A chat with film score composer Nicole Russin-McFarland‘s picks on top music spots in New York and her creative career path.
Which are your top 3 personal picks of the best spots in New York to experience quality music?
#1 My big top secret tip is to have relationships with someone in a major department store or luxury store. You don’t have to buy $50,000 worth of clothes, but be a regular. If you get a good pay-check, buy a pair of shoes. Get a fragrance and chat up your salesperson like a friend because he or she is a human being too who feels as tired of the workweek as everyone else. If you know a few salespeople, stick with them so they get regular commissions, which make or break someone’s job with their supervisors. If someone doesn’t get enough sales, they get fired at the drop of a hat in New York. Remember, a salesperson can sell you anything in the whole store, so walk around that Bloomingdales with your salesperson into makeup, purses, juniors, jeans, everywhere! The big music celebrities often perform at or attend special events promoting their films at all of these places, so you can get help meeting people and attending those things. The first time I ever saw Beyonce, she was promoting her movie at the flagship Bloomingdales private event in 2008. I got to see her change from a pretty normal girl in makeup and clothes walking around into her stage goddess clothes ten minutes later. I saw all the prep and was amazed. To be honest, I’m almost sure I bumped into her mom by accident by falling into a clothes rack as people put stuff away! I got there super early. You don’t see this all of this behind the scenes work or get that close to people at regular concerts. You are most likely to get good time chatting up celebrities in any profession when you attend mall events, which are quite often invitation only or held after hours.
#2 Bouchon Bakery is one of my joints because I’m a major groupie of people who are culinary role models to me especially celebrity chef Thomas Keller, eating at all Bouchon locations since I was 20 on the regular. If you’re into NBC’s Today Show concerts, Bouchon Bakery at Rockefeller Center sells tickets to block out a table with food for the entire concert. You can actually eat breakfast and a dessert over coffee while having a front row seat to a Grammy winner. Everyone plays the Today Show, which is famous for the Summer Concert Series. Carrie Underwood, Iggy Azalea, Sean “Diddy” Combs and Meghan Trainor are some of the many people who’ve performed there in my recent memory.
#3 Definitely get on social media with people who are in music but may not be the top A-list acts mentioned in Us Weekly! A top DJ might do something like private DM a password to all or a select number of his followers where if you happen to be in that city, mention this password outside to the bouncer. You’ll get in for free or discounted – and along with that person, later on, a known act like Nicki Minaj might be performing.
All of these tips work in any city, actually! And all work beautifully with any music genre you enjoy, in particular the A list acts.
The motto: be a regular someplace and befriend everyone. You’ll get invited everywhere and get special treatment! And, you might get some really nice acquaintances out of it. You might end up friends with people you’ve met at parties or who work at the mall. Who knows? Endless possibilities!
Did you know lots of people who become famous start out working poorly paying jobs? That the guy who is a waiter at that restaurant might be a model in an ad campaign but need to wait tables to pay bills – and he can invite you to a bunch of co-ed modelling castings with him your agency doesn’t send you to? Did you know a female celebrity once sold me makeup as a makeup counter girl? People don’t think about making connections with people who are regular working people. They’ll write you off like, “That guy? He’s hot, sure, but he’s a salesman at Gucci. No way could he be an actor with a role on TV!” I know a guy whose relative is a celebrity chef and he’s the manager of a store. People have done so much for me by me being nice to them. Free food. Inviting me places. Helping me out. Never underestimate the generosity of others, and be generous to them by supporting their businesses right back. This goes for any career path you have. That person making sandwiches at Subway by Wall Street could actually be some big corporate guy’s son forced to take a lousy job to learn about money management. He could recommend you to his dad. Be a regular. Put a good tip in his can that he can show his dad, “I got this for making her a good sandwich with the right amount of black olives.” But no, you chose to berate him because you think everyone who works at Subway comes from a poor background. Nothing will happen for you.
Be kind to everyone. You never know. It’s hard, and it’s so hard for me when I don’t feel up to it if I don’t feel well or am stressed out. I try my best.
Describe yourself in three words.
Ambitious immature genius.
Who is your favorite composer?
I love people who aren’t sticks in the mud, old school academic types who are dead inside but somehow still breathing – and are doing better than all the people who are that music cliche. Those who are taking classical music, or film scores, and taking them mainstream to an audience of people who might otherwise never care about film music. There isn’t really a girl like me out there, therefore, I want to be the first so young women can point to me when someone else in the future answers this question. I try to also do my own end doing film score styles of popular music, including that my favorite male singer, Justin Timberlake!
Composer wise… I look to people like Pharrell Williams, who started out as a hip hop/pop producer for the TRL celebrities in early 2000’s MTV. The guy dancing next to Britney and Austin Powers on her “Boys” video, rapping and sing-rapping sexily to her. He’s now composing mega film scores. Spider-Man. Despicable Me. Sweet, right? He’s now a big time movie producer who can actually walk away with a Best Picture Oscar on his mantle this year. Mr. Chanel spokesmodel. All of these achievements never bestowed upon composers or producers. It’s funny because when my mom asked one day, “So you want to be Pharrell?” as a half joke, I said, “Yes, exactly. Pharrell!” And elaborated. Because really, who wouldn’t? My only deal is I would switch out the giant hat for a fedora. My hair gets so big, a big hat won’t help the situation.
Clint Mansell. He does all kinds of music. He was in a band! He didn’t graduate from some stuffy PhD program in music theory. His Black Swan score, not kidding, when I finished watching the movie, I bought a copy not knowing whose name to expect on the iTunes information but knowing it was good. To this day, he’s known for his other work primarily, and to me, Black Swan is my favorite score ever done. I learned who he was because one time, I was goofing off on my computer in junior high with my keyboard and recording layers on it when I should’ve been doing my math homework for the next day per usual. I played it for a guy who said, “These instruments sound like Requiem for a Dream.” Then, I looked it up and read about his work on my prehistoric Internet dial up. I also thought it was really funny because I had a gym teacher called Mr. Mansell!
James Horner. How could you not? A Beautiful Mind. So good. He’s like James Cameron’s filmmaking BFF. Or was. So sad he died and never got to continue his ass kicking in future film scores. I’m such a fan of his.
I dream of doing what John Powell did for How to Train Your Dragon. Music is as important a character as the ones we see on camera.
Oh my goodness, every awards season, I drown myself in whoever is nominated for the Best Original Score awards. My iTunes playlist is organized according to the nomination year. For example, I have on 2015, Thomas Newman’s Bridge of Spies, The Hateful Eight, so on. Carter Burwell’s Carol. Hmmm, and I spy here, Star Wars! I study it all and take it in. I’m not partial to any one person. I’ll pick out parts of the material I love. Angry composing is the best. I happen to love the track, “Jedi Steps and Finale” off the last Star Wars because before the typical end music, you get this sweeping, Gone with the Wind style peep into what could be! What happens when we next meet Luke Skywalker? You can shut off the movie and know what is going on hearing the score, the sign of an amazing track. To be nominated is a true honor. Therefore, I take it with great thought whenever I hear nominated music and try to learn what brings out emotions in people. Music may be part math and science, but it needs to react well with a crowd, a film studio, everyone, so many people to do well!
Basically every person I meet asks me about Hans Zimmer, so here goes my Mr. Hans Zimmer answer. Hans Zimmer, I mean, one day, I should confront both him and John Williams and possibly Steven Spielberg because those three men are responsible for a good bulk all of my music homework assignments I ever had along with extra credit work. Mr. Spielberg because he produced Gladiator and those films, and the other two because they were always composing work for his production studio, but he might be safe from my wrath because he wears cool glasses and didn’t directly compose the work. But Mr. Zimmer, ooooh, he needs to get me some free McDonald’s fries stat for all the emotional harm he has caused me. OK, not serious. I promise. He’s too cool to be mean to. I kind of owe him free French fries too because all those assignments made me thoroughly enjoy film scores. That said, what I love about Mr. Zimmer’s career path is number one, he’s everywhere. I want to be everywhere so I can annoy my mean former teachers who gave me the evil eye, “Look! See? Guess who doesn’t have to do a boring job? I can do this! Every film in town has my score in it! Have fun listening to my score every time you go to the movies with your grandkids, losers!” And because I love the fact Mr. Zimmer was in a pop-rock band. He has this bat cave I’ve seen, this almost sinister, comic book villain, creepy, light-less room filled with tech where he composes all of his work. And, he was in a band, repeat that, not a music school where he learned to make music lifeless. He gave us that annoying song, “Video Killed the Radio Star” that was always on the radio in Illinois to where I wanted to stab the car seat the millionth time commuting back home from school. He is basically responsible for everything Justin Bieber does with that song. But nevertheless, the fact he was in a bona fide MTV band, doing these things in Top 40 music before and not going to some stick in the mud music academy, I appreciate that so much because it gives me hope I can run Hollywood’s film music scene one day having a good for nothing government degree my parents forced me to get through metaphoric bribery because I’d be “the first in the family not to have a college degree!” I doubt I have very much in common with the guy as a whole, however, those things make me appreciate him. He seems like a cool boss. I’m slightly jealous of Pharrell having him as a boss on his film scores.
In the olden days, your parents used to send you to live with your favorite composer as an apprentice. Or, someone might approach your parents asking for you to sail off and move in. You’d train all day and night with the composer. Possibly, the person had several apprentices! Like artists of the era! Imagine if today, I moved in with John Williams! How weird would that be to people? A makeup loving young woman living with a really old guy might give off an Anna Nicole Smith vibe, haha! They might be like, “Composer? Sure…you met her as a dancer…” #majorLOL But in those times, people had different minds and I sort of wish it were an option when I was 16, to have moved in with a composer out in LA and learn all I could about the film scoring world.
As a film score composer, when was the first time you fall in love with music?
When I was a really young child, I loved when my singing teachers had us sing Disney movie music my favorite cartoon princesses sang.
In second grade, back when I had long yet to enrol in flute but enjoyed my home keyboard, I remember being amazed when my school took us to see the orchestra in Illinois perform a special concert using the film score from The Lion King. Although I watched MTV music videos and secretly wished I could be Madonna or Janet Jackson, I had no idea that Hans Zimmer was part of MTV’s first music video, “Video Killed the Radio Star” when I saw it on, nor did I know that Mr. Zimmer composed the entire Lion King orchestral portion of the soundtrack. My seven year old mind didn’t care about any of those factoids that may appeal to adult music listeners or the composer’s name. My family took me to see The Lion King twice the previous summer. To them, they talked about the music being really good and how sweet the film was.
However, I remember this particular strip of the score popping out to me as a kid at the theater where Simba hears the stampede. To this day, it is amazing. If you want to look up the actual track title, it’s a combination track called “Stampede/To Die For/What Have You Done” where the actual stampede begins in the movie. The iTunes version for sale is not at all the almost overdramatic, old Hollywood version used in the film, which you can now only find online on YouTube or buying the movie. I love how it swirls down and up again in dramatic flair. Lots of chromatics and minor chords. I’m always drawn to those two elements in any music.
And when I in second grade was sitting there with my classmates with the orchestra concert, when that section came on, I was completely amazed hearing it in person. I didn’t understand you could actually do orchestral music as a grown up. I thought it was something dorky, dead guys in powdered wigs and wedge heels for men did. And surely, never anyone of the opposite gender. People don’t talk about film music as a real occupation you can do when you grow up like they do rock stars when they tease kids. And above all, teachers give you an awful face when all the other kids say they want to be a fire fighter or teacher when they grow up, and come your turn, you say, “I want to be like the black and white movie stars! Making my own movies, writing movies, making the music, wearing pretty makeup and dresses!” Because as a kid, I thought Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe, all those people were filmmakers. I didn’t know people worked behind the camera.
Teachers flat out gave me a face. One said, “Why would you want to do that? You can be a doctor like your dad and help sick people.” I replied, “Movies make sick people feel good! You don’t know what you’re talking about!” I had a bad ‘tude back then. Very tomboyish despite my grand love of makeup and all things princess-y. And, as I had diabetes as a kid, I caught everything going around at school, every flu and cold, everything bad, because your immune system is weakened. On sick days at home, I wasn’t lying. Movies did make me feel better. How could, my young self thought, my teacher have said something so mean to me?
More so, the attitude came out again when a teacher asked me in seventh grade and my response was, “I want to be like Britney Spears but direct movies and compose all the music for it! I want a Best Musical Score Oscar and Best Director Oscar!” “Surely, you don’t mean you want to be Britney. You want to be in the industry.” “Noooooooo, I want to be like Britney or those music video girls! And do the rest.” Britney Spears got to be at once beautiful, sexy and powerful in her music videos. She wore hot miniskirts, went on MTV, attended the Grammys as a special guest. She appeared to have fun everywhere she went. Meanwhile, my teacher felt I shouldn’t have fun or be a young person at heart, probably! How dare she!
When it came time to go to the store and get a few CDs at age seven, as I didn’t pick out my own CDs until the Spice Girls came out, I picked up The Lion King, an 80’s compilation CD I saw advertised on TV, Beethoven and a few others. I wanted to get what I think at the time was Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, and my mom said something along, “Maybe not that one.” Because I was really into MTV. I loved this out there thing way too inappropriate for my age group called rap music because of the beats. To be quite clear, the big rap music at the time was not intended to speak to seven year old white girls in Illinois. Nor was Madonna’s material then really appropriate for me. I didn’t understand all of what anyone was talking about. I enjoyed seeing how powerful and strong, yet sexy and beautiful Madonna and Janet Jackson were then and wanted if I grew up to do that and feel like that combination of beautiful and powerful I see now in many female artists who have become legends in their own right. Mariah. Britney. Christina. Carrie Underwood. Cher. All of them. Later on, it turned into my picking up James Horner scores, Eminem, some charming teen icon called Justin Timberlake all in the same setting. Hans Zimmer and Gladiator or his Pirates scores he oversaw or took on. Alexandre Desplat and the Harry Potter work he did. Clint Mansell along with Usher, Miley Cyrus, all these names of people whose work I followed. Whoever. As I grew older, my catalogue of music in my head grew to know more names.
And, my teachers at school always were big on Disney and mainstream film scores. If John Williams composed it, I had to play it. I to this day thank my teachers and tutors for being so good. I was given old time classical music to rehearse but so much film related music, of course it stuck! What else would happen? The big question was as a kid, how am I going to do this as an adult? Because adults would tell me, you can’t do movies and music both. The same question hit me when I was 20 and had just had a filmmaker steal the theme he asked me to make him only to hire a known composer to do my own theme in his movie! Where do I go from here? The answer was immediately telling myself, “You have to brand yourself. Make yourself known somehow so nobody will ever steal your work again.”
No one person has influenced me. It’s a combination of so much. Hip hop. Mainstream music. Strong female entertainers like when Miley Cyrus came out with Bangerz and threw out her Disney goody goody persona. A deep love of film score music on its own combined with an interest in animation, action and old movies as a kid. Feeling powerful when I do music because unlike a lot of things, I actually know what I’m doing when I do it. Being exposed to classical music from class. Having teachers who made me excited about film music homework assignments. All of it! And, I to this day am the sweetest girl you’ve ever met with an attitude! Blame it on rap music, though I don’t have the guts to do a white girl rap album like Iggy Azalea.
Joking around, I’ve done some stuff with friends from school and that, but much of me does one day want to sing a guest spot on a hip hop track. We’ll see! However, I won’t step away from composing to do it. Keep the day job because I’ll have worked so hard to get that composer day job!
Photo credit to Nicole Russin-McFarland. All contents are personal opinions of the interviewee.