Inside the Music with Call of the Wild Composer John Powell

Interview with Call of the Wild Composer John Powell

John Powell is an LA-based British composer best known for his brilliant movie scores, including the Oscar-nominated How to Train Your Dragon, The Bourne Identity (plus the second, third and fifth Bourne films), and many more. He's also earned three Grammy nominations for his work on Happy Feet, Ferdinand, and 2018's acclaimed Solo: A Star Wars Story.

We recently had the opportunity to catch up with John to discuss his journey to becoming a film composer, his musical inspirations, and his favorite moments in The Call of the Wild.

Download the official composer-approved sheet music for The Call of the Wild, arranged by Batu Sener for solo piano

Interview with Call of the Wild composer John Powell

Sheet Music Direct ("S"): Thanks for making time to speak with us amidst everything going on in the world today. We love the work you've done—much of which is very popular on the site—and of course you most recently released The Call of the Wild. Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a film composer?

John Powell ("J"): My father was a tuba player with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham, so I was brought up with classical music around me. I thought I would be a player like my father, but as I grew older, I realized that, rather than go to music college to study violin, I was enjoying writing more. So, I went to Trinity College of Music as a first study composition student. After that—understanding that being a composer in this world is financially quite a tricky thing to do—I fell into doing advertising music. That's where I actually realized I quite enjoyed writing music for image. And from there, it really just sort of snowballed.

   People don't compose; they ingest the music of the past, the music that has touched them, and they re-habitate it in their own way."

S: That's fantastic. You mentioned that classical music surrounded you as you were growing up with your father being a musician. Who else were your musical inspirations that lit the spark under you?

J: I was a big fan of Isaac Stern, listening to him play violin music. As a teenager I got into more pop music as well. I remember listening to a lot of Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. As I got a bit older, I loved anything that was produced by Trevor Horn, and simultaneously loved symphonic things I was part of. I was very lucky to get into the East Sussex Orchestra in the south of England from the age of 14, which provided me with an incredible musical background. At the same time, I started playing a bit of guitar and piano for pop things. At college, I got into minimalism: Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and all sorts of things. Then I needed money at college, so I joined a soul review band. We played the classic stuff—like the sort of thing The Blues Brothers used to play—to some very rare obscure Motown things.

Over the course of my musical life, I picked up a lot of different types of music that I loved. It didn't matter whether it was Count Basie, Burundi drumming, obscure Jimmy Ruffin tracks, or Mahler 1; it all went in. I just always looked for the musical emotional response that I got from music. I've looked for that as a composer to use for my own works, but also obviously for film. When you're asked to help tell a story, you're looking for the music that you were inspired by. I think this idea that people compose is kind of ridiculous. People don't compose; they ingest the music of the past, the music that has touched them, and they re-habitate it in their own way. Every piece of mine is a massive mixture of things I've always loved that has just found its way back out of me and feels appropriate to what I'm trying to say.

S: You obviously have such a diverse palette which is amazing. Speaking of the sheet music release of The Call of the Wild, we hear a lot of folk elements: accordions, banjos, etc. Can you talk about the inspirations behind that? Are there certain instruments you enjoy writing for in particular?

J: Yeah, it's funny. I mentioned that I started on the violin. My family, who were Scottish, would always ask me to play reels and speys, which are kind of Scottish folk tunes on the fiddle. But what is folk music? It's the pop music of the 18th and 19th century just brought forward. A good tune is a good tune. What I think everyone thinks of as folk is just a core part of all musical language. I would probably hear it in Mendelssohn and I can hear it in Aretha Franklin. A lot of what we think of as classical music was dance music, which is a sort of folk music.

And talking of instrumentation, take the mandolin. You can listen to a mandolin from an Italian restaurant, and you can listen to it as part of the most beautiful music that Corelli and Vivaldi wrote. Or you can listen to the Punch Brothers and it's all incredible stuff to me. The same rules of harmony still apply. I hear contrary motion as much in a Bruce Springsteen song as I do in Bach or Penderecki. So then it just comes down to orchestration. And the great thing about a lot of these folk instruments—or alleged folk instruments—is that they never really come from where you think they come from. The banjo is not an American instrument; it's an African instrument. The that a French instrument? Maybe, yes. But it's also from everywhere in Russia, just by a different name. The it Greek or is it an Irish instrument?

I love the fact that everything is getting really mixed up and nobody really knows where it comes from anymore. I think that's what I've always adored about music and have never been too critical of styles of music. Except for Schlager. It's absolute rubbish!

   There are those moments when you're writing and you get that kind of twinge of 'this gives me joy.'"

S: In The Call of the Wild itself, are there any favorite musical moments of yours?

J: I must admit, I do tend to love it when I can be joyful. And there are a few moments like that. There's a moment when the dog Buck is learning to be a sled dog for the first time. I think I managed to nail what I felt about that transition from being a newbie in a team to actually being part of a team that's really working. Then there's a cue a little bit later on after Buck has fought Spitz and he's taken over the sled and is now the leader. Again, the joy of that as he takes off and realizes that he has this and everyone respects him. There are those moments when you're writing and you get that kind of twinge of "this gives me joy."

S: That's very cool. Speaking of that, your body of work is so incredible in general. I believe it's well over 50 films and you have a choral album too. Are there any particular projects you're most proud of? Or are they all kind of unique in their own way?

J: Well, the trick is always to say the next one! But as a composer, you never really know if you're going to get the next one. I remember before Ferdinand thinking "OK, this is going to be the one. I'm going to do a really good score on this one." And then after Ferdinand it was How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. So, I'm thinking "this one I have to work harder on." And then after that, I really felt like I had to nail The Call of the Wild: "this is the one I'm going to really do it right!" So, hopefully somebody will give me a chance to do it right again in the future.

S: We hope so too! So, what are you working on next? Is there anything you can share that we can all look forward to?

J: Well, I'm reviving and renovating an opera that I wrote and produced with another composer called Gavin Greenaway and a librettist called Michael Petry. It's called An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Frenchman. It's three famous literary characters all hanging around in heaven in a salon, drinking. It's a lot of comedy! It's kind of fun, but very philosophical. I'm looking forward to finishing that and doing a finished production of it.

   To be successful in film music, you should really try to be the next big thing. And the next big thing is not to sound like Hans Zimmer or John Williams. It's not to sound like me. It's to sound like you."

S: That sounds really funny and really exciting. Last question, Mr. Powell: Do you have any advice for aspiring composers?

J: I do talk to some aspiring and up-and-coming composers. It does feel harder and harder to become successful now because everyone wants to do it. I'm not sure I would be able to figure it out myself. The way I did it doesn't really necessarily become useful information for anyone else.

But if I look back at what I think has made me successful—apart from tenacity, which I think is the first thing—it's also a willingness to try anything creatively. That willingness, plus a bad memory of exactly how music goes, meant that I ended up with an unexpectedly unique sound. I ended up sounding, I think, like me. So, I'd say my only advice is to try and find, in your own history of music (as in the music you've always loved and appreciated), what your sound is. And allow more than one to exist simultaneously. You can honestly hear in Horton Hears a Who! that there are at least three misremembered styles going on simultaneously almost all the time!

So my advice to other people is to find your own voice. That voice doesn't have to sound like film music either. To be successful in film music, you should really try to be the next big thing. And the next big thing is not to sound like Hans Zimmer or John Williams. It's not to sound like me. It's to sound like you. And people will say: "I'm not sure what that is, but it sounds really cool. I've never heard anything quite like that before." It speaks of all the same things that John Williams does speak of. It speaks of all the same things that James Newton Howard speaks of. And yet it also speaks of the things that Radiohead sounds like. And it speaks of...let's think of someone from really way out there...what Britney Spears sounds like!

   Just because you're doing film music, it doesn't mean that the stuff you listened to when you were 10 can't be pulled from."

I think one of the best pieces of music written in the last 15 years was "Toxic." It's just been used in a film that a friend of mine has done the music for, and they used it brilliantly. So, look at your own history and everything you've ever loved is valid. Just because you're doing film music, it doesn't mean that the stuff you listened to when you were 10 can't be pulled from. I've probably pulled from the most obscure sources without realizing it. You just bend it and twist and add another element of something else that you love. And lo and behold, you end up with something that speaks loudly of what you're trying to say, but is not specific to any one style or one person. Then, if you do that over and over and over again, people seem to think it sounds like you. At least that's what's happened in my case.

S: I think that's phenomenal advice that will go very far. And speaking of sounding like you, I think you've proven through your body of work that sounding like you has done very, very well. It's been great for musicians across the world to hear each one of your projects. We look forward to the opera you are working on and want to thank you for your time, your encouraging words, and being so inspirational.

J: Pleasure. Thank you.

The Call of the Wild is available on DVD and streaming services now. Watch the film, listen to the soundtrack, and play the music.

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