“Awkwafina is Nora From Queens” Composer Tangelene Bolton Drops the Needle
“I’ve been playing music since I was two or three, piano specifically, and then I was really into film starting in middle school, and I thought, ooh, maybe I’ll be a director one day,” says composer Tangelene Bolton, whose work can currently be heard on season three of Awkwafina is Nora From Queens. “I started experimenting with making a bunch of short films, and I realized the music heavily influenced how I approached cutting the footage and telling the story. So I had to marry the two.”
The marriage has been a happy one. Bolton has been steadily building a name for herself as a composer, helping directors, producers, showrunners, and executive producers find the musical soul to their stories, from the recent Blumhouse horror film Unseen to Awkwafina and Teresa Hsiao’s hilarious aforementioned Comedy Central series. Awkwafina is Nora From Queens is centered on Nora Lum, a young woman living in Flushing, Queens, trying to unpuzzle adulthood alongside her cousin, Edmund (Bowen Yang), and with help from her father (BD Wong) and grandmom (Lori Tan Chinn). The result is a show that’s consistently hilarious, scored with an eye towards the perfect song to speak to a moment alongside contemporary compositions that speak to Nora’s sharp-witted soul.
We spoke to Bolton about learning from living legends, what constitutes the perfect needle-drop moment, and which instrument she turned to give season three of Awkwafina is Nora From Queens a touch of a melancholy vibe.
You began your career as an intern for Hans Zimmer’s company Remote Control Productions—I imagine that’s a very hard internship to get.
It is. I was lucky that my friend Tori Letzler, who’s an amazing composer, was working there at the time, and she was able to get me an interview. So I went to LA and I started in 2013 working as an intern at Hans Zimmer’s company. I was fresh out of the Berklee College of Music and I was ready to get some experience. After the internship, some time went by; I worked at a yoga studio for a little bit and then eventually got hired back at Hans’s company as a general studio assistant. It was cool because I got to meet so many other amazing composers.
What did you learn while working at Hans’s studio that you’ve carried with you into your own work?
He was a huge inspiration to a lot of people in my generation. We were in school studying John Williams, but then you’ve got people like Hans Zimmer doing a lot of experimentation with synthesizers and cool things like sampling. That was one of the fun things about working at Remote Control Productions because they’ve got a whole sampling team who are sampling a ton of cool instruments and making custom instruments for Hans. It was definitely awesome being a part of that kind of contemporary way of approaching film composing.
How’d you land at Awkwafina is Nora From Queens?
So things started picking up a few years ago after being a Sundance Fellow. I landed a few Disney shorts at the same time, then I eventually got repped and got my first series, Warrior Nun, on Netflix. After that, I got this Blumhouse feature, Unseen. So things started picking up. Toko Nagata is the music supervisor for Awkwafina is Nora From Queens, and she’s incredible. She reached out to my agent to see if I was interested in pitching for the series. I knew I really wanted to approach the series with a needle-drop approach.
Can you describe for me what, exactly, the needle-drop approach is?
So sometimes, when you’re watching a series or a film, you’ll hear a licensed track, something from an artist or a band that you could hear on the radio. Because the show is so contemporary, I wanted to make sure it had tinges of that feeling to it and that the score felt seamless with the licensed tracks. So I brought on board Hotae Alexander Jang to do some collaborations as well. He’s a Grammy-winning engineer and producer, and he’s worked with Beyoncé, John Legend, Solange, and many others. So I knew I wanted to get him involved in some way. What’s really cool is if you listen to the score, you might not know which part is licensed and which is a composed track. I wanted to find a way to marry the two together but still have a score that sounds like it could be a licensed track, but marry to this underscore that might be created with a more traditional approach but have a contemporary feel.
And how do you decide when you’ll spend the money to license a track versus when you’ll create your own underscore?
That happens a lot in the spotting session. We’ll all be there—me, the executive producers, the music supervisors, and the editors—and we’ll go through each episode. A lot of times, there’s already some licensed tracks in there that Toko [Nagata] brought to them and they’re working great. Other times, there are placeholders that will need to be replaced. But it all depends on how we want to tell the story at that moment. The fun thing is making sure you have really great licenses in there, great bands and artists, to do that. Toko did an amazing job.
Any favorite musical moments from season three?
There’s an episode that takes place in Iceland, and that one was so much fun. There are tons of rhythmic cues, synth-based cues, and then the Icelandic instruments I used, like zithers and dulcimers. I just had a lot of fun on the Iceland episode. It’s really funny and there’s lots of crazy stuff that goes down.
Any Bjork needle-drop moments?
All I can say is I’m definitely inspired by Bjork. I think she’s amazing.
How would you describe the overall score for season three?
I’d describe it as a mashup of lo-fi eclectic beats with a lighthearted melancholy vibe. I use a lot of cool instruments, like the OP-1 , which is kind of like the pocket knife of all synthesizers. It’s a sampler, a sequencer, and a digital tape machine, and it added a really fun quality to the overall tone of the show. As well as other weird synthesizers, like an OP-Z, which is a 16-track sequencer that’s pretty weird…once you can figure it out, it creates some really quirky vibes for the tracks.
These tracks for @NoraFromQueens are 🔥🔥🔥!!! Congratulations, @TangeleneBolton !!
Video source: @spectracagency (IG)#Awkwafina #NoraFromQueens#WarriorNun #SaveWarriorNun pic.twitter.com/bBeEsihXiP
— kathhh (@khthollie) May 2, 2023
How much experimentation are you doing yourself on these instruments in your downtime?
I love to play with different types of synthesizers and instruments. Like on Warrior Nun, I played with a lot of water phones…
What’s a water phone?
It kind of sounds watery and weird; they used to use them a lot in horror films. For Awkwafina is Nora From Queens, I’d just come up with tons of melodies on various synths and I’d throw it over to Hotae [Alexander Jang] and he’d run it through a tape machine to give it that texture. I’m also so grateful that Awkwafina, Teresa [Hsiao], and [director] Jordan Kim all responded to guitars as well. The guitars gave season three this melancholy vibe.
How many instruments do you play?
I play a lot—guitar, I can sing, and the piano is my principal instrument, but really anything I can get my hands on. I tend to play them unconventionally.
Do you have any favorite current or former composers who inspired you?
I love Jon Brion. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Huge fan. I was really influenced by him growing up. John Williams and James Horner are just classics. Right now, I love Bobby Krlic, who just did Beef on Netflix. Our director, Jordan Kim, worked on Beef as well. It’s incredible. I just started listening to the score for Beau is Afraid.
I feel like almost every composer I’ve ever interviewed also mentions Jonny Greenwood?
Oh, I do love Johnny Greenwood, too!
I didn’t mean to force him onto your list.
No! There Will Be Blood! Also, Licorice Pizza. That was a great score.
Awkwafina is Nora From Queens airs every Wednesday night at 10:30/9:30C on Comedy Central & Paramount +