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HomeComposersFeud: Capote vs. The Swans Composer Julia Newman Is Here To Sing-Along

Feud: Capote vs. The Swans Composer Julia Newman Is Here To Sing-Along

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Composer Julia Newman (Credit: Larry Mah)

“Can I tell you?” Let me tell you, Julia Newman will tell you. The composer didn’t leave many stones unturned in our interview with her about her latest work, Feud: Capote vs. The Swans. For her first major television project, Newman crafts tunes of elegance, sometimes unnervingly contrasting the inelegance of Truman Capote and the Swans’ high-society world in Ryan Murphy‘s latest series. 

From the start of it all, Newman was encouraged to craft expressive tunes. “I’m a tune girl,” she told Below the Line. “I want to be able to sing-along. I think it’s that really nerdy theater kid who grew up listening to Stephen Sondheim, Hello Dolly, and Singin’ in the Rain. All of these things, it was always in me, but I think I was really afraid to say, ‘This is something that I would be capable of doing.'” Well, she’s doing it.

Newman recently spoke to us about her journey toward Feud: Capote vs. The Swans, her experiences at USC, and key lessons from the FX series.

[Note: This interview has been condensed for clarity and length]

Below the Line: How’d you map out the beginning, middle, and end of the score? 

Julia Newman: I was talking to this producer, not somebody who worked on the show, and they were like, “Well, how did you come up with your thematic material? What did it mean to establish a dramatic arc?” It was like, oh man, you just got to start, right? You want it to be this elegant process, and you do discover stuff along the way, but it is abstract that somebody theoretically could watch all eight episodes one after another, but that’s not how we got it, obviously. I didn’t even have all the footage for episode one when we were doing it. I got the last bit of footage and I had already mixed and everything had been sent off to the dub. 

BTL: For your first TV gig, it’s a lot of music.

Newman: I remember watching episode one looking at where they had temp, and it was about 50 minutes of music. I was like, oh fuck. How do you even approach that? But you do. 

BTL: I appreciate the show will let scenes go for five or ten minutes of dialogue. How was it, musically, pacing those scenes? 

Newman: I got way better at that at the end than I was at the beginning. The great thing about the show is that it was well written. The dialogue is fierce and sophisticated and fast. When all the women are sitting and plotting, scheming, and gossiping, you want to create a sense of pace, that excitement when someone’s like, “I’m going to give you the tea.” 

It’s a matter of sort of finding the micro structures. Amidst all of this dialogue, what’s dramatically important, what is it that you’re going to focus on? Sometimes it’s pulling back, sometimes it’s adding a low-end to create a sense of focus by saying, “Okay, here’s a deepening of whatever is going on, and I want you to pay attention.” You want to excite but also not be like, “Hello, it’s music!” 

BTL: I’ve talked to composers about the relationship between their scores and sound effects. Capote’s voice alone is such an effect. Did you feel like you were dancing with that voice at times? 

Newman: I actually didn’t think about that; it’s funny, because so many people have talked about Truman Capote’s (Tom Hollander) voice. A lot of times we get dialogue tracks in the rough cuts. They’re so loud, it is what it is.

Sound effects end up being, I think, a more complicated thing to contend with because you don’t always know what the sound effects are going to be with the end product, something that’s brought to the dub. 

I do have some sound effects while I’m working, but you kind of just don’t know. You do the best you can and you try to ask good questions. A big part of it is just asking because it’s going to be different. It’s a different chess board with each project that you do. 

BTL: What was the question on Feud where you were like, oh, I’m really glad I asked that because now I know what to do and what not to do

Newman: The entire thing was me asking questions and trying to get a realistic appraisal of what the landscape was. I was really nervous about what it meant to present material. I remember having a meeting with another composer to ask, “How do you budget? What do meetings look like?” You begin to realize that it’s different for absolutely everybody. 

What I didn’t want to do was work in a vacuum. I did not like that idea and felt so antithetical to what it meant to contribute to drama and to be a part of something larger rather than I’m writing music and it’s for me, and fingers crossed that you like it. 

One of the first things I asked Alexis Martin Woodall, the producer, was, “Will you guys be in my studio? Is that an okay thing to ask?” [laughs] I’m glad that I did because it wasn’t obvious. I was more used to the world of features. To have somebody in the room when you’re presenting is one of the biggest game changers. 

When you have somebody behind you and you have your Pro Tools session up, you can be like, “Oh, you don’t like where that comes in? Let me move that for you. Oh, you like this cue better than that cue?” When you get real-time feedback, it makes for a more elegant creative process. It’s a good defense mechanism, because we know we’re going to get rejected. The question is, can you make that rejection meaningful? 

BTL: Can you elaborate on making rejection more meaningful? 

Newman: So directors, producers, they’ve been living with a project typically since its inception or at least since pre-production. It’s a vulnerable process for any of us. What does it mean to take something that’s unfinished and say, “Hey, what do you think about this?” And you really hope that the person that you’re showing it to has an understanding of what work-in-progress really means so that you can be given the benefit of the doubt, and they can give you meaningful notes as opposed to, “Well, it’s not perfect.” 

You want to make it easy for people to reject things. If I come to you and say, “This is the greatest idea anyone’s ever had, and I don’t have any other ideas,” well, I’ve clearly demonstrated I’m not very open. I think the process of presenting is to be able to say, “If you don’t like it, can we understand why you don’t like it? Was I too fast? Was I too slow?” Now in having that conversation, I have a better understanding of the structure of the scene.

What I mean by wanting to make the rejection meaningful, I don’t want to just go away being like, alright, they hated it. To be fair, sometimes that happens, right? And that’s going to depend on the people you’re working with and how well they’re able to articulate their vision for what they want a scene to be in the immediate and the broader dramatic structure. 

BTL: I imagine at this point Ryan Murphy has a good sense of what he likes and doesn’t like from music too, right?

Newman: I spoke to the music editor, David Klotz, who is just one of the most fantastic human beings on the planet. Before I did anything else, I got lunch with him and I was like, “All right, what’s the deal? What does this team like?” He said to me, “Ryan and Alexis, they really love a tune.”

When I was in graduate school, you’d work with student directors and it was like, “Minimalism! Just drones! Don’t do anything!” Or they would sort of want a full sort of rendering of some John Powell or John Williams. There was typically nothing in between. So, you don’t get a lot of people who I think have the courage to see a tune, but they wanted to tune. I thought, aha, that I could give you!

BTL: You went to USC, right? 

Newman: I did go to USC, yes. 

BTL: How did that experience both prepare you and not prepare you for scoring a show?

Newman: When I started at USC, I don’t think I understood how little I knew, and I’m really glad I didn’t. I don’t think I ever would’ve endeavored down this path if I understood truly how ignorant I was. Film music requires you to be so many different things all at the same time, and it requires different things based on the budget, whether or not you’re your own engineer, orchestrator, whatever.

USC gave me a consistent opportunity to engage. In this world, which is really you by yourself, it can be really difficult, particularly when you’re trying to develop muscles. There’s a lot to be said for somebody else there saying, “You have to do this, you have to do this, and you have to do this.” With that bar, you realize that you’re way more capable than you gave yourself credit for. 

USC was trial by fire. Can I wake up at four in the morning in order to get this cue in? We were responsible for doing all of our own copying work. You had to orchestrate and copy all of your own stuff. It was your responsibility to go and print your own scores and you would be so tired, shaking, praying to God that you had gotten all of your transpositions right before going to play with the orchestra. 

BTL: How’d it go with the orchestra? 

Newman: So, you have the ability to work with players, right? There is so much to be said for, how can I be a good leader? Shit’s going to go wrong. We were doing a woodwind quintet, which scared the shit out of everybody because you have to understand breath and you have to understand breath as it relates to tempo. 

It was just the ensemble, so there was nothing to fall back on. Either the piece is playable or not. Clearly, I screwed something up in Pro Tools because about halfway through my piece, everything was one beat off, based from the counter in the Pro Tools session to what was on the page. There are only 20 students there, so you don’t have an engineer and a whole team of people who have your back in those moments. 

I was like, oh my God. After that, how do you handle yourself again? It hurts. I remember my first week at USC, I had a teacher tell me that the piece that I had written, none of it was salvageable and I’d work at a Taco Bell. I can’t remember if it was an Apple store or a Taco Bell, but I cried so hard in the bathroom. Sobbed, just ugly crying. You can always find a special place in the women’s bathroom, like okay, I am going to go here and there’s going to be snot coming out of my nose. 

But okay, what was the lesson there? It was to keep writing. I think you want to be impressive and say, “Look at me! My first piece at USC was amazing!” It wasn’t. Fucking sucked. 

BTL: How do you look back on that professor? Did it give you fuel or do you think, what an asshole?

Newman: Oh, both. It’s tough when you’re trying to prove yourself and you want to be impressive. What it comes down to is understanding that all we can do is focus on the effort. Everyone’s going to have their opinions. Now, I did win a mug the next week for having the best cue in my game scoring class; I still have that mug. So, those moments are what you make of them. Are they good? Are they bad? Probably some combination therein, but the lesson really is, how do I keep going? 

BTL: How do you keep going? 

Newman: You learn to survive. I could not have survived doing eight hours of television had I not started off freaking out over writing two minutes of music per week. You have to take these stepping stones. Does USC prepare for everything? Certainly not, but I did really need that experience. I needed to be challenged. I needed to stand on my own two feet and say, “Am I worth my salt? How do my ideas stand up when they’re really put to task?” 

BTL: For Feud, what were some of the early ideas you tried? How did you initially experiment to find the right style for the show? 

Newman: I write typically at the piano. There’s something about touching a piano that I can get a sense of what it is that’s going on. The way that it really started was this very small cue I called “Givenchy.” It started off with these couple of dominant chords for early on in episode one when Babe Paley (Naomi Watts), after Truman Capote arrives at her apartment, she’s on the couch and recalling this trip that she had taken to Paris to go to this fashion show and how lonely she felt. 

It was one of the first things I wrote because it was inherently dramatic the way that it was filmed. It was an approachable scene and it was short. From there, I’m looking at those chords and saying, “Is there more here than I thought?” And then from those chords, I ended up developing the Swans theme. I changed things slightly, but the dominant chords work really nicely because they float and they hover. Now, what if I arpeggiate them?

I brought in this amazing cellist named Cameron Stone before I showed that theme to Alexis, who really I was interfacing with on a day-to-day basis before bringing stuff to Ryan. I thought, all right, nobody likes a fake cello. It’s my first gig. I wanted to demonstrate that I had muscle, that I had something to offer. And so, I thought, I’ll take something out of my budget and get the lead cello recorded as a way of giving my idea the best chance that it could have. It was the beginning of the vocabulary.

I record as I go. I don’t say everything is perfect now, but I’m going to go and record and I’m going to have my players record exactly what is written down. Your players have so much to offer, so how do I engage them? How do I understand what it is that they have to offer in order to best utilize their talents to make the best music possible? 

BTL: How big can you go, too? Ryan Murphy, his work often plays at an 11. Musically, do you feel like you can use more bells and whistles, so to speak, as a composer? 

Newman: I was sort of shocked at how outgoing I was allowed to be. Again, so many people are afraid of tune, of color. You see a lot of drone-oriented scores, and there’s one hundred percent a place for that. I love drones. You can be so expressive, so minimally if you can find the right balance. 

But you’re right, Ryan Murphy does turn things up to 11. I was like a kid in a candy shop being like, wow, this is the job I always wanted, but maybe never really had the confidence to assert that this is the stuff that I would want to write. I mean, come on, the fact that you can write a tune with a cello melody being like, “Hey, here I am, putting on a show!”

From the start, I was sort of like, oh, am I allowed to do this? Because I love harmony and melody. I was raised on Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, and Ella Fitzgerald. I was a theater kid, so the minute somebody said, “Hey, here’s a tune, you can write a tune here,” there was me sitting at the piano singing out the cello parts. 

BTL: Since we talked a lot about school and the past, where do you want to go in the future? What do you want to accomplish as a composer over the next few years? 

Newman: I don’t think I’m a person who deals much in this is a concrete goal and this is where it is that I want to see myself. Life has been so surprising, and isn’t it so delightful to be surprised by the twist of the turns? Like I said, I never would’ve anticipated being in a position where I could write tunes and be so expressive in the way that I was in Capote

I just want to continue to be engaged. Let’s take any opportunity that lands on my doorstep, just because if there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s to engage intuitively to some extent with drama. Whether it’s a psychological thriller or comedy or an adventure, what does drama mean in all of these different things? What does it mean to find new and interesting sonic vocabularies? 

The only way to do that is that you stumble into amazing projects with a myriad of different people. I think that’s what I want more than anything, to always do it with a great team. I couldn’t have done this without [music recorder] Moises Ignacio Garcia, [score assistant engineer] Natalia Goldstein, and [mixing engineer] Alvin Wee, all of these amazing people, particularly technically, who are so much more talented than I am. If I can be around good people, being challenged creatively and having the opportunity to watch the marriage of music and drama, I’m a happy camper. 

FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans is now available to stream on Hulu.

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