Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings: A Conversation with James Parnell

James Parnell is a re-recording mixer and audio engineer, born in England, raised in Canada. Now living in LA, he’s worked in varying capacities in audio post-production on films like Get Out, or Moonlight, as well as on television and YouTube series. His latest project is as Re-Recording Mixer for the Netflix anthology series Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, inspired by Dolly Parton’s beloved songs. Each episode tells a distinct story, each bringing to life the worlds of Dolly’s songs, like “Jolene,” or “These Old Bones.”

With music a central emphasis in so dynamic a show as this, spanning from country music halls to the old west, James’ work involved a close balancing and attentiveness to the distribution and presentation of sound as a whole.

“For Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, these songs were almost part of telling the story just as much as dialogue. So it was really, especially when they got into concert sequences or venue performances or scenes like that in each individual episode, it was kind of pulling back on sound effects and letting the music take a hold and guide the audience through the sonic experience by music. And allowing the music to do the storytelling for certain sequences.” — James Parnell

Andrew Cheek: First, could you just share a little bit about who you are and what you do?

James Parnell: Yeah. So my name is James Parnell. And I’m a rerecording mixer and supervising sound editor. Most recently I worked on Netflix’s Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, which was in production in association with Warner Brothers and was in eight episodes… It’s an anthology series centering around the music of Dolly Parton.

Andrew: What was it like working as the re-recording mixer for that show?, for Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings?

James: It was a once in a lifetime experience. It was also very surreal to be in a situation where, you know, being 34 years of age, relatively young in the game, getting to mix Dolly Parton’s vocals and the LA Philharmonic who lended their incredible talents to the score. I was also mixing the music that they recorded. So it was a, it was a very surreal experience and one that I’m super proud to have been a part of.

I don’t know how much you know about the timeline of production, but we were mixing these things in a fairly tight time schedule. It was a two day mix and one day review. We had clients and for one day, and each episode was about an hour long except for the final one, which is basically a feature length film.

“I have to say that the caliber of the music that was turned over for the show was just next-level. It was like nothing, nothing I’d ever experienced before.” — James Parnell

Andrew: Time maybe was one of the challenges, as you mentioned, but I’m just curious, with something like this where there are the vocals, you’re layering the dialogue, there are so many different layers of intentionality, what were some of the challenges that you faced?

James: I think just what you mentioned is almost perfectly describing it. So, the episodes center around a different Dolly Parton song for each episode. The first one being “Jolene,” second one I think is “Two Doors Down.”

And, the important thing that was outlined from the very beginning was that this anthology series was centered around the songs and we wanted to make Dolly’s music lend itself to the storytelling as much as possible. Whereas in a traditional show like a drama, you might have score that just supports the music transition, or kind of a sentimental moment.

For Heartstrings, these songs were almost part of telling the story just as much as dialogue. So it was really, especially when they got into concert sequences or venue performances or scenes like that in each individual episode, it was kind of pulling back on sound effects and letting the music take a hold and guide the audience through the sonic experience by music. And allowing the music to do the storytelling for certain sequences.

So it was really about finding a comfortable balance between, you know, the amount of sound effects we’re playing or are we focusing more on the music in this scene? And that was an interesting part of the review sessions with producers. They would be hearing the rough mix, and when we got on the mix stage we’d obviously have done our creative pass at it and they would say, okay, we need to dial back on the effects here and push the music… Or vice versa where they’d be like, you know what, let’s lose this piece of underscore completely. Which meant a whole remix of the scene… now the backgrounds are sitting too low and the dialogue needs come down and so on. So it was interesting.

Andrew: And it has to be seamless, too. In the first episode the main character is in a bar and there are all the different sounds of the atmosphere, people are talking, and so on. And then it transitions into a musical performance by Dolly Parton on stage. If that transition is too abrupt, cutting from atmosphere to music, too black and white, it could be a little bit jarring where all of the sudden you’re listening to this music in isolation.

James: Yes, absolutely. It was often times about finding a creative way to slowly transition out of those scenes or are we, are we carrying the music on the peak side of the cut into the next scene and kind of fading it out over that?

Or how much of the bar are we hearing, are we hearing the, are we hearing the crowd or are we, you know, once you get into the conversation over the drinks about sticking around for the performance with “Jolene,” are we pulling the crowd out completely so we just hear the dialogue? All of those little tricks, you don’t really notice them but they’re there. But it’s definitely a challenge.

Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. In that same scene there is the transition to the music through Dolly Parton giving a speech on stage. Or she’s introducing the bar crowd to the fact that she’s going to be playing some music, essentially… there’s crowd noise and then it’s gradually hushing, as it naturally would when someone starts talking. And then it’s like we’re right there, too, which is a smart way that the, not the plot, but elements of the scene can also influence the mixing itself.

So, I’m curious, when doing sound mixing is the process different depending on the media? So if it’s for television or for film or for a musical album, I don’t know if you’ve worked on an album at all, but I was just kind of curious about that.

James: Yeah, yeah it is. For broadcast television you have to mix to TV standards or to TV compliance, called the CALM Act… Basically that means that the overall loudness of the show has to be a certain volume. And that can either be hinged on the, the total elements or just the dialogue. So from a technical standpoint, a TV show is definitely mixed differently than a film. As it’s mixed differently than a music video.

I just did a, it was like a feature length film but it was a series of music videos for an artist named Melanie Martinez. And for that the music was just taking over the whole thing and it was really prominent and loud.

Whereas for Heartstrings, it was weird because it was full of music, with a 22-piece LA Philharmonic orchestra. However we had to make sure that it fit in Netflix’s broadcast standards, which are very similar to TV broadcast standards. So from a technical standpoint, it was difficult.

But then also from a creative standpoint, you’re right, it’s completely different. For this, even though it wasn’t a series of movies and was an anthology series, it was definitely a different mix than you would traditionally have on, say, an episode of Jack Ryan or an episode of The Office. It’s a different sort of mixing and the teams had to flow very gracefully from one to another. We treated it almost like it was, actually, a series of movies.

In terms of mixing, the dynamic range between the quietest sound you hear and the loudest sound you hear is very large—we mixed it on a theatrical mixing stage, as opposed to a smaller television mixing stage because we wanted it to play up to the film dynamics. We wanted to evoke a different response from the audience when they watched this compared to when they watched an average episode of a series show.

Andrew: What’s your background in music? Do you have experience as a musician, or writing music, or do you come at it more from a technical perspective?

James: I do. Before I started working in the audio industry I was in a bunch of bands back in Canada, where I’m from, and I played drums and bass guitar. (But in the bands I played and I was just the drummer.) And, you know, the majority of my friends growing up in high school were all musicians, or aspiring musicians.

So yeah, I grew up playing music and it was a big part of my upbringing and childhood and obviously I got into the audio industry because of it.

Andrew: As a creative and as a musician, what inspires you to keep going and continue to evolve and stay fresh?

James: I think it’s the level of talent that you constantly see. I mean, we’re in awards season right now and just the sheer caliber of talent that you work with in this town is so inspiring… in Los Angeles, and in New York. We regularly do mixing sessions where we are interfacing or connecting with New York-based studios.

Just the fact that you have to work alongside these people who are extremely talented is enough to ignite that drive to keep going. But also I feel as though we’re so fortunate to work in this industry. I don’t know whether you feel the same way, but we’re so fortunate to have a job in this industry that is around such creative people… I think you owe it to that, to do your absolute best on everything.

And if you come unprepared or you let your talent stagnate or not develop, or not kind of throw yourself into difficult situations where you know that that’s where growth comes from, then you will become stagnant and you won’t develop and you owe it to the people that you work with to constantly be pushing yourself.

Andrew: Yeah absolutely. I was thinking about something kind of like that the other night, I was reviewing an old piece of writing that I had and I was thinking of how it could be incorporated into something new or how I could edit it and I was like, you know, is this even what I’m interested in creating now? What art really do I want to make? And I think that’s an important question that an artist can ask — what do you want to make? And along with that comes the level at which it is created or the caliber. And that definitely relates, like you said, to the creative people around you. Especially when it’s collaborative… In film and television and things like that.

James: Yeah, absolutely. I think that that’s very true. Interestingly, that was one of the choices going out of high school and into university in Canada… I was thinking of doing journalism, and I was playing music and I really didn’t know and I ended up doing a four year degree in political science and hating it. It was enough of an affirmation that you need to do what you love.

Andrew: Absolutely. Well, is there anything else you’d like to add?

James: No, though interestingly I’ve actually worked with Cormac Bluestone, who I think you have interviewed previously. We worked on a YouTube series called Overthinking with Kat & June. He’s a phenomenal composer, and I was super fortunate to work with him.

Andrew: Oh, yeah! Yeah. I did. He was really nice guy. It was nice talking with him. Small world.

James: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. But thanks so much, Andrew. I really appreciate it.

Andrew: Yeah. Thank you very much, James.

Want to keep reading? Check out my latest interview, going behind the stage of a popular Broadway musical, here:

Writer, runner, music enthusiast. Exploring connections between creativity + art, lifestyle, and entrepreneurship through a series of interviews.