Kathy Sommer is a Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum songwriter and producer, a composer for television and film, and a highly accomplished Broadway conductor. Her songs have appeared on over 10 million records. Kathy’s rock credits range from the multi-platinum-selling song ‘Crashed’ on Daughtry’s Grammy-nominated, Billboard #1 top selling album, to Halestorm’s ‘I Get Off,’ a Top 10 Billboard Rock single co-written with frontwoman Lzzy Hale. Kathy’s pop material has been featured on a wide variety of artist projects, games, soundtracks, and TV shows. An abbreviated list includes Sony Latin artist F.A.N.S., VEEP, Nurse Jackie, The Barbie Diaries (DVD & Soundtrack), Lizzie McGuire, BRATZ, Joan of Arcadia, Felicity,Summerland, Nell Carter, Rock Band (videogame), The Superbowl, ESPN’s SECCollege Football, TheDavid Letterman Show, Nickelodeon’s Lego Bionicles, HBO’s Cathouse, The Children’s Television Workshop’s Big Bag featuring Elmo, and the Emmy-nominated PBS Special, Beyond Celtic. Kathy’s Broadway credits as a conductor include Disney’s Beauty & The Beast, City of Angels, Cats, and the Tony-nominated Romance Romance (music director, conductor, vocal and dance arranger). She also co-orchestrated the Off-Broadway production which garnered two Outer Critics Circle awards for Best Musical and Best Score and music directed the A&E television production of the show. Kathy has also conducted songs for Jewel’s Christmas CD ‘Let It Snow’ and Vanessa Williams’ Academy Award winning single ‘Colors of the Wind’, and she composed the music for the Off-Off-Broadway show Long Road Home. A graduate of Yale University, Kathy is composing and developing several new musicals, most notably an adaptation of the classic Black Beauty. She is also writing with top Billboard artists and producing several young breakout artists under her production team Alchemy. A member of ASCAP, The Songwriters Guild, and The Dramatists Guild, she serves on the NY Chapter Board of Governors of The Recording Academy and chairs its Musical Theater Task Force.
A Conversation with Kathy Sommer
Jamie Maletz: So, to start, you are a songwriter and a producer, and you’ve done some incredible things. You’re Grammy nominated, multi-platinum, and you’ve worked with some really big names. What would you say is the biggest thing you’ve ever done?
Kathy Sommer: Well, I’ve had some amazing experiences. As a songwriter, I would say the most exciting moments were writing with Halestorm and Shinedown and a lot of the rock acts that we wrote with. And for Daughtry, that was a huge song for us on a huge record, which was pretty exciting. But that wasn’t a collaboration where we were all in the room together. With Halestorm and Shinedown, we were actually in the room with Lzzy [Hale] and Brent [Smith], and I was writing with my favorite team of girls, Nina Ossoff and Dana Calitri, with whom I have a great writing relationship. We just had an amazing time finding out what the artists wanted to say. The difference between theater writing and writing with an artist in the pop world is that when you’re writing with a pop artist, you’re learning about who they are, drawing on their deepest experience, their life… in a similar way to the way you write for character in theater. So you try to figure out who they are and what they’re about, and how to best express that musically and lyrically. The worlds are parallel, in a way, and I’ve really enjoyed that. There’s a special sort of chemistry that happens when you’re in the room together, when there’s a real connection with artists, and I think we felt that with Lzzy and Brent for sure.
JM: How does that work, when you have a lot of people working on a song together and none of you are in the same room at the same time? Like, how do you deal with making decisions, or when you’re not all in agreement on how things should go? Because it’s one set of lyrics, one tune…
Kathy Sommer: Well, there’s a give and take, and a back-and-forth, and there are many different ways that songs happen in the pop world. Sometimes I’ll send someone a track and they’ll write lyrics to that, and melody. Sometimes somebody will send me a track, and I’ll be writing some melody and lyrics with my other co-writers to that. You know, the world of technology is great these days, in that there is a communication that can happen even when you’re not in the room. And I’ve written many times via Skype or Zoom. As a matter of fact, the musical that I’m working on right now with Barry, my collaborator, we’ve done a tremendous amount by Zoom, because he’s out of town a lot of the time. So you find a way to connect. There’s nothing that replaces being in the room, all the writers together. And you update as you go. ‘Do you like this? Send it back,’ and it comes back to you in a new form.
JM: And as a producer, what do you do? What are your responsibilities in the studio?
Kathy Sommer: As a producer, you help the artist figure out how they want to present themselves. So that can take the form of, ‘Is this the right song for you?’ [or] ‘Is the lyric resonating for you?’ [or] ‘Is the musical style the way you want to be heard and seen in the world?’ You help them create a sound. If somebody wants to be seen in a certain commercial light in the marketplace, then you help them create that sound by the tracks that you create for them and with them. For me, the work of being a producer starts with understanding who the artist is, focusing on what their vision is for themselves, seeing if the material is right, then often helping them tweak the material: (‘Why don’t you try this chord change here?’ [or] ‘Why don’t we eliminate that bridge? The song feels too long.’ [or] ‘Why don’t you say something else here, something that would be more in line with the style of track that we’re working on.’) There’s a fine line between that and actually writing, but a lot of times there will be input. And then you help them take it to the next several levels, which is to track the vocals, to produce the vocals, arranging everything from strings to drums and guitars, and then you mix. And after you mix, then you either master the songs yourself, or you send them out to other mastering engineers for an additional perspective.
JM: How do you decide when you should say something and when you shouldn’t? Say you’re working with someone who’s a really big deal, and you’re like, ‘I can’t tell Jewel to rework her bridge. It’s Jewel!‘
Kathy Sommer: Right. Well, the artist is always the final arbiter. It’s their project. It’s what they want. They come to me, and also to my partner, for our expertise and experience. So they can choose whether or not to take those comments. I always try to be kind first and foremost but give constructive criticism if I think it’s going to help the project. Because that’s why they’re paying me. Yeah, you have to sometimes tread lightly if it’s a particular heavyweight. Sometimes you might choose not to make a certain comment as you feel out the vibe in the room. Is this person married to this section that you’re thinking is not working so well? Do they feel like it’s the most important thing that they’re saying? And if that’s the case, maybe I then reframe my thoughts about it. So, it’s a dance, you know? The dance of creativity.
JM: How do you find your clients? Or how do they find you?
Kathy Sommer: Good question! Word of mouth. I just launched a website with my production partner Matt Anthony. We’re a production team called Alchemy.
JM: And you have a studio setup?
Kathy Sommer: I work in a couple of different ways. I have a studio setup at home, which is more of a workstation type of Pro Tools setup. I do some basic tracks, and I do a lot of piano arranging, string arranging at home, that kind of thing. To take it to the next level, I work with my partner Matt in the city, and he has a studio in town that is that is completely set up–great mics, he plays guitar and bass and does a lot of the drum programming, and we do the final product there. He’s got really first-rate gear there.
JM: Is his studio called Alchemy?
Kathy Sommer: His studio is called Engine Sound. We each have our own separate businesses, and then we come together for clients that we work with together.
JM: And are your rates in the city like, big-city rates, or do you have different packages for different people at different levels?
Kathy Sommer: We have different packages for different levels, yeah. There are demo packages, there are master packages, some more by the hour, some more by the song, that kind of thing. It depends what the goal is.
JM: You’re also working on your musical Black Beauty right now. How long have you been working on that project?
Kathy Sommer: Been working on it forever. [Laughs] Many years at this point. I actually can’t count them. I’m working on it with my collaborator Barry Harman. It’s a project that’s really close to my heart. We did a reading about two years ago, and we were working on it for several years before that, maybe four or five. And since that reading, we’ve made a lot of changes, some really dramatic changes that we both think are helping the piece move forward in a great way that we’re very excited about. It’s based on the book by Anna Sewell, the classic novel written in 1877. It takes place in Victorian England, and it’s about our hero, a thoroughbred named Black Beauty who basically learns about good and evil as he is moved from master to master. It also has the requisite love interest, Ginger. She is a more tortured soul, and we sort of look at it as, Ginger is the darkness and Beauty is the light.
JM: Are they both played by humans?
Kathy Sommer: Yes, the horses are played by humans. And the musical style of the piece is contemporary, and we’re imagining somebody like a Bruno Mars playing Black Beauty. And Ginger would be played by someone like Cardi B. She has a lot more angst in her. The way we found this is, Barry came to me with this idea a long time ago, and the light bulb went off, because I am a passionate animal lover. And I was around horses for my whole young life. I owned a horse for many years. And ever since that moment, I’ve been really fascinated by animal behavior and animal communication. And this piece, when Anna Sewell wrote it, she gave voice to Beauty as the narrator. We’re framing it a little differently, but it is really about giving a voice to oppressed beings, and I think that’s a really timely subject right now in the world today. The other subject that it touches on, which is definitely darker, but we’ve been really exploring it, pertains to Ginger and her early breaking in, which is a very violent and devastating experience for her. It affected her whole life. And we are looking at that in the world today as sort of asking the question: does any being have the right to force another to do something against their will? So that’s a very pertinent question right now in the Me Too movement, so I think we’re really digging deep into the characters and finding a lot of drama. So it’s still a musical, there’s a lot of joy and fun to be had, but there are also some serious issues that we’re tackling.
JM: Yeah. On a lighter note, and back to the music industry… you’ve written with Train, you’ve had your songs on TV shows such as Nurse Jackie, Veep, The Superbowl, The David Letterman Show, and many others… how does that work? Like, how do you make that happen, and what is it like?
Kathy Sommer: The collaborations are always a blast, no question. All these really talented, amazing personalities walking into a space for the first time, and you all just in the course of a day really get to know each other on a pretty deep level, as often happens when you’re creators in the same room together. So that part of it is really fun. In terms of the TV stuff, when we wrote ‘Crashed’ for Daughtry, the placement of that song in shows like The Superbowl and The David Letterman Show was really fun to experience. We also went to the Grammys when the album was nominated and we were there cheering the band on. So that was exciting, got some pictures taken. And the other songs, like Veep placements and Nurse Jackie and all that, those came through our publisher. And it’s just fun to hear your song on the show. Sometimes what you notice is that you can actually barely hear the song, so it’s part of the scene, but it’s so far away in the background, and maybe you get about three seconds of it. And sometimes it gets a little bit more of a moment. But it’s exciting to hear your song as part of something that the world is seeing. I mean, for me, the idea as a creator is that I want to do something that affects people, that moves people in some way. That’s why I am a writer.
JM: And your songs have appeared on over 10 million records, so your voice is definitely being heard! How often do you hear your own work, like on the radio or in films or video games or other places?
Kathy Sommer: It’s a tough road, like any part of the business. When you’re on a roll, things tend to happen, you know, one after the other. So there was a period of time with all the Rock stuff where one thing fed on the other. ‘Crashed’ from the Daughtry record was on rock radio, so we did hear that occasionally. It’s a pretty amazing feeling, I have to say, when you do hear your songs on the radio, thinking that other people are hearing them across the country. And I have had the experience of hearing some of these amazing bands perform our songs in concert, and we’ve heard it with Lzzy in the Halestorm concerts, where thousands of people are singing along, knowing all the lyrics, so that’s really something. The video game thing, that sort of happened because of the rock cuts. One of them got placed in the Rock Band video game.
JM: Oh, cool!
Kathy Sommer: We had a song placed in a Barbie doll at one point, where you push the button and you hear the little snippet of the song. So it’s all those little ways that the songs get out there in the world where you feel like you’re connecting somehow. I always thought, when I first started writing, if I could just move one person with a song that I wrote, that would be something for me. And I still believe in that, because a friend once told me about this favorite song of mine— a lot of times, it’s your favorite songs that actually don’t become hits— but she played it for her grandmother who was really ill at the time. And she said that it just lightened up her whole face and smile, and she smiled the rest of the day. I thought, ‘Wow.’ So that is actually something that makes a difference for me. Makes you keep going.
JM: Yeah. Do you have any favorite on the job or behind the scenes stories from working with some of these big-name artists?
Kathy Sommer: Well, one thing that was pretty amazing for me, which was sort of a turning point in my career, was when I was working on the original production of Cats. I was a rehearsal pianist, and I was just starting out. And I was in the room with Trevor Nunn and Betty Buckley together, and they were having their first conversations about the song ‘Memory’ and who this character was and why she was singing this song and what this moment was about in the show. And I was riveted… I was sitting as close as you and I are, listening to these two theatrical heavyweights talk about this song. And I have to say that, for me, that was a moment that made me want to conduct on Broadway. Because I always saw the conductor as being a conduit between the language of drama and the language of music. You’re in the pit, and you’re sort of talking to both groups of people, the musicians and the actors, and you make the connection for everybody. And I always thought that was an incredible job to have, and that moment inspired me to do that, which really changed the trajectory of my career.
JM: That’s amazing. And that’s a great segue into what I wanted to ask you about next, which is your incredible Broadway credits! As a conductor, you’ve worked on Beauty and the Beast, City of Angels, Cats, and the Tony nominated Romance Romance, for which you were the music director, conductor, and vocal and dance arranger. So what is it like to work as a conductor on Broadway? What’s a day in the life like?
Kathy Sommer: Well, it’s been a while since I’ve conducted now (on Broadway). But a day in the life… it depends whether you’re in rehearsal or in previews and tech or in performance. I was the associate conductor on all those shows, except for Romance Romance, where I was the music director. The job of the music director is to interface with all of the various music staff on the show, and then also with the director and the rest of that creative team. So you’re in creative meetings with people, you’re working with the cast to try to teach material, you’re telling your associates and your rehearsal pianist what to do, you’re coaching singers, you’re helping them find the way into songs and to learn about character and to see what the best keys are… there’s a lot of interaction with the composer, generally. When I was the associate conductor, then I took orders from the conductor, from the music director, and did whatever that person needed me to take care of. The roles are similar, except you’re not overseeing everything. Before you get into tech, you have orchestra rehearsals, and you are working heavily with the orchestrators and making sure that everything is what it needs to be to get ready for that. Once you’re in tech, everybody’s working 12-14 hours a day. When I was the arranger for Romance Romance, for instance, I was rehearsing all day and writing arrangements at night, because things are constantly changing. And then once the show’s up and running, you’re dealing with making sure the show is staying at the highest level possible. So that’s everything from making sure the musicians are doing everything they need to be doing to making sure the subs are up to par, giving notes to the cast and musicians, interfacing again with the composer and directors and making sure they’re happy when they check in, a lot of times you’re working with stage management… so there’s a lot going on. And once the cast album needs to be made, then you’re helping with that. If you’re the music director or supervisor, you’re helping to determine what’s going to go on the album and what’s the best way to format it. You’re also overseeing things like the Tony Awards, if your show is lucky enough to be part of those kinds of performances.
JM: So have you played the Tony Awards?
Kathy Sommer: For Romance Romance, I conducted their spot on the Tonys and the pre-record for that. For Beauty and the Beast, if we did a pre-record, I might have been part of that. I truly don’t remember at this point. [Laughs]
JM: What are your favorite and least favorite parts of working on Broadway?
Kathy Sommer: My favorite part was always the creative process at the beginning. Because, being a writer, I love seeing how things are put together and why choices are made. And being part of that process, to really see it grow and develop, has always been tremendously exciting for me. Least favorite parts of the job… probably the challenge of staying fresh every day. That is a challenge. It’s really good practice for staying at a certain level of professionalism.
JM: I’ve always wondered, when you’re doing eight shows a week of the same material…how do you keep it fresh and exciting? And when you’re living that exhausting lifestyle, how do you keep yourself from burning out?
Kathy Sommer: Yeah, it is an exhausting lifestyle.
JM: What are some of the tricks you use? I know some performers have talked about it in interviews, but what do you do on the music side?
Kathy Sommer: One of the advantages for me, when I was the associate conductor on many shows, is that I liked the variety of playing keyboard some nights and conducting some nights. So that helps to keep it fresh, doing a different job like that. And sometimes you play little games with yourself. ‘Oh, I’m memorizing that today,’ or ‘I’m going to try a new technique on that today.’ So you know, you keep your brain activated that way. I actually found that during the day, working on other music was really helpful. It energized me. So I would often be songwriting during the day, working on my theater projects or my pop projects, and then going to work at night to perform. And the other thing is, you’ve gotta rest. I would nap every day before a performance. You have to. And you try to eat well, and you try to exercise, and all those things that help you take care of yourself. I’ve been writing more in the last ten years than conducting, and I’ve found that meditating is a tremendous tool in terms of energizing yourself for the next thing when you’re on a crazy schedule and helping you stay focused. So if I had done more of that when I was conducting [laughs] that would have probably been good!
JM: And how does working on a Broadway show compare to working in a music studio?
Kathy Sommer: Ha! Well, the interesting thing about live versus recorded music is that they both have their advantages. The exciting thing about live production is that anything can happen at any time. So that’s something that keeps you going. I mean, just think about those nights that you’re at the theater and an actor goes up on a line, but they make a great moment out of it. The audience loves that more than anything. And the people in the show love that too, because it keeps you fresh. The frustration of that, the downside I felt as a creator, was, you know, you’re working toward every little detail: ‘Is that note in tune? Is that cut-off exactly right?’ And then things shift and change over time. So in the end, I would get frustrated by the fact that it wasn’t in stone. ‘Well, we had it, but now it’s gone!’ When you’re recording, the goal is to get that minutia nailed down that one time. So you’re really dealing with a lot more cutting and pasting, especially in this digital age. Sometimes you’ll capture a great performance, but you’re still doing a lot of moving things around to create that ideal moment. And it’s exciting in its own way, because once you’ve done it, you can listen back to it and be like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I meant!’
JM: You also composed the music for the off-off-Broadway show Long Road Home. Do you want to talk about that experience?
Kathy Sommer: That is a show that Barry Harman and I wrote years ago. And we had done several readings, and then we got it on its feet for about five weeks at the Hudson Guild Theater, which was great fun. It was one of many incarnations of it. It’s a piece inspired by a singer, an artist that we were working with at the time, who was so talented. And we had started creating these songs that started telling us who this woman was, and we wrote this story around her. And the story became one of a recovering alcoholic dealing with getting over the issues of an abusive husband and a best friend that was dying of AIDS. And it was all about her journey towards rediscovering who she was. We’re actually talking about exploring that for a new potential format. Maybe television or streaming or something like that.
JM: Very cool. And do you have any other upcoming projects or exciting things in the works?
Kathy Sommer: Just Black Beauty, and I’m so excited about it. We’re working hard getting a next reading together for the spring, so that’s kind of where all our energy is going right now. Knock on wood, April or May. There’s a lot to accomplish. But to get it into the hands of actors, out of your own voice and out of your own hands and see what it feels like once it’s coming back at you, is always exciting. And then to try to get some other response from the industry and see where we’re at and then take the next step. And the launch of this website for Alchemy, my production team, which I’m excited about, and we are always working with new artists there.
JM: Okay, so now for the big question: Why did you join Maestra?
Kathy Sommer: Georgia [Stitt] invited me to join Maestra, and I am so thrilled that she did, because it changed everything. She invited me to one of the first meetings that she put together, and I found myself able to connect with a group of women, most of whom I didn’t know. I had spent many years working in the pop and rock arena, away from the theater for a while, and coming into this room was somehow like coming home. It was really an extraordinary experience. Just the energy, the generosity… women offering information and help and support in a way that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. Because so many times in the musical world, we are surrounded by men in our musical endeavors. And talking to women here with common experiences, it just made a tremendous difference.
JM: Why do you think Maestra is important?
Kathy Sommer: I actually think it offers a lot of different things. One is a sense of community. Community is sustenance, community is support, community is the ability to call on somebody when you have a question about something you don’t know. It also offers knowledge. I mean, the guests that have come into our monthly meetings have been extraordinary and have really allowed us to educate ourselves in a fast-forward way, which has been very exciting. There’s also the inspiration that we get from other women, and the potential for developing relationships with new collaborators. And then finally, the overall sense of support we get. The combination of that, with the inspiration, with the community, it’s lifeblood for all of us. So I think it makes a tremendous difference.
JM: You’ve already started to answer this, but: How has Maestra helped you or people that you know so far?
Kathy Sommer: Well, it’s helped me connect to people in the industry that I would not have had access to initially. Sometimes you spend years networking to develop one or two relationships. And there has been so much that I’ve learned, not only about how to get your show to the next level, but the people that can help you do that. I think the thing that Maestra has brought to us is not only the ability to interface with people that we would not normally have gotten a chance to meet before, but also to learn about things like grants and retreats, and places to perform your work. And also creating ways to change what’s going on in the world regarding the status of women out there. Georgia’s work… Georgia is a force to be reckoned with. And she has gotten Maestra out there on every level that she possibly can. So that, to me, is exciting. Everything from acknowledgement at the Lilly Awards to the relationship with Disney to The Canales Project… all these opportunities. It’s been such a gratifying, warm, exciting experience that I look forward to every month when we’re together. To say nothing of the website, the database… the work that Maestra is doing, it’s really incredible. And I hope that it will make a difference in the environment at large. You know, I came up in this business at a time when I was the only female musician in the rhythm section or in the pit, or the only female conductor conducting an all-male orchestra. And I see it changing before our very eyes. It’s really been pretty astounding.
JM: And you started to answer this already too, but why should people care about the services that we offer and the goals we’re working towards?
Kathy Sommer: Because this is life. Women make up at least half of the population. So the ability to be represented is crucial, and the ability to be taken seriously is crucial. And for us to have the support we need as women… we don’t function the same way men do. We have different experiences in life and different responsibilities, and this is something that is so essential, for us to be able to have the place to support each other, and then the ability to create that change and put it out into the world. That’s everything, I think.
JM: Last but not least, is there anything that you’d like to share about yourself, your work, or thoughts about Maestra?
Kathy Sommer: The only thing I’d like to say, I guess, is that we’re all in this together. I chair something called The Musical Theater Task Force, and the goal is to help maintain the health of the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, along with creating an informed and diverse voting membership. But also to promote a sense of community within the New York theater community and around the country, and to acknowledge the cultural reach of theater around the world. And I think that Maestra has a lot of the same goals, and for me, the ability of people to come together to create art and through their art make a difference in the world…that, to me, is the most important thing. And so if I can do that every day, that makes me happy. And if Maestra can help to support that, and it does, and all the other work I do can help to support that, I think that we might help build a better planet.
Special thanks to Kathy for sharing her story.
Read more of our Women Who Wow Us series, including interviews with Nancy Ford, Anessa Marie, Elise Frawley, Erin McKeown, Meg Zervoulis, Masi Asare, Britt Bonney, Jennifer Isaacson, Emily Grishman, Rona Siddiqui, and Sheilah Rae.