No one could accuse Los Angeles-based TV and film composer Kurt Farquhar of coasting in his profession (“this past year I personally worked across 12 different TV series and films”). Having scored more TV shows than any other African-American composer to date, Chicago native Farquhar recently finished work on a project close to his heart. BET’s American Soul chronicles the creation of TV host and producer Don Cornelius legendary and highly influential decades-straddling dance show, Soul Train.
We recently had the opportunity to chat with the composer, who offered an entertaining and thoughtful discussion about his career, from the challenges of crafting music for American Soul – which is essentially a period piece – to the freedom bestowed upon him by the producers of hit superhero show Black Lightning to experiment with the established tropes of the genre.
I think there’s probably a fair amount of the UK audience who are still unaware of just what a cultural phenomenon Soul Train was
It was a sea change in how people saw black culture and black music. It was streaming into homes across the nation for the first time. I’m from Chicago where it first started, so it was on air there for several years before it became a national TV hit. Folks from Chicago think it’s their show.
You can understand that sense of ownership
I told the producers when they were first talking about hiring me that we had to have the Chicago sound in [the show]. There was a certain sort of vibe that happened in Chicago in those days and it was meant everything because we weren’t used to seeing so many of our artists on the air, many of which are now considered iconic individuals.
You had everybody from Al Green to, later on, groups like Earth, Wind and Fire. Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Sly and the Family Stone. I could go on and on. Gladys Knight was a guest, and she’s played by Kelly Rowland on American Soul, who is absolutely remarkable. I feel like I’m in the room with Gladys [when Rowland is on screen]. There’s something about how she’s really personified that role. That’s an amazing thing because Kelly is one of the world’s greatest recording artists herself, so to put that aside and embody someone else is incredible.
Given the nature of the show, it was already inherently music-heavy before production began in it. How do you approach it from a composing point of view?
It’s a very complex show, musically. It’s virtually a musical itself. My job was connecting with the brilliant music supervisor Ashley Neumeister. There are original songs in the show and re-imaginations of iconic songs which have been done by Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, who is also one of the most iconic artists of his time.
You can’t just have it jumping from those well-known songs to the score. We had to come up with a way which made it feel like both the score and the music in the show were of the same place and time. The trick with the score – and this was discussed it from the beginning of the show – was to sound retro but not old. It had to feel like something you knew, but at the same time, something that was a fresh take on it. We set out to give that impression that the music was coming out for the first time. A big deal for me was the opportunity to bring Chicago musicians into the mix, because [Soul Train creator] Don Cornelius was actually from the city. I got a lot of amazing musicians, such as bassist Darryl Jones, who has played with everyone from The Rolling Stones to Miles Davies. I tried to do as much live recording as I possibly could.
And that must have brought an authenticity to the show, too?
Those musicians were such students of the art form. You’d see musicians take a line and mould it and shift it, then take it to a new place. We would also have them full-on improvise and just do some really cool stuff. The R&B and funk music of those times was very bass-driven so you had to really deliver on that aspect. That was why I went after Darryl, who I think is really the greatest bass player working these days.
Another successful show you work on is Black Lightning. How do the tools you use for a show like that, which obviously take a broader comic book-y approach, differ from American Soul?
[Both shows] couldn’t be more different. I have specific rules for each project I work on. When scoring American Soul, I wouldn’t use sounds that didn’t exist before the era of the show, such as certain synth sounds. I wanted more a natural-sounding instrumentation.
With Black Lightening there’s a combination of instrumentation and hip-hop, plus a generous dose of WTF (laughs). We just tossed things at it. It’s a black superhero on network TV and we wanted it to sound and feel different. I would take a hip-hop beat and break it apart inside of a strings section as opposed to a drum. Have the basses doing the kick drum and the violins doing the high hat cymbals. It’s just another way of coming at the material. You feel something that’s very urban, but at the same time, I’m not necessarily going for a hip-hop beat.
So you’ve been allowed to do your own thing. Must be quite freeing, creatively?
[Series creator and executive producer team] Brock and Salim Akil both told me to go for it. They wanted to have something different and a new voice. It’s not often you get that kind of latitude (laughs). I told them “look, I can get you kicked off TV, so how far do you really want to go?” (laughs).
It’s fun because it’s a new character and the show’s setting is a city environment which is primarily African American. You have this superhero family and you haven’t seen that before in this particular culture. We wanted to do it in a respectful and interesting way, but you can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater with what people come to expect from a superhero style. I’m giving you the soaring French horns and the hero theme. But there’s also a little something in the background that feels a little twisted.