Nicole is a woman of many talents, her website NicoleRussinMcFarland.com is a treasure trove of style tips, recipes, life advice, music, and interviews with fascinating people. The thing that I found unusual and what I really wanted to delve into much deeper, was her classical film score style covers. I’ve known a lot of musicians, but I’ve literally never met anyone who can do this.
Hi Nicole, thanks so much for your time today! Straight off the bat, how did you realise you have this amazing talent of covering songs in a classical film score style? It’s such a great idea, I love film scores so much, but I’d never think in a million years to create my own…
I used to do it for fun as a kid, playing popular songs on my keyboard and flute, or using it to learn how to compose on paper like old school powdered wig people I felt wore Benjamin Franklin man leggings and ugly shoes. The Midwest is cheery but honestly, one really boring place to live. Beyond ice skating, movies and our Michigan Avenue shopping district, in Illinois, you’re doomed. You become intellectual and skilled for the fun of it. We don’t have distractions like a beach or the stuff California kids have. Or the big celebrity party scene in Manhattan you’ll see high school girls attending. Therefore, my bored mind learned how to do music for the fun of it.
My dad on a few occasions now and then took me to his workplace at the hospital after school if plans fell through, and then, I’d play ridiculous songs like N*SYNC and what was on the radio for the poor nurses I had been doing at home on my flute for them. Their poor ears. Titanic’s theme. Anything torturous. They definitely have a boost of confidence though because none of them appeared to be knowledgeable about music, therefore I could’ve squeaked my flute like a sick dog to an impressed audience. When I showed my music teachers, I had one really positive music teacher who was impressed with my flute efforts whenever kids wanted to learn on their own, this film score lover guy, and he thought it was cool. Positive reinforcement! Because I sure messed up a lot. I had another teacher where he made us play songs on a keyboard for music class. He was really intrigued when I told him nobody taught me how to play a James Horner score I did on the keyboard as my homework assignment. He told me to “keep up the good work!”
Have you always been insane? Haha, jokes, jokes. I loved that you explained on your website that you don’t have to be insane or an incredible musician to be a good composer, but that said, I’ve always been in awe of composers… there’s so many elements to it all…
A music teacher taught me a while back, well, taught us, but the other kids weren’t listening, a good idea is to treat music like a foreign language. Always listen to music a good bit before you start working on it because your brain will begin thinking in that language. I take it a step further and totally silence everything out. I’ll listen to music ten to thirty minutes before I start working on something. It could or could not be a sample demo of what I’m trying to improve. It could be anything on the radio. You need your brain to stop thinking in words. You want your brain to go crazy. And when you do finally get to that point, thinking in words again and having conversations aloud feels so weird.
In the moment, I’d definitely say doing music is freedom to be legally insane. Because you don’t care about harming people, bothering people, being a dangerous to yourself. I mean, I could care less about doing actual insane things to myself or anyone else on any day of the year. My sole motivation is finding work, period, and I’m only insane about work or when I get a chance to do my work. The insanity with music work is a good insane. I get my most insane with music, for sure. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel slightly crazy when I do it because reality is all about filing paperwork and all this boring stuff in other work I’ve done. Newspaper freelance reporting is about chatting to people about issues like women’s rights in New York financially in situations. So confined.
You’re so hyper focused on whatever task you’re trying to complete with music to where, oh, it’s like nothing else exists. My favourite thing is being blasted by some really evil sounding minor chords. And this is the oddest thing, when I feel like I’ve done a really good job at something after hard work and not thinking in words, I feel this amazing joy of what it feels like to feel powerful, sexy, smart, fearless all at once, and, I hate to say, like if you know you are the hottest girl in the world type feeling, like I’m Beyoncé at the SuperBowl. The same natural high I get when I work out on a good exercise day or, on a far lesser level, enjoy a really good chef worthy lunch or fancy hotel breakfast. “You just got a new job” feeling. But magnified. Like, I don’t know, an orgasm for your mind and soul. You don’t have it happen all the time. When it does happen, when I’ve done a good job on my work and know it, it is something no artificial happiness could ever replicate. I don’t understand why people do those hardcore drugs when real moments of happiness feel so good and are fully attainable.
This is by no means bipolar disorder. Please don’t take my description as that because when you mention natural high, I feel like that’s what people are going to assume. My health sciences teacher in eighth grade used to tell us kids how you need to have things in life that give you a natural high similar to you after a good workout. He was very anti-drug because he went to college in the 1960’s during the big American drug use explosion and saw people get hurt because of the hardcore drugs they were using. Therefore, he pushed it on us, find what you enjoy. Do small and big things that make you naturally happy so you never need a false high. When I think of things I enjoy giving me that in certain moments, I always remember his advice.
Thinking about it today, I hope to have this same feeling one day with making a live action film knowing I just pulled it off, like, wrapping up something iconic like The Godfather and knowing I’m the queen. Knowing that I’m gonna win an Oscar before the movie ever comes out. A total life goal. One of many goals.
Why involve popular music? Why not do your style on old classical music?
As an adult, my choice of cover songs done film score style really has two purposes.
One, it gets my name out there if people discover my work. These songs are amazing samples for anyone who can hire me as a film score composer. People feel most comfortable with songs already familiar to them. The reason itself is the exact science of why songs like Taylor Swift’s do well on the charts. People love the familiar and attach a song to when they first kissed a boyfriend or had a job promotion that afternoon. Good things. They’re more likely to be searching for familiar songs and say, “Wow! I didn’t know this song could be done like that.”
Secondly, I always wanted to be the first person to take film score and classical music mainstream. Guys like John Williams have only done it to an extent. You’ll hear his Harry Potter theme in a Universal Studios commercial but not see John Williams on the cover of Rolling Stone riding a motorcycle. Kids don’t want to be John Williams. The youth today will admire the wrong crowds. Musically, the most artistic person they might go for or be able to find if any is Ariana Grande. They don’t have a male personality making film score music cool and relatable to them. Certainly not a female personality doing it. As time goes on, being good at something matters less as long as your claim to fame is having a Brazilian butt lift — and I’d love to change that. Every human being wants to have people find them attractive. What you should do is back up your fame with a talent. A lot of celebrities out now don’t have a talent.
Do you have a musical family?
My family is very un-musical with the exception of my grandpa’s cousin, Babe Russin, who did some film music work like Judy Garland’s A Star Is Born. A distant relative to me and probably useless because in this age, people would only care if my grandpa were Gigi Hadid’s cousin. My mom and dad had what society sees as adult “real jobs.” Both were really these straight A, academic students when they went to high school and throughout higher education. My mom has a Georgetown degree. My dad was a finalist in a medical student contest to develop the first artificial heart prototype. Imagine their likely tragic surprise when their only child came out as a less hyperactive Dory the fish from Finding Nemo.
Dory is really forgetful. I’m like that; if my brain gets bored, it shuts down. Nothing I can do will reboot the computer that is my brain. I remember being frustrated when I’d study a whole bunch only to forget it the next day during the big test. Dory in the second movie is clueless for a lot of things and remembers some really important information. I’ll be burned out reading a big textbook about a subject I dislike. However, talk to me. I’ll remember that. Me, watching a movie. I’ll remember. A song on the radio? I’ll get the words down hearing it enough times. My brain is very science-y. I like things that are a combo of art and science. Science has to be somehow involved. A horrible thing when you study liberal arts for your university degree. Also bad for doing well on English essays in regular junior high school. Dory’s parents seem to be really attentive to her so she doesn’t steer off the wrong way, often literally. Probably how my parents felt.
What path lead you to composing your own music?
Definitely, I wanted to be a film score composer-filmmaker when I was 12. Thinking about it at 11 and knowing without a doubt when I was 12 going on 13, I have to do film music and filmmaking both. Aside from music teachers, people from my own teachers to total strangers were unsupportive of it or laughed when I said I wanted to do. Part of me thinks had I been male, they would’ve thought music and film doubling up was a great life goal. Being female, you hear stuff like, “You’d make a great actress one day!” as if everything you told them went out the other ear. Or worse, being told to be in some corporate world profession because “you write good school newspaper articles.”
My path evolved from telling my parents how much I loved music as a kid from watching all these Disney shows and enrolling in lessons, plus taking music at school. When I was 7, I had my first live orchestra experience. Our class attended a concert in which the city orchestra performed the score from The Lion King. I was already familiar with pieces of the score because they stood out to me when I had seen the movie twice the summer before. When you’re a little kid, you don’t know what to do with your brain. Your brain is like a computer. Without knowing how to run a laptop, you have no use for it. My brain was picking up all these little pieces of light bulbs going off like those cartoon characters, getting ideas. I didn’t understand what to do with them for a long time, nor that composing was a real occupation you could do. I thought dead guys like Beethoven were composers. And certainly not girls. Not women of any age.
I started going from small lessons and little summer classes offered around to me being more serious about it. Learning flute. Enrolling in day classes at my school taking band in the mornings. Private lessons. Getting a piano book and playing around with it on my keyboard. All on my own terms. The quickest way to get someone not to do something is by forcing them to do it. Everything was free flowing. My parents didn’t care if I didn’t rehearse my flute homework as much as getting good grades in my “real world” classes. Which helped tremendously.
Were you always interested in composing?
When I was 11, I went to a bookstore chain on a typical weekend St. Louis trip and bought a sheet music notebook. I was going to learn how to compose for the fun of it! Because I was really bored with my life at the time. I got sick a lot with diabetes, catching every stupid cold and flu going around with a weakened immune system, getting any infection of the day and not wanting to explain to people at school why I got sick a lot. And I was spending all this time on weekends in Chicago or other areas and being forced, on weekdays, to be in these dull downstate Illinois towns where my dad worked. I wanted to be near culture and good food, which as much as I love down home Midwestern fried food, I wanted to eat sushi, delicious baked goods, all these very Pixar’s Ratatouille feelings within me of wanting to be around foodie culture, actual culture like museums and feeling out of place in other communities. All of what I craved was not in downstate Illinois. My mind was so bored. I felt like I didn’t fit in with the towns. The only town I like in downstate Illinois is Springfield because it’s so welcoming, and I have good memories of Champaign-Urbana because I used to go see my great aunt and great uncle there a lot, sleeping over. My great aunt took me ice skating, bought me Hayao Miyazaki movies, introduced me to the Japanese language, Japanese culture, origami, true Asian food, listened to me play the piano and my flute, all this stuff I still love today.
I loved playing on my computers I had and recording stuff off my keyboard. I learned how to do layering on my own, which is this pop music trick you do to make people’s voices sound fuller, yet you can do it for classical music instruments as well. All these skills. I had amazing music teachers. One who early taught kids more than they cared to know, including little composing tidbits. I the other day flipped through the University of Texas at Austin music theory degree class schedule. Almost all of what they teach there, my music teachers taught me. The little bit of other stuff in the classwork, I learned on my own for fun.
Why did you pause your career path in becoming a film composer?
I gave up for a bit when I was 20. I’d graduated from my university at 19 wondering how to be a composer and had, age 20, a film director steal my theme only to have his own composer work with it. The curse came back to murder his own movie. It flopped! I didn’t try again until I was 27 going on 28 and saw I had to hire myself. I couldn’t stand the direction my life was heading in. From 19 to about 27 near 28, I did journalism and modelling, mostly. Modelling is better…you get more of a say in what you want, though usually not much!
Yes, it’s a joke, but only half a joke, by pure chance. People who don’t hire me after a job interview or discussion and toss me out in a mean spirited way always end up having something horrible happen to them. The profession itself doesn’t matter. Journalism. Film music. Anything. A person was hit by a bus. A person was killed in a crime by her own family member and chopped up in the woods. Someone’s house had everything go wrong and a slew of things go on in his life nonstop ever since, big and small. So many stories. I’ll eventually find out about it and know, wow, karma is a real thing. Because people who are mean to me aren’t doing it exclusively. They do it to lots of people in situations you don’t know about. Eventually, bad stuff happens to them. But yeah, I did notice the people directly doing it to me suffer the consequences. No, I’m not a magician, nor a witch. If I were, I’d do all sorts of good witchy things like the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. All happening through fate! The important point is the person has to be mean in how they don’t hire me.
Nothing bad happens to people I have nothing to do with in business relationships, or those who are kind about not hiring me. Back when I spoke with people everywhere for newspaper jobs, The New York Daily News took me. I was the paper’s youngest freelancer at 21. In the same building as the paper moved since, I met with the Associated Press staff and had the loveliest tour of the offices. I wished so badly I could’ve worked there because they are the most professional newspaper staff I’ve ever met. You dream of working there. It’s the only newspaper service in the world with that old time journalism feel and zero sell out journalism like fake news. They ended up cutting the budget during the big recession of 2008-2010, and I didn’t get a part time job I badly wanted that got cancelled at the AP. Nothing bad happened to them because they were nice!
What advice do you have for people based on your life experiences and those of your best mates in music?
My advice to young people is, yes, you may get pestered by society and all you know and don’t know. Please, don’t give in. You may think you’re going to begin a path in which you’ll meet people or do something until you get where you need to go. Don’t. Please stop down that path right now. You will be really depressed whenever you’re at the workplace. Sad. Angry. Ill, physically, because stress gets to you if you have a pre-existing medical condition. Quit right now. Don’t go to that college. Don’t go to a university at all if you feel, like me, like the most out of place person there pretending you care to fit in. Figure out a way to do something positive for yourself. Film school. Culinary school. Being an apprentice for someone. Notice I say apprentice and not intern, because interning, you mainly do tasks that don’t teach you much.
To parents whose kids are in this situation and ask me for advice all the time, I ask them, do you want your son or daughter to be happy, or do you want your son to eventually be suicidal one day and go on a drug binge because he never got to be in a rock band? Do you want your daughter to see her illness worsen because she’s so sad all the time at school and work for years and having this fake persona she creates to separate her real self from the work self? Or do you want your son or daughter to have to meet you in the middle in some kind of compromise? That he or she does something for now but pursues his or her goal at the same time? People resort to substance abuse or suffer somehow when they don’t get to do what they love. Or anything. It doesn’t have to be an entertainment career. I’ve met too many people whose lives are affected by another’s suicide.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by a score?
With my first one, which I collaborated on called The Eyes of Old Texas, it had lots of elements of old school westerns on most of the sections I was responsible for. My follow up score is going to be on my own as far as the non-verbal music and have a lot more drama. I have areas where I climb up and down the notes in minor chords and jump octaves like Mariah Carey but for instruments.
One music teacher told us we need to be like Olympic athletes where they make it look easy until you try diving into the pool and fall on your stomach. People are so critical of me, it’s downright bizarre. The criticism I’ve gotten is, yeah, your work isn’t original because you borrow existing material on your cover songs, those cover songs I use to get work interest. Which to that I want to reply, number one, I developed those tunes into new melodies that didn’t always exist. Number two, since it’s so easy to you, why don’t you do too, come back later and show me how your work is better? Oh, right, you can’t, looking at you one specific guy but wondering how many others feel that way. Because you can’t do what I do. Perhaps Alexandre Desplat could confront me and we can draw it out, arguing whose work is better. You can’t. Because you never cared to learn, and the mere fact of learning to do this involves a lot skill and time. The whole scenario reminds me of what my music teacher said. A few critics have been haters with me and snarky, intentionally or not, like how men yell at the NFL about Tom Brady being untalented, or World Cup soccer saying some team’s striker sucks, and would be slaughtered on that grass field. Shut up until you can bring it.
Therefore, to shut people up a lot, I’m going to stray away from borrowing an existing tune on my second score, Emoji Motel, for the majority of it.
I have no doubt in my mind, every score is going to make me slightly nervous. Every cover song. Everything I ever do. Whenever I don’t get nervous about something, it’s a bad sign. Meaning, I don’t care about it without nerves attached.
I’m always growing. When I say I think I’m good at it, I don’t mean perfect. No one human being is perfect. Someone whose work we think sounds perfect is because of his time and the people involved in that recording, if any, because Trent Reznor was nominated for an Oscar for an electronic score with The Social Network. Years of learning and also, learning on the job. I hope to continue growing with my work abilities as time goes on until I’m the best person in the industry.
Do you have a favourite composer?
I’m familiar with the work of most people currently at the top of the film music business. Their sounds inspire me for obvious reasons. Whether or not they’re into their jobs, it sure sounds from my standpoint like they love what they do, and I mean, sound. On the second tier, you have people who compose mostly clicks, bangs, jingles and barely there film music who don’t really seem to care about their art. The pay keeps them happy. How they get paid being so miserably depressing in their sound, I will never know other than probably once you get hired for one mainstream movie, people hire you on repeat.
I love hearing Russian composers. The whole “Peter and the Wolf” saga is great. Russian composers made up much of my childhood homework along with film scores. Rachmaninov, he was my homework. The Russian music style uses a lot of minor chords, whether it’s happy or sad — and my style has plenty of that. Mozart and the mainstream people of past times are too pleasant noted for me. Most of my serious music taste beyond Russian music lies in film scores, actually. Call it glamour. I find anything related to movie music so sexy.
Career wise, I love people who were not graduates of some stuffy music theory doctorate program. Often, someone thinks to be good, a filmmaker out of the know, reads a resume and hires someone based on his paper resume, and yes his as no women are in the picture. Oh, he went to this school. He’s hired. Without hearing their work! Being a female applicant, you’re done for. Women are assumed to immediately suck. I’d love to change that.
Therefore, I’ll look at Pharrell Williams and think he’s the coolest because he is so mainstream and does stuff outside music, much like I want to do. He went from up and coming hip hop producer to N.E.R.D. to Oscar nominee to composing scores to now a film producer nominated for an Oscar as a filmmaker. I’ll look at Clint Mansell, Hans Zimmer, Jay Z with his Great Gatsby work, anyone who does film music at all who’s ever been in a rock band or anything far from the standard accepted academic background. Looking at them gives me hope I can have gone a different route to getting to the end destination and find that my being driven and, hopefully perceived as good, leads me there to composing major studio film scores.
Another thing itself: working with a huge film studio orchestra and recording tools, your work is going to sound all that much better. If my work sounds moderately good now, it’ll be that much more amazing with the expensive talent and equipment. People need to take this into consideration. You are as good as your recording method is. And yeah, I’m really talking to people who can hire me…I will be awesome if given the chance, and, hey, honesty is the best policy. I don’t hide my goals.
Also, who would you say has influenced your style of film making? I’m sure you get these questions every time you talk to someone new.. but it’s so interesting, literally everyone loves film.
Pedro Almodóvar. Not because I want to make his exact movies. Because I love how his work doesn’t define itself to one genre. You never know what is going to happen in the next scene. He gets away with so much because he’s established with Oscar notice and, secondly, due to not being part of the Hollywood scene. All his work is done out in Spain. Whether it’s cartoons or in the future, live action, my goal is to always do my own thing and not care to fit into a checkbox. My big dream movie I want to make is divided into three different stories set in different time periods, and thus, at times, be an action film, funny, serious, sad, a western, a bit of a musical. Nothing has to be, “This person is making a musical!” Hollywood functions in that a studio doesn’t give you money unless the film is a clear cut horror film, romantic comedy, musical if you’re lucky as few are made, you get it. Think of one movie in the past year. La La Land is only a musical. Fast and the Furious keeps coming out with the same car based action films. We don’t see Michelle Rodriguez fall in love with attention to detail during the film. All of these movies out are one thing only. Real life isn’t one thing. Who’s to say I can’t have a movie act like real life or a crazy, out there, genre hopping film?
I’m a fan of the big usual people and definitely a big Peter Jackson fan because he is the last person to have a really good trilogy and has gotten into cartoons also. I was watching his movies again the other day and catching how little CGI is in them compared to now. In this part where Frodo gets the ring at the start of the first movie, a 2017 CGI heavy Disney film might have all these quick takes between the scenes and filling it up on every CGI known ever. Frodo is out with Gandalf the wizard in his little house chatting. Closeup of the ring. Chat. No CGI circus. When it happens, the CGI is relevant to the story in Lord of the Rings. And, the backdrops are real in appearance as they are real mountains. Watch any movie made now. Everything is about looking at the pretty sight and little story. Compare this to Peter Jackson’s work, or older science fiction, and you’ll find real set pieces, real costumes, makeup, puppetry for monsters, mock spaceships, fake moon terrain. It’s fun for the viewers and good for bringing out better performances from the actors.
What piece of work are you most proud of?
Probably my cover song of “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up),” originally by Fall Our Boy. The song builds gradually until it is screaming at the top of its lungs. My heart wants to brag, “This song sounds like it could be in a real movie, maybe an adventure movie.” I added so much that wasn’t there in the original song to build momentum.
What should our readers definitely check out?
I’ve done some voice acting. The narration for audiobooks, so far. One is by Chad Westbrook called Ninja Cat Volume 1. There’s going to be a part two, and I’ll record it soon. You have no idea how exhausting it is on your voice to speak so much. After an hour or two, you almost get a semi foreign accent syndrome because your tongue is going over and under, your teeth chattering! You stop saying words the way they should be. And, if like me, you have to tone it done into a more non-regional dialect to be more appealing to a broader audience, your brain gets so confused. But I survived. Did it and do it! Proudly. The audiobook is really fun and the longest one of the bunch I’ve done. Ninja Cat Volume 1 is on Amazon in the USA and UK, Google Play, Jay Z’s Tidal company, iTunes and Audible.
I myself have had actors record audiobooks of my own writing. Creative literary writing is specific; it doesn’t come naturally to me. You can be a good screenwriter or other writer and a struggling creative writer. You need to have a specific brain, probably, to be good at it. I try my best because I want to have books out I can eventually turn into animated movies. You’ll find actors doing audiobooks for some of my material. Ranging from The Big Bad Wolf Strikes It Rich! a children’s novel about the wolf being like a sweet Donald Trump in fairy tales, Ingrid Has Two Dads, which covers growing up with two male parents and is a modern bullying issue.
Because I’m so irked from my whole life being told about acting over my filmmaking and music goals by strangers, I am kind of iffy, yet would love to act in a movie if it’s a mean girl taking people’s boyfriends or a strong female character. Something like an action movie. Fast and the Furious. Mad Max: Fury Road. By the way, many action movies aren’t good. Anything like Action Film 9, that many sequels out, it almost always sucks. Only some are standouts for fun times and strong women appearing in them. Strong doesn’t have to mean army girl in a buzzcut. To me, it’s more like a girl who doesn’t have it all together but manages to do well in moments of chaos. Physically fit but not too thin or too muscular. I’d be really good at it because I don’t look like I could be blown away by the wind. I’m very curvy but fit, and I could work on being a lot more into an exercise routine if given an action movie job. The truth is, all the actual living, breathing female moviegoers I meet tell me they’re ready for that. A girl who looks like a regular sized woman if she were slightly more in shape. All this time, we’ve had waifs hitting men triple their size. Doesn’t make sense, really. I could be that female action actress women I meet describe in a dream action flick girl. And I’m great with computers in real life. You won’t have to have some bimbo actress scrambling around, “OK, Mr. Director, what do I do now?” I’ll tell the director how to use the computer in the scene! It would be a good compromise. I’d be following in Barbara Streisand’s steps. She became a singer to become an actress. I can be a good actress on my own terms.
Thank you again Nicole. This is brilliant. If other filmmakers are interested in getting you to compose for their projects, what is the best way for them to contact you?
I’d love that. Social media! I prefer that someone sends me a public message. The private DM (Direct Message) inbox is a house of horrors because it gets spam and legitimate notes in there. Or directly. The contact form on my website will always be up to date. My goal is to work with a big film studio orchestra and be giving them all the attention in the world until a project is perfect. Please, I beg, hire me! I’ll be so happy and make your studio proud. Holla at your girl, DreamWorks Animation.