Star Wars sparked composer, John Williams fangirl’s music career

When she was 6 years old, Christy Carew heard the legendary strains of the Star Wars theme blaring from a neighbor’s house. Her life would never be the same.

Christy’s first viewing of A New Hope would spark a lifelong love of Star Wars, but especially the iconic music of composer John William. This self-described “John Williams fangirl’s” Heroine’s Journey began with piano and musical theory lessons and continued at New York University’s Steinhardt School where she earned her master of arts in film scoring/composition.

She’s now a media and concert composer who’s scored music for dozens of films, TV shows, and multimedia projects, including the science-fiction short “Virtually,” which has earned several awards for best original score.

Christy has also carved out a space in the Star Wars fan community. She’s in post-production on the score for the six-part docuseries Looking for Leia, which celebrates women in the Star Wars fandom, and she’s composed themes for and made guest appearances on several Star Wars podcasts and YouTube series. 

In 2018, her Lucasfilm geek dreams came true when she became one of eight people chosen to participate in the prestigious Sundance Institute/BMI Film Music & Sound Design Lab at Skywalker Ranch. She’s also had the pleasure of meeting The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson and none other than her hero, John Williams. 

I can’t wait to hear Christy’s score for Looking for Leia and for the day when Lucasfilm hopefully hires her to make some Star Wars music. Until then, I’ll make do with this chat about music composition as a form of storytelling, her (incredibly rousing) thoughts on Reylo and  the upcoming Rise of Skywalker,  and her work on film and TV projects like The Purge and The Blacklist. She’s got stories!


Christy Carew. Photo by Niles Gregory.

You’re a media and concert composer who has scored music for dozens of films, TV shows, and multimedia projects, including the documentary series Looking for Leia. It was Star Wars that first sparked your interest in becoming a composer. Tell me about how that happened.

It was in 1988 in my hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia — age 6. I was playing outside on our front lawn and suddenly heard the main theme fanfare blasting from my neighbor’s house. I was already really interested in film music, as the movies I tended to watch over and over again were the ones with the scores I loved, but this sparked some different emotion in me.

I ran over to their house where my teenage neighbor was about to watch A New Hope on VHS. He let me sit and watch it with him — I have really vivid memories of that first time seeing the movie and how obsessed I became with John Williams’ themes, and especially the character of Leia. When I went home later that afternoon I told my parents THAT was what I wanted to be when I grew up — at first my Dad thought I meant Princess Leia, but I insisted “NO, the music!”

It would take me many more years to understand that actually becoming a film music composer was something I could really and truly accomplish, but I never forgot that feeling, and I started taking piano and musical theory lessons two years later at the age of 8.

You describe yourself as a “John Williams fangirl,” which I love. What is it about John Williams that inspires you?

No other composer will EVER compare to John Williams; he is responsible for inspiring entire generations of composers, and his music is probably more well-known at this point, to more people, than any other composer in history.

Thinking about all the iconic scores and themes he has composed — Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T., Jurassic Park, Hook, Schindler’s List — it’s not so much that I aspire to have a career like his (impossible); it’s more that I’m inspired to understand storytelling, character and narrative the way he does.

I’m inspired to have relationships with directors like he does, so they return over and over to work with me. And I’m inspired to touch lives, bring joy and happiness to people, and inspire new generations of composers.

As a kid, I owned cassette tapes of Williams’ scores for Star Wars and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and I would play them and visualize each scene in the movies. Did you ever do something similar and have you amassed a large collection of his scores over the years?

TOTALLY! I had tapes/cassettes (moved on to CDs as the mediums changed) and I started collecting piano scores of his work, then eventually full orchestral scores. Before I had actual albums released on tape, I had my Barbie tape recorder that I used to record the actual sound of the movie while I was watching it on VHS so I could listen over and over again! I don’t own quite as many of his scores as some of my colleagues, but I’ve definitely got a great collection at this point!

Christy with Kylo Ren.

Star Wars first made an impression on you when you were 6. What is it about the saga that has stayed with you through adulthood and how has your passion for the films evolved over the years?

I have grown up with the saga. The Original Trilogy was my companion through childhood and early adolescence; the Prequel Trilogy for my late teen, college and grad school years; and then now the Sequel Trilogy for my life as an adult, a professional, a wife and a mother.

Threaded throughout my entire experience was my love for the EU novels (owned them all and read until they were dog-eared!) and my participation in the fandom. The music is the main element that drew me in and helped shape my experience of life, but other things about the saga have also had massive influence.

For example, as a kid, I used to sit under a tree in winter, with no coat on, literally trying to use the Force to warm myself up. I had notebooks where I furiously scribbled the lessons and codes of the Jedi, and one day in grad school I was having a particularly intense Star Wars discussion with a fellow composition student who said, “You know, the Force sounds like chi, and Jedi Knights sound like Shaolin monks.”

The more I talked with him about this, as he was a black belt student at the Shaolin Temple in NYC where we were studying at NYU, the more I studied the influence of eastern mythology, religions and traditions on Star Wars as well as the Campbellian and Jungian influences.

It also inspired me to actually go learn kung fu with hopes of tapping into chi and becoming a Knight/Monk of sorts. It was through this training that I met my husband, as he was one of the senior students at the school and was teaching the highest level classes at that point. Never had I been more motivated to train hard and rise through the ranks so I could get into his class!

Luckily my interest in him was reciprocated, and now I have a wonderful husband and children, directly through this interest that developed through my love of Star Wars. Now during the Sequel Trilogy-era of my fandom, the most important thing that stays with me is the friendships.

Over the past four years since The Force Awakens came out, I have been lucky enough to meet the most brilliant, educated, wise, compassionate and creative women in the fandom, who have brought me so much joy and taught me more about Star Wars than I ever could have imagined — and some of these women only just recently really got into Star Wars with the release of The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi. There is very little gatekeeping in the fem-gaze, Heroine’s Journey corner of the fandom!

Christy at the Skywalker Sound mixing board. Photo by Rasmus Zwicki.

You’ve said you consider yourself “first and foremost a storyteller.” Can you elaborate on how you tell a story through the music you compose?

For me, composing music to picture IS filmmaking. It is storytelling. It is not just writing complex notes, melodies and harmonies and showing off what a good composer you are. It’s not just delivering exactly what the director wants and moving on to the next cue or the next project. It’s being a full, participatory and plugged-in member of the team of creatives delivering the narrative.

I need to understand each character and their motivations inside and out. I don’t just need to know how to score and highlight action; I need to know how to score and bring out emotions happening underneath the surface within an actor’s performance. A flash in the eyes, a moment of decision, a consequence coming to fruition from an earlier action — I need to understand everything on a cellular level.

The best composers are amazing communicators. They know how to translate not only what the director is telling them as they sit and spot the movie, or review cues, but also to view the entire story as a holistic organism and understand exactly how powerful a role music really plays. Even when I’m writing music that is not to picture — concert music, passion projects, etc. — I am always writing to a story in my head, to visuals I am creating and characters I live with in my mind.

How did you become involved with director Annalise Ophelian’s six-part docuseries, Looking for Leia, which is a love letter, of sorts, to women and nonbinary fans of Star Wars?

I originally heard of Looking for Leia on the amazing Facebook page for female Star Wars fans, Galactic Fempire. I went to the website and noticed that the project didn’t have anyone listed yet as the composer in the “team” section. I immediately wrote to Annalise and explained how much the project meant to me and how much I would love to be involved.

It was very much a “right time, right place” situation, where Annalise was just starting to conceptualize what she wanted to do for the original score and who she wanted to hire, so after a bit of talking back and forth and sharing some of my work, I got the gig!

What stage of composing are you currently in? Can you give me a hint as to what the score is going to sound like?

As I am writing to you now, we are actually in the final stages of post-production. It’s amazing! It’s been a long journey. The score of the film utilizes a lot of piano, marimba and female vocals; it’s got some very poignant moments and some very funny ones too. There are also some stunning re-arrangements of John Williams’ original themes.

Can you give me a glimpse into your process as a composer? What sort of inspirations and influences come into play when you’re working on a project?

I’m very lucky that a lot of the projects I work on now get me involved at the script level. I get to live with the story and really let it soak into my bones, and build relationships with my directors that give me a lot of insight into how I want to approach the score even before the movie is shot.

I always start with themes, most of the time at the piano with sheet music and pencil, then move to the sequencer, build a template and start fleshing the score out scene by scene once I have final cut. If there is budget for live players, that is my happiest situation; nothing compares to having real human musicians, especially our brilliant Los Angeles studio players, interpreting your music and bringing it to life.

My favorite part of the process is having the director and producer present at those scoring sessions so they can experience the magic too! My influences vary from project to project, as some films and directors want more textural scores that don’t focus as much on themes or leitmotifs in the traditional John Williams style.

In 2018, you were one of eight people chosen to participate in the prestigious Sundance Institute/BMI Film Music & Sound Design Lab at Skywalker Sound. What was that experience like?

It. Was. Amazing. I don’t even have words to describe what a magical two weeks this was for me. Skywalker Ranch is heaven on earth. It’s isolated away from the rest of the world and feels like another planet, especially coming from the busy streets of Los Angeles. Just walking from the Inn to the Tech Building each morning, smelling the air and listening to the birds, I drew so much inspiration from the physical beauty of the surroundings and the incredible creative people working each day around me.

Not only was I basically at intense composer summer camp, learning so much about filmmaking, storytelling and music, I was also surrounded by the creatives that worked on my favorite films, from the very beginning of the saga. The food was gourmet-level for each meal; the accommodations incredibly luxurious; I was pinching myself constantly!

What was the most important thing you learned during your time in the program?

The most important thing I learned was what I described above; how important it TRULY is to view yourself as a filmmaker and storyteller in addition to a composer. I didn’t fully and truly understand this down to my bones before the Sundance Lab. That is something that the Sundance Institute truly values and instills in a composer as they become a member of this wonderful family of alumni of the program; and they stay committed to developing your career and giving you opportunities to grow. I’m super grateful to my performing rights organization, BMI, for supporting the Lab for so many years and choosing me as a 2018 fellow.

I felt so supported by the other composer fellows (all of whom I still keep in close contact with and will be lifelong friends), Peter Golub, the head of the program, the other Sundance staff and the fantastic mentors they brought in to work with us, as well as the independent filmmaker I was paired up with.

Daniel Hymanson, the director of “Queen of the Battling Butterfly Brigade,” was a different sort of director than I had ever worked with before, and I so valued the insights he gave me over our weeklong partnership. It was a magical bubble of time and place to take risks, explore, stretch and try new things.

As a Star Wars fan, were you just constantly geeking out during your stay at Skywalker Ranch?

Oh, yes. I was very lucky that Josh, the wonderful head of Skywalker Sound, instantly “got” how big of a fan I was. He introduced me to all the guys I wanted to sit and have long chats with — and I got those chats! They were gracious enough to not only meet with me and tell stories/anecdotes, but give me tours, show me props and answer questions.

I got time with Ben Burtt, John Roesch, Ren Klyce, Gary Rydstrom, Tom Myers, Richard Gould, Dave Acord and so many other fantastic legends who have worked on the OT, the PT and the ST. The whole campus is full of interesting props, and especially getting to take the tour of the Main House was delightful. I will never forget everyone who gave me a piece of their time and stories, and I cannot wait to be back to visit them all!

This year, you were one of 12 participants in the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers Film Scoring Workshop. Tell me about that experience and what you learned from it.

WOW, this was such an incredible workshop and something I will never forget! The workshop is a month-long experience in Los Angeles that chooses 12 emerging composers from all around the world to fly in and have nightly meetings — with professional composers, alumni of the workshop, studio players, lawyers, heads of music at studios, orchestrators, music contractors, agents — learning all about the reality of being a working composer in LA on the biggest films in the world.

You spend about 10 days re-scoring a cue from a film and, at the end of the month, record that cue live with a 64-piece orchestra of LA’s finest players on the legendary Newman Scoring Stage on the Fox Lot. For me this was really special as well because at the time, a lot of the same players who played on our cues were playing on John Williams’ score The Rise of Skywalker the day before!

The workshop gives you the mentorship and resources at the highest level to help you experience what it’s like to be at the top of your game as an in-demand Hollywood film composer. Once again I met the most amazing people through the process, lifelong friends and people I can go to for any questions, advice or help I need.

Photo by Niles Gregory.

You’re the music director and in-house composer for 5 Alarm Music, one of the largest production music libraries in the world. Your music and arrangements have been featured in tons of movies and TV series that will make fans’ ears perk up. If you don’t mind, I’ll mention a title and you tell me something interesting about that project or your work that’s featured in it. 

What about The Purge and your creepy arrangement of America the Beautiful?

This was super fun! We were brought on to do a creepy, haunting gospel arrangement of America the Beautiful for the Purge trailer and accompanying advertising campaign. I did the choral arrangement and we brought a group of singers together at the now-defunct Firehouse Recording Studios in Pasadena, a space I loved to record at and often did!

We put all kinds of creepy reverb and haunting effects on it — the studio and creatives loved it, and that arrangement has subsequently been used in all of the major trailers of the Purge franchise, and even part of the end credits of The Purge: Anarchy movie.

The Blacklist?

The music supervisor on The Blacklist is a friend and frequent collaborator with 5 Alarm, and he asked me to put together a cue for an episode that the composer didn’t have time to take care of. (The delivery schedule for network TV is really fast-paced and intense!)

I needed to do an “Uzbek tango” — and whatever I wrote, the dancers in the episode were going to choreograph to! I immediately said I could do it, did a bunch of research to refresh myself on the location and style, then went to town and sent something over to the music supervisor in a few hours.

Everyone loved it, and the dancers choreographed to it — the cue went into the episode exactly as I wrote it, and it’s one of the pieces I’m most proud of!

Your website told me to ask you about the CBS series Scorpion … 

Yes, this is another example of the music supervisor needing something rare that the composer didn’t have time to take care of — a one-handed arrangement of a Bach piece! I pulled it off and sent it over — using my right hand — and then a few days later was called to see if I could actually come on set to perform the piece.

Little did I know that the scene actually featured a real-life US army vet hero who has a six-figure prosthetic arm — the gag of the scene was that the main character had programmed the arm to play a difficult piece like the Bach.

But it was his LEFT hand, so I instantly knew I needed to re-record my cue — but then I also realized I had to have the very expensive prosthetic arm taped to my arm and play the piece with the heavy fingers on top of mine, while my arm was snaked between the actor’s own arm and his body! It was too hilarious, but it worked great, they edited me out in post and the episode’s joke works great.

Your score for the romantic sci-fi short Virtually won several awards, including best original score at FilmQuest, and was nominated for best original score (short film) at the Tenerife International Music Festival. Tell me about that project and what it felt like to be recognized in this way. 

This is one of my favorite projects of all time and I’m so gratified to see the score being recognized so much. It’s a post-apocalyptic romantic short film with very little dialogue for most of the action; it really needed to rely on the score, which is a hybrid orchestral-electronic element with beautiful solo cello work by my frequent collaborator Simone Vitucci.

Soon I will have some exciting distribution and release information to share so that everyone can enjoy this project, but the score is also going to be released on all streaming and digital platforms soon too!

Christy with director Rian Johnson.

You’ve also done a lot of work for and with members of the Star Wars fan community, including a fan film and several podcasts and YouTube channels, including Scavenger’s Hoard, What the Force?, and Girls with Sabers. What do you enjoy about working with fellow fans?

I absolutely love working with fellow fans and the opportunity it gives me to contribute to their amazing work that I enjoy so much. I was a huge fan of Scavenger’s Hoard and listened religiously before I began communicating with them on Tumblr and was originally asked to come on the podcast and talk about all things music — then Rachael and Kirsty asked me to do them the honor of actually composing a new custom theme for the podcast.

Through hearing me on SH, Marie-Claire of WTF and Emrys & Luthien of GWS came to know and appreciate my work, so I started making friends along the way and getting more and more involved in providing music for podcasts, meta analysis videos, and even a fantastic audio drama about women and fangirls.

Is it true you’ve made a hobby of writing lengthy meta-essays about Star Wars?  

YES! My blog is here.

This is originally how I got involved coming onto podcasts to discuss the music of Star Wars and John Williams. I love writing these essays and expect a lot more post-The Rise of Skywalker content!

As I’m writing these questions, the final trailer for The Rise of Skywalker is set to drop in just a few hours. What are your thoughts about the upcoming conclusion of the new trilogy?

I couldn’t be more excited; I actually don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for a movie in my life. I’m thrilled to be about to witness the culmination of not just this amazing, beloved Sequel Trilogy, but the Skywalker Saga as a whole.

I’m BLOWN AWAY that we got the Heroine’s Journey, Female Power Fantasy, Fem-Gaze storytelling, as well as one of the best Star Wars heroines of all time, Rey Nobody of Jakku. I can’t wait for Bendemption, to see the full fruition of the Reylo love story, to hopefully see a Han flashback, Luke Force Ghost, and hear the new incredible John Williams score. It’s the final movement of his symphony; and it’s going to be the most incredible, thrilling score of the saga.

If you could only choose the score from one Williams’ movie, which movie would it be? 

This may be controversial, but it’s actually a tie between The Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi. I hear a lot of criticism from the film scoring community and other people who study Williams’ music about the TLJ score — that it overused themes, or didn’t give us enough new thematic content.

I very strongly disagree and believe that it is one of the more nuanced, internal, and complex scores for the saga that JW has given us; that every choice to use every theme is very well thought out and detailed in its decision making process and support of narrative and character development.

What’s your ultimate favorite theme or piece of music from the Star Wars galaxy?

Rey’s Theme, Yoda’s Theme, the Main Theme, Across the Stars, The Spark … oh my goodness, clearly I cannot pick a favorite! I can say for sure that come TRoS, the new Bendemption theme or Reylo Love Theme will instantly become my favorite!

Christy with the man himself — John Williams.

Have you ever had the pleasure of meeting John Williams?

I have indeed! A friend and mentor is good friends with JW and arranged a meeting four years ago. I was so grateful; it was actually during the time frame when JW was working on The Force Awakens! He was sweet, sparkly, kind, interested in me and my work, and such a pure gentleman.

I mostly blubbered in the presence of my icon — I was a fairly recent mom and still riding the waves of post-partum mood swings — but I managed to stammer out a few sentence to tell him how much he means to me, and he was wonderfully gracious.

Who are some of your favorite film composers besides John Williams?

Some of my favorites from those who have passed on: James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith, Shirley Walker.

Some of my favorites from those still with us: Joe Hisaishi, Rachel Portman, Hildur Gudnadottir, Thomas Newman and Tyler Bates (who I had the honor of meeting and being mentored by at Sundance!), John Debney, Howard Shore, Dario Marianelli, John Powell, Fabrizio Mancinelli, Amie Doherty, and so many others!

Photo by Kaya Savas.

Before we close, I want to ask you about your epic personal project, writing and recording (live with a full orchestra in Macedonia) music inspired by author Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series. How did you discover Carey’s books?

My cousin Jonathan initially shared these books with me, knowing how much I would absolutely love the story. This was back in 2007/2008, Myspace days, and so I created a Myspace profile to host the music I wrote inspired by the books. The Kushiel’s Legacy fandom caught on and sent my music to the author herself, Jacqueline Carey, who then linked my music from her website and has always been incredibly supportive.

When I was on maternity leave with my daughter in 2016, I realized that I didn’t have a proper orchestral demo showcasing my skills and what I could do. I also didn’t have anything up to par to submit to incredible opportunities I longed to be chosen for, like the Sundance Lab and the ASCAP workshop. I decided that I was going to show my daughter that I am not the type of person to give up or settle for less.

I wrote to Jacqueline asking for her blessing to revisit my project interpreting her stories through music, and upon receiving it, I spent the next five months, writing, orchestrating, crowdfunding, and recording my music inspired by Jacqueline’s epic story and characters.

Tell me more about how the series fueled this ambitious project. 

I chose my favorite characters and scenes and then wrote as if I was accompanying the visual adaptation of the series. All along the way, I had Jacqueline’s encouragement, and that of the fans. It was on the strength of these tracks that I was eventually chosen for both Sundance and ASCAP — and this music has also gotten me plenty of other interesting gigs and lead me to opportunities I couldn’t have anticipated!

The Kushiel’s Legacy series was just acquired by Lionsgate. That sounds like potentially very exciting news for you …

YES, huge congrats to Jacqueline! And I am determined to have my demo in that stack of potential composers to be chosen for the gig! Having the rights acquired doesn’t automatically mean that the series will for sure be developed, but it is definitely looking promising, and I’m doing all I can to line my ducks up in a row to be in the room.

What’s your ultimate goal or dream as a composer?

My biggest dream is to score a Star Wars film (or television series.) I would love to be involved in any official Lucasfilm project as composer; but ultimately, I want to be in the big chair, and in the direct musical lineage of John Williams and John Powell.

As a director, Rian Johnson is my dream director to be involved with — since Rian always works with his incredibly talented cousin, composer Nathan Johnson, I might not get the chance, but I would jump at it if I did!

My other dreams include scoring the Kushiel’s Legacy adaptation and any other adaptation of the amazing fiction series I admire. I would love to have more of my concert work performed and to travel the world giving back to the music education communities and passing on my knowledge.

 

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