April 27, 2020 / musicians

Composing musical stories with Levi Patel

Hey Levi, can you tell us about yourself and what got you into music?

I got into music by teaching myself guitar, writing some bad songs, and starting an emo band in high school. From there I was obsessed and it was full speed ahead! Eventually, I started adding more and more instrumental sections to our music until I realized that it was the part I loved the most about making music, which is when my focus shifted.

Your work conveys a lot of emotions as if we’re following a storyline, what is your creative process and how do you decide a song to be over?

Thank you! In general, the first phase is to play around on an instrument until I find something that triggers some emotion in me – either a sound or musical phrase. Then I develop the music by finding and exploring the depths of that initial feeling. Following that is a long editing phase where I make sure that each and every note is contributing to the emotional journey, often cutting a few parts at this stage. For my own music, I let this part of the process take as long as it takes.

Recording and mixing music is a process of chasing the ideal sound I have in my head. I have strong perfectionist tendencies so, once I get to this stage, my technique is to book the mastering engineer so that I have no choice but to call it finished by that date! Admittedly I’m still learning when to stop but, in the end, I think that if the music makes you feel something then it’s working.

What skill sets does it take to compose for movies compared to skill sets required to record an album?

The technical skills are similar but the processes feel completely different to me. When writing my own music there are no limitations and I could make absolutely anything, so the main difficulty is finding direction. What I love about composing for film is that it gives you a specific goal so it feels more like solving a puzzle, with every decision focused on serving the story.

The main additional challenge is communication. Musical ideas can be extremely difficult to communicate, especially with non-musicians, and it’s important to spend what little time you have working towards a soundtrack that the whole team will love.

One of your pieces “Since Last Letters” has been featured in a short film by Nils Clauss similarly called Last Letters, Dedicated to the 304 victims of the Sewol ferry tragedy and the families they left behind. How did it come about?

I have collaborated with Nils Clauss regularly over the past six years and he’s one of my favorite filmmakers. We had both been following the aftermath of the Sewol tragedy, and Nils had even been in touch with some of the families of the victims. At that time there were a few films about the tragedy but they were centered on the causes and the resulting anger of families and public at the government. These had their place, but Nils wanted to create something beautiful – a space for the families to remember their lost ones.

For years we had been talking about the concept of blending the genres of documentary with my music, and with the aesthetic Nils had in mind for Last Letters it was a natural match. Coincidentally, one of the stories told in the film was about the last letter a son received from his father. Hearing him tell that story makes my cry every time I watch it.

Music composer Levi Patel in the sunset horizon

You say your second love is reading, do books influence the outcome of your music, if yes how?

I’m sure that they do, at least indirectly. I read all kinds of books but mostly I try to find books that can make me see things in new ways, and often my favorites encapsulate the same kinds of emotions I like to include in my music.

Your latest album "A Shifting Lightness" features an incredible level of sophistication, what is the importance of details in your work?

When I create music I try to make sure that every detail contributes to the emotions in the music, from the notes played to the texture of the sound. In the past, I carefully crafted these details myself, but with A Shifting Lightness, I tried to leave more of it up to the players and the environment. The most rewarding part of the project was hearing the musicians deliver their performances, each adding their own subtle details that brought this album to life.

What blows your mind?

Right now I’m blown away by how quickly people have been able to adapt their entire lifestyles to cope with this pandemic. I’ve been realizing that so many things that I previously considered “the way the world works” are actually not immutable but are just the way we’ve set up our societies. It makes me wonder what kind of positive change we might be able to take away from this once it’s all over.

Levi Patel

Listen to Levi Patel's amazing work on Bandcamp.