Shirley Song is an LA-based composer originally from Sydney, Australia. Shirley was presented with the Alf Clausen Award in 2016, and was the resident composer for numerous theatre productions. Her concert music has been performed in venues across Sydney, including the Sydney Opera House, Seymour Center, and Sydney Conservatorium of Music. At the time of writing, she works closely with award-winning composer Jeff Danna (The Good Dinosaur, Storks, The Boondock Saints), and her current project is composing additional music for Oscar-Winning Director Guillermo Del Toro’s Tales of Arcadia: 3 Below— a new animation series by Dreamworks and Netflix.
V: What was your first composing gig?
S: My first "legit" composing gig didn't really happen till I graduated from my composition degree back in Australia. I started out writing music for theatre productions. That was sort of my first taste of writing music to drama.
V: Can you describe your current project with Guillermo Del Toro?
S: I'm currently writing music for the Netflix series, 3 Below, the sequel to Trollhunters. The animation is absolutely stunning! We work with a real orchestra for this as well so it's a lot of work, but it's also a lot of fun. They're twenty minutes per episode and like many animations, have back-to-back, wall-to-wall music. There's a lot of space for writing creatively and Jeff Danna's been an incredible mentor.
V: What is it like to work on big budget projects? What is typically the order of tasks for projects like this?
S: I have yet to work on a reeaaaalllyyyy big budgeted project with the Dannas (like The Good Dinosaur or Storks), but we have a couple of big exciting projects lined up for next year. I only started with Jeff last year in March of 2017. So far, the projects I've been a part of include Netflix mini-series Alias Grace, and the Oscar-nominated animated film The Breadwinner. A lot of work goes into these feature films and Mychael and Jeff Danna start writing the themes before picture is even locked. Then comes spotting and the writing continues! Once cues are written, they're sent to the director for approval. Then comes recording time, so prior to recording, we'll need to make sure all cues are prepped and sent out to the orchestrator, session stems are bounced for the engineer and then all stems are bounced out dry for the mix stage.
V: Are there scores you've composed that hold a certain special place in your heart?
S: There are a few scores that hold a certain special place in my heart, and it may not necessarily be the best piece of musical work I've ever written, but [I value] the experience I gained and the significance behind the project. I'm super proud of a score I did for a Project Soar Morocco campaign about empowering young girls in Morocco to "become leaders of today and tomorrow". I had an incredibly low budget, yet I think the director and I came up with something really uplifting and hopefully inspiring.
There's also a score I co-wrote with a very good friend of mine, Jina An, for a comedy feature that I'm really proud of. It was our first feature film and I wouldn't have wanted to write it with anybody else. Lastly, I'm having an absolute blast working on 3 Below. It's my first score that I've had the opportunity to have a real orchestra play on.
V: Although we don't like to be thought of as female composers, and rather just composers, it just so happens that that's what we represent. Have you noticed any particular obstacles due to this fact? What would you say to a young Shirley Song embarking on composing to advise her on these obstacles?
S: This is such an interesting question. I ask myself this a lot too! And yes, as you said, most days I don't even think or classify myself as an "Asian female composer," and I indeed just view myself as a composer. I just want my music to speak for itself. However, I think we have the luxury to think like this because of all the women and men who have been pushing and are still raising awareness for women equality in Hollywood, closing the gender gap in the film music industry. I think I've been lucky enough so far to have not really experienced obstacles due to how I look or the fact that I'm a woman. However, subconsciously, I do think I have felt the need to perhaps work harder.
What I would say to the young Shirley Song is to not doubt yourself. Keep doing what you're doing and work hard. Work your butt off so that no one can say "you were just lucky and riding the ‘female empowerment’ wave”.
Always treat people the way you want to be treated. There's a tendency for a lot of Asians to be a bit more "reserved or shy" (I'm generalising here, but I find that to be the case with me and a few friends of mine), so I want to tell the younger self to speak out more, be bold and confident (not cocky, obviously) and don't be shy when asking for help, advice or getting the next gig/job opportunity. Go get it. Be a go-getter.
Oh, and get yourself educated on sound libraries and how to work a DAW! The younger/earlier the better, Shirley!
V: Now that we're channeling the younger self, tell me about your path to becoming a composer. Specifically, when you realized it was what you wanted to do, and how your family reacted to your decision.
S: I've been one of those lucky Asians who have had incredibly supportive parents. I would not be here without them. I first started composing back in high school. I went to a musical high school that had an awesome composition department. That was the first time I sort of dabbled with writing music for small chamber ensembles. When it came to university applications, I had no idea what I wanted to study. I was your typical, clueless, happy-go-lucky 16/17 year old. It was my composition teacher at the time who suggested I audition for the composition program at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Long story short, I was accepted and awarded a scholarship. Fast forward four years, I graduated and had a composition degree but had no idea what in the world I was going to do with it.
As a young kid, I acted a lot in theatre because my grandparents were theatre directors, actors and playwrights, so I've always had a penchant for drama. So after graduating, I started writing music for theatre and realised that, really, despite how I enjoyed concert music, what I really wanted to do was write music for visuals. So after freelancing for two years writing on theatre productions and a few short films and promotional videos, I decided that I wanted to learn more about this world and that's when I applied to Berklee.
Berklee played an incredibly important and pivotal role. I worked super hard during my time there and tried to learn as much as I could from all the professors. I remember treating every single film scoring homework and assignment like it was a "real project" and that I would never leave it half-finished. It had to sound as good as it could. I would not be working for Jeff if it wasn't for the recommendation of the head of film scoring, Alison Plante.
V: Please tell me about your company, Soundesque. What was the mission that it was started on, what are particular proud moments, and do you have a secret future in mind for it?
S: Soundesque was something I started because I wanted to work with friends who have expertise in different fields, not just film scoring. It has always been a long-term sort of goal for me. Right now, I've made it clear that I think it's important that we all work on ourselves: try to build our own individual credits and reputation. So right now, we've taken a bit of a backseat on Soundesque. But give us a few more years (inserts winky emoji.)
V: I really enjoyed the Battle of Cable Street video which begs me to ask the question: do you have a favorite part of the composing process? I haven't gotten the opportunity to have musicians bring my compositions to life (only digital samples) but it looks magical.
S: Ah, shucks! Thank you! That was for Professor Richard Davis' advanced orchestration class. Live musicians can really bring your music to life! So I guess... the favourite part of the composition process is the recording session? The mixing session? (When the actual composing/writing is all done!)
Shirley’s final words of wisdom: As you may hear from everyone, this industry is hard. LA is really not the place for everyone. You have to be passionate and willing to go that extra mile, put in the extra time and effort. Good work ethic, a positive attitude and a likeable personality are "hella" important. Learn from your mistakes, grow from [them], and enjoy the ride (or try to anyways)!
Footnotes: Shirley is on instagram @the_song and I highly recommend following her for quality content of composing and canine antics!