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“They’re all about these giant concepts — climate change, the war, autism, species extinction, globalization, one after the next,” says songwriter/composer J. Ralph of the documentaries to which he has contributed music through the years, as we sit down at his Malibu home to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. They have included several films that won the best documentary feature Oscar (2008’s Man on Wire and 2009’s The Cove) or were nominated for it (2012’s Hell and Back Again and 2014’s Virunga). However, 2016’s Jim: The James Foley Story, the most recent doc to which he lent his talents, is different. “This one was about one person,” he notes, namely the eponymous freelance American war correspondent who, in 2014, was killed in Syria while trying to bring attention to the humanitarian crisis occurring there. “I wanted to recognize and celebrate the beauty of this great man who risked his life and gave his life to help show the world the civilian casualties of war and the suffering that’s going on around the world.”
Ralph, 41, is the only individual who has received multiple Oscar noms for songs featured in documentaries: “Chasing Time” from 2013’s Chasing Ice and “Manta Ray” from 2015’s Racing Extinction (the latter of which he co-wrote with Anohni). This year, he may well extend that record with a third nom, for “The Empty Chair,” a song that he and three-time Oscar nominee Sting were moved to write for Jim‘s end-credits — free of charge — after seeing Brian Oakes‘ film about Foley’s life and death.
(Click above to listen to this episode or here to access all of our 100+ episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro, Amy Schumer, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Sally Field, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, Tyler Perry, Kate Winslet, Michael Moore, Helen Mirren, J.J. Abrams, Taraji P. Henson, Warren Beatty, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Eisner, Brie Larson, Sting, Natalie Portman, RuPaul, Sheila Nevins, Justin Timberlake and Nicole Kidman.)
Born and raised in Long Island, Ralph discovered music early in life. “I wanted to play guitar more than anything,” he recalls, but his family did not have the means to buy him one, so his mother wrote a letter saying as much to Ovation Guitars — which promptly sent him one for free. That changed his life. On it, he taught himself to play. And in the years that followed, Ralph also familiarized himself with how to make mellifluous sounds on — if not how to read or write music for — the piano, bass, drums, synthesizers and effects, in order “to tell a story.” He explains, “I love sounds. There are masterful, masterful players in the world that really study these instruments, and know how to make them come to life; I just have a kind of fun relationship with them.”
As a kid in junior high school and high school, Ralph began hanging out at a hip-hop recording studio around the corner from his house, just as that genre of music was exploding. His curiosity was rewarded with opportunities to lay down recordings of his own hip-hop beats, which he continued to do even after he went off to study at the University of Buffalo. There, on the side, he began covering concerts and interviewing musicians for the school’s TV channel, which led to a conversation with Chuck D. The leader of Public Enemy was blown away by Ralph’s knowledge of music and asked him to direct a music video for the rap group. That never came to fruition, but it did lead Ralph to transfer to New York University, where he began spending every free hour he had in the offices of Def Jam Records.
“It was a really incredible, inspiring time,” reflects Ralph. He loved being around great music artists, and they, he felt, liked being around him — but he refused to sell them any of his beats without receiving a producing credit. It was a calculation that paid off: When he was 22, the top music industry executive Jason Flom, then of Lava/Atlantic Records, heard some of his work and signed him to an “awesome deal” — reported to be one of the richest ever paid to a new recording artist — that allowed him to produce records and direct videos.
Ralph was being groomed to become a mainstream artist, but, as became apparent early in the process of making his first album, Music for Mauzner, he increasingly was finding himself drawn to more experimental sorts of music. (The last track on that album features a big orchestral piece conducted by Carter Burwell, one of Ralph’s mentors.) He spent years at work on his second album — exploring orchestral music, languages other than English, and folk music, among other things — before recognizing that he was “going further away” from what the record label needed. He begged off the assignment, well aware that he was giving up the opportunity to play stadiums in order to play hotels and cafes. While Ralph had lost his star trajectory, he had found a new way of making music: “I just get so enraptured by the sounds and fall in love with some kind of pattern of some kind of harmony,” he says, adding, “It’s always an uncharted adventure.”
It turned out that Ralph’s weird sounds had a lucrative outlet, after all: commercials. Volvo asked to license a demo he had composed for a TV spot, paid a fortune for it and inspired many other companies to do the same. Some of Ralph’s peers argued that he was selling out, but he says he was thrilled to be working with exciting directors like David Fincher, and he eventually started The Rumor Mill, a music production company that specializes in this niche side of the music industry. “All of those commercials were paying for me to experiment,” he says with a smile.
At the same time, Ralph found, the documentary genre was exploding thanks to the proliferation of cheaper and lighter equipment — but there still was “a huge void” when it came to quality music in documentaries, particularly in the sort of docs to which he’s drawn. “It either has to have an incredibly strong social imperative or an incredibly engaging artist that was overlooked,” he says. “I like to help recognize people that are realizing the impossible dream.” Since contributing music to Man on Wire, the story of the forgotten tightrope walker who traversed the World Trade Center’s twin towers in 1974, Ralph never has stopped working on docs.
He “felt a kinship” with Foley, in particular, long before he ever saw a rough cut of Jim, having himself traveled to regions of the world in which his safety was in question and where others subsequently lost their lives. He later was shown the doc, with the hope that he would provide its entire score, but time and money allowed him only to write one song — “a warm blanket” for its end credits — for which he sought a collaboration with Sting. Sting initially begged off the job, fearing he couldn’t do it justice, but over Thanksgiving dinner — having been sent Ralph’s melody and chords, as well as a letter that Foley wrote to his family while in captivity shortly before his death — he had a change of heart and emailed Ralph some lyrics. The next day they met up in Ralph’s studio and got to work.
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