“Simpler Is Usually Better” Words of Wisdom with Hollywood Composer Joey Newman
I recently sat with Joey Newman, a third generation film composer of the famed Hollywood musical Newman dynasty. Joey composed the music for the long-running ABC comedy ‘The Middle’ and TLC’s documentary-reality series,’Little People, Big World’, for which his score was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award. He also scored NBC’s ‘The Mysteries of Laura’, ‘Jim Henson’s Creature Shop’, and numerous other film and television projects including the Oscar-nominated ‘Adam and Dog’ We discussed some of the insights he’s gathered from his’ family’s music legacy and lessons he’s learned in his career.
What is your “backstory”?
I was born into a musical family and I heeded the call to music. I went through every musical phase possible in my teens. I studied drums and piano, idolizing drummers like Jeff Porcaro and Steve Gadd. After high school, I went to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music. I graduated with a degree in Film Scoring and got a job in L.A. working for prolific and Emmy-winning TV composer W.G. “Snuffy” Walden. Snuffy gave me my first shared screen credit on ABC’s ‘Once & Again’. In that same timeframe, I got my first independent feature and began scoring the online game ‘Lineage’ for NCsoft.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your music career?
I had a real “aha moment” while working on my first network series (the first solo credit after Snuffy’s) called ‘Clubhouse’. My youngest daughter was two years old and so I searched for a new studio that wasn’t my apartment’s second bedroom. Eventually I moved into a studio space in Hollywood, but before that I setup a studio at my mom’s place — in the bedroom I grew up in. She lived down the street from our apartment, so it made the most sense both economically and geographically. I wasn’t too keen on clients visiting that space, but lo and behold, one of the producers from that show came over one evening to review cues for an episode. I was stressing out, thinking what an embarrassment this is going to be to have him come up the stairs late at night, pass my mother’s closed bedroom door and into my old bedroom (not the biggest room, I might add). I was amazed that the producer didn’t seem to care what the environment was, he just wanted the best music for the show. He understood my circumstances and was fine with it. It was a wonderful moment where I realized the quality of music is far more important than a flashy studio.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
I am inspired by President Obama; I will always be in awe at his grace, integrity and intelligence in leading our country for so long. I am also inspired by Tchaikovsky’s orchestrational genius and beautiful melodies he created while dealing with incredible personal and situational struggles. My grandfather, Lionel Newman, also has been a huge inspiration for me. I am always striving to achieve the highest quality of music and be the best I can be to continue to honor the Newman family legacy.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I think the best use of my success has been opening my experience up to future generations of film scoring. I would love to think — and I hope — that my music tells a story and affects people in a way that allows them to deeply connect with a film or TV series. But truthfully, the most rewarding feeling for me is passing on this craft of film scoring and knowledge to others. I enjoy talking to people and learning about someone’s story. That sense of camaraderie and collaboration with other composers, musicians, engineers, filmmakers — it’s all part of that bigger picture of the human experience.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. “Simpler is usually better”
Early in my career, I think I wrote music that was too busy and challenging for what picture may have needed. I used to write a cue and ask my wife, Jerelyn, to take a listen and see what she thought. Nine times out of ten, she would ask me to simplify the music. The first short film I did, the director asked me strip the cue down to the bare bones. Just a few sounds. And it worked so much better! I wanted to showcase more of my musical chops and make things “challenging” for musicians, but I was forgetting that the sole purpose of my being there (most of the time) was to support the drama and emotion. The key was trying to find that balance between the two, and also add my music voice or stamp to it. Usually something wonderfully simple worked best (and still does) to clear for dialogue and allow the audience to dig deeper into a character or storyline.
2. “Here’s how you budget a session”
Man, I wish someone told me how to do that in college or otherwise. Could have saved so much more time and worry! I had to learn that on one of my first big sessions and my error cost me more money out of the music package than I would have liked. Thanks to a great musician and music contractor friend, I learned much more about the realities of what it costs to make music for film, TV and games!
3. “Remember that not everyone speaks music”
I had to constantly remind myself that that filmmakers haven’t always gone through theory and orchestration classes. It’s why they speak in emotions, feelings, colors, etc. It’s more on the composer to figure out how to explain why certain instruments, orchestrations, soundscapes, etc. work best for certain moods, environments, characters — whatever it may be. I tried to learn more about storytelling and filmmaking so I could be on the same page as my collaborators.
4. “Don’t forget about your personal life”
The hardest thing to do for any musician, I imagine, is to not over-compartmentalize and forget about being present for family, significant others, spouses, kids, etc… So much time is taken up being creative in our heads that it can get clouded and one-tracked based on the fear of losing out on a gig, money, reputation, etc. My three daughters remind me that I’m not the only one the world revolves around. My wife of almost 19 years has also been integral in reminding me of priorities and being that strong nucleus of our family.
5. “Stay grounded and remember those who’ve helped you along the way”
I think the one thing we forget about in our 20’s is that we need to be patient. Perhaps, I thought I knew more than I really did and I should be further along, etc. The key was to remember my role as a composer — another influence on someone else’s vision. I am a piece of the creative puzzle. One thing I learned from grandfather’s life was to remember those who’ve helped along the way. At his funeral, there were janitors, mailroom workers, you name it. They were all there along with big-wig studio folks. It’s the old, “treat others the way you want to be treated” mentality. So there are also pieces of that puzzle on my end — my music team. Talented people who also need to be respected and treated fairly. Success to me is earning the respect of my peers.