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Composer Tori Letzler on Her Industrial-Inspired ‘In from the Cold’ Score

Whether you know it consciously or not, odds are good that you’re familiar with the work of Tori Letzler. An incredible powerhouse of talent, the Los Angeles-based Letzler has racked up an impressive resume in speedrun-like fashion. As a professional vocalist, she has contributed her talents to projects like Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Kong: Skull Island, Ad Astra, Altered Carbon, and American Horror Story.

As a solo artist, she’s produced and released a wealth of electronic music under the name TINYKVT. Truly multifaceted in every sense of the word, Letzler has also proceeded to unlock the holy trifecta of modern musical achievement with her recent entry into the film score composition arena.

For her most recent scoring project, Letzler created the sonic backdrop for the high stakes world found in Netflix’s new series In From the Cold. Part spy drama, part sci-fi adventure with hints of cyberpunk and body horror elements, In From the Cold is everything you want it to be, and yet, so much more. Created by Adam Glass (Supernatural, The Chi), In From the Cold follows the story of Jenny Franklin (Margarita Levieva) and her daughter, Becca (Lydia Fleming).

When the pair travel to Spain with Becca’s ice skating team for a competition, Jenny inadvertently and unwillingly comes face-to-face with her past—as a Russian spy. However, more than just the Russian equivalent of James Bond, Jenny was a participant in a secret KGB program that imbued her with incredibly potent, highly classified abilities. Long-buried for years, these secrets that Jenny tried desperately to keep tucked away start to reveal themselves when bodies mysteriously begin to pile up around her. Forced to come out of hiding both literally and metaphorically, Jenny begins to fight a battle where the stakes become much larger than simple life or death.

Setting the emotional tempo at every turn is Letzler and her engaging, adrenaline-pumping score. Fueled by chilly synths, atmospheric vocals, and moments of carefully selected acoustic instrumentation, Letzler creates a rich, industrial-inspired, and evocative aural experience. By intertwining mystery-tinged melodies with heart-pounding, rhythmic grooves, Letzler’s music weaves a beautifully supportive web around the narrative unfolding on screen. Working equally as hard in the impressive action sequences as it does in quieter moments, Letzler’s blend of exciting aural elements adds complex layers of narrative and emotional inference. It’s also just some killer music.

With In From the Cold now streaming in full on Netflix, I had the privilege of (virtually) sitting down with Letzler to learn a bit more about her music for the series. Along the way, we also discuss her fascinating journey into the world of film scoring, her experience singing on some of the biggest movies ever made, what she’s learned from working alongside some of the most prominent composers of the modern era and so much more. It’s a fascinating conversation with a talented creator that makes one thing crystal clear—Tori Letzler is a genuine creative force to be reckoned with. And this is only the beginning for her.

Tori Letzler in from the cold netflix score soundtrack
Tori Letzler has written a compelling score for ‘In From The Cold.’

Vehlinggo: There are so many incredible ways folks get into the world of film score composition, but I think you may have one of the most interesting musical backgrounds I’ve ever encountered. Before we dive into this new project, tell us a little bit about how you got here. 

Tori Letzler: Yeah, absolutely! Where do I start? [Laughs] I had kind of an unconventional track to where I am now. I started singing professionally when I was about nine for the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Choir in New York City. And from there, after a few years, I ended up touring with Cirque du Soleil at the age of 14, which is definitely not the norm for a teenager. I toured with them for two years internationally as a vocalist and a character. That was kind of where I started finding my love for all things soundtrack-related and world music.

Getting to travel so much and being exposed to new experiences really helped widen my view of music and what I could do in it. And, I started writing a lot on the road. I never thought that film scoring would necessarily be a place where I could be. I just didn’t have the training at the time. But then I ended up taking a summer program when I was in high school at Berklee for songwriting and I fell in love with that school. It basically changed my entire path. I was on track to be a classical vocalist or an opera singer and, once I got into Berklee, I took a chance and fell headfirst into film scoring.

Along with composing, you are also a professional singer who has contributed vocals to some of the absolute biggest blockbuster films ever. Which one had the biggest personal impact on you when you heard your vocals paired with the film for the first time? 

A really important one to me was the first superhero film that I ever sang on. I’ve sung on a lot of superhero projects now and I always joke that I’m the voice that everyone’s heard, but nobody knows who it is. So for me, I think it was maybe like nine years ago or so when I sang on Brian Tyler’s score for Thor: The Dark World. It’s the second in the Thor series and I’ve also performed it live in concert with him twice.

But around that time, I had really only sung on one or two scores for various small projects. Or not small projects, but you know, not Marvel superhero films. [Laughs] I had sung on a beautiful documentary called Girl Rising for the composer Lorne Balfe [Black Widow] and that was how Brian found me. He heard me on that score and brought me in for Thor. I remember being obviously insanely excited to sing on my first superhero film, but going to the movie with my parents was just a really big moment for me.

My parents are very supportive and they’ve always been supportive. I can’t thank them enough for that. But, when your child says they’re moving to Los Angeles to pursue working in film, it can be a hit or miss kind of situation. So that was the first moment where I got to sit with them in a theater that was packed on opening weekend. And they got to hear my voice above this very crucial scene in the movie and then see my name in the credits and watch how everyone else in the theater responded. We all cried. It was a really, really touching moment and it was like, “All right. Maybe there’s a chance here.”

How do you think being a composer has benefited your singing career and vice versa? 

When I first moved out here I was like, “I’m going to just be a composer. No more singing! I am Ms. Serious Composer-Type!” [Laughs] But then it was like, “No, this is a skill that I have and I need to embrace it because it’s not a skill that a lot of other composers have.” And, a lot of what I do when I do vocals on other people’s scores is improvised.

Most of those superhero vocals you hear wailing above a fight scene is not pre-written by the composer. They usually provide me a cue — we got through multiple versions of myself improvising over the cue — and they then decide which they like best. Not all the time. For example, Thor was a pre-written theme. Although the end of it was actually improvised, most of it was pre-written.

That was a great training ground because I was getting to see how composers have to change stuff to picture before I was directly working with picture. Like, years and years and years before. I was getting to figure out how to capture emotions on screen because the vocal was oftentimes the lead in whatever cue I was singing and carrying the weight of the scene. And then, when I started scoring my own projects, voice just became a really prominent instrument for me. Not all the time, but it carries a lot of emotional weight. And I find that there are really interesting things you can do with it if you look at it not just as the human voice, but as you would a synth or anything else.

I oftentimes heavily effect vocals or use them in weird ways. Sometimes you can’t even recognize it as a vocal and that’s been really fun to play with. In fact, I will often write melodies by singing them into a mic and then I will build the rest of the cue around it.

You’ve already mentioned a few pretty impressive names from the composing world and that’s really just the tip of the iceberg as far as folks you’ve collaborated with. What are some of the memorable moments or best tricks you’ve learned from these composing powerhouses that have perhaps influenced your own approach to film scoring?

Well, I mean, there’s no better masterclass than working under Hans Zimmer’s roof for three years. I want to say, I never wrote for Hans as a composer, but I did sing on quite a lot of his scores and I was an assistant in that studio for many people. I worked my way up from starting as an intern to becoming a studio assistant. Being there, you’re just blessed to be in a place where you’re around so many people at the top of their game.

Obviously Remote Control [Productions] is Hans’ studio, but there are so many amazing composers under that roof. That’s where I met Lorne Balfe and Jimmy Levine, which is how I sang on American Horror Story: Coven. Rupert Gregson-Williams (Wonder Woman) was there at that time and Ben Wallfisch (Blade Runner 2049). Everyone is just at the top of their game and pushing you to do better. And I got to observe how those composers were, you know, running their day-to-day. It was really the best school, essentially. I feel really lucky to have been in that place so that when I went off on my own and started working on my own projects, I kind of knew where I needed to get to. And, you know, not to be lazy. I knew what the standard was and I had to constantly be pushing for it. I’m just incredibly grateful for my time there.

in from the cold score interview tori letzler

So, your latest film scoring project is the new Netflix series In From the Cold. How did you first get involved with this show and what attracted you to it?

I was brought onto the show very early on—March of 2020, actually. The show was just about to start filming and then obviously, the world kind of shut down. They were in Spain at the time and I went into Netflix for my, “Hello. How are you? Great to have you on the project,” meeting and then a day later, Netflix shut down. It was heartbreaking, because I had started to read the scripts at this point and had met the creative team and I was just so excited to get going. Then, it was about a year before I actually started scoring the project and they started filming again.

That being said, I’m so lucky to have been a part of this. Adam Glass, our creator, is such an inspiration and this is just such a strong, female-led show. Not because it’s trying to be, but because the heart of it is just these really strong, smart female characters. It was an honor to be able to write music that really drove the emotion of their characters in the show. And, I got really lucky because, unlike most projects where composers are typically the last people brought on once the show or movie is nearing its final polish, I was scoring while they were on set—to dailies, to the scripts. I also wrote a bunch of theme suites very early on.

We really wanted to nail down the sound of the score early on so that the editorial was actually cutting with pieces of music that I had written as temp score — which is super rare! It was great because instead of people getting attached to pieces of music from other places, they were getting attached to music that was already in the eco of the show.

You can really feel that when watching the show as the music feels very intimately tied to these characters, especially Jenny/Anya. She’s an interesting character because you score her at two different points in her life. We get to see her present experiences, but also her past experiences that take place in 1994. What was it like scoring the same character across two different time periods? How is her sound different in 1994, and how did you then unite them in the present? 

Oh, great question. I think duality is a really big theme in this show. You see it obviously with the two time periods where we have ‘90s Russia, and then the present day, which takes place in Spain. We also have modern-day Anya, who is known as Jenny—that’s who she is pretending to be, or at least, hiding behind. In the ‘90s, Anya is this fresh-faced, Russian girl who is trying to get her bearings in this spy life that she has been kind of tossed into.

Adam and I talked very early on about our love for ‘90s alternative industrial music and we really wanted that to play a part. But also, how do we make that not feel dated and also modern? That way it could cross into both aspects of our show without feeling like the music was jumping back and forth between time periods. We wanted it to be this thing that seamlessly took us back and forth.

One of the ways we did that was having a very heavy, gritty synth that kind of addressed the spy aspect of the show. But then we also had these affected vocals which were sometimes sweet, sometimes gnarly that, to me, represent first Anya’s innocence, and then also Jenny struggling with being a mom and her former self. So, duality was just something that I constantly had in the back of my head. You know, “How do we pair two things in the score that would be unlikely mates, but make it function seamlessly?”

You just mentioned the fact that, like any good spy thriller, there is an international aspect to this show and its characters. Did this particular narrative aspect impact your score at all or how you approached particular characters?

Sure. I think the biggest thing was our “Lullaby Theme,” which you’ll hear a lot in the show. It’s used in a variety of different ways—both as score and onscreen when sung by a certain character. It’s kind of like a vehicle to further the story. That theme was loosely based on a very, very old Russian folk song that Adam had found. He found that it connected his characters and he was like, “How do we capture the spirit of this, but also make it a hypnotic vehicle for the show?” So, that was the first piece of music that I wrote, way before filming had started.

I knew that it had to have this hypnotic quality, but there’s also the lead vocal in it that honestly sounds like it’s being sung through an old Russian spy radio. Figuring that out was so much fun because I was like, “How do I distort this vocal and make it sound like someone is literally singing through an old radio?” And then also, at the beginning of it, you’ll hear that it is very floaty, delayed, and weird.

That was probably the only piece of music that was really rooted in Russian culture. We really bounced back and forth about the idea of making the show sound Russian, but we felt that it wasn’t necessarily speaking to Jenny’s current character. And so much of the show, it wasn’t just set in Russia. So more than anything, I just wanted it to be modern. So really the only cue that takes inspiration from Eastern European music is probably the scale used in that theme. But for the rest of the show, we really just wanted it to feel modern and like it could fit across all places and all times.

That really does make sense for her, because Jenny is also this character that’s able to move in and out of places intentionally unseen. While she is a person of the world, it doesn’t dominate her entire character. The music more just hints at her past.

Totally. And I think the only theme that I would consider “retro” is the central “Love Theme” that comes back and forth. That cue is very much late ‘80s, early ‘90s-like synthwave. That to me was the only time I did that because that theme only occurs in the past timeline. I don’t believe it ever comes into play in the present, so that was the only piece of music that was consistently, only used in the ‘90s. I wanted it to have a cool retro feel like TV shows from back then that just felt wavy, neon, sexy, and cool.

The throughline of strong female energy that you’ve mentioned is also represented really nicely behind the scenes as well. For example, along with you and your music, there are songs from artists like Sharon Van Etten, Agnes Obel, Pussy Riot, Crystal Murray, and more female-identifying artists peppered throughout the series. 

I have to give credit here to our amazing music supervisor, Michelle Johnson. She and I got to work really closely together, which doesn’t get to happen often. Her song choices are impeccable. We have similar tastes in music as well, and she’s the one that brought me the song that’s in our final episode which I ended up remixing—it’s from an artist called Imelda May.

That was her pick. So, she brought me the idea of doing a really cool industrial remix of the song that ties in the score from the show with this really strong female-led song. Michelle is awesome and I loved working with her.

When ultimately picking a project to sign on to, how large of consideration is proper and decent representation behind the scenes for you?

In terms of female stories, if a project is really geared toward telling female stories and inclusion is happening not just because they have to be inclusive, but because the creators behind the show feel it’s very necessary, that obviously draws me to a project. But I will say, I think it is important that composers be able to tell all stories, not just ones directly related to them. It was a blessing that I got to score this insanely strong female-led character because she’s one of my favorite characters I’ve ever seen on screen—especially the action scenes in this show.

The fight scenes are so crazy badass and they don’t shy away from being vicious. And, I love that. I feel like a lot of times when we have women fighting on screen they’re coming off as sexy and they don’t actually get hurt. But this is like, “No. Shit is going down.” So that was very appealing to me from the script stage and into actually seeing it. But that said, I love scoring everyone’s stories. It is great if I can relate, but even if I can’t, then I have to put myself in a place of finding relatability and that can be really interesting as well.

“I think in the last two to three years, there’s been a massive shift.”

I believe it was Laura Karpman who said once in an interview that for the longest time she was only offered romance genre projects because “those in charge” didn’t think a woman was capable of scoring action and thriller films. While that outdated way of thinking has obviously changed since then, gender parity and wider representation are still an issue within the film composing industry. What changes have you seen over the past few years and where do you still see room for improvement?

I think in the last two to three years, there’s been a massive shift. We’re still super far from where we need to be, but that being said I don’t want to discredit what I’m seeing right now. We have been scoring huge blockbuster projects and series. I mean, you have Natalie Holt doing Loki, which was a huge win for everybody. And then obviously, with the Captain Marvel series coming back with Laura Karpman, it’s great to see women finally at the forefront.

But that being said, we’re still scoring something like 3 percent of grossing films. I don’t know if that’s the current accurate number, but that’s usually around what the number is and it hasn’t really changed much. [According to the annual Celluloid Ceiling Report, women made up 5 percent of composers working on the top 250 grossing films of 2020.] And then, you know, Germaine Franco is getting a lot of buzz for the Encanto score. So it is happening and I’m so excited and it’s amazing to see these women supporting each other and the industry finally taking notice, but there’s still so much work to be done.

I think a lot of what’s happening is women are getting hired to score female-led stories. And I want to see it get to a point where it’s not just primarily the female stories that were considered for, but all stories. Because all stories are important. And also, we have a long way to go, not just with female composers, but also composers of color. That is a huge gap in our industry. I would love to see both of those sides start to be developed more.

Letzler’s In From The Cold score is now available on platforms worldwide through Netflix Music. Under her TINYKVT moniker, Letzler also recently collaborated with Australian dance duo SLUMBERJACK on the new track “Arc Second.” That release can now be found on their new album, Dichotomy.