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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Snap Judgment: Live at the Nourse Theater (Part 1)

Back in 2010, my band and I performed our first show with Snap Judgment at the Brava Theater for a small, enthusiastic group of friends and family. Four years later, we returned to San Francisco, but this time performed two sold-out nights at the Nourse Theater for 3600 fans. The show airs this week on NPR; you can hear the show here. 

A lot has happened in those four years. Snap Judgment has become a top show on NPR, on hundreds of stations nationwide, and one of the top podcasts. The audience has grown to about 1 million a week. 

In other ways, it hasn't changed. It's the same band -- Dave Brandt on drums, Tim Frick on bass, and me on guitar and keys -- and our fearless host and leader Glynn Washington. Even many of the storytellers are old friends now -- Joshua Walters, Josh Healey, Glynn, Joyce Lee, Mighty Mike McGee, James Judd, to name a few. But there's a steady stream of new voices, as well, which keeps us on our toes, as I try my best to find the music that will inspire each storyteller to give her best performance, to amplify (or occasionally, dampen) the emotional core of the story....

The Nourse Theater was built in 1927. Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti read poetry there when RFK was assassinated, and Jim Morrison performed there with the Living Theater. Now it's mainly home to City Arts and Lectures, but for a couple nights Snap Judgment LIVE made it our home.

The show kicked off with Glynn's experience taking acting lessons. Yes, I am "the people who wear hats unironically." OR AM I?!

Josh Healey gave us his best performance since "Coming Out Straight", about his mom's attempts to find love on J-Date. Watch it here. 

Jamie DeWolf challenged all of us with his story about Xiana Fairchild, a girl lost in an apartment hallway in Vallejo. This was a story where the challenge was to find music that fit the tone, but didn't feel exploitative or insincere, and I hope we achieved that. It was a powerful story, best watch it yourself.

Joshua Walters remains a unique voice who perplexes some, and enchants many more (including me). He's strong medicine, and I LIKE strong medicine. Here, he recounts his journey to a Buddhist retreat, and his religious visions. Dave's vintage gong collection was on full display in this hilarious tale of JuBu. Watch it here. 

Don Reed spent many years opening the Jay Leno show, and man, he's got the chops to prove it. Don blew me away with his story about growing up in Oakland in the 70s, with his daddy (a pimp) & his nervous tics, a tale punctuated by sound effects, musicality, and a style all his own. Watch it here. 

This is less than half of the performances. Stay tuned for more great stories from this amazing weekend of shows. Much more to come....

Update: Part II

You can hear the second half of the show here. 

And here are more videos of the show for your viewing enjoyment!

Mighty Mike McGee shares a magical story about "The Birds and the Bees"

And don't miss James Judd's closing masterpiece.

Monday, June 30, 2014


Alex Mandel is a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, and composer for film, TV, video games, and radio.  

The PIXAR feature film, Brave (2012), features two songs Mandel wrote for the movie: "Into the Open Air", and "Touch the Sky" -- the latter, with lyrics co-written with Director Mark Andrews. They are both sung by Scottish musician Julie Fowlis, and feature guitar work and arrangements by Mandel. "Touch the Sky" has struck a chord with global audiences, with Millions of views on YouTube and more than 100 fan cover versions; it's even featured daily at Disneyland's "World of Color".  The more contemplative "Into the Open Air" featured in the film during a touching scene between mother and daughter, and in a TV spot celebrating Mother's Day. Brave has been embraced globally, and has grossed over $500 Million worldwide.

recording guitar for "BRAVE" 

As composer and musical director for the NPR/PBS radio and TV show Snap Judgment LIVE, Mandel has accompanied storytellers with a live band at sold-out venues in Oakland, San Francisco, Washington DC, Austin, Ann Arbor, and the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles.  Snap reaches over a million listeners weekly, and is one of the top podcasts in the US. "They have a great band," Ira Glass writes, "Snap Judgment brings down the house every time they do a live show. Seriously, they kill. It makes a person feel very...competitive."  In August 2014, Snap returned to SF for two sold-out shows at the Nourse Theater for over 3200 fans. (That performance will air on NPR this Fall.) One performance, a compelling story by 15-year old Noah St. John, went viral, racking up over 1,200,000 views. 

Mandel recently composed his first musical: Norman Rockwell's America (songs by Mandel, book by Lynne Kaufmann). The musical premiered this summer at Theatreworks as part of their New Works Festival. The director was Theatreworks' founder Robert Kelley. Theatreworks has debuted many new musicals and plays, including Memphis, which went on to win the Tony for Best New Musical. Over a thousand theatergoers welcomed Rockwell with standing ovations at its debut performances in August 2014.

East Side Sushi (2014) -- featuring score & song by Mandel -- has racked up awards at Cinequest, SF Asian-American Film Festival, Napa Valley Film Festival, and many more.  Written and Directed by Oakland native, Anthony Lucero, East Side Sushi is scheduled for theatrical release in 2015. Read the Hollywood Reporter review here. Mandel provided the score and songs for Tracy, Dan Scanlon's debut feature film (Director, Monsters University). Other film scores include Violet (dir. Mark Andrews), Shakti's Retreat & Trifles (dir. Pam Walker), and Mr. Incredible and Pals (dir. Roger Gould) from the Incredibles DVD.

He also composed the orchestral score for the PIXAR short film "Your Friend the Rat" -- directed by Academy Award Nominee Jim Capobianco (Best Original Screenplay, Ratatouille) -- which won the Annie Award in 2007 for Best Animated Short Film, and is featured on the Pixar Shorts Volume 2 Blu-Ray, available in November 2012.

Mandel started writing songs at the age of 7, and performing them in bands when he was 12 years old. Since then, he has released four critically-acclaimed albums of his songs, one with The Echo Falls and three with The Fingers.  

Clients include Electronic Arts, Apple, NPR, Detour, among many others.
Mandel has worked at Pixar for the past decade. As a manager on such films as Up, Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Monsters University, and Brave, Mandel is a filmmaker who thrives on collaboration.    

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Scoring "East Side Sushi"

I'm excited to share I recently completed the music for a charming indie film, East Side Sushi. 

Though just completed, East Side Sushi has already been accepted into two great film festivals: CinequestCAMM Fest (SF Asian-American Film Festival). (See below for screening dates and tickets).

The Director, Anthony Lucero, is an Oakland native who won the Best Film and Best Documentary prizes (Alice Film Festival) for his moving documentary about his family, Angels & Wheelchairs. By day he shoots documentary footage for Star Wars VII, and worked for years at ILM. East Side Sushi was his labor-of-love. He spent years writing, shooting, and editing the film. That alone is a huge accomplishment, but hard work alone is no guarantee of great results. So I'm glad to report the film is truly fantastic.

I was first approached by Anthony last summer. I was already doing music for Pixar, and prepping for the Snap Judgment live show at the Nokia Theater. But when he sent me the first reel, I knew I had to score the picture. We worked on one scene together to see how it went, and we both had a blast. Anthony asked me to score the film.

Having lived in Oakland for years, a fruit cart on International Boulevard was a familiar sight. Anthony's movie takes you inside the life of a single Latina mom who operates one of these fruit carts, who then stumbles upon a fantastic new world: a sushi restaurant.

The lead actress, Diana Elizabeth Torres, is captivating. (She has a role in the upcoming PT Anderson film, Inherent Vice). I'm sure we'll be seeing much more from her.

The authenticity and depth of emotion in the picture required live musicians. For live strings I brought in Minna Choi to conduct Magik Magik Orchestra.

Minna Choi conducts Magik*Magik Orchestra at 25th Street Recording

My good friend and percussion master David Brandt performed percussion.

I performed the guitar, piano, and assorted synths & samples. We recorded Magik Magik at a wonderful new studio in Oakland, 25th Street Recording. A great API board, warm live room, and a beautiful restored 1914 Steinway B. The sessions were expertly engineered and mixed by Scott Bergstrom. My friend Mark Willsher had just returned from New Zealand working on the Hobbit and offered his expert guidance.

discussing a cue with Minna

talking to the strings

following the score

selfy with director


anthony documenting

Mark Willsher & Stephen Jarvis

Late in the process, Anthony asked if I would write a song for the movie. "Amar de Nuevo" appears twice in the film, in the middle and the end. It was a thrill using strings on one of my songs, and I'm happy with the results. Anthony located a wonderful singer, Cava, who did a wonderful job on the vocal (and even recorded them herself!). Since you've read this far, for a brief time, you can hear the song here.

I wound up composing 17 pieces of music, nearly 45 minutes worth. I'm very pleased with the results.

Latinos watch more movies than other Americans, but are also the least represented in movies. Anthony's film (much like Snap Judgment) brings to life the story of Latinos and Asian-Americans in Oakland, and he does it in a way that is engaging, entertaining, and relatable. I encourage you to see it, and join his Facebook group for updates.

East Side Sushi wins the Audience Award at Cinequest!
East Side Sushi wins the Audience Award at CAMM Fest!
East Side Sushi screens at the Maui Film Fest.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Snap Judgment LIVE: LA & Ann Arbor

I've been fiercely preparing for my scoring session this week at 25th Street Studios for a great film I'm scoring, written & directed by Anthony Lucero, called East Side Sushi. More about that soon....

In the meantime.... this weekend NPR airs our latest Snap Judgment LIVE show. The performance was recorded live at LA's Nokia Theater on October 12, 2013 in front of a crowd of over 2500 people.  Our fearless leader Glynn Washington and I were joined onstage by my bandmates David Brandt and Tim Frick.

Our first storyteller "Magic" Mike McGee talked about what it was like to be a kid who wore diapers. Although the content was serious, the tone was bittersweet and lighthearted, so I opted for a John Hughes inspired score, as Mike's parting gesture reinforces.

Gypsee Yo's intense tale from her youth in Albania speaks for itself. I had to Google what Albanian music sounded like. It's got a nice beat. Plus I got to bring in the trusty accordian samples -- always a plus -- to evoke the Iron Curtain.

I've enjoyed seeing a lot of Shannon Cason recently. First at our show in Ann Arbor, then an awards show in Chicago were I got to meet his lovely wife, and then onstage in LA for this brutally honest true tale. We talked about our shared love for Film Noir, so my score reflected those conversations.

Shane Koyczan walked into rehearsal, Tim Frick perked up. He recognized Shane from his amazing TED talk.  Shane wanted to sustain a mood throughout this piece with subtle variations, he played a few notes on the piano, and I came up with this piece on the spot. A great story that's close to my heart. Very happy with how this turned out.

Glynn wrapped it up with a story we performed once before in Ann Arbor, and this time we got it right. It was a trip to see Glynn up there on the jumbotron!

There were also great stories from Joyce Lee, Josh Healey and James Judd that will hopefully see the light of day sometime soon. Jamie DeWolf, storyteller and great-grandson of L. Ron Hubbard, told his classic story about growing up in the shadow of L. Ron, and we haven't seen him since. Just kidding.

The show ended with a standing ovation.

 Glynn is always generous in acknowledging me and the band, as he does here.

Glynn and Mark have done an amazing job finding these amazing storytellers, and I'm always proud to collaborate and share the stage with them and the band.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Writing Songs for Pixar's Brave

One of the two songs I wrote for Pixar's Brave, "Into the Open Air," is featured in a new commercial celebrating Mother's Day:

Almost exactly a year ago, I was walking through the Pixar atrium when I heard a loud voice yell "ALEX MANDEL!!!"

I turned to my right and descending the stairs was Mark Andrews, Director of Brave.  "I have an opportunity for you," he said.

He explained there was a scene in the film that he felt needed a song, but they hadn't found one that worked yet. He'd like me to try and create one. Of course, I said what any self-respecting singer/songwriter would say under these conditions."You got it!"

I've known Mark for a number of years -- from scoring his short film "Violet," (see previous post) and jamming with him at the WALL-E wrap party (another story). Mark had liked my most recent album of songs, The Echo Falls. Even though it was a temporary song for the upcoming screening I was determined to create the best song I possibly could.

I got to watch a rough cut of the scene, and co-director Steve Purcell and Mark provided some helpful clues to what they were looking for.  I also recalled having lunch with Brenda Chapman where she told me her inspiration for the story -- her relationship with her daughter -- and as a father of two I could relate.

That night, once my kids were asleep I sat down on my couch with my guitar and notebook.

Folk-rock music from the British Isles has always held a special fascination for me.  Led Zepplin's "Black Mountainside" led me back to Bert Jansch's "Black Waterside."  I love the alternate guitar tunings; the mixolydian modal quality to the melodies. Richard & Linda Thompson's "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight", Traffic's "John Barleycorn", Nick Drake, Donovan, Fairport Convention...the list goes on.  The melodies of the Scots-Irish came with them to the Appalachian Mountains, a seed from which bluegrass grew. Listening to Scottish folk songs, especially Lomax's field recordings from the 50s, I was comforted at how familiar the music felt. An invisible thread that connects those Scots-Irish melodies, bluegrass, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, right through "O Brother Where Art Thou?" and most recently, Mumford and Sons (who penned a great track for the movie, sung by Birdy).

I found myself in an odd tuning which suggested the voicings of the song, and I found the melody with the words "This love it is a distant star/guiding us home wherever we are."

The song seemed to fit the Mark asked me to write a SECOND song -- on that one, Mark & collaborated on the lyrics, and it wound up as "Touch the Sky."

Although I normally sing my own songs, I knew this song needed to be sung by a woman's voice. Julie Fowlis, who is an amazing Scottish-Gaelic singer and musician, was selected to sing the songs, and she truly did a wonderful job. I'm thrilled to say both of the songs made it into the film and soundtrack. (That's me playing guitar.)

Like all the best Pixar movies, Brave has got thrills and emotion & I can't wait for the world to experience it on June 22.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Snap Judgment LIVE in DC

On November 12, 2011, Snap Judgment LIVE performed in the heart of Washington DC at the Sidney Harmon Hall, just blocks from the White House. I was joined by our host and spiritual leader: Glynn Washington, and my band, David Brandt (drums) and Tim Frick (bass).

The piece we did with 15 year-old wunderkind Noah St. John has gone viral, racking up 250,000 views in a few days. Watch, and you'll see why:

If you liked that don't miss the rest of the show. Videos are posted below.

Glynn, the band and I met up the week before in Oakland to work with half the storytellers. (As usual, 1 hour per storyteller.)  Then we flew to DC, where we had a second rehearsal at NPR headquarters, where they have a nice studio:

Here's me and Jack McCarthy exploring ideas for his piece. 

Noah St. John returned for the finale. 

After the show Tim, Dave and I explored DC. I found the MLK monument very moving. All in all another amazing experience bringing together live storytelling and music. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Snap Judgment LIVE on TV and Radio this week

On Friday and Saturday, June 3 and 4, Snap Judgment LIVE gave two sold-out performances at the theater at the Oakland Museum of California. This is the third Snap Judgment LIVE -- local storytellers/poets telling their tales, accompanied by my compositions, as performed by me and the genius musical mind-readers David Brandt (percussion) and Tim Frick (bass, and arch-top guitar), and DJ.

There was less than a week to compose music, work with the storytellers, and make it all happen. They kept adding stories, and we wound up with an hour and 20 minute show.

Somehow it all came together. The stories were phenomenal, moving, upsetting, and hilarious. Host/storyteller Glynn Washington programmed the stories perfectly, so that it gets heavier in the middle and by the end everyone is ready for the catharsis of humor.

Like life itself, there's a ethereal quality to a live performance like this. You meet strangers, and by living with and scoring their stories, a week later, you feel that you know them. This time we had the pleasure of working with Joshua Walters, Joyce Lee and Jamie DeWolf for the second time, so we shared a short-hand that shows.

You share the connection of climbing on a stage with limited rehearsal, and using every bit of creativity and professionalism you have to make the performance work. The audience was laughing, crying, laughing again. Both nights there were standing ovations. The band walked out of there in a daze, and sat on Broadway in Downtown Oakland eating food from a street truck. Did that happen?

Well, it DID happen and the radio show that airs on NPR this week, and the TV show above (unexpurgated, folks) is the proof. I feel privileged to work with these amazing storytellers and poets, and the whole Snap Judgment team.

You can watch the TV show in HD here, or listen to the radio show here, or check out the Podcast on iTunes.

Monday, November 15, 2010

"Tracy" Soundtrack Update

Last year Dan Scanlon released "Tracy" with a premiere at Pixar. Dan and I had been working on it for about 4 years. Since then it's been doing the film festival circuit. Hopefully it will be available on DVD soon; it's a hilarious and surprisingly touching film. Dan found some spare time from his Pixar day job to do artwork for the soundtrack album. We'll print a very limited number of these CDs, so please contact me if you'd like a copy. Here's the album art (Thanks Dan!)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Snap Judgment LIVE returns...

Snap Judgment, the NPR weekly radio show hosted by Glynn Washington, went on the air in June. The response has been great, with Ira Glass calling it the best new thing he's heard on NPR, and over 15,000 Facebook fans to date.

The first TV show, with me acting as musical director/composer, that we shot at SF's Brava Theater back in June, aired nationally last week. (Facebook users: check out the titles featuring stop motion animation and my theme song here.) The radio version aired on NPR in August; you can hear it here.

In September we took this episode 1 live show on the road, flying to Denver for the annual Public Radio Program Directors Conference. On the 38th floor of the Hilton, we performed for an enthusiastic group of NPR folk. Glynn, Joshua Walters, Joyce Lee, Jamie DeWolf and the band roamed the streets of Denver at night, in search of schnitzel & waffles, pickles and beer...and we were not disappointed. (If there is a recording of our funk beat to Glynn chanting "IRA GLASS! IRA GLASS!" I would like to hear it.)

Just last Friday, the Snap returned to the BRAVA THEATER to film not one, but two additional TV shows -- "Animal Tales" and "True Confessions." Whereas the first episode mined local talent exclusively, this time the locals were joined by a group of storytellers who flew up from L.A.

Once again, I had one hour with each of the nine storytellers to pitch them my score ideas, and collaborate with them. This is such an intense and enjoyable process. I've listened to their stories, composed 2 or 3 themes, and then get to meet the storytellers for the first time, pitch them my musical interpretation of their pieces. I have an amazingly sensitive group including Dave Brandt -- percussionist extraordinaire -- and Tim Frick, bassist -- both of whom I sometimes think are reading my mind. We were also joined by DJ Deeandroid on the turntable, who fit right in.

Some amazing things happened during these sessions. Tabitha Christopher, who hails from St. Thomas has a great story about her pet goat Big Jim. Without giving too much away, I asked her if there was some sound or song that she heard in St. Thomas growing up that meant it was meal time.... and she broke out in this traditional song about meal time! Too good to be true. Dave Brandt busted an energetic souka beat, I adapted the melody on guitar and we had a tune that invoked the setting of the piece and reflected Tabitha's energetic delivery. A great moment.

Erol Dolen's story evolved in a fascinating way. I felt it was a serious piece, and had composed a somber, longing theme. To contrast, I had also written a Fellini-esque accordian piece for a scene in a Russian brothel. Erol and Glynn edited the piece and the end result was, I think, very powerful.

Katherine McEwan hails from England, and she had a great piece about how Americans assume she grew up on the set of Sense & Sensibility, when her town in Northern England looked more like The Wire.... I had a blast with this one, marrying a Baroque Harsichord line with a hip-hop beat. It flowed smoothly and the results were great.

Scott Kravitz has a piece about how he stole his pet Dog from a homeless teenage girl. The tone of the piece is very understated and clever, but there is heart to it, too. I took a cue from a line in the piece that referenced Phillip Glass and the soundtrack from "Garden State" -- the line was cut, but the music evolved from those two touchstones. This piece really came alive on stage; the audience responded to it, and the music added some subtle emotion to Scott's understated but effective delivery.

Joyce Lee, poet and storyteller extraordinaire adapted her stranger than fiction piece about a perfect boyfriend who turned out to be too good to be true. This was the second time working with Joyce, and this time I was glad the music really complemented her piece -- including some hilarious James Brown hits and Sam Cooke/Al Green R&B stylings.

There were great pieces too from Kate Ascot-Evans, Anneke Jong & Thayer Walker, and of course Mr. Glynn Washington. We had performed Glynn's "Dancing While Black" in Denver, and it had killed there, but on Friday night it was even better, captured for posterity by the cameras. Glynn tells his stories differently every single time. I love it. It's collective improvisation, the spirit of Jazz, and it keeps you on your toes. You've got to keep your ears and eyes open, and follow his feet.

Can't wait till these two episodes air, I feel like we're evolving the medium of live storytelling with live music each show we do.