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Jesse Zubot on the Importance of the Perfect Soundtrack

The Ever Deadly and Bones of Crows composer is finding success staging sounds for the silver screen.

by Christine Leonard

For most filmmakers the prospect of launching a film at the Toronto International Film Festival is a dream come true. The elation of achieving this remarkable artistic milestone has been doubled in the case of Canadian composer and multi-instrumentalist Jesse Zubot, who proudly has two pieces of work that he’s had a hand in both seen — and heard — at TIFF 2022. Complementary yet completely different films, Ever Deadly and Bones of Crows are making the film festival circuit this season, and both were scored by Zubot (Zubot and Dawson).

Directed by Chelsea McMullan (My Prairie Home) and award-winning singer-songwriter Tanya Tagaq, Ever Deadly takes a slice from the daily life of Tagaq. It’s a point of view that’s very familiar to Zubot who has performed with the experimental Inuk throat-singer and produced her genre-pushing albums.

“I have a pretty extensive history with Tanya. We met in 2002 and she asked me to back her at some concerts,” says Zubot. “We did some festivals and tours and we became friends and it gelled really well. Then I went on to produce her Animism (2014, Six Shooter Records) album — the one that won the Polaris Music Prize — and then Retribution (2016, Six Shooter Records) after that. Tanya had a lot of trust in how I work and gave me the reins to build the albums, which was awesome.” 

Capturing glimpses of Tagaq’s public and private persona while exploring words from her novel, Split Tooth, McMullan and Zubot shine a powerful spotlight on the woman behind the music. For Zubot, who has also scored the films Indian Horse (2017) and Monkey Beach (2020), the prospect of “filling in the blanks” between the moments he and Tagaq shared on stage came naturally.

“Approaching this film was easy for me, because at this point I’ve done quite a bit of film scoring,” Zubot says. “With Ever Deadly I was just trying to support her vision again in the way that I did before. “It’s an NFB (National Film Board of Canada) film, so it has almost a nostalgic vibe to it and there’s some past footage from old NFB films in it. I tried to bridge the gaps with the film score by playing music that sounded timeless – like it could’ve been in an old NFB film back in the 70s. I also used some experimental sound designs to ground it towards the future as well.”

Another film that adds an artistic twist to the past in order to bring the present into focus is Bones of Crows, a riveting psychological drama written, produced, and directed by Vancouverite Marie Clements (Jesus Indian, Pilgrims, Red Snow). Starring Grace Dove (Monkey Beach), Alyssa Wapanatâhk, Phillip Lewitski (Wildhood), and Michelle Thrush, the film examines the true meaning of legacy and survival. For this task, Zubot teamed up with long-time friend musician Wayne Lavallee with the goal of furnishing a compelling soundtrack for the Bones of Crows TV series. It turned out the story material was so expansive that the showrunners opted to change gears and carve out a full-length feature film from the tonnes of footage they had already shot.

“The Bones of Crows scenario was on a much different level as far as the amount of work and how much it’s taken out of me. Wayne Lavallee and I started working on that last September and we’re still working on it because of the five-part CBC series. It’s a series now; so it’s going to be a year and two or three months of dedicated time,” Zubot explains of his commitment to finishing the soundtrack for the tale of Cree matriarch Aline Spears and her family’s 100 year battle with racism and abuse.

Jesse Zubot and Wayne Lavallee (co-composer for Bones of Crows) with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra.

Seeking to animate and amplify the foundations of his score for Bones of Crows, Zubot worked with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra and Lavallee, performed as part of a smaller chamber choir, and conducted solo guest performers through the pages of his own original compositions.

“The Victoria Symphony wanted to contribute towards reconciliation and their efforts made for an encompassing epic score. Because the story is so epic, ultra-dramatic, and very sad, and it needed to be supported in that kind of way.”

Zubot was inspired to compose and conduct in real time, peppering his improvised and pre-meditated interludes with strings, Indigenous vocals, and his passion for bringing significant stories to light. 

“A lot of things I’m doing now involve collaboration with Indigenous artists and creators. It’s something I’ve been doing for 20 years, so it goes way back for me. The whole Indigenous struggle is such an intense thing unto itself. I feel comfortable and I love contributing towards a cause that is really important. I feel that part of what I’m doing with my career, art, and life is for the greater good of things.”

Ever Deadly and Bones of Crows are both screening at the Calgary International Film Festival (Sept. 22 to Oct. 2) and at the Vancouver International Film Festival (Sept. 29 to Oct. 9).