Composer Kevin Matley has joined the Netflix family with his latest work on the streamer’s recently released film Concrete Cowboy. Matley has worked on several projects throughout his career thus far including short films, documentaries, and ads. In Concrete Cowboy, Matley brings a unique sound while holding on to the familiar aspects of humanity present in his work.
Concrete Cowboy follows 15-year-old Cole, who’s sent to North Philadelphia to live with his estranged father Harp for the summer. While there, Cole discovers the deep history of the city’s cowboy subculture that provides a safe haven from the neighborhood’s violence, poverty, and fast approaching gentrification. The film is based off the book Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri and inspired by the real-life Fletcher Street Stables.
Nerds and Beyond had the opportunity to talk with Concrete Cowboy’s composer Kevin Matley about the film and his experience in his field.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
Nerds and Beyond: Concrete Cowboy is very much a film that focuses on its characters — and especially Cole and how he moves through his life — and your score really emphasizes a lot of those pivotal moments. Can you discuss your approach to making a score like that?
Kevin Matley: I think we started with the idea that we didn’t want it to be a big Hollywood set sound, we wanted it to be a smaller orchestra. And kind of the thought process with that is we wanted sound that felt a little more intimate and raw. So kind of aesthetically was the sort of first step I took in trying to figure out what I wanted to write here, and how should this sort of feel. And so I went with my palette choices first like solo trumpet and musical saw and this orchestra that was kind of dumbed down to a smaller amount of players and produced this really unique sound. As far as the individual implementation of that, it was a lot of conversations that I had with Ricky [Staub], I read the script several times. I think this was the first time I read a script and the first time I read it, I had theme ideas forming already. It was very vivid and well-written and just really struck me, and I fell in love with the story. The process just came very naturally.
Nerds and Beyond: Sort of along that same line with minimal instrumentation, music and sound can really bolster the experience of a movie, but I also think moments of silence can, too. Did you have an idea of which scenes you knew you didn’t want to include a score for or that originally had music that you decided not to keep?
Kevin Matley: I’m not sure if there were too many that we had music and then took it out. I think there was one – I can’t remember which scene it was – but there is one when we were in the dub stage, Ricky was like, “hey, let’s try not having music here,” and we were all, “that’s perfect.” But the majority of the time, Ricky and I had always been very on the same page and wavelength with when music should happen and when it shouldn’t. So that process was pretty smooth in our workflow and all that.
Nerds and Beyond: What scene or scenes are you particularly proud of after you added a score to them?
Kevin Matley: Oh, that’s a great question. I’d probably have to say the opening scene when Cole and his mother are driving to Philadelphia – the cue’s actually called “Driving to Philadelphia.” It’s one of the few times when I’ve written a melody and I didn’t really toy with it. It kinda just came out and I loved it. And I felt like it kind of accomplished exactly what I wanted for the scene and set the mood for the film. There’s just like a tinge of all these different flavors of jazz, western, moody, and it did everything that I wanted it to.
Nerds and Beyond: If you had to choose one track to represent the movie as a whole, which one would you choose and why?
Kevin Matley: Oh my gosh, that’s so tough. I would probably choose … and you’re gonna laugh at these titles, but it’s either “Old Beer and Sliced Cheese” [laughs] or one called “You Don’t Have to Get Out to Grow Up.” I feel like [they] incorporate two different themes in the back and [they’re] just my favorite melodies.
Nerds and Beyond: Because those titles are so interesting – I know for a lot of scores for movies, a lot of composers choose titles for what’s happening in the scene. How do you pick out specific things from a scene to use as your title?
Kevin Matley: This is all kind of a new experience for me, so I kind of assumed that they were gonna pick the titles of the songs, but when they told me that I was, I was like, “Oh, that’s awesome.” And I just kind of went with what was either a phrase or an idea from each theme, or what sort of stuck out to me. So if you listen to each cue and you know the title with the scene, you can see exactly what my thought process was with the naming.
Nerds and Beyond: What was the most rewarding part about working on this movie?
Kevin Matley: Probably just seeing several of my favorite actors on my screen and getting to write music for their acting. That was like far and above beyond anything I’ve ever worked on before. Their performances were so high caliber and well-executed, so it was truly like … I felt so honored to be a part of this film, in my little tiny world that’s music composition.
Nerds and Beyond: You’ve also done some work on documentary features and shorts prior to this movie. Is your process creating for documentaries similar or different for how you did it for this one?
Kevin Matley: No, there’s actually a lot of carry over between documentary and narrative. I think that my whole goal as a music composer is to tell a compelling story through music. I think that as human beings we’ve been telling stories since the dawn of time, right, and now we’ve started to add music to them. I think that whether the story is real or not has always had the same purpose, [which] to me is to tell a compelling story along with the narrative and to really show the viewer what the characters are feeling.
Nerds and Beyond: What would you say is the most difficult part about that process of creating music for characters, and what would be the easiest part about it?
Kevin Matley: Well I think you have to look at the fact that we’re trying to tell a viewer about a lot of different things at the same time. We’re trying to tell the viewer what a character is feeling, and human beings are incredibly complex. We’re feeling a lot of different things, and we only have eight notes in our scale to work with. So there’s a crazy challenge of trying to use all these tools that we have to say, “hey, this is what’s going on,” and to do it in a way that’s moving, you know. It’s extremely difficult, I think. When you think about the great composers like John Williams, Ennio Morricone, and Bernard Herrmann, these people are experts at that, and if you watch their films and you think about it that way, you can see that they are highly skilled at helping you to understand what people are feeling in their films.
And I say the easiest part is … you know, I don’t even know if I have an answer for that. I feel like the easiest part is usually just once you get your theme written — and that’s kind of the hardest part, the main theme that tells the story of individual characters, themes, and the whole narrative – once you get that written, implementing it is really fun – taking that theme and putting it in different spots, and twisting it and warping it and manipulating it, you know, fitting for different things where at one point it’s romantic, or it’s funny or intense. Then you can do something completely different with it over in the rest of the film. And I really enjoy that. I think it’s just a super fun part of the process.
Nerds and Beyond: Sort of going off that, you know when you’re going through that process, what do you think is your greatest strength as a composer, and what’s something you would like to work on to get up to the level of John Williams and Ennio Morricone and all of them?
Kevin Matley: Yeah, right, that’s kinda the goal. I don’t have any expectations of me to be as good as them ever, but that’s my dream, that’s my desire, to be the best that I can be for me. I don’t know what my greatest strength is, to be honest. I feel like I am decent at writing melodies. I am decent at making things feel understated. I feel very sensitive to when things can be melodramatic.
Things that I want to improve on, I definitely want to get better at different genres. I want to get better at jazz, I want to get better at classical and neo-classical and contemporary classical – all these different genres to work with. Like you said, the greats, those guys are incredible at a lot of different styles, and I think it takes a long time to get anywhere good at these different facets of music and genres.
Nerds and Beyond: Are there any specific genres across film or television that you’d like to venture into at some point in your career?
Kevin Matley: Yeah, I think I would love to do an animation, like a Pixar film. I’d absolutely love to do an action film. And I would really like to do a horror film. I would absolutely love doing a horror film. That would be so fun, just because of the different kinds of instrumentation you can use, it feels like a bit of a free for all. Like you can go grab pots and pans and you can bow them [laughs] and do whatever you want and make crazy sounds. Bernard Herrmann [Psycho] is one of the greats, in my opinion, and you know, that violin sound, so like kind of the original and that sort of fearless writing.
Nerds and Beyond: What was your earliest memory of music, and how did that eventually lead you to become a composer?
Kevin Matley: Wow, that’s a great question. My earliest memory was watching The Lion King when I was a kid – and it’s funny, I actually won the film out of a box of Chex. They had this thing where if you got the box that had a pog in it, it had like a “send this in and you get a free film,” and I got The Lion King. And I remember being so blown away by the music. Hans Zimmer’s score in it is just bombastic and amazing, and I feel like that was the point in which I probably started to really notice music in film, and I was like, “whoa, this is crazy.” Just at whatever developmental stage I was at I was starting to realize the emotional effect it was having on me as a viewer and how it was affecting the characters and the story and all that.
Nerds and Beyond: Would you say The Lion King is sort of the film that made you say, “yes, I want to be a composer,” or did you have any other ones as well?
Kevin Matley: I’d say probably The Village. James Newton Howard’s score in that, with this wild, beautiful, melodic violin that’s going on is so haunting and gorgeous. I think that was one of the films that I felt like I really, really wanted to do music for a living after seeing that.
Nerds and Beyond: I know many composers — and you touched on this, too — can draw inspiration from virtually anything, whether it’s an instrument or a pot or something. What in your life do you tend to draw inspiration from, and from that, what do you think is something that’s unique to you?
Kevin Matley: Inspiration is kind of an interesting word. I’ve been having a lot of conversations with my wife about this, because I just built a new studio and trying to figure out how to decorate it and all that. And I feel like for me inspiration probably comes most when I don’t want it to – like when I’m in the shower, when I’m doing dishes, whatever it is – that’s when melodies start happening, and it’s always inconvenient. I feel like I have no say in the matter. When I’m outside or whatever, that’s generally when it comes, too. So I feel like inspiration is this force that I can’t control and it just sort of happens when it happens. Luckily, I have a recorder on my phone that I can hum melodies into and ideas.
But I think as far as me, I feel most inspired, for lack of better word, by my family and the things that really fulfill me in life, which are time with them, time with my daughter, time outside. Those are the things that fill me up and make me want to come back in and do my job well. Because I’m not just doing music just for me, I’m also doing it for them.
Nerds and Beyond: Do you compose as if they’re characters in the movie that you’re scoring, keeping them in mind like that, or do you just have them in your mind in general?
Kevin Matley: Not often. One time I did. When my wife was pregnant with our daughter — I wasn’t technically allowed to do this — but I brought my phone in when we were having an ultrasound, and it was the first time we heard the heartbeat — and any parent who’s been in that situation knows how moving it is to hear your child’s heartbeat for the first time. But I got my phone out and I was like, “I gotta sample this, I gotta record it.” [laughs] So I took that home and later I used it as a rhythm for the song, and I never showed anybody but my wife. I basically just built a track, an orchestral piece, around this heartbeat. And it’s for my daughter and I’ll show her … I don’t know why I haven’t showed her yet. I should just show her. [laughs] But I will show her. That’s kind of the closest I’ve come to what you’re describing. I don’t necessarily implement them in my imagination into narratives. But I feel sense of peace and comfort with my family, and that feels very empowering to go into my job.
Nerds and Beyond: If you could collaborate with any composer, living or dead, who would you choose and why?
Kevin Matley: No question, Jóhann Jóhannsson. It’s always sad to talk about it because he just passed away — I think it was last year or the year before — and I think he was just an absolute brilliant guy, and I loved everything he wrote. I feel like if he were still alive today, it would be an absolute dream to write with him.
Nerds and Beyond: What advice would you give aspiring composers, whether they want to compose for film, TV, or orchestras?
Kevin Matley: I think I would start by saying go slow. Don’t expect massive progress right away. None of us are handed big Hollywood films right out of the gate. Focus on building a business and all that goes into building a small business – you know, marketing, accounting, business development. And get really good at meeting directors and networking. It’s one of those things where music writing is actually not a very large part of what I do on a daily basis – the majority of it is business development. And some people call that the “endless hustle.” I don’t really like that term. I like business development because it doesn’t feel as … sorry, I don’t want to say the wrong thing here. [laughs] Part of it is that I don’t really feel equipped to give advice because I’m so new, but I will say focusing on business development, focusing on your craft, focusing on meeting directors and producers and actors, and being in it for the love of the game and the love of the craft, and not in it for money and success – I think that you’ll be off to a great start.
Nerds and Beyond: Is there anything else you want our readers to know about you or film or music in general?
Kevin Matley: If they want to reach me, I’m on Instagram, that’s kind of my main social media platform. They can also go to my website, kevinmatley.com, and email me there. And I love meeting new people and chatting.
Thanks so much to Kevin for taking the time to talk with us! Hear his score in Concrete Cowboy streaming now on Netflix. Make sure to read our review of the film here.