Steeped in the creative arts as a whole, Judet-Weinshel is both a film composer and songwriter. As a songwriter, he released his first record on indie record label sonaBLAST! Records, which was produced by Conan O’Brien’s Scott Healy. Released under Max Gabriel, The Exile of Saint Christopher featured Bakithi Kumalo of Paul Simon’s Graceland, and Brett Dennen, known for his work in the folk-rock world.
Although Weinshel is most known for his work on films like 7 Splinters in Time (2018) and The Heart is a Hidden Camera (2008), his music has been combined with many visual media companions as well. As Unpinnable Butterflies, he’s had music placed in works such as In Between Men, Where Hope Grows, and Netflix documentary From Baghdad to Brooklyn. Because of his experimentation in film scoring over time, Weinshel’s style ranges greatly between jazz, classical, electronica, indie rock & more.
But Unpinnable Butterflies is ready to add to its already impressive repertoire.
Radio Ocean is the title of his upcoming record, and second collaboration with previously mentioned producer Scott Healy. His fun and bubbly dancing video for his contagious new single, “You,” featuring his wife, who happens to be a celebrity chef for The Drew Barrymore Show, is a delightful preview of the record and look into his diverse talents.
Not only does the upcoming album feature Unpinnable Butterflies’ unique sound, but also deliver appearances by Birds of Chicago, Grace Kelly, Jessica Childress, Kate Tucker, Perla Batalla, and Danny Clinch.
We had the chance to discuss Judet-Weinshel’s new record, his life balancing his duel loves for film and music, and much more with him.
As both a filmmaker and a musician, do you find similarities between the two art forms? If so, what are they?
I’ve always felt film and music are integrally tied art forms—nearly twin mediums—in the sense that both are, at their core, pre-verbal, or at least their emotional impetus and momentum comes from a place that is not centered in language. I think films and music, when operating at their best, reach us at a more visceral, unconscious level that bypasses words. (Of course, some of my favorite films and records have amazing dialogue and lyrics, but I’d posit their success usually doesn’t usually hinge on the words; the words are just added seasoning)
Film and music are also both about juxtaposition and rhythm.
Juxtaposition in the sense of an assortment of pieces—chords or shots, notes or colors—arranged in a way specific to the artist’s sensibility and palette. Both are art forms of extreme bricolage (as a 90s kid, I’m always partial to collage), and by their nature fairly non-linear.
And both art forms occur in time. Both significantly manipulate time and our sense of time. Whereas a painting or a book, say, doesn’t set its own time, if you take in a piece of music or a film, you’re beholden to the internal tempo—whether it’s BPM or the pace of the film editing—set by that work’s creator.
Have any of your film inspirations influenced your music or vice versa? What aspects have translated?
I’ve always written my screenplays to music, and moreover created specific, and punctiliously curated, playlists for each movie I was working on. On one film (because it was essentially a silent film) I insisted we blast the selected playlist (in this case it was a lot of Mahler) aloud on set, even during a week at the beach (it may have driven half the crew crazy, alas). So music is constantly inspiring and informing my filmmaking. I find there’s a direct and easy link between putting on a piece of music and seeing images (one of the reasons directing music videos is so fun), and my hunch is a lot of folks experience this.
In terms of it working the other way—films inspiring music—that’s probably in a more literal sense in my case: during my work scoring films and commercials (both my own and other people’s). It’s constantly astonishing the power music has when paired with the visual, how the right score or the wrong score can make or break a piece of filmmaking. My own errant tendency is to overscore, to over complicate (this is probably the case in general, actually), and one of the more illuminating parts of working with a director on a score is realizing that often the most simple, minimalistic cue—a single instrument, a simple line of melody—can be far more effective than something more ornate and ‘impressive.’
When you have creative ideas, how do you decide what will evolve into a (short) film and what will evolve into music?
I think whatever I’m working on sort of announces itself as most exigent at the moment. A melody (if I’m at an instrument or, alas, just on the verge of sleep) will announce itself, and insist on being recorded; a line of a song will pop into my head and I’ll write it in a small pocket idea book I always carry with me. Images are just that: irrefutably visual, and though I’ll most often use language (again the idea book) to record them, it’s usually clear from the get-go that they belong in a piece of visual storytelling. The only time, I think, where the line can blur, is with song lyrics and bits of movie dialogue. (I remember a wonderful story from P.T. Anderson about him cribbing some of his best lines from Magnolia from Aimee Mann’s accompanying songs.)
What was the process of creating your upcoming single “You” like? Was it something that flowed out easily or were there roadblocks?
Some tunes really make you struggle (I have songs that take years to finish), but ‘You’ was one of those blessedly relatively effortless endeavors. All of the tunes on ‘Radio Ocean’ started as home demos. Unless I’m on the road and just singing a line into my iPhone, that’s fairly exclusively how I write these days, i.e. loosely recording a demo as I go, working in Pro Tools even in the most inchoate stages. There’s always a notepad for recording lyrics and harmonic structure, and sometimes actual notation, but in tandem with that Pro Tools is always open at my desk and I have a microphone ready, and the writing process is about laying down the roughest rhythm section and scratch vocals, and then reacting to that, adjusting from that. That allows me to more comprehensively hear the tune and also feel less alone in the process.
In the case of ‘You,’ I think I heard the horn line first, and just outlined it using horn samples (I use Reason and Kontakt mostly as soft synths). Then probably came the drums, and some rough piano to underscore the chord structure. I think, fairly quickly into that, I knew the tune would modulate, and that the bridge would be the device to move us nimbly to another key. (By the end of the tune, the central verse melody line is in a much higher register, and the harmony line to that is really at the top of my range.) The lyrics poured out, and as in a lot of cases, the original iteration of the tune had many more pages of lyrics, so it was more about pruning, refining, editing, and trying to focus the narrative (however ramshackle).
At that point, I turned the demo over to producer Scott Healy, and we replaced most of my scratch elements with live players: so the sample horns became the fantastic ensemble of what was then the Conan O’Brien brass band and assorted colleagues (Mark Luvman Pender, Jerry Vivino, Roger Rosenberg, Richie ‘La Bamba’ Rosenberg); and my scrappy temp bass line (played on an old Fender jazz bass with threadbare strings, and I can barely play the bass) was replaced by this phenomenal Canadian jazz bassist from New York, Chris Tarry (he played a fretless, rubbery line that I love). The icing on top was über drummer Shawn Pelton, replacing my drum samples. Later I recorded guitar and proper studio piano, and Michael Flannery added yet more guitars and percussion. All these wonderful cats made the tune come alive.
“It goes against some of my instincts, but I think there’s tremendous value in being able to pare down something to its essence…It’s a real challenge to the ego to not constantly try to impress—impress an audience or impress oneself.”
Does the sound of the upcoming single resemble any tracks currently released, or are there aspects that are newer or more experimental?
All of the tunes on the upcoming ‘Radio Ocean’ record, including ‘You,’ are a bit of a departure from my first record as a songwriter, in that it’s a much more ruckus, full-band, ‘live’ sounding affair. The first record was a bit more intimate and reflective (though we also had a few tunes with brass). But overall, there’s scarcely a down-tempo song on ‘Radio Ocean,’ and it’s really a celebratory record, meant to be played loud and danced to.
And “You” will be on your upcoming album then yes? And what compelled you to release it as a single?
‘You’ is the first single off the new full-length record, Radio Ocean, which will be released through sonaBLAST! Records on September 24th. We have some other singles planned in the meantime. The label, my producer Scott Healy, and I all agreed ‘You’ was a salient contender for a first single. I hope it immediately draws folks in and makes them want to hear more of the record.
When fleshing out a song, does songwriting influence the instrumental, vice versa, or do they develop simultaneously?
I’m not entirely doctrinaire in one direction or another, meaning I’ve written tunes that start with a chord progression or guitar riff (music first), and others that gestate from a handful of lines or concept and the music follows. (For instance, I’m at the moment working on a cinema-musical, and in that case more often the words are driving the car first, but even in that case not always). To get more granular, if the music starts the songwriting, it’s sometime harmony (meaning the chord progression, the harmonic structure), and sometimes melody (meaning I hear a melody line, a line to be sung or played in single notes, and I build the chord progression around that line).
With your wide range of styles among past tracks, was there one you had more trouble executing? Was there one you enjoyed diving into the most?
In both film and music, I think my challenge moving forward as an artist is to try and simplify and create more direct, even more minimalist work. It goes against some of my instincts, but I think there’s tremendous value in being able to pare down something to its essence (I was listening to a wonderful interview with Rick Rubin about this, and the guy is a master at that sort of distillation). It’s a real challenge to the ego to not constantly try to impress—impress an audience or impress oneself.
I’m also so often genuinely excited by a plethora of idioms—musical and cinematic—that I often find myself trying to incorporate or explore too much at once. ‘Radio Ocean’ is definitely a rich stew of genres and influences—at times classic rock, at others a bit of West African pop guitar vibe, then one tune that’s kinda a post-punk Clash ditty, and then other tunes in odd meters with jazz voicings—and hopefully it all holds together, at least in its spirit of exuberance and exploration, and in the various lyrical leitmotifs (characters reappear, even locations and references).
Oddly, the tune that took the longest to really find—and this was mostly in the production and mix, less in the songwriting—was ‘Good Kings,’ one of the more straight ahead rock tunes. Photographer Danny Clinch’s harmonica and Scott Healy’s organ ultimately helped really make it gel.
What might the rest of summer and fall look like for Unpinnable Butterflies? Any shows or light touring lined up?
Ah, being a filmmaker/musician in the COVID era is a constant dance, eh? Light touring is indeed the hope, and we’re carefully watching the tenebrous landscape of this Delta variant while all the while eyeing other ways of sharing the record with folks. I’m definitely hoping for some eastern regional appearances, but I’m also keen on doing more live-streaming, sundry media, and have a few more music videos in the works.