The jazz of Frankie Drake: composer Robert Carli on capturing the musical ethos of the '20s

Award winning composer, Robert Carli, talks about his influences, tricks of the trade and how he creates and modernizes the sound of the '20s on Frankie Drake Mysteries.

Toronto composer, Robert Carli talks about the tricks of the trade that make his scores pop.

Would Game of Thrones be the same without Ramin Djawadi's theme songs for House of Stark or Lannister? What about the film The Bodyguard without its famous song, I Will Always Love You? You can see where we're going with this.

Music plays a significant character in films and shows. Composed to set the mood and subliminally evoke emotion, it's one of the reasons we tear up during a sad scene or tense up watching action flicks. Sure, an amalgamation of acting, costumes and many other things provide the right tone for any scene but when those minor notes hit you along with great acting, you better get a box of tissues.

In the case of Frankie Drake Mysteries — set in the 1920s, which brought a revolutionary deluge of change from fashion to music — Robert Carli's compositions have played an integral part in achieving its '20s suspenseful mystery vibe. 

Carli, who's an award-winning film and TV composer and musician, is famously precise in his work — particularly when it comes to getting the tone of different eras right. He maintains consistent sound palettes for each show he composes, yet they are very different from each other.

This is evident in his body of work: from the many CBC dramas like Murdoch Mysteries, Cracked, the upcoming Fortunate Son and Frankie Drake Mysteries to other hit shows like Wynonna Earp, Remedy and more.

Creating the sound of the '20s 

On the phone, just as he finished a recording session for a Frankie Drake Mysteries episode, Carli discussed the evolution of the score.

"When you're working on a television series, especially one that's in its third season, you hope that you've mitigated the unpredictability of it. The first season of Frankie, it was really lots of back and forth and 'let's figure this thing out', and now it became a little more second nature. We all know what to expect now," he says.

In defining the sound, he determined his standard go-to instruments would be in the jazz family. "I use instruments like an upright bass and the piano, percussion and saxophones, clarinettes, trumpets and trombones."

The hallmark of '20s recordings is a distinctly thin sound with a lot of upper register, and slightly less bass. But for the Frankie Drake Mysteries modern touch, Carli adds a more urban sound, using instruments such as electronic kick drums and percussion. 

"That gives the score not only a little bit more modern sound but also a little more depth and urgency. It gives me a few more elements of tension."

Where we get a vintage sound is from our saxophones and our brass and our winds which are recorded in a very pure kind of old fashioned style, most of the time.

Although all of the music in the show is composed by Robert Carli, there are exceptions of licensed diegetic music of the era that is used once an episode, on average.

"They [characters from Frankie Drake] might be at a dance or they might be at a club and there'd be music in the background. That'll be a recording from the era — a new recording but in the style of the era — but that's not me."

An example from Season 3, Episode 7.

Tricks and treats of the trade

One of Robert Carli's own favourite compositions from the show, and probably the most recognisable, is the Frankie Drake theme song. "Once you have the themes then you can start to build the score around those elements," says Carli. 

He uses said theme frequently to create various iterations. Sometimes it's very overt like adding the signature at the end of an act or created in a lower register with disguises in the bass notes.

"I think that's just a trick that you can do," he says. "You can just really have fun with sort of deviating from the regular melody to create something a little different." 

"I'll give you an example of an episode we did recently that has a very poignant scene between Frankie and her mom. Because of the nature of the scene, we have it played on violin and with piano and I play it as a waltz. I play it very softly almost in a sentimental kind of way, and that gives it a kind of a different character."

Watch the aforementioned scene from Season 3 Episode 4.


Then there's the mischievous sonic minutiae composers do to make things interesting and at the same time pay homage, like inserting bits of theme music from other shows — usually as a way to introduce the guest starring characters of the respective shows.

"Jonny Harris played his character of George Crabtree in Frankie, 20 years later, and we put in a little bit of Murdoch music under him as a little joke," he says. "It's very rare that we do this, but really kind of fun to do."

A scene from Season 1, Episode 8.

A healthy dose of influences

A combination of Carli's three key influences in life — filmmakers, film composers and music composers like John Williams — are the reasons he got interested in film music and made a career of it.

"I was probably 12 when I went and saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back and E.T. and all of his great scores were like, 'Wow, this music changes the film'."

While studying music, he always loved the marriage of and the art of combining music with pictures in a collaborative kind of framework.

You're studying classical music and you're finding out who you like in that world and you're finding your favourite composers. Invariably, they're going to influence your writing, even though those composers weren't writing for film necessarily — but they were writing.

"People like Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, I seem to be drawn to the Russian composers. They influenced a lot of filmmakers or a lot of film composers I should say."

A goal of every composer is to discover their voice or tone and when it comes to his own, Carli says that though he has a voice, he often feels like he's still looking for that sound.

That can be especially challenging when working on three very distinct CBC shows like Frankie Drake, Murdoch Mysteries and Fortunate Son, which are very specific in tone.

"I find that the people that I work with on the team possibly are better at identifying certain threads between those three different scores that I think are there. I have a harmonic language which I think is sometimes consistent and so I don't necessarily look at a cue and go, 'That sounds like me'. But I think people who listen to the music and scrutinize it could probably say."

"My music editor could say, 'Oh that's definitely your cue, it sounds like your stuff', and I think that's in some way flattering because it's kind of what we're trying to achieve. It's nice to know that there is some kind of consistency there sometimes."

Naturally, overlap is bound to happen between shows when working on two mysteries like Murdoch Mysteries and Frankie Drake which are set so close in time proximity.

"It's only been a short time [three seasons] for Frankie but it never really sounded like Murdoch [13 seasons], except the last episode of Frankie, a scene in a private school. The direction from the producers said, 'Let's make this sound like high society, very old almost kind of aristocracy sort of a tip into the Victorian era'. So I started writing that kind of music and I was like, 'Well, this sounds like Murdoch'." 

"And then in the current Murdoch [season], the producers wanted to have a saxophone and emulate the sound of a jazzier score and I'm like, 'Interesting!'. That rarely happens. You don't normally want to have that kind of a cross pollination but occasionally you tip your hat."

If you're a fan of jazz fusion, Robert Carli's modern spin on the post Victorian music in Frankie Drake Mysteries will hit the right notes for you too.

Watch Frankie Drake Mysteries on CBC or stream on CBC Gem.