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EXCLUSIVE: Kris Bowers On Scoring ‘Dear White People,’ Loving Music & Working With Kobe Bryant

EXCLUSIVE: Composer Kris Bowers is well on his way to providing the soundtrack of our lives.

When we sit enraptured with a film or television series, we often don’t consider how the musical score adds to our experience and helps to evoke certain emotions within ourselves. Emmy-winning composer Kris Bowers knows all about that. The 28-year old Los Angeles native has composed the music for everything from Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, Little Boxes, I Am Giant: Victor Cruz, Kobe Bryant’s Muse and most recently, Netflix’s hit series, Dear White People.

With a Daytime Emmy win already under this belt, this Julliard alum is just getting started in a field that is often void of young people of color.

Recently, JETmag.com chatted with Kris Bowers about his stunning success, how he approaches his work, the music composition in Dear White People and what he’s working on next.

JET: Thank you so much for speaking with me today. I really appreciate you taking the time.

Kris Bowers: Oh my pleasure.

JET: You’ve always been a musician, and you’ve had all these incredible opportunities from attending Julliard to working on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne, but how did you get into composing? I think it’s just so different and unique for someone who is as young as you are.

KB: Well I guess it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. My parents put me in music lessons very early, and I was always drawn to creation and composing from an early age, but I think as far as film and television goes, my dad was a writer for film and TV, so movies were always very important in our house. Even me looking at all these films through the lens of being a musician is why I was always fascinated and drawn to the scores, which were accompanying these stories. It’s something I wanted to do ever since I was 11 years old.

JET: Very good. So what was the first film or television program that you ever composed a score for?

KB: I guess there were a couple of short films I did for friends of mine. A friend of mine had a short film called Little Big Kids that I wrote the music for, but I think the first thing that actually was on a certain level was this documentary about Elaine Stritch called, Elaine Stritch: So Shoot Me.

JET: What is it like composing for documentary films versus composing for feature narrative films? Is there a difference in how you approach the work?

KB: Yeah definitely. I mean a lot of times it depends on the director and how they envision the music existing in the story, but most of the time with documentaries, they’re always very careful not to appear to be manipulative. They want to present an unbiased case of something, and so a lot of times they don’t want to be telling the audience how to feel. They don’t want to tell the audience explicitly to be sad about this or angry about this, and the biggest tool for guiding those emotions usually is music. That’s why for documentaries a lot of times you’ll find the music is a little bit more…it’s more ambient. There are a lot more pads. There’s a little bit less emotionality to it because it’s really just supposed to create this texture more so than like evoke a feeling.

JET: Got it. What is your process like overall? Are you able to see an entire cut of a film or do you of look at certain scenes?

KB: Yeah well it depends. A lot of times the music is the end of the process or close to the end of the process. Sometimes I’ll get a film, and it’s pretty much done outside of the music, and they already have temp music in there, and they’ve already decided where they want music, what the music should be doing, and what it should sound like. It’s kind of the side of the extreme that is not so enjoyable for me because it doesn’t leave so much creativity for me. The best side is when either somewhere in the middle or where they don’t have any music, and I come in very early in the process. Then we have a lot of conversations about the story and the characters because a lot of times that will better help inform my choices if I understand the catalyst or the reasoning for a lot of the parts of the story and the characters’ decisions. I think that will just allow me to create the best music as opposed to somebody just telling me exactly what they want, musically, you know?

JET: That’s no fun. That’s no fun at all.

KB: Yeah.

JET: Let’s chat about Dear White People. How did you get onto that project? Had you been in contact with Justin Simien or someone at Netflix?

KB: You know what? I just started just as an open call that my agent put my name in a hat to be considered for the composer spot for the show and then once they had heard some of my music and learned a little bit about me, they asked me to write a demo for it. The interesting thing about the demo that Justin asked for was he and Yvette [Lee Bowser], gave me the episode one script, the show bible and a Spotify playlist of like 50 or 60 tracks that all range from like early sixties jazz to electronic music to romantic era classical music. That’s all I got, and they asked me to write something, and I ended up spending the night to write this piece that I felt like combined all of these different sounds into one cohesive composition. Although I think that’s what got them excited about me as a composer because they could tell that I have a really deep understanding and appreciation and love for music. However, they really decided to write music completely different stylistically for the actual show.

JET: Oh wow.

KB: Yeah, but that’s kind of the thing that made them want to hire me.

JET: That’s very cool. Looking at the series itself, I think what’s so interesting is that it sort of breaks up all the different characters into their own episodes. Is that how you approached the music when you were actually locked into the job?

KB: At first, it was more so us trying to figure out what theme each character would have, and that’s the first conversation we had. When I came on board, they were just starting to shoot. I would sit and have conversations with Justin about the look of the show and the feel of the show and the characters. We decided early on we wanted to establish themes for each character, but it wasn’t until I started seeing some of the edits that I realized that each character had a focal, or was the focal point for each episode. We then came up with this idea to take that character’s theme and only use that theme as thematic material for every composition in that episode. So for Lionel’s episode for example, although there might be a number of different pieces, there’s like a piano piece. Actually, in Lionel’s episode, there’s like an electronic track that happens while he’s at a party that I composed and then there’s a lot of different genres of music or styles of music, but every piece of music is actually derived from the same theme, that’s his theme. We did that with each episode, with every piece of music you’ll hear, although I tried to do a good job of masking the theme sometimes, every piece of music is derived from each character’s theme which I thought was a lot of fun to do.

JET: That is really cool. I really love just how that worked in the series, which I thought was just incredible.

KB: Oh thank you.

JET: Is there any music right now that you’re loving? Any albums that you’re really feeling or any TV shows or any films that are out that you’re obsessed with?

KS: Yeah. Well the, for shows I’ve been watching The Handmaid’s Tale.

JET: It’s so good.

KB: Yeah and the music is really unique. It’s really incredible. I hadn’t heard the composer’s music before. Master of None was incredible this season; just the filmmaking was really amazing. I’ve been watching a lot of TV recently, The Crown, both the music and just the way it was acted and shot.

JET: It’s also just beautiful to look at.

KB: It was really amazing. Yeah. I think those are probably the three, at least for TV shows that stand out to me in the last few months that I have gotten obsessed with.

JET: For sure. So what’s next for you? Are you working on anything new or is there any genre or franchise that you would love to lend your music to?

KB: Right now I am working on a few different projects. I’ve been doing a lot of work with Kobe Bryant because he is stepping into the film world post-basketball. We’ve been working on some short things for ESPN and a documentary for next year and some other things that are kind of in the works. I’ve mostly been working on my next album as an artist. Then a few other projects I can’t really talk about yet. As far as what I would love to be a part of, it’s hard to say. I don’t know about things that are already in existence, but I know that there are a couple of things that are coming out that I just heard about. Jordan Peele apparently is doing a show with J.J. Abrams for HBO.

JET: Yeah, Lovecraft County. It’s going to be so good.

KB: Yeah, yeah yeah. I’m definitely excited for that. Then Cary Fukunaga and Stephen Spielberg are making this show called Napoleon for HBO that I guess it was Stanley Kubrick’s unfinished series that he was working on, so I’m excited about that for sure.

JET: Amazing. That’s amazing. Well, I’ll definitely look out for all your music and anything that you work on because I think it’s just so incredible and profound. You never hear especially of young people of color in this field. Congratulations because it’s pretty awesome.

KB: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that.

JET: For sure. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

KB: Thank you.

Dear White People is currently streaming on Netflix.