We had the good fortune of connecting with Michael A. Levine and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Michael A., do you have some perspective or insight you can share with us on the question of when someone should give up versus when they should keep going?
My friend, jazz piano great Michael Wolff was once asked by someone, “My son wants a career playing jazz piano. Is that like wanting to be a stage coach driver?” To which Michael answered, “No. There are jobs open for stagecoach drivers.” If you are going to be an artist know it is an absolutely insane undertaking. Except when it’s the only thing that makes you sane. Flea, the bass player in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, tells a story about his own upbringing. He came from a highly dysfunctional family and had, as a tween, already been arrested more than once.
At age 14, he went to a school music program and someone handed him a trumpet. He said, “It was the first time in my life I knew peace.” I spent my 20s doing any music job I could. I played classical violin gigs, was in country western and Irish bands, accompanied dance classes, and performed on the street. Most years I made so little money I didn’t have to file taxes. My dream was that my original band was going to Make It Big and I’d be set. And we came tantalizingly close: a video on MTV, a loyal fan base, a record out. Then we went on tour, the band fell apart, and I ended up tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
I was nearly 30 and had to borrow money from my father to pay the rent. He was a professor of economics – not exactly a typical artist type. I told him I was thinking of going back to school to get the degree in computer science I had abandoned years before. “But don’t you love music?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, “But I can’t seem to make a living at it.” This is the moment when a parent is supposed to breathe a sigh of relief and compliment you on coming to your senses. Instead he said, “I think you’re being short-sighted. You’re really good at music, you work hard, and you love it. Just be patient – it will work out.” Within a year I became a regular-call session musician on the NYC recording scene, within two years I started a successful music for advertising company, and within three years I had composed the music for the Kit Kat Gimme A Break jingle which still earns me mailbox money today.
All of these accomplishments – and the ones that have followed – were the culmination of years of work toward them. They required active striving, often discouraging and exhausting. All of them were already in motion when I was seriously thinking of calling it quits. As billionaire Mark Cuban puts it, “Don’t follow your passion – follow your effort.” And none of that effort was wasted. Every experience I had – good, bad, win, lose – informed my later choices. When I changed careers and moved to LA to pursue scoring movies and TV shows what turned out to be the key thing that got my toe in the door was that I played Irish fiddle. Composer Harry Gregson-Williams needed an Irish band for a film and asked me to put one together, which I did. We recorded at Hans Zimmer’s studio, I met Hans, gave him a CD of my music and ended up working on a dozen or so projects for him (i.e. I wrote the Spider Pig choir arrangement for The Simpsons Movie), which led to me scoring television shows and, eventually, becoming a governor of the Television Academy (Emmys). Luck, of course, always has a part to play. I have found that those who claim there is no luck usually have been lucky beyond their imagination, and those who claim it’s all luck usually haven’t done the work. You have to be ready, willing, and able when it arrives. And it often arrives in disguise.
Some years ago, I was asked, with my then-assistant Lucas Cantor, to produce a dark and scary version of a cheerful 80s song for a film trailer. The catch was it was July 4th weekend, it had to be done by Monday, and the singer was a 16-year-old girl living in New Zealand. And, oh yeah, I was getting married a week later and had one or two (thousand) obligations. We made a reference track, sent it to the girl to sing to, and kept working. We got back a track on Sunday morning and it was pretty amazing. The client didn’t buy the film trailer, but it got used in a film soundtrack a few months later and has become a perennial ever since. The girl’s stage name was Lorde and the song was Everybody Wants to Rule the World. I’m now at another interesting juncture in my career. A few years ago I wrote a screenplay and showed it to my friend and occasional collaborator, Arthur Hamilton, who is best known for writing Cry Me A River – the classic, not the Justin Timberlake song. Arthur said, “Why don’t you submit it to the Nicholl Fellowship?” I had never heard of it. Run by the Motion Picture Academy (Oscars), it turns out it’s the most prestigious screenwriting competition there is. I entered my script and was a semi-finalist. Encouraged, I entered two more and one was another semi-finalist and the other a quarter-finalist. I decided to write a short film I could afford to produce myself. I enlisted the help of Adam Orton, a super talented young director who had directed a film I scored a couple of years before.
We shot it just before Covid lockdown and finished it a few months later. It’s been winning festival “bests” and now I’ve written a feature version I will be trying to get financed. Will it succeed? I don’t know. But the reality is that most things fail. For every one of my Kit Kats, Spider Pigs, and Lordes there were hundreds of things I tried to do that never happened. Nonetheless, when something you do gets seen or heard and really connects with people it’s one of the greatest experiences you can have in your life. So, I guess the answer to the meta-question – “How to know whether to keep going or to give up?” – is, “I don’t”. I just keep going.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I have a business card that, in the space allotted for my profession, it says, “Pathological Eclecticist”. I think that what has always set me apart is that I am the antithesis of trendy. This is more by ignorance than design, but I am drawn to those things that intrigue me and they are rarely what is hip and happening. Interestingly, they sometimes become that way.
For example, when I wrote the music for the Kit Kat Gimme A Break jingle (w/lyrics by Ken Shuldman), commercial jingles were mostly smooth, vanilla-flavored goo. To do a zydecko-influenced everyman anthem with non-professional singers was about as wrong as you could get. 35 years later it seems like it was good idea. Or when I took the cheerful 80s dance-tune, Everybody Wants to Rule the World, slowed it down, and put it in a minor key, and had a then unknown singer named Lorde singing an octave below where women normally sang, that was bordering on sacrilege. But, in both cases, they were widely imitated after. Still, some of my proudest achievements were “world’s firsts” that hardly anyone ever got to to see or hear. Over twenty years ago I wrote the world’s first EDM opera based on the myth of Orpheus called Orpheus Electronica. Broadway wasn’t ready.
Eventually, Hadestown came along and did pretty well. Or doing the first Sleep concerts with Mac Quayle, who went on to score Mr. Robot and American Horror Story. Years later, Max Richter did the same thing. Or writing the world’s first concerto for pedal steel guitar and orchestra. So far, no one else has been insane enough to do that again. There are always challenges. One of the most meaningful projects I’ve ever done was an album with Dame Evelyn Glennie. She’s one of the world’s greatest percussionists – and she’s deaf. If that’s not a challenge, I don’t know what is.
Most people’s challenges – my own included – are not physical like hers (or physicist Stephen Hawking’s) but the stories we tell ourselves about our unworthiness or the hopelessness of our situation. But I remember something director Spike Lee said when asked about how he dealt with racism in the film industry. He said (and this is a paraphrase) that you can’t let it stop you. It would be like saying, “I can’t go outside because it’s raining.” Except that it’s always raining. I’m here to tell stories, both musical and in words. If you don’t want to hear them, I’ll be disappointed. But I won’t stop.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Topanga Canyon is a semi-rural area on the west side of LA that is 2/3 state park and conservancy. It has a time portal at each of its entryways so that when you go through it becomes 1968 again.
Among its highlights:
• The labyrinth in Tuna Canyon park. This was built by locals decades ago and is periodically tweaked by the same. The local ritual is to walk it and leave a gift for the Gods at the center. Its elevated view may be the best in all Los Angeles, so go on a clear day. From the labyrinth you can see all of Santa Monica Bay, Catalina, Long Beach, downtown, and the San Gabriel Mountains.
• Red Rock Park. It has caves. That’s all you need to know.
• Topanga State Park. More natural gorgeousness.
• The Inn of the 7th Ray. Depending on who’s running the kitchen sometimes the food is great, sometimes not so awesome, but the outdoor creekside setting is always pure magic. Best to come in the spring when the creek is running and the frogs are singing.
• The Canyon Bistro. Owned by a jazz pianist who occasionally sits in, the weekend music is intimate and always excellent. But lunch is good there, too.
• Waterlily cafe shop. Owned by Maria from Sweden, the best lattes in LA.
• Cafe Mimosa. The hippie heart of Topanga.
• Hidden Treasures Vintage Clothing. As long as you’re time traveling, you may as well look the part. The rest of LA is good, too – some great beaches if you life to surf, Disney Hall sounds amazing, the Griffith Observatory is exhilarating (especially if you walk up to it from the Hollywood Bowl), Venice Beach on a Sunday is worth it just for the drum circle, Silver Lake has more hipsters per sq. mile than anywhere on the planet, and lots more, but Topanga is definitely where the Boho magic still lives.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
There are too many. But some would certainly be Michael Cohen who gave me my first advertising jobs, Chris McHale who gave me my most famous job, Harry Gregson Williams, who gave me my first studio feature credit and who introduced me to Hans Zimmer, who changed my life. (For the better). And, of course, my wife Mirette, without whom I would be a lost soul.
Linkedin: Michael A. Levine
The shot in front of the hanging violins and the black and white headshot by Mariana Barreto. The rest, Mirette Seireg.