Alexander Ellis is a talented and prolific composer, multi-instrumentalist, producer and engineer. While he has been a songwriter since he was a teenager, the music he creates for films is his primary focus. Ellis is also an advocate for musicians, hosting a podcast where he interviews musicians and other performers about their art, and leads workshops on helping creatives navigate the business side of the music industry. We are fortunate to share an interview with Alexander Ellis about all these things and more.
Please introduce yourself. Describe your music for new listeners.
Ayeee yo! My name is Alexander Ellis (Alex for short) and I’m a musician/songwriter who’s currently writing/composing music in the film and media industry. I made the jump from musician that writes after their typical 9-5 job is over, to my full time gig in December, 2016.
I’ve been sitting here thinking about how to describe my music for the past 30 minutes and keep drawing a blank. I’ve been told in the past that I have a “sound” in my songwriting (which is starting to bleed over into my orchestration), but I’ve never done a deep dive into that conversation to nail down what my “sound” actually is. So the easiest way to describe my music, is that I try to keep it true to the medium it’s supporting. If it’s a score, it supports the film. If it’s a song, it supports the lyrical imagery. If it’s an instrumental, it supports whatever it is that inspires the track to be written.
One of my scores was just released for a 30 minute adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes story called “Sherlock Holmes: The Speckled Band”, this will probably give you a better idea of my sound on a more symphonic level: www.aebeats.com. Likewise, I’ll be releasing a Christmas EP and teaming up with some amazing Kansas City vocalists, so be on the lookout for that in late December.
Your productivity seems boundless: film scores, podcasts, writing – not to mention your 100 Day Challenge, where you have committed to daily bursts of creativity to “defeat the dreaded writer’s block.” What led to such an ambitious undertaking? How has this challenge inspired you?
First off, many thanks for taking the time to get deep into my catalogue and absorb the various things I’ve dipped my toes in over the years. I love learning and I get obsessed with new things I discover. This personality trait has guided me into producing and hosting a college radio show, podcasting, obtaining my masters from Berklee and working at The Record Machine. We’re so extremely lucky to have the internet in our day and age, as it’s created numerous outlets for creative content and unlimited learning opportunities. There’s nothing I love more than exploring something new and engaging with it on a creative level.
Regarding the #100DayChallenge, I subscribe to a lot of newsletters/podcasts by creatives and one day I read about screenplay writers doing this exercise to improve their skill set...so I decided to give it a shot. I quickly learnt that starting a 30 second to 1 minute piece of music from scratch, and then writing, mixing and mastering it in one hour isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially when attempting to incorporate newly learnt musical techniques into these pieces. It honestly wasn’t until about day 40 where I learned how to effectively detach and just let my mind run wild.
One of the best things that the challenge has done for me is that it gets me into a creative space. Now, how long I stay there is really up to a lot of other factors that I’m still trying to figure out, but it definitely does help me get warmed up. Just like before a training session, I’ve got to get the warm up and stretching done, before I get into the fun stuff.
How did you get started in writing and producing film scores?
As a instrumental songwriter, I would constantly get the following feedback after handing off a demo to a vocalist -- all of the melodies are exhausted with the instrumentation, so where will the vocals sit? As you can guess at this point, I’m not a vocalist. When I listen to music with vocals, I never pay attention to the lyrics -- but focus on the instrumentation and mix. So with that being said, when I used to write, I’d have a bad habit of forgetting that the voice (i.e. - another instrument) needs space to live in a song and would keep adding instruments until I made the song feel right (to me).
One day, I decided to try writing for another medium. I’ve never been a HUGE fan of instrumental bands (although I do appreciate their craft), so I figured that I’d try writing for film. After knocking out some cues (which are what pieces of music are referred to in the film world), I hit up a handful of directors and one got back to me, Jordan Jones. We had an email exchange, met up, and then he gave me the thumbs up to score his feature film “The Brutal 9”. I can’t thank Jordan enough as he really helped launch my career by believing in me.
I’ll admit that I was extremely terrified, as this was my first “official” project and it was a feature film. Most newbie composers start with shorts, but I had the amazing opportunity to jump in the deep end, so I took it. While I was wrapping up that score, I started reaching out to other local directors and production companies and so far this year, I’ve completed one feature film, seven (7) short films, one commercial and signed on as a staff writer for the Santa Monica, CA based production music company Velvet Green Music. I really couldn’t have asked for a better year, outside of home and car repairs, haha.
For those of us unfamiliar with the process, how do you compose for films? What software and hardware do you use? What do you love most about this process?
Great question, as I’m constantly figuring out and fine tuning that process as well!
On the technical side, I use Ableton Live as my DAW (digital audio workstation) that runs on a Mac Pro. Within that program, I use various MIDI instrument plug-ins such as Kontakt, Steven Slate Drums, Ableton stock instruments and other digital instruments to create. I’ll then use a combination of stock and other plug-ins to mix and master my pieces. I’m steadily working towards starting some ideas on paper, but still have a ways to go before I become efficient at that.
With budgets being low and myself having a personal vendetta with asking musicians to record on my projects for free, I currently only live track instruments I can play -- guitar, bass and drums/percussion. However, one of my big goals for 2018 is to live track strings, brass and wind instruments as I’m on a constant quest to create and/or find a budget that will allow for this, because MIDI instruments, although quite amazing sounding, will never have the same feel or presence in a mix as live instrumentation. Although you can get a very close sound with digital tools, we still can’t account for the “human” element. Some folks would argue that statement to be false, which is why it’s very hard to convince a local director to invest in live tracked cues, as I’ve learnt that in most instances, the score is unfortunately an afterthought. Which blows my mind because have you ever watched a movie with no music? I have the pleasure of doing this, and it’s very awkward. Likewise, when a cue isn’t really connecting with the scene, it also feels really weird. So the fact that stock music is so popular, because it’s either cheap or free, still baffles me. But I’ve been fortunate enough to work with directors who understand the importance a score plays in their film -- and it’s those creatives that I seek out.
In regards to process, I haven’t found one consistent way that I can knock it out of the park because completing a successful score can take many forms. However, I do watch the film a few times through, encourage a spotting session with the director/producers, and then jump in. Once I get a cue complete (in my mind), I’ll send it over to the director/producers for review, and immediately start on another one. The human interaction at the beginning of the process is VERY important because when we are discussing what the music should do and where it should start/stop in every scene, not all feelings are successfully conveyed with words, I sometimes have to read body language and facial expressions to get the full story. This is where my previous life as an electrical engineering consultant tends to benefit me.
Who are some of your favorite composers and what do you like about their work?
I’m a huge fan boy of Jeff Russo (Legion, Fargo). His writing style is very similar to mine and whenever I get into the dreaded “writer’s block” -- I can play one of his scores and pretty quickly get inspired.
I also love what Ramin Djawadi (Westworld, Game of Thrones) and what Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (The Assassination of Jesse James, Mars) put out. There’s something very magical and unique, yet simple to their music. I’m constantly listening to their scores on my quest to figure out how they pull it off.
Lastly, I couldn’t get away without mentioning the legendary Hans Zimmer (and his team of writers). To me, their amazing talent is foreshadowing the next section of a cue so that when the section hits, you’re subconsciously expecting it but not quite sure why. Likewise, their ability to change keys and time signatures, without it being jolting or noticeable, is something that I’ve been working on heavily for the past year.
What inspires you about original music in Kansas City?
It’s humbling as a musician to be creating in a place that is known for it’s strong jazz roots, while at the same time, leading the country in technology by being a smart city. We’re starting to have the traits of the coast, but at the same time, still being courteous to each other and actually caring about what our fellow musicians are working on.
Likewise, it’s exciting to be in a city that has so many talented musicians. The frustrating part is hearing the amazing musicians that reside in this city, but never (really) seeing these artists connecting with a larger audience. We have a handful of artists that are doing their thing at that next level, but a whole lot more should be getting attention. However, I suppose this issue resides is in every city -- it’s just such a bummer to see.
Inside the Music by Dave Stewart
Experiencing Film Music A Listener's Companion by Kenneth LaFave
Music Theory Secrets: 94 Strategies for the Starting Musician by Brent Coppenbarger
Brian Eno's Another Green World by Geeta Dayal
Fargo (Original Television Soundtrack) by Jeff Russo
Inception (Music From the Motion Picture) by Hans Zimmer
SCORE By Matt Schrader