Issue No 17

The Cellist

BY Jonathan Mayor

I go back a long time with Jeremy Turner. It's hard to say how long exactly, but I remember we both participated in "Early Morning Strings," pre grade school, East Lansing, MI. The pre, meaning it took place before school–in the morning. Not like in the duration of years preceding grade school, though I could understand if that's what you initially thought. We both played cello.

These are little known facts about myself, with little known evidence. Whereas the evidence that Jeremy played cello there is very clear, and it's fair to say that one of us excelled in this program and one of us did not. For me I believe the early a.m. tutelage went on about a month or so. In Jeremy's case it went on like 30 years, and it's still going.


He is–or has been called–a classical cellist, a rock guitarist, pianist, and front man; writer; collaborator; conductor; and award winning composer for film; television; and commercials. He played with one the best orchestras in the world, dropping out of Juilliard at 21 to become one of the youngest members to ever join the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, where he played for fourteen years.

He then went on to play (and record) rock music with some of the greatest living legends in popular music. You might find him on any given day, composing the music for a commercial, or sitting in with a band (Dirty Projectors on Letterman, My Morning Jacket on SNL, Arcade Fire on the YouTube Music Awards), or recording a rock song for Low City, his new studio project. Or flying to conduct an orchestra, or meeting for a soundtrack in Los Angeles, where we recently caught up after all these years. Wherever you find him, chances are he has music on his mind. As well as a few other things.

Subconscious question #1. Do you dream in music?

Jeremy Turner: I do.

Jonathan Mayor: What brings you to Los Angeles?

JT: I’m here for some meetings and tonight I’m going to the International Documentary Association awards. There’s a film I scored that apparently won for Best Music. It’s called "Narco Cultura" and it actually comes out in theaters today. Oh, and I’m talking to you.

JM: Congrats. On the award, I mean.

JT: Thanks.

JM: So, what are you currently working on?

JT: Back in New York, we’re mastering an EP of 5 songs this week. It’s a studio project called Low City that I’ve written and recorded with my friend Abe Seiferth. It has some guest appearances from some incredible musicians, including friends from Bon Iver and Dirty Projectors. It's kind of a retro-futuristic, 1939 World’s Fair inspired thing. Live drums, lots of synths and strings. Abe and I are both really excited about it. I’ve got a string quartet to write next month and a few film scores on deck, and I’m talking with an artist friend of mine named Chris Doyle about an installation piece in Times Square. Mixed bag of projects as usual, trying to keep things interesting and diverse.

JM: How will you release your record? Any advice to the up-and-comers regarding music distribution and how to make it as a musician?

JT: As of now, we’ll just be passing it to some people at labels and some friends in the industry. The whole business has been kind of flipped on its head. Unless you’re out on the road playing big shows, which neither of us are interested in doing, it becomes much more challenging to find revenue streams. Advice to up and comers? Yeah, start early and go play shows!

JM: When and how did you first become interested in music?

JT: My parents were given an upright piano as a wedding gift, which they kept in the basement. I’d go down there and plunk out this little two note song I came up with called "There Was a Tow Truck in the Desert." The title of the song also made up the lyrics of the song. Over and over again. "There was a tow truck in the desert... there was a tow truck in the desert." Shortly after that my Mom put me in piano lessons. Probably hoping I'd expand my repertoire.

JM: Good thinking. Any songs you used to sing along on the radio to before that?

JT: I was only 5 when I started piano, so the memory is a bit fuzzy. Though I definitely remember listening to the Jackson Five. And my Mom had a Neil Diamond record that she seemed to play a lot.

JM: How'd piano go? Or what happened next?

JT: We moved to Michigan from St. Louis when I was 8. There was an amazing program in the public schools there called "Early Morning Strings," where you could learn to play an instrument before school started. My parents worked early so they dropped me off a few days a week before school. The teacher who ran it, Dorothy McDonald, also taught at the middle school and the high school so there was a consistency and knowledge that really helped through the years. I chose the cello so I could sit down, like I said, it was early in the morning. Of course most of those programs are gone now because music and the arts don’t seem to be considered an integral part of an education anymore, but that’s a whole other conversation.

JM: So you're saying you became a classical cellist because of your public school education in Michigan? Wow. A lot of perceptions probably shattered on that one.

JT: Not necessarily because of, but the seed was certainly planted there yes. Aside from being lucky enough to grow up in a town with incredible public schools, there was the University and all that came with that, and I had tremendously supportive parents.

JM: Explain your education after that?

JT: It became pretty clear when I was about sixteen that I was going to be a musician. My last two years in high school I was lucky enough to go play in the orchestra at Michigan State University, take classes, etc. And when it came time to go to college, I only applied to conservatories. Ended up studying with an old legend at Juilliard named Harvey Shapiro. He was tough and not very flexible in his methods, but if you clicked with him you accelerated quickly.

JM: How did you get from Juilliard to the Metropolitan Opera orchestra?

JT: The biggest thrill I got from playing music was almost always in an orchestra. Whether it was in school, or at summer festivals like Aspen or Tanglewood, it was just a huge rush for me. So that was what I wanted to do. I started auditioning earlier than some might, but it helped in some ways. I had nothing to lose so I’d just swing for the fences. I’ll never forget the look on the face of one of the jurors from the panel after the audition. The audition was held behind a screen so they had no idea who they were hiring until afterward. This guy shook my hand with a concerned look on his face and asked, “so have you ever played in an orchestra before?"

JM: Going back to perception. Perception vs. Reality. What is it really like playing in an orchestra? I had a vision of tuxedos and brilliantly responsible adults who do nothing but listen to and perform classical music until I hung with you. How did you find the balance?

JT: There are certainly situations where those stereotypes hold up, no question, but I think it’s more of a generational thing than anything else. To live in a vacuum where you only experience a small fraction of what is available to you doesn’t seem healthy to me (no matter what you're doing). Granted, we were mostly playing masterpieces that have been around for centuries, but that’s not a reason to ignore or judge other types of music, which some classical musicians will do. As for what it’s like to play in an orchestra, that could be a long answer. At its best, it’s a rare and amazing feeling to be surrounded by all of that sound. At its worst, it’s a rare and amazing feeling to be surrounded by all that sound. The key for me was always making sure that when I wasn’t playing in the orchestra, I was engaged in other things that excited me. Like with any job, if you don’t create enough balance outside of it, your job can consume you. I explored music outside of the job, playing in chamber groups, sitting in with bands, going to hear any kind of music I could.

JM: You moved from The Upper West Side (Julliard) to The Village. So, uptown vs. the bohemian village… What did the bohemian life teach that the classical education could not?

JT: As the Upper West Side changed, I felt more and more like I wasn’t with “my people." Broadway started to look like a mall in the Midwest. I was living in a high rise building with a doorman, and I found myself frequently heading downtown to escape it all. I was young and excited by the city and asked myself why I was taking all of these drunken cab rides home from the village every night if I could just live there. Of course the village changed, and so I moved to Williamsburg, which I love. And now that’s changing, but that’s the game. Artists go and find places where no one wants to live, make it cool, and then the money comes in and fucks it all up. That’s probably been happening for hundreds of years. If I learned anything from that initial move, I guess it’s that I need to be in a community where I’m surrounded by artists and creative energy. By people who are continually making things, not just buying them.

JM: When did you get entrepreneurial?

JT: It would be pretty difficult to be a musician or composer these days and not be entrepreneurial. There are so many talented people out there. It’s not enough to just think “Hey, I’m gifted. I’ll just keep doing my thing and eventually someone will notice and give me a career.” If you want to grow and develop, experience new things, you’ve got to get out there and hustle. Not only creatively, but on the business side as well. It’s like being a shark in a lot of ways. The moment you stop swimming you’ve got real problems.

JM: How did you begin to transition into working on your own?

JT: When I joined the orchestra, it was pretty much all that I had hoped and dreamed of. I was incredibly fortunate to start there, but for me, at the same time, it very quickly became Groundhog Day. Over the years, as I got more comfortable with the work, the only reasons to stay became reasons of security and safety, some of the most formidable enemies of creativity. Don’t get me wrong, there are people that would kill for that job, and I was grateful to have it, but in the end I needed to move on to new things and new challenges, to music I hadn't been studying my entire life. I also wanted to write and collaborate, create things on my own. My first crack was sitting in with a friend’s band. You’ll remember this Jon, because you were there. It was a band called Sea Ray with yet another member of the Michigan public schools, my friend Greg Zinman. Sea Ray was playing with a lot of great bands at the time, The National, Mogwai, Of Montreal, and kind of hit their head on the glass ceiling, but just never quite broke through. They had a cellist in their group who couldn’t make the gig so I went down to the East Village, a place called Brownie’s, and played a show with them. The first thing I remember, aside from drinking a beer onstage and wearing whatever I wanted, was how much fun the crowd was having. That’s not to say that classical audiences don’t have fun sometimes, but this was a different feeling. Next thing I knew I was playing with other bands whenever I could, going to hear Regina Spektor at Tonic, playing with Gordon Gano at the Mercury Lounge, or anything else that came up. I was also getting calls to play on film scores, commercials, albums in New York. Sessions with Howard Shore, Carter Burwell, David Byrne. The more I got immersed in these experiences, the more I began to realize that I could be writing and composing and creating my own path. The spark was lit. I started a band, built a studio, and began writing music for film.

JM: Who have you been lucky enough to work with since then? How has this influenced you?

JT: The best part about being a musician as far as I can tell is working with other musicians, and I’ve been fortunate to play with some great ones. My first rehearsal ever at the Met was with Pavarotti. I’ll always remember that. Having my eyes buried in my part, concentrating as hard as I could, and then this voice came from the stage. Unlike anything I’d ever heard and probably ever will. I've worked closely with Renee Fleming over the years, which has been amazing. My good friend and old roommate James Ehnes is one of the greatest violinists around. There are some really profound memories from my classical experiences, people so talented that I was just happy to be on earth at the same time, let alone on the same stage. I’ve also learned a lot from some musicians outside of the classical realm. Tabla players, jazz pianists, just finished working on the music for a Broadway play with James Murphy, I’ve played on Saturday Night Live with Paul McCartney, listened to Sufjan Stevens sing in the studio, played a show with Arcade Fire, all very unique and special experiences (with special people).

JM: When did you start writing your own music?

JT: I started writing songs in 2000. I always wanted to play guitar and so for Christmas my roommate and I did a gift swap. I gave him a Squire Telecaster and a cheap amp, and he got me a Yamaha acoustic. My Mom had passed away the previous summer and after the opera season ended I really just wanted some time to myself. So I grabbed the acoustic, borrowed my sister’s Jeep Cherokee, and drove around the country for about a month, just making up songs in my head as I drove. I just kept writing songs, some solo, some for a band, and then I eventually began writing for commercials. It was 2006 I think. A friend in the business gave me a shot and I’ll never forget it. It was for Preparation H. Pretty good stuff.

JM: I hear (and have witnessed), that you can put it under your eyes to sort out the bags and wrinkles, even if you are not a musician, though I have only personally seen musicians ever do this. For what's it worth. That's a fact by the way. Not a question.

JT: I’ve never tried that, but thanks for the tip.

JM: No Problem...

JM: So, who are your influences? Who was pivotal for you when you started making your own music?

JT: That's a hard one. I’ve been exposed to so much. My first band was pretty heavily influenced by Radiohead and Jeff Buckley. But I’ve written songs that sound like country tunes, scores that are inspired by operas and symphonies. It’s a really big melting pot. I wrote a piece last year for a chamber group called yMusic Ensemble, and my friend Gabe Kahane heard it for the first time and said “deep Mahler vibes”. I hadn’t thought of it, but that made perfect sense since I love Mahler and had been listening to a Wagner recording around the time I wrote it. But influences are everywhere, you just have to look and listen. Part of it is living in New York and being exposed to so much. Part of it is touring and traveling and hearing other kinds of music on the road. Sharing and experiencing with other musicians and artists. Every time I hear a concert, go see a movie, or a friend passes me a record, be it old or new, I can’t help but absorb it (good or bad).

JM: People often want to pigeon hole artists or put them in a box. Do you ever find that to be a problem since you seem to be comfortable wearing so many hats?

JT: Only in LA. (smiles)

JM: Take us through a day at the studio? Or a day in your head?

JT: Each day is pretty different depending on which studio I’m in and what I’m working on. Sometimes I’m over at Big Foote, writing for a commercial or working on side projects with my colleagues there. Other times I’m collaborating with friends at their studios, arranging or playing parts. If I’m at my home studio, I’m probably scoring a film or writing a piece for a chamber music group…. or maybe taking a nap. As for a day in my head? I don’t think anyone wants to be up there.

JM: What are some of your favorite moments from your career?

JT: Most are just things that I was a part of, not so much benchmarks in my own career per se, but performances from over the years. Playing Otello with Placido Domingo, a Verdi Requiem in Tokyo, performing with Renee for the opening of Zankel Hall, a Mahler 3 back in my Juilliard days. Let’s see, I scored a Google commercial that aired during the Super Bowl, um, got to see the first film score I wrote premiere at Sundance. Those were all pretty neat moments. A few years ago, I was conducting an orchestra for the first LACMA Art and Film gala (here in LA). As a conductor, your back is always to the audience, so it's impossible to really know who’s out there in the crowd. When we finished, I turned around and there was this line of people waiting to come and greet me: Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Uma Thurman. The whole thing was pretty surreal. Working with Mike Nichols this past fall on Betrayal was really special. Just to be in the theater and watch a legend like that in action. It doesn't get much better than that.

JM: Does carrying a cello case around get you as many girls as carrying a guitar case (short answer, from a guy who's carried both)?

JT: Different cases open different doors. Though, I have a new cello case waiting for me back in New York, and it could be a real game changer.

JM: If you could play with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?

JT: Leonard Bernstein.

JM: Why?

JT: I got to know his daughter Jamie a little, and I’ve talked to old timers who played and worked with him, but I don’t know, it’s just a feeling I have. I mean, aside from being an exceptional conductor, the guy was an amazing composer, pianist, educator. He just seems like he would’ve been an inspiring person to be around.

JM: What's next for you and for your various projects?

JT: While I have some concerts here and there, I’m definitely at a point in my life where I want to be writing more. Have my sights set on doing more films scores and creating more pieces for the stage. It’s just a constant balancing act of projects that I love, and projects that pay the bills. One for the meal, one for the reel, as they say. After leaving the stability and structure of the orchestra a few years ago, everything just feels off the grid now, like those choose your own adventure books from when I was a kid. But like Yogi Berra said, “when you come to a fork in the road, take it.”