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Daniel Ingram: On Writing Songs For Ponies

Composer Daniel Ingram’s music has helped turn My Little Pony into a global, cultural phenomenon, spawning a cult of fans called Bronies.

You think you know your marketing niches? Try wrapping your head around this one: “Bronies” is the name given to the growing group of fans of the children’s animated series, My Little Pony.

The series had been around forever, and it was what it was. Then the game changed: In 2010, it evolved into a newer, brighter, more musical series called  My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. This was not your daughter’s My Little Pony. Message boards got busy with this crush of adult fans, which led to dedicated websites, social media pages, meetups and even conventions. The series, in return, embraced the phenom with references and shout outs directly aimed at this demographic. In 2013, a documentary, Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony, took critics, and the world, by surprise.

Dismiss it as another crazy Internet meme? Hold your horses: The more backlash the Bronies attracted, the more brazen they became.

A huge part of the popularity of the series is its first-rate songs created by Canadian composer Daniel Ingram, one of the busiest songwriters in the entertainment business. In the course of his young career, he’s scored over 300 episodes of animated television, received over 200 song commissions and wrote seven theme songs. His work’s YouTube views are in the hundreds of millions, and that doesn’t include the scores of cover songs and videos by his fans of all ages.

Daniel Ingram

Photo by Bobo Zhao Photography

In our Everybody’s interview, Daniel assesses the My Little Pony and Bronies touchstones, and he gives us a rare peek into his creative process.

Do you continue to try to process and understand the surprising success of My Little Pony, or does it seem to make more sense to you as time goes on and you’ve stopped trying to explain it to yourself?

I try to not take it for granted because it’s just a rare privilege to experience. Having such a large and enthusiastic fan base means that as soon as a song is released, I not only get immediate feedback over social media in the form of thousands of comments and tweets, but the level of support and positivity is phenomenal. I think the success of MLP: FiM is what you would call, “lightning in a bottle.”

How has the MLP phenom affected you personally as an artist and creative person?

Prior to starting on My Little Pony, I was scoring my first animated TV series called Martha Speaks. I was like 20% songwriter and 80% score composer back then. In the last six years, that’s been completely inverted. I’ve been commissioned for around 230 songs since starting MLP. It’s been nuts. When that happens the onus is on you to not let it become repetitive, and hopefully, continually improve. I have to keep pushing myself deeper into the craft of songwriting and not get too stuck in my ways. I think I’ve grown a great deal as an artist as a result though, and I’m grateful for that.

How has it affected your career, as far as project choices and opportunities? Has it made you more marketable? Or less?

I’ve been approached by some really unexpected clients as a result of MLP’s wide-reaching success. From large companies like Cirque du Soleil and Netflix to just unexpected people like Frank Zappa’s son, Ahmet, reaching out to congratulate me. I just finished a song for a hotel chain in Brazil because their marketing guy is a brony. MLP has opened up doors to write for some pretty cool celebrities too including Weird Al Yankovic and 2014 Tony Award winner Lena Hall. But the marketability is both a blessing and a curse. I’ve had a lot of success getting work writing music for Children’s television, but I’ve struggled to find an agent that will take me seriously. I believe that will change in the next year or two. Anyone know a good songwriting agent?

How do you explain Bronies to someone who may not be familiar with them?

I say, “Bronies are adult fans, both male and female, of the show My Little Pony.” There’s usually a long pause, followed by a series of bewildered questions. I love that it’s so hard for some people to comprehend. It goes to show that MLP has achieved something truly one-of-a-kind: It’s destroyed all age and gender demographic stereotypes around the world, and in a very pure and deeply human way. We can all connect through the simple principles of friendship .

Has your music for the series evolved since its inception?

Absolutely. The original plan for the series was that only Pinkie Pie would sing, and only silly little ditties at that. But now it’s full-on, no-holds-barred songwriting. There are songs in MLP that are four-minutes long, with full choir, six soloists, orchestra, rock band, electronics, and folk instruments… and that’s all just in one song.

Are there any specific songs from the series that hold a special place for you?

The song that really broke the mold and set things on their course was “Winter Wrap Up,” from Season 1. I wrote that song to show Hasbro what was possible on both an emotional and technical level within in the show. After “Winter Wrap Up,” they started giving me carte blanche to write more ambitious works. When the popularity of the songs became apparent, they started adding full “musical” episodes every season. “The Smile Song,” from Season 2, also holds a special place for me, because every fan I’ve ever met around the world seems to know the lyrics. That song seems to have really resonated with the fandom globally.

In general, what is your process as a composer? And more specifically, how do you work under the tight deadlines you are given?

It’s important as a TV/film composer to strike a balance between what you want to write, and what you need to write. I spend a lot of time before I start just thinking about what will work best for the scene or song on my desk. Once I hone in on that perfect vibe then I start from the beginning. For a song, everything is in those first few lines: the tone, the theme, the core idea… it’s all there. Once you have that locked in then momentum takes over and you just have to grind through until you reach the end. I like deadlines because they prevent me from spending too much time perseverating or second guessing myself. I just say, “Well, if they don’t like it, I can fix it later. Move on.” Without deadlines I don’t know if I’d ever get anything done, but when you have to write a couple big songs and 30+ minutes of score in a week I start to feel differently.

How do you approach a song project? Is it always music or lyrics first that works best, or does it depend on the song/dramatic situation?

I love it when I’m handed great lyrics and I can get right to the music, but unfortunately that doesn’t happen all that often. I usually scratch around for a long time getting the opening melody and lyrics simultaneously. The phrasing of those lyrics is going to shape the melody I come up with, and subsequently, the melody that’s been established is going to influence the lyrics to follow. I feel that lyrics and melody have a very symbiotic relationship. Altering a few words after the fact can take a melody that was working great and make it clunky.

Daniel Ingram Songwriter

Photo by Bobo Zhao Photography

We touched upon deadlines earlier. What’s your secret for recharging in order to continue to create under the gun?

I love taking naps.

Other than music, what has influenced your creative path (TV, books, movies)?

One of my university professors started our first-year composition class with the following advice: If you want to be a composer, don’t just study music. You need to know about everything… poetry, art, architecture, theatre, film, history.  A composer can’t exist in a vacuum. Travel often. Read constantly. Embrace everything with curiosity. If you live fully and fill yourself with more influences than you can possibly understand, then you’ll be equipped to start writing meaningful music.

How has the digital age affected your career?

Around 2002 the shift really happened: high-quality studio equipment, faster computers, and a vast array of high-quality sample libraries became affordable enough so that almost anyone could create professional sounding music from home if they put in the time. For the first time, I started to see being a film/TV [composer] as a viable option for me. Prior to that, I was writing for small chamber groups and doing commissions here and there and couldn’t afford the equipment necessary to take me to the next level. I’m not a particularly proficient piano player either, so DAW’s and MIDI have enabled me to write more sophisticated music that I would be able to perform live. The digital age opened up a lot of doors for me musically. Can’t wait to see what the quantum age has in store.

You’ve got the My Little Pony movie set for release in 2017. What new challenges have you encountered while working on the film versus the series?

Funny you should ask. I’m in the middle of writing the 2017 feature songs right now. The expectations for children’s TV songs are generally pretty low. I think on my shows I’ve always made an effort to exceed the usual standards, but it’s not exactly high pressure. On the other hand, the bar for animated feature film songs is set extremely high. Great songwriters like Alen Menken, Randy Newman, Elton John, and Robert & Kristen Lopez have paved the way for that, and expectations are running high. For the first time in my life, I spend a lot of time just asking myself, “Is this good enough?” At some point, though, you have to just stop doing that and forge ahead and trust your instincts. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

What’s next for you? Any new projects you can tell us about at this time?

The 2017 MLP feature film is first and foremost on my mind; however, I am in negotiations on a new animated series for Netflix and a few other cool projects. Also, we just put out a MLP Christmas album called, “It’s a Pony Kind of Christmas” that’s doing really well. Here is the opening song I wrote for that:

 
Another song from the project: “This Day Aria”

 
Do you have any words or life philosophy that you live by?

Dream it and it can happen. But be prepared for it when it does.

Find out more about Daniel here.

And don’t forget to get “It’s a Pony Kind of Christmas” here.

2 Comments

  1. Titanium Dragon

    December 12, 2015 at 1:02 am

    Ingram has been doing a pretty great job on MLP; he’s done a pretty consistent job overall, and while some episodes are stronger than others, he has really knocked it out of the park a few times, and a number of songs across the years of the show have helped to establish major character moments or turning points. Magical Mystery Cure in particular was very song-driven, and it worked great.

    I’m glad to hear he’s been finding success in the world at large as well as a result of it.

  2. Zidders Roofurry

    December 12, 2015 at 3:23 am

    Daniel’s music has impressed.
    Friendship and love are what’s most stressed.
    His notes and merry melodies
    have brought we bronies to our knees.
    With joy in heart we sing his praises
    because quite often he amazes
    with his knowledge and his skill.
    Each episode is quite a thrill.
    With grateful hearts we cheer in throngs.
    Thanks, Daniel for all your songs.

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