Working with Local Musicians to Create Original Scores for ‘Versify’

As a podcast producer, there’s something thrilling — and daunting — about the hunt for music for an episode. There’s a lot to sift through, and then licensing questions to navigate.

But twice this past year, during season one, Versify went in another direction: We paired with local musicians to incorporate their work into our episodes. We found the outcome to be rewarding, and we learned a few things along the way.

Poet and rapper Saran Thompson appears in “Versify” episode 1. His music was the basis for the episode.

“There’s No Cure”

Our first episode, “There’s No Cure,” was a natural fit. Nashville poet Saran Thompson helps us tell the story of a blind man who became a pillar of his community — and Saran also happens to be a rapper and music producer. His music became the basis for the episode.

To his benefit (and ours) Saran is an organized producer. He was able to quickly provide a wide array of samples. And he was willing to tweak some of his individual instrument tracks.

It was an easy back-and-forth to settle on what we needed, and then we took cues from some commercial music licensing websites to ink our own paid agreement with him.

If I had to choose a favorite moment, it’s around 6:18, when Saran’s music enters as an accent to an emotional portion of Fred Bailey’s life story.

The final little perk of this relationship came when writing the episode credits — it felt great that our host could succinctly say that the episode featured both Saran’s poetry and music, without needing a long list of music attributions.

Onstage

Our second journey into custom-fit music took a different route.

Because Versify features storytelling and poetry, we’ve had several chances to put our work onstage — even before the podcast launched.

Nashville poet Joe Kane and musician Alicia Enstrom collaborated on a performance that paired his words with her original composition, both for stage and for “Versify” episode 8.

Early on, our colleague Emily Siner, of the WPLN’s Movers & Thinkers, suggested pairing some of the poems with live music. And when she hosted a stage event, musician Alicia Enstrom got to work on original compositions using her method of layered looping of violin, voice, and sampled sounds. Her approach often paired individual notes with specific words — really precise!

“If words or colors pop out, then I circle in the text,” Enstrom said. “Then I begin to mess with beat, melody, etc.”

This process also meant in-person rehearsals with the poets, a blending that provided insights to everyone involved. Enstrom said the toughest part is enhancing the poem without overpowering it.

“I think the most rewarding thing is seeing people’s faces when they hear the word and music paired together,” she said.

After Alicia and poet Joe Kane put their work on stage, we brought it back for our eighth episode, “Sometimes It’s The Simple Things.”

In the mixing phase, it was important to have access to Alicia’s individual stems — this allowed us to dial in the volume just right, especially at the opening and the conclusion.

You can hear the finished product around the 16-minute mark.

Our takeaways

I think we’ve found that working with musicians — local folks who support our mission and bring in fresh perspectives — doesn’t have to be more difficult than trolling through pages and pages of online catalogs.

And, really, this is just scratching the surface. We idolize shows like Out Of The Blocks (which uses custom scoring for every episode) and we hope to tap further into the expertise that’s all around us in Nashville.

Season two of Versify is available now! Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, RadioPublic or wherever you get your podcasts, and follow us on Twitter to be among the first to know when we’re using original music in future episodes.

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