Kristine Bernabe on the Power of Musical Storytelling and Following Your Entrepreneurial Spirit

Kristine Bernabe is a Vietnamese American music composer for visual media in Brooklyn, New York. She composes electronic and orchestral music for indie dramas, animation, television, games, and more. We met while taking a few writing and journalism courses to fulfill our literary journalism requirements at the University of California, Irvine, in 2010-2011. I have always admired her music composition, reporting, and creative writing talents and am excited to feature her voice on my blog. Read her exclusive interview for morningswithmoni.com about moving to New York, finding her musical voice, and navigating her creative and entrepreneurial journey as an AAPI composer and journalist.

Moni: Thanks for being a part of my blog spotlighting women of color creatives! Can you take us through your journey as a writer/journalist and composer/musician? 

When I was in middle school, I fell in love with art direction and storytelling through blogs and magazines. Being that this was before the MySpace era, I’d collect Nylon Magazine and make lists of blogs I liked. I was generally drawn to drawing, photography, writing, video, and music – which, interestingly enough, led to many things I ended up doing later on.

In high school, I dabbled in each of these things to some capacity: I blogged and explored my writing style; I’d make independent video projects in my small neighborhood in West Covina, CA that never saw the light of day. I cut out pictures I liked from magazines and made collages; I tried to draw as much as possible; and I self-recorded very early music compositions on a cheap digital audio workstation with a MIDI keyboard my dad was kind enough to get me. 

Paperman (Rescore) by Kristine Bernabe

In college at UCI, I was originally a film major actually but later switched to a double major of literary journalism and history – and later dropped literary journalism so I could graduate one year early. I was set on journalism/art direction at the time and just wanted to work right away – which led me to freelancing at OC Weekly and later working as a Clubs Editor/Writer there. This was in 2015, which was also the time I started semi-seriously thinking about composing/producing music because I was becoming more and more obsessed with all the sampled hip hop, indie music, and 1970s rock I was listening to. At the time though, I figured I’d only do music on the side.    

Though I’m a full-on composer and musician now, I’m so grateful to have been in the world of alternative weeklies and blogs. I still very much love those things and incorporate that storytelling/visual aspect into my music projects now. Once you work in journalism – working on several stories a week, meeting different/interesting people, exploring various intellectual questions, and expanding your own worldview – it stays with you forever. 

As a kid, I always knew I wanted to write music; subconsciously though, I noticed that I didn’t see many people who looked like me pursuing it (especially growing up in the 90s and early 2000s). I would always fantasize about combining music with art direction – I’d tell myself that’d be my dream career. I was a ‘late bloomer’ because I didn’t pursue music until many years after graduating from college. As I saw more and more Asian Americans pursuing roles in media, I slowly grew more empowered to pursue it myself. I think right now we’re seeing change happen, and it’s an amazing time for Asian Americans to take a leap and go for it.

Photo courtesy of Kristine Bernabe

I got into composing around age 10; I’d make up melodies and play around with chord progressions after my piano lesson (which I took from age five until mid-high school). As a kid, I wasn’t as interested in my piano lessons but I really liked improvisation and writing melodies. This was also the age where I became obsessed with records and film music and would listen to songs on repeat just for interesting composition/production moments. I started recording myself in high school and putting simple music up on Music MySpace thinking it was the most fun thing ever. In a sense, I never stopped writing music even though I was focusing on journalism/art direction when I got to college. 

Moving to New York is what helped me accept myself as a musician. I moved to Manhattan in 2016 and later to Brooklyn in 2018. Living in Manhattan was when I first started to explore who I was, but Brooklyn is where my real self had the space to bloom. I think the reason is because I was far away from home, so I started challenging my own worldview as I learned how different life can be when you experience something new. 

2018 – the year I moved to Brooklyn – was the year I decided to commit and work my way towards a full career switch towards music composition/production. In Brooklyn, I saw more people whom I identified with – they were creative, independent, and out-of-the-box. I used to feel like I didn’t fit in in a sense, but here I felt like I belonged. I started going to local music and art events and slowly believing I could create the life I wanted – if I worked really hard. So I began trying to write and record as much music as I could, every single day. I decided to focus on creating music projects based on my musical influences (mainly Toro y Moi and Flying Lotus) and film music. 

In 2019, I started thinking about getting formal music training because I wanted to grow and become a more dynamic composer. In 2020, I participated in the NYU/BMI Television Scoring Workshop, took private lessons with composer Jaimie Pangan, and took a Scoring to Picture course at Juilliard Evening Division. These experiences transformed me as a composer/musician and my work has evolved ever since. I’m really excited to start my Master of Music in Screen Scoring program at NYU this fall!

What anyone can learn from my journey is that it’s never too late to be who you want to be. Being that we’re human, we’re allowed to experiment, try, explore, try again, change, evolve, and grow. Try as many times as you want and can. We’re so multifaceted. We naturally have many interests and abilities. When we honor ourselves – our interests, heart, and soul – things will face into place. 

Moni: What have been some of the early musical influences in your life that have shaped who you are today? 

Growing up, I was really into the experimental projects of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, as well as George Harrison’s solo stuff. I swore by the White Album, Surf’s Up, and All Things Must Pass. I would listen to these records obsessively over and over again. I’ve also always been influenced by recorded music from the 1970s: Asha Puthli, Funkadelic, Donald Byrd, and more. 

As a kid, I was really into film music as well (Howard Shore and Hans Zimmer are who got me into it). I loved the idea of using music as a language to express and tell a story. These days, I like experimental-ish film music like Ludwig Göransson’s ‘Tenet’. I really look up to Toro y Moi, Flying Lotus, and Tame Impala as well. 

Moni: Many of us have had to work jobs that we’ve hated or didn’t quite fulfill us. If you feel comfortable sharing, can you talk about some of the challenges, setbacks, or pivotal moments in your career? 

I relate to this one-hundred percent. As I “adulted” throughout my 20s, I started to realize that creativity and boldness go together – which is oftentimes limiting in a traditional corporate job. This was simultaneously an easy and difficult realization for me. I’ve observed that, most of the time, being more fulfilled creatively involves being self-employed and entrepreneurial. I learned that succeeding in life is all about fit – and I wasn’t truly fitting into any of my day jobs. I didn’t feel like I fit in in general until I moved to Brooklyn, and when I stumbled upon creative people who ran their own businesses: illustrators with artist shops, music producers who sold beats, musicians who were using social media to create useful videos. Seeing what these people were doing made me feel like living a creatively fulfilling life was possible – as long as I was willing to commit, work hard, and take risks. 

Transitioning from journalism to music was one of the hardest things I have ever done – and I think that difficulty level comes with any huge career change. One reason is that the creativity in journalism and music work differently – so it took a lot of mental bandwidth for me to switch from one way of thinking to another. The other reason is that it is mentally and emotionally difficult to shift how we see our own identity. In American society, work takes up so much of our lives, and it’s easy to base our identity on what we do for a living. One of the biggest challenges I had in switching to music is building up my sense of self-belief and confidence – it was a slow and steady process, but the more I committed to it, the more I embraced and loved who I was becoming.

What I would say to anyone who is unfulfilled in their job is to take small baby steps in exploring something you have an interest in. Sign up for a continuing education class; attend a workshop; or start taking notes of what the people you look up to are doing and see if you can pursue those opportunities too. 

For me, the NYU/BMI Television Scoring Workshop and the class I took at Juilliard Evening in 2020 were extremely helpful in my transition into music. A win is when you try something new and it fits – and that usually happens after many, many failed attempts at finding the right fit. These two experiences were the first time I felt like I truly found my place and my people after many tries.

Moni: Growing up Asian-American, were there any moments where you felt pressured by the model minority myth, or felt like you had to pursue a linear career? Or, was it the opposite? Did you receive support from your family to pursue the humanities? 

Growing up Vietnamese American, I was never forced to become a doctor or lawyer but there was always a quiet understanding that those things would be a better choice than the humanities or music. Being Asian American has always subconsciously informed my thoughts, perspective, and decisions – and I didn’t become conscious of that until my mid-20s and newly moved to New York. In a sense, I was afraid to admit that to myself before that; living in a new place like New York gave me the freedom to explore all of my thoughts without judgment. 

Being that I was Asian American, a woman, and artistic, I always felt like I didn’t fit in and spent a good portion of my life trying to find my place in the world. Subconsciously, I was afraid of ‘coming out’ as an artistic person and being judged by the community I grew up. Growing up, I didn’t know any other Asian Americans who had the same aspirations as me; most of my Asian American friends’ parents (in my community at least) were conservative when it came to our careers. I felt like I was the only one going down the creative path whereas most of my peers were going into more traditional careers. In music and media as well, there weren’t many Asian Americans on screen when I was a kid/teenager.

I didn’t find the confidence and self-empowerment to just go for music until I had been in New York for a few years and finally started to embrace the idea that ‘what makes you different makes you special’. That became my motto ever since. I started to see being Asian American and all the things that made me unique as an advantage. Something that really helped me was seeing more Asian American artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and actors absolutely kill it. I believe that the more Asian Americans pursue their creative dreams, the more we can inspire others to do the same. 

Moni: Can you share some of the projects you’re currently working on/have worked on in the past? 

I am currently working on a music project influenced by electronic film/tv music I love (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’ Watchmen and Flying Lotus’ Yasuke score – both of which would be dream projects for me). I’ve been experimenting with different synths so the past year has really been about exploring the tones and textures of my sound. I’ve grown a lot from my past experiences in my music training and independent musical experimentation in 2020, so I’m really happy I decided to give the project time to grow, evolve, and mature into where it’s going now. I’ve written so many musical sketches every single day for the past year (which had its ups and downs in the creative process) but seeing it come together now is extremely rewarding. 

I’ve also been working on my company, Elegant Hustla Records, which is home to my music and creative projects. This project has been in the works for several years now; ever since I decided to go into music, I knew I wanted to have a company where I could expand upon the kinds of projects I’m working on. For the past few years, I’ve been inspired by local record labels and artist shops here in Brooklyn and have been working on incorporating those influences into Elegant Hustla Records. 

Moni: As a writer, what are some of the themes you like to explore? Any past reportage or interviews you conducted that really resonated or left a lasting impact? How did these pieces shape you? 

I’ve changed so much as a writer. I feel like how I would write now is really different from how I was writing when I was working as a journalist before I left California; in a sense, my perspective has evolved and shifted a lot. Today, I would explore my identity as an Asian American musician with all of its unique nuances, challenges, and empowering moments. Being in my position has left me wondering if other Asian American creatives share the same experiences and feelings I’ve had – and so I would write hoping to create connection with others like myself.

When I was a journalist in California, I did explore Asian American identity in my writing. Back then, I interviewed and wrote stories about Qui Nguyen (one of the writers of Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon) and wrote a feature on Asian American visual artist Trinh Mai. Looking back at it now, it seems like I already had questions about what it means to be an Asian American creative; I was already exploring that question. Later on when I was already in my late-ish 20s, I started to realize that my identity as an Asian American creative has always been something I’ve pondered and tried to make sense of.  

Moni: What prompted the move to New York City? How long have you been a New Yorker for, and what are some of the quirks about the city, or adventures you’ve been on? As a transplant from California, are there still some things that you miss about LA? 

I moved to New York City in January 2016, so it’s been a little over five years. It’s one of those typical stories: I felt a strong connection to New York City when I first visited in 2012 and knew I wanted to live here someday. I was 24 at the time so I felt like I was young and didn’t have much to lose; if it didn’t work out, I thought, I could just go back home and it would’ve been a fun thing to do.

It’s weird because I feel like both LA and New York are home, but in different ways. New York is pretty crazy and you just never know what you’re going to see or do. Its craziness somewhat pushed me to be more confident because you’re surrounded by people who seem to just go for it and not care what people think. When I go home to LA, I feel like I can take a step back and breathe again – it’s generally more chill than New York, and it’s also where I grew up so that sense of familiarity is calming. I’m honestly a Californian at heart – I feel like my sense of humor is still very SoCal and I will forever be chill. I miss the people the most. 

Photo courtesy Kristine Bernabe

Moni: Can you tell me more about the NYU Summer and Juilliard Evening programs that you were involved in? 

I started writing and recording cinematic music seriously around 2018 and I knew that I eventually wanted formal education in it to help me improve and become more versatile. Since I majored in humanities and not music in undergrad, I had a non-traditional background and was a bit nervous to apply to the NYU/BMI Television Scoring Workshop but knew that I wanted to take a chance. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made because it was so formative for me – it was the beginning of my journey as a film music student. We made music almost every day for two weeks and received critiques from composers Sean Callery (24, Homeland), Blake Neely (Arrow, Riverdale), Lyle Workman (Netflix’s Love, Superbad), and Chad Fischer (Scandal). 

That same year, I decided to keep the momentum going and took a class called Scoring to Picture at Juilliard Evening. Being a film music nerd, this was absolutely amazing. We analyzed and went over music scores from movies like Vertigo, The Matrix, and Life of Pi (one of my favorite scores). I got a chance to meet other composers and hear their work. This was also an opportunity for me to delve into the music theory aspect of film music and write in different styles. It helped me expand my range a lot, which is really important in film music.

Moni: What are some of your plans for the future in terms of composing and creating content that resonates with people from all across the globe? 

In addition to my work as a music composer and producer, I plan to expand Elegant Hustla Records into more than just a place for my music. This project has always been my playground – a place where I could experiment with ways to use music and art to connect with others. Incorporating content and community into this project has always been a goal of mine. In film/television/game music, my goal is to work on projects with a diverse cast, crew, and story. Being part of the change in media representation is a deeply personal goal of mine and I want to do as much as I can to contribute. 

Moni: Did you grow up in a “musical family?” What were some of your influences or early memories? What instruments did you play? 

I did! Mostly everyone on my dad’s side has musical ability and a love for it. My dad himself is a passionate lover of music – a multi-instrumentalist who is self-taught in piano, guitar, bass, and recording. I have an aunt (his sister) who is killer at piano, guitar, and bass too, and a cousin who has a Master of Music. Most of my cousins play instruments (piano, violin, guitar) really well. I would definitely call us a musical family!

I started classical piano lessons when I was five and kept at it until midway through high school. As for guitar, I started playing when I was fifteen and took lessons briefly in high school. I’ve always loved composing – improvising and playing with chord progressions – and gravitated towards that rather than becoming a virtuoso pianist or guitarist. 

Discovering the combination of music and storytelling through film music was the most formative for me growing up. I was ten years old and it was the early 2000s – I had a local DVD rental shop near where I lived and would rent movies on a weekly basis, which is how I stumbled upon Howard Shore and Hans Zimmer. There was something so catchy and emotional about their work – and the combination of that with motion picture filled me with so much fascination. I immediately started trying to write music inspired by them – though at the time I didn’t know how to orchestrate or record music, so I left it at my piano. I’ve loved film music ever since. 

Moni: How would you describe your musical style and the artists you gravitate to? In the future, would you like to compose for movies/tv, game scores, etc? 

There is definitely an experimental edge to the artists I gravitate to: Toro y Moi, Flying Lotus. I think that off-the-wall flavor makes music more exciting for me. For me, what makes something fresh is when we flip the switch and break the rules. I feel like we see that with each new era of music: disco, house music, funk, hip hop, etc. My work is definitely a bit experimental and a culmination of all the things I love: sampled hip hop, indie music, film music, electronic stuff like disco and house, and world music. I’m really big into crate digging and I love finding interesting records – from old school African disco to a Hamid Al-Shaeri record – that eventually influence my work. In film music, I really love composers who are pushing its boundaries and redefining what film music means. Composers like Ludwig Göransson, who has done things differently in his scores for Black Panther and Tenet, is someone whom I’m really influenced by. Mixing live orchestra with a noticeably electronic sound is what I’ve been exploring in my film music. 

Composing for film/television/games is definitely a career goal of mine. I love Devonte Hynes’ combined career of being a musical artist as well as a film composer and that’s something I want my career to look like as well. Currently, women remain the minority in the composing/producing/film music world and that’s something I’m passionate about changing (one statistic showed that in the top 250 grossing films of 2019, women comprised 6% composers.) I hope that by working in this field, I can contribute to the landscape and show that women are also the ones behind the music. I know a few women composers who are doing some big things so I know that things are changing slowly but surely. It’s really exciting to be pursuing music at this time in history. 

-Written for morningswithmoni.com

WEBSITE: kristinebernabe.com 

VIDEO: Paperman Rescore https://vimeo.com/523273638

VIDEO: Red Dead Redemption Rescore https://vimeo.com/523274100

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