We are sitting in his car on the way to his home in Los Angeles, where he will show us his studio and where we will take a closer look at the film Child of Grace for which he made the music. Henrik tells about his musical journey.
How did you become interested in creating music?
– I grew up in Gothenburg, and my interest in music started very early through my father who had an incredibly great interest in classical music, which was always played in the background at home, and I think it affected me a lot. I started playing the piano on my own when I was around five years old. When I was around eight or nine years old, I started taking piano lessons, but I was awful at doing my piano homework, and soon stopped taking lessons. I thought it was a lot more fun to play on my own, and I sat at home pretty much every night and played the piano until my final year of high school.
I was inspired early on by TV and film music. The music during the 1980s and 90s was very melodic at the time with clear strong melodic themes, and I learned all the themes that went then – including the music for “Home to the Farm”, “Mc Gyver”, “Knight Rider”, ” Black Adder ”and more, and a Danish TV series called Matador which I thought had a fantastic melody theme.
Henrik at the piano in the parents’ home in Gothenburg.
When did you start studying music?
– I took a science line, so making music was completely beside my studies. Just after high school and shabby, when I was in my 20s, I decided to invest more in music and learn it more properly. In 2000 I moved from Gothenburg to Stockholm and went to Memus – Stockholm’s music conservatory, which is no longer there.
I studied there for two years. I’ve always been good at playing, but I did not really know what I was doing, so I really needed to get acquainted with music theory, arrangement and learning notes. At Memus, I also learned to play the guitar.
You then started the company A-Stream Studio, tell us a little about it.
– At Memus, of course, I met a lot of different types of musicians – it was a mixture of classical, pop, jazz and all sorts of music genres, and I then also became interested in pop and rock, which led to the interest in recording music, and in 2003 I started A-stream studio. There were also a lot of musicians then, including from Memus who had a great need to record their songs somewhere and get it mixed, and I could also help with the arrangements.
During that period, 2003-2010, it was mostly pop / rock and other genres, and not yet film music, but I worked with Swedish bands and artists. I was lucky enough to work with artists like Miss Li, Cajsa Siik and Titiyo and learned to work with many different genres.
In mix mode in the A-Stream studio in Stockholm.
How did you approach writing music for film?
– During the period I ran the studio, I kept a little track regarding the creation of film music in Sweden, but it was very difficult to get a foot in somewhere – it felt like it was three or four people who made all the music for film and television on it time, and it was very tough competition where there was an elite of film music composers.
It has changed a bit since then, it feels like, but at that time it was Stefan Nilsson and a few others who did “everything”. Admittedly very good music that inspired me a lot, but I was too far away from getting the opportunity for a music assignment, so I focused on producing and mixing bands and artists, and putting my own arrangements and ideas into it instead.
Around 2010, when I was almost 30 years old, I thought I would give film music creation a chance anyway, and I had known Berklee College of Music in Boston for several years but had never really intended to apply for the education, but still submitted my application and a month later I was called to do an audition with singing and piano.
I came in and studied here for a year. I took all the lessons that had to do with film music. It was, of course, hard studying. The best thing about this education was probably the network of people you created. Some of them I still sometimes collaborate with today.
How did you get your first film music job?
– Through Berklee, I got a much better understanding of how it works. Before that I had a romantic image of film music – that it’s quite simple – you write some music for a film and the pieces fall into place a bit by themselves, but after a year at Berklee, I realized that it’s an incredibly big craft and requires an enormous technical knowledge and you also have to know film and how it is structured, and not to mention all the terms, so I understood that I had a bit left.
But I still started looking for film students to make music for their projects. I had no desire to assist any already established composer who is otherwise the most common way in the US, and then work his way up and stand on his own two feet after a few years.
I was looking to make music into short films. I did not have much of my own music material to show, but still finally got the confidence in 2011 to work with Alison Parker, a female Canadian director who would make a short film of 26 minutes – a drama comedy called “Jake and Jasper”, and which had a pretty good budget with pretty famous actors, so it was a great chance.
Last year you won a Goldie Award for best original music.
– I received the award for best original short film music from the Vancouver Island Short Film Festival in Canada. Unfortunately I was not present so I did not hear the motivation. As far as I know, there is only one trailer on Youtube, and where my music is not included.
The movie is called “Dude, Where’s My Ferret?” by Alison Parker and is a light-hearted comedy in the same spirit as the 1970s comedians Cheech and Chong’s films, whose humor revolves around drugs, and a disobedient ferret who makes it for the film’s protagonist.
The comedy genre is one of the most difficult to make music for, and I got to try many different styles before I found the right one. For a while I was into distorted electric guitars and punk, but it ended with a slightly more orchestral arrangement. It became more fun when the music was more serious and served as a contrast to the film’s quirky plot.
In 2016, Henrik won a Goldie Award for best short film “Dude, Where’s My Ferret?”
How do you prepare for making a movie, and how do you go about it?
– As for the film “Jake and Jasper”, in this case it was already finished without music, so I got completely free hands. Otherwise, there is often so-called temp music (which is the music that the editor and sometimes the director, use when they cut together the filmed material, before the sharp film music is composed, and which gives an indication of what you are looking for type of music, editor’s note). I got the first scene of the movie sent to me to make the music for it as a test.
It’s quite common to make music into a stage first, and if it feels right for the director, you get the whole job. In this film, I thought it would be appropriate to use a very steel-stringed guitar and piano. The director thought it was just right and I got to make the music for the whole film. It was very important for my self-confidence. Had it not worked, I would probably have gone back to Sweden and thus probably put the film music on the shelf.
How I normally take on a film music assignment today is to prepare myself as much as possible, as early as possible. If I have a chance to see the director’s previous films, it’s a good start, because it gives an idea of what ideas they have and how they think. Then I always read the script. I usually get scripts sometimes before the film is actually shot.
I can sit and read it while I sit and record some ideas that only come spontaneously, to capture the feeling in the story at an early stage. Otherwise, it actually looks completely different from time to time. I have no fixed way of working where I start with piano or guitar, but it’s a lot about me sitting first and thinking, philosophizing about what the film needs for something.
When you see the finished film later, it often looks completely different than you thought in your head, so you have to start a little again, but you still have a deeper understanding of the story in the film. It is often cut quite a lot from the script so I know a lot more about the plot than what the viewers see and then you can add it musically as “small clues” to what you do not see in the film.
Films that make room for such things I am most attracted to, because there are so many films such as. thrillers like thrillers where there is no room for that, because it’s about maintaining a mood or a suspense all the time.
I can sometimes sit and go through the sampling library to find some interesting sound there that fits into the script, or it may be that I go to a music store to find some special instrument there. I always try to find something that is unique that allows the film to have its own character if possible.
Which means that you have to be careful to start with the piano – it often works quite well and allows you to get a little lazy and then it becomes a different feeling than what is perhaps most appropriate. It can be good to try other things first, like a flute or pad and sometimes I sing a melody that comes to my mind.
But what you start with is almost never what you end up with in any strange way, so even if you start with a guitar, maybe it ends with just a cello – it grows organically for me. But it is different from person to person. I try to keep it open as long as possible, and that makes it more interesting for me too. I try to see the music from the outside, and I switch between the role of composer and audience. Sometimes I try to learn a new instrument, but it depends on how much time there is.
From the filming location for the film “Child of Grace” – a feature film directed by Ian McCrudden for which Henrik wrote the music.
Do you still have a review with the director, and others, (a so-called spotting session) before the music is created?
– I always recommend it, but it is no longer the norm if it is not movies with a budget of over a million dollars. Nowadays, a spotting session can be a phone conversation with the director or you watch a bit of the film together and discuss a bit of things here and there only.
How do you get your assignments?
– I work continuously with the Canadian director, Alison Parker, I got my first assignment from. We have made four short films in total now. That director has also recommended me to other directors. It is extremely important to get to know the rest of the film team and if possible sometimes be on site when the film is being shot, because often several of them work with other films and directors. It is about creating relationships. You meet people and then there are rings on the water.
Here is part 2, where you can read everything from the trends in film music and what programs and virtual synths he uses.
You can find more about Henrik Åström on his website and you can listen to the music on Soundcloud.