Grammy Award winning composer and pianist Robert Glasper has been celebrated for his work across genres, blending his jazz and hip-hop affinities with ease. Most recently he has taken his talents to film and TV, scoring or contributing to the soundtracks to documentaries like Ava DuVernay’s 13th and The Apollo, as well as films like the Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead.
In 2019 he released his tenth studio album, Fuck Yo Feelings, and teamed up with director Stella Meghie to score the music to her romantic drama, The Photograph, starring Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield. In the film, released on Valentine’s Day in 2020, two young professionals, Mae and Michael, cross paths when a newspaper article on fishermen in New Orleans re-connects their severed bonds. Mae and Michael’s budding romance is anchored by the story of Mae’s late mother, Christina Eames, played by Chante Adams (“Roxanne, Roxanne”), and her love affair with a young New Orleans fisherman named Isaac, played by Y’Lan Noel (“Insecure”).
The Photograph is now available on digital platforms and in this interview, Glasper took time from working on his latest album, Black Radio 3, to expound on his creative process, the challenges of scoring films in general and taking advantage of cancelled gigs to make magic with his frequent collaborator, Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def.
WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS FOR ‘THE PHOTOGRAPH’ ARE DISCUSSED IN THIS INTERVIEW.
Nodfactor: Was this your first time working with Stella in any capacity?
Robert Glasper: Yes, very first time. I had met her years back at an open mic or something here in L.A. and she told me that she’s a filmmaker and definitely wanted to work with me one day. Flash forward maybe two years after that she gave me a shout for this [The Photograph].
Around what time did you two start working on the music?
We started working on the music for this, I feel like last summer. Maybe July or August.
Was the film already completed or were they still in the process of editing?
Nah, they were still editing after I was already done. [laughs]. But a big chunk of it was done, enough for me to score what I needed to score. Then there was a big space of time where they were doing editing and I had to come back in at the last minute and do a few things.
I saw the featurette of the two of you working together in the studio. What was your focus going into this? Because I imagine it was different from the Miles Ahead process where you were working with an actual person’s work.
Exactly. This was cool because from the door she was a fan of my music. That’s always a good thing because what translated is she really allowed me to be myself musically. Even some of the music she had in there, the hold music until I scored something, was stuff from my early Piano Trio days. It was all me anyway. So, it was very comfortable and very easy actually. The way we did it is not a normal thing. I like to score on the spot. I like to have the director come to the studio and we pull up a scene and they tell me what they feel and what they’re trying to convey, and then I try come up with something right there in front of them. And I did that a lot for this movie.
Normally people need to hear stuff before they [work with you]. A lot of people don’t even like to be in the room with the director honestly. They just want to be with the music supervisor because a lot of directors don’t know how to say [what they want]. The person scoring and the director don’t always speak each other’s languages so much. So, the music supervisor or editor acts as a liaison and it’s easier to talk to them than directly to the director. And a lot of times they want stuff in advance, almost a demo of what you’re going to do and you end up making it on a computer and it sounds weird. It doesn’t feel good and a lot of directors want to feel what it’s going to be like immediately. A lot of people don’t know how to look into the future for feelings. “Once he gets on a REAL piano with a real drummer it’ll feel like this.” A lot of people can’t do that. That’s why I try, when I can, I would say half and half, I try to get the director in the room and do it like that so you immediately feel what it’s going to feel like and you don’t have to play the game. Because what happens is they say no to everything because they’re not feeling what they want to feel.
But with Stella it was easy because she already liked my vibes and the way I write so I knew it would be a comfortable situation.
What kind of direction did she give you?
Each person and relationship had a theme musically. She wanted to make sure those things happened and it was really cool in that aspect. She was like “Every time she reads this letter I need a theme that goes [mimics music]. She laid it out for me but also gave me room to really create. Sometimes I’d try to be more conservative and she’d say “Nah, go wild on this part.” And I’m like oh shit, ok. That’s what happens when you have an artsy director.
When I spoke with Stella I asked her about the Love Jones influence on the film because she did an interview with TIFF last year saying that it’s the movie she is always trying to recreate. Then while watching it I was definitely feeling the Cassandra Wilson “You Move Me” vibes throughout. Was that something you felt as well?
Oh, 100%. We talked about it. Part of what made Love Jones so dope was the soundtrack, too. And when you throw in two African-Americans who are young, very artsy, smart and musically knowledgeable, they mirror each other in so many ways. Down to the raining [laughs].
Right. Mike pulls out an Al Green record and Darrius pulled out an Al Green record…
Exactly. He brought Al Green to her house and the first record he played for her was Charlie Parker. That definitely parallels in so many ways. I love that movie. I know it back and forth because I used to stay at one of my friend’s house whenever I stayed in New Orleans. And in the room I stayed in, the lights never worked. All he had in it was a TV that [also] didn’t work unless it had a VHS playing and he only had Love Jones. So, the only light I had in that room was from playing Love Jones. So, I knew that movie like the back of my hand.
I definitely had some déjà vu. Even when her mother, Christina, went to New York to interview for a job it was just like when Nina went to New York to interview and having her portfolio critiqued in the same way…
Wow, that’s so funny. As we’re talking about it I didn’t even make all of those parallels. I really did not. And she even looks like her! Yo!
Yeah, and they both shoot with a Pentax camera. I found a photo of Nia holding a camera and Chante holding a similar camera. But the thing I love is that from the jump is that the film opens with Yasiin Bey’s “Umi Says.” Did you inform that decision?
No, that was already there. A matter of fact, I didn’t see the FINAL final until the premiere. I did some edits. I think they had to shoot the London scene last minute, so I didn’t see it in its entirety until the premiere, which I love. I didn’t even know “Umi Says” was in the movie until I saw it.
As you mentioned, she wanted to assign sounds to each character. How did you go about giving Mae and Mike their theme music?
It was just trying things. I got a lot of no’s, but you don’t hear the no’s. I could try ten things but it’s number 11 that gets the yes. I had trumpet and saxophone for Mae, but the ones that we kept are the ones that felt good for those scenes.
What was your favorite scene to score?
I might say when Mae got on the bus. It was kind of dramatic. It started off as one thing but as she walked to the back of the bus, the music kind of drove and got bigger. That was also one of the hardest ones, too. That was one of the ones where we tried so many times. We had to capture so many feelings in that one scene, that one piece of music had to capture her uncertainty while she walks on the bus, and she wanted to capture her getting a little bit of courage while she’s in the middle of the bus, then when she gets to the back and sits down, you wanted her to feel triumphant, like she’s doing the right thing. Stella just wanted to feel those things. Whenever you try to tailor music to make people feel things, that’s hard. Especially a three-in-one. But you keep trying until they feel it.
“Michael Helps Mae” is probably my favorite composition but it’s also the shortest. Talk to me about making that one.
Originally there was no horns on it. It was a whole different theme and I think there was a time when Stella liked the other theme I had, and then she came back a few sessions later and said it didn’t give her what she wanted to feel. So, I had to go back and rewrite things and it just so happened there were horn [ players] in that session she came to, so we tried it with horns. At first, we tried it with no horns…
Really? The horns are the driving part to me.
That’s why it didn’t work without horns. [laughs] Once we put the horns on we said “There it is.” Most of the sessions was just my piano trio and then we had two days where we could do all the horn stuff. Christian Scott is playing horns on that one. Bob Reynolds is on saxophone.
My other favorite is the “Opening.” That was the most Love Jones sounding of all of them to me.
Word. And you know I didn’t know they were starting off the movie with that. That part was for another scene. I can’t remember which, but it’s a theme. So, I was like “oh shit” when I saw they set it off with that. At first that piece was just bass, and then we tried it with just piano, the left hand playing the bassline. No other chords or sounds. And Stella was like “It’s almost there. I need to feel more unsettled.” And that’s when I added the stuff on the right hand, the flurry stuff and then she said “Now I feel it.” It was very much a building process. As I’m there building it, she’s there, too. It’s an instant gratification. If she was in L.A. and I was in New York, just to get that one cue could take two weeks.
It’s weeks of her saying no and then she gets busy. I redo it [and] I get busy. Then when I send it to her she’s still busy and hasn’t heard it yet. And then we keep doing that dance until finally something comes together. But something that small could literally take a month. I’ve done it. But when you’re in the room with the person you get the instant yes or no. After 15 minutes you’ve saved yourself three weeks.
In the soundtrack’s track list there is a “Michael’s Theme,” but not a “Mae’s Theme.” Was there one for Mae or they just didn’t want to put it on the soundtrack?
There is a Mae’s theme but we didn’t put it on the soundtrack. Everything in the movie didn’t make it to the soundtrack. Musically it stands on its own. Some things you can listen to without the picture. Some things you need the picture in order for it to make sense.
So, what was your take on the Kendrick verse Drake debate in the movie? Mae said Kendrick makes her feel guilty.
That’s hilarious and I get it. I got where she was coming from. She said if we play this we gonna get pulled over by the cops. [laughs] Drake is for the party and relationships. Kendrick is for the struggle, for the most part. He can be about the party. He’s always talking some real shit. He’s the greater rapper, hands down. But I get what they were saying. Drake is popular is fuck. I like Drake. He’s our LL Cool J.
That’s an interesting take.
LL did the first rap song about love[ “I Need Love”] and did “Around The Way Girl.” He did songs where I could listen to this like an R&B song. Drake gives you that.
And Kendrick was on the other side with the KRS-One’s of the world.
Exactly. 100 percent.
You dropped Fuck Yo Feelings late last year and I was listening to “Treal.” How did you get Yasiin for that?
Mos is very hard to track down. People always asking me, “How do you get him all the time?” Playing with my band is Mos’ favorite thing musically. He loves it so much and I love it, too. Trying to get him to do vocals for that album while he’s in Africa or France is never gonna work because he’s just not that guy. So, for this we happened to be on tour together and we were in Japan and luckily there was a typhoon—not luckily—but we were supposed to play at an outdoor thing by the water and obviously that was not gonna work out so they cancelled it. So, we had an off day in Japan. So, I hit my boy and said see if we can get a studio and do something while we’re here.
We just went in the studio and literally what you hear is a jam session. There’s no overdubs, even down to my DJ. We talk a lot in the studio. We talk more than we actually play. We were just kicking it and Mos just starts talking and my DJ happens to secretly record him on his phone. Everything you hear was made up on the spot in one take. Mos didn’t go back in, I didn’t go back in. Just jamming. That song never existed before you heard it. ‘Treal’ came out of his mouth in that time. The stuff you hear my DJ spinning is Mos’ voice. Where you hear him saying “all you want is power,” that’s the conversation that happened ten minutes earlier. He was spinning in real time what Mos just said ten minutes ago. He didn’t even add that after we finished. He was spinning while we were playing and Mos was on the mic. What you hear is the first time it ever happened. Never talked about it. Just went in and boom.
Thank God for the record button.
100 percent. My DJ did that because that was the premise of Fuck Your Feelings as well. It was kind of a party. I invited some people to the studio, everyone was talking and my DJ was just walking around with his phone on record getting things that certain people said without them knowing and put it in a song. The whole thing was a jam session. Everything was made on the spot except “Expectations” with Rapsody and Baby Rose and “This Changes Everything.” Those were made after but everything else was on the spot.
Lastly, how are things going with Black Radio 3?
I’m literally in the studio now working on Black Radio 3. As we speak. I’m in various studios in L.A. So far it’s been amazing. It’s more produced and in the studio than Fuck Yo Feelings. I wish I could tell you more.
The Photograph soundtrack and feature film are out now on digital platforms everywhere and will be on DVD and Blu-Ray May 12th!