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A Music Maven’s Personal Playlist

Composer J. Ralph shares the soundtrack to his own award-winning life

J. Ralph has written and produced the music for Oscar-winning films like The Cove and Man on Wire, Grammy Award-winning artists and even Barack Obama.  He was the man behind the music for Sundance hit Meru and has collaborated with Liza Minnelli, Willie Nelson, Scarlett Johansson and the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir. Now this Sunday, two documentaries featuring his music, Virunga and Finding Vivian Maier, are nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

It’s hard to believe, then, that all of these accomplishments are not a result of any formal training. “I started by making beats in my room,” says the self-taught composer, singer/songwriter and producer. “I had always been really enamored how direct music was. When you’re playing an instrument, it’s a direct expression of emotion—there are no inhibitors.” 

Today, his work goes beyond the sheet music. “We’re trying to bring awareness to critical issues that need to be seen and heard throughout the world,” he says. 

Over the years, Ralph’s work has spanned films about dolphin captures in Japan to Philippe Petit’s tight ropewalk between the Twin Towers. “These people are going to the ends of the earth to find critical information and reveal it to the universe. They’re putting their lives at risk for real on a daily basis,” he says of his colleagues. “The people I work with are relentless in making sure that everything has been explored and that the truth is presented in the most accurate, unfiltered way.”

And when it comes to choosing his projects, Ralph has no problem pushing the boundaries. “I don’t have any pre-formed tenets,” he says. “I respond to the authenticity of what’s being presented. I can tell instantaneously if something touches me.”   

Case-in-point: Virunga, a documentary that follows the individuals who are fighting to protect the Congo’s Virunga National Park. The music, which was recorded across three continents in five different languages, was also the first time Youssou Ndour, Salif Keita and Fally Ipupa have ever been on the same track. “I’ve loved the idea of encapsulating stories with songs,” Ralph says, “and creating components to the films that live almost as another whole life.”

And it’s a good time for documentaries, according to Ralph. “The equipment is becoming so democratized that for the first time, documentarians are empowered to tell a story cinematically. It’s enabling audiences to see true stories they never would have had access to,” he says.

What is the soundtrack to Ralph’s own life? Listen for yourself—below, he curated his very own playlist. “It’s stuff that has been important to me along the journey,” he says. “They’re things that I feel are reference points that all others were guided by, whether on a subculture level or mainstream level.”