Stephen Bray has pretty much done it all, musically speaking. The Grammy and Tony-nominated songwriter, producer, musician and composer first gained notoriety back in the '80s when his groundbreaking work with Madonna helped launch her career and establish a sound that would be emulated by artists and producers for years to come. Working together, the duo wrote and produced some of Madonna’s biggest hits, including “Into the Groove,” “Papa Don't Preach,” “True Blue” and “Express Yourself,” just to name a few. Over the years, he's worked with other major artists like Kylie Minogue, Gladys Knight, The Jets, Siedah Garrett, Debra Harry, E. G. Daily and Breakfast Club. As a songwriter and producer, Stephen has received Gold, Platinum and Diamond awards representing sales of over 100 million records.
More recently, Stephen has found success in musical theatre as a composer-lyricist for the Broadway adaptation of The Color Purple, for which he was nominated for the Tony for Best Score in 2005. Re-imagined by director John Doyle, The Color Purple is currently enjoying a sold out run in London at The Menier Chocolate Factory.
On his latest project, Stephen acts as the Executive Music Producer on the comedy Peeples, starring Craig Robinson (The Office), Kerry Washington (Django Unchained), David Alan Grier (In Living Color), S. Epatha Merkerson (Law and Order), Tyler James Williams (Everybody Hates Chris), with Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song) and Diahann Carroll (White Collar). Written and directed by Tina Gordon Chism, Peeples is a funny look at a rite of passage that anyone in a long-term relationship has to face sooner or later – winning over the in-laws.
I recently spoke with Stephen about his experience working on this particular film, his past projects and a whole lot more. Check it out below!
To get things started, can you just talk a little bit about your experience working on this film? Is there anything unique about this project when compared to work you’ve done in the past?
Well, it was unique in that it was a mixture of the pop music that I grew up with and the musical theatre I’ve kind of evolved into it. This project was a really fun opportunity to combine some of the experience I got writing for theatre where characters need to move story along with their lyrics and reveal something about who they are.
It was also interesting because the presence of music driven characters in the film kept creeping. It started with Daphne Peeples’ song and it kind of grew from there. Wade then had a song to perform for children at what was originally supposed to be a kids’ party, and then the character of Simon Peeples makes the kind of music a college-aged boy might write about girls. And in the closing song, Virgil Peeples, who was always a musician in the movie, sings a verse of his own.
Music definitely plays an important role in this film because, as you mentioned, there are many of these music driven characters throughout the movie. Did that make things a bit more fun and exciting for you?
Absolutely. The only thing that could possibly be more fun than working on music as a standalone art form is working on music and film and characters together – the theatricalization of music. You know, it’s not simply a song playing on the radio for source music, but it’s actually more of a music driven character moment where, not only does the song hopefully play into the comedy of the piece, but the song also reveals something. It’s a fantastic challenge and the jigsaw puzzle of songwriting takes on another dimension which is really, really challenging and fun.
How did you get involved in this particular film? Did you previously have a relationship with Director Tina Gordon Chism or Producer Tyler Perry?
I’m not afraid to say I slept my way into this project (laughs). Stephanie [Allain, Stephen’s wife] is a producer on the movie. She came to me and said “I need you to write a song about a guy who is teaching kids not to pee on things” (laughs). It was an interesting and fun challenge to write these songs, because Tina created a unique non-stereotypical quality to the characters in the movie.
You’re somewhat of a “Jack of All Trades” in music – you’ve had great success in the world’s of pop, film, TV and musical theatre. Do you have a favorite genre to work in?
I do have a pretty broad-based love of just the process writing and recording music. I was originally attracted to music from the standpoint of engineering and production, because I'd hear artists like Lou Reed or Steely Dan, Todd Rundgren, Motown or The Four Tops on the radio and I’d think, “I want to be in the room when that’s happening! How do they do that?" So I figured out how to play drums just to get in the room, to kind of become part of that process. And that sort of evolved into songwriting, which evolved into producing, which evolved into the theater piece. Working on The Color Purple started to add another dimension to it.
I would say, The Color Purple probably – to date – was the most fun I’ve ever had, because it’s theater and I don’t know where people work harder than theater. I don’t know where you find people who have to be amazing singers, amazing dancers, amazing actors, all at the same time, seven or eight times a week. And I would say after that, being involved in music for films, because film is probably my favorite art medium.
Being a massive Madonna fan myself, I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you at least one question about your fellow ASCAP member and Queen of Pop.
(Laughs) I said The Color Purple was maybe my favorite experience, but I could just as easily say that those early days – those ten years of working with Madonna – were some of the happiest musical times of my life because I was fortunate enough to have a partner where we finished each other’s musical sentences, and I don’t think I’ve ever gotten along quite as well with any other collaborator in terms of writing.
So are there a lot of unreleased recordings from your days working and writing with her that the public has yet to hear?
There are a couple of note that I can think of: There’s a theme song that we were writing to Desperately Seeking Susan, and I have not heard that particular piece of music other than in the pile of cassettes that I have somewhere. Then I think we have a really cool song “First There’s a Kiss” that never saw the light of day.
And do you think that they’ll ever see the light of day, or maybe get an official release?
I hope so!
We typically ask our interviewees if they can offer any advice to songwriter or producers trying to break into the industry. Can you offer any tidbits of wisdom for those ASCAP members who are trying to make a living with their music?
You know, Stephen Sondheim said the only way you get better at writing is to write more. So just write all the time and you will get better. That also plays into the sort of cynical and crass side of that answer, which is that the more you put out there, the more chances are something’s going to work.
There’s a delicate balance of just keeping at it, practicing a lot, not being afraid to judge yourself, but also not judging too far to the point of inactivity. It’s a strange but important balance.
To preview and purchase the Peeples soundtrack, visit the iTunes Store.
Peeples was released on Blu-ray Disc, DVD, Digital Download and Pay-Per-View on September 10th from Lionsgate Home Entertainment. For more information, visit www.peeplesmovie.com.