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Interview: Composer Amanda Jones Discusses ‘Twenties’ Frenetic Score and Activism in Composers Diversity Collective

Jones began working with Hans Zimmer and John Powell before collaborating with Ava DuVernay and Lena Waithe.

Amanda Jones Composer 2

After working as a production assistant with Hollywood legends, Amanda Jones struck out on her own. Since beginning her collaborations with Lena Waithe, Jones has continued to break ground in the film and television landscape. A member of the Composers Diversity Collective, Jones has lent her abilities to Twenties and “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” Crafting some truly experimental and fun sounds for “Twenties” has continued to elevate her profile.

Jones sat down with Awards Circuit to discuss “Twenties,” Lena Waithe, and the fight for equality in the world of music composition. She is eligible for the Emmys in Outstanding Music Composition For A Series (Original Dramatic Score).

Amanda Jones 1

Alan French/Awards Circuit: How you were inspired to start writing music for movies and TV?

Amanda Jones: Initially I studied music composition in college and played in a band. After I graduated in 2010, I moved to Los Angeles and that was my primary focus. Then in 2014 and 2015, I became a music production assistant. I worked for Hans Zimmer, Henry Jackson, and John Powell. In 2016, I started with Michael Ravine, who became a great mentor and friend.

For a few years, I worked at Lionsgate and gained an understanding of what it takes to be a competitive composer in film and TV. In 2018, I got my first feature film and I’ve been freelance since then. You know, it was kind of a meandering path, but it’s something I always loved as a child. It really works for me, and it’s a dream come true to write music all day. I’m grateful for this opportunity.

AF: Is there any singular work that you listen to and think, “One day I’ll write something as cool as this?”

AJ: John Williams has a really special place in my heart as does everything by Ennio Morricone. I tend to gravitate towards bands as inspiration, especially if they’re experimental. I’ve always loved meandering, experimental rock and cinematic music. I think that’s inspired my songwriting in general. What made me start playing the guitar was listening to Motown with my dad.

Twenties Joanica Gibbs Christina Elmore Gabrielle Graham
Still of Gabrielle Graham as Nia, Jonica “Jojo” T. Gibbs as Hattie, and Christina Elmore as Marie from BET’s “Twenties” episode 101. (Photo: BET)

AF: How did you first get involved in “Twenties?”

AJ: I met Lena Waithe at the NAACP Image Awards nominee luncheon in 2018. I had worked on the soundtrack for Greenleaf at the studio level and was nominated. We won actually, which was really cool. I was just happy to be in that same room with all the other nominees. I met Lena and told her how much I loved her on “Master of None” and “The Chi.” I let her know I was a composer and that I was making my exit from Lionsgate. We kept in touch and she put me in touch with her manager. It took about six months to have a meeting with her manager, Andrew Coles, and it was really a lovely encounter. We had tea and coffee for a couple of hours and he was trying to pair off up-and-coming musicians with up-and-coming writers. I let him know I really wanted to work on the “Twenties” pilot. It all kind of fell into place.

I did a whole other TV series, “Black Lady Sketch Show,” while we were waiting to do the series for “Twenties,” after we had shot the pilot. But Lena was the first person to say that proverbial yes, which let me work on something that was important for her. I think it’s something that’s going to be very impactful for comedy and television for years to come.

Twenties Christina Elmore
Still of Christina Elmore as Marie from BET’s “Twenties” episode 107. (Photo: BET)

AF: Part of what makes “Twenties” resonate so much is that it’s satirizing the industry, while at the same time, it’s a genuinely earnest story about people trying to make it in Hollywood. How did you approach giving it that Hollywood feel musically? 

AJ: The score palette is really awesome. It rings from old Alfred Newman-esque scores to bouncy, experimental, stoner hip-hop. As much as I would have loved to write those sweeping Hollywood scores, a lot of that was licensed. It wasn’t really in the budget to record 60-piece orchestras. That said, I did augment many of them. Music supervisor Amanda Krieg Thomas would source some of these really old Hollywood scores, and she would need a swell or two. I would enhance them or add drum rolls, certain strings, just kind of extend them.

I was also responsible for the counterpoint to that, which was the frenetic score. I hoped to encapsulate the high energy and wackiness of youth. It was fun to craft that sound and create a counterpoint of the old Hollywood dramaticism. I was using my voice, switching keys, and looping them. It was a lot of fun to play around with, and since I worked on the pilot, I was able to take my time really crafting the sound for the series.

Twenties Gabrielle Graham
Still from BET’s “Twenties” episode 102. (Photo: BET)

AF: You’ve also worked as a music coordinator. Between you and Amanda Krieg Thomas, how did the two of you differentiate what needed score versus what needed source material?

AJ: It was pretty easy. She was handling a lot of those old Hollywood tunes and then she was also sourcing a lot of up-and-coming queer artists, which is pretty awesome. We had a music card at the end of every episode that highlights and spotlights them. We launched the Spotify playlist. Amanda Krieg Thomas is a visionary and she’s so great. We worked really closely with Justin Tipping, Lena, Andrew, and the whole BET Team. The interplay between score and source really flowed and created very distinctive, surreal moments. It could be someone walking into a room and has a certain swag. Sometimes that lends itself to a song, but others lend themselves to score. We played with a couple of different options. It was this effortless synergy between the two of us, along with the guidance of Justin.

AF: Does Lena just let you go or does she have very specific notes?

AJ: She has certain notes, but I was allowed to be an artist. I never ever felt restricted in any way. Whenever they did have notes, it was mostly like enhancing a cue that I had already submitted. It was like “can you add a ding?” We figured out the sounds of the show during the pilot and ran with it. A lot of my projects have been really great, and everyone’s energy is just beautiful. Maybe I just gravitate to those kinds of projects.

Twenties Joanica Gibbs
Still of Jonica “Jojo” T. Gibbs as Hattie from BET’s “Twenties” episode 102. (Photo: Michael Kubeisy/BET)

AF: What is your favorite music cue that you wrote? And what was the scene you think your music enhanced the most?

AJ: In episode 2, it’s Hattie’s first day. I love that scene where she is dancing around the Hollywood lot to Frank Sinatra and she’s walking into her office for the first time.

The elevator dings and the doors open. She walks around, she gets excited, and her eyes are so wide. It has a crazy riser that feels like club music. There are trombones in it and I’ve sampled the word “what” and pitch-shifted it because she’s kind of clueless. I have the word “What…what…what…what…” modulating and pitching. It’s so weird, it lands right on her frenemy. That’s the last note that you hear, and I think it fits perfectly. I love the score cue I came up with there.

There’s so many, like one when she’s doing a coffee order for the writers. That’s another of my favorite ones because it’s so wacky and bouncing. I’ve always wanted to write music like this, so I was really grateful to employ it for this series.

Twenties Joanica Gibbs Christina Elmore Gabrielle Graham
Still of Jonica T. Gibbs as Hattie, Gabrielle Graham as Nia, and Christina Elmore as Marie from BET’s “Twenties” episode 107. (Photo: BET)

AF: I thought it was cool because it is experimental. It feels unique, even in the landscape of television, and I just found it fun. There aren’t very many women composers working in film or TV. What is one of the things you hope people take away from your music to help women receive more opportunities like this?

AJ: This is something that Lena and Ava [DuVernay] exhibit. They have so many beautiful examples of giving first-time creatives the chance. Not just creatives, but women a chance, and women of color a chance. I think the most important thing that I work with is the Composer’s Diversity Collective. I’m a co-founder with Michael Abel from “Us” and “Get Out.” There’s a ton of other composers that are co-founders, and we work well together. It’s awesome to be a role model in some way, just by being staffed on a show. We can be a guiding light for other female composers and people of color. But I feel like it’s really important to do something with that platform.

With this Collective, I’m truly an activist and advocate. It’s a platform that I can use and support other composers. It’s a more efficient way of doing it and it’s building a community that allows us to draw on each other for advice. We host events with different studios, and we just did one with Netflix and Skydance. This allows studios to meet with minority composers. I feel like it’s really important to be an advocate and an activist for people.

The numbers are pretty staggering for female composers and composers of color. I definitely always mention it whenever I can. We do this report every year to show the numbers and get those numbers to the studios. This way, we can continue to push the conversation forward. I can’t just be grateful that I made it. I feel like I will truly be happy when the numbers are more equal across the board.

Twenties Joanica Gibbs
Still of Jonica T. Gibbs as Hattie from BET’s “Twenties” episode 108. (Photo: Ron P. Jaffe/BET)

AF: Speaking of activism, the last two months have forced a lot of people to look at the state of race in America and the entertainment industry. I think the fact that “Twenties” got passed over several times before getting picked up by BET says a lot. The show has a lot to say about the industry at the moment. What were some of the things from “Twenties” that resonated with you the most over this past month?

AJ: Oh my goodness. It’s the first show to have a masculine-presenting lesbian lead, which is huge. Just having this hilariously beautiful show about women of color matters. Then we have “Insecure” which has been amazing. It’s a different kind of show that is a beautiful representation of Black culture. It’s nice to have another layer of that on television. It’s positive fun but still universal. We know Lena’s breaking down stereotypes and barriers with the series. It’s been a brainchild of hers for the past 10 years, and I’m just super grateful that she delegated the composition to me. I’m so honored and so grateful to be part of that journey and the mission to share more diverse stories on television.

Awards Circuit would like to thank Amanda Jones for speaking with us.

Season 1 of “Twenties” is available on Showtime and BET.

What do you think of “Twenties?” What do you think Amanda Jones’ score? Let us know in the comments below! 

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Written by Alan French

Alan French is a movie buff, a TV lover, and a sports fanatic. His favorite TV shows are 'Parks and Recreation,' 'Rick and Morty' and 'Game of Thrones.' He's also a Spielberg fanatic. You can find him on Twitter and Medium @TheAlanFrench.

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