By: Joy Harjanto
Carol Kuswanto met us in a cafe tucked in the streets of Los Angeles on a typically sunny day. During our meeting, she identified the pitch of the song playing amid the background noise effortlessly.
Carol is gifted with perfect pitch: the ability to identify or re-create a musical note without a given reference
Beyond her shy and gentle demeanor, Carol has a competitive spirit, big goals and enviable experiences: from collaborating with big name artists from 88Rising like Joji and NIKI to working on music scores for Wong Fu Productions.
In this story, Carol talks about growing up with music, identifying her passion within music and taking risks in the industry as an international student.
Carol graduated from Berklee College of Music with dual degrees in Film Scoring and Music Business and a minor in Conducting in Fall 2017. She now works as an executive assistant for Kraftbox Entertainment.
Question and answer has been edited for length and clarity
Q: Can you give me a background on how and when did you develop your love for music?
I started piano really early because my mom was a piano teacher. I followed her footsteps, trained in classical piano, and then picked up a violin when I was 8.
Q: What was growing up in a non-arts high school like?
The environment I grew up was supportive (for me to pursue music). My high school (Sekolah Pelita Harapan, Lippo Village) invested in the arts. We had music programs like the orchestra, choir, gamelan, angklung, etc. I met NIKI through our high school we used to be in a band back then.
Q: How did you decide to go to music school for college?
I really wanted to become the best pianist. But when I got older I realized there were so many talented people and felt like I was not as good as I thought. I kind of got tired of classical training because it became a routine for me- I had to practice everyday and did not really connect with the music.
All along I knew I was going to do music but my first choice growing up as going to a conservatory studying classical music. My classmate told me about Berklee College of Music. I found a list of people who went there, the producers and people working behind the scene. I became very impressed because growing up all I knew was the performing side of music not the creative side. It was very fascinating for me to have that (creative) freedom to music and I think that is what music is about.
(I was accepted) to Berklee College of Music and the Manhattan School of Music. Manhattan had been my first choice growing up but I ended up holding on to risk it. (I decided) it was time for a change, it was also my first time ever risking something that big.
Q: Tell me more about your transition into film scoring.
I entered Berklee as a piano major but quickly realized everyone was as (good or even better than me). I had this competitiveness inside of me – I needed to find a way to be different. I started taking random entry classes for different majors, (including an) introduction to film scoring class. They had a final project for the class and the teacher ended up nominating me for an award in the department, which I ended up getting. I realized maybe this has been my thing all along.
Q: Can you explain what film scoring is to someone who doesn’t have a background in music?
The easiest way to explain it is film scoring is the original music you hear in films and pictures. Essentially, music is something that really drives emotions in a picture. It also helps tell stories. Dialogue won’t be enough without music- there is a limit to what words can do.
Q: What role did movies have in your life growing up?
My dad used to take me to the theatre – we always go every Sunday it was our thing. It was clearly a sign that film is for me. I (cry easily in movies) at the simplest change in gestures and I realize it’s because of the music.
Q: The common stereotype and barrier to pursuing a career in the music industry is instability. Did you face these stereotypes? If so, how did you deal with them?
People tell me that all the time, whether it is people I just met or catching up with non-music friends. They always ask me what I am going to do. It made me insecure and I doubted myself. At one point, I thought about pursuing business but at the end I was just going to hate myself for doing something I didn’t like. But I chose to believe in what I do best like my craft as a musician.
Q: What were specific struggles you faced trying to pursue a career with a visa?
To be able to work here you need either a H-1B or O1 visa*. Four months into my OPT, I started looking for lawyers, having consultations, and all of them told me to work really hard to build a portfolio. (The description for the O1 says) to get a visa you need a Grammy nomination or a Cannes one, so the bar is really high. **
Note: For Carol’s visa application, she received recommendation letters individuals including Shin Miyazawa (Thomas Newman’s main engineer) and DOCSKIM (BTS’ Music Producer).
H-1B and O1 visa are the two most common visa options although there are other methods to stay in the US
Q: How did you land your gig at 88Rising and how was working for artists in 88Rising?
NIKI and I moved to LA around the same and reconnected then. She introduced me to Rich Brian and the rest of 88Rising. I learned a lot because they are very creative people.
Q: Can you tell me more about how you helped produce the acoustic version of Joji’s Slow Dancing In The Dark?
We were at rehearsal for a festival last year and Joji’s manager was looking for someone who could do a piano version of “Slow Dancing In the Dark.” NIKI (referred me) and the manager told me to send a draft the same night. I went home and made three versions – they liked the third version.
Q: Why Los Angeles?
I wanted to push myself and get out of this college bubble. It is such a creative space because everyone in Los Angeles is freelancing. That’s why I want to be here and don’t want to go back yet. In Indonesia, it limits my creativity and not just for musicians because there are rules you have to follow.
Q: How did you land your current job?
I think it will forever be the luckiest email I sent my whole life. In the music industry, everyone has talent. No one will care about you unless you are different. I met my boss, Robert Kraft, back in Berklee, he visited one semester promoting his documentary called SCORE: Film Music Documentary. He gave a talk at our film score seminar class. When I moved, I emailed him and told him I was around. (After some time) he told me to try to come work for him and he liked the way I worked.
Note: Carol sent the email shortly after Robert Kraft (Former President of Fox) let go of his previous assistant
Q: What is your day to day job like?
(Part of it is) administrative, creative, planning. Another part of the job I am more involved in is the podcast. I am basically the episode coordinator. The podcast we are doing is with some of the best film director like La La Land’s Justin Hurwitz and Bohemian Rhapsody’s John Ottman. It is crazy coming from Jakarta being able to meet these people who I idolized growing up.
Q: Can you tell me more about a project you are proud of?
I am really proud of the podcast because like I said I interview some of the biggest film composers who score the biggest features in theatre. Just imagining me coming from Jakarta watching these movies. (Some of the people took part in) films that changed the history of films. I am really honored to be a part of that.
Q: What kind of impact do you want to have?
Freelancing, film scoring, don’t want to classify myself as just one. For the podcast, I met a few female composers that really inspired me like Hildur Guðnadóttir (Composer for Chernobyl, the upcoming Joker film) and Pinar Toprak (Captain Marvel). They felt the industry took so long to give them an opportunity. I want to be the leading representative and write my own narrative in this male dominant industry.
Q: Any exciting goals?
I want to keep connecting in the music industry and want to work with people like Ariana Grande and BTS.
Q: What advice do you have for individuals who want to pursue a career in music?
It is a tough industry so you have to work hard. Keep working and keep believing in the craft. Do not let yourself be consumed with insecurity. Don’t be discouraged. If you get discouraged you can sulk and take it in a negative way but there’s no good in that. When you choose to take it as a lesson or motivation.
Also, don’t settle and keep learning from people. Find the best version of yourself.