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‘I like to be in total control of every note’: Catching up with award-winning composer Nainita Desai

Desai was named No 2 in PRS's Top 10 female writers whose work was most used in film and TV in 2018

Nainita Desai

Nainita Desai, composer for film, TV and games, has composed music for a plethora of Emmy, Oscar and BAFTA-winning projects and in 2020 will be embarking on yet another musical feat, composing her own album. She has been recognised for her groundbreaking work with numerous accolades, including being named as No 2 in PRS’s Top 10 female writers whose work was most used in film and TV in 2018. After having the pleasure of hearing from her in person at Saffron’s Tech Dissect women in audio event in November where she was part of an inspiring panel talk, we decided it was about time we caught up one on one to find out more about her exciting work. Here, PSNEurope’s Fiona Hope chats to Desai about her life in the audio industry, the diversity of the projects she works on and what she has on the cards for 2020…

How did you find yourself in the industry? 

I never thought I could become a film composer as I didn’t have a formal music education, so after going to film school I got experience working as a sound designer on feature films for directors, including Bertolucci. I then worked in music engineering for Peter Gabriel at Real World amongst other studios. All the skills I gained were invaluable to becoming a media composer. 

A friend of mine gave me the opportunity to write the music for a Channel 4 documentary series and my career built up from then on. I gained experience in all sorts of genres from music for video games, corporate videos, factual, documentaries, and commercials.

What interested you in being a composer for film and TV?

As a teenager, I became immersed in the world of synths, recording and sound. Film, for me, was always a form of escapism, transporting me to another world. I loved the power of film and remember hearing Ennio Morricone’s and John Barry’s scores of the 1960s. They had a huge influence on me. The powerful combination of film and music is something that I wanted to be a part of from a young age. The craft of storytelling in music for film is something that is so special, so trying to create that emotional magic is something I strive for on a daily basis.

Tell us about your latest projects. What have you got coming up?

My latest feature The Reason I Jump – an immersive film based on the bestseller book recently had its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival.

I’m also currently working on a slate of series including Fierce Queens – a BBC wildlife series for Quibi, Bad Boy Billionaires for Netflix, Enslaved – about the history of slavery presented by Samuel L. Jackson, and a couple of feature docs, all of which will be released next year.

What are your plans for 2020?

I’ll be working on various projects up until June but I’m also travelling to Norway, LA, and India in early 2020 to give masterclasses and talks.

I’m also writing and planning my own album which is very exciting and a departure from my normal scoring work. 

I also hope to attend a few festivals and spend some time broadening my skill set in the studio learning some new software and techniques.

What’s your favourite project you’ve ever worked on? 

I really relished working on the feature film Untamed Romania where the large scale symphonic score was recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It was an utter joy to score and an opportunity to flex my creative muscles.

For Sama is a very special film that has won multiple awards including Cannes, SXSW and four BIFA awards, so to see it resonate with audiences around the world in such an emotional, passionate way has been incredible.

I’m also proud of my noir-modern classical score on Telling Lies – the groundbreaking interactive video game / movie that was released this year. The score was performed by the LCO who are known for working on Jonny Greenwood’s scores.

How do you approach writing for film and TV as opposed to games?

My main instrument is the keyboard and my main software of choice is Logic Pro. We all have the same tools and access to the same sound libraries and software so there have to be ways of standing out from the crowd and creating a unique score.

I like to be brought onto a project as early as possible and do as much research as I can around the subject before the edit starts, if possible. I’ll occasionally write ideas from the script or at least away from the visuals, which can be quite a liberating way of writing. It allows for the process of experimentation I experience at times, what I call “happy accidents” – when you write music away from the visuals and lay it against a scene for which it wasn’t originally intended, you gain a different outlook on the story and it brings out a hidden subtext and meaning that can be a pleasant surprise. 

But I’m often also brought on when the edit has started. I will get sent rough scenes and cuts and so the pace, tone, style and look of a film will immediately inspire me. With Untamed Romania, I received the picture lock and I had six weeks to write and record 88 minutes of music. In that instance, the score was performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

I create mock-ups of every cue and send it to the director for approval. These tracks will be as close to completed as possible – I tend to write, programme, arrange, mix as I go along. 

For me, the most important function of music is to be true to the story. With For Sama, the score was created using samples and electronics, but I brought in a Syrian violinist whose playing totally captured the heartbeat of Alleppo. The initial brief was to write a rich Hollywood type score, but as the edit evolved, we realised that the voice of the film had to change and with it the approach to the music. The film became more intimate, a love letter between a mother and daughter, and so the music became much more stripped back, raw and intimate too.

I tend to do all my writing and mixing in my studio, and if it’s a theatrical project I’ll bring in a mix engineer who will give my mixes that special sheen. I like to be in total control of every note so I tend to want to mix everything in my own place. I have a studio filled with synths and acoustic instruments so inspiration can take many forms instead of just writing in front of a keyboard and computer. Playing other instruments such as a guitar will help me form pieces together in a fresh different way.  

How do you decide which projects to work on and what not to?

Projects that touch upon the darker spectrum of human emotions and subjects have tended to gravitate towards me. Projects where I feel I can get to the emotional core of the story and make a strong unique creative contribution are important to me.

Sometimes it’s the story or subject matter, sometimes it’s filmmakers I admire that attract me to a project. I’m also attracted to projects that push me creatively into styles I’ve not worked on before. I’m working on a series that involved working with hip hop producers – I’ve never written hip hop and that’s going to be rather special!

Can you pinpoint your particular style?

Musical variety is important to me. I find that I stay creatively fresh by writing in different musical styles across various genres and not repeating myself. I love telling stories in fresh ways and collaborating with creative teams. I’ve scored many projects that have required world music, but I also enjoy exploring the orchestral palette blended with sound design, electronics, and vocals. Scores that fuse those elements resonate with me.

What’s your favourite thing about your job? 

I get to work on such a wide variety of interesting projects and going to premieres and seeing your work with an audience is so rewarding. However, the actual process of creative collaboration with film directors, editors, musicians, and other music creatives is the best bit. Hearing your music brought to life by real musicians is the biggest buzz. Working on inspiring stories and that moment when you are actually writing the music to picture can be utter magic – you’re cutting through to the emotional core of a scene.  

Who/what is your inspiration?

People who have been courageous, broken barriers and been utterly true to themselves inspire me – from Greta Thunberg and Malala to Marie Curie and Emmeline Pankhurst. Creatively, I have been inspired by so many artists and filmmakers ranging from Peter Gabriel, Spielberg, Lyne Ramsay, Bjork, Barbra Streisand… the list is endless.

What do you like to do outside of work? 

I love travelling and experiencing other cultures and places – it gets me away from the sedentary lifestyle of being in the studio. Walking, reading, cooking, live music, going to the cinema, art exhibitions, etc. I also enjoy spending time with my partner, my friends, and my cat.

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