Mon, October 23, 2006
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Making The Screen Swing

Must you endure the rigors of L.A. life in order to be a successful songwriter and composer for film and television? Not if you’re distinctive and resourceful. Meet Joel Evans, a musician and bandleader from The Bay Area whose extensive list of credits includes major Hollywood films, hip indie flicks, network shows and daytime dramas, over 50 big screen credits and 200 television episodes and counting, from Wedding Crashers to Desperate Housewives.  

Still, despite living and working in relatively bucolic Northern California, judiciously timed trips to Los Angeles are on the calendar, says Evans. “I belong to the Society of Composers and Lyricists (SCL) and West Coast Songwriters Association which now has an L.A. Chapter. I track events –– what ASCAP, BMI or SESAC has going on –– and coordinate trips so I can go for several days.” While in town, Evans, who specializes in using live players, also sets up recording sessions with L.A. talent, and he expresses admiration for both the quality and responsiveness of the players and singers he enlists as he references a session with vocalist Tami Tappan Damiano. “We were doing Doris Day and Julie London ‘sound-alikes’ and Tami can do them both. A week before, I’d sent her Mp3s and CD’s. She’s a busy lady, but she walked in and nailed both of these things. It’s not the kind of skill you’d find up here.” 

Evans explains the concept of sound-alikes. “It’s terminology you have to be careful about. It means ‘inspired by sonically.’ I’ll listen to a record, capture the tempo and feel, but certainly not the melody. Then I’ll find a singer who has those characteristics. What first got me was when I was working with Barbara Jordan (from the Boston-based company Heavy Hitters) and she was getting a lot of calls for something that sounded like Dean Martin. I listened to a certain record and we mocked up an orchestra. I co-wrote with a guy who’d been an Elvis impersonator and also did a Dean Martin kind of thing. He’s been on Las Vegas and Frasier.”

Evans has built his own catalog, and he has also worked extensively with companies that place songs: Position Music, PEN Music Group, TAXI and many other firms. His first big break in visual media came when he met Marc Ferrari of MasterSource at a pitch session sponsored by the West Coast Songwriters Association. As he recalls, “It turned out to be a bossa nova thing I played for Marc and he included it in his catalog.” When a composer disappeared from a project that needed tracks within a week, Ferrari enlisted Evans. “He sent me a few things to listen to and I got them down with five players, and they’ve since been used a number of times.” 

In configuring music, Evans will generally take live players into a studio, track the basics, then return to his home studio to edit, overdub vocals, guitars, piano and other instruments before returning to the original studio to give the tracks the requisite polish. He often e-mails MP3s back and forth with collaborators, and he also enjoys writing with an actual collaborator in the room as well. Among his key co-writers are Nashville-based Lisa Aschmann and pop/theatrical writer Adryan Russ.  

A self-professed “credits addict” Evans keeps close tabs on who is responsible for placing music in projects, but he’s reticent to make the calls on his own behalf. “I think it’s better if I could have a representative contact people for me. I feel awkward calling people and blowing my own horn. It feels untoward. I’ve gotten better about it, less shy; I can say I’ve got few film and TV credits to lubricate the situation.”

Evans’ Hollywood-sophisticated melodies are often used on screen to evoke sumptuous surroundings like hotel lobbies and upscale restaurants, so it’s no coincidence that Evans spent many years performing in just these types of venues as a live player. Swing, big band and jazz: he occupies a decided stylistic niche. “I can’t do everything. I don’t write stuff that’s like what’s on the radio. I decided early on to hell with it, I’m going to do stuff that I love.”

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