Going from pop hits to film and TV scores: An interview with Morgan Kibby

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Illustration: Daniel Zender

Morgan Kibby is a classical pianist, cellist, and vocalist.

She wrote, played keys, and sang as a member of the band M83 for seven years through two albums (Saturdays=Youth and Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming) and tour cycles. She’s also co-written for Panic! at the Disco and composed the orchestral interludes to Lady Gaga’s Chromatica album, all while also making solo material under the moniker White Sea and crafting scores.

Kibby’s first score was for the acclaimed French film, Bang Gang. Since 2016, she has scored projects for Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu, as well as films in competition at major film festivals across the globe including Cannes and Tribeca.

We had the honor of talking with her about her creative journey, details about her process, collaboration, her remarkable work ethic, and more below.

How did you get into composing for film and TV?

I started with M83 when I was 23. We went from all of us touring in a van through touring Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming in two tour buses. We headlined the Hollywood Bowl for my last show with them. It had been almost a decade of investment in a band. We had that marquee journey of being a cult band to having hit singles. It was nicely packaged with a bow.

I had just left M83 and spent about a year promoting a solo record for my project, White Sea. I was on the road doing a B-market tour. When I left M83, I had forgotten that it doesn’t matter where you come from… When you’re starting something new, you always have to start from scratch.

So on this solo B-market tour, I remember thinking to myself in the back of a van: this is not for me anymore. I was about to be 30 and it didn’t feel like the proper use of my time. Touring is an endless Groundhog day and I felt like my intelligence and my creative output were not being put to good use, frankly.

When I got back from tour, my best friend Eva [Husson] who’s a French filmmaker, was a student at AFI. She was making her first feature and I lobbied to get the job as the composer. That ended up being my first project. It was magical because I had simultaneously been spending a lot of time doing a bunch of co-writes and I realized that wasn’t for me. Even though I love writing for other people, I’m very selective about who I work with.

When I did that film, I was more inspired in that process than I had been in so long. I took a step back and realized that it doesn’t matter what form making music takes. I just want to be creative. I want to produce art. I fell in love with it.

I was thinking about melody in a way I hadn’t thought about it before. All of a sudden, I wasn’t thinking about the hook or the lyrics. A melody line that would be irrelevant in a pop song became beautiful and special in the medium of scoring.

What happened next?

I fell in love with scoring through that project, and then ended up going to the Sundance Lab up at Skywalker Ranch six months later. I was very lucky to get into that program, and the rest is history. My phone didn’t stop ringing. It felt like the universe pointed me in the right direction.

What was the learning curve of going from making pop music with a group (and your solo music) to composing for films like?

There are various learning curves. Number one: as a composer, it’s not about you. You’re in service of your director, of the creative vision, of your team. It fit perfectly for me because I work best when I’m in collaboration.

My collaboration with Anthony [Gonzalez] in M83 was the longest I had experienced. It was always wonderful to understand his vision and then contextualize it through my own voice – to add to it in that way. I felt like scoring was kind of like the next iteration of that.

I kind of fell in love with the process. I liked being in service of a vision instead of having to be the nexus of the vision. I always found that challenging as an artist. When the world is your oyster and you can choose to go in any direction, sometimes that can actually be more daunting for me than it is to have a box; I like boxes. There are more possibilities for me in a box.

Have any other projects aside from M83, like your work with Lady Gaga or Harry Styles, informed your compositional work for scores?

Well, I think age has informed my approach the most. Every artist has their own journey, but for me, it was really a process of letting go of what things are supposed to look like in a career. The fact is, I do various things. I don’t just score for film and TV. I don’t just write and produce for artists. Those two worlds are very connected for me because that’s how I am…

It’s nearly impossible to survive doing just one thing these days, right? And make a living?

I admire people who do. Again, there’s no right way or wrong way to do it. I just realized after I scored my first film, that I was always going to love pop music or more traditional songwriting, but I also fell in love with scoring. I needed to exercise both muscles to feel like I had a fulfilling creative output. It really had nothing to do with some long-term strategy about my career.

I think Gaga was kind of the perfect culmination of me making that very distinct choice for myself, which was not based on anything else but stepping back and going, “I don’t want my career to look like anybody else’s.” You can be inspired by other people and their work. But ultimately, the more you get laser-focused about what it is that you want and that you’re good at, then there’s a lot of agency in being able to make decisions about what to spend time on.

How’d the Gaga gig come about?

Michael (BloodPop) and I we had a random writing session that was set up through my publisher when I was doing lots of co-writes maybe eight or nine years ago. We really hit it off. We wrote a great song. It was just one of those days where it’s like speed dating. You’re just getting to know somebody, but we had a great time and we both really respected each other and both stayed in touch.

He hit me up when they were getting towards the end of Gaga’s record because he saw on Instagram that I’d been scoring for films and working with orchestral music. He liked that I skirted both worlds and asked how I felt about doing some orchestral stuff with Gaga. I was like, f**k yes.

You know, if you had told me ten years ago that I’d ended up on a pop record doing orchestral interludes, I would have laughed at you. You know what I mean? It didn’t seem feasible or plausible at the time.

Long story short, I think the pop music and the compositions are connected because I’m not narrow-minded in terms of what’s possible. To be honest, it’s a little naive because I have a lack of higher education in music. For me, it’s all based on experimenting and exploring. I don’t feel pinned in by genre, I guess.

That’s great that you’re able to blend the two or blur those lines for yourself, while also setting a precedent for other young musicians who may feel like they need to pick a path, right?

Yeah. I harp on this all the time and I don’t mean to sound like an old lady, but there’s no right way to do something. I’m not saying there aren’t certain prerequisites. You have to work your ass off. I spend 16 hours a day in my studio working.

But in terms of what your path looks like, there is no set path. You just have to follow the opportunities that present themselves to you and trust your gut on what will actually make you joyous and produce your best work.

You mentioned foundations earlier. Were you referring to the technical aspect or theory?

Yeah, theory. I didn’t go to USC, and I didn’t go to Berkeley. I never graduated from college, which is a huge source of embarrassment for me because most of my family went to Harvard. I come from a very good Jewish family [laughs]. I also didn’t know I’d end up making music for a living. If I had known, I probably would’ve gone to college for composition, but I didn’t.

It’s funny because I have some very dear colleagues who have done that. We have interesting conversations. On one hand, I wish that I had some of that stronger theoretic foundation to have the references they do. There’s deeper knowledge there, especially when you have a masters in composition, etc. I feel like having more tools in your toolbox can just be so helpful.

On the flip side of that, those dear friends have always told me that because I don’t approach things in the way they do, it makes me stand out. I take risks that some other composers might not take having gone through a traditional academic program. There are pluses and minuses to both.

Do you know that you’re taking risks at the time?

Oh yeah, definitely. That was a process of learning as well. I’ve realized that when a studio film asks you for ‘something different,’ almost 100% of the time, they’re not looking for something different at all. I’d rather get hired for something where I get to stand out and carve my own voice. Maybe that’s not the most financially beneficial decision on my part, but that’s not what drives me. I need to be happy. Otherwise, I can’t produce music.

I’ve heard of artists taking those jobs that might not be fulfilling but pay well, and they use a different alias.

I mean, yeah, we all need to make money. I’ve done stuff that I’m just like, “Oh my god.” You know? There’s a season of saying yes to things. There’s a season of compromise. And I think that runs in tandem with making sure that when you’re choosing projects, you’re doing a little bit of both until you get to that place where you are a Michael Giacchino or a Max Richter, whoever, where you can say that you’re only going to work on the things that excite you. Until you get to that place, which very few of us ever do by the way, you do what you have to do.

Whether you’re working in pop or scoring, it’s important to remember most of us don’t get to win the Oscar or the GRAMMY, but we have great lives because we get to make music.

You mentioned that you didn’t know you’d become a musician…

I started out as an actress and I was in musical theater for my entire childhood. I was very lucky. I grew up playing classical piano and then as a teenager, I took up the cello. I always knew I could sing, but I was never properly trained. I always thought I was going to be in the theater or acting. Then, I hit about 17 or 18, and I moved to Los Angeles because I had a television show. I hated having no agency and kind of being at the bottom of the food chain. I didn’t like waiting for a phone call. I felt powerless.

I woke up one day and was like, “This is not the career for me.” I stepped away and went to community college. I was taking some classes – only things that interested me. I think I just wanted to be creative. I was taking photography, music, philosophy – whatever.

In that process of having a little bit of mental space, I just started writing music. I started writing some songs and Eva was making a film that was never released. She was actually the person who introduced me to M83 through a cool French magazine. I heard “Don’t Save Us From the Flames” and I was like, “Oh my God.”

She had contacted Anthony to do the score to her first film and thought maybe he could use me in it. That’s how I ended up meeting him. I didn’t work on the score but he asked me to sing on demos for what became Saturday = Youth. That’s what started me off on a whole new kind of career path.

Wow. Yeah. Go Eva.

She’s my guardian angel. She’s been instrumental in basically two of the biggest moments in my life.

Going back to Sundance Labs, how did you know to apply, and how did that come about?

A wonderful woman who worked at my management company, Patricia Joseph. She’s been a VP for years in the industry in various forms. She worked a lot on the soundtrack side of film and TV and we just clicked. At the time, there weren’t that many women at the management company that I was with. It was nice to have a friend, you know?

She asked me if I ever thought about applying to the Lab. I was like, what is the Sundance Lab? I was so ignorant. I’m glad that I was because I think that if I had really wanted it, I probably wouldn’t have applied. She encouraged me to apply and I got in, which is just kind of wild. A lot of people apply multiple times. That being said, they always reserve a spot for the non-traditional composer, which I happened to be the choice of that year. I’m very, very, very lucky to have done that. It was absolutely life-changing.

Pivoting a bit into the more creative process side of things. I’m sure it’s different for every project, but what does your creative process look like when approaching a score?

There’s really no right way to answer it for me. A lot of composers will start by writing a suite of music, and then pull from that to score the film or the season of TV. For me, it depends on the director I’m working with. I like to establish a palette before I establish a theme, if I even use a theme at all. I’m not somebody that tends to use traditional thematic melodic material. I like to figure out the aural world that you’re stepping into.

For example, this Netflix series I just did that’s coming out soon – it’s a show about teenagers. It’s interesting how the visual informs the music in a strange way. All of the fashion from when I was a preteen has come back – all the nineties stuff. I ended up thinking about the Larry Clark film, Kids. I know that Euphoria went in that super trap beat, very modern palette. I was like, “We should not do that.”

I wanted to go closer to the J Dilla route. I wanted textures that remind us of what we listened to in the ‘90s that matched the way they were color correcting the show. A lot of the hip hop I was listening to then had amazing sampled vinyl drum beats. It also made me think of Elliot Smith. To me, that was more exciting than going full modern trap beats.

Then, I wanted to inject something that just felt really fresh. It’s a show about kids, so the energy has to be bold. When you’re a teenager, everything is at stake all the time. It’s all so heightened. How do we articulate that musically? It ended up being a lot of the elements that I just mentioned plus dirty, lo-fi acoustic guitars and lots of sampled vocals because to me, that felt modern without having to go in the super modern hip hop direction. It was about energy and texture.

I’ve done other films that sometimes demand a lead melody because they’re a period piece. Sometimes, having a theme is appropriate, but I’m conscious of the idea of theme because I don’t ever want it to feel emotionally leading, and I feel like sometimes melodic thematic material can do that. I try to be as subtle as possible.

Can you tell us what the show is?

Yeah, it’s called Grand Army, and it’s premiering in October on Netflix. The kids are just phenomenal. It’s an ensemble piece with all these teenagers and they’re just there. The stories are just really great. I feel very, very proud to be a part of it.

I feel like it’s some of the best music I’ve ever made. It felt like a big culmination of that choice to decide to only work on things where I felt like I could have a voice instead of just articulating what works. That felt really nice.

How did that opportunity come up?

Slowly but surely over the years, people start to know who you are, and I’ve really worked my ass off over the last six years saying yes to everything constantly, even if I didn’t want to. I made sure I was meeting new people and making new work so I could expand my resume, palette, and experience. I just wanted to get better. For this project, I think one of the executive producers happened to know my manager, but they had reached out through my website.

And then somebody else at Netflix who I’d been developing a relationship with – a wonderful woman – she suggested me when it came across her desk. I had demoed for another project for her like three years ago. It’s a combination of relationships and people trusting you, and frankly, showing up and being reliable and doing a good job.

Totally makes sense. You mentioned vocal samples earlier; generally speaking, do you often use samples in your score work?

I never use melodic samples, but I will absolutely use percussive samples. I tend to use those quite a bit when I’m trying to get ideas down. It’s so much easier than having to program something. I might pull a sample and replace it later, but there have been moments where I haven’t. Instead, I’ll process it in a cool way so it becomes my own, or I’ll chop it up and make it into my own.

What’s really nice about percussion samples, specifically, is that I’ll hear rhythms that maybe I hadn’t considered before. That can be a great jumping off point for starting an idea that I may have never started without the sample. Even with melodies, sometimes it’s great to pull something in and use it just as a jumping off point for going somewhere completely left field.

I actually recently discovered the cinematic stuff Splice has and started downloading it, and found it really interesting. I could find myself getting into that for hours at a time. Even if it doesn’t end up making it to the final thing, it can really spark new ideas, which I think is fantastic.

Do you have any advice for musicians looking to get into more compositional work or scoring?

When you’re composing for film and TV, it’s not about you; you have to check your ego at the door. If you feel like you’ve written something that’s really beautiful but they don’t want to use it, keep it. You’ll use it for something else in the future. That’s happened so many times for me.

I also think that the workload is something that people don’t really talk about when they cross genres. Working in film and TV, I’ve never worked harder in my entire life. It’s pretty brutal, especially when you’re first getting started, but even when you’re really well established. It’s ruined a lot of marriages, if I can be blunt [laughs].

I think you have to be the kind of personality that really does just want to be in their studio all the time, continuing to learn and continuing to be in service of a creative vision. Trust your gut on when it’s the season of saying yes to everything, and then realizing when it’s time to start saying no and start getting more specific about where you want to devote your energy. That would be my main advice.

Do you have a question about scoring film and TV compositions? Leave it in the comments below!

October 6, 2020

Shannon Byrne Shannon Byrne is the founder and host of The Process podcast, an interview series exploring the process of survival as a creative. She's also the brand writer at Splice.