A remarkable interview with Gaili Schoen, composer & a former punk rocker living in London in the 1980's (yes, really!)
by rachel funderburk
Gaili Schoen is a California-born composer, orchestrator, pianist, ex-punk rocker, and all around amazing musician. She’s with us today to reminisce, share some experiences, and give some advice to all our up-and-coming female artists out there.
Without further ado..
What originally got you into music, and who were some of your early influences?
When I was a little girl, my parents were playing records all the time. Whatever I heard, I just loved! In elementary school, my music teacher, Mrs. Love, pulled me aside and tested me, and we discovered that I had perfect pitch. She called my mother and said that she must get me into piano lessons right away, so we did! I wasn't really attracted to classical music as a kid though, so I kind of rebelled a little bit. I would do my half hour practice of the classical stuff, but after that, I’d just play Beatles songs. I just loved the Beatles! I always had this fantasy that the Beatles were going to drive down my street and get a flat tire and hear that I could play all their songs and hire me or something, but they never did!
Anyways, I took all these years of classical lessons, and then in high school I started studying and playing jazz. There was this guy at one gig who pulled me aside and told me he was doing some recording in New York, so I took his card and ended up driving myself across the country! I never found him—I don't know what I was thinking—but over in New York I started putting everything together—a little bit of jazz, a little rock, and some classical—and I started writing songs. I loved what was happening in England at the time (The Thompson Twins, Thomas Dolby, Howard Jones), and what I really wanted was just to go to London and play that music. So I drove all the way back across country, and luckily had a friend put me in touch with a girl called Lynn Shipley. She’d managed some bands (Berlin, Quarterflash), but she played bass and wanted to form a girl-band of her own. Here’s the thing, I really was a serious musician. Most of the girl bands back then were just singers who hired men to back them up. I was not into the whole Go-Go’s thing; I had done that stuff in cover bands, but I just wanted to be a musician. It was weird to find female artists back then who were just serious musicians.
But we moved out to Chiswick in ’81—I was just 20 years old—and started looking for singers. We did find a Scottish guy, Robert, with a wonderful voice, but he did drink a lot. I never saw him eating—it seemed like all he was doing was drinking! And he was allergic to beer! He would drink one and his face would turn bright red, and he'd have to go lie down because he was so allergic. We started recording with him, but Lynn and I really were the band—it was our band, and we were writing most of the songs. It was hard for Robert as a guy to just sort of…take instruction. He would just get upset and it was always a hassle, but anyways we recorded songs. The most wonderful thing really was recording—being there and putting your music down on tracks. In England, they have residential recording studios, which are so cool because you just go and stay on a farm, and some chef comes in and cooks for you, and you're just hanging out with some sheep when you're not recording. You're just in this amazing place right up the block from one of Henry VIII’s old houses, which is wild for someone from LA! Putting the music down was just so cool, and back in the early 80s, you could have an independent hit. You’d just send it out to the radio stations, and if they liked it, they’d play it! We were really lucky—we got some good plays, and it was really fun!
Where did u hang out around London? What was your scene?
We lived in a place called Chiswick where my manager rented this gorgeous house for us—I was so lucky! I spent my days writing songs and exploring bookshops. They had the most amazing bookstores in London, and I was a great lover of books and reading. I remember Foyles bookstore had multiple floors before we had any big bookshops here like Barnes & Nobles or anything. I just remember thinking oh my god London is so much more literary than we are! There's so much more culture, so much more music, and so much more of everything! We would go see bands in Chelsea, but we were just doing so much recording! There was this one studio in Islington called Wessex with the best piano I’ve ever played in my whole life—a Bosendorf. Sitting down in that studio and playing on the most wonderful piano, it was the most amazing experience.
It’s so funny! That was a lot of years in London, but all I can really remember is walking on Chiswick High road to the health food store! Sometimes on weekends though, Lynn and I would drive out to Oxford or Bath for a Sunday roast. Everyone got out of the city on Sundays. You'd just go find a pub somewhere in the country and have a delicious roast dinner. Then, we’d come back and start writing again! We just had a really great partnership, Lynn and me. You know, we’d be out to lunch, and I’d come up with a chorus, and she’d come up with verse lyrics. It's really great to find people you can collaborate with.
Are you still in contact with her today?
Yes! We work out at the gym; we had our kids at the same time together, so it’s really fun! And now it’s so funny—I could show you pictures—it was like big hair 80’s with us back then. It was all about black and lots of lace! It was kind of Madonna—black stuff and dying your hair blonde. I had the sides of my head shaved, and then my hair just went up really really high, and I had it all bleached out—so did Lynn—so we went through that, and now we’re moms and old ladies together! It’s been a really long and interesting friendship! And that’s the cool thing about music too. You’re not going to be a rocker your whole life—that’s for sure, but if you have a general love for music, you can play your whole life. Even if you're not a religious person, you get this kind of spiritual connection when you're playing music—it just fills your heart and makes you feel so connected, and to be able to have that your whole life from something you do with just your hands and a musical instrument is just a really wonderful thing.
You’ve also composed scores for all kinds of films and documentaries; what are some of the most memorable experiences you’ve gained from this work?
Scoring is so different. The bad news about scoring is that producers are always trying to save money; they'd usually prefer just to have you do an electronic score without other musicians, but when you have other musicians play on your score, it makes it come alive in a way an electronic score just can’t.
On a score that I wrote for a film called Noble Things, I got to work with a 52 piece orchestra, and that was the most terrifying and most exciting thing that happened to me besides having children I think! We recorded remotely—the orchestra was in Prague, and I went to Santa Monica, California to a recording studio. You're just hoping and praying that you didn’t make some big huge mistake because you're in LA, and they're in Prague! You can’t just go over there and fix something! I couldn't sleep the whole night before, but the most exciting thing was hearing my score played by a 52 piece orchestra and actuallyrealizing that I could do this. I could write for an orchestra! I remember going to the theatre and hearing my music and seeing the picture with all these people around me watching this movie that I scored. That's an amazingly huge thrill.
People used to say to me that my music was very cinematic, but I just never dreamed that I could be a film composer! Hopefully my generation has better taught your generation that you can do anything, and that you need to take yourself seriously! If you want to do something, then you do it! You study it in school, you work like crazy, and you do it. You don't think “could I really do that?” or “what am I thinking?” No! Just do it! That’s how men think—I want to do this thing, so I do it!—and if they're hardworking, they'll probably have some success. With women though, we kind of don't think that we have a chance because of all the times people haven't taken us seriously. I try to communicate to my daughters to go for it, whatever it is! Just go do it!
What was it like to be an up and coming woman in the music industry back in London, and how do you think being a female artist has changed today?
I had been playing piano my whole life, so it was exciting and something I’d always wanted to do. I was so glad to find my manager as someone who was taking me seriously, but it was difficult! There were so many people thinking of women as just singers, not musicians, so I had to fight my way through and always prove myself. Today, I think there’s a lot more openness towards seeing women as able to do everything. Even though there's still a disparity, there are a lot more women in popular music, even in rock! I think there’s more openness—they’re not just going to discount you. I know people will still generally assume you're not as good as the next guy, but there are more open doors. Generally as a young woman, you can’t get anyone to take you seriously as a musician! I really had to fight to be seen as a professional instead of just a girl musician, and I think we’re still fighting that fight. Like the other day, I just went to see a local Afro-Cuban band and the drummer was female. That’s something you notice, like oh! The drummer is a woman! That’s been my life story—to be the only girl in the band. I was the only girl in Jazz Band in high school, and I'm the only girl in almost every band I'm in now. It's such an issue still today—it’s more common than it used to be, but it tends to be that if a woman is even in a band, she's going to be a singer. I hope that in your generation, women will step up and be contributing musicians and join bands without necessarily having to be the front person or singer.
What advice would you have for up and coming female artists—what would you go back and tell yourself?
I would say work really really hard, because it’s a small industry and you have to be one of the best! I did work really hard—that part I had, but the other half of the equation is just to believe that you can do it. You can’t just be an artist; you have to show yourself, and if you're going to show yourself to people, you need to believe in yourself from the very beginning. If you don't get it from your parents and you don't have some kind of a mentor, then you have to be your own cheerleader. You're going to get a million people saying no, but you must run your stuff by other people in the industry to make sure you're on the right track. You have to be able to take criticism. Study other people's work—find your own sound for sure—but you need to understand the mechanics of what works, what doesn't, and why.
If you could see any artist past or present live who would it be?
Laurie Anderson—I always thought she was so original! She mixed music with video images and speech (often time political messages), and performance artists in the 80’s were just so cool! Someone contemporary would be Jacob Collier. He's a multi-instrumentalist, and he does all these really cool things with his voice with just layer upon layer of music. He's only 23, but I recently saw him in New York, and he was just really inspiring. He said something along the lines of “just hang out with yourself and see all the crazy stuff that comes out of your brain and make it into something creative!” He’s just doing something completely new, same as Laurie Anderson. You really have to go inward to find your own sound, I think. Those two manage to do something just so completely original.
What would you say is your top girl-power anthem?
When I was a kid, it had to be I am Woman by Helen Reddy. It’s pretty dated but an amazing song at the time. Hear me roar! You know? You can’t just keep me in the kitchen! She was kind of the first one to say “you just can’t keep me down!”
Rachel Funderburk, Author
Rachel is a part of the Gold Hand Journalism team
Heyo! I'm Rachel Funderburk, and I'm from Edmond, Oklahoma soon to be in New York City studying business and film at NYU. I'm all about girl power, creative vibes, and world travels, and I spend most of my time obsessing over my dogs, filling my home with plants, rewatching 80s movies, and listening to a ridiculous amount of political podcasts.