In early 2017, Bachelor of Music student Will Kepa was just settling in to his first year at ANU when he got the call to begin work on a new ABC docu-drama. His role: to create, mix and master the soundtrack.
“I had worked on other films before,” Will, a mature age student, says.
“But this is the first time I’ve done everything by myself. It was a giant leap from what I’ve done previously.”
The three-part series, Blue Water Empire, traces the culture and history of the Torres Strait Islands. Will, who is a Torres Strait Islander, brought to the project extensive music engineering and producing experience, along with his skills as a multi-instrumentalist. He’s performed at festivals including the Byron Bay Blues and Roots Festival and the National Folk Festival, and toured internationally.
He specialises in drums and bass guitar, but also plays guitar and some keyboards.
“I wouldn’t say I play much more than that, but I get away with a lot of stuff in the studio,” he says, before citing a list of other instruments he’s played on recordings: the mandolin, banjo, and dulcimer among them.
Will’s musical skills have been vital to composing for film. He discussed his process of writing to the screen.
“Once I get the draft, I import it into my recording program, write into the session, and compose to what’s on screen with the piano in front of me,” he explains.
“I come up with chord progressions and different sounds as a mock-up to begin with.
“I play through the whole film maybe three or four times in different takes, then go back through it and pick which moods I think work best with the scene. Then I build it up from there.”
His music for Blue Water Empire includes the instruments he’s most proficient in, which offer a more contemporary sound. He’s also included atmospheric elements such as bamboo flutes from PNG.
“I’ve tried to keep it traditional sounding in some places,” he says.
“It’s also got a new age, cinematic and orchestral in other places, depending on what’s happening onscreen. It’s very diverse.”
Will did some recording and all the mixing for the soundtrack at the School of Music’s state of the art recording studio.
“It was a really nice experience being in the new studio, with all its fancy gadgets, to make it sound as good as I could,” Will, who is majoring in Composition for Film and Video Games, says.
He found his way around the industry-leading Neve console without any trouble, having spent more than a decade producing music.
“I’m at the ANU now because it was always something I wanted to do: further my musical skills and get a degree.”
He earned a Diploma in Music up in Cairns, but says he never had the opportunity to carry on studying for a degree.
“Life took over, I started getting work, regular gigs, tours, festivals, working in live sound production as a front of house (FOH) engineer, on location recording projects in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, producing music in the recording studio, teaching, touring abroad including Germany and France for a couple of months with a New Caledonian artist. Something would always come up and put me in a different direction.”
Even now, life is pulling Will in a few directions at once. His studio, which he does freelance work from, happens to double as a baby room.
“I had to fit Blue Water Empire around my first year of studying and first year being a dad,” he says.
“But there was a good result in the end. The filmmakers seem pretty happy with what I’ve done.”
Will has had three other film/TV jobs lined up as a result of working on Blue Water Empire. Ultimately, he’d like to become a qualified teacher, for the job security and commit more to his family.
“I would like to do a bit of everything: teach, compose music for film, performing gigs, live sound festivals. But my passion lies in the studio – I’ll never leave the recording studio.”
Since Blue Water Empire, Will has worked on a few other projects, including a food documentary series Strait to the Plate, scheduled to screen on NITV later this year, along with the series Elements, Dinghy Girls, and the music for the Australia Expo 2020 fly through video.
Blue Water Empire is available on DVD from Bunya Productions.