Wil Wright passes his screen test

Photo by Thuy Ho

Knoxville pop performer comes full-circle as Scruffy City Film Festival composer-in-residence

Wil Wright hasn’t given up on pop/rock music with his shift to film and classical composition, but it is fulfilling a longtime dream.

Wil Wright’s musical guises seem to be endless.

For more than two decades, he’s been the leader of the rock band Senryu. He toured the country as the underground wizard-rap character LiL iFFy. He’s recorded stark songs and experimental music under his own name. And, more recently, he’s gathered a following as half of the electro-pop act Peak Physique. Still, it’s a surprise to see him listed as the composer-in-residence for the 2018 Scruffy City Film Festival. In fact, Wright has been composing music for film and television for quite some time, and he’s working on some strictly classical pieces, as well.

“It’s what I wanted to do when I went to college,” says Wright, over lunch at Long’s Pharmacy. “I wanted to write music for big ensembles, and I really wanted to write movie music. I had as many soundtracks as [other albums] when I was a little kid. The first time I realized that I could be moved in a particular way by, especially, film music was ‘The Dark Crystal.’”

That score, composed by Trevor Jones, remains one of Wright’s favorites.

Wright grew up in Rockwood, played percussion in the school band and entered the University of Tennessee in Knoxville with an idea of the kind of music he wanted to make, but it wasn’t in fashion in modern academia.

“I wanted to compose massive, beautiful things, but I felt like all the contemporary music I was presented with was really jagged, dissonant and chaotic,” says Wright. “I didn’t like it, and I didn’t have any desire to understand it, so I got discouraged, left and spent the next 16 years making pop music with Senryu.”

Wright notes the irony that much of the rock he created with Senryu was chaotic and jagged, and he came to love the music he hadn’t understood in college. While it might have been prudent to have stuck it out, his rock songs and his familial attitude about rock concerts helped him win a dedicated group of fans that is still willing to follow his musical adventures wherever they might lead. They might not always make the connection, though, when Wright’s music shows up in film and television shows.

“Maybe eight years ago, I wrote my first film score,” says Wright. “It was just a little no-budget horror movie for a friend. Even on that scale, though, the satisfaction of seeing the music and the visual come together was satisfying in a way that writing songs and writing rock ‘n’ roll or whatever kind of music doesn’t get me to.”

In the following years, Wright scored several short films and television shows. He recently scored his first feature-length film, “This World Alone,” directed by longtime friend Jordan Noel.

“It’s such an interesting creation process to take a visual and make it feel infinite ways,” says Wright. “You’re working together with a visual artist to get an audience to the point of sadness or to the point of fear or happiness or relief. It’s very magical and very stimulating when it all comes together. It’s a very unique creative satisfaction.”

Wright says he still loves writing pop and rock songs, but it seems like he’s finally realizing a dream he had a long time ago.

Some of that dream is being fulfilled in his collaboration with British author David Southwell, the creator of “The Phoenix Guide to Strange England County by County: Hookland.”

“[Southwell] has invented a place that doesn’t exist,” says Wright. “It’s this haunted, sort of forgotten-in-time county in England, and he documents it around 50,000 tweets and a few bulk texts. … He just sits and writes about this place that doesn’t exist all day long, and I find that fascinating.”

Wright re-tweeted one of Southwell’s posts, adding, “This account is a must for the imagination. … My head floods with music every time I read this guy’s writing.”

The two began corresponding, Southwell sent Wright texts further explaining Hookland’s fictional history and geography and Wright decided to write a five-movement work to serve as a chamber-music companion piece.

“Even before I reached out to him, it’s one of the few places that I can guarantee inspiration these days,” says Wright. “There’s an elusiveness to it that I find really inspirational. It’s like ghost hunting. … It is the closest I’ve ever gotten to what I dreamed of writing as a kid, and I’m really proud of it.”

The Scruffy City Film Festival will be Wright’s first chance to perform music that he’s written for movies, television and other projects for a live audience.

“This is a huge, exciting opportunity for me,” says Wright. “I’ll be performing a 90-minute set of live scores, premiering various scores and film collaborations and doing an extremely special Harry Potter collaboration with director Michael Samstag, who directed content on several of the actual Harry Potter films. It’s going to be a legitimately special, fun show.”

Wright continues to delve into rock and pop by making music with Peak Physique and Senryu. As with most of his projects, there’s some cross-pollination. The Senryu song “White Elephant” was used in a Puerto Rican film, “En Pedazos,” which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. And Wright and his Peak Physique partner Matt Honkonen recently co-scored the documentary series “ReMastered.”

Wright’s end game has no boundaries.

He points out that many modern classical composers have written for film and that some have moved from film to classical composition. Some favorite film composers, including Ryuichi Sakamoto and Clint Marshall, began in pop and rock bands Yellow Magic Orchestra and Pop Will Eat Itself, respectively. More recently, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead moved into film scoring and classical composition.

He says his new emphasis has something to do with his recent marriage to Tuyen Ho and the couple’s stepdaughter.

“Tuyen knows this is where I’d always wanted to go creatively, and she is constantly encouraging me and pushing me in the ways I need,” says Wright. “And I have a little kid watching my every move now, and if she sees me attacking my dreams, she’ll learn to attack her own.”

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