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Voices and Choices: A Conversation with Shawn Lee

  • Published at 23:07:00 PT
  • Reported by Jeriaska
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Shawn Lee is blessed with an abundance of musical gifts. During 2006 he was burning the midnight oil in recording studios all over London to furnish listeners with a dazzling array of sounds. Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra released Strings and Things in February on Ubiquity Records. His eagerly awaited album Soul Visa, previously available only in Japan, emerged in April, featuring the Witchita-born composer's very own vocal talents. Today he is here to talk about Bully Original Soundtrack, his videogame music debut.

Talent will always win out, they say, but sometimes the exit route is a long and winding road. For Shawn Lee, the journey began in the outskirts of rural Wichita, Kansas. Raised by his half-Lebanese, half-American Indian mother and Irish-American father, Shawn developed an appreciation for funk and black gospel music, not exactly in accordance with the aesthetic tastes of his white gospel church. Finding himself out of place among his line-dancing peers, he picked up his drums, percussion instruments, bass and guitar and left the Midwest for Los Angeles, California. It was 1988.

Currently, Shawn Lee makes his home in London, where he is composing music for a variety of media. 2004 saw the release of two of his albums: Soul Visa in Japan on Rush! and the instrumental project, Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra, Music and Rhythm. 2005 witnessed two more albums in Soul Visa’s spiritual successor Harmonium and Ping Pong album #2, Moods and Grooves. The entertainment industry has been quick to embrace the Ping Pong sound, featuring in the television series Malcom in the Middle, Lost, Desperate Housewives, CSI: Miami, Ugly Betty, and the upcoming blockbuster film Oceans 13.

Shawn's contribution to game music is the soundtrack to Rockstar Games' boarding school sim Bully/ Canis Canem Edit. Today he is sharing with us the experience of lending his abilities to the domain of interactive entertainment.

Square Haven: Thank you, Shawn Lee, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with us. You've mentioned in interviews that growing up in Wichita had some positive influences for you as an artist and a musician.

Shawn Lee: Growing up in a small town offers you little distractions. There is no bright lights and the allure of glamour. Music became a magical force which transported my very being. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I would become a professional musician when I grew up. I suppose growing up in a small town gave me the hunger to move myself onto a bigger stage.

Click on image for music sample - RM format

Haven: Among the artists you have mentioned in print, musicians of soul, jazz, and funk feature prominently, like Shuggie Otis, Curtis Mayfield, Duke Ellington, and Otis Redding . Was it difficult to reconcile your passion for black music with the setting of your Midwestern hometown?

Shawn: Ah good question. I grew up going to schools in black neighborhoods, so the music was all around me. There were definitely a lot of times when white people would say why do listen to or play that nigger music!

Haven: You sing with soul on Soul Visa.

Shawn: Singing is the original instrument—there is no interface. Writing and singing my own songs guided me to LA and then onto London. I sing less and less these days but I feel my voice has improved greatly with age. Now it's just one of the things that I do musically.

Haven: I have to ask, what is it in particular about the music of the '70s that captures your interest?

Shawn: The musicallity—the FUNK—the SOUL. All music back then, no matter what style had that rhythm. The instruments used were all classics and the playing was proper! The 70's were my golden era of music for sure.

Haven: How did it come about that you were chosen to score the soundtrack to Rockstar's Bully/ Canis Canem Edit?

Shawn: It was down to my Ping Pong Orchestra albums. I think that the people at Rockstar heard what they needed for Bully somewhere in those albums. The Ping Pong albums are about me playing as many different instruments as I can get my dirty little hands on! I've always loved film and TV music so it's a vehicle to write my own little imaginary soundtracks.

Click on image for music sample - mp3 format

Haven: "Defender of the Castle" in Bully is pure joy in sound form. Listening to the song is like diving right into a beach party. How were you able to capture such excitement in this soundtrack?

Shawn: Check it out, "Defender Of the Castle" was just one of over a 100 pieces of music I wrote and recorded for Bully. I can't even remember how it goes!!!!!

Haven: How much freedom were you given in determining the overall style of the game's score?

Shawn: Ivan Pavlovich, the musical supervisor at Rockstar, gave me strong direction and references for the Bully score. We were in regular contact by email and phone. His guidence was paramount in the creation of the soundtrack. At the end of the day it was very much a team effort.

Haven: How was composing for video game music a departure from your previous work?

Shawn: Before starting the music I flew to New York to watch bits of the game. I discussed musical points of reference with Ivan and took notes. I then returned to London and made a plan of attack. I isolated fifteen important musical cues in the game which would go along way in defining the overall feel of the music in Bully. Once this was accomplished I took each cue individually but also thought about how the score would fit together as a whole.

The Bully score was played entirely by myself with the exception of the horns, which only featured on a couple of tracks. I also composed all of the music myself. The only collaboration was with Ivan at Rockstar really.

Bully Soundtrack, "Defender of the Castle"

Haven: What's in store for the future?

Shawn: Up next is the release of the 4th Ping Pong album "Voices and Choices" on Jan.30. Also, there are numerous remixes and vocal collaborations coming early this year too. Keep your eyes peeled for "A very Ping Pong Christmas" album at the end of the year plus a few more surprises to boot.

Haven: Can't wait! Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today, Shawn Lee. Any last thoughts for our readers?

Shawn: Just remember people—it's nice to be important but it's important to be nice!

Interview conducted by jeriaska. Special thanks to Godai for contributing questions. To find out more about Shawn Lee, visit his website at

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