Words by Amon Warmann
In 2011, Kris Bowers - then a student at the world-renowned Juilliard school - competed in and ultimately won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition. That’s when he met the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin, who told him that she liked his music, and asked for his information as well as his career plans.
She may have been one of the first to recognise Bowers’ talent, but she certainly wouldn’t be the last. Over the last decade, his career has gone from strength to strength as he’s racked up composer credits on the likes of Green Book, When They See Us, and Bridgerton.
When we catch up with Bowers at his LA home for a chat over Zoom, he’s just finished work on Space Jam: A New Legacy, a belated follow-up to the 1996 hit that teamed NBA icon Michael Jordan with Bugs Bunny. In addition to the challenges involved in scoring the sequel, we discussed his work on the upcoming Aretha Franklin film Respect and season two of Bridgerton, his growth as a composer, and more.
Your musical background is very interesting. You’re a Juilliard-educated pianist, with a fondness for Jazz. But you’ve also worked with artists like Jay-Z, Pharrell, and Q-Tip. Not to mention your love of Bernard Herrmann and John Williams. What would you say is the project so far that’s allowed you to utilise this background to the fullest? And what’s the project that’s been furthest away from all of that?
I definitely feel like Space Jam was the first thing that allowed me to really combine those things in a really specific way. I really wanted to try and respect the really intricate and dense orchestral writing that the original Space Jam has from James Newton Howard, and then at the same time try to modernise it. We combined a lot of hip-hop beats with modern production. As far as the furthest project from my background, that’s kind of tough. I feel like maybe it’s my score for Mrs. America. That was actually pretty different. The orchestral writing is still orchestral, but at the time that I worked on it, it definitely felt like the project that felt pretty different from anything else I had really been a part of or done musically.
I usually try to watch the film and see if there's a moment that I can emotionally connect to a little bit more than others to write something that feels like it carries that feeling.
I’m assuming there are going to be a lot of contemporary songs in Space Jam: A New Legacy. How challenging is it to spot the movie when you have to account for that?
With that one, it's really looking at how much score is in it. With animation, almost every second is scored, essentially. There's way more score in this movie than anything else I have worked on. It's like 90 minutes of score music, and then the whole movie is only slightly longer than that. As far as combining it with the modern songs that are in there, they were really figuring out the songs as we were working on the film. Some of the songs hadn't even been finalised by the time we finished the actual film. So there are a couple of moments where we didn't know what song was going to be there. Then it was about trying to figure out what sounds are being used in that production that might be able to help in the next cue or the cue before it or anything like that, to kind of help with the transition. Also, in general, we were thinking about if there are any sounds from those songs that might be helpful for the palate of the score, just so that they don't sound too different.
Something about the original that really worked is how much James Newton Howard had these very 90’s sounding rock elements in the score, especially for the Monstars. I feel like that puts you in this sonic space that felt like it wasn't too far away from any of the songs. Even though there wasn't much of the soundtrack that sounded exactly like the score, it still felt like it was of the same era.
Fatherhood is a big theme in Space Jam: A New Legacy. How did you translate the emotions tied to that theme into music?
The theme for LeBron and his son felt like it was the best way for me to get into the score. I usually try to watch the film and see if there's a moment that I can emotionally connect to a little bit more than others to write something that feels like it carries that feeling. Recognising that that was going to be the overarching theme in the entire film, I wanted to find something that really felt like it matched. For me, I just go to the piano and improvise and play until I find something that makes me feel the same way. I was thinking about my own relationship with my father, or even about the idea of being a father one day. Once I found a theme that I thought worked, as far as finding the instrumentation and sound, that was really a collaboration with Malcolm [D. Lee]. He's one of the only directors I've worked with that actually says “I love the sound of the Clarinet and the Oboe.” I feel like I've never heard a director be that specific about instruments! So there's a bit of warmth there with a lot of the woodwinds and the orchestration, which Malcolm loved. We were really trying to lean on that, especially in the familial moments, and emotional moments, and the big culminating moments at the end of the film.
And then I just slightly added a bit of modernity to it. There’s a little bit of a Synth Pad. The piano has a little bit of an effect on it. It was interesting working with Malcolm and figuring out what would work best. There were times where I would add too much synth and he would feel like it sounded too sci-fi. So trying to find the balance of that instrumentation and what that sound would be was really a collaboration with Malcolm.
You’ve worked with a variety of directors on a variety of projects. What way do you like a director to speak to you?
I think that it's important to have those conversations about the palette in a very specific way. Space Jam: A New Legacy was a perfect example. Thinking about the film and the time period and other references, my first instinct was to go super synth-heavy, and get this really electronic sound. That’s just not what Malcolm had in mind for the film. That's not the sound that he personally is going to react to. So him talking about the Clarinet and Oboe was actually a huge key for me, because then I said if you're talking about those instruments, you really want a traditional orchestral sound, so let me not go down this other rabbit hole anymore. From that point on, I don't think he really mentioned any sort of specific musical thing. After that, it was really just talking in emotion and talking about what this scene is supposed to be doing and what we're supposed to be feeling, and whose perspective we are looking at. I always feel like that's best, but having that conversation about palates, in the beginning, is important.
It's so interesting to me because there are times where a director feels like the piano is the most emotional thing that they've ever heard. And then this director feels like the piano is melodramatic and over the top, and they don't want to hear any piano. So it’s about finding out what colours we are going to use first and foremost. And then after that it's all about the emotion, and trying to figure out how I can translate what we're supposed to feel and whose perspective we should be focusing on and all of that into the score.
The Space Jam sequel will also be drawing on multiple franchises in WB’s stable. Do you get to play in those worlds too?
I did get to, just a little bit! I get to quote some cues from The Matrix, which is pretty dope. I literally have had the score to The Matrix for… I don’t even know how long. I've studied it and listened to it a lot, so it was pretty funny to be able to actually reference it. There's a YouTube video where they talk about all of the different layers that Don Davis went through to figure out how to showcase some of the aspects of what's happening in the film in the music, and it’s pretty wild. I also got to quote a little bit of Wonder Woman as well. One of the characters is kind of taking on that torch from Wonder Woman, and that was fun. And then, of course, the main Looney Tunes theme. We re-recorded the Merrie Melodies theme with my arrangement at Warner Bros, which is where they recorded all that stuff originally. For me to listen to the Looney Tunes theme with me playing piano on it feels like a childhood dream, a bucket list kind of thing. It's pretty awesome.
On the orchestration side, that’s the thing that I'm continuing to learn and that feels most exciting to me.
Your journey into composing was from more of a performance background. You’ve been at this for a few years now – how have you taken to the orchestration and conducting side of composing?
I did a conducting workshop maybe two or three years ago now, and it was incredible. I'd already known the patterns just from school, but I had never conducted a group of musicians before and it's just a different art form. It's something I'm interested in and want to learn and continue to develop. But in this process of film scoring, we're trying to get through so much music so quickly that I'm not trying to be the weak link that's forgetting patterns! So for me, I usually go to Fabrizio Mancinelli, who’s a friend of mine, to conduct most of my projects. I also like being in the booth. Coming from the performance world, that's where I feel most comfortable. I'm used to doing sessions where I'm either recording piano and then going into the booth and listening to it and seeing how I feel about it, or producing something from inside the booth while everybody else is recording and talking about how I feel they might be able to make changes.
On the orchestration side, that’s the thing that I'm continuing to learn that feels most exciting to me. It’s almost like a never-ending exploration and it feels so similar to my exploration as a pianist. My orchestration right now is so much better than it was so many years ago, and I started learning while I was at Julliard. I just knew that I wanted to get into film scoring so much that I tried to learn as much as I could and started doing my own arrangements. I used to get musicians into a room together just by giving them some pizza and then giving them an orchestral arrangement that I had done.
Going back and listening to what I wrote then, it’s so fascinating to look at the growth. All that growth is really just from studying scores and working with orchestrators. I might feel like I orchestrated this fully, and then an orchestrator would tell me “actually if you have this many musicians playing this line, then you're not really gonna hear this line as much. So we should probably put some more guys on this line.” There's always this collaboration with orchestrators where they look at the sound that you are going for and then try to find the best way to do that. There are still so many little tricks and little things that I'm learning that I feel like it's probably going to be never-ending. It’s a process.
Is the Space Jam sequel the film which had the biggest orchestra you’ve worked with so far?
Yeah, by far. I think we had a little bit over 100 musicians for that, and we had to split it out because of the pandemic. We recorded all the strings by themselves, the woodwinds by themselves, the brass by themselves, the percussion by themselves. It was an interesting process. We were in the city for two weeks and had a huge amount of people. That whole process felt like another childhood dream.
You had a personal connection with Aretha Franklin before she passed. There’s not one, but two Aretha projects coming. You’re working on Respect – what separates your project from the other? What can we expect from your score?
I don't know that much about the Genius Aretha film, starring Cynthia Erivo. I know that Terence Blanchard's doing the score, and he's always been a mentor of mine and somebody I look up to. I think with Respect, the thing that stands out about it the most is that they worked with the family and a lot of the labels to get the rights to the biggest songs. So any Aretha song that makes you nostalgic is going to be in this movie. That's really difficult to do with music supervision and getting clearance and all the rights from the family. Also, Jennifer Hudson was told personally by Aretha that she wants her to play her once she passes. I feel like just having that blessing from the family gives a little bit more insight and slightly more depth to her story and to the songs that are depicted in it.
The movie is fairly long, and I think there's really only 20 minutes or less of the score. It's mostly the songs. A lot of it's because Stephen Bray [Executive Music Producer] and Liesl Tommy [Director] did such a great job of making the songs feel really cinematic but also organic at the same time. This film has a great balance of showing the process of a musician working through something or a group of musicians working through something, and getting to a final result in a cinematic way, but in a way that feels, as a musician, a bit more organic.
As far as the score goes, because there isn't as much score, it's really focused on Aretha specifically, and the emotions she's going through throughout the film. She's really dealing with trauma. As we know from her actual life, she had this ascent in her career. At the same time, she was dealing with so many personal woes. Whether it was alcoholism or abuse or having children at a very early age. These things were very difficult for her to navigate and were really hurting her personal life while her career was thriving. And so the score is present in those moments where she's by herself, reflecting on those traumas or thinking about how her mother passed, or any of those kinds of things. It was really interesting for me, especially personally having that relationship with her, to be scoring these things. I didn’t even know about some of these things before meeting her. So following that trajectory of her trauma just made the score feel that much more intimate and a bit darker and a bit sad, but in a way that feels like we're continuing to move toward the hope and revelation that she has at the end, thinking about her relationship with God and the Church essentially.
The first season of Bridgerton was just about focusing on how I can make this music as good as possible.
Season 2 of Bridgerton is on the way. What excites you most about returning to that show?
Firstly, I'm excited about the fact that every season seems to be slightly different in terms of who we're focusing on and what the storyline is. So this season, being about different characters, I'm really excited to explore new themes and figure out how any of those themes that did survive from last season can be reworked for this season. I’m also looking at how successful a lot of the covers are. I know that we're going to do a bit more of that, and I'm excited to hopefully collaborate with Alexandra Patsavas [music supervisor] on that. The first season of Bridgerton was just about focusing on how I can make this music as good as possible. That's one where I felt like I wanted to make the orchestration as good as possible, and it was a type of score I hadn't really written before. I figured that the show itself would be somewhat popular, and maybe the score would be successful because we put so much into it, and I felt really proud of it, but for it to have the response that it had has been pretty surprising.
In that way, there's a bit of a challenge that I'm giving myself in thinking about how we can do it a little bit differently and how we can continue to improve upon that so that this score doesn't sound like we just took some stuff from last season and put it into this. This season is going to develop and mature in a way that the audience is really going to enjoy.
I have listened to ‘We Could Form An Attachment’ many times…
The craziest thing about that one to me, and the reason why musicians are everything in this industry, is because that piece feels huge and massive and it's literally 10 people. Five-string players all recorded themselves a few times, we had one percussionist that recorded himself a few times, one person in each horn spot and woodwind spot. I remember one of the musicians calling me - and this was in the middle of the pandemic - and she was emotional because she felt like that was the first time she had gotten that close to playing with an orchestra during the pandemic. For that reason, that cue in particular is one of my favourites, for sure.
The majority of projects you’ve been involved in, with the exceptions of Bridgerton and Mrs. America, have been Black-led. Are you getting in the rooms for projects that aren’t?
It's such an interesting thing, given that all these projects feel so important to the culture and so important to my life. If I were a bit younger and wasn't in the industry yet these would all be films that were hugely inspirational to me, and so to be a part of that feels really special. Projects like Mrs. America or Bridgerton definitely feel like they are the ones that stand out as far as not being focused on race or being Black-led, and there are definitely films that are starting to come to me that feel like they have nothing to do with that. In the last few months, I've actually had to say no to a lot of these projects that have nothing to do with what I look like and more to do with what my music sounds like because I'm thankfully really busy.
It’s been such a goal for such a long time that it really feels great when people feel like “oh, we want a Bernard Herrmann-ish sound, and we heard some Kris Bowers stuff that sounds like that, let's reach out to him”, instead of it being “we have a Black film, let's find a Black film composer.” I definitely feel like that's changing a bit, but it's not that common. It's always interesting to me when you have producers or studios or directors, and what goes into them thinking who's right for the project, and how much of that even subconsciously goes into the race, and who people feel comfortable around and who people feel are going to be able to achieve what they're looking for and all of that. But for me personally, I'm seeing a shift and a change.
I think most of my life, I've thought the idea of being hard on myself was what was necessary for me to be able to achieve anything.
In a previous interview, you were asked about what advice you’d give to budding composers, and your response was to “be kind to yourself.” I got the sense that you’ve been hard on yourself in the past – was there any particular project that you were really beating yourself up over, and how did you overcome that?
Pretty much every single project! I think most of my life, I've thought the idea of being hard on myself was what was necessary for me to be able to achieve anything. I’m starting to get older and realising the separation of the hard work from the internal voice that's being a bit nasty or mean, essentially. The more a project means to me the more that voice can be difficult to control. I probably gave that advice while working on Space Jam: A New Legacy because I felt like I needed it myself. In that instance, it feels like there's an added pressure as a Black composer, where it doesn't feel like if I fail at this it's going to be fine and I’ll get another project. It really starts to feel like, oh, this is my shot, this is the first time I'm doing a project that has a big budget. And if I fail at doing this, I'm not just failing as a film composer, I'm failing as a Black film composer. That adds this different level of pressure for myself, as far as thinking that if it doesn't work out, or if I don't prove myself, then people are going to have a skewed perspective of whether or not I can do something in the future because of the fact that I'm Black.
This is the idea that a lot of us have; when you're one of the few in a space it feels like you're representing your entire race and all these different things that are blown out of proportion when you're triggered and stressed and fixated on something like that. I think that the way that I have always thought to myself in those instances is being a bit hard on myself. If I'm writing something I don't really like, internally I'm like, what are you doing? This is ridiculous. This sucks. Nobody's gonna listen to this. It’s an internal voice that’s incredibly critical. Taking a step back from that and having an internal dialogue where I’m being more constructive, considering how to get my music to a stage where it’s good enough rather than continuing to tear it down, is helpful. Getting to know myself on that level has been really helpful on big projects.
Your first composer credit was in 2010. What about you has stayed the same, and how have you grown as a composer since then?
As far as what’s stayed the same, definitely my curiosity and the fact that I feel most fulfilled and most excited when I'm learning something. So, therefore, I continue to put myself in positions and scenarios where I feel really out of my league. So I have to try to figure out how to rise to the challenge. I think about some of the early scoring projects, like working on the documentary about Kobe Bryant, and how much that felt like a huge challenge for me, and wanting to write the best music possible. I always feel like the things that I choose to work on, and how I envision they should be, are slightly ahead of my ability. Thinking about what Space Jam should be in my mind, the entire time I was like, oh, I don't know if I can do this. In my mind, this should be as respectful to Carl Stalling as it is to Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z. Figuring that out then puts me on this journey that will, on the other side of it, give me a lot of tools and skills that I didn't have before. So I feel like that's something I've always had, and continue to have.
As far as what's different, maybe continuing to trust myself a bit more. Working in this industry, and in this space that doesn't feel that familiar to me, before writing a note of music I'm usually studying so much other stuff, because I'm trying to figure out sounds and how I'm trying to write something. I feel like the best way to do that probably has been done before, or at least that there's a version of it that's been done before that I can look at for inspiration. It's a thin line between being inspired and also feeling like this other stuff is telling you that you can't do it because it's something that you haven't really learned how to do yet. So the process of just trusting myself and trusting my instincts, or trying something that feels like, oh, I can't find an example of this, but I think I really want to try it this way. Or I have this idea in my mind, and I don't really know how to achieve it, but I'm just gonna go after it. Having that trust is something that I'm definitely still working on but it's there, and it’s definitely stronger now than it was when I first started.