Here’s a clip of singer-songwriter, Northern Pikes co-founder, and TV/film composer Jay Semko hard at work with fellow musician Randy Woods on the soundtrack to History Television’s Dust Up. The show follows the stories of a group of daredevil crop dusters on the Canadian Prairies.
Appropriately, Jay Semko himself hails from the Canadian Prairies, specifically Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, the place where he got his start playing bass, singing, and writing songs for ’80s hitmakers The Northern Pikes. Later, he would make a name for himself as the composer of soundtrack music for the popular TV show Due South, among other projects for film and TV.
But, this is his newest soundtracking project. Thanks to the people at Paperny Films who sponsored this special edition post here on the Delete Bin, I talked to Jay about what interested him in the show, how he views the role of music in the storytelling process, and how his work as a film and TV composer dovetails with his work as a rock and roots songwriter and performer.
The Delete Bin: You’ve made a name for yourself as a TV and fim composer, particularly with Due South, which had a really compelling narrative thread about cultural differences running through each episode. What was it that sparked your interest in this story in Dust Up? And how did you gear the music to suit it?
Jay Semko: Well, I was contacted in the autumn of 2010 by Dust Up producer Ed Hatton. They were looking for a composer from Saskatchewan, which is where Dust Up is shot – he described the show, including the pilots, their work, and some of the personal stuff happening between them that was going to be a part of the show. I was hooked from that first conversation. I spent a good portion of my childhood living on a farm, and I had a feeling I would be able to relate to the folks on the show. I was right, and I felt like we were all friends; myself, Randy Woods, who works on the music with me, and the people onscreen, even though we all had never met until the premiere. It’s always like that for me.
Randy and I became totally absorbed into the lives onscreen. We had a great conversation about music styles, vibe, etc, and Ed (and the other creative people on the show) had some specific ideas about the musical direction for the show. We were sent a rough cut of the first episode, which had some music temped in (as in a temporary music score) in a few spots, to give an example of what the producers were looking for. Over the years, I’ve developed a good knack for figuring out what really works for producers, and why. Sometimes, you have to dig deep to get it. But I feel like I was close to being on the same wavelength with Ed from square one.
As a composer, you’re there to support and enhance the picture, the story and the mood and feelings of what’s happening onscreen. Sometimes the music is in the back and sometimes it’s more predominant – the main thing is that the picture is king; everything else is there to support it. When we received the final cut of Episode one, it was pretty exciting. You could see the great camera work and great editing pulling it all together to make an incredibly exciting show!!!!!!
DB: When it comes to composing music to go along with a narrative, where did you personally begin building musical themes for Dust Up?
JS: Two rules set out for us early in; roots/organic/countryish with some occasional hip flavours thrown in (urban loops, percussion, scratching w/acoustic guitar, banjo, dobro, harmonica, etc) while on the ground – and ROCK in the air.
Each pilot in the air kinda has his own vibe; Brennan’s is classic rock/southern rock, Bud’s is 60’s style surf rock, Travis is newer blues-rock in the vein of White Stripes/Black Keys. These are guidelines, as sometimes the cues “cross-pollinate” and become intermingled a bit.
We’re always conscious of dialogue and narration, and because the editing is so tight and there is so much music, we’re usually given a specific mandate as to when and where a particular scene should be tightly scored. A lot of the time it’s better to just play through the scene, letting the flavour/vibe win over the tight scoring approach. That’s what makes it really fun and challenging.
The editors temp in music from the rough cuts onward, mainly ours, but sometimes other pieces, and that makes it a good challenge to capture the spirit of the temp music while keeping our own original sound in the context of the rest of the Dust Up sound. A lot of the musical themes were built during the scoring process for the first episode. We did a number of drafts to follow the re-edited versions as they progressed. It was a great way for us to really get to know the show and the musical direction that was working.
DB: This TV show depicts a certain aspect of life in the Canadian Prairies, which is where you’re from too. How do you feel perceptions of Saskatchewan are evolving in the rest of the country?
JS: Interesting question. Saskatchewan is currently experiencing quite an economic boom. Agriculture is and always will be a big part of everyone’s life here. Many other industries are driving the economy as well, but as far as perceptions of Saskatchewan go, hey, we’re also the province that produced Joni Mitchell, Buffy Ste-Marie, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Allen Sapp, and so many star athletes and other exceptional people in all walks of life.
I was part of the Kinsmen Telemiracle Telethon in 2010 with the Northern Pikes, and every year donation records get broken. Saskatchewan has a relatively small population, but we’re a province with a huge heart – just watching these fantastically skilled pilots on Dust Up makes you realize that there are so many incredible stories here right under our noses – hey, Saskatchewan rocks!!!!!!!
DB: In some ways, soundtrack music is meant to take a backseat to the narrative, and be a bit less attention-grabbing than a pop song, which was where you started and continue to operate. How did you make that transition in your approach to composition on this new soundtrack project for Dust Up?
JS: Well, having had a lot of experience on TV shows and films, you have to realize, as I said previously, that the picture is king. Having said that, there are certainly some skills and tricks I’ve learned from writing pop songs that are put to good use when scoring. It just takes a bit of adjusting to the fact that you’re using the musical palette without lyrics. I’m glad that we’re lyricless in our score, at least for now, as the narration and dialogue are sending the story along. The show has great editing, and you just have to always remember that picture is king!!!!!
JS: I’ve been very lucky, in that I’ve been able to do both for quite a while now. When I work on a project, whether it be recording an album, touring, co-writing, or composing a score for a TV series, I put 110% into it. All of those worlds intermingle at some point or other, and sometimes interesting opportunities present themselves when you least expect it. I always have a general plan going, but sometimes things change, and you adapt accordingly. I don’t take anything for granted. The reality is that when you’re working on a TV series, it’s pretty all-consuming; same thing when you’re recording or touring. I just take things one day at a time, and things seem to work themselves out in a natural fashion with the natural cycle…
DB: In addition to the other guys in Northern Pikes, you’ve worked with a number of co-writers to produce songs in various musical styles. How have some of these collaborations helped you in writing on your own?
JS: I love to work with other people. I wrote as a solitary writer for a long time, and I credit my co-composing experiences with Jack Lenz and John McCarthy on Due South for opening me up to the whole concept of co-writing, whether it be songs or scores. I learn every time I co-write with someone, and when I do sit down for some solitary writing, whether I’m conscious of it or not, I know I’m utilizing every co-writing session I’ve ever done.
DB: There can be certain parallels drawn between you and another much-admired musical figure: Nick Lowe who is also a bassist, singer, and writer in pop bands, having showed a prowess for writing country songs like you have on your current self-titled record. Do you feel there’s a certain gravitational pull in writing country songs and exploring roots music more overtly after a career of pop/rock?
JS: Wow – very flattering to be compared to Nick Lowe in any respect. I’m a huge fan!!!!!!
A good song is a good song, no matter what genre it may reside in. I guess with my solo stuff I feel free to bring the vibe to the country/roots world because of the organic nature of the songs I tend to come back to. I grew up with folk and country music around the house, and I love being able to sit with my acoustic guitar and communicate the song.
I have been through many phases in my songwriting, and right now for me I find that simple is better, although it’s often no simple task to come up with the right lyric that says the right thing in the right amount of time, and that sounds as if it just rolled off your tongue without a thought. I’m just very grateful to still be around. I love music now more than I ever have, and I truly appreciate every time I’m able to share my music with someone else!!!!!!
Jay Semko is currently on tour, and has released his sixth solo album, the self-titled Jay Semko. Be sure and listen to the single “That Kind of Blue”, which reveals Semko’s deft hand at writing pop hooks in a country vein, and perhaps reveals too how that rootsy feel has always been a part of his songwriting style, even during his early days with the Northern Pikes.
Be sure to catch the next episode of Dust Up on the History Television, 9PM Eastern Standard Time/Pacific Standard Time, this Thursday June 16th!
Thanks to Paperny Films and the Dust Up Team for use of their images. Thanks to Jay Semko again for his time, and image as sourced from his site, JaySemko.com