Strange Sort of Force: An Interview with J. Ralph

Evan Sawdey

Having scored three Best Original Song nominations at the Academy Awards in the past four years, multi-instrumentalist J. Ralph talks his passions, working with Sting, and teaching the London Symphony Orchestra how to improvise.

In many ways, Joshua Ralph is the least famous "famous person" in the world.

For young Joshua Ralph (who prefers to go by J. Ralph), the story started simply: he was signed to a record deal with Lava/Atlantic at the age of 22 on the strength of beats he was crafting while going to NYU, his love of all things music bleeding through every song he recorded, regardless of genre. He self-directed the music video for his lead single "Baby", but his pop-minded debut Music to Mauzner By failed to generate much interest, despite careening from genre to genre and mixing hard rock with dance music, free jazz, and even orchestral film scores.

That latter aspect though -- scoring things in a cinematic scale -- eventually lead to one of his instrumental works being featured in a very dramatic Volkswagon ad, soon allowing him to unleash a second album of more songs in that vein and eventually forming The Rumor Mill, a music production company that specializes in generating original music for TV ads. As their reputation grew, so did the clients (Coke, Nike) and the directors they worked with (Wes Anderson, Adrien Brody, you name it). Ralph tried his hand at working on the score to a big-time studio film (Lucky Number Slevin), but soon gravitated towards working on the scores and soundtracks to documentary films.

Many of those films he chose to work on became iconic: Man on Wire, The Cove, Crazy Love, and so forth. Through no small accident, working on both instrumental compositions and pop songs with various collaborators lead to Ralph being nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Original Song no less than three times, most recently for "The Empty Chair", a collaboration he did with Sting for the film Jim: The James Foley Story.

Not only did the film net the duo a pair of Oscar nominations, but it more recently lead to the two being honored at the Smithsonian for their philanthropy, with Sting donating a guitar to the institute while Ralph donated a challenging new recording he did with the London Symphony Orchestra called "Evolocean".

Ralph could very well have had a more pop- and stadium-centric career should he had wanted it, but he's truly made a name for himself with his work on numerous documentaries. So what made him favor this format over more commercial fare? "I think for me, documentary is vital, vibrant cinema," Ralph tells PopMatters shortly after his Smithsonian honor. "It's what the independent movement was in the '70s and the indie thing in the '90s, and it's kinda counter to the whole big establishment tentpole thing. I don't know I guess I feel that people are taking risks with their lives, people are taking risks with their livelihoods, and often taking out mortgages on the house and maxing out their credit cards to tell critically important stories, and all of the people involved in these films are focusing on social issues or it's about an artist that lives monumentally creative in independence and the world should know about them or perhaps they don't. So that's incredibly inspiring.

"When you're a kid, you look up to Indiana Jones; when you're a grown up, you look up to Philippe Petit or Ric O'Barry," he continues. "Their work is thankless, and they do it for the greater good of humanity. I love to support things like that. James Foley is another incredible example of someone who risks and ultimately gave his life to help the world understand the severity of people being disabled. I always saw that as an ability to celebrate his incredible compassion and bravery and sacrifice, instead of focusing on the negativity and tragedy."

So how does Ralph choose the projects he works on? "It needs to be something that's vital to society from a social standpoint," he notes. "From an artistic standpoint, there's not really money in these things. I often donate my time and my resources to it and then help raise resources to help amplify the messaging to these films. So yeah, it's something that I instantly, kinetically know, like you can watch the first cut and respond to it and know that it's a valid pursuit, ya know what I mean? Ya know, when you watch Philippe, he's magnetic: he's intoxicating, his storytelling and his charisma and his artistry. The same for Jim Foley."

I pick up on the financial aspect of these films, as being known as the go-to guy for making documentary soundtracks is a distinct honor, but not necessarily a commercial one. I wonder if his multitude of Oscar nominations have helped raise his visibility and allow him more leniency in getting a film funded. "I think that the nominations help raise the visibility, and I think they help people understand that me and my team stand behind quality or vital storytelling, and I think that -- there's not real like benefit to me," he notes. "Like, no one is really focusing on a documentary composer in terms of like my own self interest. There's no quote increase. Nobody cares. It's only, ya know, ever so distantly related to the Oscars.

"As a medium for documentary storytelling, that's why it's there, but it's not what the Hollywood system is designed for, you know what I mean? I think that when people see that the movies have an impact and change, it will definitely help people who are more receptive to giving and helping that message. Jason From, who was at Lava Records and Universal, I had to literally point out that they basically had to donate the money to help release these projects and amplify the visibility and have lost money on most of them, but they continue to do it 'cos they get behind the messaging. It's very rare, and I'm very grateful for their support and I couldn't do this stuff without them."

Of course, moving from pop songs to working in the realm of advertising may seem like an easy transition, but due to the constraints of the format, Ralph admits that he had a lot to learn. "When we were doing commercials, we were working with Wes Anderson and Mark Romanek and David Fincher and they were making incredibly concise, intoxicating stories in 30 seconds, and I think it's kind of funny that the whole world has turned into 30 seconds. 30 seconds of an iTunes preview. 30 seconds of an Instagram video. So it's another kind of artform, telling amazing kind of stories in that timeframe.

"The other thing I always thought was ironic about the commercials is that for the stuff that we were working on, a lot of it was very pure, 'cos the irony is: everybody thinks that like the records are pure and the commercials are crass and crap," he notes. "The irony is is that the record <i>is</i> the product, and the commercials records the product so that the record, you have 15 people sitting around being like 'Should we really say that lyric? Is that great? Can we reproduce it? Remix it like this? Like, I don't know it that'll get on the radio.' Then on the commercials, I need to connect with this audience, whom we're trying to sell a $100,000 car [to], we need the most honest, pure moment to be able to connect with somebody and start the cycle.

"Now, again, granted, we were working on more high-end stuff, we're not really selling diapers or things like that, so it's like we're working with Nike and Mercedes and a lot of iconic brands with directors such as Wes Anderson or Errol Morris or Samuel Bayer who directed the Nirvana video ['Smells Like Teen Spirit']. So many different people that were incredible storytellers. I think that I would not be the musician I am today had I not done all those commercials and think and rethink split-seconds of how to get in and out of a musical moment and react on the fly and change things and be ready to throw anything out and the process is so fast that it's almost like stream-of-consciousness writing."

Which, of course, brings us to Sting. He is one in a long vein of dream collaborators that Ralph has been able to work with, as showing up and doing a single song for a project you believe in is easier on the schedule than sitting down and working on an entire soundtrack. Thus, Ralph has been able to work with everyone from Sia to Anohni to Joshua Bell to Liza Minnelli to Bob Weir to Stephen Stills to Wynton Marsalis. Scoring an Oscar nomination for his work with Sting was just icing on the cake.

"He's the most selfless person," Ralph notes when talking about the former Police frontman. "He showed up and gave so much of his time. We were not paid to do that song, we did not ask the production to pay for anything. Going into that film, and just kinda ... we didn't have time for that. He was very selfless in that regard. Sting is one of the most iconic voices ever in music, and when were recording keys, he set [levels] so low that he would disappear to fade into the background so it's Jim's voice that we heard, and not instantly like 'Oh my god, it's a Sting song!'

"That was very important," he continues, "to allow him to kind of fade into the background. It's intimate, very fragile, and most artists, even when they're doing good, want their aspects, ya know? Like, they don't just wanna sing in a way they don't usually sing to tell the story 'cos there's a lot of risk in that. I think it's a very iconic performance and recording for him. It's very intimate, and you feel like you're right there with him."

While he still has Bob Dylan on his dream list of people to work with, Ralph has managed to carve out a unique relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra, working with them once before on a collaborative work with Joshua Bell, and more recently with "Evolocean", an aleatoric-styled work that encouraged improvisation from the trained world-class players. It's a daringly experimental piece, doubled with the fact that it's Ralph's own infant daughter mic'd up and reacting to the loud sounds around her in real time.

"I've always been fascinated with the idea of improv, especially 'cos many classical musicians don't write any music," Ralph explains. "They don't improv anything. In fact, 'Evolocean' needed the LSO's board approval 'cos it was only 20-30 people in that orchestra really into improv. So it was something that the musicians are one of a kind, world-class masters of interpreting the music that's on the page and playing it back in the most powerful and emotional way possible. But without their marching orders, they're just waiting in line. They're like perfect soldiers. So I wanted to see if intention and experience can transform that fear and uncertainty. Could I design a system where I give them the musical notes to play for a period and a set of instructions, a map, that explains what's going on at this time of the piece for you to interpret what that means. Because I felt that they were grownups."

As for if a famous-but-totally-not-famous individual like Ralph has any regrets, he assures that "I don't really have any regrets, because I'm always happy with the choices I'm making and I'm very conscious of the choices I'm making and I'm always thinking about them and I'm never motivated by any external factors like money or visibility for myself. I'm only interested in 'Can I capture some magic and help this project?'"

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