Interview - My Cousin Rachel : Let's talk with Rael Jones

By Mulder, Los Angeles, 16 may 2017

Q: What could you tell us about your background?

Rael Jones: For me, music began with classical training at an early age, starting on piano. At the same time I would play my dad’s guitar and later got a drum kit, as I started to get more into rock music of the time. By the time I was a teenager I was equally likely to be playing a classical piano concert as a rock gig in a pub somewhere. For me, these two worlds have always coexisted, the tutored, precise world of classical music, alongside the more raw expression of rock music. I’d always write in both styles too - improvised piano pieces, and rock songs to play with the bands I was in. Then, I got more interested in the technical side of music and the science of the sound and studied that alongside pure music at university. Since then I’ve made a career out of saying “yes” whenever someone asked me to do something, which at first was live gigs and improvising guitar and adding textures to other composer’s soundtracks. This soon led to music editing, programming and additional music on things like BBC’s Sherlock and Les Miserables. As time has gone on, I’ve just been composing on my own on projects. The Weinstein Company feature Suite Française was a real turning point for me, where I was entrusted to compose the whole score for movie with a weighty orchestral score.

Q: You worked recently with director Mat Whitecross on the film Supersonic, the Oasis documentary. What was your process to create this score?

Rael Jones : It was quite a mixed process really. As I said above, I basically just said "Yes!” and did everything I could to make the music side work for Mat. Though my credit is original music composer, I ended up doing a lot of production work on Oasis’s music too. This involved anything from finding the best gig audio from the various archives we had and restoring the sound as far as possible, to mixing from live multi-tracks for the bigger gigs like Knebworth. Despite it being a documentary about a band, there’s a surprising amount of original music in there too, something like 35 minutes. Though I never imitate their music, I had to coexist with it, often transitioning out of their songs in the same key, using feedback to blur the lines of what might be a live gig and what is underscore. There are many sections when you hear the band in studios and rehearsal rooms. There’s one particular moment in the doc where Noel Gallagher writes the song “Supersonic” in the studio last minute to replace a song they weren’t happy with. Very little of this stuff was captured at the time, so we had to create all kinds of things, both visual and audio, to tell the story. So I re-recorded the opening Supersonic riff slowly and tentatively, as an underscore to Noel talking about the writing of the riff. There were lots of extra little bits like that, almost wild tracks or musical foley, say, making the sounds of a band in a rehearsal room between songs to fill in the gaps for what was captured. It’s worth remembering - people didn't have mobile phones back in 1994! There were lots of gaps to be filled, even compared to something like the doc Amy, where they have Amy Winehouse on camera as a girl singing "Happy Birthday" really well because most people had digital cameras then, whereas back in the '90s, they didn't so much. Mat did an incredible job of weaving together a seamless narrative out of very limited material, especially for the earlier part of their story before everyone was pointing cameras at them.

Q: When you were brought into Supersonic, were you told you were going to be the mixer, music editor and composer?

Rael Jones : I had worked with Mat before as a music editor. He was confident that I could handle all aspects of music, so we just went with that. At times, it was more like a music producer role for me, looking after all aspects. It was a really mixed job, both technical and creative.

Q: Speaking of your jobs, you've been a music programmer on some movies, including recently Beauty and the Beast and the Ninth Life of Louis Drax. Can you tell us more about your work on these two movies?

Rael Jones : On Beauty and the Beast the director and producers wanted to hear, with as fine detail as possible, the orchestrations from Michael Starobin, or other orchestrators...hear them in conjunction with the film, as close as possible to the real thing. So at that stage it’s all about orchestral programming. It’s all from the computer, but it's got to sound as much like an 80-piece orchestra as possible. This is something I've become known for doing. I really did an awful lot of that work on Les Mis, programming the entire film's accompaniment on that. Whereas with Beauty and the Beast it was three or four key songs that they really needed me to mock up. There were revision too of course. Based on hearing my demos, they know what the orchestration sounds like, and they can tell the orchestrator, "can we have it thinner there, and more bombastic here" and so on. And the orchestrator addresses it, and they send me a new score, and I reflect that. It’s like I'm a digital orchestra, showing the filmmakers what's going on. It's a role I really like doing, because I’m working with the best orchestrators in the world, so I get to see some fantastic arrangements up close, working with each individual part, and it forces me to make the best demos I can. It's been a fantastic training ground for making my own demos sound as good as possible, both in terms of the programming but also the orchestration because I can compare them to these massive musicals. It has been very useful.

Q: What for you is the main difference in working in shorts, short films, series, or film?

Rael Jones: Potentially any one of them could be like any other. The things that make projects differ for me are genre, budget, the role of the composed music in the piece and so on. Some feature films might only have 15 minutes of original music in them. I've done short films that were 15 minutes long that had 15 minutes of music in them too, so it could be the same amount of work despite it being a shorter medium. Sometimes the composed music has to coexist with lots of commercial tracks, or it might be that every note of the soundtrack is bespoke. That can really effect the feel of a project too. A big question for me is "What kind of things do they want to be scored?” For some directors, as soon as people start talking, they just don't want any music at all, because they find that manipulative. Whereas some directors want the audience to be manipulated, or you want you to portray the character's internal world, which is so often what the score does. It’s getting a feel for where the music needs to be and what it needs to do, because it can function so differently against picture. It can add a lot of pace and energy. It can be montage or transition-focused, or it can be telling the narrative and supporting the performances. It's dependent on the script and the vision of the filmmakers.

Q: You have worked on different movies, such as Ali & Nino, Steve Jobs, Cinderella, and others as a music editor. For those who don't know, can you tell us what is really a music editor and how you work with the composers and directors closely?

Rael Jones : A music editor, I would explain it as having a few phases to the job. On set, you might need a music editor if there are playback tracks. Say if there are musical performances and you decide to add a line or lose a line from a song, a music editor can do that there and then, so that the cast can perform it with a new edit. Then the next stage of the process, is picture editing. Generally there will be temp music, and the music editor can demonstrate to a director and producers what the score could be like when the composer comes onboard. And that's to save everyone a lot of time, because writing bespoke music for the earlier cuts of the film, which might be an hour too long, is an inefficient use of everyone's time, generally. So you use temp music to get a flavour for what the score could be. It could be quite broad brushstrokes at first. Is it orchestral, is it ethnic, is it rock? The music editor would be involved an that stage. Then when the composer comes onboard, the music editor would work as an interface between the director and composer, to translate the director's intentions, sometimes to help the composer technically. I have most commonly been an editor at this point in the process. The exact nature of the role can start to blur a bit. Very often I end up being music programmer as well as music editor. And you end up doing demos for the composer as well, if they're not very technical. Maybe the director is happy with the composer’s piano sketches, but the studio need to hear a few fully demoed cues to be convinced that the composer's on the right track, this kind of thing. It could involve some arranging or getting creative with the composer's material if the director wants that. At the final mix, the sound effects and dialogue are finally combined with the music. The music editor is the last man standing in the music department, making sure the director is happy, because at that point, things sometimes become difficult for the composer, frankly. Potentially what's come from the recording studio might not be what the director wanted. It might be the composer's made something too rich or too big, and they want you to strip it back down then on the dub stage. It could be they want to lose whole cues, or use the original demo, or use elements of the demo and elements of the final at the same time. Things like this come into play at the dub stage. It can still be very creative and fluid at that point. And then it becomes tricky because you need to reassure a composer that you're trying to represent their music in the best way and not ruin their vision, but ultimately, it's the director or producers that are calling the shots and employing everyone. So what they say tends to go. So yeah, it's a multi-faceted role.

Q: What are your challenges as a composer in composing additional music for Sherlock since you began working on that in 2010? How do you overcome that and how do you work through them?

Rael Jones : With Sherlock, it's a hybrid role for me. I music edit on it as well, so the first person that deals with each new episode would be me. I would go through and in some instances reuse music we've used before. Obviously in the case of the opening titles, that's an immediate tick on the board. But I go through and I see how much material I can get to work or at least partially work in a new episode. And then, from that point, with David and Michael, we decide, okay, we have half the cues that just need writing from scratch, new themes for the new story strands. They will get on with that. For the other cues, it might be that I can arrange scenes that have been used before or come up with some new material, but very much in the house style. It's about knowing what the house style of Sherlock is. There's already two composers on it, of course, it becomes agreed-upon between them what sound of Sherlock is. The scheduling has often been a challenge on Sherlock, especially earlier on. I remember working on the pilot, and we just got told, this little BBC drama has come in, it's got this guy, Benedict Somebodyorother, and it's Tim from the Office, isn't it? And we only half knew who these people were, and it seemed like quite a small, humble production at that point, especially with the pilot episode. There wasn't a great deal of time. The first series was written really quite quickly. And it wasn't until it was a massive hit that we got a little bit more time, certainly by series 3 and 4. But early on, the main challenge was getting what was effectively three feature films' worth of music done really quickly. Maybe it was something like two weeks per episode, maybe three; it was fast. That's where I came into play, really, with Michael and David, just getting through this number of minutes, and optimizing for them where we can reuse themes or I can rearrange things for them or I can take the demo they've half-done and add lots of extra instruments to it. Percussion, guitars, mandolins and things like that.

Q: Where do you record in general, your scores?

Rael Jones: If it's orchestral, I'm a real believer in recording in the U.K., at Abbey Road or Air Studios, I like both. I know a lot of the British players personally...and I'm married to one of them, so that’s a big plus. They're particularly good at sight-reading. The very first time they play through a cue, you're sometimes struggling to give them any corrective feedback because it's just perfect. There's nothing wrong with it technically. You might say "I need this line to be louder, this needs more vibrato" etc., but they tend to be flawless, if you get the best London players. I always push to record here when it's orchestral. For other types of scores I record initially in my studio. I've got lots of instruments here of all types, including some very quirky items. I tend to get more bespoke personal sounds when it's something that I've done myself. Sometimes I might record in the grungier studios in East London if I need something a bit bigger and rockier, drum kits and guitar amps. Say on Supersonic, my main guitar sound used three guitar amps at once, turned up as loud as possible, to give us a great 5.1 surround sound recording. That’s also authentic to Noel Gallagher's (Oasis) sound. He always had three guitar amps, turned up to 11.

Q: So did Oasis inspire you, then?

Rael Jones : Yeah, absolutely. The music is of my era - I was 11 or 12 when they were coming to the fore. I was just starting to get my own identity and play guitar myself and listen to music. Some of the first songs I learned to play on guitar were Oasis songs. They’ve always been there for me. It was working on the film 20 years later that made me realize how exceptional and timeless those songs are. The’s not even about how they performed them necessarily. It's that they've been reinterpreted by so many people in many different ways. As pure songwriting, its fantastic. Certainly, in the way I approached the guitar recording of the score, I was inspired to recreate their wall of guitar sound, with plenty feedback and noise.

Q: Can you tell us how you chose the instrumentation to create the score of My Cousin Rachel? And how did you work with director Roger Michell?

Rael Jones : I actually helped a little bit with temp music on My Cousin Rachel as well; so part of finding the sound was in that process of temping. Roger was clear that an orchestral sound suited the period and the tone, and he wanted a classy soundtrack, referencing Hitchcock films and things like this. We we’re searching for something timeless. Period instrumentation but with a modern approach. I used a lot more woodwinds than you might commonly use, for several reasons. Firstly, it seemed to fit with the agricultural setting of the film. Woodwinds are so often used in classical music to represent bird life and pastoral themes. I guess I was channeling some of that. Secondly, the film has a small number of cast members - the crux of it is Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin together. The individual voice-like nature of woodwind instruments, which have, more than any other family, their distinct sounds and characters suited this for me. It's not a homogenous family. So I really enjoyed layering and passing melodies between the woodwind family. I'd often represent Rachel herself with a solo clarinet. The hollow nature of that instrument suited her in her mourning and her slightly lower voice as well. The clarinet's great in its low register. Subliminally for me, part of it is the look of the instrument - it looks like Rachel in the film, all in black as she's in mourning. In addition, the clarinet's great because you can play very quietly and creep in. Most of the film is set in a quiet house and we needed some very quiet playing. The clarinet does that better than any other woodwind instrument. There's a lot of piano in the score as well, which has a grounded and homely feel to it, and plenty of harp, which often reflects the romance, the beating hearts. We also had 50 string players, who were often divided widely across thick chord voicings, creating an intense, psychological sound. A repeating theme of the score is very high, dense string harmonics, a glassy and intense psychological space for Sam Claflin's character to be in.

Q: You have two projects currently released almost simultaneously: My Cousin Rachel, the film, and the Hulu series Harlots. Can explain the similarities and the differences between the two?

Rael Jones: At the very first meeting on Harlots, with Debra Hayward, the producer, and Coky Giedroyc, the director, they were really keen for me to make a very bold soundtrack. They had some temp music, but they clearly wanted it to go much further and be entirely anachronistic. The concept is that the music has a rebellious, punk-rock feel to it. These women were the rebels and anti-establishment figures of their time. In some ways they were more empowered than the upper-class married women who were literally kept by their husbands and didn't have any money of their own. For some of the earlier demos I did experiment with having more period instrumentation, but treating it rebelliously, like punk-rock harpsichord. In the end the approach that seemed to really work with the picture was entirely modern, heavy rock riffs and grinding electronica. That music instantly gelled with the audacity and energy of these women. And then once we had that house style it was all about writing incredibly fast. The first episode was broadcast and I was still writing episode 4 and 5. So there came a point when I just had to keep writing an episode a week. But that's often how it has to work on TV. A great deal of creativity can come out of those time constraints. As the episodes progress, I keep the same electronic and rock palate, but it does become more emotional and dramatic as the story gets darker and more serious.. Harlots couldn't be more different to My Cousin Rachel in terms of instrumentation. Despite the fact that it's set in an earlier period, it's a distinctly contemporary sound.

Q: For My Cousin Rachel, you stayed more consistent with the period, as opposed to Harlots?

Rael Jones : Yes. In terms of instrumentation, everything is orchestral and period on My Cousin Rachel. The only extra sounds are some high glass sounds I recorded at home, me bowing pint glasses and wine glasses, and then pitching those around the keyboard. Whereas with Harlots, it's “what strange instrument can I put through this guitar pedal and then into an amp and how can I make this synthesizer sound even more rude and aggressive?”. It's a very different approach.

Q: Which director do you dream of working with and why?

Rael Jones : Some of the directors that I love don't use composed music, so I'm never going to work with them. Like Michael Hanake, or Woody Allen, people who use source music. Even Quentin Tarantino.

Q: Well Tarantino did just use Ennio Morricone, so ...

Rael Jones : He did, though he did a mixture with plenty of needle dropping from Morricone's previous scores. But yeah, in terms of directors that I want to work with, it’s really not about being a big-shot director. It's more the project itself, with a director who's a good collaborator. So if a director comes to me early in the process, ideally before even shooting anything, so we can have a conversation and maybe write some very early ideas. On those projects you really get to have full ownership of the musical language of the film. Those are the projects that you dream of, where you are allowed to explore and make some mistakes on the journey to finding something new. Ideally you’re given the permission to fail. So you need time for that and you need a director who has space and is encouraging and generous.

Q: So, what are your current projects? Other than Harlots and Cousin Rachel, is there anything else coming up ...

Rael Jones : The thing I'm just finishing now I’ve heard labelled as a "kidnap cancer comedy" called Ill Behaviour, which is from the exec producers of In-Betweeners. It's a very dark, very funny story indeed, told over a 3 part mini series. I’ve created purely electronic music for that, often with the aim of giving the audience permission to laugh, but sometimes its emotional too - a very tricky balance for me on this project, but very rewarding. So that's for BBC2 over here.

Q: It's on BBC2, you said?

Rael Jones : BBC2, yes, I don't know where it will show internationally yet. The writer is brilliant - Sam Bain, its really his voice that makes it so good. He co-wrote some of my favourites like the film Four Lions and Peep Show, the TV series. He's violently, abundantly funny. I'm about to start writing for Noor, a feature film from Oscar-nominated director Ashvin Kumar. I've worked with him for over ten years in different roles, on a few projects. Its about the Kashmiri conflict, but from the perspective of Noor - a Western teenage girl. She has family in Kashmir but she's from Birmingham, England. She goes over to Kashmir to see her grandparents and to try and find out what happened to her lost father. It's in the early stages of editing but it's looking fantastic. Three times more people have died in the Kashmir conflict than in the Israel-Palestine conflict, but it's generally not reported anywhere near as much in the western world, so we hope the film will create greater awareness and increase understanding, as well as being a compelling narrative for Noor herself.

We sincerely thank Rael Jones for answering our questions
An huge thanks to Ray Costa for helping us to have this great interview..