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Interviews, TIFF 2018

Interview: Rob Simonsen Talks “The Front Runner”, “Love, Simon”, and Recording in Paris

By: Jessica Nakamoto –

Rob Simonsen

Rob Simonsen

For composer Rob Simonsen, music has always been a venture closely linked to family and emotion. And ever since his Grandmother first introduced him to the piano at an early age, he’s produced nothing short of stellar works. With notable accomplishments ranging from the iconic piano music on Apple’s iPhone 5 “Everyday” campaign to the founding of successful Los Angeles-based collective, The Echo Society, it’s clear that Simonsen’s work has been widely embraced by his peers, fans, and family alike.

However, beyond these personal projects, Simonsen’s vast array of impressive film compositions are also well deserving of widespread recognition. Throughout his career, he’s amounted a massive tally of impressive credits including Love, Simon, The Front RunnerMoneyballNerveLife of Pi, and 2013 World Soundtrack Academy Award nominees, The Spectacular Now, and The Way, Way Back. In other words, there’s no doubt that the connection between Simonsen and the instrument he lovingly describes as his “good friend”, is nothing short of a match made in heaven.

We had the pleasure of catching up with Rob following his appearance at TIFF and can’t wait to share the inside scoop behind his latest projects and yet-to-be-released debut album!

II’d like to start by first saying, congratulations on your work with The Front Runner!

Thank you very much!

How did you originally get involved with this project?

I had scored Tully for Jason Reitman [director] and it went pretty well. So, when this one came up, he asked me to meet, hear about the story, and see if I was interested. [The Front Runner] It’s something very different from Tully, so I wrote him a few little things to see if I was in the zone he wanted. He liked them, we moved forward, and we got to the finish line! That was it! (laughs)

You were recently at TIFF with The Front Runner. As someone who’s attended events like this and the Sundance Film Festival, what do you think are some of the biggest positives or takeaways from these types of gatherings?

I think that it’s a really great chance to connect with a lot of peers and a lot of other filmmakers! Everyone’s here celebrating each other’s work and seeing films. You get to have conversations with a lot of amazing people and meet inspiring people who are out there doing great work. It’s just a great environment to be amongst others who all have dreams and are all working towards realizing them.

I see! Speaking about dreams, was there ever a point in your career where you felt that you had “made it” so to speak, as a composer?

Nope! (laughs) No, I mean, that’s one of the greatest things about music. There’s no finish line! There are always challenges. There are always things to learn. There are always ways to improve or push oneself. It’s kind of endless. For me, it’s the perfect format for growing. It’s very ongoing and I think each film is always a new challenge.

There’s certainly goals that I set out for myself early in my career and I felt happy to kind of realize. But, it’s like walking, the journey’s never over. I think that’s one of the things that makes this career so rich!

In addition to this overarching kind of career view, I know 2018 in particular has been a super exciting year for you, especially with films like Tully and Love, Simon! What is your process like for selecting or even narrowing down which projects to work on?

It’s always a mixture of what I’m able to take on and what has the most gravity in terms of feeling like I’m the right person for them and it’s the right project for me.

Most of the time, it’s something that really speaks to me in a certain way. That can be on different levels. Maybe it’s the subject matter that I’m really moved by or am passionate about. Maybe it’s an exceptional film. Or maybe a chance to do something musically that’s different and interesting. I feel like I have a lot of different musical reference points for myself personally.

It’s really cool to be able to do something like Love, Simon, which is this 80’s synth-based thing, and then do The Front Runner, which is pretty much all piano. A lot of it is improvised, just me sitting at my piano playing. And percussion.

These are all kinds of musical worlds that I loved and spent time absorbing and listening to a lot growing up. So, I think it’s an exciting opportunity from any one of those angles. If I can fit it in to my schedule, it’s an exciting thing to do!

Well, one exciting thing that caught my attention was that you were selected for a film when director Zach Braff heard your iPhone commercial!

(Laughs) It was actually for, Wish I Was Here [2014 film], the film before Going In Style.

He [Braff] had heard the music I did for an Apple commercial and said it was the first time he had ever Googled to find who did music for an ad! He thought it was the perfect sound for his film. So, we did that [movie], then we did Going In Style, and then, we did a television show. Zach is a great musical collaborator. He’s very musically sensitive. He pushes to get these very emotional moments. I love working with Zach! He’s great!

Given this somewhat unorthodox method of getting selected for a film, what kind of advice do you think you would give to younger composers about being flexible in the industry or even venturing beyond film work?

I think the best advice comes from my mentor, Mychael Danna [film composer], who essentially said, “push in to your roots and find your own musical identity”. I think that’s really the most important thing. It’s to develop your own voice as an artist, especially nowadays were a lot of big filmmakers are looking for composers that have unique voices and that are going to offer up a perspective that might be differentfrom the mainstream and sound different from the music that we’ve had for the last thirty years. I think this is really great! It’s opening the field for a lot of really awesome film music.

If someone wants to get into composing, they should develop their own voice and express that however they can, whether it’s making records or doing concerts or doing film work. I know that there’ll probably continue to be plenty of opportunities for mainstream film music, and if that’s truly where your heart lies, then more power to you! You should totally go after that! But, looking at where things are going, I think the most important thing you should do, is develop your own voice.

Simonsen's latest composing project, The Front Runner, screened at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

Simonsen’s latest composing project, The Front Runner, screened at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

Speaking of each composer’s unique voice, I really enjoy your signature piano melodies!

(laughs) Well thank you!

What first drew you to that instrument?

Pianos were around when I was a kid. They were in my house and in my grandmother’s house. She was a piano player and a voice teacher. She taught us all how to sing and how to play the piano and other instruments. My great-grandmother was also a musician and played the piano. She actually did Vaudeville stuff, played for silent film, and did that kind of thing! So, sitting at the piano and playing was very natural. I did it a lot growing up.

It wasn’t a formal classical training. Although, I did get piano lessons and training and studied jazz piano in college and what not. But, mostly, it [piano] was just this thing in my home that I could sit at, figure things out on, pick out melodies, and play around. Just find my way through it from a very emotional standpoint. And as the years went on, it became an instrument that I used to work out melodies and work out things compositionally. So, it’s always kind of been a kind of friend. Actually, it’s been a good friend! (laughs)

I love that you mentioned family! Given this, your work with composers like Mychael Danna, and even your founding of The Echo Society, do you think that coming from a musical family and being surrounded by these different influences has made you more open regarding collaborative works in music? 

Maybe! One of my Echo Society cohorts, Ben Wynn, he says often about the Echo Society, “that you realize it’s much more powerful to build things together than it is to be competitors with each other.” I love learning from my composer friends. I love talking about music and art with my composer friends. I love commiserating with them! (laughs)

There’s a lot of really great benefits to having a community of composers around you! We’re up for the same jobs. Sometimes we lose jobs to each other. Whether it be this kind of rivalry and friendly competition, I think at the end of the day, I have a desire for other people to be the best that they can bein their lives because I think it enhances the world. I get inspired by my friends. It’s just where I want to be. It’s a mixture of people and the kind of community that I want to be in. You want to be around other people who are pushing themselves and are inspired to push their own art. So, if I can be a part of that, great! It’s just something that I’ve felt.

My musical upbringing very much came from the idea that music is something that you do with your family. It’s fun! It’s something that brings people together. I did spend time in practice rooms in college, so I know what that existence is like. But, maybe that’s different from some people who have had solid classical training and spent many hours alone, practicing and what not. For me, it’s always been about connecting with people! So, to answer your question, yes!

You brought up this idea of community. One thing I like about the Echo Society is that it blends classical symphony as well as aspects of modern concerts like lighting effects and electronic elements in the music. Was the idea of making classical music more accessible to the public one of the Society’s intentions from the beginning? 

Yes, it definitely was! To explore the intersection of electronic concert music and classic concert music has always been something we’ve endeavored to do. We try to imagine an experience that would be really exciting for us. Our guiding light, is always thinking about what’s possible, and what would get us really excited. That’s what we tend to push into.

Why not have new works instead of a typical classical canon? Why not have lights and projectors and 3D maps? I think there are a lot of people who are interested in those kinds of things and are interested to see classical instruments played at very high levels for new music… especially music that might reference what’s happening today, either in pop culture, or indie-electronic music for example.

I just think we live in this really wonderful time where people value doing new things and doing something special as opposed to trying to do things “correctly”. There’s this notion of doing things genuinely and being bold, that excites me personally. And I think I share that with the rest of the guys and girls of Echo.

With these original performances, I’ve heard that you complete one-time-only shows based on a pre-determined theme. How do you go about picking the theme for each of these live events?

Picking a theme is always a really important thing because it’s got to be something that gets us excited. I think we spend a lot of time sitting and talking and just generating ideas. A lot of times, I don’t exactly know where the ideas come from. People are just throwing out different things.

A lot of times, it’s reacting to spaces as well. So, if we see a space, then we have an idea. We try to reimagine how music could occur in this space. And pushing into that, it’s about reacting to the architecture and the layout and the design and the time and the feeling!

There’s a lot of that happening in each performance. But overall, it’s also about questioning, what do we feel comfortable saying? What do we want to say? From what angle do we want the music to beinformed by? We often get together to sit and talk over some breakfast or some pizza and La Croix and just come up with ideas. (laughs)

In addition to The Echo Society, I heard you also have a yet-to-be-released, debut album with some original piano works! Could you tell us a little bit about it?

Sure! It’s a piano-driven record. The way that it came about was very much going back to how things started for me… sitting at the piano and improvising. Then [after this step], I would sit back with my engineer and co-producer and we would listen to the improvisations. They would be anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour! We would kind of flag the moments that we were all responding to. Then, I would go back out. We had all these pianos miked up, in a beautiful recording studio in Paris!

I would work out the arrangement until it was more of a structured song. Then, I wrote arrangements for string, brass, choir, and we did some recording and production. It’s hopefully coming out early next year!

Do you think that recording in Paris, and being surrounded by the romantic ambience of the city and the overall environment, influenced the album in any way?

Totally! In fact, I went to Paris four or five times to work on the record. And I didn’t work on the music outside of there!

For me, just walking around in Paris, and it may seem a little cheesy, but it feels like you’re walking around in someone’s work of art. Haussmann [Georges-Eugene Haussmann], redesigned the city and everything is architecturally pleasing there. The food is amazing, and so are the lights, the language, and the history! I find Paris to be a very inspiring place aesthetically. I deliberately kept the writing process to Paris and almost the entire record was written and recorded there.

Besides your new album coming out, are there any other projects on the horizon, that you could give us a little sneak preview into?

Well, I don’t know if I can say anything yet. (jokes) It’s all very top-secret, hush, hush! No. (laughs) It’s really not that crazy. There are definitely exciting things on the horizon but nothing that I can say yet. But, 2019 will be a pretty exciting year!

I typically wrap things up with a few fill-in-the-blank sentences. Would you like to give it a shot?

Sure!

One song I can’t stop listening to is…

Oh gosh! I’m going to have to peak at my Spotify real quick! (laughs) There’s been some heavy repeats! Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of pop, tons of 80’s disco. A lot of Hall and Oates!

That’s Excellent! They just came through my neck of the woods recently and everyone was super excited to see them!

Yeah! I saw them with Tears for Fears last year and they were great. (laughs) They’ve still got it!

Indeed! Next question for you, my ideal day off would include…

Hiking in the mountains and looking at the stars!I also love camping! I try and do it a lot.

The last movie I watched for fun was…

Isle of Dogs, which I absolutely loved!

Last one, if I could travel anywhere I would go to…

Antarctica

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