I like it when composers take on small independent projects that have a very special meaning to them. Those are the composers who really don't care about the money as much as the music they're writing. Just being associated with something personal and fulfilling. Many composers in the past have done this, including the late Basil Poledouris and the film "It's My Party," which he virtually did for free as a personal favor to his best friend Director Randal Kleiser, which dealt with a serious issue of AIDS.
Composer Jeff Lippencott has undertaken a film of worthy personal accomplishment with "Grace Unplugged," a Christian based film that is filled with positive messages about family and a topic that has become seriously neglected theatrically, unless you're watching a hokey Lifetime Channel or Hallmark Movie (which are guilty pleasures for me I might add). Family values and wholesome films are what really used to thrive on the big and small screens and this film is a very rare exception, much like 2011's "Soul Surfer".
Jeff's enormous talents have also paired him up with a fellow composer, Mark T. Williams and forming a partnership that has led into a very successful company in Ah2. Ah2 provides the music for many current reality television series such as "The Apprentice", "The Biggest Loser", "Shark Tank", "Masterchef," among the many other that Jeff and Mark have collaborated on with successful results. For this very candid and insightful interview, Jeff shares with us about working in reality television and his demanding schedule in the medium, what led him to his current partnership and company and of course, the film "Grace Unplugged". So please share in the delightful thoughts of this very talented composer.
Please tell the readers how you became interested in music and what led you to become a composer.
JL: I always did music when I was a child. I did everything by ear and I come from a musical family. My grandfather and grandmother met in Vaudeville in the 1920s, and my dad was a child star in the 1940s and 1950s - He was on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1959. I guess the genetic code just got passed down to me. I started playing with instruments when I was a kid and picked up this and that along the way. Finally when it was time to go to college, I decided to major in music composition. As soon as I finished college, I got married and moved straight to Nashville to follow my dreams to make it in the music business.
Let’s talk about your partnership with Mark T. Williams. How did you two meet and tell us about your collaboration?
JL: We met in Nashville. Mark had just graduated college at Bellmont and I was a working as an arranger and orchestra conductor there. I had just gotten married, already had two children of my own and had been in Nashville for quite some time. We met on a Film Music Online Forum - a composer chatroom, where three or four of us from Nashville were talking about films and composing for film and TV. We struck up a friendship and about 6 months later he called me and said he was moving to California, specifically LA. I had no intentions of coming out to California but over the next couple years, through weird circumstances, I had to come out for a couple different things and he told me to look him up. By 2002, my wife and I were really feeling like we were supposed to close up shop in Nashville and come to LA to go try to follow the dream of television and film while our children were still young enough to move. Our oldest was 11 or 12 at the time and our youngest was 6. We just felt like if we were going to do it, it was time. We wound up moving to the area where Mark lived in LA - Valencia/Santa Clarita Valley. I had just finished this project for Curb Records while I was moving out here. As soon as we moved out here, I had to fly to Ireland to cut the orchestra, and then I flew back. Mark called me up as soon as I returned and said, “Hey man, do you have time to meet? I have this orchestra project and I know that’s your thing and I’d love to see if you could help me out and maybe we could do this together.” That’s really where Ah2 started.
Does it make it easier for you guys to write music together especially when you have a relatively short schedule or virtually no time to write? Tell us about that process.
JL: Typically, Mark and I write a lot of things together. Main Title theme pieces that would require both of our talents we split and divide and conquer. So, we develop the musical concept of a show and then each of us goes back to our respective studios and I’ll write the cues that are more orchestral and more up my alley. Mark will write the stuff that plays more to his talents which are more modern, electronic, and more current than the orchestra stuff that I live in. The timeframe has become pretty normal for us. We’re used to the short timespans and we tend to be able to write at a speed that is able to produce enough music for these shows in the amount of time that we are given.
Let’s talk about your latest film for Liongate Films, “Grace Unplugged.” Please tell us about the film and how you became involved the project
JL: “Grace Unplugged” is a great family movie. It’s a faith based movie about a father’s relationship with his daughter. She’s turning 18 and they’re both musical and she decides to leave her parents, run away, and go pursue the dream of being a rock star in LA - much like her dad was back in the 80s. It’s a movie of redemption. It’s a movie about family, God, and how God brings us back to those things that are true in our life if we’re willing to listen and follow. Creatively, how I got involved was through my friend and pastor at my church. He knew the guys that were doing the film and they had finished their film, but still needed a composer. David (my pastor) suggested that they talk with me. We met, and I decided to score a couple scenes for them just to see if it was the right fit. They ended up really loving what I did and we were off to the races.
Was it difficult or easier for you to find a tone for the music as you were watching the film?
JL: It was pretty easy on this one. It’s a song-based movie. There are a lot of songs that weave in and out of the score. I didn’t want to make it a big orchestral score, so immediately I was thinking more nuance, strings, and more subtlety. There is a lot of emotion here and I knew that they didn’t want it to be a rock score. They wanted it to be very subtle, so it didn’t take me long to whittle it down to strings and some light woodwinds here and there. But the tone came pretty quick, because once I scored the demo scenes for the director, he said, “Yeah, this is the tone of the movie, just go with it.” So we did!
Did the director Brad Silverman give you anything specific about how the music should sound like or did he give you a little leeway in that regard?
JL: He gave me a ton of leeway. He basically said, “Go show me what this music is, go show me what this music is supposed to sound like.” Sometimes you hit it and sometimes you don’t. This time, it was just right. The first time on this movie, from the first note – I was very fortunate.
What kind of a relationship did you have with Brad Silverman on the film?
JL: Brad is great. I had never met him until that initial meeting. We shared a mutual friend, my pastor, who introduced us, but we hit it off immediately. We knew a lot of the same people who ran in some of the same circles, and after the first couple of scoring sessions it was like we were brothers – tied at the hip. He was so excited that the movie was taking such a creative turn with the original score, and the temp music being removed. He just didn’t realize how much life that could be brought to the movie, and he was very excited about that. Our relationship developed throughout the process to the point where he flew up for the scoring session in Seattle and we had two days of great fun up there scoring. We had a cool hang and a great recording session. He had never used a live orchestra on any of his movies so it was an exciting time.
How much music did you end up writing for the film? How did you work around the songs the characters sing in the film?
JL: I wrote almost 30 minutes of music. About 25 (minutes) actually made it there. There were some scenes that hadn’t had temp music ever in them, and I decided to take a shot at them and see if some music would work. I knew that they had been watching these scenes without music for months and I knew I was jumping out on a limb a little bit by trying to put music there. Brad gave me a free creative license. He told me to put music anywhere I wanted, if I thought it worked. A couple of spots it didn’t but the rest of it made it into the film.
How was the soundtrack assembled? Why did you choose one track over another to be included in the compilation?
JL: That wasn’t that difficult because the space between the songs and where they wanted the score was pretty wide, so I had a lot of latitude there. For the soundtrack, the score compilation is pretty much most of what hit the screen and some from the deleted scenes. The music that didn’t make it is on there as bonus cuts. The order isn’t necessarily the order of the songs in the film. We went back through the order several times just to see how we wanted to structure it and I think that it became more of a musical playlist rather than a sequence of film playlist. We made some of the decisions based on what we thought the listener would want to listen to and the length of the tracks - more flow.
Do you think Christian films like this give composers an opportunity to write music that otherwise would get a backseat?
JL: This was my first time writing music for a Christian project. For this particular project, the songs are more Christian-based. The score for the film, however, would even fit in a similar type of movie that didn’t have Christian content. It could serve the same purpose.
You’ve been involved in many reality television series such as “Extreme Weight Loss”, “The Biggest Loser”, “Shark Tank”, “The Apprentice”, and “Who Do You Think You Are?,” and “Masterchef.” Can you please tell the readers how you got involved with each series?
JL: We got our start with Mark Burnett in 2003 when we were hired on “The Apprentice,” and then worked with him on “Shark Tank.” “Extreme Weight Loss” came to us through JD and Todd at Three Ball. We started with them when we working on “The Biggest Loser” (since 2005). We have done a bunch of shows for those guys. This business is very much about relationships. You have “Masterchef,” which leads to “Hotel Hell,” which leads to “Masterchef Junior,” because a lot of the same people are involved. Hopefully you’re doing a good job and the music is successful and the tentacles creep out into other shows as the showrunners move around.
What’s the process that you go through to find a proper musical tone for each show that the producers would be satisfied with?
JL:There’s a couple different ways of going about this. Either the producers have a sound that they like and want something similar for their own show, or they ask us how we think their movie or television show should sound. If that’s the case, we’ll send them some cues we’ve written or from our catalogue, then they’ll say yes or no based on that. Typically in reality shows, when we start writing the music, the show is not even really cut yet, so we have to envision what the show should sound like before it’s even shot – before we even see any footage. It’s a little bit of a guessing game. We’ve been very fortunate over the years, so more of our guesses are right than wrong.
Is it harder for you to write music for a reality series as opposed to a scripted television series or a feature film? Can you tell us what the differences are?
JL: With reality television, you have to write before there is picture. Having picture is a huge help to tip you to what the scene should sound like. For example, with “The Apprentice,” you have to think about Donald Trump and New York City. But what does that sound like? It’s really ambiguous. You’re basically throwing darts at a dartboard trying to come up with a sound without a picture. When we actually get picture, it’s amazing! We don’t have to sit here and imagine what’s happening, because we can actually see it on screen.
What is your schedule like when you’re working on a reality series compared to a full length motion picture?
JL: Movies are different because you are more subjected to the budget, their post schedule, and then the director’s schedule – when he can hear the cues. With reality television, we’re writing as they’re shooting, so typically they hear the music, they give us notes, and then we fix it with their notes. Because Mark and I typically have four or five shows going on at once, we have a nice team here at Ah2 that helps us out. Mark and I will write the cues and then we have orchestrators and mixers on staff to help us meet our deadlines and get it all done. Without the staff it would be quite difficult.
On average, how much music do you normally write for shows?
JL: Typically, reality television is wall-to-wall music. With these shows at 43-44 minutes long, we’re writing a good amount of music for these shows.
With reality series such as these, they tend to re-use themes that you’ve previously written. How do you approach a new season with new music, all the while keeping some of these same themes?
JL: That’s the really great part about reality television, but also the bad part. When you have a successful show and you’ve found the sound and tone for that show, you can keep with that same idea, but also move it around a little bit. You can stay in the same church, but you don’t have to be sitting in the same pew.
What is your favorite film or television series that you have scored to date?
JL: It would be very difficult to choose for favorite television series. Each of them have their own sound, tone, and thematic concept. For example, with “Who Do You Think You Are,” we weaved the theme for the series all the way through each episode with little changes here and there for each famous person, from Emmitt Smith to Susan Sarandon. It was really interesting to do. But all of our shows have little things about it that we love.
For movies, I’d have to say “Grace Unplugged.” It’s been a great process and I think working with the director and the producers was a fabulous experience. I’m looking forward to hopefully working with them again soon.
What is your favorite all time film that you wished you had scored personally?
JL: I’d have to say “Silverado,” Bruce Broughton, 1985.
Name a composer who’s influenced your career musically speaking and why?
JL: It’s hard not to have John Williams influence any composer, for sure. My three most influential scores would be Jerry Goldsmith’s “Rudy,” Randy Newman’s “The Natural,” and Bruce Broughton’s “Silverado.”
Do you have a dream project you would love to do?
JL: I would love to do a really big, sweeping score for a Western. I would really love to do a “Magnificent Seven” type of movie someday. I’m really partial to the West and I vacation in Wyoming. I think that cinematic beauty would be fun to express in a musical form.
Please tell the readers about future upcoming projects you may have.
JL: I have some movies that are coming up next year, but currently we’re working on an upcoming ABC show called “The Quest.” It’s a very interesting show. It’s kind of a quasi-scripted, quasi-reality type series, working with Bertram van Munster from “The Amazing Race” and a couple of the producers from “The Lord of the Rings.” It’s going to be a big score. We are recording with a full orchestra up in Seattle in a couple weeks. The theme and thematic content we’re trying to weave in and out of the show is really fun! Big, heroic-type music. It’s rare that a television show gets a full orchestra for the music, so we’re excited to get up there and record it.
Very special thanks to Jeff for being gracious for his time and introducing me into the world of reality television musically speaking and his experiences on Grace Unplugged. As well as a very special and warmhearted thanks to Ashley Patterson for guiding me through this interview. Without you it couldn't be done. You're great stay that way.
Please visit the http://www.ah2music.com/ website which features alot of Jeff & Mark T. Williams' work as well music samples and information on their upcoming projects together.
Their company bio is below:
"The Los Angeles based music company Ah2 was founded in 2003 by Jeff Lippencott & Mark T. Williams.
Ah2 has been commissioned by many of Hollywood's top producers and directors such as: Mark Bumett, Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Donald Trump, Ben Silverman, Martha Stewart, and Gordon Ramsey to name a few. They have composed music for such hit television series as Shark Tank (ABC), The Apprentice (NBC), The Biggest Loser (NBC), Masterchef (FOX), Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Extreme Weight Loss (ABC), and many more.
Since founding Ah2, Jeff Lippencott and Mark T. Williams have garnered numerous industry awards including two Primetime Emmy Nominations."