Elation tinged with humility and success with sorrow. This is what Music Producer Suren Wijeyaratne experienced in the split-second between accepting the trophy and delivering his speech before many a celebrity at the 2014 ‘Daytime Creative Arts Emmy Awards’ of the National Academy of Television Arts & Science in downtown Los Angeles on that Friday [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Making music in the glitzy world of Hollywood

Music Producer Suren Wijeyaratne who recently won an Emmy shares his remarkable musical journey in an email interview

Elation tinged with humility and success with sorrow.

This is what Music Producer Suren Wijeyaratne experienced in the split-second between accepting the trophy and delivering his speech before many a celebrity at the 2014 ‘Daytime Creative Arts Emmy Awards’ of the National Academy of Television Arts & Science in downtown Los Angeles on that Friday in June (20th).

On the red carpet: Denyse and Suren with the award

“A flashback of 25 years of song-writing and struggling as an artist — it’s like all the nervousness and self-doubt I felt for all those years was released in a split second,” Suren of Sri Lankan origin says in an e-mail interview this week.

Re-living his moment of glory, Suren describes how his wife, Dr. Anne Walling, seated “up front and close to the stage screamed with excitement”, as the Outstanding Original Song – Drama Award was presented by Academy Award (OSCAR) winning actor George Chakiris of West Side Story fame to Denyse Tontz and Suren who together wrote the song ‘Parachute’ performed on the day-time drama series ‘All My Children’.

Suren with wife Anne

These awards are given in recognition of the “talent behind the scenes” among those who have the tasks of making sure that everything goes smoothly and includes music, casting, set décor, lighting, hair and make-up.

The elation came with imagining how proud Amma and Thathi would feel and the sorrow at the passing away of his mother-in-law, Maggie, to whom Suren dedicated his award.

Is Suren the first Sri Lankan to win an Emmy Award? He believes so as he can’t find a record of another!

With the theme of helping a friend in hard times, the winning-song ‘Parachute’ is used as a metaphor “to break the fall” and is dedicated to the character of Miranda’s best friend, played by actor Eric Nelson, with Denyse in the role of Miranda.

“A parachute is meant to help slow the fall and save them from tragedy and pain,” points out Suren, explaining that ‘All My Children’ is a classic drama launched in 1970 and has over the years been the vehicle through which many of Hollywood’s finest talents, including Denyse who is the star of the show, have emerged.

For Suren, 41, not only the music but also his roots, have played a pivotal role in making him what he is today – a successful Music Producer in the stiffly competitive world that is Hollywood.

Acknowledging that he “grew up all over the place”, he says that although he was born in America, he spent his childhood in Nigeria (following his Thathi, Dr. Panduka Wijeyaratne, who was engaged in malaria research there), attended his Thathi’s alma mater, Royal College, in Colombo, then lived in Canada, before finally making Los Angeles his base in his early twenties.

The music was inherent, making him join the Royal College Choir, a passion supported by both his Thathi and Amma, Hiranthi Wicramasinghe, who only showed “understandable” concern when he moved to Hollywood, as “most parents would be when their kids chose such a competitive field with absolutely no guarantees. I think my parents would have liked me to go to medical school or at a minimum choose a professional pursuit. As Sri Lankans we place a high importance on education and the arts are viewed as a passion not necessarily a career”.

He believes that the love of music is a legacy from his father, who played records of the Swedish group ABBA, jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, jazz trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong, the vocal group Boney M and the English rock band, the Beatles etc., when he was young. “These are my formative creative influences to this day and are still the foundation of my musical and creative choices.”

From his mother he got the strength to believe in himself – “to listen to my inner voice, to find the magic in my soul and see art for the spiritual gift it is”, while his cool, smart and idealistic sister Surendrini constantly reminded him of humanity’s common values and challenges. She always reminded him to be a force for positive change in the world and that “music is meant to make us all happy, empowered and inspired”.

To the query whether being an Asian has made breaking-into Hollywood a challenge, Suren’s logic is simple. “Being an outsider — very few Asians in Hollywood – may have set me back because I didn’t have an established network in place. However, I think it ultimately helped me more because I stood out in the crowd! In Hollywood, talent and success matter more than race or colour. It’s a huge business and if you can deliver — you can be from Mars!”

However, it is not Mars but Sri Lanka which keeps bringing Suren back to his roots for the defining moments of his life. It is here that he proposed to Anne and celebrated their engagement on the windy beach of Hikkaduwa, close to the Wijeyaratnes’ ancestral home at Thotagamuwa.

Yes, he does visit almost every year and is amazed every time he hears music from people he knows from one side of the world being enjoyed in a totally different context in Sri Lanka. “Our long bus trips to the tea country have been amazing, peaceful times of reflection and day-dreaming. Moments of clarity when I would hear lyrics ‘for the first time’ and think of concepts and stories that in many cases would manifest years later.” In fact, his latest release, ‘Mr Hipster’, is a vibe he felt almost 10 years ago while on holiday in Sri Lanka.

Now in this world of glitz and glamour, Suren has fulfilment in both his professional and family life. Although dealing with life and death as a physician, Anne is his biggest fan and supporter who understands pop music and culture and has a unique way of guiding him and helping him out of the low points.

“Entertainment is a business of constant rejection — harsh and unforgiving. My wife and two-year-old daughter, Isla Margaret, help me survive the negativity everyday and stay happy and focused on what really matters in my life, my family,” Suren is quick to point out.
What of the future?

Suren is focusing on two artists, Denyse Tontz (of Nickelodeon’s ‘Big Time Rush’ and Disney’s ‘Dog With A Blog’) and breakout star, Mark Salling (of Fox’s ‘GLEE’). Denyse and Mark are both brilliant actors and incredibly gifted songwriters and performers, he says, adding, “I’m a hundred percent committed to their success. I produce and song-write with Denyse and manage Mark’s career. Both have albums coming out soon and we expect massive things from them going into 2015.”

However, little Isla is the star around whom Suren’s world revolves, giving him life and inspiration he never could have imagined.
“Her smile is my motivation and the biggest gift I have ever received,” he says. His wish for her is that she would love the arts but never go into show business.

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