Interview with Kris Bowers
By Daniel Schweiger
In a well-intentioned Hollywood that preaches inclusivity while not often allowing all composers to play the band in its social justice march, Kris Bowers is continuing to make giant strides in telling stories that hear a commonality in its characters. If there’s any comparison in Bowers’ artistic growth, one could look to Quincy Jones, a jazz artist who transitioned to become one of film and television’s most in-demand artists decades ago, scoring films where his identity was often not even a consideration. Where that often hasn’t been the case for deserving musicians infinitely capable of playing who they aren’t, Bowers is a shiningly tuneful, and dramatic light in leading that charge without outrightly making it his destination.
Jamming with the likes of Kanye West, Marcus Miller and Jay Z, Bowers segued to albums, dance pieces and collaborating with Kobe Bryant. Yet Bowers’ film start was decidedly unique, and in a feminist groove as he accompanied a Broadway legend for the documentary “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.” Bowers heard the wily energy of another elder entertainment lion for “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” before getting his first fictional movie gig with the black family out of water in white suburbia for 2016’s “Little Boxes. He’d then score the cop shooting drama “Monsters and Men” and the documentary series “Religion of Sports.” But it was Bowers’ masterful channeling of the progressive jazz-classical chops of Dr. Donald Shirley in 2018’s Best Picture winner “Green Book” that really put him on the map. Though Bowers’ standout dramatic score for the 60’s set race-relations film somehow left on the nomination curb, Bowers was on his way – particularly with series work “For the People,” “Raising Dion,” “Dear White People, “Black Monday” and Ava Duvernay’s devastating vindication of The Central Park 5 with “When They See Us.”
With each project continuing to show just how much stylistic cards that Bowers holds, it’s his ability to both fight the sexist powers that be, while simultaneously holding women’s rights backs that marks his most interesting and exceptional project yet with Hulu’s nine episode “Mrs. America.” As created by “Mad Men” and “Halt and Catch Fire” producer Dahvi Waller, “Mrs. America’s” right wing crown is worn by grand dame antihero Phyllis Schlafly. A beauty contestant who shatters any notion of that stereotype, Schlafly is no shrinking violet in martialing like-minded women who stridently believe their place is in the home against rivals determined to throw of their male-oppressed chains, with even one black woman daring to run for president. It’s a real clash of the idealistic titans between Schlafly (Cate Banchett) and the likes of Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracy Ullman) and Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) that moves the audience through a history that’s repeating itself.
Much like a bemused commander who’s surprisingly sympathetic to both sides, Bower’s ironic, often rhythmically militaristic score martials both sides into a political do-or-die fight that they feel will determine the fate of femininity itself. With hand claps and symphonic rhythm as notable weapons, Bowers hears a grandly entertaining and energetic musical battle of the same sexes at the score’s center. It’s music that’s both witty and dramatic for a struggle whose goals are more at stake than ever in a country where aisles have become understandably towering walls. The fact that “Mrs. America” makes one empathize with what anti and pro-ERA sides view as The Enemy also says much for Bowers’ emotional forcefulness, taking what could have been the sound of stridency and making it poignantly moving.
Now marching forward in unthinkable circumstances for the future of the entertainment business, let alone humanity itself in a time that seems to be uniting people, “Mrs. America” further puts Kris Bowers in the forefront of a town that’s now turning lip service into true action when it comes to realizing one’s musicial voice above all.
Tell us about your inspirations to become a composer, and how you broke into that field after your jazz work?
When I was younger, playing piano and improvising within the jazz context gave me a way to express myself. So, early on, music for me was about conveying an emotion. My dad was a writer for film and tv, and so movies were always a big deal in our household and I immediately felt the power of how music can affect emotion. I decided back then that I wanted to continue to study jazz and pursue an education and eventually a career in it, but getting into film scoring was always my ultimate goal.
My first opportunity came in a way from winning the Thelonious Monk Piano Competition in 2011. A woman named Tracey Jordan was my manager for a short while, and she was friends with Chiemi Karasawa, the director of the Elaine Stritch documentary. Chiemi wanted a jazz score, and so Tracey thought it would make a great fit to suggest me having just won the competition. For the next few years after that, I was blessed to continue working based on friendships and word of mouth.
Your very first feature score was for a documentary about Broadway star Elaine Stritch called “Just Shoot Me.” What did you learn about scoring strong-willed females from early on?
I think it’s made me constantly confront and be aware of any implicit biases I might have myself and how that can come out in incredibly subtle ways with musical choices. On “Mrs. America,” Dahvi and the other producers were always so helpful to make sure we were very careful not to paint these women as victims in their times of difficulty, but to embody the inner-strength and determinedness they have in those moments at the same time as acknowledging how sad or uncomfortable something might be.
The Oscar-winning “Green Book” was a movie that put you on many people’s radar as a composer. But do you think that Academy rules need to be rethought when it comes to giving recognition to scores that people can’t separate from source music?
Although I was disappointed by the score not being eligible last year, especially given how much work was put into re-creating Dr. Shirley’s music, I think it’s a very fair rule. There are times where songs carry a lot of the emotional weight in the telling of a story, and so if there’s a decent amount of source in something, that has to be taken into consideration when recognizing someone with that honor.
You have any number of cable TV series to your credit like “Dear White People,” “Raising Dion” and “Black Monday.” Do you think there’s even more musical freedom in that arena, and what have you learned from doing so many of the shows?
I’d say that I’ve learned how to create on a consistent basis under those pressures. Being an artist first, and having a jazz background, you can imagine that my preferred composition process is very lax, but that’s simply not possible when you’re working on shows. You can’t wait for inspiration, and you can’t be precious with music that simply isn’t working for the story.
Do you think your ability to capture the civil rights era of “Green Book” as well as the injustice of “When They See Us” that helped get you this project about a time when the struggle for women’s rights came to the fore?
I’m not sure those scores helped as much as the fact that filmmakers making content relating to social justice issues are also lovers of that content. Many of those artists, are driven by bringing attention and awareness to something with their art while also telling a beautiful story. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of them and I definitely gravitate toward that type of art myself.
Tell us about working with show creator Dahvi Waller and determining the direction and instrumentation of the score
I appreciated how much Dahvi encouraged me to experiment and push ourselves, not only in our initial conversations about the sound of the show, but also through the course of the series. I also loved that we were able to paint the complexity of these characters and not color them as “good” or “evil.” They’re all humans.
“Mrs. America” will definitely inform viewers about these iconic figures. What were some of the things you learned while scoring the series, especially when it came to Shirley Chisholm, who was the first black woman to run for President?
That was a great episode to see. It’s something that I knew about, but I’m glad to see us putting such a spotlight on it. That was an earth-shattering achievement and looking at the way we tell our history as a country, it’s incredibly overlooked.
Is it difficult to score a woman like Phyllis Schlafly, especially when you don’t agree with her views? Or is it important not to paint her, and her followers, in shades of moral black and white?
I love scoring complex characters like Phyllis Schlafly. We are all the “bad guy” in someone’s story. And yet, many of us are just humans trying to do our best and do what we believe and feel is right. So to get the chance to portray someone I don’t agree with but to see her as a human first can only allow for more empathy and understanding.
Was it easier to score the far more left-leaning people like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, or was it important to realize their faults as well?
I’d say the same as I did about Phyllis. The writers shaped these characters to have many sides to them, so the score needs to reflect that no matter who they “are.”
Did you have a favorite person to score for here?
I had a great time scoring Phyllis, especially around the middle of the series as the fight between her and the feminists is at its peak. She’s dealing with so many emotions, and Cate Blanchett’s performance is so mesmerizing, so it called for a wide range of approach to score.
How did you want to get across the military-like determination of both sides?
We wanted to develop some sort of percussive motor that feels militaristic for both sides. And so for Phyllis and the Stop ERA side, there are traditional snare drums and bass drums to remind us of the military, and it was slightly inspired by Battle Hymn of the republic. On the feminist side, the sounds of hand claps and percussive/pulsing synths give us our motors. And all of the live instruments have been treated with delay and other effects to give even more of a rhythmic pulse and drive.
Given the stakes at play, was it important for your scoring to have a sense of humor and irony when it felt right?
Of course! The right choice is always to do what’s going to help tell the story in the best way.
Like “Green Book,” “Mrs. America” is a project where period songs are important to its soundtrack. How did you want your music to work with the era’s tunes?
It isn’t until later in the season that the sound of the music in the era starts to find its way into the score. Every now and then instruments were introduced to the score in an episode, and often became a fabric of that sound for the rest of the series.
If there’s a favorite episode you scored, what would it be, and why?
That’s tough to say, but episodes 1, 2 and 8 were my favorite. The first two just establish both sides of this story so well, and it was fun to find those sounds. Episode 8 is unlike anything else in the series both storytelling wise and score wise, so that was fun.
The Corona Virus hit while “Mrs. America” was being scored. What was the race like to the finish line given the unexpected impediments put in the music’s way?
When the shutdown first happened, it was definitely a shock. We still had 2 episodes left to score, and mix dates quickly approaching. But once we put a plan into place, I’ve oddly been feeling more calm during this. But, I think it’s because of how much I can trust my team and the musicians we are able to work with during these times. Once everyone committed to still getting this music done no matter what it takes, we created a system that works incredibly well. My contractor Peter Rotter and his team help us find musicians that are able to record from home, and we send them all of the music and stems to record with/to. Then they send us files back and we reassemble it all on our end. Somehow my amazing mixing engineer Steve Kaye has managed to get these cues to still sound big and lush given this crazy process!
How important do you think entertainment and music will be for the future? And how do you see Corona Virus altering the music scene, and in how scoring will adapt to this new normal?
The most fascinating thing about humans and especially artists is that we are creative. We will find ways to still get our content out there and I think it’s exactly what we need right now to help us get through a tough time. So I’m excited to see what we come up with and to be a part of that.
Given that we’re now even more of a divisive society where the basic rights these people fought for are more endangered than ever, do you think that makes “Mrs. America” a particularly important show to score, as well as giving your music a sense of responsibility?
I think this show couldn’t have come at a better time and it reminds me of other eras where great art was made in the face of difficult social and political times. My score’s responsibility was really just to help tell the story in the best way possible, just like the costumes, hair and makeup, cinematography, etc. The show’s importance is a sum of those parts.
How do you think “Mrs. America” made you grow as a composer?
I had a great time challenging myself to write in a different way than I normally do for this project. This doesn’t sound like much else I’ve written, and I always find I grow when in a position like that.
Another, quite different “women’s” project you’ve scored is “Bad Hair” for Justin Simien, where a woman in the black VJ industry is pressured to succeed by taking on a truly killer weave. Given that this is even more ethnically pointed, and absurdist than “Get Out” and “Us,” was it a particular challenge to find the right mix of horror and humor?
I find that with comedy, and especially with comedy in the horror genre, has to be scored as though it’s incredibly serious. Part of the thrill of watching a funny scary film is never knowing when the scary part is going to jump out at us. So the music has to make you jump and it can only do that if it’s creating the environment of a seriously scary film.
“Bad Hair” seems to open up more stylistic directions than you’ve had before with any film score. What was it like exploring avenues that ranged for R & B to kitsch pop and full-on scary orchestral and choral scoring, among many others?
This was one of the first times in a while I got to explore every aspect of my love for music. I have an equal love for both the acoustic/orchestral world as well as the electronic/production world. So having the opportunity to explore that with such heavy references. You can’t fake either of those styles.
You’re now set for “Space Jam 2.” What are you imagining for that score?
I’m still exploring, but I’m excited to see how I can marry a modern sound with the classic Looney Tunes score. James Newton Howard did that in an amazing way with the first score, and so I’m looking to find a way to imagine what that sounds like in 2020 from my perspective.
Kris Bowers (photo by Molly Cranna)
In the end, do you hope that “Mrs. America” converts viewers to the side of women’s rights? Or would you be ok if it leaves them ambivalent on what side to choose?
I hope that people are already heading that way, and if they’re not, I do hope this show pushes people that way. I have so many powerful and strong women in my life, and seeing what these women (on both sides) have to deal with makes it even more inspiring what they achieve.
Watch “Mrs. America” on Hulu, and buy Kris’ soundtrack on Hollywood Records here
Visit Kris Bowers’ web site at https://www.krisbowers.com