Recently, I got the chance to sit down with Ben Crandall, a good friend and composer of the soundtrack for High Country. We talked about his music, his passion for worshipping and helping others worship Jesus, and his approach to the score for the film.
Tell us a little about yourself. What's your background as a musician?
Music has always played a huge role in my life. My father was the worship pastor at the church I grew up in. Ever since I could pick up a guitar, I wanted to learn how to play music and perform it. My mother and two brothers are also very musical, so growing up I was surrounded by creativity through music constantly. I volunteered for worship ministry at my home church, starting in eighth grade, and continued on to lead worship regularly starting my junior year of high school. I feel blessed that God would give me a gift like music. It is one of few gifts in life that God can use to get us through just about anything. Through the articulation of a simple melody, music can make us feel and think with more depth than we would feel or think without it. That is what it has done for me, and it is what I want my music to do for others.
I understand music runs in your family?
As I stated previously, yes, music runs in my family a great deal. To give us a little more context, however, let's go back to about 1984. Yes. The '80s. The time of punk rock – good punk rock that doesn’t emulate today’s fluffy, over-produced, top-forty nonsense (nonsense that I admittedly enjoy very much).
In the middle of this glorious era, you would find my father, Jeff Crandall, rocking his heart out, playing drums for the band called The Altar Boys. My father spent his 20s touring the country trying to “make it big” and largely succeeded in a growing Christian music industry. I still bump into people fairly often that used to go to all my dad’s shows. The Altar Boys gained a lot of traction in the mid-late '80s, but after a few bad run-ins with their record label and an underdeveloped corner of the Christian music industry, they were forced to repent of their righteous punk rocking rebellion and get “real jobs.”
Somewhere along the way, my dad married my mom, a musical education major from Cal State Fullerton, and thus the musical Crandall family began. Me and my two little brothers grew up taking piano lessons from my mom and rocking out playing air guitar to my dad’s old music videos. Me and my bothers still try to jam whenever possible. It was a blast growing up in such a musical environment.
What attracted you to this project?
What attracted me to this project was the opportunity to magnify the power of the stories in the film which ultimately point to Jesus. Having done one other short film for InFaith Pictures, I was stoked to hop on board and do a full-length film with them, knowing that it would increase Jesus’s fame.
Have you done scoring work before?
I have done some scoring with a few friends that are in film school at the university I attend, Biola University. Between that and the one other short film I have done with InFaith Pictures, that is the bulk of my scoring experience. I can say that I absolutely love it and could see myself doing it as a lifelong pursuit.
How did you approach the scoring process for High Country?
I originally approached the High Country score not knowing quite what to expect. I had some idea of how long the film would be, but I wasn’t entirely sure. I really had no idea what the stories were about or what the scenery was going to be like until the video file was sent to me and I watched through it for the first time. After I saw the beautiful landscape and heard Steve interact with the herders in such powerful ways, it was honestly very easy to get rolling with the creative process. In the end, I approached the score very hopeful and excited because of how much inspiration I had to draw from.
Where did you find your musical inspiration for the pieces that you composed? Why did you choose the direction you did?
I did not draw a ton of inspiration for the score outside of the stories within the film as far as lyrical content goes. The only other main contributing factor was the magnificent scenery that is displayed as the camera takes you into the highlands of Colorado.
The score follows those “old country” themes because of a few reasons. I wanted to get in touch with my Johnny Cash/old country side because that is what I felt the film was begging for. There is something that connects with the heart in a simple way when an acoustic and steel guitar are played. I wanted the songs to sound like they could have been written on your front porch as you try to figure out what this life means and how you’re supposed to live it. I wanted the songs to connect the viewer to the heart of the herder (excuse the corny alliteration). I did not want to distract the viewer from anything that the sheep herders were trying to communicate because their was so much to be learned and felt by their stories.
On a technical note, talk to us about the gear you used to score and record the soundtrack.
I used mostly my home set-up for this because, in the recording process, the score wasn’t too difficult to capture. I have a few nice mics at home that were perfect for the job (ex., AKG 214, RE20, a couple of 57s – pretty standard stuff). I have an eight-channel Presonus Firestudio interface and recorded the whole thing on Logic Pro 9 (which is, in my opinion, the best for doing things like writing and scoring).
I tried to keep the electric guitar rig as simple as I could to capture the rawness of the score, but my signal flow was as follows:
- 69 Tinline Telecaster
- Voodoo Labs Sparkle drive (when needed)
- Line 6 digital 63’ Reverb setting and slap back delay setting (when needed)
- Marshall 1974x
- SM 57 and RE20 Stereo mic'd
- AKG 214 for room reverb
I used my trusty ol’ Takamine acoustic to track all the acoustic parts and used a lap guitar through my electric rig to get the steel guitar sound. All the vocals were done by me through my AKG 214.
When you're working on something creatively, you have to connect with the material you're working with. How did connecting with the stories in High Country help you in the scoring process?
Watching through the film the first time brought me to tears. High Country is a beautiful display of God's faithfulness to a group of people through one man who has been very faithful to God’s calling in his life. Connecting with the stories in the film helped me get on a personal level with the sheep herders and, most of all, Steve. Seeing his heart for the Lord and for the people he ministers to gave me a window into what God is doing in his life and how he has responded to the grace of Jesus in his own life.
Armed with this knowledge I was able to enter into the story and attempt to write songs that reflected Steve’s heart towards the herders and the heart of the shepherds themselves.
How are you able to image Jesus through your music?
I am able to image Jesus through music by proclaiming God’s truth within the music that I write and perform. I have the opportunity to show Jesus’s truth through music on two levels in the context of a score.
One, I am able to outrightly state the struggles of life and how or why Jesus is Lord over those struggles. In this score I tried to emphasize the legitimate struggles that the shepherds had, and the immense hope that Steve brought to them by being in community with them.
Two, I can reflect God's creative nature in the music that I write. The Psalms tell us that creation reflects the glory and holiness of God. This is where I think our emotions come into play. When a song is beautiful it makes us feel something because we were made to be moved by God's creation. It reflects His glory without any lyric even being sung. God’s truth is in His creation, and I hope when this is coupled with the truth being sung and spoken it helps people see Christ as a cohesive theme in the whole film.
Finally, how can folks hear more of your music?
You can find more of my handy work at watchingforwonder.com (the musical group I am most heavily involved in). I am working on a few other side projects currently that should be set to release right before summer, so keep your eyes peeled!
Listen to Ben Crandall's beautiful score for High Country.