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August 25, 2010

Cool and Composed

By Lavinia Jones Wright

LIZ PHAIR

Liz Phair and Doc Dauer (Pictured with ASCAP Board member Dan Foliart and Original Beverly Hills: 90210 theme composer John E. Davis on left, and ASCAP's Sue Devine on right) received ASCAP Film & Television awards in 2009.
Photo by Lester Cohen/Wireimage.com

Pop's 'Perfect Misfit' LIZ PHAIR teams up with DOC DAUER and EVAN FRANKFORT and finds new life in TV scores

Liz Phair's newest record, the playful-serious and unexpectedly polarizing Funstyle, is less than two months old. But the main thing she wants to talk about these days is not her newly hatched full-length, it's her fledgling TV composing career. It's understandable given that her work with fellow composers Marc 'Doc' Dauer and Evan Frankfort on Swingtown(CBS), the new Beverly Hills: 90210, and In Plain Sight(USA) are bringing Phair & Co. accolades and catharsis, while with dropped management and the subsequent self-release of Funstyle her recording career of late has been less than smooth sailing. Dauer met Phair through a songwriter friend who recommended her for his newest recording project, a children's album called The Body Rocks. Frankfort was also working on the record, and the three songwriters worked so well together that when Phair was offered the opportunity to compose for Swingtown, she knew the job had to be a trio act. Long revered for her beautiful candor as a songwriter, Phair is bringing her magic touch with emotions to the scores, and it seems to be working. Playback talked to Dauer and Phair on speakerphone from Phair's house in Los Angeles about their transition from songwriters to small screen composers.

What were the circumstances behind your first television scoring job?

Marc 'Doc' Dauer: I first got started working with Pete Yorn. We worked on an independent movie, and then we worked on Me, Myself and Irene together. Liz can tell you the story of how we together got our start in TV scoring.

Liz Phair: I met Doc through Pete. He was working on this kids' record called The Body Rocks. So he had me come in, and he was working with Evan Frankfort.

My friend, Mike Kelly, that I grew up with all the way from elementary school on has been in television as a writer and show producer- he works on The LXD, maybe One Tree Hill. He came to me and said, ‘F--- the labels, Liz. You need to score my new show. I'm writing a show about our hometown called Swingtown.'

We grew up in a very, very conservative town, and he had been aware when he was younger of a bunch of parents that were swinging, which was so scandalous. He's like, 'You need to score it' and I was like 'I have no idea how to score.' And he said, 'You gotta do it.' So I asked Doc and Evan who had both been scoring works, and at that very moment we became... Three-Headed Monster is what we called ourselves. Since then, we've done a couple other different shows: 90210 and we just finished In Plain Sight.

What surprised you most about the TV scoring process?

LP: What I really hooked into is the emotion. In between what you're seeing on screen and the dialogue of the scene and the music you create to support that, for me, it's all about the emotion. It's a conceptual process and very abstract in certain ways. But it just felt very, very right. Like we had gotten to the essence of what making music is all about.

It seems like it would be both challenging and also to your advantage to be working with two other people. What's your process like when you're working together?

Doc: It's really to our advantage, and to the advantage of the people we're working with, that there are three of us because we each have completely different strengths and different approaches to the process. We do work together, and we work separately, but because we each kind of bring our own bend to the process, we can obviously always keep the diversity moving and also weigh in on the other's approach. So at the end of the day, we come up with what all three of us feel is the best for the specific theme.

In creative meetings, do all three of you go together to talk with the directors and the writers?

Doc: We do all three go together. Often times in music IT'S hard to talk about, so...

LP: Yeah, communication between what someone wants… I don't know if you've ever tried it yourself, but one person might use the word ‘blue,' or, ‘I want it to sound kind of neutral,' and that could mean anything. There's particular language every time you take on a new show, with the creators, so that everyone knows what they're talking about.

Doc: It helps that we all three go together and have this dialogue with the creative people on the show and then get to follow that up with talking about it amongst ourselves and going back and forth. We come up with something that we all three feel is appropriate.

And the other advantage is, with TV often times you're on a really tight schedule. It's not unusual to have to write music for an entire episode in…

LP: Two days!

Doc: Yeah. So having three of us being able to work simultaneously is also a big advantage.

Is there an advantage to coming at scoring from a songwriter's perspective?

LP: One hundred percent! I think we treat almost every tune like a song. We put a lot of our experience in, and we've already got years and years of being able to convey musically. When we make a song, the whole point is to have the listener feel something, and [scoring] after having a career of a singer/songwriter, I think there's an excitement there.

If you're just coming from TV scoring, I suppose there might be a tendency to stay within your genre. ‘Well, this isn't the way TV scoring has always been. So-and-So, who worked with me, does it and this is the way you do things.' And we're coming from outside the box so we bring all these ideas and possibilities to the table. We're not just going to do everything we want to do, but we are bringing a very fresh perspective and a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of music aesthetic that you wouldn't necessarily have developed if you had just started in TV and stayed in TV.

Is it hard to put aside all of that self that you've been developing through your own music, that voice that you have, and create music that's really for someone else's vision?

LP: I think if we tried to do this when we were younger and we were full of that ego then it would have been that way. It was hard when I was talking to a label and they wouldn't like half the songs. I was like ‘Well, you don't understand it!' But at our level of experience at this point, this was really much more collaborative then that. We really do feel that when we sign up with a show that means we really like the creators and that they really like what we do. I think for all of us the joy in it is that there is a greater good that everyone's working for.

Cohesion…

LP: Cohesion! Yes, thank you so much! Of course you want your idea to be the one they hook on to, and it doesn't always work out that way, but by and large we've been very lucky, and we work with creators on shows that are very musical themselves. Everyone's pitching in, trying to make it the best it can be.

Plus having a jumping off point can be an important element to creativity. Someone else's ideas or someone else's beginnings can be really inspirational. Almost like having an assignment can take you in knew directions.

Doc: Completely. We'll all continue to make records forever because we have a different type of enjoyment in that. There's a run-on sentence here. Change to: "But when you're making an album, often times, you can pontificate over the smallest, most inane detail that, in the long run, possibly ends up being completely meaningless, but in the short run seems so huge. In scoring, since you're so limited in the time that you have, often it's that first idea that comes to you, that initial inspiration, that you end up going with. There's something liberating about that.

LP: That's what people get confused about, one of the things that's behind the question that you're asking. ‘Is there less musicality or integrity in scoring as opposed to putting out a record?' I have to say, ‘Definitely, no.' It's a very different muscle dealing with a visual element and dialogue.

But it is one hundred percent, for me at least, engaging and satisfying. It's the same level of ‘Wow, we just made a beautiful piece of music,' because the picture and dialogue and scene are even greater all together. There's just as much integrity.

Are there any parallels between the experience of being a songwriter and a recording artist working with labels and being a scorer working with TV people?

LP: There are. There's a big machine behind the show.

Doc: The difference is obviously that, for an artist, your vision has to correlate with the record label's vision, which is a huge thing. As a scorer your job is really to support the vision of the creator. We can come to the table with our ideas of how to do that, but at the end of the day, it's our job to support the creator's vision.

There is that illusion of creative control that people have about making records. But that really is only held by people who've never made records.

LP: Right! And you have more control in scoring than you would think. Because ultimately they like or don't like a tune, but if you're working with someone that appreciates what you do, there's a trust built between creator and composer where they are open to your ideas and you're open to theirs. You are creating music with integrity that has your vision intact.

There is a big difference in how you make a living as a film scorer versus a recording artist. Has that been a bonus for you guys?

Doc: When you're making a record, you can pontificate for six months, a year, a year and a half. Once you deliver it, you're lucky if it comes out nine months later. And then after that, you're lucky if you see dime a year after that. With scoring, it's like instant gratification in many ways. Write it one week, watch it a week or two later, collect it a couple weeks later.

LP: You know what's so funny that I'm thinking – immediately my mind goes to…with a record you have to tour, you have to hop on a bus and go around the country. The difference for me is, with a record you get to tour, but then again scoring you have to commute through disgusting LA traffic. So they are different. (laughs)

You won an ASCAP award last year, so IT'S probably brought you a little bit closer in your relationship with ASCAP and with your PRO in general. Has it also brought you closer to copyright issues and with the songwriter/composer rights advocacy issues?

Doc: Definitely. One issue that we're all following really closely is the issue of writer's performance royalties for internet streaming of TV shows. And the bottom line is that in the next five years, I would come to say that a huge majority of TV that's watched is going to be watched on the internet, and if our right to fair payment for internet streaming isn't preserved, it will have a huge impact on music composers for TV A lot of us depend on that revenue, which we're used to receiving.

LP: And we should receive. Just because the medium of broadcast changes, that doesn't mean that its views change.

What are you working on in your regular songwriting and recording lives?

LP: I just put out a CD online that comes out in hard release in October, called Funstyle. I've been working with this company that's allowing me to be creatively involved in the marketing plan, which I've wanted to do forever, especially now that the old systems are breaking down. I've been playing with the process of how you get your music to your fans and developing that as you go. It's hard. Marketing evolution – you just evolve.

Were you intending to self-release and market from the very beginning?

LP: No, it was really kind of an impulsive decision. I finished the new album and I was ready to find something that evolves like a sustainable system…something that reflects the way you are creative. To try to find a business model that allows the most opportunity to work the way you are comfortable.

This is a great moment for creative people to vote with their decisions because the industry is shaken up and sort of scattered all over the place. It's a really great time to be creative about the way YOU'RE going to conduct your business, and, in that way, affect what becomes status quo in the future.

LP: Exactly. As long as you know who you are and how you work, then you can find the appropriate business model for you, and that will be perfect.

So, Doc, your compilation record is coming out. What else do you have happening?

Doc: Yeah, the kids' record, The Body Rocks, is teaching kids about the human body. All the songs basically explain what the body is. That's coming out October 5th. And then I'm working on a covers album with Pete Yorn right now. And I'm just writing stuff all around. When I'm going to release them, I have no idea.

What kind of covers are you going to do? Do you have any idea yet?

Doc: I could throw out a couple. Songs as diverse as… anywhere from 'Moon River' to 'Surfer Girl.'

So let's talk a little bit about what you guys are working on in your songwriting, in your regular recording lives.

Liz: I just put out a CD online that comes out in hard release in October, called Funstyle. I've been working with this company that's allowing me to be creatively involved in the marketing plan, which I've wanted to do forever because now that the old systems are breaking down, the usual roll-outs or releases seem a little more… like how are people going to work with you know, are there going to be songs all year long, are they going to be on CD form, stuff like that. So I've been playing with the process of how you get your music to your fans and developing that as you go. It's hard. Marketing evolution – you just evolve how your going to market it as you go and that's what I'm doing right now.

Were you intending to self-release and do the marketing that way from the very beginning of thinking about making the record?

Liz: No, it was really kind of an impulsive decision and I had been thinking about it for a long time and decided to act. I finished the new album and I was ready for the record and rather than go through the whole process of getting something up and 'frontloading' which I like to call it, which you live and die by, and your pretty much screwed if it doesn't work. So doing it my way was like 'wow.' I sort of like to feel things out, I like to adapt as I see opportunities arise and I found a company that was all about that. You should try to, if you can… at this point, nobody knows what record labels will evolve into and if you can, you want to try to find a working file to your personality. You want to find something that evolves like a sustainable system, something that reflects the way you are creative and you want to try to find a business model that will gel with that which allows you the most opportunity to work the way you are comfortable and in a way that you require. And I went through tons of different models before I found that.

Well that's a really good point. This is a great moment for creative people to vote with their decisions because the industry is shaken up and sort of scattered all over the place, it's a really great time to be creative about the way your going to conduct your business and, in that way, effect what becomes status quo in the future.

Liz: Exactly. As long as you know you are and you know how you work, then you can find the appropriate business model for you and that will be perfect.

So, Doc, your compellation record is coming out. What else do you have happening right now in your songwriting?

Doc: Yeah, the kids' record, The Body Rocks, is teaching kids about the human body. All the songs basically explain what the body is. It's just about the human body. And that's coming out October 5 th. And then I'm working on a covers album with Pete Yorn right now. And I'm just writing stuff all around. When I'm going to release them, I have no idea.

What kind of covers are you going to do? Do you have any idea yet?

Doc: I could throw out a couple. Songs as diverse as… anywhere from 'Moon River' to 'Surfer Girl.'

Check out Liz, Doc, and Evan's work this Fall on USA Network's In Plain Sight.

And preview The Body Rocks! http://www.myspace.com/thebodyrocks

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