Composer Q&A: Getting to Know Nathalie Bonin

Cutting Room Music recently kickstarted a new series of interviews with female composers and artists who are making an impact on the music industry today. Our first guest, Militia Vox, spoke to us in-depth about her background, her passions, and where she thinks the industry is headed next.

This week, we picked the brain of another highly versatile and well-rounded artist, Nathalie Bonin. An accomplished violinist who started playing the instrument at age 4, Nathalie has worked with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Charles Aznavour, and even Cirque du Soleil! She’s worked with Stevie Wonder and YES, among many others, and has toured all over the world. Nathalie is also an accomplished writer and composer, with her work featured in various high-profile movies and TV series. She recently released a beautiful album showcasing her amazing skills as a violinist, dubbed Inner Mindscapes, and has worked on a groundbreaking documentary project called Women Warriors: The Voices of Change

We sat down with Nathalie to learn more about her background, what drove her to become a musician, her latest projects, and how she navigates the music business world in this ‘new normal,’ post-pandemic context. 

Nathalie Bonin

Can you offer some perspective on the current state of the music industry? Are there enough female writers/composers out there, or is it a male-driven industry, in your opinion?

I think there is definitely more awareness of the inequalities within the industry, and I see a lot of efforts being made from different organizations and even production companies to help change that. On the other hand, I still feel it is still a very male-driven systemic situation where a lot of times decisions happen subconsciously. Making room for a new crowd takes time and conscious efforts.

There is evidence that there are plenty of women composers, we just need to be given the same consideration and opportunities. I love that more and more established male composers are mentoring and hiring women composers. It is a great way to help them climb the ladder by learning the ropes and gain confidence as well as prove to the industry that they can do the job.

I also think it is important to distinguish gender parity with diversity in general because by trying to kill two birds with one stone, many women risk falling in the cracks. The wheel has started turning in a good direction and I am optimistic that the more it turns, the more speed it will gain as the industry discovers the wonderful perspective it had been missing out all this time.

How hard was it for you to break through into this industry and achieve success? Can you tell us a bit about your professional journey?

My journey had lots of twists and turns, peaks and valleys, so I’m not sure which peak I would tag as my “success point”…I started violin when I was 4, and after years of training in Montreal and New York, by 17 I became a professional concert, touring and session violinist. After some years playing in symphony orchestras and classical concerts, and even a deviation through pre-med studies, I came back to music with the urge to perform and share emotions without being bound by the written notes, so I explored world music, jazz and improvisation for the main part of my 20’s. I travelled to Boston and NYC for classes and workshops and ended up performing in these new styles, sensing a new freedom which naturally led me to start composing. 

Interestingly, my first composition contract for television was actually way back for a documentary series. I had no composition experience at all and thankfully, it only needed violin and double bass counterpoint, baroque style themes and stingers and no need to sync. The perfect manageable challenge I thought, so I dove in! I remember sending them tape demos lol! On another documentary film project, I was an actor in the movie and got to improvise on a Paganini caprice theme. Another time, I doubled and trained the lead actor, Karine Vanasse, to play the violin for a scene and yet another movie, I literally improvised violin lines and sound effects to the cue of a car chase action scene while my soon to be born baby was kicking me in the belly! These experiences as well as recording for dozens of movie soundtracks initiated me gradually to film scoring without me realizing it. 

To have any chance of success, I knew I needed to really learn the craft and considering my busy schedule and having a young kid by that point, I started Berklee Online classes and  ended up graduating with a Master Certificate in Film and TV composition.

My first “break” as composer came through my then fiancé. Being a television director, he was aware of shows in need of music and he got me on a pitch for the main title for a French Canadian prime time network show. This was HUGE for me! They set up a blind listening audition and my fiancé was not on the jury but he had gotten my reel in the pile which is often the hardest step. I remember wanting it so bad, I worked all weekend day and night, listened to hundreds of the best TV themes and studied them. My studio was still rudimentary and so I had downloaded the entire sound collections of EastWest on their 2-week trial policy to be able to produce a good demo. I jumped through the roof when I heard I had gotten the gig literally the day before my samples would turn to pumpkins and the gig ended up paying for my first sample libraries! I’m happy to say it is still playing as the show has been renewed for its 11th season… After that gig, I got other TV themes and a series that lasted 2 seasons in which music was wall to wall and in any style possible which was sometimes quite a stretch but I learned most of my production skills, management skills and speed through this experience.. I also did not sleep much!

As my life and career evolved, I felt a calling to move to Los Angeles. After 3 years of back and forth, I made the move in 2018 and after a few short films, mentorships and production music projects, I got my first Hallmark movie to score and have scored 5 in total since then. That first Hallmark was an important milestone as I was starting to establish myself here. I feel like this is still a fairly new chapter in my career so I am excited to see where it leads and happy to be newly represented by Kevin Korn.

Did you have any female musicians or composers to look up to growing up? Who were your biggest influences?

As a very young kid, my first idol was actually a gymnast, Nadia Comaneci. Later, as a young violinist, I was very inspired by Anne-Sophie Mutter. I don’t really remember being exposed to women composers as a kid, sadly. My inspiration when I started composition were Elfman, Williams, Goldenthal, Goldsmith, Horner and Desplat. Today, I love the works of newer generations like Peteris Vasks, Nicolas Brittell, Nathan Barr, Mica Levi.

Do you think it’s important for aspiring young musicians to have a mentor? Did you have a mentor in your early days as a musician?

Yes, I think mentors are very important. Not only to learn from but to sense that these masters believe in you and support your journey. Many of my mentors have become dear friends and collaborators. As a teenager, Christopher Tarlé was my violin mentor. He turned the student I was into a professional musician. As a new composer in Los Angeles, my main mentors were Michael A. Levine and Andy Hill. They both helped me create and build my network of friends and collaborators as well as introduce me to key people that eventually helped me get opportunities. I see mentors as the gardeners of the seeds that you plant. 

What do you want young female composers to know as they try to build a career in the music business? What advice would you give them?

To believe in themselves and to know that it is possible. We all need to consider that the success of one is the success of all women composers, but realize that at this point, we also bear more responsibility when we fail as it reflects on others. In the end, this means believing, working hard, supporting each other as we all rise together. There is no room for jealousy or envy, only for celebrating one’s success that will help open a new door for the next one. 

How did the pandemic affect the music industry, as far as you’re concerned? Are you noticing any huge shifts or changes in the way things are done now, compared to 2 years ago?

In my opinion, it changed the industry because, aside from the obvious lockdowns, it changed the people that make up the industry. For some it was a much-needed break to heal and be with family, for others a time to create or finally produce that album or project, yet for others to change their goals and maybe try something new. I think what the pandemic did essentially was change the focus for everyone. We were forced to adapt, re-invent, be resilient yet confident. We have been transformed and the world has been transformed. Now, we need to find our place in this new world as creators. The pandemic was an opportunity to prove that a lot can be done remotely and projects were completed or initiated that might not have seemed possible before or too risky. The need created the tools and now I think this will enable more global creativity and collaborations on multiple levels.  

Can you name the most challenging or most exciting project you’ve worked on so far? Or is there a project that holds a special place in your heart?

Working on the “Women Warriors: The Voices of Change” (WWTVOC) project has been very special. I got on board over 3 years ago when Amy Andersson, the artistic director, producer, and conductor of the project asked me if I was interested. She gathered a team of women composers from Los Angeles and New York to create a multimedia concert that was Premiered in September 2019 at Lincoln Center. Two of my pieces were premiered with orchestra and I was soloist on one of Penka D. Kouneva’s compositions. 

What makes this project special is manifold. Not only is it truly an honor to be part of this team of women composers, but also to feel the friendship and support we have for one another through the different stages of the project. The subject is also incredibly powerful: WWTVOC portrays 800 years of some of the women warriors who have changed history through their courage, actions and sacrifices. It carries a message every little girl needs to hear, and every woman needs to be reminded of the power of women in the world. It is so wonderful to see how the documentary version has been officially selected in dozens of festivals and won numerous prizes for best documentary and best soundtrack. I think we, as a team, have a lot to be proud of!

How challenging was it to create “Tender Dismay” for Women Warriors: The Voices of Change? How has this project impacted you professionally?

“Tender Dismay” was originally a composition challenge by my mentor Andy Hill for a delicate scene he wanted me to score. That version was recorded by myself with a mix of solo violin lines and sampled low strings and piano. Amy heard it and thought it would be perfect for a segment of the WWTVOC, so I made an arrangement for the ensemble.  The main challenge was to keep the delicate and intimate and eerie qualities of the piece and translate the special instrumental techniques of slow gliding synchronized harmonics to be performed by the full string ensemble and harp. I’m very happy about how it came out both at the concert and on the recording and grateful to Larry Rench who did a wonderful job preparing the parts. 

My other composition used in WW is “Prayer,” which was originally composed and recorded by myself almost as a self-healing process through a period of grief and loss. I love how the ensemble arrangement added to the depth of emotions of the piece, which is used for the “Memoriam” segment of the concert. Both pieces were later recorded by the Riga Orchestra and I’m excited to say they will be FYC (For Your Consideration) for the Grammys 2022. I think this project is an important milestone in my recent career as a composer in Los Angeles, and having 2 of my pieces premiered with an orchestra at Lincoln Center was a big honor for me, as well as the first official performance of any of my compositions by an orchestra for public audiences.

Last but not last, what were the biggest challenges you’ve had to face throughout your career? How did you overcome them?

Doubt is always the most paralyzing thing I’ve had to face. During those moments, I really have to focus on that inner voice telling me to trust myself. There is honestly not one project where I have not felt both the exhilarating feeling of embarking on a new adventure and having been chosen for it but also the anxiety of possibly failing or not being the right person for it. It seems to be common even in the top circles of musicians and composers, so I now choose to see it as a good sign, like what you feel right before going on stage!

Being a single mom has also been quite a challenge and to be honest, I don’t think I could have achieved half of my goals without the help of my wonderful parents. As my son grew old enough, I made every effort to bring him on gigs and even on tours and be part of the adventure. I am grateful that by following my dream, it enabled him to follow his and come to study acting in Los Angeles.

The original versions of “Tender Dismay” and “Prayer” are part of Nathalie’s album release “Inner Mindscape,” released on MPATH – APM/EMI.

Listen to the “Women Warriors: The Voices of Change” album on Spotify (including full string ensemble versions of “Tender Dismay” and “Prayer”):

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