1. What is your name and your profession(s)? I’m George Shaw, a composer who writes music scores for Film, TV, Games, and Musicals.
2. What is your ethnic background and what is your citizenship (US native or naturalized etc.)? I am culturally Taiwanese-American, born and raised in Houston, Texas. My mother was born and raised in Taipei, and my dad was born in Nanjing but moved to and grew up in Taipei when he was a baby. Ethnically, I am ¾ Chinese, and ¼ Japanese.
3. Are either/both of your parents musicians or somehow involved in the music industry? Neither of my parents were musical, though I have an aunt who sang soprano and studied opera in Vienna in her 20s, but she never pursued it professionally when she came to America as there were very few opportunities for Asians in music at the time.
4. Please tell us a little bit about your experience, either growing up as an AAPI in America, or as a person of Asian descent who immigrated to America, whichever applies. As a child growing up in Houston, I hated being seen as Asian, and felt ashamed of how different my culture was from what most other kids experienced. I tried so hard to distance myself from Chinese culture, that I became known as a banana, or “whitewashed” Asian. Fortunately that changed when I came to LA for college and discovered how much I loved the orange chicken at Panda Express. I was no longer being forced to eat Chinese food by my parents and could discover what I liked on my own, and the most Americanized of Chinese food, orange chicken, became my gateway drug to discovering more authentic Asian food, embracing the LA AAPI creative community, and connecting with the culture that I used to see as my parent’s culture and not my own.
5. How connected do you feel to your heritage/culture(s)? Growing up Asian-American, there’s often a feeling of not fully belonging to American culture, nor to the culture of your immigrant family. There’s a pervasive “otherness” that’s a hurdle to feeling a sense of belonging that so many of us crave. I’ve gone full circle from hating my heritage to fully embracing it. Though I will always be American first, I couldn’t be more proud to be Asian-American.
6. 6a.) How did you get into music? Did you major in music in college? Where did you attend college/university (and grad school(s), if applicable) and in what subjects did you get your degree(s)? My entree into a passion for music began with Disney animated musicals, Beethoven, and the scores of John Williams for Spielberg movies. This led me to studying composition with an emphasis in film scoring at USC’s Thornton School of Music.
6b.) When and how did you decide you were going to pursue music professionally? What were your parents’ reactions to you deciding to pursue music? Do they support your music career now? It was around 15 or 16 that I was absolutely sure that I would become a professional film composer. I knew that so much of my favorite music came from the soundtracks of movies that I loved, and that I myself was inspired to compose music by storytelling, characters, and art.
My parents have always been reluctantly supportive, meaning they never said no to pursuing my dreams, but they would constantly ”suggest” that it was never too late for me to go back to grad school and study more academic subjects that could lead to a steady career. The turning point finally came in my mid-30s, thanks to my mother’s love of Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee. She had read his biography, which perhaps helped her begin to understand my own struggles compared to the struggle Ang went through to succeed in his career. I also was hired to compose for the film Baby Steps, which was produced by Ang Lee‘s Taiwanese producer, Li Kong Hsu, so suddenly I was legitimate in my mom’s eyes.
7. What are a few of your (music) projects of which you are the proudest? What were your roles on those projects? Star Wars Musical - http://youtu.be/8xzGSSN5FNE - Doing a parody that turned Star Wars into a Disneyfied musical came to me when it was first announced in 2012 that Disney was buying Lucasfilm. I’m proud of going beyond just the composer role to also write and produce this with my director Jeffrey Gee Chin. Ode to Geeks - https://youtu.be/0fJmiwT6rAU - How many people can say they’ve co-written a song with Stan Lee? I was the music director at the first Geekie awards, where we gave Stan the Lifetime Achievement Award. He wrote a speech set to the tune of Yankee Doodle, and I knew I had to write an original tune that would give his words the rousing anthem it deserved. So I pitched the idea to his company and ended up creating a virtual choir video of fans singing the song I created with Stan’s words and released it on his YouTube channel.
Escape the Night - https://youtu.be/bS2vhgnFddU - Composing for 4 seasons of Joey Graceffa’s YouTube Originals series was fun. I’ve always had a fascination with mythology and monsters, so I loved that I got to write a new villain theme for the monster of the week for each episode.
Mythical China - Going back to my love of mythology and exploring my Chinese heritage, I had always wanted to produce the kind of music that I had always loved in Chinese kung fu and fantasy movies. So I composed an album where I drew inspiration from classic Chinese folklore, such as the Monkey King, Chang’e the Moon Goddess, and the four dragons that became China’s four great rivers. I worked with a music library company called Audio Network, and they gave me the support to record a full orchestra in Vienna, and multiple Chinese instrumentalists in LA (many of whom played on Disney’s recent Mulan soundtrack). This upcoming album will be released later this year and feels like the pinnacle in terms of scope of anything I’ve ever created!
Beyond those projects, please feel free to name some of your other credits as well as any brands/companies you officially endorse. A few other highlights from my career include arranging and producing the album “Lullabies for Younglings (Star Wars Lullaby Renditions)”, composed music for ”Agents of Secret Stuff” (from Wong Fu Productions and Ryan Higa), composed themes for Wil Wheaton’s Geek & Sundry show “Tabletop”, and scored the comedic feature film “Hang Loose” which starred Kevjumba and Dante Basco.
8. Describe to me your dream project. I recently saw a meme about Ming-Na Wen achieving a Disney hat trick: playing a Disney princess (Mulan), being in a Marvel superhero show, and also being in Star Wars (The Mandalorian). Since so much of my early loves of storytelling and soundtracks came from Disney animated musicals, reading Marvel comics (Spider-man and X-men being my first comics) and loving superhero soundtracks (Superman, Batman, X-men), and my obsession with all things Star Wars, a Disney hat trick seems like a natural dream. So writing songs and score for a Disney musical, and to score projects for Marvel and Star Wars seems like a good lofty goal to have in this life.
9. What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) being an AAPI in the music world? What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) as an AAPI in general (non-music)? Conversely, has being an AAPI ever helped you in the music industry? There have been many, but they all sort of relate to each other. It all comes down to lack of opportunity, especially for AAPI film/tv composers. Hollywood is notoriously known for being difficult to break into, but that difficulty is compounded by the historic lack of diversity. The stereotypical image of a composer is that of a Beethoven like figure, an older caucasian man with white hair. That doesn’t really fit with the image of an Asian who perhaps looks much younger than they actually are. So I’ve run into lots of dismissal and people looking down on me like I didn’t matter in the industry, because they had never seen someone like me in the industry. An Asian-American composer friend of mine has told the story of walking around the NBC lot and being mistaken for the IT guy.
Add to that the cultural difficulties we often face, from lack of family and community support for those pursuing creative careers, the expense and privilege of affording music lessons, instruments and gear, which filters to fewer AAPI creatives pursuing these paths. Add to that the lack of AAPI executives and directors/producers who are in positions to hire us, and Hollywood's lack of risk taking on newer talent (so often you have to have significant credits to get hired, but you can’t get the first until someone takes a chance on you), there becomes this perfect storm of reasons why there are so few of us AAPI’s in the film/tv scoring world.
10. 10a.) Who are some AAPI musicians/composers/producers who have previously inspired and currently inspire you (if any)? Why? There have been an incredible number of AAPI singer/songwriters that I’ve been wowed by and have been fortunate to collaborate with over the years as an arranger and/or conductor. Many of them I met through the Asian-American YouTuber community or through Kollaboration (a competion/show that discovers and showcases AAPI talent), including: Kina Grannis, David Choi, Dia Frampton, Alfa Garcia, Clara Chung, Dawen Wang, Priska, Jason Chen, and Abraham Lim to name a few.
10b.) What are your hopes for the AAPI music community and your hopes for AAPIs in general? Since helping to form the Composers Diversity Collective three years ago and guiding the organization’s growth on its Executive Committee, it’s been great to support our mission to see more diversity within the Hollywood scoring community. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I have seen great strides and acceptance from many of the studios in Hollywood toward finding new opportunities for diverse voices in the composing community. I’ve come to know an ever growing community of AAPI composers and hope to see more and more of us get our first opportunities to work on more mainstream projects so we can give our own unique voices to stories that are being told to the world.
11. If you could give advice now to your younger teenage self, what would you tell her/him/they? Your level of musical talent is a secondary concern to building a career. So I would encourage younger me to worry less about that, as success will come in time, but to focus on learning more about all the other important aspects of life and career that can help build towards success. That includes learning about business, networking, people skills, finances, storytelling, filmmaking, health (both physical and mental), and above all else, take time to get out of the studio and experience life.
12. Do you have any upcoming projects for which you are excited and about which you are allowed to share? Is there anything non-music-related on the horizon about which you would like to share? While I can’t share any details yet, I’ve recently booked my first animated series, and couldn’t be more excited about it as the tone of the show perfectly fits with the kind of music I’m excited to make (including adventure, comedy, modern song production, and Chinese folk instrumentation).
I also recently finished composing the score and a song for an animated feature film called “Cinderella and the Spellbinder”. It should be out later this year, but the most exciting part of writing the song (co-written with Elise Solberg, a talented half-Japanese pianist and songwriter), entitled “Side By Side”, was getting to record with the amazing Cathy Ang, who plays the lead in Netflix’s Oscar nominated “Over the Moon”. I was blown away by her vocal performance, and the stories of her nailing Rocket to the Moon in one take are no exaggeration. We did a few full takes, and just about every single one was perfectly usable, and I only did minor editing to fix some lyric flubs.
13. Name one or two non-music-related things/subjects about which you are also passionate. I love skateboarding and used to be a pretty avid skater. Unfortunately, I I love dogs and what started out as a way to earn extra money on the side and get to spend time with dogs by dog sitting, led to me adopting a half Chihuahua named Korra, named after my love of The Legend of Korra animated series. She’s a sweet and lazy dog who enjoys that I spend most of my time working at home, but she becomes feisty and aggressive the moment she feels threatened by big dogs since she’s a tiny 5 pounds of fear and apprehension.
14. Any final thoughts? Alternatively, do you have any questions for me and/or the greater AAPI music community? I want to encourage the greater AAPI music community to foster community amongst each other and seek out opportunities to collaborate and support each other.
Photos provided by George Shaw