Starr Parodi first entered the public eye playing keyboards as part of the house band on the hit late-night Arsenio Hall Show. Since then she has become a vibrant part of the Los Angeles composing community, scoring hundreds of episodes of TV & film as well as being a passionate and innovative solo artist, pianist and producer whose work has been featured on NPR, The BBC, KCRW and iHeart Radio.
Her scoring credits include The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, gen:LOCK, The Starter Wife, Women Warriors: The Voices of Change, Conversations With Other Women, Transformers: Rescue Bots, G.I. Joe Renegades, The Division, and hundreds of Hollywood’s most iconic and visible film trailers/promo (Rogue One, Last Samurai, James Bond, Mission: Impossible II, The Peanuts Movie, Harry Potter, Dreamgirls, Night at the Museum, X-Men 3, etc.). Her darkly innovative production/arrangement of the James Bond Theme (RIAA Gold Record) was credited by Forbes magazine as “reinventing the modern action movie trailer.”
As a multi award-winning composer, Starr is the first woman to have her orchestral works performed in the history of the Festival of Arts – Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach, CA, where she is a featured composer.
My thanks to the composer for her time and also for answering my questions.
The first time I heard you’re playing and music was on an album called Common Places, which was in around 2006, of course you are a pianist and a performer, so how did you become involved in writing music for The Storied Life of A J Fikry?
Ironically I recorded my solo piano album “Common Places” in between film scoring projects. My main touchstone and true north has always been the acoustic piano, and as my partner Jeff Fair was breaking down the mics from a film trailer session we had just recorded, I started playing some improvisations on the piano, which caught his ear and he said, let’s record this — which became the beginning of such a wonderful journey for me of recording my solo piano music. I had been writing many scores for TV and film before that recording, and in 2005 had scored a film with director Hans Canosa called “Conversations With Other Women” starring Helena Bonham Carter. Conversations had mostly diegetic music in it and was very jazz influenced. Hans and his partner (screenwriter & New York Times best-selling novelist Gabrielle Zevin) were working on their latest film in 2022 – The Storied Life of AJ Fikry and reached out to Jeff & I to score it based on our previous relationship.
You wrote the score with another composer Jeff Eden Fair, who is your partner. How much time did you have to work on the movie, and how many players did you have for the score and what percentage of the score was realized by samples or electronic elements, and was it totally collaborative or did you each provide separate cues?
We started talking about the film with the director and coming up with ideas for the sound pallet we would use in early April of 2022 and started actually coming up with themes & demos a few weeks after that in the beginning of May, although the film wasn’t the final cut yet. We didn’t have a lot of time to score the film so it was really important during those early talks that we got very familiar with the story and the directors vision so that musically we were on the same page. Once we got started, we were very much in sync with his vision, and everything was really flowing with only minor notes or changes. Writing the score with Jeff was collaborative, where many of the ideas would start with me at the piano, and then we would shape it from there. We recorded with a forty piece string orchestra for the larger cues, & also a greatly paired down chamber string group for the more intimate cues.
We also recorded with a small French Horn section, as well as several individual soloists including violin, piano, trumpet & woodwinds. Although Jeff & I created all the mock up demos from samples, we wanted a very organic & open sound, so all the orchestral samples were replaced with live instruments. We did use samples for all the bells and much of the percussion. There’s a cue called “Too Drunk To Read” where the main character (Kunal Nayyar) is drowning his sorrows in a bottle of wine, and for the percussive sounds in this cue we actually used different wine glasses, gently struck, along with finger cymbals and wooden frogs.
The style of the music for the movie is subtly Americana, being both emotive and stirring in places and for me evoked some of the early scores of James Newton Howard, and James Horner are there any composers, or artists that you would say have inspired or influenced you?
I think one of the composers who inspires me most and who I have listened to for many years is Aaron Copeland. His music feels so open and emotional and really touches me. One of the things that was very important to both the director and us, was that the music have memorable melodies and themes for each character to give it a feeling of timelessness, so we intentionally wanted to stay away from more ambient atmospheric sounds for most of the cues..
How many times did you sit and watch the film before arriving at any decisions as to what style of music the film required and where you would place the music to best serve the picture?
We watched the film as a whole many times and in many different forms. Traditionally we would typically sit with the director and spot a film to determine where there would be music coming in and out, but because of the pandemic, we did this all over zoom and daily phone calls. We built the music cues organically as the film was coming together (since it was still being edited and on a tight timeline), rather than planning out the roadmap of the music in advance. It was a bit of an unorthodox way to do it, but It really flowed, and since we sent music demos to the director on almost a daily basis and got his feedback very quickly, it really helped determine what was working thematically and that helped establish the connective tissue for the various themes.
As far as I can see your first foray into scoring film was in 1993 for a documentary entitled Marilyn the Last Word, how did you become involved on this?
I was working on the Paramount lot in Hollywood, playing keyboards in the house band of a late night talk show called “The Arsenio Hall Show” and a friend of mine who worked in the TV music department of Paramount recommended me to score this documentary. Although I had written songs & music for commercials before this, as well as doing some ghost-writing for other composers, this was the first long form film I ever scored.
Do you have a set routine regarding scoring a project, ie do you like to establish a core theme to use as a foundation, and do you work from opening titles to end titles or does each assignment differ?
Every project is different, and thematically, scoring a series is also different than a film partially because of building on the reoccurring themes, so I don’t really have a set routine, however I do have several different “go to” set ups of musical pallets on my computer that I can use to quickly get ideas down into my sequencer. I have found that (at least for me) every project that I work on is a discovery process and it always seems like the music unfolds and tells me where to go next. For The Storied Life… We didn’t work chronologically. I think the first cue we wrote was “Too Drunk to Read “ because when watching that scene, there were just so many musical ideas and shapes that came to mind, and that theme came back in a darker way when AJ Fikry was getting an MRI near the end of the film.
We wrote “the Sleeping and the Waking” which happens towards the end of the film, as one of the first cues as well, and once that theme was developed, there were many places earlier in the film in which we used pieces/versions of it, to lead us to that final theme with AJ. We also knew that the director wanted the first cue (The AJ Fikry Overture), and the very last cue (Have I Got A Book For You), to be bookends of the story so when we were working on the opening, we also had the last scene in mind.
You have released solo albums of your music, when writing for a studio album are you less constricted as opposed to writing for film or TV. I suppose what I am saying is it a freer experience without the timings, dialogue, and the fx if any?
My process for recording solo piano albums has some similarities to scoring to film, and some major differences. When I record freely, I just clear my mind and usually start playing whatever comes out. I do several very long improvised takes, sometime 20-30 minutes at a time, and then listen back to see if there is a melody or a section that I want to turn into a structured piece. Although I don’t have a picture that I am technically scoring to, I do have a lot of pictures in my mind as I play, so my music tends to be very cinematic even if there is no picture. It is definitely a freer experience than working with timings, but also in a way, since there is not the inspiration of a picture or a set story, it can also be more challenging to get something I’m really happy with.
Documentaries seem to require a lot more music than say a feature film, sometimes the music being constant in the background, what are the differences between writing for documentaries, shorts and TV as opposed to a full feature?
Every project is so unique and there are so many different approaches to telling a story. Documentaries can have a lot of music in them… but not always. If there is quite a bit of narration and dialogue, a lot of music under talking can water down the dialogue and can become like wallpaper which doesn’t necessarily amplify the storytelling. I scored a Michael B. Jordan animated series for HBO last year called gen:LOCK and I have found that in animation, that’s really the best example of picture often requiring wall to wall music. When there is a lot of action, and also no organic sound to begin with, or feeling of “air” in the space, because everything is animated, music plays a huge role in keeping the momentum going.
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is such a beautiful score, I just kept playing it over and over, and still keep sneaking back to it. The music is available on digital platforms, is there also a CD, if not do you think there will be?
Thank you so much!! As of now there is no physical CD planned. The soundtrack is released on Lakeshore Records steaming on all major digital platforms and also available to purchase on iTunes and Amazon.
How much music did you write for the movie and is all the score on the recording that is released?
There is approximately 47 minutes of original score in the film that we composed. There are about 31 scored cues in the film (23 of which are included on the soundtrack) however all the major themes are represented in the cues on the soundtrack.
What in your opinion is the purpose of music in film?
My opinion is that music’s primary role is to support the picture and the narrative. To help create something artistically where the sum of the parts as a whole is greater than the separate elements, and to give the viewer the best emotional experience that they can have.
The Heart of Frida is a concert, but much more than a normal concert could you tell us something about it?
I recorded the “Heart of Frida” solo piano album, as both an homage to the artist Frida Kahlo, and also to my dad, an Italian immigrant who lived in Mexico for much of his life and was a contemporary of Frida Kahlo. Frida is a huge inspiration for me because she was the muse of her more famous artist/husband, Diego Rivera, and yet, in a time and place where women’s artistic voices were suppressed, she found her voice as an artist and became a major force in the art world with her meaningful and personal paintings. What started out as a record release – solo piano concert, became a collaboration with long-time dear friend and former lead singer of the supergroup The Temptations, Louis Price, and two of the stars from Cirque du Soleil, The Steben Twins. Since Karyne and Sarah Steben are identical twins, we created a collaborative concert/show together that showed both the human/physical side of Frida Kahlo and also the spiritual side where she was unencumbered by her physical tragedies and ailments. Playing solo piano as the Steben twins flew through the air on a trapeze next to me was an experience I will never forget.
What is on the horizon for you?
Jeff & I recently finished producing a project called “An Adoption Story” that has been nominated for a Grammy this year which we are thrilled about. We are starting work on an orchestral commission later this month and also an upcoming documentary film which I’m not yet free to discuss but very excited about.