Award-winning screen composer Antonio Naranjo, like most of his peers, started his songwriting career as a part of a band. As a member of Boys Who Say No (later “re-branded” as Future Peers), Naranjo earned alumna status at both the Banff School of Fine Arts and the Canadian Film Centre’s Slaight Family Music Lab. (Fun fact: the band took its name from the 1968 Joan Baez anti-war song “Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say No.” No one got the reference.) But by 2019, when Naranjo was 33, he felt group life had “run its course.” Since then, he’s been working in film and television, but finds the job of creating music hasn’t really changed that much.
Writing for himself and writing bespoke music for the screen “kinda works out the same way,” says Naranjo. “When you’re doing something for a film, it’s like being a made-to-order chef. I treat those projects like they’re puzzles. Oftentimes you’re looking to invoke this feeling, or to work in this type of genre. You can fall back on the tools you’ve accumulated over time to get the work done.
“It starts as something a little less personal and more like a task. When you’re writing music for film, people already have in mind what they’re looking for, so you usually have something that you’re trying to accomplish, that isn’t necessarily in your own voice. You’re always trying to find a way to appease a style, or a feeling, that someone is hoping for. But once you start working on it, it always becomes your own. It becomes regurgitated out the other side, totally different than anyone ever intended. It’s funny. You try to wrestle the music into a box and then, simply by going through the process, it’s always going to become something unique.”
On the phone from his home in Toronto (where he was born and raised), Naranjo says he’s just finished his sixth Hallmark Movies & Mysteries film score (including Love in Harmony Valley and Christmas with a Prince: Becoming Royal). In February, he wrapped up his work on the third, and final, season of CBC Gem’s Detention Adventure. Transitioning from a group to solo work proved to be quite eye-opening.
“It was a ‘grass is greener’ situation,” he says. “Working with other people means there’s a lot of creative sacrifice. When I first started working in film, it was me doing this work alone. At first, I was really happy to have something that was uniquely my own musical identity. But composing and working in this medium can be pretty solitary. After awhile I really started to miss the collaborative nature of being in a band. As I’ve done more projects, especially in [the final season of Detention Adventure], I’ve reached out to more people to collaborate. There’s something magical in working with other people.”
He’s referring to the fact that, unlike the previous two, the final season of Detention Adventure would incorporate more musical interludes, including songs with lyrics made to fit specific scenes. Although Naranjo wrote the music and played all the instruments on the series, he had help with some melodies and the lyrics (plus vocals for the demos) from his life partner, Carla Sutton, a mental health worker — though Naranjo has been encouraging her to explore more of her musical talents.
Like most songwriters, Naranjo is never fully satisfied with his own work. “There’s something I call ‘divine dissatisfaction,’” he says. “I think that there are degrees of ‘getting there.’ For the most part I think I usually get to the place I need to get to, so my success rate is pretty high. But it never seems to be enough, and that’s kind of what’s so compelling about being an artist. It’s like you’re chasing a dragon. You’re never fully satisfied. It propels you to be better.”
“See You Later”: A tear-jerking farewell
Detention Adventure’s co-creator/director Joe Kicak gave Naranjo a serious challenge for the show’s final episode. He wanted a song that he could dedicate to his late mother, that would touch on the subject of loss and moving on, which was the theme of the finale. Kicak wanted him to include the phrase, “see you later,” which was his mother’s typical farewell, instead of “goodbye.” He added a single instruction, the song should “make me cry.” Neither were satisfied with the first few tries, but while he was fine-tuning each iteration, Naranjo’s mother passed away as well. That may have been the key to finding what proves to be a heartbreaking bit of beauty called, appropriately, “See You Later.” Earlier versions included a full ensemble of instruments, but the end result is spare and piano-based. “It wasn’t so poignant, it was busier, and then I let the piano take the lead,” says Naranjo. “I think there’s something more beautiful in having more space.” The final effort met all of Kicak’s requirements.