Born and raised in New York, Dara Taylor built upon her lifelong love of music to bring a fresh and innovative approach to composing for film and television projects. Never shying away from learning a new instrument or attacking the most challenging part of a project first, she enjoys how film music continually evolves and how the industry is growing increasingly inclusive, welcoming new voices and perspectives into the mix.
After graduating from Cornell in 2009, Taylor studied film composition at New York University, receiving a Master of Music in 2011. While grateful for her education, Taylor says the many relationships she built in the entertainment industry taught her more about music composition — and the music business — than she could ever learn in the classroom. She’s enjoyed a long mentorship and friendship with BMI composer Christopher Lennertz and credits the many relationships she’s built with fellow creatives in the industry in fostering her development as a composer and helping her land composing jobs.
BMI caught up with the Los Angeles-based Taylor, who recently scored the thriller Echo Boomers, aptly released on Friday the 13th this month, with the score coming out on the 20th. Taylor shared how she approaches working on a new project, how she developed her passion for music into a career, and why being actively involved with organizations in the music and entertainment industries is important to her.
One of your latest projects, the crime thriller Echo Boomers, comes out this month. You took an interesting approach with the score, choosing an electric cello — which you didn’t previously play — as the cornerstone instrument. What was the inspiration behind this decision, and how did you work it into the overall score?
I knew Seth Savoy, the director, didn’t want an overly synth- or guitar-heavy score, so I wanted to use something organic that could be manipulated and processed to still achieve the tension and movement the thriller required. In places I used it instead of synths, guitars, and sometimes even percussion, and processed it to give the score a familiar yet otherworldly feel. I also just thought it’d be a lot of fun to use — and it was!
Can you share a little about how the creative process works and how you collaborate with the filmmaker when scoring a film or television show?
I always like to hear from the director what they feel each character’s main motivation is, their relationship to each other, and the start and end of their story arcs. A lot of this is usually quite clear through the filmmaking, but it’s always great to hear it in words from the director because there’s usually some small nugget of extra information that’s useful to scoring them, whether it be the strength of a particular relationship or the symbolic importance of an object that I want to ensure I speak upon musically. In the case of Echo Boomers that was the Allie/Lance relationship and the masks.
I also, of course, like to hear what type of music they envision or don’t envision for the film and whether or not they like the general feel of the temp if any exists. I then take some time to come with some thematic or motivic material and discuss that with the director to make sure we’re on the same page before continuing on. Also, if there’s enough time to play and the filmmaker seems excited to take the journey to find the right sound — which Seth Savoy of Echo Boomers definitely was — I’ll start with a more difficult scene where they’d really like the help of score to further tell the story. I find that starting with your vegetables (i.e., the harder sequences) you learn a lot about how the filmmaker wants to tell the musical story of the rest of the film and where this scene fits in the general musical arc of the story.
You’ve also collaborated with composer Christopher Lennertz on multiple projects including Bad Moms, Shaft, and Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar, which is scheduled for release in 2021. How do you develop a good working relationship with another composer?
Chris was my boss for years, is my mentor long-term and my friend for life, so we’ve had the luxury of time and experience to learn each other’s personalities and sensibilities. I’ve learned so much from him over the years as well, from comedic timing to taking meetings and finding the “notes behind notes” in playbacks.
You performed in church choirs, school choruses, bands and musicals throughout your childhood. Do you remember when you decided that you wanted to pursue music as a career?
It wasn’t until sophomore year of college that I narrowed my focus. Music was always the thing I enjoyed the most growing up, but I was unsure how I’d apply it professionally. I actually applied to Cornell as a computer science major — a very short lived idea since I changed my major to music in the first week of freshman year. Even then, I was a classical voice major but the idea of performing for a living also didn’t feel quite right for me — I just couldn’t pull off all of those big opera singer scarves. But I had a sort of “a-ha” moment sophomore year. A longtime fan of film music, I was listening to Harry Gregson-Williams’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe score in my dorm room then it all hit me…maybe this is it - my intended avenue in the music world and from there on out I zeroed in and followed that goal.
You studied music and psychology at Cornell University — do you feel that uniquely qualified you to combine your talent for music into creating a score that complements a film or TV episode’s plotline, or evokes the emotions of the characters?
I’d love to say “yes, that was my master plan all along” but truth be told, I studied more cognitive psychology than personality psychology and did so rather half-heartedly. Psychology was my “safety” major that I had no idea what I’d do with if anything, but I found it interesting. I also mostly studied contemporary classical composition in undergrad, which — other than learning theory and delving into some extended techniques — only helped me so much in my true ventures. So while all of my schooling provided a nice general foundation that I’m thankful for, I still feel like I’ve learned more about film music (both composition and business) in my six years under Chris Lennertz than in my six years of formal education.
How did you find your footing as a composer in the entertainment industry? Did you learn from any mentors early in your career?
Definitely. In addition to my consistent Lennertz gushing above, I’ve learned from so many others I’ve met and gotten close to over those years. Knowing apprenticeships have inherent expiration dates, I made sure to soak up as much knowledge and buy as many coffees for people as I could — whether it’s taking some pop production suggestions from Alex Geringas (composer and co-producer on some of Chris’s projects), gleaning recording order tips from Chris Brooks (music editor), asking orchestration advice from Andrew Kinney, taking a bass lesson from Bart Samolis, talking about the trends of film music with music supervisors like Julia Michels and Joel C. High, or hanging back and chatting with STX’s Jason Markey during a London trip.
Everyone I’ve met along my journey holds a very special place in my heart and I’ve tried to make meaningful — while being respectful of my own position— relationships with all of them. And sometimes that even leads to being put up for a job, like Joel C. High did for Echo Boomers.
Who are some of your musical influences and inspirations?
My first love was Sondheim. I loved the rhythm and cheekiness of his melodies. I’ve also always loved and admired Thomas Newman’s music and I was so fortunate to have him as a mentor during my Sundance Composers Lab experience. But the wonderful thing about film music is that it’s ever evolving and new influences, inspirations, and favorites are added constantly. Lately I’ve particularly fallen in love with the musical sensibilities of Teddy Shapiro, Daniel Pemberton, Nicholas Britell, and Michael Abels. The last of whom I’ve gotten to know via the Composers Diversity Collective. I feel like they’ve all recently disrupted the musical vocabulary of various genres.
You’re active in multiple organizations in the entertainment industry, including the Composers Diversity Collective, the Television Academy, the Recording Academy, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, the Alliance of Women Film Composers, and Women in Media. Why do you feel that it’s important to devote time and energy to these groups?
Like many of us, I’m an over committer, and I think that’s because I love communities and I collect them like a hoarder. Add that to the fact that so many of the organizations have beautiful missions to spread education, equity and fellowship — how can I say no? For me it’s also a great opportunity to take a mental break from time to time but still keep your finger on the pulse of the industry.
You’ve participated in the Sundance Institute Film Music and Sound Design Lab that BMI sponsors. In 2018, more than half of the participants were female, a first for the event. Are you seeing more women being drawn to composing? Tell us about that experience and what you learned.
The Sundance FMSD lab was one of the most important experiences of my professional life. It was not only an incredibly refreshing and cleansing time for me as a musician and a person, but it set me on a path to wonderful working relationships and projects with filmmaking mentee Tom Quinn and filmmaking mentor Yance Ford. It also allotted me an all-important tick of legitimacy to combine with all of the wonderful access I had accumulated during my years with Chris.
The gender parity during my year was beautiful, A) because it happened, and B) because it was barely noticed or discussed. We were eight composers with a pure and impeccable bond and respect for each other that wasn’t dependent on anyone’s identity or intersectionality, and that was beautiful. I am thrilled to see more and more parity and inclusivity in the composer community because to me it means that beyond more people being drawn to composing, on a broader level it shows that fewer people are feeling ostracized and discouraged from following their passions due to their gender, ethnicity, ability or identity.
When did you start working with BMI, and how has it impacted your career?
My first interactions with the incredible people at BMI were at Sundance Composers Lab events years ago when I was a volunteer then associate administrator for the SCL (Society of Composers and Lyricists) even before meeting Chris. I just remembered the genuine warmth and overall fun that exuded from my interactions with the BMI team and I thought to myself “oh, I’m sticking to these people.” In addition to their effervescence, I was bowled over by how much they cared about artist relations and bolstering career growth. Last year, I was fortunate enough to be a part of the BMI Conducting Workshop with Lucas Richman, and I haven’t even mentioned this to them yet, but a connection I made there even helped me get my next big job on an animated series. BMI is wonderful at fostering community and making all of their composers feel like teammates and for that I am forever grateful.