Didier Lean Rachou
Didier Lean Rachou is the formidable and graceful composer who has contributed his distinctive musicality to successful television franchises and films including Deadliest Catch, Sex in the City, Gold Rush, Food Network Star, Moving McAllister, Her Best Move, How To Rob A Bank, and Powder Blue. Growing up between New York City and Provence, France, Didier pursued his dream of becoming a jazz musician, attending Manhattan School of Music, supplemented by private studies at The Juilliard School. These experiences and disciplines led to extensive work as a session player, producer, and engineer for the likes of Ashford & Simpson, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, and Paquito D'Rivera. After being accepted to the ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop, Didier relocated to Los Angeles and landed the opportunity to score the final season of Sex in the City. To date, Didier is a 15-time ASCAP Award recipient and was selected as the 2017 Composers’ Choice Television Composer of the Year. He has collected the ASCAP Most Performed Themes and Underscore honor six consecutive years in a row. In our intriguing discussion, Didier speaks on the greatest lessons his father instilled in him and his brand new initiative to empower the next wave of French film composers.
Your father is Jean-Jacques Rachou, a James Beard award-winning rock star in the world of haute cuisine and owner of the iconic La Côte Basque. Did you ever pursue culinary arts yourself and what meaningful advice did he give you during your formative years?
Yes, everything I do is based on my time in the kitchen. I knew it wasn't my calling quite early on, but I also knew that it was a way to spend time with my father. So in that respect, I loved being in the kitchen. He respected the fact that music was my calling and so he never forced me to follow in his footsteps. The things I learned in the kitchen were how to manage a team and at that level of cuisine, how to interact with the very best of the best. You’re also dealing with a clientele that's very demanding, and very particular, all the while balancing art and commerce. You could be the arrogant chef that plays to that stereotype, but your business isn’t going to thrive, or you could be a humble servant that is eager to please, who really wants people to come away with a great experience. If you pamper and nurture your guests and give them a wonderful evening, they’ll come back and tell their friends. Everybody wins.
Dealing with some of these personality types is very challenging and you really need to check your ego at the door. Again, this is a perfect lesson for coming onto a film or a show or anything else. When you work in a real kitchen, you have to do the mise en place. To prepare mise en place, you get there early every day and organize everything in little aluminum squared trays and then you have things on the bain-marie that are preheated a little bit. You set up all of your ingredients. If you're a painter, you have a palette of your colors and supplies that you've prepared ahead of time. This way, in the heat of battle, you're grabbing and mixing and sometimes, that's where inspiration strikes. Suddenly, you’re out of something. You're low on this one thing, so you have to make due with something else instead. You have to find quick substitutes for acidity or sweetness, whatever you need. Cooking is like a composition. It’s all about balance.
I also learned to work under pressure and meet deadlines in the kitchen. When orders are flooding in, and you’re struggling to keep up, it’s called being ‘in the weeds.’ It's rush hour on a Saturday night; it’s hot and noisy, you’re bumping into everyone, scrambling around. I remember working at the edge of the line in my early teens. As the chef’s son, I got a free pass as long as I didn’t make too many mistakes. You really learn about relentless pressure, how to pace yourself, work with others, and adopt a team mentality. There’s a big lesson in everyone coming together at night and conquering, slaying the dragon. At the time, the people working with me on the line were in their twenties, but now, many have become some of the biggest chefs in the world. I wouldn't be here today had I not had that time in the kitchen. I know it makes my father happy to know that inadvertently he did teach me, although I applied it to a different discipline.
I understand that famed composer, Henry Mancini lived in the same building as you in New York during your teenage years. Did you ever interface with him? If so, could you elaborate on that?
Oh, yes! Well, I had spotted him before when I was a little younger. He was always dressed impeccably, but he was simply the stylish man that lived on the 10th floor. I was on the 11th floor. I played a lot of jazz guitar, and I grew my hair a little bit as a teen. I was certainly the only child in the building with a guitar case on my back. The gentleman [Mancini] would get on the elevator from time to time, and I remember the first time he spoke to me. He got in the elevator, saw my gig bag and asked me, "Hey kid. Watcha packin'?" I had a slight chip on my shoulder because playing in jazz in New York requires a thick skin. You’re in challenging sessions, it was about cutting heads, and it’s tough. I thought to myself, “Who is this older guy?” First of all, why is this distinguished man speaking to me in this kind of hipster, New York dialect? I just mumbled something, "Guitar." Soon after, I saw him again, and he said, "Oh, you got a gig or something?” The doorman then asked me, "Do you know who that is? That's Henry Mancini." I had several of his score albums, I knew the music, I had read the liner notes, but I never imagined he would be living one flight down. I woke up the next morning, and I said to my father, “Papa, do you know that the great composer Henry Mancini lives downstairs from us?" He said, “but of course, he and his wife, Ginny, dine at the restaurant twice a week!” Thanks for letting me know, Papa!
On your road to prominence, did you have any mentors that took you under their wing? If so, what lessons did you come away with?
Yes, Michel Colombier and Maurice Jarre, however, I never interned anywhere; I never did the composer assistant thing. So that said, I'm truly an entrepreneur in that respect. I never wanted to work for someone else, as I wanted to follow my own path. Also, I knew it would take much longer to get there, but if and when I did, it would be mine. Now, I truly cherish my relationships with my clients. I love writing music and thrive on being the captain of my own ship. However, these early years were the times that those mentors really came in handy. So even early on, as a teen, when I was a production assistant on jazz records with McCoy Tyner and many other jazz giants, they helped by encouraging me, telling me what to listen to, what to work on, what to check out, what to study. I could pick up the phone and say with humility, "Monsieur, I know you're busy, this is where I am. Do you have any words of wisdom?” Monsieur Jarre, he was so generous, he’d say, "It's a long road" or "Just stay busy." They were always encouraging and had the right thing to say at the right time, and I think that's important. Van Dyke Parks was another one and George Martin. Eventually I produced one album for that jazz label, Chesky Records, which was a full circle moment, having come up through the ranks of that label, and finally being able to produce a record for them.
At that time, I was playing with some amazing musicians who eventually formed the Blackstar band with David Bowie - Zach Danziger, Tim Lefebvre, Donny McCaslin, and others. To be around those guys also informed me how to produce that album. I then sent it to George Martin, and it was very kind of him to write me a warm letter of support and encouragement. He actually likened it to something he had done, and those are things you collect and keep. The things you cling to, when things aren't always going as well as they could, or you had hoped ... And perhaps that's for the best because then another door opens. But mentors — very, very important. I don't need you to give me a job; I don't need anything from you except perhaps a few minutes of time and some kind words, which is already beyond generous. That's it. So, that's how I always approached the mentorship. I also learned from chefs, writers, and painters. David Hockney was very generous with his time and encouragement. Gore Vidal, another one.
I think my greatest achievement would be the satisfaction and joy in knowing that I was able to make a small living doing something creative. For me, the greatest lesson that my father taught me were his four tenets, vouloir, pouvoir, oser, and se taire — the biggest life lessons. One, vouloir, the will, the desire to achieve something. Two, pouvoir, to put in the time and effort to achieve the ability and skills necessary to reach your goal. Three, oser, to actually dare to dream and push for one’s current definition of success. Finally, four, the most important and difficult step – especially in Hollywood, se taire. Keep your mouth closed. If you do good work, other people will talk about it, and the rest will follow. Because if you talk too much, it's almost a negative energy you’re putting out there, and you need to stay grounded.
What were some breakthroughs musically and career-wise that really changed things for you?
As a boy, it was always exciting to discover new and inspiring music in various ways. Being accepted to the Manhattan School of Music was a big thrill and a pivotal achievement at that point. The ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop was a huge break. I can't tell you enough how much that program meant to me. When you go through something like that, you realize it's profound, and it's going to have an impact on your life. That was a big validation and gave me so much encouragement. Then, a few years later, in 2003, I got a phone call, out of the blue, from Missy Cohen about Sex in the City, which was a huge turning point for me. And of course, when I got the call to come onboard Deadliest Catch. As a huge fan of the show from the start, to get that call was wonderful for so many reasons, both professional and personal. You see, in my private life, I am an absolute fishing fanatic!
For season 13 of Deadliest Catch, you recorded custom sounds in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Can you tell us about that experience?
Yes, we've used these sounds for two seasons now. Dutch Harbor is a remote, Alaskan fishing port on the Bering Sea, way out in the Aleutian chain of islands. It was the only other sovereign United States territory that was attacked during World War II. Just getting there was an incredible journey. Being on those big boats, meeting the captains and getting a feel for the sheer scale of the place was invaluable in helping me understand the show on a level that I couldn’t comprehend before.
One of the sound people on location said, "I'm going to take you on a special trip." So, we jumped into his truck, and he had his lavaliers [microphones]. He took me up to these bunkers that had been built for World War II because the Japanese came to bomb the deepwater port of Dutch Harbor. The acoustics in these chambers were amazing. The reverb tails would go on for twenty seconds. So, I’d pick up a piece of rebar and drag it along the floor. You'd hit anything, and record it and then come back into the studio and turn that into percussive material, into ambiences, into all sorts of stuff. It was just incredible. Music is all around us if we just listen. Early on in New York, I had a dishwasher that made a very unique sound. I literally recorded it and fit it into a production library track I did, and it worked really well.
Your music for Deadliest Catch is very cinematic with energetic strings and sweeping horn melodies. A lot of the music sounds specifically made for action-packed sequences. Do you tend to write the cues independent of the scenes or do you typically write to picture?
Thank you. Great question. A bit of both, actually. You know, we're here to help others tell their story in a way that's convenient for them. One thing that I discovered early on with this genre was that it's a bit of a chicken and an egg. These shows - Deadliest Catch, for instance, films 37,000 hours of footage every season! When they create these shows, you need to be malleable with your approach. It is always about both scoring to picture and having the skill and the ability to do that, but also having a very active imagination, studying the medium that I happen to be working in. How are these shows made? What do the stories need? How can I work most effectively? What do the editors and producers need?
You also compose music ahead of time using character themes, using boat themes, using whatever tools and devices you need, so that there is structure and that it's labeled as such. Also, for the editors, there's continuity inherently built into the music cues whenever they reach for one. It's this perfect marriage of scoring things to picture and truthfully being informed by things that are cut ahead of time. These are real people out there, living and risking their lives and I have to do them the justice and the honor of being trusted with their stories but also, musically, this is how to contribute to that greater narrative. That's something that I developed through practice, just honing and studying the craft and particular milieu.
You scored a number of episodes for the iconic female-led series, Sex in the City. How did you become involved with the show? Did you have specific instrumentation assigned to the characters of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte or was it more about capturing the essence of New York?
I was very lucky to be nurtured in New York and connected with two brothers there, Norman and David Chesky, who started a record label called Chesky Records and a huge music library. In 2003, a colleague that also came up through this label became their head of licensing. He called me and said, "I’m in LA for a few days, let me take you out to dinner. I'd love to hear how you've been doing and what's going on." They gave me so much, they believed in me, they nurtured me, these guys. Such giant musicians as well. Just at the and of dinner he said to me, "You know Didier, I've got a lead for you. I hear that Sex and the City is looking for someone to compose music to some of their scenes. So, knowing the show, I wrote a really sincere letter, about the show, about post 9/11 New York, all the rest of it. I said, "I hear you're looking for a composer. I've prepared a CD selection for you." I titled the cues appropriately that I believed were in line with the show. So, I put it in a beautiful blue envelope, thick gorgeous navy blue, like the French flag, very patriotic. I send it off, and I thought I'd never hear anything again.
So, apparently, Missy and Dan were having trouble with the scene where Miranda moves to Brooklyn, and then Samantha is going to a film premiere with her young, handsome actor boyfriend, and they couldn't find a piece of music to make the transition work. Missy said they were getting 30 envelopes of music every day. She walks over to the big container of submissions and sees my blue envelope poking out. So she takes it, she opens it, reads the letter, and she says, "Wow, what a great letter. I really hope the music lives up to it”. She puts on the first cue and says, "Wow, okay. This is great. This might solve our problem, Dan!" It worked. The best part was that I didn't own that piece of music on the demo – it was actually published by the label of the colleague that gave me the lead. The label got the licensing fee, and I got my foot in the door. Win-win! Well, it turned out that in the final season they were going to France, so they were looking for someone that understood what that meant, as well as NYC. It all worked out really well. So, that passion and that optimism - being an eternal optimist is very necessary for this business.
Your wife, Lucy Lean is an author and a celebrated cultural influencer in the culinary space. You two recently came together to establish the Lucy and Didier Lean Rachou Award for the ASCAP Foundation. Can you tell us how this contribution eventuated?
Yes. Absolutely. She is so incredibly talented, and I am so proud of her many achievements. It's a privilege and an honor to have established this prize. We're very grateful to be in the position where we can do that. The ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop means so much to us. So, we thought why wait until the end of my career to give back? Like Mancini, like some of these greats who were kind enough to share with me. We believe that to be able to give and support and nurture people now would go a longer way. It's important to pass back to people. I’m grateful for all the opportunities that this great country has given to my family. So, we thought let's establish a prize from a place of love and encouragement. Also, we thought that as there are 12 participants in this workshop, wouldn't it also be great if 11 other of my peers who have been fortunate enough to come through the workshop and found their way with a small measure of success, also consider giving something back now? Perhaps set a precedent? This way, each and every one of these lucky and talented individuals from around the world who come to Los Angeles for this amazing workshop, they could afford to cover their flights, meals, and lodging. This is also a great way to foster diversity.
We established the prize as well as a mentorship. It'll mean the world to us knowing that we were able to enable a fresh voice to come forward and come to this remarkable country and build a future for themselves. I know for me it was always healthy and helpful to have someone to discuss these issues with. It's a big place, how do you navigate this town? How do you find your way? I’m a French citizen, and my wife is British. This year, the workshop had three Brits, so Lucy teased me on this aspect, so we've been in contact with the French Consulate here to hopefully start getting the word out to the proper channels in France to encourage other people to apply. I'm sure next year there will be a greater influx of applicants from France.
What are the top destinations in France that you would recommend to someone who has never explored its beauty before?
My family is from the South, so that’s where my heart is. Provence is where I will lay my head down and take my last breath. We spend several weeks there every summer. In fact, I met my wife in the south of France. I enjoy Southern California so much because it’s probably as close as you can get to Provence within America. I will always love la Côte d’Azur - the beauty of Cannes. Marseille is also very flavorful and colorful. Most often, we go to the Luberon. If you read the book, A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle or see the film A Good Year by Ridley Scott, these describe exactly where we go and capture the essence of what this beautiful region is all about.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research | Paul Goldowitz, Ruby Gartenberg
Editing | Kavitha Goldowitz, Ruby Gartenberg
Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Didier Lean-Rachou.