FX’s Mrs. America explores the decade-spanning conflict between prominent conservative voice Phyllis Schlafly and progressive feminists over the fate of the Equal Rights Amendment. In addition to the series’ authentically 70s period setting, the accompanying score had to span the evolving musical tastes of the 1970s. Composer Kris Bowers jumped at the chance to ride that musical wave.
Bowers received his first Emmy nomination last year for his memorable score to Netflix’s Ava DuVernay epic When They See Us. This year, he’s back in the conversation with his score to Mrs. America. Bowers invokes and enhances traditionally patriotic themes to tell both sides of the E.R.A. story. He also uses his composition to underscore the emotion of the piece as the assembly of famous – and famously opinionated – women fight for their independent causes.
Here, Kris Bowers talks to Awards Daily TV about what drew him into the limited series. He elaborates on the challenges of the piece, in particular creating a score based in 1970s anthems that also had a modern flair. Finally, he talks about completing the score during the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis when social distancing became a necessity.
Awards Daily TV: What was it about Mrs. America that drew you into the production?
Kris Bowers: It was a few things. First, I’ve always been inspired by stories that have a social justice narrative, so it was appealing to have something that felt incredibly timely and would explore why we are as divisive as we are right now as a country. I didn’t know anything about Phyllis Schlafly before coming on the project. So, being interested in all of that in addition to being inspired by the feminist movement in general, I was honored that they thought of me for the show.
Second, I was compelled by how Dahvi (Waller, show runner) and the producers in general were so great with how they portrayed Phyllis Schlafly and that side of the political argument. I’ve always been inspired by content that also is as unbiased as possible. With this show, you’re challenged with what she was dealing with as a human, rather than just be faced with her as an evil character trying to destroy the Equal Rights Amendment. In her mind, she was trying to do what was right based on her morals. Seeing her treated as a human was a fun and more interesting way to approach scoring the material. We should feel conflicted about her.
AD TV: Last year, you were in the Emmy conversation last year for Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. One of my favorite things about Mrs. America is its inclusivity of different voices, genders, sexualities, and more during the E.R.A. movement. How does it impact you as an African American male to work on a project that is so inclusive?
KB: It’s a big part of what made me want to be a composer in the first place. It’s the content that I saw myself in or the content that I could empathize with or made me feel something different. When I talk about When They See Us, the main thing for me was being a part of that story. The score was really about trying to help tell that story the best way possible. I feel the same way about Mrs. America. This show is a very important conversation piece given our current political environment. It makes me feel like I want to do everything I can to support the narrative as best as possible. Your particular lens that you bring to a story is going to add a certain color to it.
AD TV: The Mrs. America score uses strings, drums, piano and even hand clapping. What were some of the themes you wanted to explore musically with the piece?
KB: One of the first things I did was write a few themes for both sides: the feminist side and the Stop E.R.A. side. For the Phyllis Schlafly side, one of my first references was a version of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It provided a militant, marching-type feeling while having modern aspects to the tradition sound. While the score has traditional instruments, nearly everything has a more modern touch – nearly everything has delay, for example. The strings has a different delay than percussion. I was trying to create a mechanical, forward movement – kind of rhythmic propulsion.
For the feminist side, I tried to find a sound that had that same propulsion but not as aggressive. I found that with hand claps or hitting sides of random drums, more found sounds. There’s also a little more synthetic element given that the 1970s was the beginning of the synth movement in music. I wanted them to feel more modern and edgy than the Stop E.R.A. side.
What I found fascinating over the series was how those sounds became more modern and continued to evolve. Especially on the Phyllis Schlafly side because I think her progression over the course of the 1970s was a fascinating one.
AD TV: The score doesn’t sound like a traditional drama series score. In some ways, it plays more like a thriller. Was that the intent?
KB: Yes, it’s really how the story and these characters hit me when I first read them. I think that, off the page, I wrote those first ideas before I’d seen anything. That was important for me because I felt this sense of urgency and forward motion in the story. I was really on the edge of my seat as I was reading these story. I was enthralled with what was happening to these characters internally as they fought for their beliefs when emotions or egos get involved. Everything is slowly brewing internally, but it’s still exciting to watch.
AD TV: So I heard that you had to complete work on Mrs. America remotely due to the Coronavirus stay-at-home orders. Tell to me about the process behind working remotely like that.
KB: It was actually a pretty seamless transition. You would think we’d done this before with how well it was handled between the studio and producers and post-production. I was waiting for the call saying we were going to have to postpone, but once everyone decided we would keep moving forward, the image came to my mind of the band playing on the Titanic as it’s sinking. I think that’s what all artists felt like at the moment. On top of the drive to finish, people also had personal issues they were dealing with. All of that reminded me about this team I was a part of and how important it was to continue doing my best because everyone else was doing their best under the circumstances.
The team assembled a list of 70+ musicians who had their own home recording equipment and studios. We also talked to the producers about how to change the sound to accommodate this. Fortunately, the last two episodes presented a different sound. We’re progressing through the 70s in the entire series. The music changes and morphs through the entire series, and by the time you get to the eighth episode, it starts to take on a hallucinogenic sound.
Overall, we were just trusting musicians to do their best and give us back what they had. It’s all been really great. I think it helped that people were all just excited to be working. There was a concern that the musicians at home wouldn’t have picture. That they wouldn’t know what they were playing for emotionally. We had to trust that they would get that from the music. Everybody still brought great levels of emotion and musicality to the recording.
Mrs. America is available on FX on Hulu.