Filmmaker Stories

Singer-Songwriter Courtney Farren on the empowerment and liberation of film

October 27, 2017

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Courtney Farren is one of the most talented up-and-coming American singer-songwriters, but she has an unusual trajectory and could easily be considered more of an artist than just a singer-songwriter. Her new 6-song album just landed on all the requisite platforms and is nothing short of incredible! She speaks a language of chords, melody and lyric that is incredibly unique, real, poignant and literal to a point that she has started to take ownership of a new category. We love her for her charm and talent but are equally fascinated by her incorporation of Super 8mm film. We caught up with her right as she finished a European Tour and her new music and films were dropping.

How did you get into music?

When I was 6 years old, my dad bribed me with video games to take singing lessons. I’d say that had a pretty big impact on my start with music. My dad picked up on the fact that I would sing along to virtually any music that came on and saw the potential for me to love it. Of course, I did, stopped cashing in on the video games, and 12 years later I was still working with the same singing coach. My vocal coach, Rocio, became a big influence on me, and I got my start with songwriting by bringing in poems to her for us to work on. Since graduating high school and moving out, I haven’t been working with a coach, but music quickly became my forever shortly after starting those lessons at 6.

What was the San Francisco music scene like?

The San Francisco music scene, or, rather, the Bay Area scene in general, was very fostering. I started at the very bottom and was lucky to have played an infinite amount of open mic nights in that area as I progressed. Those were amazing and transformative but very hard yards. But eventually, I found myself a bit strained to progress in San Francisco, which ultimately prompted my abrupt move to New York this year. But I’m grateful for the people in the Bay Area who helped me gain the confidence I need to survive in New York.

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What are your musical influences?

I’m strongly influenced by an array of artists. Because of my close relationship to my grandparents, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Sinatra, and The Carpenters were on a steady repeat in my house. In a similar way, because I've always looked up to my brother, so were angsty punk-pop bands like Green Day and Good Charlotte, or the more mellow Coldplay. I’m flexible with what I listen to. I go from top 10 pop to classical piano to indie alternative to jazz and everything in between. With the sheer amount of music available today, I can take from a variety of sources to create my own sound.

Your father is a tennis coach. Your brother is a professional tennis player. You were a young tennis phenom. What is your relationship with tennis now?

If I wasn’t going to be a musician, I would’ve been a tennis player. Maybe that’s a lie, but in another life - definitely! I quit my tennis career around 10 years old after an unfulfilled promise to get a dog when I got into the top 10 in Northern California. Though I must say, at that time, I had already started seeing how much more I related to music and my inability to handle strict competition like the kind in tennis. Tennis is a huge love of mine though, and I know absolutely everything about it. My brother is a touring tennis professional, so I really enjoy keeping up with his progress.

Tell us about your brother?

My brother is the best. He just visited me in New York actually! The first few days he could take off in a while. He’s currently training in Florida, working out and practicing tennis about 7 hours a day, which is insane. I’m really excited to watch his professional tennis career progress, and I believe in his abilities 100%.

You went to Stanford’s High School program, got accepted to NYU and then decided to go full time in music. What drove you to pass on that education?

I personally didn’t see the benefit in me going to college. It was expensive and impractical for me given that I want to be a songwriter and an artist. I kept having people tell me that I was making a mistake not going to college, telling me to compromise what I wanted to do to have a backup plan, and I didn’t like it. At the same time though, I had a few key people in my life telling me to commit to what I wanted 100% and college wouldn’t matter. So, I originally took a gap year, but I never had the intention of attending. It’s not for me. I don’t like it when people tell me that what I want to do isn’t good enough simply based on their inability to comprehend anything beyond monetary return. I didn’t choose music because of money. I didn’t choose it at all, really, so college wasn’t an option for me.

Tell us about how you go about writing your songs?

I write very literally, but at the same time I feel as though I’m writing in a way that is nuanced. I like saying things in ways that aren’t expected. Using key details of my experience and emotions, I paint a picture that is almost entirely there but still leaves space for the listener to apply their own experience and round it out. A lot of my songs have multiple interpretations, and I like it that way.

The process is usually picking up a guitar or sitting at the keyboard and just seeing how I feel. I don’t often edit my songs, so what you hear is most likely a first or second draft written in one or two sittings.

You have bounced around a lot in a very short time. San Francisco, LA, Palm Springs, Las Vegas & New York. How did that happen and how has that impacted your work?

I got kind of lost. That was the main thing. I felt like I needed to get out of my house and that area because everything was too comfortable and consistent. I get antsy easily, so moving around a lot was my way of staying interested and avoiding having to talk to myself about how I was feeling. It impacted my work greatly. You can hear [it] in my lyrics. A strong sense of insecurity and not belonging anywhere. But now, living in New York, I feel like I’ve found another home. I’ve grown a lot since coming here, and I think that shows in my music. A little more mature, and coming to terms with things outside of my control.

Tell us about your recent European Tour?

The European tour was incredible. Going overseas with my music, especially at this stage in my career, was nerve-wracking. I had no idea what to expect, or if people would be able to connect past the language barrier and cultural differences. I was so happy to find that people really took to my sound and style and were extremely supportive and complementary. I made great friends and fans in Paris and Dublin! It was so exhilarating. I had a few French girls ask if I was famous in New York! Crazy. It far surpassed my expectations, and I can’t wait to go back.

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Tell us about the new album?

This album is 6 songs all written within the last year. I’ve heard some reviews call it a breakup album, and I suppose that’s not entirely misguided, but it’s more than that to me. I have relationships with these songs that are still alive and growing as I get more and more responses to my work. It’s incredible to share something so personal and get such positive feedback. My favorite song on the album is “Hard to Tell,” which is the first song of mine to get a music film!

Listen to "Nothing Like It" by Courtney Farren

How did you decide to make music films as opposed to music videos?

Film is an entirely different art form. It requires patience, deliberation, and a lot of flexibility. It’s new to me, so I’m making mistakes with my filmmaker partner, Brett, as we shoot, but it’s exciting. I don’t get the same feeling shooting videos. There is no sense of urgency or the same artistic value shooting videos, whereas it’s extremely present when working with film. The reaction to film is also much different. People can tell that something special is happening because it is special. And, album title pun not intended, there really is nothing like it. I don’t know why everyone isn’t doing it. The images are so beautiful, unique and organic. It is like there is a weight and gravitas to every frame that you just don’t get with video images. And ironically for me, the higher the resolution in video, the less I like it. I like 2K better than 4K, and I like 4K better than 8K. But I’ll take Super 8mm or (over) 8K images any day of the week.

How did you get into Super 8?

I got into shooting Super 8 after being invited to assist a director, the great Michael Kontaxis, who was shooting Super 8 at Coachella last year. From that point on it became an addiction. I went out and got an old Canon and started planning how I could use it alongside my music. Making music films feels right to me, and now it’s another love of mine. I feel really lucky to have a relationship with it. I shoot on Kodak film for both my still photography (35mm) and my motion (Super 8), and I really love the company. The name Kodak alone I associate with a commitment to art and an appreciation for nostalgia, so it’s amazing to have this opportunity to vocalize my appreciation for the company.

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Where do you process the Super 8 film?

I currently get my film processed and scanned with Pro8mm in Burbank because I formed a relationship with them during the time I lived in Los Angeles. Steve Bellamy at Kodak told me about them and they lived up to his hype. I love the community that Phil and Rhonda have formed there. You see amazing filmmakers like Ondi Timoner, Ben Affleck, Michael Kontaxis and Chris Nolan working there, and it feels like one big family. Eventually I would like to get more into the creative shooting and processing and try to do some whacked out sort of Michael Goi stuff with Super 8 or 16. I have heard stories of him unspooling rolls in the darkroom and jumping up and down on the negative, then spraying the negative with salt water before hitting it with a hair dryer. And then finally hitting it with a pen light a couple of times. Then he winds the film back into a hand crank camera before exposing it. That’s where I want to go! But for now, I shoot and hand off to those guys at Pro 8. When I shoot 35mm motion, I can’t wait to use your new Kodak Lab in NY.

What is your process for creating a music film for a song?

With film, there is an amazing feeling of liberation that comes from the fact that you have to be so deliberate about your shots. So my working/creative partner, Brett, and I will discuss a rough idea of what we want the film to accomplish, choose locations, outfits, extra people, and begin piecing it together mentally before we go out to shoot. Of course, given that we are just beginning with film as our medium, mistakes are often made and we will revise the concept upon seeing the digitized product if need be. But I think that’s part of the beauty of film. It’s an entire process. It’s not ‘shoot as much as you can – and figure it out in post.’ It’s more purposeful. There is also something weird about film – when you make a mistake or there is a light leak or something bizarre, it is usually the best part of the result. There are truly happy accidents with film. With digital photography and video capture, the accidents are awful.

In terms of our filming process, I shoot the film that I’m not in, and, if I’m in it, Brett will shoot, so we’re able to share the responsibility in a way. There’s a lot of nervous anticipation while you wait for the film to be returned (which is, in its own way, incredibly fun), but in the end, you really feel like you've created something. Film just stands out. And not to be a complete stumper for film, but again the process for creating images on film is just so empowering. It is hard to explain as there is this thing that might seem like analog photography is harder, more unforgiving and limiting. The reality is that it is just the opposite. Film photography opens all sorts of possibilities and the accidents are happy ones.

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What’s up with your collaboration with Brett Sullivan?

Brett Sullivan is my creative and working partner and he is amazing. He has always been heavily involved in the skate scene, so his ability to incorporate the skate imagery and culture he's absorbed is extremely helpful. At the same time, he's developed a style that is so unique. The "Someone" film is unlike anything I've seen before and so much credit goes to him! He often compares his work to painting, and I totally understand that. He doesn't interrupt his editing time at all. Sometimes it takes him hours to get a visual style, but he will dedicate huge blocks of time to make sure he executes it properly even if it means sacrificing sleep. He is part marine, part artist and part visionary. I am really lucky to have him in my life.

Tell us about your new music film for Someone.

Going in I said, “I want grain, grain, grain and after that lets add some more grain.” Music videos these days are so digital! They all look the same. They all feel the same. So, we did everything we could to pull as much grain in as possible. The picture in picture stuff was important to us because you don’t see it anywhere else.

Can you tell us about the subtle crescendo from somber to happy as the song moves through?

That was harder to capture than it might appear. It is mostly carried through my facial expressions, but there are all kinds of other things working in unison as well. The screen holds on color were important to that measure. The simple things are often the hardest to get right and this film is basically one location and one main shot. We are very happy with the way it plays.

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And how were the costs?

I hear so often that it costs so much to shoot film. Outside of our time, this short film cost under $500 including the film stock, the processing and the scanning.

Does the music and filmmaking complement one another?

Absolute, my songwriting has gotten a lot better from filmmaking and my filmmaking has gotten a lot better from writing songs and playing music. I am starting to find myself writing songs with the visual art in mind. And, I am sure that soon there will be a few songs that aren’t only the audio portion of the art. The narrative will be carried in the visual and two won’t really stand on their own. Only together they would be the complete piece of art. I.e. the narrative might start with the words, and then it gets picked up in the film, and then it transitions back and forth.

How much still photography do you shoot?

Since I moved to New York, I pretty much shoot 35mm still film every single day. There are so many looks in New York City. I can walk out with no destination in mind at all and shoot for hours. And it really doesn’t cost that much money at all. With film, you are very choosy about what you expose. I can go out for hours and only take a handful of shots. But virtually every one of those exposures really means something.

Where do you process the still film?

I have just now found a lab that feels like it could be my community in NY. It seems like it is going to be amazing, so I’ll let you know after I spend some time there. I really want to go deep in the woods with alternative processing, bleach bypassing, etc. And it seems like this might be the place. That is another thing about shooting on film. It is truly a community that you plug into wherever you go. The social aspects have helped me meet amazing artists, and those artists have been very helpful to my art.

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Do you shoot digital photography as well?

I must say that once I started shooting film, I have never had any interest in digital photography. For me, it is just not the same and it is not even close. Digital images and especially digital video just feel like a rigid grid work of colored boxes as opposed to a photograph or a piece of art. I feel pixels. I use a digital camera a lot though, but more of as a utility tool, to take pictures of where I parked or to chronicle things. But, if I want to take a picture or shoot motion that I care about, I shoot film.

Do you have any favorite directors? Movies?

I really like Spike Jonze’s work. “Her” is one of my favorite movies of all time. Quentin Tarantino is another director I’m really fond of. “Pulp Fiction” is great, and more recently, “The Hateful Eight” was incredible and shot on film! I am really getting into PT Anderson. But I seem to be gravitating to the more artful directors and ironically, they all seem to shoot film. I can’t wait to integrate into the NY film scene. There is so much amazing talent here with Brady Corbet, Alex Ross Perry, Noah Baumbach, Ferne Pearlstein, The Safdie Brothers and so many others. In LA, I have had the pleasure at Kodak parties to meet some of those amazing filmmakers in that community: JT Mollner, Jess Bond, Richard Kelly, Ondi Timoner, Brad Furman, Lucy Walker, Michael Kontaxis, Sean Baker and Michael Goi. Los Angeles really seems to have the most amazing community of young auteurs. At one function, you meet people with Academy Awards, people who won Cannes, Sundance, etc. I love NY, but if I ever moved to LA, it would be to be near all those amazing directors.

Anything else?

Thank you so much to Kodak! I feel so lucky to have this opportunity to share my music and my love of film.