Meet the D.C. Artists Who Compose Music for Your Favorite NPR Podcasts
Pictured Above: D.C. artist Ramtin Arablouei composing music for an upcoming show. Photo courtesy of NPR; Credit: Alexandra Lee
NPR is widely known for its dynamic storytelling and podcasts. Composers work to create a memorable soundtrack for each narrative, adding layers and emphasis to emotion and underscoring tension and stress, all in the name of creating an immersive listening experience. A part of this team are several local musicians who help bring each story to life.
Nick DePrey does double-duty for NPR; his full-time work as a digital program analyst led to an opportunity to compose music as a side gig. Louis Weeks often collaborates with DePrey, who he knows from the D.C. music circuit, and does his composing for NPR on a freelance basis as well.
As composers, DePrey and Weeks find that the start of each project is often the same: meet with producers and editors to confer about content, what points to hit musically, and how to hit those points. Once they get to the composition process, things change drastically. “Every project has its own unique story to tell,” said DePrey, “so the [composing] process has been different every time.”
DePrey and Weeks first collaborated on an episode of Hidden Brain, a podcast that focuses on the science behind human behavior. “[The episode] was about celebrities and the evolution of human society around why we are drawn to and [intimidated by] celebrities,” said Weeks. “We worked to come up with a palette which ended up being orchestral with a bit of electronics. Treating it a bit with some old school Hollywood glitz and glamour but having a darker, more complicated emotional tone.”
This is a sharp contrast to their most recent project, Up First, a morning news podcast for which DePrey and Weeks had to write the theme and branding package. “It had to be fun but also have a serious tone because it was dealing with world news events,” said Weeks, “it had to feel accessible because it’s a podcast, but it had to feel very serious.”
For DePrey, the process becomes smoother when he can get into some of the production.
“If I’m working as a co-producer, I might have a script and tape to start with,” he said. “Here’s all the tape from the interview with this person and the ambiance from the town. I’ll think through various moods and genres and where they apply. Where do we need kinetic energy? Where do we need suspense? Where do we need resolve? Where do we need sadness?”
DePrey also references pop culture and YouTube videos to communicate some of his ideas to the producers. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had this stark Sleater-Kinney or Helium guitar parts to give us this grunge and teenage angst?” he offered as an example. Once he is done analyzing the interview, DePrey will take his ideas to the lead producers who will either ask for modifications or approve his ideas.
In contrast, Ramtin Arablouei is a full-time producer and composer for NPR. He started working for NPR in a manner similar to that of DePrey and Weeks. A chance encounter led to a six-week contract for a podcast project. A year later, he was invited back to help launch How I Built This, a podcast focusing on entrepreneurs and how they built their endeavors. Nine months after the podcast launched, he was asked to join NPR full-time. Suddenly, his job involved not just composing for podcasts, but also producing segments and creating scripts and questions for the shows.
For Arablouei, the additional responsibilities were a sharp learning curve. “It was really intense. When I started here, I had no idea what I was doing in terms of the journalistic side of producing a podcast or a segment for radio,” he explained. “People here are really busy, and there is nobody here to hold your hand. I had to study online. I had to go read things about how to write questions for a biographical interview, which is what we do. I had to learn on the job, and I was really lucky because [radio host] Guy Raz and the staff here were really patient and believed in me enough to give me a chance to learn on the job.”
Outside of work, all three composers are working on their own individual projects. Arablouei is currently producing for other bands as well as completing an album with his group, Drop Electric. Weeks and DePrey also have projects they are readying for release in the coming months. Even though working with NPR has slowed down some of their personal projects, all three are very grateful to be a part of the NPR team.
“This is a path that you can become self-sufficient in and still keep your integrity,” said Arablouei. “NPR is a great place to have made that happen.”