Composer for The Old Way, Andrew Morgan Smith, Discusses Creative Influences and the Advice He Would Give to Aspiring Composers

Jenny Poole
8 min readJan 18, 2023

I had the unique opportunity to speak with talented composer Andrew Morgan Smith in regards to his latest project, The Old Way. Andrew has a number of notable credits in the film/music space, including The Rougarou, You Might be the Killer and Presence, as well as the hard hitting documentary, By Blood, which highlights the ways in which different indigenous American Indian communities are confronting racism.

During our conversation, Andrew delved into his background and journey in the music industry, touching on his childhood influences that have shaped his love for film scoring. In addition, Andrew expressed his takeaways and thoughts on his unique mentorship with composer David Newman. I had the chance to hear more about his personal style when it comes to scoring a new project, as well as the collaborative dynamic between himself and director, Brett Donawho.

I would love to start with you telling me a little about your background and experience with the music/film industry. How did those two worlds come to be? Did you start with just music or film, or was this always something you planned to be your track?

One of my earliest music memories is this cassette tape that my dad had which was called “Pops in Space”. I distinctly remember its cover with an orchestra inside of a glass UFO. It was a Boston Pops recording of a bunch of John Williams music. I loved to listen to that tape. Later on, I’d listen to the Jurassic Park soundtrack and imagine what was happening in each scene. I took piano lessons as a kid, played guitar, and joined the band program playing saxophone. Strangely enough, even with all of this, I never saw film music as a career path till around high school.

It wasn’t until I was in high school and I saw Pirates of the Caribbean that something clicked for me. I think I saw that movie seven times in the theater and I couldn’t get enough of it. From that point forward, I knew that I wanted to write film music and I put all my thoughts and resources into that goal.

After high school, in addition to studying Music Media and Composition at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, I wrote music for whatever I could get my hands on. Football highlight films, local commercials, short films, and even my first indie feature film was a movie made by a faculty at the university.

At the time, there was a production company making TV movies near where I was living. I took a demo CD with my contact info written on the disc and went to their production office. When I got there, there was one assistant in the office. I gave him my CD and thought, ‘Well, I’m never hearing from them again.’ Later that week I got a phone call from the director of one of their TV movies. He happened to pick up my CD with a bunch of other stuff, brought it to his car, he saw it and took a listen. He wanted to know if I wanted to audition for his next movie they were editing. That was my first real movie gig and it’s been a wild ride!

Andrew Morgan Smith in the Studio — PC: Jamie Orillion Photography

Out of all your resources, tools, networks, and just general knowledge of the industry, where do you personally like to start when scoring a film?

My process starts with deciding on what my sonic palette will be. I like to talk to the director and see what they’re thinking, both musically and thematically. What genre, colors, emotions, ideas, and styles they’re interested in and start honing from there. With that established, I’ll start writing ideas, textures, and themes bouncing them off of the creatives on the movie to make sure we’re on the right track.

Depending on the score, I’ll sketch on different instruments. If it’s a more traditional score, I’ll often start writing on piano, sometimes playing ideas into my phone or even just singing them into voice memos if the idea strikes at an odd time. In a more guitar driven score, I’ll spend more time theme writing on the guitar itself. This helps me ensure that I’m writing idiomatic music for the instrument. For a more unorthodox score, I’ll put whatever sonic textures or strange instruments I’m working with into my computer and start there. Effecting, destroying, and manipulating the sounds till I find what works for the picture. Since every project is a bit different, it’s important to have flexibility.

You have some big hits coming up, specifically with the notable Nicholas Cage in “The Old Way.” How did this opportunity fall into your lap, and what was this process like collaborating with director Brett Donowho?

Yes, I’m really excited for ‘The Old Way’ to get out there! I came onto ‘The Old Way’ through the producers actually. I had done work for Bryan Wright and Micah Haley before and they were really happy with my previous scores. They called me up and asked if I was interested in scoring it, and of course I enthusiastically said, “YES! How many times do you get to score a Nicholas Cage western!?”

Working with Brett Donowho was great. Brett has a musical background and a musical ear as well, so it was good to connect with him on those levels. He was always really open to ideas and excited to hear the next cue. Being a musician, he also tremendously enjoyed recording sessions with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra. He was great and collaborative throughout the whole process.

Official Trailer, The Old Way

And a follow-up, were there ever any roadblocks in the scoring journey with this film? How did you and your team approach the collaboration for this project?

The biggest roadblock on ‘The Old Way’ was what style the score would be. When I first came onboard, the original idea was a more intimate guitar based score. As things progressed, we knew this wasn’t what the movie needed. Sonically we needed a different identity for the movie. It’s more of a throw back to the classic studio western vs a more modern western. So the challenge became, let’s do an updated take on the classic studio western score.

I ended up finding inspiration in rocky mountain folk music. Borrowing the fiddle, guitar, and banjo from that style as well as melody structure and the use of open intervals so common in folk music. Combining these soloists, ideas, and the orchestra turned out to be a winning formula. I was so excited to try this idea that I scored the first bit of the film they showed me. It was the rough edit of the opening shootout. Brett, the director, ended up liking that sequence so much that the music is almost the same as the original cue I wrote.

Once I knew we were going in that direction, I brought on one of my oldest collaborators, Stephen Rees, to play fiddle. For banjo and guitar, Stephen suggested Seth Taylor and he was absolutely amazing to work with. These guys really brought the vibe we needed for this new classic western sound.

You studied under composer David Newman (Tarzan, Ice Age, The Sandlot). What were your biggest takeaways from that mentorship?

Working with David Newman was awesome. I studied with him at the Aspen Music Festival in 2010 while I was in college. David brought great advice not only about film composition, but also about how to function in this job as a professional and a person. Dealing with rejection, surprises on projects, and being a consummate pro. Additionally, I’m happy to say that he is a really nice guy.

You have also established an incredible range of resources through your YouTube Channel, @AndrewMorganSmithMusic. What advice would you give to someone looking to enter the industry with big dreams but little to no experience?

Thanks! I started my channel since I often got asked the same questions from students and aspiring film composers. I decided to make a series to answer those questions and cover topics that I thought might be useful to filmmakers as well.

For aspiring composers, I have two main pieces of advice.

First: Start writing everyday. It won’t be a magnum opus, but you have to start learning how you write and your creative process. Just like any other instrument, you have to practice and our studio is our instrument. Open up your computer and write anything you want. Just write.

Second: Don’t take things personally. This industry has many ups and downs. You’ll have lots of chances and if things don’t work out on a specific project, it’s not about you personally, it wasn’t the right fit. If a producer or director doesn’t get back to you quickly or ever, it’s not ’cause they don’t like you. They’re probably just busy. So as hard as it might be . . . don’t take it personally. You never know when you might be the right fit for a project they have.

And finally, if you had to score a short film of a pivotal moment in your career, what take would you have in regards to the music?

We fade in on a history lecture class midday. A young Andrew Morgan Smith sits in a desk and feels his cellphone vibrate, which he shouldn’t have on. Quiet pizzicato strings and woodwinds start as he quickly sneaks a look at the screen, seeing a number he doesn’t recognize and a new voicemail. Music swells as we smash cut to Andrew outside of the classroom, desperately trying to find a signal from within the ancient history building.

“Something about these old structures always seems to screw with the cell signal.” He thinks to himself. Finally, the music crescendos as the phone registers one bar. The score then resolves to a single suspenseful held note as Andrew puts the phone up to his ear to hear the mysterious voicemail.

A male voice comes over the earpiece, “Hey Andrew, I happened to pick up your CD off of a desk in the office with some other stuff. I took a listen in my car and really liked it. Think you could do that for me?” Andrew’s expression changes from one of suspense to elation in slow motion as “Maniac” by Michael Sembello fades up. He jumps with both feet into the air and we freeze frame. Fade to black as the music continues.

A blurb appears saying, “Andrew continued writing movie scores for many years. He scored many stand out films including, ‘The Old Way’ which you can see in theaters on January 6th, 2023.”

Learn more about Andrew’s work and career on his IMDb and Website.

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Jenny Poole

Film, TV & Music Journalist, Writer & Teacher. Over 10 years covering the entertainment industries, working with major US and Global outlets.