Songtrust Spotlight: Clara Warnaar

CLARA WARNAAR is an NYC-based drummer and percussionist who plays with the band Infinity Shred and the International Contemporary Ensemble. Her solo work, by contrast, is mainly ambient and experimental.

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What or who inspired you to get into music?

I grew up surrounded by film musicians. My dad plays the French horn, and most of my parents' friends were musicians. I think being exposed to that world was both exciting and comforting to me, and I wanted to eventually go into the field of film music.

How would you describe your style of music and performance? How would you describe your philosophy and style as an artist?

I ended up studying percussion at a conservatory, working as a chamber musician in NYC, joining a rock band, and all of that now informs the music I write. I’ve spent so much of my life focusing on hard practice, perfection and focus, that the last few years, my philosophy has been based on the opposite: open-ended and non-judgmental exploration. I learned a lot by playing drums in my band, Infinity Shred, and eventually co-writing. This prompted me to work on my own solo music which is ambient and experimental, though often drawing on classical influences.

What drives you to create, and how do you define success for yourself in music?

I like the idea that some of my work could inspire others, either in the present or in the future, directly or indirectly. On a community level, music has given so much purpose to my life, in the people it’s brought together, and our joint efforts to just make the world a bit better - more interesting, more beautiful - as corny as that sounds. If I can just have a life full of music, that’s success. On a more concrete level, being able to make a living off of music, doing mostly work that I want to be doing also feels like success.

Throughout your career, who has helped you the most in getting to where you want to be - and how did they help?

Ross Karre, co-director of the International Contemporary Ensemble, hired me pretty early on in my career. Since then he’s helped me branch out into more creative opportunities and I see him doing this with others, too. He really believes in peoples’ potentials. There’s also my older brother. We’re both musicians and have had pretty different paths, but he’s one of the few people who will be totally honest with me, kind of brutally honest with me sometimes, haha, but still support me no matter what.

Sometimes being in this business can be really overwhelming. Do you have any tips for maintaining perspective and composure?

It helps to remember that no matter how overwhelming something is, when it comes time to actually share what you’re doing, there’s always a chance that someone will perceive it differently than you do. In fact, there’s an extremely high chance of it. You might play what you believe to be a terrible show, but it profoundly moves someone who really needed it that night. Even if there’s only one person who’s excited about what you’re doing, it’s worth it.

As a percussionist, drummer, composer, and sound artist, involved in two bands, and recording music for films like The Fate of the Furious and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — how do you balance the demands of each project and ensure your style or voice stays true to who you are? 

The kind of obvious thing is, I love it. I recently had a student say that he didn’t want to have to hustle to work as a musician. I said, “Don’t!!” You really don’t have to do it if you don’t love it. It’s hard. There are plenty of more stable jobs in the music industry. Knowing yourself and what you’re capable of is super important. Even though I don’t think I’ll ever be the kind of person who has one true voice (I am too scattered), I do have an authentic connection with most of the various things I do. I say no to opportunities that don’t feel aligned with my interests and skills, and I seek out the ones that do. I also advocate for the idea of being able to exist in disparate music scenes. I feel just as comfortable being in a rock club or on tour with my band, as I do playing with an orchestra in a concert hall. Some people don’t feel comfortable crossing over genre/scene lines, and some people do it constantly for networking purposes, and I tend to not really get along with either of those types of people, haha.

Is the process for preparing for an ensemble performance different from preparing to perform with a band, for instance with Infinity Shred, or are there similarities?

Preparing music for an ensemble performance has become very formulaic for me: I study all the music in advance, prepare logistical needs like organizing percussion rentals, and practice my part well enough so that I can play it almost perfectly by the first rehearsal. That’s just what’s expected in that environment.

Band practice is different. I still try and come as prepared as possible, but I also keep myself flexible enough to try new things. Another major difference is that everything is done by ear in a band environment. At the end of the day, the internalizing of music by ear gives me a deeper and longer connection to it.

What advice do you have for artists who are just starting out?

Become good at zooming in and out of modes: dream big + be realistic, share music with others + spend a lot of time with yourself getting good at it, play the game and network + stay authentic as much as you can, work hard + take care of yourself.

Don’t overlook the importance of becoming as good as you can at something. You can continue being a dreamer, creative, chaotic, whatever, and still refine your skills. As long as it matters to you, you build it into your schedule, and get good support systems for it. Support systems don’t necessarily have to be music schools, but they do have to include mentors or fellow artists who want you to grow. Find people who aren’t only “the gods” at what you want to do, but people who are just a few steps ahead of you - in my field these tend to be people who are 5-15 years older than me - and become friends with them and learn from them.

What's next for you in 2021 and beyond?

I’m trying to pick up the pieces to what we left off in spring 2020, like most people. I released a new album of solo music, “Perfect Try” in June and have been playing my first live shows with that. I have a recording session with the International Contemporary Ensemble coming up, and a show with Carla Kihlstedt in the fall. I was going to be music directing and composing for the show MTHR/WMN with Opera Omaha in 2020, and hope that it’ll resume. I’m writing music for a cool project called Flame Keepers (Metropolis Ensemble), where there’s a new artist every week who gradually replaces a series of loops that the previous artist put in place. My band is starting to work on a new album that has more of a cinematic tone, since we all enjoy scoring. In general, I’m just down to play and write whenever and wherever I can.

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