Artist Spotlight: Zach Marsh

Composing music for clients can be a balance of humility and knowing when to speak up. Get to know Zach Marsh and how he manages this seemingly daunting task.

First things first, Zach Marsh has a lot on his plate, and he makes it look easy. Not only is he a full-time composer for clients including VeggieTales, Netflix's Daredevil and Fiat, but he also teaches piano through his YouTube channel (we highly recommend his insane "Coffee Covers" series), and directs an original musical starring children with autism. For him, music lives, breathes and grows and it's critical to grow along with it as it transcends to different mediums.

Marsh's music is beautiful. His cinematic and often grandoise songs, spark an emotional potency in every project. When approaching music as a full-time career, Marsh has developed his life in a diversified way. Whether he's writing music for a TV show, or teaching students, he navigates and cultivates an "emotional intelligence" when collaborating with others. Each project is balance between the natural push and pull between following the vision of the director and imparting your own creative voice into the mix. We chatted with Marsh about his respected career and how he's able to navigate the varied life of a working musician. Enjoy.

Marmoset: What makes a good composer?

Zach Marsh: Good composers are good psychologists because they get into the head of the director and the viewer. Music in media is all about hitting the emotional nail on the head, so composers have to be really psychologically in tune with the story. If you can tell a good story, if you read a lot, and if you can quickly hone in on the emotions of a scene, you’re halfway there. Basically when you’re writing music for TV or film, music is the given. It’s the rest of it — the technology, the business, the relationships, the emotional intelligence — that’s what takes a lot of time to develop.

M: What is your favorite instrument to compose with?

ZM: I started piano and it’s always been my go-to for performing and composing. I write with other instruments like guitar and drums every once in a while, but when I’m working on tight deadlines it’s easier for me to quickly get my ideas down at the keyboard.

M: When starting off in your profession, what instrument would you suggest one learn to play first? Why?

ZM: I’m biased, but I always point people toward the piano. Not only does it give you a really clear visual reference when learning music theory, but it’s also the most common way to input MIDI info into your computer. The better pianist you are, the easier any type of production work will be. It’s like getting good at typing.

M: When and how did you start composing music for Veggie Tales

ZM: Ironically, most of my best music projects have come from people outside the entertainment industry. I was volunteering at a homeless ministry in Pasadena, where “networking” was the last thing on my mind, and one of the other volunteers mentioned her husband was the composer for Veggie Tales. A few months later I told her if he ever needed help, please let me know, and she said he needed lots of help, please help. So, I started working for him and writing additional music for the show as a ghost writer. All that to say, you never know where you’ll find music projects, so I think getting out there, being really active, and doing a lot of different things (especially if you live in LA because everyone's a filmmaker) is a great way to meet people. Another example: I work out at a gym, I met another composer there, one time he called me because he couldn’t take an orchestration job... fast forward a few months and I’ve done two projects with the theater company he referred me to and I’m now their resident orchestrator. When I started out pursuing a career as a composer professionally, I was looking for any type of road map or path that most people took to become a composer, and now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I’ve realized there’s no one path to making it happen. If you want to be a composer, and you’re resilient, you can make a living at it. It’s also easier than ever to be a full-time composer because we all have access to the same technology. I’ve sat in with some of the biggest composers, and besides maybe some external gear, the majority of the tech they’re using is the same stuff I use in my home studio. Twenty years ago it was a job reserved for the elite, but now it’s more of a working class job: no one’s getting filthy rich, but there are a lot of hard-working people out there providing for their families as full time composers. That’s what’s important to me. 

M: How do you feel that composing music for the show shaped your career?

ZM: It’s definitely still shaping my career. Producing music for TV/Film/Web is difficult to learn in the classroom. There are some really great computer music academic programs, but for me, I’ve learned the most from working in the field. Robert Watson, the main composer for Veggie Tales, started out assisting on Pokemon and other animated series from the 90’s, so he’s been working specifically with animation for a long time. Having someone who’s both a veteran of the trade and invested in the quality of my music has helped me a lot. Since I’m ghostwriting for him, he’s always making sure the music I write for him doesn’t suck, so that's pushed me to keep getting better. Aside from writing for the show, just having a household name like Veggie Tales in my portfolio has provided a lot of other writing opportunities for me. One of the catch 22’s of composing is that people won’t give you big projects unless you’ve already done big projects. So working as a ghostwriter in some ways is like a backdoor in to getting those bigger projects. The Veggie Tales reel I sent to Marmoset was also the only music of mine they said they could use, so it also helped me get in there. 

M: In your opinion, what role does music play in film?

ZM: When you’re a songwriter or composer for the concert hall, you’re writing music for you. When you’re a composer for film and TV, you’re always writing music for someone else. In most cases, you’re coming on to someone else’s creative vision and you’re trying to write something that you can be proud of and that everyone else likes as well. That can be really tricky sometimes. I’ve often showed a new cue to a director that I’m really passionate about and they don’t like it because it’s saying too much in the moment, or it’s being too important. Even though I’d love to flex my compositional craft more in film scoring, sometimes a single note works best for the scene, or just one instrument instead of the whole orchestra. That’s part of getting more projects and working with lots of different types of directors; you gain that restraint that says, "this job isn’t about me and showing everyone my cool music chops, it’s about writing something that helps tell the story."

M: When you are first brought onto a composition project, what questions do you tend to ask? What information about the project do you prefer to know?

ZM: I always like to listen to references they send -- that’s a good starting point. A lot of filmmakers want to use musical lingo to communicate things, which can be kind of rough sometimes, so I usually start by asking them to talk in terms of emotion instead of musical styles. I think it’s easier to find a starting point if you’re thinking emotionally, since saying something like “rock feel” can mean a lot of different things musically, but saying “somber feel” immediately limits you into a specific tempo, chord structure, timbre, etc. 

M: Are there any changes you’ve made to you approach to creating music over the years?

ZM: My goal has always been to make a living making music. I haven’t had a job outside of music since freshman year of college and for me that’s success. When I was studying composition in school, everything was from a theoretical perspective. I was entering into a grand tradition of great composers, trying to learn everything I could by studying their works and all that. As soon as I left school, it was all about business and technology. Like I said before, music is the given. I still work on developing my compositional craft, but the majority of my time is spent figuring out how to use the technology to my advantage and help me be more efficient, and then the rest of the time is spent building relationships with people and building up my business as a composer. I’d say the biggest change has been being okay with writing simple music, learning how to say more with less elements, and shifting my mentality to understand the music I write is for someone else.

I used to be more concerned with the fact that I don’t use a lot of live instruments. I’d be really self conscious when I saw other composers tracking a bunch of string parts or guitar on their cues and I’d wish I could play other instruments well enough to do that quickly. What I’ve been learning more recently is that almost all TV shows are using exclusively fake instruments. I wrote a few jazz cues for season 2 of Daredevil, and originally I just sent them demos that we all decided would be re-recorded with live instruments in a big studio, but they ended up liking the demos so much they just used them in the episode. So I’m more comfortable now, especially for TV work, using sampled instruments for cues.