Interview: Toronto musician Casey MQ scores three films at TIFF 2019

He's best known as an electronic artist and producer, but the in-demand multi-hyphenate is also a composer for film – and he’s been keeping busy

Casey MQ is best known as an experimental electronic artist, multi-instrumentalist, party maven and sought-after record producer. But the Toronto-based multi-hyphenate is also a composer for film – and he’s been keeping very busy.

At this year’s TIFF, MQ scored three feature films all getting their world premiere at the festival: Raf, the coming-of-age story of a 29-year-old woman that explores class in modern friendships Easy Land, about two Serbian refugees as they adapt to life in Canada and Tammy’s Always Dying, a dark comedy about a daughter forced to take care of her self-destructive mother. 

“I grew up being invested in film and music equally. I loved making my own movies as a kid,” says MQ from his place in Toronto. “But then music took priority and film kind of got away from me.”

Now, he’s combining both into a career as a film composer. The TIFF films are just part of the story – he’s worked on eight features in just three years. MQ doesn’t find the two pursuits separate – his work behind the scenes has fed into his music as a solo artist and vice versa. 

He got more serious about film work in 2016 when he was accepted into Canadian Film Centre’s one-year Slaight Music Residency, which trains and mentors burgeoning composers. Then he got his big break last year scoring Jasmin Mozaffari’s critically acclaimed debut feature, Firecrackers. Mozaffari had heard his 2017 EP, For The Beasts, made in collaboration with the French producer Oklou, a collection of gauzy distorted pop remixes. 

“The intensity of the EP really resonated with her and we really connected musically,” says MQ. 

After Firecrackers, which won Mozaffari best director at the Canadian Screen Awards, MQ’s been working at warp speed.

For Raf, MQ worked closely with director Harry Cepka to create the repetitive and pulsating score. “Techno music plays a big role in the film. It’s almost like a character,” says MQ over the phone from his place in Toronto. “It was really exciting for me because I love making electronic music, but I’d never really immersed myself in techno.” 

Serendipitously, he was able to write the score in Berlin – the world’s techno capital – during a break while touring his 2018 EP, Nudes, a slick dance pop album that shows off MQ’s soaring vocals. There, he fell into the genre.

“The main character Raf [played by Grace Glowicki] is really interested in [electronic music series] Boiler Room and that kind of aesthetic,” says MQ. “And so the score has a cold and jarring effect to [mimic] what she’s going through in the film.” 

For Easy Land, MQ was also pushed outside of his usual mode and instead tapped into his childhood spent studying classical piano. Inspired by pioneering experimental composer Morton Feldman, MQ wrote a sparse, 35-minute neoclassical piece played by a string quartet. “Rather than the score hitting character beats, [director] Sanja Zivkovic and I wanted it to feel as if it was gliding throughout the film and building in intensity.” 

MQ lets the film dictate the style of the composition he’s making. He starts by watching the film once through and making a dozen or so “sketches” – short pieces on Ableton or recorded piano and synths ideas. “From possibly 20 sketches, one sound or melody can kick-start the entire experience of what the film will sound like.” 

That was the process for nailing down the warm acoustic score that blankets Tammy’s Always Dying, which was directed by former pink Power Ranger Amy Jo Johnson and stars Felicity Huffman. The score still has electronic elements, but it’s balanced by sprightly acoustic guitar and piano. 

After all that film work, MQ is ready to re-focus on his own music. He’s currently finishing a conceptual pop album, separate from his film music but influenced by lessons he learned from doing it.

While working with Glowicki on her film Tito, he tweaked the score while she was making her edits. 

“She would talk about staying true to the concept of the film and holding that thesis tight. That stayed with me,” says MQ. “In the past I’ve made albums where it’s been like ‘here are some songs I’ve been making and these are the best ones.’ For this next album, I want to see an idea through across the board. The goal is to find my voice and for it to all come together into a concise idea.”

He’s also excited for the longer lead times of writing his own music, where he has the time to dig deep into the crevice of every track before moving on. In film, usually time and budget restraints mean that as quickly as MQ gets swept into a specific sonic universe, he’s onto the next. For example, the 35-minute score for Easy Land was cut from a five-hour session with the string quartet, which was conducted by MQ. 

In addition to his pop album, he wants to compose for ballet and other forms of performance art, and he recently finished shooting a video for a new single.   

While MQ’s three scores at TIFF have their distinct sounds, he doesn’t view himself necessarily as a chameleon. Writing for film gives him the opportunity to explore new ideas and genres, but MQ’s classical-music training, penchant for electronic music and overall sensibilities leave their marks on each composition. 

“As an artist, I never want to be stuck and feel trapped. I never want to shy away from a sound just because it’s something I’ve never touched before,” says MQ. “For film though, I think that no matter what, if you know my music – the harmonics and melodic roots – and you hear one of my scores, you’ll know it’s me.”  

Keep reading: Six more Toronto composers to watch at TIFF

@nowtoronto | @SamEdwardsTO

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