Q&A: The Album Leaf On Film Composing, New Music, Danny Elfman And More – Forbes

TORONTO, ONTARIO – SEPTEMBER 07: Aaron Moorhead, Jimmy LaValle, Justin Benson, and David Lawson Jr. … [+] attend the “SYNCHRONIC” premiere during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival at Ryerson Theatre on September 07, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)
When the best of the independent film world gathers March 4 in Santa Monica, California for the annual Independent Spirit Awards, the Justin Benson Aaron Moorhead film Something In The Dirt will be represented as one of the five nominees for the John Cassavetes Award for best feature made for under one million dollars.
Besides the obvious thrill of being nominated for an honor named after arguably the greatest indie filmmaker of all time, the award means a great deal to the film’s composer The Album Leaf (real name Jimmy LaValle) who released the film’s soundtrack on Node Records.
This is the fourth film the three of them have teamed up for in a friendship that goes back nearly 20 years. I spoke with LaValle about their working relationship, how their creativity raises his game as a composer, his next solo album and much more.
Steve Baltin: I was just interviewing Robert Glasper. We were talking about when you’re doing film scoring how it’s so different because as an artist, you are used to working in your own vision and then as soon as you get into film scoring, you’re working in a director’s vision. So had you worked with Benson and Aaron before?
Jimmy LaValle: This was actually our fourth film together. And then previous to that, Justin [Benson] was actually hired to be a cinematographer and film me making a record back in 2005, I think. So he followed me around a bunch and kind of just disappeared into the corner filming me making a record. That’s when I first met him. And then fast forward, I think it was 2012 or ’13 or something like that. They had just finished their first film, it was called Resolution. They showed it to me. Basically, they reached out and they were like, “Hey, I got this script, check it out. And then would you want to meet up for drink or whatever?” And I went and met them. They came with the script, and I was like, “Oh, this was cool.” I didn’t really think anything of it, kind of not knowing anything, just being naive, really, to the whole process of me ever being a composer in a real way or whatever it was. And basically, they sent me home with Resolution. I watched it and I was totally blown away. And then we did Spring and then long story short, essentially here we are for four films later.
Baltin: Do you feel like by your fourth film you guys speak that musical shorthand to each other?
LaValle: Totally, I definitely feel that. And I also feel we work well together in the sense I feel their absolute trust in me to experiment and go down all the different paths and different ideas and take my time to really come full circle and get to the place of the themes and the instrumentation and the approach and tone of each film. So I’m really appreciative of that. And it definitely feels like second nature. And there’s so many of those great composer-director relationships. Danny Elfman, obviously, and Tim Burton being one. But yeah, I’m definitely thankful to just have this like constant circle, and also creativity because they’re pushing themselves as they’re making films. They’re doing something different. They’re trying to come up with a new narrative or a new storyline, unique or cool that maybe hasn’t been thought of or done before or whatever it is. So, I definitely feel that sense of excitement when I go into each new film.
Baltin: Were there things that when you first saw the script that really surprised you in a pleasant way?
LaValle: I guess not really. The point where I get surprised is when I see picture and I’m just like, “Whoa, that’s cool. That’s not what my visual was when I was reading the script.” And I was coming up with scenes or tones or just having my first responses, and just visualizing the script as I read it. When I get surprised, it’s when that first cut comes in and I’m just like, “Well, this is cool.” Like, this time around, I was surprised by just the look of both main characters, John and Levi, and then the fact that it was in their apartment and I knew that was their apartment. The storyline and the writing, I feel like is very familiar to me with them. They’re always pushing new ideas as far as the rabbit hole that they go down and all of the connections and things they’re trying to discover and find. And I thought that was really cool. But really most surprising was whenever I get pictures, I’m always surprised.
Baltin: As you say, it’s interesting, because you’ve been to their apartment, you know what it looks like. But as it becomes time to put the score to it, does it become a new world to you?
LaValle: Totally. To be honest too, this one kind of threw me for a loop, because I got really inspired by the script and came up with a lot of different motifs and a lot of different tones and ideas, and just like musical beds and things like that. It’s typically my process. I’ll just try to create as many tonal beds as possible that I can kind of expand on, no melodic sense to them yet. But it just really steps me in the direction of what’s this going to overall feel like? So then basically this one, when I got the picture, this temp that they had used threw me for a loop. I was just like, “Whoa, okay, this isn’t what I was thinking. And it makes a lot of sense the way that they’ve kind of approached it.” And they throw the temp out the window and don’t worry about it. Sometimes it’s just as simple as like pauses and showing where they want something to hit or something like that. But this one really threw me for a loop because it was this Philip Glass cue. And I thought that it worked really well. I thought there was a bit of a film noir sense to this film in a way. And I wanted to go down that route. And initially, early on, I thought it would be really cool to just do a vocal only score. But then hearing what was happening and how it was making sense and the different instruments that really resonated in those temps that made sense to be over the film. So it really pushed me in that direction as far as getting more creative with my beds and with my approach, bringing in flutes and clarinets and bass clarinets to have their own voice through the score, something I’ve never done before.
Baltin: So as you started to do these things, were there one or two things that surprised you that were able to do?
LaValle: Yeah, I feel like this was the first time that I truly executed this thematic motif in different new, exciting and fresh ways. Like where we heard a theme early on in the film and then it happened again. And it’s the same theme, but played with different instrumentation and in a cool, unique way. I felt like that’s where I really surprised myself. It’s funny, as a composer, you think that you want to be able to come up with themes and you repeat those themes throughout. Typically, that’s almost the formula and I also like stay away from formulas. But, this time I feel like I really executed that and was able to come up with these really cool motifs utilizing different instrumentation in a different way. It’s just ever so subtle and just really pushing the characters and their narratives in that sense.
Baltin: Do you remember as a kid the first film you saw where you noticed the music really standing out?
LaValle: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was the first time I actually was like, “This is cool.” And at that point growing up, I didn’t put two and two together with a composer. That there’s someone in a place making music for movies. I just saw the movie and I just paid attention to the end result. I didn’t think anything about the filmmaking process or anything behind it. But I definitely really remember the era of like ET and Star Wars and those really big scenes. But the first time I saw Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure I was just like, “This is like storytelling. This is just so cool. That score, I think, and continuing on, Danny Elfman’s one of my favorites. I think that was the first moment that I really picked up on something like that.
Baltin: Who’s the dream director to work with that you haven’t done yet?
LaValle: I’m a big fan of Ari Aster. I think he’s great. And then it may be shooting big. Like Stephen King, something like that. guess he doesn’t direct. But I am really drawn to utilizing horror in a cool way.
Baltin: I should ask you about the Independent Spirit Award.
LaValle: Yeah, that’s really exciting. I’m honored for that, such a cool acknowledgement. I just like the fact that we are in that circle of conversation. It’s really exciting. It would be cool to be in a tent on the beach in Santa Monica. That sounds fun.
Baltin: What else is coming up for you?
LaValle: On the artist side, I have a new record coming out in May 2023, my seventh record as The Album Leaf. I think that it’s really a cool record just because of the sense that I’ve been doing a lot more film scoring over the last 10 plus years. And I feel like it’s really colored the way that I make music in all kind of aspects. So, yeah, really proud of this record. It’s been a long time since my last record.

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