Starring Cate Blanchett, the FX miniseries follows conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, as she leads a fight against the Equal Rights Amendment movement during the 1970s, examining at the same time the group of feminists that opposed her.
Initially intending to complete his score for the series in the room, with a full-sized orchestra, Bowers was thrown into a whirlwind when the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., and self-quarantine became the new normal. In this surreal time, the composer managed to regroup with Mrs. America’s key creatives, recording sessions with individual musicians remotely, and finishing the score, which would land him his second consecutive Emmy nomination.
One of the most sought-after composers of today, Bowers has an impressive slate of projects coming up. Among them are Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard, LeBron James’ Space Jam redux A New Legacy, Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, and Lee Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
Below, the artist discusses the inspiration behind his score for the “incredibly important and urgent” Mrs. America, as well as his takeaways from the once-in-a-life-time experience of scoring prestige TV during a pandemic.
DEADLINE: How did you get involved with Mrs. America? What excited you about working on this series?
KRIS BOWERS: I believe that the producers and Dahvi [Waller], the showrunner, found out about me through the music supervisor, Mary Ramos, as well as a couple of the producers that had been familiar with some of my previous work. So they were suggesting me to her, and wanted to reach out to me about possibly doing the project. They sent me the first few scripts to read through before we had our first meeting, and not only was I really taken by how incredibly important and urgent I felt the story was, especially given the climate that we’re in now, socially, culturally, and politically. But me not knowing much about the story at hand, especially the Phyllis Schlafly side of this whole ERA fight, I think was fascinating for me, and really interesting to see how Dahvi and the rest of the team wanted to portray Schlafly, especially early on in the series.
I remember reading the first episode, and most of the way through, feeling like I was a Schlafly fan. I wanted to support her, and wanted to see her win, and then at the end, realizing what the shift is, and where her stance was on the ERA and the whole issue, she becomes the antagonist. But because she’s been humanized in such a specific way, I was really interested in how we would do that musically, with the score, how we were going to make sure that the audience looked at Phyllis Schlafly—regardless of their political, or social, or moral feelings and standings—[and] would see her first and foremost as a human, and allow the unfolding of the story to let you decide how you feel about her. I think that was something that I was excited about, as a composer.
DEADLINE: Can you describe the take you pitched early on, in terms of a sound for the series?
BOWERS: One of the first things that I suggested in that first meeting was trying to establish a sound for the opposite sides—the STOP ERA side and the feminist side—and how we’d make them feel different enough that we could feel their opposition, but then at the same time, wanting the show to have a cohesive sound.
In the script for Episode 3, they had “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Move on Over,” the piece that’s the more protest version of the same melody and refrain, just different lyrics. So then it was, to me, about trying to see if we could take some inspiration from the “Battle Hymn” for the sound of Phyllis and the STOP ERA side, having it be more militaristic and traditional-sounding—and then, on the feminist side, have something that reaches a bit further for something modern. And also at the same time, with both sides, how it feels to be interacting with this toxic, masculine machinery that is the government.
DEADLINE: Tell us a bit about the range of instrumentation you employed for the series.
BOWERS: With the Phyllis Shlafly side, flute [was a key sound], the snare drum and more traditional percussion in general. On the feminist side, there was guitar, there were a lot more synths. It’s pretty subtle, but there’s more synth in the feminist side of things, and hand claps and found percussion.
For both sides, another big factor with the sound of the score was the use of delay, and how every section, I really had a lot of fun writing these rhythmic phrases that kind of create these loops, and layer on top of each other in these different ways, to propel certain aspects of the story. In order to do that, the writing is already pretty mechanical in some moments, as far as how much the string players are playing these repeating patterns. Each section has a different pattern, and all the patterns come together and walk together in this very specific way. But to emphasize that even more, each section has delay on them, and sometimes even a different delay for different sections, so that there’s even more rhythm and momentum that we’re getting out of those ostinatos that they’re playing.
DEADLINE: What did your early musical experimentation on the show look like? What challenges did you come across in the process?
BOWERS: One interesting thing was that, for the feminist side, it took a second to lock into that sound. I think one of my first demos, I honestly was focusing too much on the late ’60s sound of protest. I think I was focusing on like the sound of Bob Dylan. It had more acoustic guitar and a bit more of a feeling that then felt like the late ’60s, and they were pretty quick to point that out.
They were trying to bring it to the ’70s, as far as having more synth and electric guitar, and different things like that. But then again, at the same time, not wanting the feminist sound to sound like too much of a departure from the rest of the score. I think especially with Episode 3, that was something that took a long time to lock in, and once we got Episode 3, I think the sound of the feminists in general started to come together a bit more.
DEADLINE: For Emmys consideration, you submitted series finale, “Reagan.” What were you proud of, in your work on that episode?
BOWERS: A few things. One, the culmination of a lot of the themes that we’ve been hearing throughout the whole season feels really nice for me. It’s always nice when you can find an organic way to do that in the final episode. Sometimes the final episode calls for music that maybe abandons a lot of the original ideas and themes, but I feel like this one was returning to a lot of that, and the epilogue, especially, feels like something that I’m proud of for that very reason.
It’s this long piece that tries to encompass a sound of both sides, especially because we’re seeing this montage of the fight, as it continued from the end of the ’70s through present day, and I’m trying to represent both sides, and this piece of music that would feel like a culmination, the same way that that montage does. Or somewhat of a culmination. Obviously, the fight is still being had.
In addition to that, just doing it during the quarantine and feeling like it’s an episode that I feel musically really proud of, and we were able to accomplish that remotely, I think is something else that I wanted to acknowledge or celebrate.
DEADLINE: What did it feel like to earn an Emmy nomination for a score you completed remotely, under such strange circumstances?
BOWERS: It feels pretty amazing, and I feel just really appreciative. I feel really lucky that all the projects that I’ve worked on, especially lately, have had some sort of commentary on social justice, or our culture, or our politics, in a way that I feel is really important. So for me, that’s the biggest excitement, being a part of this project, and I think that with as much work that went into trying to finish it during the quarantine and make sure that it was still as great as possible, the nomination feels like a nice recognition of that additional effort.
DEADLINE: What did you take away from the once-in-a-lifetime experience of finishing a score this way?
BOWERS: I think that it really just showed me how, in times like this, coming together and trying to support each other with a team mentality is how things like this get done. We all have things that are going on in our lives, and I think that it’s easy to ignore that, or to not even think about that, when we’re interacting with each other, and just focus on what work we’re trying to get done. In a time like this, we’re all very aware. I think getting through that, in a time that we’ll never experience again, has been an amazing reminder of how important it is to just be mindful of what people are going through, and to really feel that as you’re trying to get the work done.