over—and I kept crying every time I felt the music—and I don’t know why.” Right then, I knew that I got it right… The Director of “The Seer” is not only a good person, but she’s extremely smart and talented. She’s amazing and cool and I wanted her to love the soundtrack. Talking to her the other day, we spoke of that piece in particular as it being the high point in the films soundtrack: simple and quiet, but against the picture it can’t be anything else but exactly that… This wasn’t my first project with Laura Dunn, either. About eight years ago, Laura made a film, “The Unforeseen” about over development in-and-around Austin. The core of it predicted the housing crash a year prior to the fact. At the time she had licensed a few pieces of mine to use. Years later we reconnected and in this case she wanted me to score the entire film. Obviously I said yes and it’s been an amazing project. Laura and her team are so great at what they do.

NM: Do you have any upcoming projects that we can look forward to?

KM: Yes, I do have future projects. Presently I cannot say much because it hasn’t been formally announced yet. What I can say is that I am writing a full-length ballet for a full orchestra. And it premieres in London next May of 2017. This job sort of came out of left field. It’s a very heavy lift for me, it’s a huge challenge, but I am so excited to work with this choreographer and their innovative team. I couldn’t say ‘yes’ fast enough.

For more information regarding Kerry Muzzey or the movie, “The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry”: please visit www.kerrymuzzey.com or www.theseerfilm.com.

Note: This article was originally published on Examiner.com in March 2016. 

Stardust art legend David Bowie dies after his 69th birthday

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A mural of David Bowie in Brixton on January 11, 2016 within London, England. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images.

Yesterday the world lost an illustrious artist: David Bowie. After battling cancer in secret for 18 months, Starman David Bowie died on January 10, 2016 at the age of 69. Around the globe fans are mourning the loss and memorializing the life of their beloved Bowie.

Since the 1960’s, David Bowie illuminated and fascinated the world with his magnetic and cosmic career in the arts. Born in England on January 8, 1947, David Robert Jones—better known by his stage name David Bowie—soon become a universal icon. Bowie’s distinct presence and energetic life force permanently transcended the music, art and fashion industries with his unique sound, vision and style. David Bowie is also recognized by his many alter-personas that include the following: Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke, Major Tom, Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack, and Elephant Man. Partaking in various films as well, Bowie is notorious for his role as the Goblin King in the film Labyrinth which debuted in 1986.

On the day of Bowie’s 69th birthday—January 8, 2016—he released a final studio album titled Blackstar. A hauntingly beautiful album of seven songs, Blackstar almost reminds listeners of an artistic and modernized requiem. The Telegraph posted an article stating, “David Bowie’s final record was a carefully-orchestrated farewell to his fans, his producer has confirmed. Lazarus, released on the Bowie’s 69th birthday just two days before his death, opens with the lyrics: ‘Look up here, I’m in Heaven!’ Tony Visconti, the producer who worked with Bowie to complete his final album, has released a statement saying it was deliberately created and timed as a ‘parting gift’ for his fans.”

Even though David Bowie’s mortal life may have come to an end. Thankfully his spirit will live on forever within the art world and our hearts. Returning back to the stars that gleam in the galaxies above—David Bowie’s legendary artistic career will radiate eternally on planet earth.

Note: This article is originally published on Rank & Revue Feb. 2016.

Elvis Costello’s memoir: Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink

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Autograph by Elvis Costello.

Elvis Costello was the featured guest for an interview with Evan Smith at Book People in Austin, Texas on October 20, 2015. Recently, Costello wrote a memoir titled Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. This exclusive interview was part of his book tour. Entering the room with a light-colored hat, dark suit and vest, black-framed glasses, one gold ring on each hand and slick, black leather shoes: Elvis Costello descended the stairwell from the third floor to discuss the book and his life lived in music thus far. The entire second floor of Book People was filled with attendees and so many people were present that quite a few were listening in the back without a view of Elvis Costello; only able to hear voices echoing over the microphones. Fortunately I was able to grab a front row seat and sit on the floor.

Music is clearly the anthem of his life and the focus of his career. He’s been part of the industry over 40 years. The book is a collection of memoirs entailing his entire life, with a emphasis on his career. During the interview Elvis Costello answered numerous questions and mentioned various musical stories regarding Paul McCartney, The Beatles, T Bone Burnett, Tony Byrne, Jimmie Vaughan, and Jimi Hendrix. Reluctantly, he even rehashed the old SNL incident back in December 1977 that got him banned from the show for nearly 12 years. Additionally, he spoke of his favorite gigs played in Austin and the time they performed at the Armadillo Festival in 1978.

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To much delight, Costello was also very open and willing to share the more personal stories of his past about family, his love and lust for women, or the curse of memory. Costello mentioned that memory, and the fear of losing memory, were two strong factors that compelled him to write the book. He discussed the long process of writing his autobiography and how the process was simplified with the patient support of his wife through her assistance to help organize old memories. Many of his relatives, he said, suffered dementia and Costello didn’t want any memories stolen away in the event that time or health altered his mind. Unafraid to go behind-the-scenes and express life offstage, it was interesting to listen to him speak about how he’s changed over several decades from when he began his musical career as a young man in his 20’s until now in his 60’s. I wanted my stories to be told by me, in accuracy. I didn’t want them retold in a way that didn’t hold true to my life,” he stated to Evan Smith.

In regards to Elvis Costello’s past, the topic of family and his memories of childhood were predominant, reoccurring themes throughout the interview. Many old photographs of times past were presented on a large screen, even a heartfelt video of his father performing live on television and dancing on stage whilst singing “If I Had A Hammer”. Elvis Costellospoke fondly about both his parents and there was great love and adoration in his voice when he shared old memories and his love for family. Nonetheless, there was a huge emphasis on his father, Ross McManus, a well-known musician and trumpet player. In fact, Costello made a point to inform the audience that October 20th, that very day, was indeed his father’s birthday. A particularly poignant memory of childhood included Costello telling the audience how he peeked around the back of the TV as a small boy to see if he might find his father behind the machine, only to realize that his dad was on stage in a studio. I found those sorts of memories to be the most endearing because only a child could think someone or something could transform into a miniature size and fit inside a TV. Costello’s honesty and his ability to tell old memories as if he were reliving it that very moment humanized his life story and made the interview all the more refreshing to hear.

Growing up in a house of music, all my life I’d heard the name ‘Elvis Costello’ and I knew he was a musician, singer-songwriter and record producer from England. I knew he’d been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and I knew he’d been to Austin many times to perform. The city of Austin has always loved hosting Elvis Costello shows and over the past 20 years: I’d seen his name printed all over line-ups in the press. But to be quite frank, I really had no idea how in-depth his career was or how influential he was until this interview and until I began reading his memoir. Not only did I walk away that night learning and absorbing new insights about a famous musician born in Europe. That evening I became an Elvis Costello enthusiast. Just listening to the stories during the interview had me intrigued, eager to finish the rest of his book I’d only obtained one day prior to the event. However, the moment when he surprised us with live music and began to play “Everyday I Write the Book” and I heard those lyrics for the first time only a few feet away from Elvis Costello in the flesh and blood: I felt a strong connection to the music. I wanted to hear more. My heart was so deeply moved by the words in his lyrics that it almost made me want to cry, in a good way. Since then I’ve started to read many of his lyrics and it’s clear to me now why he’s become a global success for 40 years. Elvis Costello is an artist whom posses a distinct voice and an edge. An artist that followed his heart and writes from the heart. A one-of-a-kind artist with innate gifts of articulation, imagination and passion. Gifts that cannot be taught nor bought.

Furthermore, Costello read a few chapters from his newly released memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. Ending the evening on a high note, that’s when he played a bit of live music for the audience. We even got a little history lesson about his guitar in-between songs. A short video of his performance that I recorded from my seat can be found here on YouTube: Elvis Costello playing music at Book People.

Elvis Costello’s memoir was released in October 2015. The nearly 700 page story hasn’t been on the bookshelves that long but it’s already receiving quite a bit of positive feedback and attention from the media. Posted verbatim on his official website, “Born Declan Patrick MacManus, Elvis Costello was raised in London and Liverpool, grandson of a trumpet player on the White Star Line and son of a jazz musician who became a successful radio dance-band vocalist. Costello went into the family business and before he was twenty-four took the popular music world by storm. Costello continues to add to one of the most intriguing and extensive songbooks of our day. His performances have taken him from strumming a cardboard guitar in his parents’ front room to fronting a rock and roll band on our television screens and performing in the world’s greatest concert halls in a wild variety of company. Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink describes how Costello’s career has endured for almost four decades through a combination of dumb luck and animal cunning, even managing the occasional absurd episode of pop stardom. This memoir, written entirely by Costello, offers his unique view of his unlikely and sometimes comical rise to international success, with diversions through the previously undocumented emotional foundations of some of his best-known songs and the hits of tomorrow. It features many stories and observations about his renowned cowriters and co-conspirators, though Costello also pauses along the way for considerations of the less appealing side of fame.”

Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink can be purchased online or at your local bookstore. For more information regarding Elvis Costello, his book tour, list of albums or other miscellany: please visit the website at www.elviscostello.com.

“Don’t tell me you don’t know what love is. When you’re old enough to know better. When you find strange hands in your sweater. When your dreamboat turns out to be a footnote. I’m a man with a mission in two or three editions. And I’m giving you a longing look. Everyday, everyday, everyday I write the book. Chapter One we didn’t really get along. Chapter Two I think I fell in love with you. You said you’d stand by me in the middle of Chapter Three. But you were up to your old tricks in Chapters Four, Five and Six. The way you walk. The way you talk, and try to kiss me, and laugh. In four or five paragraphs. All your compliments and your cutting remarks. Are captured here in my quotation marks. Don’t tell me you don’t know the difference. Between a lover and a fighter. With my pen and my electric typewriter. Even in a perfect world where everyone was equal. I’d still own the film rights and be working on the sequel… Everyday I write the book.” – Elvis Costello

Note: This story is originally published on Rank & Revue in July 2015.

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Tears of Diamonds & A Heart of Silver: The Legendary Bill Carter and The Blame

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Bill Carter. Photography by Pat Kondelis.

Walking into The High Road to see Bill Carter play music, I knew I would recognize him on stage but I was ambivalent whether or not he would recognize me in return. For six years at a distance, periodically on Wednesday nights I’ve seen and heard Bill Carter perform with other artists in the annex at Z Tejas on West 6th street in Austin, Texas. Everyone always loves the nights they perform at the Z, even the staff. Sometimes you cannot even get a seat because it’s so full. From a distance I noticed Mr. Carter always wore glasses, a hat of some sort, and I detected that he possessed a lot of tattoos on his hands and forearms with heavy-looking, silver and metallic jewelry adorning his wrists, fingers and neck. He looked like a rock star, and I always thought he must’ve been a cool cat to talk to. Come to think on it, I never actually had a direct conversation with Mr. Carter, or the band, even if polite hellos and friendly smiles were exchanged. Until today.

Stepping back in time a moment, there was one particular night at the Z when I was sitting at the edge of the bar, people watching. Musicians were on stage, silently setting up shop with their guitars, amps and other miscellany. Pretending to listen to my headphones and iPod so no one would bother me, when in actuality no music was playing at all. I heard a group of older men complimenting the musicians. Pointing out who Bill Carter was amongst the group, I also heard the men say that Johnny Depp once joined Carter on stage to play music at The Continental Club, which I found most interesting and exciting.

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 Finally, after six years of watching from the crowd, I set forth to interview Mr. Carter, and he was kind enough to oblige after the show at The High Road on March 14, 2015. Walking into the room for an early daytime show, behind the stage were giant glass windows that opened up to a swimming pool and a lovely view of downtown Austin. The sky was so blue and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. Palm trees blowing in the wind. I was sitting and listening to Bill Carter’s first song – “Richest Man” – which almost made me cry, in a good way, and I had to fight the urge to show intense emotions of sadness and bittersweet nostalgia at the table before it’s even dusk. Something about the lyrics and the mood of this track reminded me of my favorite song by Bob Dylan titled “Boots of Spanish Leather”.

“If teardrops were diamonds from the African mines. If heartaches were silver.

My whole life would shine. And I’d be the richest man.

I’d be the richest man. In the world.” – Bill Carter

Right at that moment, I looked up the lyrics of Bill Carter’s song. I was reading the words as he was singing them at The High Road, something I had never done before at the Z. Suddenly it dawned on me that I had yet to do my research on his background – or even read his website – which I had intended to do later on in the day. Regardless, as I was reading his website off my iPhone and other various articles about him on the web while he music echoed in my heart and ears. Suddenly I realized just how gifted and innovative Bill Carter is within the world of songwriting and music. Suddenly I felt stupid for never having personally introduced myself to him before to show respect, artist to artist. Until then, I was unaware that I was in the presence of a legend, a keystone to the songwriting and music industry the past few decades. Even if I had known I was in the present of a talented musician.

According to his website, Bill Carter and The Blame has been a pillar of the Austin music scene for nearly three decades, helping shape the city’s rich musical history along with songwriting partner Ruth Ellsworth. Over 200 artists have found gold in the songwriting genius of this Texas Troubadour, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Robert Palmer,The Counting Crows, Storyville, Omar and The Howlers, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Ruth Brown, John Anderson, and Waylon Jennings. Bill Carter and The Blame’s evolving lineup has hosted some of the world’s greatest musicians, including guitarists Charlie Sexton and Denny Freeman (Bob Dylan Band), Chris Layton (SRV Double Trouble), Dony Wynn (Robert Palmer), Mike Thompson (The Eagles), Johnny Depp, Billy Gibbons, Brian Setzer and many others. Carter is also a founding member of the famed Hollywood band “P” with Gibby Haynes of The Butthole Surfers, Johnny Depp, and Sal Jenco. They released the eponymous album ‘P’ in 1995 on Capitol Records, featuring Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols, Flea, and Ruth Ellsworth.”

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Bill Carter and Johnny Depp on The Late Show with David Letterman.

As the show at The High Road came to an end, I was almost too timid to walk up to the stage to introduce myself and kindly ask for an interview once he broke down his equipment on stage. Though I am glad I mustered up the courage to make a proper introduction and ultimately write a story about this great artist. Secretly I was also relieved that he recognized me from Z Tejas, which made the introduction less intimidating.

Nicolette Mallow: From the perspective of a songwriter and musician performing in the official SXSW showcase, do you enjoy the festival and how have you seen it change over time?

Bill Carter: Yes. I think it’s great and I think it’s come full circle from how it all began. SXSW has evolved so much over the years. I’ve been in Austin since 1976 and when the first festival took place in 1987: it was predominantly local musicians and it was very small in comparison to what it’s become today, a million times bigger than the start. As time went by, more and more big names came into town, which was nice because it built the festival into something much more powerful. As time went by, however, it seemed to become more about mainstreams artists and less about the local music scene. Now it seems to be an infusion of both, and I am certainly happy to see more local artists performing this year. My wife (and songwriting partner, Ruth Ellsworth) and I first got involved with SXSW through our mutual love for songwriting. She and I have written hundreds of songs together. Honestly I identify most with being a songwriter and I prefer to be recognized as a songwriter more so than I like to be described as a musician or performer.

NM: Regarding the upcoming SXSW show at The Continental Club, which other musicians will be performing with you?

BC: Accompanying me that night will include artists like Will Sexton, Dony Wynn and Charlie Sexton.

NM: Is the Continental Club your favorite venue in Austin to perform at?

BC: (He smiles.) Yes. It is my favorite venue. Many of the venues I grew to love are now long gone. The original Antone’s on West 5th was another place I loved to play music but then it was relocated and it wasn’t the same. They are going to reopen a new Antone’s downtown and I am anxious to see what it is like and if it will have the same vibes as the original location.

My next question was more a question of curiosity. Even though I worried it might seem counterproductive to ask Carter about another artist in the few minutes I had to interview him. I couldn’t help but wonder about the Johnny Depp rumor. I formed a silly, girlish crush on Johnny Depp decades ago after the film “Cry Baby” came out in the 90’s when I was a kid and was saddened when suddenly every girl in the world had a crush on him, too.

NM: I remember hearing at Z Tejas that Johnny Depp once accompanied you on stage at The Continental Club for a musical performance. Is this true?

BC: Yes. I’ve been playing music with Johnny for decades. I’m the godfather of his children and he’s a great friend of mine. We once formed a band in the spur of the moment in the 1990’s called “P”. We were the headlining band for the Austin Music Awards for SXSW. Johnny was in Texas, nearby Austin, filming “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and he came into town for the gig. The band included Gibby Haynes of The Butthole Surfers, Johnny Depp, Sal Jenco and I.

NM: You’ve won many awards and have obtained many prestigious recognitions, your career is remarkably full. I’m very impressed by all I’ve read and heard. Therefore I am curious, what aspect of your artistry and your career are the most rewarding and fulfilling?

There was a brief pause before he answered.

BC: Well, my wife and I have written so many songs together. Many of those songs we wrote have later on been covered by artists I respect and admire. Stevie Ray Vaughan covered our song “Crossfire” and Robert Palmer covered “Why Get Up”. To be acknowledged, appreciated and respected by great artists like these whom I esteem, value and respect has been the most rewarding and fulfilling aspect of my career. There was also one night on David Letterman I particularly enjoyed. Johnny Depp and I played “Anything Made Of Paper” together, which is a song my wife and I wrote. It’s about the West Memphis Three case. A case that involved three teenage boys who were accused of murder and placed in jail for life before they even hit adulthood. It’s a powerful story, check it out.

NM: Austin has changed so much in the 20 years I’ve lived here, off and on. Since you’ve been here so much longer than I, and have seen a lot more growth. Do you think you and your wife will stay in Austin with all the vast changes in the city?

BC: That’s a good question. The growth in Austin has been difficult for me over the decades. The venues changed. The music scene changed. The people changed. It used to be a funky, intermingled town that was quiet and serene with a booming music scene. It was cheap and easy to get around. It was so beautiful then. Around the late 80’s, maybe 1988 or 1989, that city died out and something else began to evolve. I’m sure you’ve seen the changes since the 1990’s. Even people who’ve only been here five years can see changes. Now there are 30 story buildings and it’s crowded, expensive and it’s just not the city that I came to know decades ago. I don’t know…I only come in town for shows. I am from Seattle and sometimes I think I would like to keep a place here, and have one there. But I really don’t know.

NM: My last question is a bit random, but is there a reason you’re only wearing two rings on the same fingers of each hand?

BC: (He laughed) Only because I didn’t feel like wearing the others. I own a lot of rings, cuffs and metalwork that I like to wear. It depends on the day or the mood I am in what I will wear. But there is one ring that I almost always wear, aside from my wedding ring. (He says as he extends his right hand). Johnny Depp gave me this ring when the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” was being filmed. It was the first ring made for the movie, and he told me that he wanted a new one made for him with a gold bandana and a pair of eyes made of rubies. So I got this one and I wear it everyday.

Be sure to catch Bill Carter at his upcoming SXSW performance at The Continental Club on South Congress from 11:00 PM to 11:40 PM on March 21, 2015. The official SXSW artist statement for Bill Carter entails the following: Legendary songwriter and Austin Music Hall of Fame inductee Bill Carter has been a pillar of the Austin music community for over three decades. His songs have been covered by over 200 artists from Waylon Jennings to Robert Palmer. Winner of an Austin Music Award for “Best Song of the Decade” and BMI’s Million-airs Award for Stevie Ray Vaughan’s only #1 hit “Crossfire” Carter and his world class band, The Blame, serve up a wicked stew of slyly crafted Americana. Look for a new album slated for release in 2015.”

For more information regarding Bill Carter, future shows and bookings – please visit his website at www.billcarterandtheblame.com.

Note: This story is originally published on Rank & Revue in July 2015.

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