Being Your Own Cheerleader: An Interview with Ian & Sofia Hultquist

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Ian and Sofia Hultquist are contemporary composers who live in Los Angeles, California. In addition to working independently, the two recently co-scored the documentary The First Monday in May, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this spring (watch the trailer below!).

I spoke with them at their home to learn about their history, their passions, and their overall experience with being freelance composers in the modern age.

What inspired you to start composing music?

Sofia: When I was a teenager I actually didn’t think I’d end up focusing on composing — I was going to be a performer. My first year at Berklee [College of Music] I started taking composition classes, and I found that I was interested in the way that composition works with visuals. That became more important to me than my performance classes, and what being a performer entailed.

Ian: I was always obsessed with film, but I never thought I could actually be a composer — I didn’t think that was something I was capable of doing. I was going to go to Berklee and be a songwriter/record producer, but I didn’t get into that major! I bounced around a lot — some music therapy, some music business, until I finally realized there’s a whole major here specific to working in film.

S: I mean, your bar mitzvah theme was movies.

I: And then I realized I could actually write music for film. It kind of seems like a duh idea now, but it took me a while to get there.

The Diabolical (2015) original score by Ian Hultquist

Who were some of your biggest influences — musical or otherwise?

S: Thomas Newman is a favorite, in the way that he combines natural sounds, something like the rim of a car that he’s playing percussively. He introduced me to the idea that you can do more percussive and contemporary sounding scores. The score to Crash — that’s Mark Isham — was really big for me when it came out. Björk, showing that you can push the envelopes of tonality and technology — especially with Biophilia.

I: Radiohead. Wilco. Jeff Buckley. I don’t write songs like those guys, but songwriters are what perk my ears up — Bob Dylan, Neil Young, etc. For scoring there’s some newer guys who really inspire me, like Alexander Desplat and Johann Johannsson.

+Read more on Flypaper: “3 Lessons from Film Composer Michael Giacchino

Sofia, how do you feel that your Italian culture influences your compositions or your project, Drum and Lace?

S: I’d like to think it does, but I don’t go out of my way to add it overtly. Being Italian has definitely influenced Drum and Lace [her artist name when composing for fashion and film] and my inspiration for sustainable fashion — the approach of quality over quantity. To see people so dedicated to craftsmanship and to artisanship, seeing things created well and locally and not just outsourced to factories — it’s a subtle influence that people may not see outright, but it’s definitely there in who I am.

Ian, you were on the road for many years with Passion Pit while you were getting your name out as a film composer. What was writing from the road like?

I: When I started scoring my first few films and commercials, I was touring so often that most of it was done from hotels, my bunk, or green rooms, so I had to be creative with working with what I had — mostly just my laptop. It was hard to keep up with emails and constantly going back and forth with directors and producers when you’re in a different place in the world every other day. But once I set up my studio I knew exactly what I wanted, after having spent years not being able to have those things! It was kind of like guerrilla scoring, in a way.

S: But it also allowed you to have a foot in some sort of day-to-day reality or normalcy. You had something that you worked on continuously, rather than saying, “Oh God, what I do now!”

I: It helped keep my mind busy. Before I started doing it, I’d just come home and play video games. Once I got into scoring, it opened up another field that I could keep working on.

+Learn more: Take home recording to a whole new level with our free “Demo Recording 101” course!

So there’s a tip for touring musicians — stay busy. You two have worked on scores together as well. How do you approach collaborative projects?

I: It’s a little different each time. The biggest thing we’ve done so far is the documentary, First Monday in May. But we always help each other on our tracks — she and I hear almost every single note that each other write, and always give our input.

S: We have different approaches to how we start working. When we worked together as our side band, Aislyn, one of us would start and send the session to the other, and it would be back and forth until we got it to a good point and then we’d mix it together — but you can’t do that with an hour and twenty minutes worth of music.

I: When we’re in scoring mode, we’re so used to being in a room by ourselves.

S: It’s a very solitary job. It’s weird to have somebody hear your mistakes as they’re happening!

Having a set of eyes on you can feel disruptive to the creative process.

S: Absolutely! You need to mess around. But when I started, I knew the respect I had for Ian as a musician wasn’t going to change. We respect each other enough to figure it out, and be blunt with each other.

I:  Then we got to the point where we were both sitting at the keyboard playing together.

S: We’re about to start another project, probably this week.

I: It’s called Love and Bananas.

Love and Bananas?

S: It’s about the conservation of Asian elephants.

[We then talked about elephants for about six minutes.]

What did you wish that you’d known when you started out in this industry?

I: I knew this was gonna be really hard, especially transitioning from the band to just myself as a composer. Even though I’m ten features in at this point, I still feel very much at the bottom of the totem pole. On the other hand, it’s inspiring because it’s something you can keep working at for the rest of your life, which is what drew me to scoring in the first place.

S: It takes a lot of emotional and financial struggling to keep the momentum going. As you continue, you look around and see fewer and fewer of your contemporaries who manage to keep going. But there’s a Pixar feature somewhere down the line!

+Read more on Flypaper: Composer William Fritch Ryan details his unusual path to film scoring.

What about some of the biggest challenges so far?

S: One thing is being taken seriously as a woman. It’s hard enough with music, and branching into the fashion set — it’s a whole different set of connections. Fashion has been easier, but in the tech fields, and the boys club of music composition, that’s been a challenge.

I:  Yeah, I’ve seen it first hand how people mistreat her for no reason. For me, it has been patience, and controlling my ambitions. I mean, I am so grateful to be where I am, and I am thankful, but you always want more.

Night Skate (2016) is a collaboration between female Los Angeles creatives. Score by Drum and Lace.

Any advice for up and coming composers?

S: Learn to be your own cheerleader and celebrate your accomplishments. You aways think the next thing you put out could be the thing that pushes your career to the next level, but it just takes time. You have to learn to be happy with the process and satisfied with what you’ve created. But don’t give up. If you have to take a waitressing job to support your dreams, that’s totally fine. Just don’t stop, because your work is going to speak for itself.

I: Make sure it’s what you really, really love, and just put everything you have into it, and keep going.

Have you checked out Soundfly’s courses yet?

Continue your learning with hundreds of lessons by boundary-pushing, independent artists like Kimbra, Ryan Lott & Ian Chang (of Son Lux), Jlin, Elijah FoxKiefer, Com Truise, The Pocket Queen, and RJD2. And don’t forget to try out our intro course on Scoring for Film & TV.

Sofia Hultquist’s album Dark Nights and Neon Lights can be found online and streaming. Ian Hultquist writes music for film, television, and other commercial media, and his scores can be heard streaming and through his imprint, Little Twig Records.

RJD2: From Samples to Songs

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