Nick Urata is the bold and electrifying composer who has contributed his signature musical style to noteworthy feature films and television shows including Paddington, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Ruby Sparks, Focus, Crazy, Stupid Love, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and What Maisie Knew. He is also the founder and front man of eminent rock'n'roll cabaret band, DeVotchKa, who have just returned with a brand new album entitled "This Night Falls Forever". Attracting the attention of first-time filmmakers, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Nick broke into the field of film music after contributing to the wildly popular soundtrack of Little Miss Sunshine. This success led to more opportunities for Nick to meld his innately cinematic artistic voice and universal writing style with the storytelling of numerous high profile projects. In our insightful discussion, Nick describes his creative collaboration with esteemed author, Daniel Handler to fashion showstopping musical moments for A Series of Unfortunate Events' villain, Count Olaf and his ongoing mission to create spiritual experiences for his listeners.
You are originally from New York. Can you tell us about your entrance to music making? What were the records that shaped your early years?
Let's see, I came from a musical family, so the influence was always there. I’ve been drawn to music for as long as I can remember. I don’t know what it is because I have a lot of brother and sisters, some of them weren’t as interested. I went on to study music in school.
Off the top of my head, the earliest records I remember hearing were Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, and the soundtrack to Lawrence of Arabia. I am thankful for my dad’s taste. I think all of those had a big influence on me. As I got older, I got into Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, and of course The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. When I found those artists, my perspective shifted in the same way as many other youths around the world.
Let’s talk about DeVotchKa. What events led to the creation of your band back in 1997 and what was the motivation that propelled this project?
Well, I was certainly coming out of a series of failed musical projects. I was basically a sideman. I had gotten really into guitar and studied it for many years, but I was floundering, trying to find my own musical voice. I felt like I was always playing other people's’ songs and helping them write their stories. I started digging deep and figuring out what I wanted to hear that I wasn’t really hearing. I really wanted to experiment with a different kind of ensemble because every band seemed to have two guitars, bass, drums, and maybe a keyboard. I wanted to throw that concept out the window, so I actively started seeking out people that could play wood instruments and things like that.
At the time, it seemed like there was a shift coming because people were getting really into Latin music, swing music, and world music. I felt like peoples’ palates were opening up and I think that might have helped shape our sound. Back then, I was living in the middle of a very diverse and ethnic neighborhood in Chicago, so different Slavic music and lots of Mariachi bands were my constant background soundtrack. I think those flavors seeped into my musical landscape. I was inspired to do something different, something that spoke to family roots, something a little international. Those were the goals I set out. I don’t know if I even came close, but that’s what I was originally thinking.
It took years to find the right combo of people. Now, I’m still with the same group. We all double and triple on the instruments we play, so we can incorporate things like accordion and tuba. It’s realized the dream of using a diversity of instruments that are a little from left field.
I understand that you began as a backing ensemble for the burlesque goddess, Dita Von Teese and then went on to self-release an impressive body of work, tour the world, and grow a cult following. What have been some of your personal highlights of your journey with the band?
Dita Von Teese was one of the first big gigs we got. Before that, we were playing around town and traveling a little bit. At the same time, there was this big burlesque revival in the early 2000’s. We were on a parallel course because we were heavily into these vintage sounds and for lack of better style, we did our shopping at thrift stores, wearing these ruffled shirts and old tuxedos trying to look nice on stage. The producers of her burlesque show saw us and drafted us as the backing band.
It was very artistic and retro with an emphasis on comedy, style, and performance. We held them as a captive audience for our music because there were a lot of big lags in between dance numbers. Our job was to fill the gaps in between and keep people entertained. When you’re backing up live dancers, there is a lot of improvisation that goes on. I think those experiences really helped us to develop our stage show and expose us to a huge audience. That was a big highlight. After that, we kept touring, releasing records totally independently. Somehow, we carved out a little niche for ourselves.
Back in 2006, you were approached to score “Little Miss Sunshine” by first-time film directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. How did this opportunity eventuate? Had you previously considered entering the world of film music? What were the benefits and challenges of such a well-received indie film being your first official composing job?
We were playing out a lot and independent radio stations were picking up our records, various NPR stations. This eventually led to the creators of Little Miss Sunshine hearing us and that took us into a whole new phase of our career. Going back to those early albums I’d referenced, I had always been influenced by spaghetti westerns as a kid. We always brought those elements into our songs and tried to create a cinematic way of telling a story. We were always big fans of soundtracks and scores. We always dreamed about having composing as a part of what we do, but we never knew how we’d get there. I think that’s what drew directors to our sound because that influence was already there.
It was pretty amazing because we were doing everything ourselves, on the road and getting some traction, but we knew we could only go so far doing that. We released this album called “How It Ends”, which I thought was one of our best. Many of the songs on there appear in the soundtrack of Little Miss Sunshine. Being a part of the movie was meaningful because it exposed what would have been a tiny little recording to a massive audience. The movie was a hit all over the world. Suddenly, we were known in international circles. It was a huge benefit to us.
To this day, everybody mentions Little Miss Sunshine in the next sentence when talking about our band, but I don’t mind that. As a result, I was drafted into the film composing world. The only challenge has been that people have wanted the same thing over and over again. I think most people who have been a part of something incredibly successful go through that. That’s my only complaint, but it’s not such a bad thing. Most musicians want to have the ability to branch out all the time. Most artists do. We all want to keep growing and moving, but at the end of the day, you gotta play the hits.
Paddington was a touching and thoughtful rendering of Michael Bond’s original stories about the iconic anthropomorphic bear. Your score really communicates an exuberant sense of joy that complimented the narrative perfectly. What did you set out to accomplish?
I was completely honored to be able to score that sort of origin story of such classic character like Paddington. The writer and the director had gotten the blessing from the author who just died recently. He actually made a little cameo in the film and was able to see it before he passed. It was a huge honor. The director, Paul King was a big fan of Little Miss Sunshine and my band. He is very influenced by indie American films and as a band, we draw huge influence from American directors like Wes Anderson, so I think he wanted to bring some of that feeling into the score. I think that’s part of the reason why I got the job as opposed to someone who grew up in England. It was a very British film. So, I think we came up with a nice little mix of things. We’re actually working on doing a live performance of the score from the film, which is going to debut in London this October. It’s in honor of the 60th anniversary of Paddington.
You wrote the song, “Look Away” for the main title sequence for Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events with Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), the author of the original book series and a musician in his own right. Did you immerse yourself in the narrative of the Baudelaire orphans and the perils of Count Olaf before contributing to the sonic identity of the show? Can you describe the artistic process behind the creation of the theme?
I’d already been a fan of the books and was deeply immersed in the series as I’d been writing the score for the episodes. Daniel Handler, who is Lemony Snicket wrote the scripts for the series, so it is all very authentic. Working with him is great because his writing is so funny and he’s so rhythmical. He’s a musician himself and he wrote the lyrics to "Look Away", so once I received his lyrics, I was off to the races. I was already very intertwined with the character of Olaf. I won the director, Barry Sonnenfeld over with the use of accordion. He was a little on the fence about it at first, but I was able to convince him it could be a part of Olaf’s sound and reflect the struggles of the Baudelaires. It was probably the very last piece we worked on, so by that time, we had all been living in that world for a long time. It was very symbiotic, very natural.
It was such a funny concept to have the theme song for the beginning of a TV show be like, “Look away. You won’t want to see any of this.” We do this little thing, which is called a doughnut hole. It’s a little eight-bar section where we explain what’s going on in the episode and show a little bit of what’s coming. That part was really fun to create. So, we actually did thirteen different versions of the theme song.
Neil Patrick Harris, who plays Count Olaf, did the vocals, but Barry, the director came up with the idea to have him sing each “doughnut hole” differently. The shtick is that Olaf has an evil disguise in each book and the Baudelaire orphans always know it’s him, but the adults around them can never see through it until it’s too late. So, each episode has Neil singing that eight-bar portion as Olaf in all the unique disguises. It was a lot of work for him. He was awesome to collaborate with and he nailed it every time. He obviously comes from a song and dance background, so he was especially great to record with. He is a complete natural.
What would you say is the best thing about collaborating with Daniel Handler on original music for the series?
Daniel and I worked together on a few musical moments in the show where the characters actually perform songs. Daniel is very quick and sharp. There was a lot of bouncing back and forth between us to establish the musical palette. Of course, he’s been living with this material longer than all of us. I feel like he already had these great ideas rolling around in the back of his head. If you look at the lyrics he writes, they are so inventive. He really stretches rhymes and uses great visceral language. Those “doughnut holes” especially, you get a sense of what’s happening to the Baudelaires and you can anticipate how horrible Olaf’s new scam will be.
It was a lot of fun to work with his words. He would send it to me and I would try to make it singable. The rhyme choices and the syncopation were so original that it pushed the songs to a whole new place. Daniel is a dream lyric writer and I hope we get to do more.
“Keep Chasing Your Schemes” is prominently showcased in the Ersatz Elevator episode. Count Olaf, disguised as Gunther, the Karl Lagerfeld esque imposter auctioneer, performs the grand musical number at the Herring Houdini restaurant. What were the conversations surrounding the construction and presentation of the song and how did it evolve into what we hear today?
Barry, the director came up with the concept of having it be like the end of the first act in a Broadway show. That was a huge part of it. We had this great choreographer working on the series as well, so there was a lot of thought put into how Gunther was going to dance and move around the restaurant with his henchmen. In the middle, we had to duck in and out of the song to segue into an adventure score where the Baudelaires are trying to escape.
It was a really unique challenge as a composer and I got lucky again. Daniel hit it out of the park with the lyrics, so I was able to write in a funny Broadway style and really stretch out those chops. It resulted in a really comical showpiece that ends with a big finish where Gunther hits this amazing high note that shatters all the glass in the restaurant. It was one of my proudest moments to experience on the show.
Taking it back to The Bad Beginning, the very first episode of the series, we happened to spy you playing the accordion and leading the band during the woeful wedding. Can you elaborate on your experience being on the set of the show as an actor?
It was really fun. I got to go to the set and watch the film for the whole day. I really got to experience how masterful all the actors are firsthand and see the director in action. My favorite part was getting to grow a huge mustache. There are never enough occasions for that.
Earlier this year, you scored the Amazon series, The Dangerous Book for Boys based on the national best-seller. The story follows a family’s journey to overcome the loss of their father and explores themes of adventure, fantasy, hope, and magic. Can you tell us about what led your choices of instrumentation for the series?
The story is great and offers a lot of inspiration. There’s a big sense of a recent loss hanging over the family. These three boys are trying to get through their childhood together and they are left with The Dangerous Book for Boys that their father left behind. Then there’s this other element of comedy, but you have to be dip back into the emotional themes quickly. I wanted to use instruments that would leave the door open for both areas.
Scoring comedy can be really hard. You don’t want to be too obvious. It can’t be slide whistles and tubas all the time, but I did want to use comical sounding instruments to round it out. A lot of those same instruments I love appear the score and it is kind of like playing the hits again. In a way, it felt like going back to my original sin because, in Little Miss Sunshine, there is both comedy and tragedy. I think that’s why they were attracted to our music because, in the sadness, there is joy. It’s almost as if you have to get through the sadness to fully understand joy. I would say that’s been a common theme of DeVotchKa and my soundtrack work.
In the past, you have collaborated on scores with the likes of Mychael Danna for Little Miss Sunshine, John Debney for The Cobbler, and Christophe Beck for Crazy, Stupid, Love. What are the greatest lessons you have learned from fellow composers and in turn, what have you taught them?
It’s been a privilege each time. I came up from playing in marching band to being in a rock band. I always came at music from a performance-focused perspective and background. Those guys are all hardcore composers. I just loved watching their process because it’s a real craft. Their skills are awe-inspiring. They are three of the best and just being around them and watching them work was amazing. I feel like I’m still developing as a composer. They’ve been at it for most of their lifetime, so it’s almost like a second nature for them and they’re so quick.
One of the things I’ve learned from them is that you have to approach the music with a little bit of detachment and plow through. It’s hard when you come from a background of songwriting and performing because everything is a lot more personal. I know now that when you are able to detach and let the film guide you, that’s when you start doing things you didn’t know you were capable of. I think that’s what I’ve taken away from them overall.
As someone who has enjoyed a long, successful career, impacting audiences with music and drawing emotional responses out of listeners, what would you say are the components of a memorable, relatable song or score?
Melody is a huge part of it and I think it’s the key for scoring as well. When you’re writing a song, melodies can often inspire a lyric. I think saying what you want to say is probably the most important part. If you have a powerful melody and strong lyric, that’s what can subconsciously seep into the listener's heartstrings. I think that’s where you always want to go with the music. You want to take your audience out of that state of mental awareness and subversively take them to an emotional place. Most music is emotional and that’s why people are drawn to it. It gets you into this more spiritual experience. You need to connect on an emotional level to make things memorable for people. When you stop their cerebral, analytical mind for a second, you’re drawing them to this mysterious place that we don’t dwell in enough.
Coming up, what can we look forward to from you, musically?
I’m very excited because we’re coming out with a new DeVotchKa album. It’s been a while. The first single is called “Straight Shot”, but the whole thing will be released on August 24th. There are eleven new songs that will be out in the universe that we’re all so proud of.