We had the good fortune of connecting with Sean Renner and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Sean, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
I think the idea of risk is a complex one. We generally define something as risky when there’s a potential for an outcome that we see as undesirable. And particularly when we’re afraid of that outcome it feels even more risky. As a composer and musician, one of the outcomes that is easy to fear and to see as undesirable is your music being disliked or not well-received by others. Especially when we’re first starting out this might feel like one of the biggest risks. Another outcome we might fear is a failure to creatively achieve what we’re aiming for. We might have an idea for a piece of music or a recording technique that we try and when it’s done we realize it didn’t work the way we thought it would, which we might view as a failure. I think in this sense it can feel risky as a composer or a recording artist to try new things, because there’s a potential for these undesirable outcomes.
I firmly believe that I make my best art when I am being authentic and true to my own voice. But finding that voice can take time. And for me, finding my voice meant trying a lot of new and different things, like different styles and different production techniques, in order to figure out what felt good and exciting. I think this process is an ongoing one as well. The things that feel authentic and exciting are always evolving along with my aesthetic tastes, so I’m constantly trying new things. This can feel risky if we’re worried about those two scenarios of outright failure or poor reception from others. But our authentic voice isn’t based on what other people think, it’s based on what excites us and what we think is interesting and aesthetically pleasing. So we have to learn to trust our own instincts in pursuit of that authentic result.
So since our idea of risk is entirely based on these concepts of what an undesirable outcome is, if we shift those perceptions, we also shift the level of risk that we perceive in the activities that might result in those outcomes. I’m other words, if we can learn to worry less about what others think about what we create, then we can focus more on whether or not we, ourselves, love what we’re creating. And if we can view creative “failures” as opportunities to learn, then we won’t be afraid to try new things because we won’t see any risk in it.
In pursuit of this authenticity it’s been important for me over time to let go of my fear of failure. Live performance is one of the biggest areas where I’ve been able to work with that fear, because it’s happening in real time and the results of your creative choices and their execution are immediate. My live performances involve a lot of live looping, where I’m creating loops real-time with various instruments including my voice, so there is a lot of potential for mistakes. After playing over 150 live shows over the years, it’s inevitable that I’m going going to “fail” to create a loop the way I meant to, so over time I’ve learned that it’s not about whether you make a “mistake” or not (because you are going to make a “mistake” at some point), rather it’s about how you recover from that “mistake”. Making those ”mistakes” and learning to recover from them gracefully and quickly, even to a point where the audience might not even know it happened has been a huge part of my maturation as a live performer. And as I got comfortable with that idea I started to find that the “mistakes” often led to really interesting results that I ended up loving.
As a film and TV composer, however, you’re a part of a larger collaborative process. So writing for film and TV it’s not about just creating music that you like, it’s about creating music that serves the story and enhances this collaborative piece of art. A film involves not just your music, but the things you’re seeing on the screen and the other audio elements like dialogue and sound effects. And you’re collaborating with directors and producers who are steering the creative ship of the project. So in that world, for me, the goal is creating something that serves the story and the film, and does so in a way that feels authentic and exciting to me. In the film and TV composing world, it’s inevitable that you’re going to try something that a director doesn’t feel fits the scene, no matter whether they like it or not. We can view that as a failure, or we can view that as helping us get closer to the music that does work for the scene because we know more about what does not work for the scene. And often that process pushes me in a new direction I wouldn’t have naturally gone, so it stretches and strengthens my compositional skill. Again, it’s all about our perception of what is undesirable, and I think being able to recognize those fears in order to move past them and not let them hold us hostage is an important part of making music, or any art. I think that’s really what the journey of art is about: learning to move yourself out of the way of your art so that it becomes the most authentic expression of ourselves possible.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I’m a composer, recording and performing artist. My work is a combination of music for film and TV, and organic-electronic soul music I create as a solo recording artist and live, loop-based performing artist.
A few things make up the core elements of my sound. One is my work with audio manipulation. When I first started recording music I quickly fell in love with the process of recording audio and then chopping it up, stretching it out, and changing the pitch and timing until I found an interesting sound. That process of discovery is really important to me, and I find that it creates sounds that are both somewhat natural because they have an organic origin, and are also very unfamiliar because the original source may be unrecognizable after it’s been manipulated. These days, with so much music technology at our fingertips there are infinite ways to manipulate audio, so I’m constantly discovering exciting new ways to do that.
Another of my favorite things about making music is telling stories. Even in my solo music there is always a story that I feel and imagine, even if it may not be made obvious. And of course, this is one of the things I love most about film scoring, because the music is all about supporting and enhancing the story. Each film and its story is unique, so I approach every film project with a blank slate in terms of what instruments I’ll use, and I love the process of choosing those instruments and creating the sound palette that I’ll use to help build the world of the film. Of course, since I love audio manipulation and processing, I enjoy finding ways to incorporate that process when it makes sense for a film, but I also love working with raw, unprocessed instruments like the piano and the orchestra. I’ve loved the orchestra ever since I was small, and my focus in my master’s degree at CalArts was studying modern orchestral writing and finding ways to marry that with the audio processing that I love to do. I love exploring new ways to write for orchestral instruments and unique ways to use their sounds.
There are so many challenges and lessons on the road to being a full-time musician. I think the biggest things about making this a career are authenticity (again) and not giving up. There are a lot of jobs you won’t get, but if you keep trying there are jobs and opportunities that you will get. And as you take the time to find your authentic voice and creative process, then I believe the work will become more frequent, and the relationships you make with other creative collaborators will grow stronger because people can feel that authenticity. If you’re creating authentic art, I think that by definition you’ll be set apart from others, because everyone’s true artistic voice and aesthetic preference is unique. Another huge part of not giving up is loving what you do. For me, it’s been a long road to becoming a full-time musician, and I’m sure I was only able to stick it out because I love making music so much that I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
The pandemic has certainly changed a lot of the things I used to enjoy doing regularly, so these days a lot of the activities I am enjoying around the city are outdoors. California has beautiful beaches and so many places to hike, and LA has a lot of great parks that my wife and our newborn son have been frequenting. We’re both vegan, and LA is one of the best places for creative vegan food. Honeybee burger, Sage cafe Crossroads, Matthew Kenney’s various restaurants, Cafe Gratitude, Gracias Madre, and El Cocinero in Van Nuys are some of our favorites. We also love walking and people watching, and even though it’s one of the most trodden spots, Venice Beach and Santa Monica’s boardwalks always feel like a celebration of life and never fail to make us smile.
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?
Without a doubt my shoutout is to my family. Since I met my wife she has been unwaveringly supportive of my pursuit of music as a career. She moved from Denver to Los Angeles with me and has stood by me through so many of the ups and downs of this career. I love her immensely and will always be grateful for her love and support that made this all feel possible. I’m so grateful to have parents and a sister who have been equally supportive. Throughout my life I was so lucky to have a family that always supported me trying different things. Growing up, my parents never pushed me to pursue any particular path, and as an adult as I’ve pursued music, my parents and sister have been just as loving and supportive of me, my art, and my pursuits. All of that familial support has played a pivotal role in having the confidence to pursue this career.
Black and white photos in the field and trees by Erin Graboski