Interview with Deborah Lee Proaño

Composing with roots in folk pop and a recent delve into electronic and orchestral genres, Singapore-born and currently LA-based composer Deborah Lee Proaño has a wonderfully diverse palette. I had the opportunity to interview the inspiring musician, where we discussed feeling music for the first time, video games’ ability to connect people on a deep level, and the difficulty of technicalities and unfamiliarity inhibiting compositional enlightenment.

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Photo by Izabela Bulska

Thanks for checking out my website, and for agreeing to do this interview!

Deborah: Thanks for reaching out! I’m glad you liked the music!

Yeah! So how did your life as a musician begin?

Deborah: I started learning how to play the guitar in church, back in the 90’s. Around 1999, I got more interested in music, and I wanted to learn how to play the drums, I wanted to be able to play with a band—do more than just strum chords on guitar. I didn’t really take it that far; a lot of things happened then, I went off to college… And I think it was really later on, when I visited Boston, and at that point in time, I had been wanting to improve as a musician, and I was trying to take my guitar further. I was writing a lot of songs at the time, like a singer-songwriter.

So around that time, my friend said, “Hey, you always mentioned you wanted to study music. There’s a school here that’s really well known for music, it’s called Berklee College of Music. Do you want to go check it out?” I said yeah, sure. And it just so happened the day that I went, they had an orientation, and a talk. So I went to the talk, and got a brochure with all the different degrees you could apply for in the music school. They all lead to different career paths, in the world of music. Out of all the career paths I looked at—singers, performance majors, audio engineering—the only course I could see myself doing long-term was film scoring. Up until that point I had never really thought about it. I wasn’t somebody that would pay a huge amount of attention to music in films, at that point in time.

It’s been a very, very long process. Even at that point, I had barely any knowledge of music theory. So I had graduated at the time, and I actually wanted to study music at Berklee. I applied to study there, and I got in, but I didn’t get a scholarship. So I decided to go pursue my Masters in Southeast Asian studies, which is what I did my undergraduate in. They gave me a scholarship to do my Masters in Southeast Asian studies again.

For me, that was kind of being paid to study. And I thought that as a student, I could continue to use the time that I would have to work on my music. Thankfully, I could actually also do research on music for my thesis. My Masters thesis was on Thai film music. I watched a lot of Thai movies… Some people in the department thought I was crazy for doing it. But I thought it was actually really interesting, because the way they use music in Thailand was very different from how it is in the states. It’s all surrounding the idea of identity… What is a Thai identity, and how does music represent it? How does it come out without people actually being aware?

So I did that, and all that time, I was working on music theory. Back in 2008, or 2009, I was able to go to Seattle for a two-week intensive course with the Pacific Northwest School of Film Scoring. It’s run by Hummie Mann, he’s a composer who did Robin Hood: Men in Tights. He taught us quite a bit of theory.

So when I was doing my Masters, I found out about the film scoring here in UCLA-Extension. It was affordable, so I went for it. Since then, I’ve graduated and just been here.

All right cool! So what made you want to write music for the first time?

Deborah: Well, it’s a pretty personal question, what made me want to write music…

Yeah, whatever you’re comfortable sharing.

Deborah: A lot of it was just this feeling… It was sometime around when I was 19 or 20, I started getting really interested in music. I remember going to church, and suddenly really being able to hear the drums. I mean back then, when listening to music, I wouldn’t be able to tell like oh, that’s a bass line. There wasn’t a sense of separation for me. But that one day in church, I could really feel it. I was really drawn into it.

Also another thing… Right around the time that that happened, the pastor prayed over me, and he said that he had a word of insight for me, and that was that God had given me this gift of music, and writing. So basically nobody would have known at the time, he didn’t know me that way. He had no information about me, he didn’t know who I was. I mean he saw me in church, but he didn’t know this about me. But it was kind of like him saying out things that I had felt in my heart for a while, but had never talked about. It seemed really incredible for that to happen.

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“That one day in church, I could really feel [the music]. I was really drawn into it. … Right around the time, the pastor prayed over me, and he said that he had a word of insight for me, and that was that God had given me this gift of music, and writing. So basically nobody would have known at the time, … but it was kind of like him saying out things that I had felt in my heart for a while, but had never talked about. It seemed really incredible for that to happen.” (Photo by Deborah Lee Proaño)

Yeah, wow. So who are your main musical influences?

Deborah: Back in the day, my biggest musical influence was Paul Simon. Both Simon and Garfunkel. I loved his stuff. There was just something about the melodies, and harmonies… They drew me in immediately. Also, even his later stuff that he did on his own—before he did Under African Skies, there was a period where he made an album called Hearts and Bones. Not a lot of the songs there were as well known as some of his earlier stuff. I was really into that. He was my biggest influence then.

Since then, it’s been a lot of different things. One of my favorite classical composers is Shostakovich. Over the past few years, I’ve been paying more attention to film music, like orchestral-type music, whereas in the past I listened to a lot of folk pop.

Okay, so what programs and equipment do you use to make your music?

Deborah: (laughs) Okay, I’m not great with technology. My husband is a musician too—he does all the rap and hip-hop stuff, and he’s the technical genius! In a way, I’m a little spoiled. So I use Logic Pro X, and then I use Apogee Duet Interface. It’s really good!

All right, cool! So I saw in your Video Game playlist on soundcloud, you have a few tracks from Saito Scroll Warrior. Was that a game that you worked on?

Deborah: So that game is not out yet. It’s actually supposed to be a mobile game. It’s a private developer, a very small scale project. I can’t get into the details, but it’s a pretty interesting concept, and he needed some Chinese music to reflect ancient China… That kind of feeling. Imagine walking through the woods, seeing huge landscapes.

Oh okay, so how you got the position?

Deborah: Yeah, it was actually through a friend of a friend. That’s basically it.

Is that the only one that you’ve done? Or have you done other video games in the past?

Deborah: Yeah, I’ve actually only done that one. And to be very honest, I don’t really play much video games at all. I used to a lot when I was a lot younger, but I haven’t been able to since then. Honestly, the person that is huge into video games is my husband. The only reason why I know a bit about video games nowadays is because of him. I want to start playing more. I think that should be part of my job description, to play video games and get to really understand how the music works. Because of my husband, I realize there’s a whole world of music in video games. I think it’s a natural progression—if you are a film scorer, then especially in today’s day and age, you would want to also think about scoring video games. It’s a huge industry. There’s a lot of potential there, for all kinds of music.

I think it connects people on a much deeper level. For example, if you watch a movie, most likely you’re not going to be able to remember the theme, unless it was a very strong melodic theme, or if you’ve watched the movie more than once. But for video games, you keep playing it—you’re immersed in this world. My husband, when he listens to certain music, it brings back memories of when he was a kid, and he could just play video games all day and not worry about anything. It’s very nostalgic.

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“I think [video games] connect people on a much deeper level. For example, if you watch a movie, most likely you’re not going to be able to remember the theme, unless it was a very strong melodic theme, or if you’ve watched the movie more than once. But for video games, you keep playing it—you’re immersed in this world.” (Photo by Deborah Lee Proaño)

He shows me a lot of his favorite tracks. One of the video game composers that I really, really like is Nobuo Uematsu. I’m sure you know of him!

Yeah, he’s awesome! So this might be a tough one, but if you had to pick one composition of yours that you’re most proud of, which would it be, and why?

Deborah: Probably one of my most recent pieces, the one that’s dubbed to the video game footage on my website—it’s called “The Shadow Emerges”. That’s a piece I really feel good about. It’s synced up with some footage from this video game called Castlevania. I basically re-scored it. I actually wrote the piece independently of the footage, then synced it up. At many points, I hit a few roadblocks while writing that piece. There were certain melodic lines I came up where I thought, oh that’s not gonna work. But then I actually gave myself a chance, to orchestrate it, and a few worked out.

Another reason why I like it is because it really made me use all the sections in an orchestra, which I don’t always get to do. When I was in UCLA doing film scoring, we worked with small, chamber ensembles, which was really cool. But it was pretty nice to be able to simulate the grand orchestral sweeping score, even all with synths.

Yeah. So what major challenges have you faced while writing music? And how do you generally deal with those setbacks?

Deborah: I think the biggest challenge is just to sit down and do it. Especially if you don’t have a project, it’s kind of hard. For me, as a musician, it’s hard to switch between being a singer-songwriter, and a film score composer. Like I explained earlier, I started off as a singer-songwriter.

After I graduated from UCLA-Extension, I took about two years to produce my album. I had a kickstarter for that. A lot of songs were actually written from 2008 to 2010. So a lot of the songs weren’t new by the time I released the album. I was really happy to be able to release the album, I think it sounded great. But it also felt like ugh, I feel like I need to move on to my film music; that’s what I came here to do. But I didn’t want to just abandon all those songs, which I’ve always wanted to produce. My plan was always to be able to learn to produce that one album. I was able to do that at UCLA-Extension. I studied film scoring, but it gave me everything I needed to produce my own album, even though it was just a folk pop album.

I think for me, the hardest thing is to just be able to get into that zone, where you’re just focused on your music and you forget everything else. Also, when I write film music, I engage a very different part of myself than when I write songs. Even in listening to music… It’s actually very interesting too, because I haven’t been listening to folk pop, singer-songwriter stuff for a really long time.

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“I think for me, the hardest thing is to just be able to get into that zone, where you’re just focused on your music and you forget everything else.” (Photo by Deborah Lee Proaño)

In the past, from 2008 to 2010, I remember getting so excited when I discovered a new musician. There was something in me that would just light up. I could listen to one track again and again and again, nonstop. And that would be everything I needed, to just… Be happy! (laughs) It opened up a part of my soul.

I think trying to get onto this new terrain, establishing myself, and learning all these new skills, it’s been hard to get back to that place. It’s difficult, it’s a whole jumble of things coming together. I would like to be able to not have to compartmentalize. Maybe at some point I’m going to be able to not feel that way. As of right now though, it is hard. I haven’t written new songs in a really long time. In the past I was writing a new song every month—it would just come to me without even trying. But now, I haven’t written a new song in probably a year or so.

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“I remember getting so excited when I discovered a new musician. … I could listen to one track nonstop. That would be everything I needed to just… Be happy! (laughs) It opened up a part of my soul. I think trying to get onto this new terrain, establishing myself, and learning all these new skills, it’s been hard to get to that place.” (Photo by Deborah Lee Proaño)

Yeah, I definitely feel that. So what’s one of your main aspirations, or goals, as a composer?

Deborah: Well, my dream is to be able to work with an orchestra, to be able to score feature-length movies, that people would watch all over the world. I just see in my mind, conducting a full orchestra. That’s on a much grander scale, for me. I think just to be able to make a living as a composer is a dream for me. I do some tutoring on the side.

What do you tutor?

Deborah: I tutor high school mathematics. It’s actually quite nice. I like tutoring. The way I was taught mathematics in Singapore, it’s a very different approach. They really drill things into you.

Oh, did you grow up there?

Deborah: Yeah, I grew up in Singapore. I moved here in 2010. Yeah, I’m not American. My husband’s American—that’s why I’m still here. But anyway, yeah that’s like a detour. (laughs)

That’s okay. (laughs) So aside from music, what other hobbies or activities do you spend your time doing?

Deborah: I’m really in crafts. Anything crafty… Painting… I made my own stuffed toy. So for the kickstarter for my album, one of the bigger pledge rewards was an exclusive Meow Meow Project mascot stuffed toy, hand-made by me!

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Meow Meow Project mascot stuffed toy, hand-made by Deborah 🙂 (Photo by Deborah Lee Proaño)

Oh okay, that sounds familiar! I was looking around your websites.

Deborah: Yeah, I made it! I did it all from scratch. A friend designed the cover, and then I based it off of a cat he drew. So it’s just stuff like that. I really enjoy creating things. I like baking too… Recently I got into working with fondant on cakes, like layered wedding cakes. And I like cooking. And my husband and I watch a ton of anime. There’s a lot of good music in that!

Okay, nice! Yeah. So like in some of my other interviews, I have some rapid-fire questions!

Deborah: Okay, for sure!

All right, favorite video game protagonist!

Deborah: Oh, have you played Smash Bros? I like that pink character, with the hammer, the one that floats around… Kirby!! I have the most success with Kirby!

Okay, yeah! How about a favorite arcade game?

Deborah: I used to play a lot of Street Fighter. My favorite character was Blanka. I liked Blanka so much, I would pretend to be him sometimes. (laughs)

(laughs) Okay, favorite battle theme!

Deborah: That’s a good one… Oh, well Terminator 2 is my all-time favorite movie, hands down. I guess the theme is incorporated into the fights. The theme is just so evocative. I’ve watched that movie quite a few times.

Okay, if you could live in any video game world for a week, which one would you choose?

Deborah: I think the world of Zelda.

Hyrule!!

Deborah: Yeah, it’s very fantastical… My husband always tells me he thinks I would really like Legend of Zelda.

All right. Pick one: magic, physical strength, or defense?

Deborah: Definitely magic!

Okay, favorite time signature!

Deborah: Definitely 4/4. (laughs) I kinda like waltzes too, like 3/4. I like the simple stuff.

Okay, if you could make a weapon out of any instrument, which would it be?

Deborah: Hm. I don’t think an instrument should be made into a weapon. I feel like an instrument is quite the opposite of a weapon. It’s something that can break down barriers, whereas a weapon is something you would use to reinforce those barriers.

Oh, right. I was thinking more a fantasy, video game context. But I like your answer too!

Deborah: Oh, yeah I was just connecting the more war symbolism of what a weapon is, as opposed to what music is.

Yeah, definitely.

Deborah: But yeah, if you’re going for like a video game character, in a funny way… Probably an electric guitar, cause it’s really hard and heavy.

Yeah. (laughs) That’s the end of the rapid-fire questions. So what are some of your future plans? What are you working on now?

Deborah: Just to continue working on music… Hopefully more projects will come. Just recently finished one, just today actually. I scored a short film—it they needed some heavy, action-packed music. The director looked at my website, and the Castlevania score, so he thought I could produce something that was epic. It’s a growing experience, every time I create music for a project. It’s such a different experience when you create music for a project, as opposed to just writing for yourself.

Yeah, definitely. Well those are all the questions I have! Any final thoughts?

Deborah: Yeah, your website is cool, you’re really connecting with people! I’m glad that you’re doing this. I enjoyed talking to you, learning a bit more.

Cool, thank you so much!

Check out Deborah’s music on soundcloud, as well as her website.

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