Archive | Interviews

Interviews John has done with music industry people.

Archive Highlight: How to Write Better Songs with John Braheny and Michael Laskow via YouTube [Video]

Another interesting piece of John Braheny history from the John Braheny Archives on the Craft and Business of Songwriting.

How to Write Better Songs with John Braheny

Accession Number D000000035-001

(Note: These numbers are the unique Accession number for each piece in the archives and allows us to quickly locate any item by searching the archive index)

Previously on Archive Highlights:


Mark Isham (1995) from The John Braheny Interviews

John Braheny was a diligent researcher, amassing a amazing amount of information about the music industry … not just for himself, but to provide teaching tools for songwriters/performers and others interested in how the music industry works. He loved meeting people who were pivotal in their particular roles and was eager to ‘pick their brain’ for how they did what they did. He and his partner, Len Chandler, founded The LA Songwriters Showcase and as an an ideal setting in which to conduct a ‘live interview’ on stage, with hit songwriters, singers/musicians, music publishers, managers, agents, record company executives, and more.  Some of those ‘raps’ are provided here in the Archives in audio form, some in written form, and some later ones in video form. Most important to John was that the interviewee had something valuable and helpful to share. He wanted to know their ‘process.’ He later did interviews, (or led panel discussions) for the California Copyright Conference, the West Coast Songwriters Conference, TAXI Road Rally conferences, United Airlines “In-Flight” Audio Series,  and many other outlets from 1971-2011. — JoAnn Braheny

Isham 1

An Interview with Mark Isham from The John Braheny Interviews
His Improvisational Composition Style, Embrace Of Musical Diversity And Technology, Create His Unique Edge

September 22, 1995

from the John Braheny Archive on the Craft and Business of Songwriting

Mark Isham started his performing career as a trumpet player with the Oakland and San Francisco Symphonies, segued into jazz as a member of progressive groups, Rubirosa Patrol and Group 87. In 1983 he began a solo career with the release of Vapor Drawings on Windham Hill. He recieved Grammy nominations for his Castalia (Virgin) and Tibet (Windham Hill) and a Grammy Award for Mark Isham (Virgin). Meanwhile, he contributed as a guest artist to projects with The Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Toots Thielemans, Robbie Robertson, Tanita Tikaram, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Loggins, XTC and many other artists.

Vapor Drawings gave him the chance to score his first film, Never Cry Wolf, followed to date by more than 40 other films including, The Net, Golden Globe nominee Nell, Losing Isaiah, Miami Rhapsody, Safe Passage, Time Cop, Quiz Show, The Getaway, Short Cuts, Made In America, Of Mice and Men, Cool World, Billy Bathgate and Little Man Tate. His score for Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It earned him a 1993 Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score and a 1994 Grammy Award nomination for Best Instumental Composition For A Motion Picture.

Columbia has just released Isham’s new album, Blue Sun, with his quintet featuring David Goldblatt (keyboards), Steve Tavaglione (saxes), Doug Lunn (bass) and Kurt Wortman (drums). The album is an exceptional showcase of composition and musicianship. It’s melodic, visceral, subtle, minimalist, reflective with classical, ethnic and traditional jazz influences, structured but spontaneous. Everything that makes Isham unique in both his recording and film work.

JB: How did this album come together in terms of your creative process? What do you go into sessions with?

MI: Lead sheets with melody and chords, although it does vary. There are certain pieces I’ll have like a bass line in certain sections. In fact I would say most…there is a bass line into them. And it will be, “In these sections I want this exactly played this way, but then after that you can open it up, or at least in the head play this way and then improvise after that.”

Sometimes I’ll give very specific voicings to the pianist to get the mood started. “This is the way I hear this with a voice like this,” and then playing a few times that way gets the feelings in the band of a sense of what the mood of what this piece is about, and then he’s free to make it his own. I mean it is a jazz group fighting for the jazz style and I don’t expect anybody to really play it…

JB: Note for note.

MI: Yeah, but jazz composition is a fine line because if you don’t give some structure there’s no composition, and I’ve always thought, and a lot of this I’ve come to realize after twelve years of the film business, that it isn’t just the melody and the functionality of the chord. That’s the composition in jazz; the type of bass line, the type of voicing, the type of accompaniment. Sometimes it’s hard to write it down. Sometimes you just have to put some words on the page.

JB: What kind of words go on the page?

MI: Well, it’s more of a verbal description. “Let’s keep this very open. Let’s keep this…this is a dense section.” Rather than trying to write, well what will that be. “Well, I’m interested in the way you interpret the feeling of ‘let’s make this dense.’ That’s what being a jazz group is about. This is the way we’re going to interpret it.

JB: So, it’s that kind of improvisational composition as opposed to sitting down and writing out all the parts and orchestrating everything.

MI: There are certain films that I write this way for. Certain films will take an ensemble improvising the score to a degree, and then it becomes even more this way because it needs to be very specific. Film music has to be very specific. And yet if you want to keep an improvisational flavor, how do you do that without telling everybody exactly…well, what do you do, you have to direct them. You have to be a music director in a sense. “All right from bar 10 to bar 15, beat three, where the door slams I want you guys to play very chromatically and get faster and faster and faster.” And that becomes the composition – just a set of verbal instructions.

JB: So, you have to have a lot of trust in the musicians too, and an understanding ahead of time about how they’re likely to interpret it.

MI: Exactly. In hiring them I’m a casting director. Like I’ll say that in this film we need people who can really put that, say 40s jazz style together, so I’ll cast people who are either of that age, or younger guys who I know personally love that age and can emulate it very well, and say, “This where we’re at. We’re in 1943, we’re in New York. You’ve got to play like that and then, within that style, do the following thing.”

JB: Quiz Show was like that.

MI: Quiz Show was very much like that.

JB: What’s the process when you work on a film? Are you usually brought in early?

MI: Yeah, it depends. Certain directors who know me and know they want me will generally call up pretty early because of my schedule. They’ll try to book it and I’ll have a script and I may visit them on the set. The way that I see it happening most of the time is that when a director comes back from wrapping up their shooting they will have started to think about the music because the editor will be putting the rough assembly together. They might be starting to throw up some temp music against the picture to see what works. They’ll generally have an idea of whether they want the traditional orchestral, or industrial grunge music. You know, get the big decisions and start to get a direction.

My name will be on a list of maybe five people. If the director doesn’t know any of us we’ll each interview, talk, and they’ll get a sense of who they might want to work with. I’ll read a script. Sometimes they want me to see the picture if they’re confident that the cut looking good. Sometimes if they’re nervous about it they won’t show it to me. But, generally, just after the assembly is in decent enough shape for them to show it to you, they’ll make up their mind and pick you.

JB: Sometimes that doesn’t allow you a lot of time.

MI: Yeah. When I started, it used to be six to seven weeks and in twelve to thirteen years I’ve been doing this it’s come down. The consideration now is that you can do it in four to five weeks. It doesn’t make my life any easier. And for certain projects you have a lot less. Like HBO pictures and stuff. They’re usually on a tighter schedule.

JB: So, you get together with the director then to spot the film (decide where music is and isn’t needed) or just look at it?

MI: Yeah, once I’ve been chosen, yeah you look at it, you spot it, you listen to the temp score. You discuss what’s good about it, what’s bad about it, and you get to work.

JB: Then you get a video and bring it home. Do they ever re-edit it after you’ve scored it?

MI: Oh, yeah. You see in the old days, too, the idea was that you’d have six weeks with a locked picture (everything completed but the music), and I haven’t seen that in years. I’m lucky if I have two or three days with a locked picture, and more often than not they continue cutting the picture after I’m done.

JB: Then they still mess with your music after you’re finished?

MI: Yeah, then the music editor has to figure out how to make it fit.

JB: What about the communication process between a director and composer? If they’re not musically inclined and can’t tell you in musical terms what they want, what kind of a language goes on?

MI: You just have to pick it as you go with each individual, enough to get a sense of how they express themselves. You run into every balance here. You run into the director who is sure that they’re an expert in music and actually hasn’t the faintest idea of what he’s talking about. You run into the one who says, I don’t know anything about music, but actually ends up being very literate, not with the exact vocabulary of music, but in terms of emotional content, flow and dramatic structure, and every permutation in between. And, obviously, I prefer the person who just knows how to speak well about art and their concept in general and is sure in his own mind of what he’s trying to achieve and let me worry about the actual musical vocabulary.

JB: How would you describe that translation process from the visual into the emotional content? I mean, you know what the action is and what kind of a scene it is, but is that describable?

MI: Oh, yeah. I think it is. Sometimes directors aren’t good at talking about it, but I think the more intelligent and talented directors can, and certainly the more experienced directors have years of communicating this to a variety of different people from the cinematographer to the actors to the set designer.

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JB: But how do you translate it into musical terms?

MI: Well, I find there are two things I have to know from the director. First of all, people in general I think get hung up in this word, emotion, and I get a lot of this thing, “it needs to be more emotional.” Well, emotion is just a very general word which describes a wide variety of different feelings and expressions, so the first thing to do is to get them to be more specific. “When you say more emotional, do you mean more quantity of what? Is it grief we’re talking about, or is she actually apathetic. Is she past grief? Or, is she coming out of grief and maybe getting a bit angry?” And to really understand the various tones of emotion that exist in the human experience, and then my little trick, of course, is to know what musical ideas express each one and then in the scene, to understand the structure of the scene. “What is the turning point here. Where is the point where this character realizes he’s in love, or realizes she’s a bad girl, or realizes his son is dead.” So you know where the turning points are. I have to go from here to there. By then the character already knows it. Here’s the point, as he goes through the door, so that you can put your bookmarks out there, and then know exactly well, all right…and up until this point he’s just totally apathetic. He doesn’t give a shit. But at this point he sees a glimmer of hope and his emotion turns. And a good director knows that because he got his actors and he got all his people to go for all those things, and you just have to duplicate that with your language. And whether that means running a counterpoint against it, or whatever device you come up with, it comes from understanding the structure of the scene. And in action films, it’s the same way. Up until then he’s the antagonist. Now he’s being chased. Now he’s scared because he’s running away, so just finding the structure is critical.

JB: Do you do a quick sketch as you’re listening in terms of finding your themes? Do you start that at the time you get a script?

MI: Well, you see when I started writing in the early ‘70s it was pre popular use of electronics, so before I could even afford a piano I bought an old Fender Rhodes, and I would just have a sheet of music and a pencil on my Fender Rhodes and the film. That’s how I wrote, but I was always very interested in electronics and I was sort of always saving up my money to get into the electronic game, whether it be multitrack tape recorders, or 4-track cassettes, or whatever.

I saved up and bought my first little synthesizer and I quickly discovered that even for jazz I liked mocking it up, hearing it as much as I could. I got a sense of that from owning a Fender Rhodes, you know. That gave you a slightly different sound than just the piano.

JB: Yeah, it’s got a great sustain.

MI: Yeah, and you could put vibrato on it at times and get it spooky, and so I was sort of immediately hooked by composition through technology, and I never really learned the grand classic compositional technique, of being able to sit at a large oak table with a pencil sharpener and reams of paper and just write it out. I’ve never learned to really do that.

JB: Do you think that has to do with the fact that you started out as a player, and that your music was about experiencing the music rather than thinking it?

MI: Yes, because not only was I a player but I was an improviser, and so for me improvisation and composition are almost one and the same. And in a sense my compositional process is simply one of finding any way of capturing an improvisation, so I don’t lose it and then being able to mold it into something worth hanging on to because, in a sense, that’s what composition is. You want to be able to create. I personally think there’s a big difference between thinking about something and creating it, and if you think about it, I think that’s a waste of time if you get sort of all mental about it. Real creativity I think happens way above the level of the brain and thinking and you know, computing. Creativity is creativity. It’s instantaneous and it just is.

JB: Yes, assuming you have the tools to make that real.

MI: Well, the trick is in taking it out of that little universe of which it is instantaneous and bringing it into the real world, and that’s why I say pencil and paper is so bloody slow to do that, and the technique one has to develop then is to be able to basically remember those ideas in some concrete form so you can get them down. Well, technology, affords us this great ability to either just keep the tape machine running or keep the sequencer running, and you actually have a record of at least the body performing these ideas.

JB: So, does that process work in the composing and recording of your own albums? With the group, once you’ve got a sketch of what you want, do you just record a lot of takes and then pick the best take?

MI: Yeah. For Blue Sun, we recorded like 104 minutes of music and that’s just the good takes of each song and we probably have four or five takes of each one of those songs, and we cut that down to the 60 minutes/8 tunes that are on the record. I overwrote and we over-recorded and I just picked the best of the best.

JB: So, that’s basically the same process of just going in and from improvisation, it gets right. Do you ever cut and paste or is that too artificial?

MI: No, no, I have nothing against that. I personally think that records are a medium unto themselves and should be looked at that way.

JB: And the finished product is what you offer the world, so it doesn’t matter how you get it.

MI: Yeah. I mean live records are great if you realize that this is a document of a live performance, but face it, a lot of live records go on and on, which at the time, if you’re in the third row is probably the most fantastic experience of your life. I mean I’ve had those and I’ve later matched the dates and said, “I was there that night! Let me buy that.” And you realize it’s a very different experience. Who really sits down and listens to a record anyway, I mean I try, but boy, records fulfill another function. They end up being part of other experiences in your day. And consequently I think it’s very valid to look at what that music on a record is that should be structured to really enhance its ability to communicate in that medium.

I really worked on Blue Sun very specifically in that regard to make a concise record. The great jazz records to me have a certain concept. There are obvious exceptions. Certain John Coltrane records where he plays a fifteen minute solo and it’s still fantastic, but let’s face it, he’s one of the few geniuses that come along. Three times in a century that you can actually do that sort of thing. I mean the great jazz records to me are the ones where there’s a concept there. Like Kind of Blue, and I don’t think Miles thought about this when he did this record. He just happened to be where they ended up, but I can look at it and do a little thinking about it and a little observing and learn from it, and know, that record is truly great and one of the reasons is because it’s concise, and it’s simple and it’s clear and it really just gives you, with the least amount of information, the greatest amount of communication. And if you can sort of emulate that, I think it would do you good. And I think it really did us good as a band to think about that in making this record.

The other thing that I really learned from looking at the great jazz records that I admire, they’re all band records. They’re records of guys who’ve been on the road with each other for years. They have that immediate chemistry, interactive communication with each other as a band. The great Miles Davis bands, the great Coltrane quartet, I mean the list is endless. The really great moments of jazz are made by long-term committed band relationships.

JB: You’ve been working with these guys for quite a while.

MI: That’s it. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to make this record this way with this group, because I said we’re starting to create that. We’ve been working in L.A. for over two years…well the quartet is over four years – with the saxophone player about two years, and we’ve got a thing going. Let’s take advantage of this. Let’s document and use this chemistry we’ve developed to really enhance the music and make it strong.

JB: So, the process…

MI: Yes, the process was I wrote a bunch of material, got as much of it down on paper as I thought they needed to know to get the structure, and just started feeding it at soundchecks like one or two in a soundcheck, until we’d played it a little bit, and then went in for like a real three-day rehearsal and brought in a few new pieces and really worked out all the kinks of the structure and everything. Then did two shows playing just the new material, then went back in for another two days. I amended some compositions, cleaned a few things up, and then went in and made the record.

JB: Did you pre-demo the songs?

MI: There were tapes. I made demos of compositions, because, even jazz stuff, I wrote in the computer just so I could hear it. I didn’t take a lot of time making them, but it was the sort of thing where I played the piano voices that I wanted. I played the bass line so the rhythm section could just get a sense of the vibe. And then it’s to be discarded within moments once it starts – it’s a springboard. Whereas in film music it’s very different. One of the great reasons for being a technological composer is that you’re halfway or 80% of the way towards a pretty good sounding demo just by writing the piece. You know, I’ve got my string patch, or I’ve got my piano patch, I’ve got my percussion patch, and I’m writing away…

JB: And you can play it…

MI: …I play it back for myself just to see if it’s working, obviously. It’s part of the compositional process. Well, with a few fine tunings here and there, if you clean up some and dah, dah, dah, dah, the director can hear it and know what the hell he’s going to get, which is essential.

JB: I think that’s probably one of the big differences for directors between counting on someone to write it all out and orchestrate, and they finally hear it at the session, and say, oh wow, that’s not what I wanted!

MI: I can’t imagine the nightmare. The guys that came up in that tradition where all they could do was sort of play the theme on the piano and then had to wait for the day when they got a hundred people in the room, and the director kind of goes, “That’s not really what I had in mind.” Oh, man!

JB: Yeah. Wasted a lot of money.

MI: I’ll do anything to avoid that, I mean I’ll demo for the whole five weeks, and I do. I insist the director take a moment and listen to it, and 99.9% of the time they’re more than happy to come out here and sit down and go through it. “Try it without the drums, try it with the drums” and they get into it. It’s fun.

JB: So, at what point do you start sketching out themes? Is that kind of an improvisation to the screen?

MI: Yeah, I mean for me it is, although you sort of have to develop certain techniques to get to it quicker than just free-form improvisation. My first choice on film composing is to pick a vocabulary. I mean here in the end of the 20th century, the musical vocabulary that a composer has to draw from is infinite. Not only do we have access to the entire global culture – the media, the medium and the transmission of digital information, you could hear African drummers, you could hear Findlandish ice dancing and you can get anything you want and check it out for inspiration. You have the whole world of processing of sound from the Moog synthesizer up to sampling to Sound Design.

I think one has to really say that the sound palette is infinite, so it’s very important that you pick the area in which you can work, because if you don’t you get this sort of hodge-podgy feeling, and one of the most successful things for me that really contributes to the success of the scores is to pick a musical personality and cast that score, and find the vocabulary here that’s really going to reflect this film, the characters in the story. Not to say that you can’t amend it as you go on, or even switch in midstream if you’ve made the wrong choices, but for me it’s essential to pick the sound of the film.

JB: By way of the instrumentation and, are keys important?

MI: Key becomes an issue slightly down the road from there because you are also obviously picking sounds that are going to reflect a certain general tone. Like I’m working on a film right now which is very, very dark – about death row. Well, you don’t want heroic French horns. You know the sounds you pick have to reflect the world – the world of the jail, of isolation, loneliness, the whole thing. That’s really where I start, especially because I write with sounds. I get the sounds up, I push a key and I hear them, and that’s how I get going so it’s important for me to pick what I’m going to start with, and that can mean either just getting out the “fake orchestra” that I’ve developed up to this point. I’m always trying to get my fake orchestra to sound better and better as the technology develops. Whether it means getting that out because I’ve decided it ‘s going to be an orchestral score or whether it means I’m just going to use strings, but I want a certain type of synthesizer backdrop in here that’s very cold, and spending a day or two programming some few things. Picking the few types of synthesizers that get that sound, or calling up somebody and saying, “Look, could you help me out on this. Can you give me a card from the Wave Station that has a bunch of cold sounds.” Give them the right words, get people to contribute in that regard, and then you sit down and start going. Because for me, if I’m looking at a scene can I just hold one note of a certain sound against the picture and know if that sound is helping that scene, or fighting the scene. You just have to hold one or two notes against it, and say, “That’s right. There’s a relationship here.”

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JB: So, you start with your sounds then you get into themes if it needs it?

MI: Yeah, and the theme, I’ve experienced probably the two far ends of the spectrum. I’ve experienced sitting down and being able to have written the theme day one, the right theme. It happened on A River Runs Through It, although we didn’t think so. Bob (Redford) said, “Well I’m not quite sure,” so I changed it a few times. And he said, “Why don’t you try something else.” And I tried something else, and we came back to the first thing I’d written on day one. And he called back and said, “You know Mark, I think I’ve really led you astray. That first one was mighty good.”

I’ve worked on other pictures where it’s just like, I don’t have a theme. We recorded four days, I don’t have a theme. I’ve got lots of cues – I’ve lots of sort of little motifs, I’m hinting at something, but I can’t find the full 24 bars, or the full 18, or whatever that exposition of the whole idea is, and at the last minute I find it. And then it’s a mad scuffle to make sure it’s attached in all the right places. So, I can’t predict. You just have to keep plugging away and hope for the best.

JB: Do you have it worked out as to how much time you usually spend on a minutes worth of music, because I assume there are times when you have to predict how much time it’s going to take you to finish?

MI: It varies, you know. The Net had the most minutes of music that I’d ever done before, somewhere between 90 and 100 minutes to final take. I had less than five weeks, so I was constantly adding up my minute-per-day ratio so I get done in time and if I have to stay until five in the morning to get my minute limit per day done, then that’s what I have to do. And if you slip behind then that ratio goes up. JB: Did you find when you started working in film, that it influenced, in any way, the the non-film music that you do?

MI: In writing outside of film I find it refreshing not to have to be tied to specific images, that I like letting the music be the creator of the image. That’s one of the real reasons that I like the several differences of a solo career. One is that the music leads the whole creative process as opposed to film leading the creative process, that I lead the process as opposed to a director. I’m a member of his team. It’s a different flow, both as just a person and then for the music itself. The music is different because it is the leader and I just appreciate being the creative leader. That’s very important for me, and I think if I were just in the film business for the rest of my life I’d get a little bent, perhaps, by just being stuck in that one type of creative relationship where I’m always fitting myself into some other vision, and the fact that I do move out and have an area where I can work that is my vision. The music can take the lead, and then it allows me to go back into the film business with a very positive attitude towards doing it because I’ve done the other.

It has to be the sanest thing a film composer can do. I think John Williams is very smart for doing his conducting roles and writing his own music for the records, Elfman and the other guys who do that, I think it really is the sanest thing you can do.

Originally appeared in The Songwriter’s Musepaper, a publication of the National Academy of Songwriters in Los Angeles, CA



Live interview with Richard Addrisi on 12/10/86 from The John Braheny Interviews – 35 Minutes [Audio]

John Braheny was a diligent researcher, amassing a amazing amount of information about the music industry … not just for himself, but to provide teaching tools for songwriters/performers and others interested in how the music industry works. He loved meeting people who were pivotal in their particular roles and was eager to ‘pick their brain’ for how they did what they did. He and his partner, Len Chandler, founded The LA Songwriters Showcase and as an an ideal setting in which to conduct a ‘live interview’ on stage, with hit songwriters, singers/musicians, music publishers, managers, agents, record company executives, and more.  Some of those ‘raps’ are provided here in the Archives in audio form, some in written form, and some later ones in video form. Most important to John was that the interviewee had something valuable and helpful to share. He wanted to know their ‘process.’ He later did interviews, (or led panel discussions) for the California Copyright Conference, the West Coast Songwriters Conference, TAXI Road Rally conferences, United Airlines “In-Flight” Audio Series,  and many other outlets from 1971-2011. — JoAnn Braheny

Another interesting piece of John Braheny history from the John Braheny Archives on the Craft and Business of Songwriting. John  told us that he wanted the archives to contain all the great educational materials created, over the years, through Songwriters Showcase and Songwriters Expo, as well as his own personal history. This is just one small piece of the wealth of audio that is available and I will continue converting this material, and sharing it, as time allows.

Live interview with Richard Addrisi on 12/10/86 – 35 Minutes

Recorded live at an event, most likely a Songwriters Showcase.

Listen to this interview

jb-E000000061-001- richard-addrissi-braheny-chandler

Len Chandler (LASS), Richard Addrisi & John Braheny (LASS) 


Previously on Archive Highlights:


Cautionary Tales of TV Song Rip-Offs

“No cue sheets, no pay.” That’s the mantra you need to remember when you’re dealing with film/TV music. Sometimes it’s easier said than done. When  my friend, topical songwriter Smokey MilesSmokey Miles (aka Count Smokula) started to tell me the story of his “Balloon Boy” song and it’s use on TV surrounding that hoax, I though it was something you should hear about. It turned out to be an even more valuable lesson than I thought after he got deeper into his experiences with other TV projects he’d written for and companies he got screwed by. You’ll be glad you listened to this!

Smokey Miles Interview

Doak Turner Interviews John Braheny

Interview with John Braheny
by Doak Turner
Founder of The Nashville Muse

John Braheny is a music industry consultant and mentor/coach for performers and songwriters. He and Len Chandler co-founded the legendary Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase (LASS), a national non-profit service organization for songwriters, from 1971 until joining forces with the Songwriters Guild of America in 1999. In addition to teaching at several conferences and organizations throughout the US and Canada, he has conducted 55 interviews with hit songwriters and producers for United Airlines In-flight (audio) Entertainment. For more information, visit his Web site .

The first two editions of “The Craft and Business of Songwriting” are credited to helping many hit songwriters including Jon Ims (She’s in Love with the Boy) achieve their songwriting skills. Jon Ims says, “Braheny’s Craft and Business of Songwriting (first edition) helped me organize my talent and motivated me to do something with it. The book was a godsend for someone like me living outside of the music business inner circle.

Diane Warren says on the back of the book, “The Craft and Business of Songwriting” offers practical street – level look at today’s world of songwriting. It’s essential reading for anyone contemplating a career as a professional songwriter, Read and Learn. Dianne Warren was a member of John’s LASS organization in the 70’s.

“The Craft and Business of Songwriting 3rd Edition” by John Braheny hit the bookstores October 2006.

Doak – Why did you find it necessary to do a new edition?

As you know, Doak, the landscape for songwriters and writer/artists has changed pretty dramatically since my 02 edition. Technological advances and the creation of more services to support indie artists have enhanced their efforts to be entrepreneurs. More opportunities are available in film/TV, video games etc., and I wanted to expand the info writers need to deal with that fast growing market. I wanted them to know how to approach music libraries, song-placement companies and music publishers who specialize in audio-visual music. I think it’s really important that writers know what takes place on the other side of the desk with those companies to be able to approach them professionally and effectively rather than just shotgunning their CDs out there hoping somebody will discover their songs.

Doak – When you look back – I believe the first book came out almost 20 years ago – what are the most dramatic changes you’ve seen for songwriters – any in the craft and what ones on the biz side really stand out to you?

The first edition came out in 1988. CDs were six years old and gaining fast on cassettes but cassettes were the way writers pitched their songs. Some of the major artists then were Steve Winwood, Guns ‘n Roses, George Michael, Bon Jovi, U2 and Anita Baker, Whitney Houston and INXS. In country there were George Strait, Dwight Yoacam, Keith Whitley, Rosanne Cash, Oak Ridge Boys, Alabama, Reba, The Judds. Hip Hop and Rap were well -established by then with NWA, Public Enemy, Run DMC among others and the big topic of discussion was sampling and whether rap’s explicit language would corrupt kids. Disaffected grown-up music fans who were raised on pop and rock were starting to gravitate to country and so were a lot of pop writers who started moving to Nashville in hopes of actually making a living writing “real” songs. I could go on and on about that but, for me, I believe that all popular music styles are valid though I saw Hip-Hop as primarily a producer’s medium (still is) and I focused more on traditional songwriting. I came to realize later that the most successful Hip-Hop uses relatively the same kinds of structures as pop hits though there was more creative latitude because the writer/producers were in control. With the advent of cheap home multi-track recording more and more writers were also becoming producers, at least for creating their own demos.

When digital recording come in, it really escalated and I needed to reflect that transformation in the 2002 edition. The Digital Audio Workstation was probably the biggest tech innovation that changed the way writers, especially pop and Hip-Hop writers, could work. They could lay down tracks first and start to create and control how they wanted the song to sound (though sampled guitars still sound like crap).

Another factor on the creative side is that, since people can download individual tracks now, it’s more important than ever that writers come up with better songs. It used to be that publishers and record companies provided more of a filter before the indie DIY revolution but now too many writers just write songs and record them without any song feedback so there’s a lot of terrible stuff out there along with the good stuff. On the other hand, more of my consulting business is about helping writers improve and chose their best songs. So I can’t complain too much.

On the business side, once everybody had CD players, CDs replaced cassettes as the medium for pitching and with the Internet it’s gone to sending audio files online, though CDs are still hanging in there. The Internet also changed the way licensing was done and provided lots of new income streams and media – like music for video games and cell-phone ringtones you can buy online. Music for audio-visual use is exploding as more writer/artists/bands control both their songs and master recordings. Writers can produce broadcast quality recordings and relatively inexpensive high-definition video cameras are within reach of teens. Now we just have to teach them to license the music for their videos before they upload it to YouTube. The legal system and copyright law are still trying to catch up with the changes that all these tech advances have brought, so in the new edition I get into the new digital royalties available to writers and artists.

Doak – What kinds of information did you add for audio-visuals.

Info on how to get to music supervisors for film/TV and a Work For Hire Agreement. A lot of writers aren’t aware that when they do demos they need to have Work For Hire agreements signed by their musicians and singers before they can claim to own the master recordings. I included a list of all the ways music is used in film/TV and the codes used on cue sheets to designate those uses. I also include a sample cue sheet and a list of the best tip sheets both pros and amateurs use to find out about projects they can pitch to. There’s a lot more but those are just a few that I didn’t have in the last edition.

Doak – Aside from audio-visual arena, what other topics did you expand on?

Lots of other musical arenas are expanded in the book with web resources and interviews – children’s music, musical theatre, getting a record deal, why you may not want a record deal, etc.

Doak – I noticed that you’ve always included contributions by other experts in your book. Have you continued that in your new edition?

Absolutely. Obviously I’m not an expert on everything I feel writers need to know about. But I have made a point of finding out where to get that information. I feel very strongly about giving writers access to the best info. I just happen to know people who are experts in fields I’m not as experienced with or, even if I am, there are those who can explain it better. For example, David Cat Cohen is a wonderful pop music teacher and he’s always written the chapter on composing music so he updated that section and his examples. I also recommended other great books that can take readers a lot deeper than I could go within the scope of my book. Another example is that I asked Jeannie Novak to write a piece on the concepts involved in writing music for video games. I’d never seen that in other general songwriting books and Jeannie has written books on the topic. I asked Berklee lyric prof, Pat Pattison, to write a piece on what he calls the “No” Free Zone after telling me about his first collaboration in Nashville. Great stuff! Jon Ims wrote a breakdown of the techniques he used in writing “She’s In Love With The Boy” that’s a great lesson in re-writing all by itself. I used the critique sheet I developed for TAXI as a writer’s checklist for their songs by explaining all the points on the list. Lots of stuff like that.

Doak – What part of the book did you expand the most?

The chapter On Marketing Yourself and Your Songs. I came up with a lot more lists of services and websites and added sections on Blogging and Podcasting among other things as well as some legal opinions on Podcasting.

Doak – Were there other topics you wanted to add but couldn’t?

Yeah. One of the frustrating things is that there are new legal developments happening all the time regarding music licensing. There’s stuff that’s still being worked out, contested, fought about and it’ll still be in process after this goes to press. So the best I could do was say “Watch these websites (including for further developments. Actually that’s one of the things I’ve always found fascinating about the business. Just when you think you know something – it changes. So it keeps me on my toes – but I like that.

Doak – are you looking forward to the next edition?

Are you kidding? It took me about 9 months to birth this baby and I was still working on it while I was on the road last May and June and I’m finally back to not having to tell my consult clients they’ll have to wait a little longer for their critiques and consults. No, I’m not looking forward to it but I’m always in the info-freak mode so I’ll keep collecting info anyway. When it gets to the place where I think too much of the info in this edition is obsolete, I’ll do a fourth edition.

Doak – Thanks John, your books have certainly been a blessing to me. I recommend songwriters read your book FIRST! I tell every songwriter I meet to read your book!

Thanks Doak – You’re one of the real “good guys” in Nashville, you provide a great service with The Nashville Muse, and I’m grateful for your support of the book.


Note to my blog readers: If you’re planning a trip to Nashville, find out what’s going on in town by getting on The Nashville Muse list or just logging on. Learn who’s playing at all the clubs as well as other Nashville classes, workshops and other events. If you’re already in Nashville, you don’t need this reminder – you probably already subscribe.


Diane Warren Interview

John Braheny w/ hit songwriter, Diane Warren

Taken at the party for the installation of Diane's star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame

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(This interview was conducted by John Braheny for the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase Musepaper in April, 1987. For a current update on the continued success of Diane Warren, go to her website at

At the time of this interview, Diane Warren is reveling in the fact that her Starship hit single, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is #1 in Billboard for the second week in a row. She had written the song with Albert Hammond for the film, “Mannequin.” Though it isn’t her first hit, it is her first #1. Her first was Laura Branigan’s “Solitaire.” Her next was the DeBarge hit, “Rhythm Of The Night,” for which she wrote both words and music.

She has also written songs for such diverse artists as Barbra Streisand, Tina Turner, Air Supply, the Commodores, Deniece Williams, Joe Cocker, Jeffrey Osborne and is looking forward to many upcoming major releases.

She has her own small writing studio in a downtown Hollywood office building. In it she fits an acoustic piano, a DX7 and assorted other synths, a drum machine and a mini sound system. She never stops working. Continue Reading →


How to Write Better Songs with John Braheny


Legendary songwriting coach and author of The Craft and Business of Songwriting, John Brahney, hanging with TAXI CEO, Michael Laskow, in his office.


Interview with Danny Elfman

Click here to read the articleDanny Elfman has been referred to as “Hollywood’s hottest film composer.” Working primarily with director Tim Burton, Elfman has scored the soundtrack to Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Corpse Bride, among others. He is perhaps most well known for composing the theme to The Simpsons. Continue Reading →


Interview with Alan Silvestri

Click here to read the articleAlan Silvestri is an Academy Award nominated film score composer. He is best known for his numerous collaborations with director Robert Zemeckis, having scored Forrest Gump, the Back to the Future trilogy, Contact, Cast Away, Romancing the Stone, and The Polar Express. Aside from his collaborations with Zemeckis, Silvestri is known for his work in the films Predator and Predator 2.

I interviewed film composer Alan Silvestri for the LASS Musepaper in March 1991. It turned out to be one of the best for Alan’s wonderful ability to articulate his process in scoring films.

JB: Let’s talk about the physical process of scoring a film.
This is an animation film and they very often have peculiar problems because of their very nature. They’re kind of like a Polaroid picture. The process starts and the image of the film slowly starts to appear over time. It takes a long time to start to see what that is. When I did Roger Rabbit, I think they were getting 12 feet of film a week. Unlike shooting a day of film and then watching dailies the next day. The animation is ever so slightly different because of its nature.

JB: So at what point do they bring you into the process?
I’ve always felt that the film makers who a larger perspective, a larger view, don’t seem to hesitate getting a composer involved very early on. I know with Bob Zemeckis, he gets me involved before he even goes to shoot. I see a script I hear about. He tells me the story at dinner before he’s ready to go. I’m in constant touch with the project while he’s shooting, I’ll spend some time on the set, I’ll see the first assembly of the film, I’ll see every screening from there on. That’s really the most effective way, and I think because it’s about assisting the director in its most ideal sense. I think the job is to assist the director in achieving a vision of the film. And in order to be more effective at that, you can’t have too much communication or interaction with the filmmaker. I’ve been in every kind of situation. I’ve been in that kind of total immersion with Bob and I’ve been in situations where I’ll have one meeting with the director and then that’s it! And not even see the person on the scoring stage.

JB: And not talk to him?
I even had a situation where the director didn’t even spot the film with me. I spotted it with the editor alone. It’s a tremendous opportunity lost because if you’re a director, you’re directing everything. The music is such an important and such a potentially tremendous tool for a filmmaker to achieve his overall impression of what it is he or she is trying to say. If they do not take advantage of it, it’s a missed opportunity. It’s a tool that’s left on the table somewhere. So they’re all those ranges. Ideally, it’s never too soon to get involved.

JB: When you get involved in a project like that, do you actually start coming up with themes?
Not necessarily for me. For instance going to the set where there’s some activity, I think it helps to see anything that will begin to give you some images. I also think that you can be infected by the energy of the project, which is good. To start to feel the enthusiasm and to start to see the excitement and feel the excitement…that starts to evoke things. Even though you might not sit down at that point and start writing out a theme, you’ve been exposed. So it’s in there working and it’s what I find when I’m actually into the writing of the score. I may be sitting at the table for “x” number of hours a day, but I’m not working on that film until it’s over. Wherever I am, it’s active somehow. So that exposure, even though you might not go back and start writing the theme, I still know that I’m banking hours of input that will be there working on their own. So when it comes to be time to do something, it’s already had a kind of organic life that precedes what I’m about to do. So I’m not just starting to write something. It’s in there working. It’s gestating in a sense.

JB: You just piled up the images and reference points…
That’s right. It’s an exposure. And if you’re exposed early, it has a maturity factor. So that when it comes time to say something, you haven’t just heard about the issue for the first time. You’ve been living with it, in some sense. You’ve gone through some stages of a creative cycle even though you haven’t actually sat down to write something. You’ve had thoughts about it and you’ve gotten over thoughts about it. So you’re not taking only your first impressions. First impressions are extremely important because you’re having some real ongoing contact which is valuable.

JB: When you read a script, initially that has to tell you about the setting and the time of the film in terms of what kinds of musical styles would be appropriate.
Sometimes I’ve found myself in the position where I’ve read a script and been asked to have a music meeting to talk about music in a specific way that I feel is unwarranted for where we are. If you take a script, if not all scripts, and hand them to 10 different directors, you will be beyond amazed at the 10 different movies you’re going to see. And the score is the same thing. So I think there is a tremendous amount of latitude left in the script and intentionally left in the script. And that’s what a script it. It is a blueprint for making a film. It is not a finished building. It allows for a tremendous amount of creativity and input by the builder.

JB: So it’s possible that if you got started too early on something, you could be all wrong by the time the movie’s finished.
Absolutely. Things happen and there’s nothing like seeing the images, which you cannot really get from going to a set and watching them shoot a scene. It’s very difference seeing the film project than it is to see actors on a soundstage or out on location shooting a scene. There’s no indication of other elements that occur when things are put together. You might see one shot or two shots in what will ultimately be a long scene and really not get what the scene is about from those shots until you see the scene put together. So I think there’s no real reason to be too hasty about that. Of course, if you have this news flash, bolt of lightning reaction to something you see, there’s nothing wrong with going back and writing something down that you feel captures the essence of what you see, because you may be absolutely dead-on with that. So once again, there’s no rules.

JB: What is the process of turning an emotional feeling into music? What are the parameters of that? That’s kind of a mysterious place.
It is. The closest I can get to speaking about how it feels and how it is for me is that in a sense, because of the nature of what my position in the film process is, I’m being asked to converse with the film on this emotional, psychological, physical level. And I’m asked to make my comments with notes. So here’s where the mystery begins. You will begin to have things to say. I’ll watch a scene, I’ll have something to say, right or wrong, about what I’m watching and I will then proceed to sit down and say it. And it’s interesting. I’m rarely at a loss for something to say in a conversation and I think that would be true for most people. The same thing applies to working with a piece of film and writing. I don’t experience what I’ve heard as writer’s block, the way that I’ve heard it spoken. I experience greater and lesser difficulty in expressing the thought or the feeling in conversation with the film, in terms of I haven’t found the notes yet that say it for me. If that’s what being called writer’s block, then I can understand that. But it’s not just about music. When people say they don’t have anything to say, I don’t get that. As I said, I know very few people who run out of things to say in a conversation. We have comments when we see something.

JB: But one side of the dialogue is already provided for you when you have a film. What some people get into is that they’re not stimulated by anything around them.
That’s very dangerous, because it immediately indicates you don’t know what your mission is. You don’t know why you’re there, you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing. Forget about having a conversation with someone. You don’t know why you’re in the room. I think that’s a real fundamental difficulty for people in our place in the film process. And it’s so simple, because there you are, you’ve just said it.

JB: You have to have access to a musical vocabulary that allows you to make those translations.
That is the whole craft aspect, the experience aspect of being a composer/musician. However, as I think most of us have discerned in various experiences in our lives, we can hear something eloquently said with tremendous command of the language, with no heart, with no impact, with nothing of interest in it. Sheer technique. And then we can hear an incredibly powerful thought, more clumsily expressed, and be impressed and impacted by it. They have to be separated and of course the ultimate is have fine ideas and find means of expression. And then you have a Mozart, you know, where the two come together. And there are probably examples all throughout the musical history of this planet where you can find the weighting of the balance between fine thought and fine technique and how you may hear some person’s music. And the impression of an incredibly facile technician not really saying too much and then someone who does not have the gift of technique of so-and-so and yet, this composer speaks about something that has a weight and a depth to it.

JB: That is certainly true with you all the time with songs and songwriters. There are people who have a great command of the craft and you admire that without it’s speaking to you. And sometimes you don’t see the craft. You’re more responding to the emotion and the heart.
When they come together, you have a Mozart and a Shakespeare in literature.

JB: And you had great technicians at the time that we don’t know about.
They didn’t capture the power of the thought. So on every level, that applies to every aspect of film. It applies to the music, its applies to the filmmaker. There are filmmakers who are wonderful technicians, but they don’t somehow capture a certain depth. Then you’ll see a filmmaker with less technique maybe, who, with very simple means, can make a tremendously strong impression. So I think we’re always searching for the finest thought we can bring forth from ourselves as eloquently said as we are able. That’s really what we’re ideally doing every time out of the box.

JB: Do you think it’s possible for the technology to get in the way?
I think anyone who blames the tool for bad work is looking in the wrong direction. Ultimately the only thing one can say is that the tool was so seductive that it sent this artist down the road to ruin. I don’t buy it, because the tool is the tool is the tool. And what could someone be saying that would be so weak as to allow the tool to become the master of the process.

JB: I’ve heard a couple of writer/producers say that they had to get past the place that they were so seduced by the technology that they would spend all their time getting a drum sound. They said that they forgot they were writing a song and it really should have been the other way around.
The whole computer consciousness, as I experience it, is really one that’s very playful. And I think that’s great. I think you need to play with the technology just for the sake of playing with it. You need to bang the hammer this way and that way. That’s all preparation for using this tool to its maximum. It can’t be centered around the tool. It’s not good enough to negate the tool as a means of focusing on what it is I’m trying to say. That’s excluding and non-creative. It has to do with starting at the beginning. “What am I doing?” That’s the question that has to be asked. Then the process will have an order to it. And you won’t go and be side-tracked. But then, there are times where you should just shurly be playing with the technology, if that’s where your interest is. You should spend some time getting a great drum sound. Maybe not while you’re telling yourself that you’re writing a song. Do that as another activity rather than trying to confuse the issue. And it’s confused when we’ve lost what we’re trying to do here.

alansilvestri2.jpgJB: Have you found that there is any or less use of live orchestras?
That’s a complicated question. I think there are relatively more ideal and less ideal conditions in film scoring. The more ideal has to do with having the financial means in the project to do what you feel is best for the film. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you do something on a grand scale, but it does mean that if that was what was best for the film, you would be able to. There are situations where the financial picture is very restricted and that becomes a less ideal condition to work in. However, at that point, the mission is still to achieve the maximum amount of effectiveness within the constraint. At that point often the electronic, synthesized devices can help deliver more bang for the buck. And at that point it becomes a consideration on a financial basis. So I think it’s always complicated.

I do not see electronic devices as having replaced an orchestra. I don’t experience that, I don’t see that and I don’t think it exists. I also don’t think that in any way it is devaluing the whole electronic, synthesized world. I think it’s unfair to equate the two and it’s wrong thinking to try to place synthesizers and live musicians at opposite ends of a stick. It’s two sticks and the electronic world has developed incredibly wonderful possibilities. One thing that it has done which is really amazing and wonderful is that it is giving people who are starting out a tremendous possibility to hear their music played and put together, and that’s something that I would have wished had been around when I was younger. For a relatively small investment, a songwriter and film composer can really write and hear his material in a way that’s never before been possible. Experience is ultimately what all of this is about.

JB: You don’t have to get together a big orchestra to hear whether it really work or not.
You can certainly simulate almost any kind of orchestral music enough to derive some perspective and some real input as to what it is you’re doing. And I think that’s spectacular as a tool for the craft of writing.

JB: It’s certainly been a great training ground for writer/producers to start by doing their own demos and have all the time they need to do it.
Without having a clock ticking over their head. So aside from all the wonderful coloristic contributions that it’s made to working in the field, what it’s done for the educational aspects of writing music is spectacular.

JB: Let’s talk about dealing with directors and that communication process. Have you ever found it difficult to translate what someone’s saying they want into understanding what they want as opposed to their limited ability to convey that?
You have to always jump off the cliff at some point. That is never very easy. You may, over time, develop a tremendous level of confidence where you know that when you do jump off the cliff, you’d made a good jump. You may not have jumped into the same spot that was hoped for, but no one can say it was not a good jump. And that’s about as good as it gets. On the down side, no matter how specifically and accurately you talk about music, there always arrives the moment of truth and I think you have to really trust yourself as far as feeling you have gathered as much input as you possibly could. And then it has to be yours. If you chase someone’s concept without having made your own peace with it and found your own way into it, you’re making a horrible mistake for a lot of reasons. One is you will not be able to converse from some other point of view that is not your own. And the aftermath of that is that you cannot morally justify having done that and by being in a position where you cannot morally justify what you’ve written, what happens is that you lose all the power of the statement because it won’t inherently carry anything.

So you need to hear as much, you need to be as open as possible to understand the movie, you need to understand the scene as best you can. You need to be free to talk about it and ask questions. You need to be free to be confused and find out. Very often what you’ll find when you become a little more confident is that when you’re confused, most often it’s beaches it is confusing. And you don’t save yourself anything by walking out of the room being confused and thinking, oh well, I’ll this then in this scene and we’ll see. Because if you’re confused, you’re going to bring in something confused to something that’s confused already. Very often, a director is asking you to shed some light on a problem.

I find that over and over again when I’m sitting in a spotting session or assembly with a good director, who’s interested in his film, I find that very often they are looking for the music person’s impression of things because things will be a red flag for the composer that might not be to other people. An example is you’re in the middle of this very active chase scene. Instinctively things will come into your mind as you’re watching it. And all of a sudden for two seconds there’s a cutaway to a room somewhere. Now I’m not talking about an instance where stylistically you have something very active and then we cut to stillness. This is just this thing out of nowhere. And then you’re right back into this other material that you had just come from. Sometimes, even though this is a very course description, you’ll think, “what in the hell would I do there?” What would I do? This thing is going to need a lot of pastes. It’s going to have to be back in full force. I don’t get that. On many occasions that kind of thing has arisen. And I’ve said something about it and the next time I see the film, the cut is gone.

So that’s the greatest part of the collaborative side of the film. And that’s something that is developing. It’s taking time for filmmakers to realize that they do not have to be musicians, they do not have to be composers. They don’t have to have a musical vocabulary to be effective. What they need to do, as the composer needs to do, is to know what they’re doing in the room. They need to understand that first of all, the film needs to be expressing 98% of what it’s about to the composer. And if it’s not, there’s a problem. The other 2% is things where the director wants to weigh a scene a certain way because he or she has an image of the overall film that the composer won’t or shouldn’t have in excess of the director at least. Then there’s a real finesse possible to weigh scenes, to weigh moods to be creative with the composer. And the composer needs to hear about those intentions even though he’s seeing the image on the screen because, like the script is the blueprint for the film, the rough cut or the film with no sound and no loops and no music is an unfinished stage of what will ultimately be the final film. There’s still a lot of room for things to be shaded. More people are starting to be comfortable with that. Film music is, by many people, known for the power that it can contribute. The film director wants and needs that.

JB: What do you think it takes these days for someone to start out in film music? What kind of tools should they have?
I would say ideally, you should never stop working on the techniques and crafts of your art, no matter what it is. So if one finds oneself settling for an existing level of proficiency, then that’s what that is. But certainly being concerned about what’s gone before is of no use and you can spend all the time you want on craft and still have nothing to say. Of course, having something to say, they can’t be separated. That’s where the music is, where they come together. So for someone starting out, I think there are a lot of things that are important. Constantly working on the craft from wherever one is. And that can be at a very elementary stage or a very advanced stage.

I think it’s important for anyone involved in film to be exposed to literature from the point of view of stories. What is a story? How do they work? How do they come together? How am I touched by a story? Because, for me, that’s work on the thought side and the emotional side. It’s work in the direction of having something to say and having one’s inner world expand so that there is more depth of things to say. That’s got to coincide with working on techniques so that one is able to say more and have greater facility for expressing it. In terms of getting into the film business, it’s one of those things where probably every case is completely different.

Certainly with the technology as it stands, anyone can go out and buy a video cassette and score that movie in their home and begin to get some feedback. Anyone can write the main title song to any movie and put it over the images or write the score or write a scene from any movie and see it with the film. They might not hear the dialogue and all, but they can see it with the images and you have to practice. Something will come from that, not everything, but it’s certainly a big help.

JB: It would probably be an interesting thing to have like they have music minus one to have film minus music.
That’s what was happening at Sundance. There were specific scenes taken from movies that have not been scored or movies that had been scored but they had rough footage of it. And everyone would get one scene from one movie and they would writer the music for it. They would all be different, but I mean really different. And it wasn’t like one was great and four were not. You could see three great versions of a scene. And so different. Directors now have the possibility of experimenting with some degree with temp dubs which was more of a necessity. They needed something there because they had to show their picture to the studio far in advance of having it scored and they don’t want to sit through 110 minutes of film with no music in it because it can be deadly, especially if it’s an action film.

So what happens is as soon as they get close to an assembly, most film companies hire a music editor to come and start constructing a temp dub. Plus they have their blind prints where they have to show the film well in advance to its being completed and scored to exhibitors. So it’s important that there be music. That then gives the filmmakers the chance to see their film with music. And of course they can use the greatest music that’s ever been written for film or whatever else because it’s all out there on records and CDs and tapes and literally there are just cuts from things or transferred off. You’ll watch a scene in your movie with the main title of Star Wars with this enormous orchestra and you’ll get to see something about how your film’s playing. Now the stage from there is very often a composer is brought in and he watches that. It’s not a bad thing if the filmmakers are completely aware of the fact that this is now a tool for them.

JB: They haven’t gotten married to this.
Exactly. And sometimes they do and then that creates its own obvious problems. Once again, it comes back to the intelligence and focus of the people involved. It’s the same analogy as the musician who falls off the piano bench onto the floor in the middle of writing a song to start aligning some machine. It’s the same thing. If the film editor falls off the editing bench into the temp dub and forgets that it’s about keeping the focus, that this is a tool to indicate an aspect of the scene that you want to communicate to an audience and that that’s the point of view that has to be looked at for the composer. The smart ones know about that. I’ve sat during the temp dub with the director and the director realizes that he has now just made a compromise in his film by showing you the temp dub. The smart ones understand that. And the compromise is I have just removed this composer’s first impression of my film. And I have removed his unconditioned response to my movie. So what’s the upside? What do I get for it? Well, a smart one may show you the film first of all without any music and then show you his temp dub. Then he gets both.

JB: This gives you an idea of what kind of thing he wants.
Exactly. But lets you see it first without the temp dub. The upside of the temp dub is that if it’s used as a tool for the filmmaker he now has maybe no musical training or vocabulary, but he has music to talk about. Now we’re both looking at a pillow. He says see, there’s some stripes in there that are real light. Is that mauve. I don’t like that. So you’re no longer talking about the technique. You’re talking about the impressions. So a director will look at a scene and say I like the pace of this music. I like the scope of this music. I hate this kind of chunky part that comes in here. I think it’s too disruptive. I like this flowing and that’s valuable.

When you arrive on the soundstage and you have a 100-piece orchestra out there, you’re going through about $35,000-$50,000 a day and any indication that you can get about anything in terms of the filmmaker’s wishes is valuable. And then within that, it doesn’t have to be an intrusion into one’s creativity. You are either involved in a collaborative art or you’re not. The moment you say yes to doing a film, you have just signed on to a ship of which you are not the captain. And that must never be forgotten. If you want to be the captain, then you stay in your room and write your music for yourself. You are there to collaborate and be part of the crew, albeit you’re asked to make this tremendously high-profile contribution. But you are not the last word. There is a captain of the ship ideally.

Of course, every film composer who’s been out there doing it for awhile has signed on to ships where once you get outside of land, the captain cuts his throat and jumps off the boat. There you all are adrift and no one knows where they want to go or why. Then it’s every man for himself and you have a picture that looks like the captain just jumped off the boat and killed himself. That’s pretty interesting how that works.

JB: The dub track is interesting because I know a couple of writers who got into the film because the song was on the temp track.
All kinds of things like that happen. Certainly for anyone who’s beginning, the more they can be around and exposed, the better. You’re not going to get a chance scoring a film if you never leave your room. It doesn’t matter how much you write in there. The Sundance workshop, the BMI workshop, songwriter’s things where they can hear material and see what’s out there, what working and what’s not working. All exposure is worth something because people move through industries together.

JB: You score a college film for a young director who later turns out to be…
Basil Poledouris and John Milius were in school together and that’s a relationship where a collaborative effort began and it goes on. Bob Zemeckis and I met at a turning point for both of us in our careers on Romancing the Stone and something was forged in that time for the both of us that has endured. Those kinds of relationships happen all around you. When you’re 20 years old and you do a student film and there’s some folks there working on this film…one’s a producer and one’s a writer, etc. And 10 or 15 years later, that one’s the president of Fox and this one here’s the head of one of the top agencies. That’s how it happens. All of those relationships that continue, you move as generations through the industry. That’s very important too.

JB: Did you do any kind of apprenticeship program with anybody?
I’ve never orchestrated for anyone. I never wrote a note for a piece of film until a man handed me 12 cans and I had 9 days to write sixty minutes of music. I didn’t even know what a click track was the day I was handed the cans. I did not know what any of it was. It just turned through this flukey course of events that I was given a film to score, never having done it or even thought about doing it.

JB: Had they heard something you did?
It’s one of the blessings and curses of the film industry, where an opening can be created. You can hear the argument that I’m so good and no one will listen to my music. That’s one of the curses because maybe you feel that level of intelligence en masse out there is not what you hope it would be to understand the contribution you have to make. However, there is an upside to what’s perceived to be a less than ideal level of intelligence which means that things will be allowed to happen that should not be allowed to happen like having a 20 year old guy who’s never written a note of music for a film be handing 12 cans and be asked to show in 9 days with a score. So that’s the upside of this thing.

JB: Like chaos theory.
Exactly. The door is being shut because of this level of ignorance and on the other hand, I negate the fact that that may be the same force that will open the door. So there I was with this job and I remember I drove out to Simi Valley to buy the Knudsen book because I heard I needed that. I went down to Pickwick Books in Hollywood and I bought Earl Hagen’s book called Scoring For Films and I read the book in one night and listened to the records and listened to the examples as to how he put these techniques together. And the next day, literally, I was writing music for this film. So there it was. The technique is pretty doable in terms of the mechanics. Not musical techniques, but the mechanics of film are things that you can learn. You can learn what click tracks are, what time code is. The contribution the Grant Brothers have made with the oracle is beyond anything I can think of…what that has allowed in terms of facilitating the organization of music as it applies to music and the obligations of time.

JB: Is that the time code machine?
No it doesn’t actually code it. What it does is allow you to take a piece of film and organize the music so that things will be where you want them to be when you want them to be there. So everything from generating click tracks which can be used as guide tracks to play to, to generating streamers which provide picture cues so that you can hook up to those. But it’s incredible the way they put it together and facilitated that whole nightmarish aspect. That is pure mechanics and it allows one to spend all one’s time on the writing of the music compared to how it used to be. There was a lot of fear for the music editor and composer. These guys have really made a great contribution.

If you’re a painter and you make a choice as to the medium you’re going to work in, after you’ve decided the subject, that wipes out tremendous numbers of possibilities. Same thing in music. The moment you begin, every time you make a choice, you cancel a tremendous number of other possibilities. So then, the creative process as I experience it becomes this kind of following along and I think when people get bogged down in trying to do too much too quickly and I’ve actually tried to short-circuit my process, what’s come to be my process.

When I see a scene and I’m actually going to begin to write, I work on incredibly sketchy pass. The mission, the goal, the aim of that particular stage of the process is to get a very, very overall view of the music. I find that if I try intentionally to be more specific than this threshold that I’ve come to discover for myself, it cuts the energy off and I’m stopped and then I have nothing, because then I’m not doing the task at hand. The task at hand is to develop the overall view. Once that’s there, then a tremendous number of possibilities have just been removed, a tremendous number of sandtraps have just been removed from the course. They’re not there anymore, I don’t have to worry about that anymore. Now I have this here and now within that what I’ve experienced is that it’s almost as thought a different part of my brain is called upon to do these different aspects of this.

It’s more difficult for me, always, to derive that first very vague version of the music. The first thing I work on is a four-line sketch. Sometimes I may only write one line, it’s just very vague. But that’s always the most taxing. That’s what I feel is the essential creative part of my job. Once that’s done, I feel that I can unplug that part of my brain and then I plug in another part that starts to elaborate and chisel and highlight and bring this into some kind of relief and make it happen. It is far less painful, for lack of a better word, than this original. And it stands to reason, in a sense that, the first process is something coming from nothing. There’s blank paper — there’s nothing there. I have to come forth. Once you come forth with something, it is no longer something from nothing. There is something there.

The very fact that it’s there now has all of its own life. It’s got things that it can do, it has things it can’t do. I mean if I’ve established key relationships, those are there, they will be adhered to. I don’t have to worry about all the other keys now — they’re gone. It’s just from here to here to here — whatever it is, harmonies, a melody — that becomes the law and it’s not every other melody that could be written I have to be taxing my brain with. That choice has been made. It’s done. Not that you won’t refine it and do things, but something exists now, so it’s a whole different energy to work on something that exists, I guess is what I’m saying, as it is to work on something that doesn’t exist.

JB: That really is the right brain – left brain process. In talking about songwriting, there are several parallels to that: is that there are people who are starters and there are people who are great finishers writing songs. Some people say, “I had this great idea, but what I do with it after this …” Other people who are more left brain oriented will see that as a problem to solve and will get excited trying to figure out how to make this work. There’s also the process, referred to as a “stream of consciousness” process to start with, that when you’re writing lyrics, it’s much easier to just sit down and write whatever comes to your head, write pages of stuff and get the idea down so that you’ve developed an idea and all the things that you can think of, before you start getting hung up in “does this rhyme?,” “is this meter right?” and do it line by line. Some people can do it that way — going line by line and building it that way, but it’s a different kind of process. Most people, I find, have better luck doing the process that you’re talking about where you get to your initial emotional “hit” where you’re being stimulated in some way where you can get that out in a real simple way and then go back, and then your critical facility takes over later and says, “well, this should maybe be changed a little here … ”
It was so vivid to me — and this is not that long ago. I was working on a project where we were getting squeezed pretty bad for time and it was because of that that I thought I would try to short circuit what had come to be my process and I thought that just to save time I’ll go right to something that’s more detailed than normally and I spent one of the most horrid days writing than I had experienced in ten years. And I fell for it. That’s what was interesting. I was like a crazed person, you know, negative and couldn’t write and “I have no ideas” and kvetching and all, and it was not until the end of the day that I realized what I had done that I had confused the issue. I had forgotten the process and kind of didn’t have any respect for it. I thought that I could somehow willfully change it, but those pieces don’t go together. Before that experience, I would not have been able to articulate what we’ve both articulated in our own way today, but this was a first-hand experience of it. Of course, the idea to do it that way was abandoned and I got up the next morning and it came out all at once. The whole cue came out all at once, so it’s pretty remarkable. It’s difficult, probably, to communicate that and if you’re attempting that, I think it’s an incredibly worthwhile effort because even short of experience, I think people who have not come upon a kind of meshing with the creative process will certainly have come upon the effects of not being in step with it and the frustration. That will all be very recognizable.

JB: That’s what translates into writer’s blocks. That’s what behind some of that, that there is a process that is natural for you and you’ve ignored it, no matter what it is. There might be people who have a process just the opposite of yours but that’s natural for them and it works.
And that’s what we need to find — how my organism derives and develops material. I think that’s very worthwhile because nothing can grow in that confused environment. It’s almost like the initial concepts are moving so quickly that they can’t exist in this heavier air of development. And so, if you have two different atmospheres, living environments, that both of these energies have to function in and you can’t expect one to exist in the wrong environment and so the job is to kind of do some gardening here.

JB: I always hate someone to come and say, “You know, I don’t think I’m doing this right,” as though there really is a right way to do it, “because I know somebody else who does it differently and I just can’t so maybe I’m just not happenin’.” And to destroy their confidence because they don’t operate the way somebody they admire operates and they think it has to be done that way.
I had a piano teacher who used to call that “insipient leprosy.” And here’s where the story came from: I walked into his place and I had been doing some counterpoint exercises and of course, I didn’t do any of them this week. And I went in to see this guy and I had this meaningful pitch, because I’d really come to something, which is exactly what you’ve explained. I just don’t know if I really should be writing and I don’t know if I can really do this. There seem to be people [who do it better]…. and he listened very attentively while I poured my heart out to him about the difficulties of writing and he sat way back in his recliner, with his cigar, and said, “Yep! Insipient leprosy!” I was in the middle of this confession and he said that … and he explained, “Well, ya know, that’s kind of how it starts, and then you’re going to find like in a couple days your arm’s gonna drop off, your right arm. And then in a couple days, your left arm will drop off and then it will happen with your left leg and your right leg, and then that’s it.” I remember just being kind of riveted by the guy, it’s hard to communicate the emotional aspect of it, but if I had to look back on it, the adolescent attitude is not acceptable and it’s not what any of us wish for ourselves. The excuse-making process has got to be seen for what it is, by us personally, for something else to appear. This was an instance of pure shock value, the way this old timer shocked me into sitting there in my filth, in a sense, and having to take a look at it for what it was. When anyone can do that for us and assist us, I think that’s really what living is all about. We need to get some kind of view of our captivity and creativity, although it may rhyme with captivity, is really on the opposite end of the spectrum … almost not even in the same world. It’s a different world. That’s why we want to be more free and clear to let things happen.