Keeping Up With Amanda Jones, Score Composer On The Rise

Sep 11, 2020
Originally published on September 11, 2020 6:01 am

Two years ago, Amanda Jones was at a luncheon for the NAACP Image Awards. She was working for a television studio at the time, and wanted to change directions. When she spotted writer/producer Lena Waithe, she walked up to her and told her she wanted to be a full-time film and TV composer.

"I was like, 'Hey, I'm getting ready to take the leap,' " Jones says. "And she was like, 'Oh, cool. Here's my email — let's keep in touch.' "

Now, Jones has become the first African American woman to nab an Emmy nomination for original television score. Her road to success on the Apple TV+ series Home began with Waithe deciding to take a chance on her.

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At the time, Waithe — creator of Showtime's The Chi, screenwriter of the film Queen & Slim and the first Black woman to win an Emmy for writing on comedy series — was developing a semi-autobiographical series about a queer Black woman trying to break into Hollywood. Even though Jones only had a handful of indie credits at the time, Waithe invited her to score the project, which became the show Twenties.

"I love giving someone their first opportunity," Waithe says. "Is there a risk? Sure. But I just think the reward is so much better. Even if that person falls flat on their face, I'd rather have given that person an opportunity, and then they learn from that fall, than not."

Jones was prepared: Having grown up in Jeffersonton, Va., with a Motown-obsessed father, she was already an experienced singer, songwriter and guitarist. "I remember it was The Temptations' 'My Girl' — that guitar line," she says. "When I was four or five, just hearing that was when I first fell in love with the guitar."

Jones played guitar in her church band as a teenager, then went off to Vassar College to become a chemist — but the call of music was too strong. She switched her major to composition, and after graduating she formed a band, The Anti-Job, and moved to Los Angeles, where she tried to keep her expenses low.

"I didn't have a car. I still don't have a car," Jones says. "We always tried to make sure we either broke even on tour, or just made a little bit more.We'd also play breweries or wineries, which actually pay really well, but they're just not as cool."

Seeking a little more stability, Jones became an assistant at the studios of film composers like Hans Zimmer. That led to a job as a music coordinator at Lionsgate Television, all of which made Jones believe she had what it took to compose for film and TV.

"It's a given that you're excellent at your craft," she says. "So, 'Are you cool?' is basically the question — that's not asked, you know, deliberately, but that's what they're trying to figure out."

As it turned out, Jones was cool enough to score for Robin Thede's A Black Lady Sketch Show on HBO, spoofing genres from rom-coms to sitcoms to spy thrillers. That led to working for Ava DuVernay on the OWN program Cherish the Day. Then, finally, came Home, which earned Jones her nomination at this year's Primetime Emmy Awards, airing Sept. 20.

Even though she's only been scoring full-time for less than two years, Jones is already helping others. As a co-founder of the Composers Diversity Collective, she connects producers and studios with underrepresented composers — generating even more new energy and talent.

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(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOME")

AMANDA JONES: (Vocalizing).

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That's the voice and guitar of Amanda Jones from her Emmy-nominated score from an episode of the Apple TV Plus series "Home." Jones is the first African American woman to be nominated for an original television score. Tim Greiving has her story.

TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: Two years ago, Amanda Jones was at a luncheon for the NAACP Image Awards. She was working for a television studio and wanted to change directions. She walked up to producer Lena Waithe and told her she wanted to be a fulltime film and TV composer.

JONES: I was like, hey, I'm getting ready to, like, take the leap. And she was like, oh, cool. Like, here's my email. Let's keep in touch.

GREIVING: Waithe, the producer and creator behind "The Chi" and "Queen & Slim" was developing a new semi-autobiographical series about a queer black woman trying to break into Hollywood. And even though Amanda Jones only had a handful of indie credits at the time, Waithe gave her the job scoring the show "Twenties."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TWENTIES")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) You know what it is. What?

LENA WAITHE: I love giving someone their first opportunity because is there a risk? Sure. But I just think the reward is so much better. You know, even if that person falls flat on their face, I'd rather have given that person opportunity and then they learn from that fall than not.

GREIVING: But Amanda Jones was already an experienced singer, songwriter and guitar player. She grew up in Jeffersonton, Va., where her dad, who works in health care, started the fire.

JONES: My dad was obsessed with Motown, and I remember it was The Temptations song, like, "My Girl."

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TEMPTATIONS SONG, "MY GIRL")

JONES: That, like, guitar line, when I was, like, 4 or 5 - just, like, hearing that was just, like, when I first fell in love with the guitar.

GREIVING: Jones played guitar in her church band as a teenager, then went off to Vassar College to become a chemist. But the call of music was too strong. She switched her major to composition. And after graduating, she formed a band, The Anti-Job, and moved to LA.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISS YOU")

THE ANTI-JOB: (Singing) I'll miss you, miss you, miss you, miss you.

JONES: So we kept our expenses very low. I didn't have a car. I still don't have a car. And, yeah, we just kept it - we always tried to make sure we either, like, broke even on tour or, like, just made a little bit more. But then we'd also, like, play, like, breweries or wineries, which actually pay really well. But they were just, like, not as cool (laughter).

GREIVING: She wanted a little more stability and worked as an assistant at the studios of film composers like Hans Zimmer. Then she took a job as a music coordinator at Lionsgate television. All of this made Jones believe she had what it took to compose for film and TV.

JONES: 'Cause it's a given that you're excellent at your craft, so are you cool (laughter) is basically, like, the question that's not asked, you know, deliberately, but that's what they're trying to figure out.

GREIVING: Working for Lena Waithe on "Twenties" led to working for Robin Thede on "A Black Lady Sketch Show" where Jones spoofed genres from rom-coms to sitcoms to spy thrillers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A BLACK LADY SKETCH SHOW")

GREIVING: That led to working for Ava DuVernay on the show "Cherish The Day." Then came "Home," which earned Jones her Emmy nomination.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMANDA JONES FEAT. LEE HARCOURT'S "FUTURE PLANS")

GREIVING: And even though she's only been scoring full time for less than two years, Amanda Jones is already helping others. As a co-founder of the Composers Diversity Collective, she's connecting producers and studios with other underrepresented composers and generating even more new energy. For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMANDA JONES FEAT. LEE HARCOURT'S "FUTURE PLANS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.