From writer/director Kate Barker-Froyland, Song One tells a beautiful story about how music connects and transforms people. Henry (Ben Rosenfield) is trying to become a musician and, when tragedy strikes, his sister Franny (Anne Hathaway) turns to his music, as well as the music of James Forester (Johnny Flynn) that inspired him, to discover the artist and person that he is.
At the film’s press day, singer/songwriters Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how they came to write the music for the film, how quickly they decided that they wanted to get involved, the collaborative process with the filmmakers, the challenges in writing for someone else and always remembering that it has to come from their point of view, how many songs they wrote versus how many actually made it into the film, how this experience has changed the way they work now, what it’s like to be a singer/songwriter in the music business today, and that they’ve already finished work on another film.
Collider: How did you guys come to write the music for Song One?
JONATHAN RICE: Adam Shulman sent me a script in the later part of 2012, and they were looking for songs. There were seven or eight full songs built into the script, with imaginary titles. The dialogue existed, but the songs did not. We just decided to try it. They were also looking to cast the James Forester character, as well. We knew Anne [Hathaway] and Adam. We were friendly. And then, they introduced us to (writer/director) Kate Barker-Froyland. She came over one day and we went for a hike.
JENNY LEWIS: She didn’t have any hiking shoes, so she borrowed a pair of Jonathan’s tennis shoes and we went on a long hike. When we said goodbye, we decided that we were going to write a song that night and have it in their inboxes by the following day. So, we sat down and worked on a song and we sent it off.
RICE: We wrote “Little Yellow Dress” that night.
LEWIS: We really wanted the job.
RICE: I’ve always wanted to write for film. Jenny had done one film prior to that.
LEWIS: And I wrote for the Disney movie Bolt. It’s exciting for us, as writers, to get outside of our own narratives. To be given an assignment and be told, “This is what you’re writing about,” we would go off and write separately, and then come together with the song ideas.
This sounds like it was a really collaborative process with you and the filmmakers.
LEWIS: We could also tell a little bit of the secret backstory through the lyrics of the songs. We were in constant contact with Kate, who wrote and directed the film, and we would always defer to her on things like where he’s from, what his relationship is like with his parents, whether they’re still with us, and what his first girlfriend was like. We sculpted this backstory.
RICE: It’s probably more evident when you’re listening to the soundtrack and can absorb all of the songs. It’s almost a maternal concept record. That’s what we conceived. We decided that his album was called Iris Across the Sea because his mother left him as a child and moved somewhere overseas. A lot of the lyrics are referential of his mother.
RICE: For us, it helped ‘cause that’s how we write songs. Generally, we’re drawing from within ourselves, but this time, we were projecting onto him.
What are the challenges in writing for someone else and always remembering that it has to come from their point of view?
RICE: First and foremost, we’re trying to write something really good, every time we write a song. That’s the goal. So, we knew that if we wrote something really good, they would inevitably like it.
LEWIS: But sometimes, they didn’t because it wasn’t appropriate. Sometimes things just don’t work, and sometimes you can over-think the process a little bit. You don’t want to put a hat on a hat. If the scene has a certain weight to it, you don’t want to write something musically that is going to take away from what’s on the page. We had to create a tone and telling the backstory, but also having the songs be open-ended enough where they could be accessible, in a way, to everyone. You don’t have to have this backstory, in order to relate to the lyrics in the songs.
How was it to then see the movie with all of the music in it?
RICE: It was somewhat surprising to us, pleasantly. Kate acted as a go-between, between us and Johnny Flynn. We had little to no contact with him, during the writing process. We would write a song, submit it to the production, and then, if the song got accepted by Kate, Adam and Jonathan Demme, who was a big part of that, it would then make its way to Johnny Flynn, who’s a singer and songwriter, in his own right, as well as an actor. I’m really glad they cast someone who’s an actual musician. I think it makes it all the more believable. He’s this English singer/songwriter and he put this uniquely British folk sensibility into the songs, which we didn’t expect, but really enjoyed. So, his interpretations of the songs are very much his own. He used our chords, our lyrics and our melodies, but he spun it in his way. When we got to the shoot in New York, we were at the Bowery Ballroom, where we’ve both played many times, and he was performing our songs back at us while we were in the audience. It was a really interesting experience.
LEWIS: Film work is so collaborative. Certainly, making records can be, as well, but it doesn’t have to be. You learn how to become a better collaborator, and you allow this thing that you’ve created in the privacy of your own home to take on a new life.
Unless you’re a part of a Broadway musical movie, you don’t often get a full song in a movie. Was it important to you that people would get to hear the full songs in the movie?
RICE: It ended up being pretty faithful to the script, in that respect. There are large chunks of the film that are just music, and music alone. That was a very challenging thing, but also attractive. You’re getting that much of your music out there.
Jenny, was this a different process to what you went through with the first film that you scored?
LEWIS: I scored one film by myself, which was the hardest thing I think I’ve ever done. I was relieved, a year later, to work with Jonathan and Nate Walcott. I don’t know if I want that responsibility, all by myself, again. The collaborative process can be very difficult. People that work in film don’t speak the language of music, necessarily. Some do, but some will say, “What is that low humming sound?” And you’re like, “Oh, you mean the bass guitar?” You have to decipher the critique. So, working with Jonathan, for me, was something that was a relief. And there was the fact that I had someone to bounce ideas off of. Making movies is all about being a great collaborator and learning how to do that.
RICE: Just the enormity of the undertaking never ceases to amaze me. We go in for a relatively finite experience, with three weeks of recording and a couple weeks of mixing. We’ve made records really quickly, and we’ve made records that take a little longer, but it would never take as long as it takes to make a movie. The amount of people and the amount of money, and all of that stuff, is why people are so shocked when you tell them that you wrote music for a movie and it got made. It’s a wonder they get made, at all.
LEWIS: We went to Sundance a year ago, and we’re still talking about it because it’s taken that long to find a home. In the end, I really enjoyed the process. And any opportunity to write songs and to be given a homework assignment that involves writing, I’ll take it. I’m not always as disciplined as I should be. I don’t sit down and write every day, but I should. So, to be able to write seven new songs that would have never been in the world before is a real privilege.
RICE: And if we’re being completely honest, we probably wrote 11 or 12 for the film, and some of them didn’t make it, but they found their way back to our own work. There’s a song on Jenny’s new record, The Voyager, which is called “The New You,” that was originally intended as a Song One song, but got politely rejected by the production. She took it to Ryan Adams’ studio and they recorded it.
LEWIS: And it didn’t matter that it got rejected.
Was this a situation where the script evolved and you had to keep changing what you were writing to evolve with it?
LEWIS: I think the script, once we got it, was pretty much intact. For the character that we were writing for, James Forester, his backstory changed a little bit, when they cast an English guy. We thought he was American when we started writing, so we had to go back over the songs and adjust them to have them make sense within the character. You never know how things are going to turn out in a movie. You can imagine a scene one way, and it can turn out to be completely the polar opposite of what you expected. You just have to roll with the punches. It wasn’t about the money. It was about bringing new songs into the world, and working with our friends who we deepened our friendships with, throughout the process of working on the film for a year. In the end, it can be really fulfilling.
Were you given any specific writing parameters?
LEWIS: There were song titles that were like breadcrumbs, in a way.
RICE: It was pretty wide open. It would say, “James Forester walks into the hospital. He plays a song. The song is beautiful.” So, we knew it wasn’t Norwegian black metal. We had some semblance of an idea, but a lot of freedom. Once we had submitted the first two songs and solidified our job, Jonathan Demme came to out house for a meeting with Kate and Adam, and he really chimed in with a lot of positivity and said, “Do what you think. Go as far as you want with it. We’ll let you know, if it’s gone too far.” He really granted us the ultimate freedom to write the songs that we felt were appropriate.
LEWIS: And they hired us based on our records, so I think they knew what they were going to get. The hired us because the character is not dissimilar.
RICE: Kate mentioned songs of ours that she liked.
LEWIS: It’s funny to reference your own work when you’re writing another song, which I’ve never done. To go back through your catalog and try to identify with the moment that you wrote a song that the production is referencing, at that point in your life, and put yourself back in that headspace was interesting.
Has the process you went through for this affected the way you write stuff now?
RICE: Absolutely! For me, at least. It sent me on a tear of writing songs for other people. My last record, Good Graces, didn’t do very well, at all, commercially speaking. I liked the record a lot. So, it really got me thinking, “In the meantime, while I’m writing my next record, I’m going to try to get as many songs to other artists as I can, as collaboratively as possible.” More of my music came out in 2014 than in my entire career, but none of it was song by me. So, it really did open up my mind to that possibility of being a songwriter, outside of being a performer. I used to be much more precious about only me singing my songs, and my songs not being for anyone else. I didn’t co-write with anyone, except for Jenny.
LEWIS: Once you open that door, the possibilities are really endless. Once you open yourself up to collaboration, there are so many amazing things that you can discover. You just can’t get there on your own. For me, this process brought me back to myself and my own narrative. I had taken such a long break that I was ready to tell my story. Once we had turned in all the songs for Song One, I was like, “Okay, I’ve gotta get back to my own narrative.”
What’s it like to even be a singer/songwriter, with the way the music business is now? Does it really have to be about the love of it?
RICE: That really is the only true path, to do something that you love.
LEWIS: We do what we can to survive. We’re on our hustle, at all times. There’s never a moment where we’re not thinking about the next thing. My record came out in July, and I’m thinking about the next one now. I have to. I’ve been fortunate enough to grow up in a time, musically, where when I first started, it was still lucrative, just not necessarily for my band. But I’ve been able to build a career over a 15-year period, so now I can go out and make part of my living on the road. For new artists starting now, there’s so much traffic out there that I don’t know how people pay their rent. There’s not a lot of money out there for everyone. There’s a lot of money out there for a handful of people, and they’re scooping it up.
RICE: It’s easy to lament it. If a young Elliott Smith existed in this day and age, would he be cultivating his fan base on Instagram? I don’t think so. But he would be writing those gorgeous, beautiful songs, and would they be reaching an audience? There is a certain star-making ability that the major labels had. It’s been interesting to be in the palace while it’s crumbling.
LEWIS: But, who cares?
RICE: You have to just try to write the best songs that you can. Most of the people that I admired died pretty penniless.
LEWIS: I don’t write songs, play music and tour, really, for anyone else but myself. It’s something that I have to do to stay alive.
How do you feel about performing live?
LEWIS: You can definitely get in the fatigue of touring, but for me, just having so many projects to pull from and so many songs that I’ve written, over the years, there’s always the opportunity to switch it up enough to make it exciting. Sometimes a song will lose relevance, according to me, and then suddenly be reborn on a tour. As long as I have the courage to keep things fresh and almost improvise, in that way, that is the way to prevent feeling bored with yourself or your audience or the way you’re performance. But I always get nervous before I play, every show. When you lose that feeling, that’s when you need to take a little break and step back.
RICE: I’ve been playing music with Jenny for eight or nine years, and this is the first time I’ve not been in her touring band. It’s been really interesting for me to watch her show. Jenny is always propelled by forward motion. It’s always about the new song and new record. She’s always trying to discover something new, so there’s not a lot of looking back that happens with her, artistically, which is great. There’s a lot of excitement for her new record, but she’s also dipping back into Rilo Kiley’s catalog, for the first time as a solo performer, and it’s been really interesting to watch the audience rediscover those songs. There’s no more rules about that. It’s been really cool to watch.
LEWIS: I think having a new band that’s a relatively anonymous band that I don’t have years and years of history with, playing on a stage, I feel free. I feel like I’m not being judged by my best friends, and I just feel like I’m up there representing my songs. It’s been really liberating.
Jenny, have you just always wanted to be focused on what comes next, or did that develop as you got older?
LEWIS: The way I grew up, I was forced to look to the next job. I had to create a new fake family, every time I was playing a kid in a commercial or a TV show. It was like, “Here’s your new mom and dad. Make it work.” So, I’ve always been highly adaptable, in that way. And I’ve always wanted to keep working, even when I was a kid. I was driven by that. Whether it’s commercial to commercial or song to song, it’s the same difference.
You’ve had a band, done solo recordings, and collaborated with other artists. How do you decide which you’re going to do?
LEWIS: I tend to react to my previous work or record. If I make a record that’s mostly ballads, the next one is going to rock a little harder. At this point in my writing career, I’m really open to collaboration and I’m open to learning from the people that I surround myself with. I think that’s what really keeps the ball rolling.
Are you guys looking for more film work? Do you get sent scripts to consider?
LEWIS: No. We don’t have representation that’s looking for stuff.
RICE: We did just finish work on another film, but we’re sitting on talking about it for right now.
LEWIS: I think it’s all been very organic with us. The film that I scored on my own, two years ago now, called Very Good Girls, (writer/director) Naomi Foner is Jake Gyllenhaal’s mother, and I’m friends with Jake. She asked me because we’re friendly, and I did it because we’re friends. So, it’s not like we’re out trying to get work, but we’re open to the experience. Whatever scale it is, we’re down, if we like the people and we like the script. Moving forward for me, I’ve gotta really feel attracted to the words on the page, if I’m gonna spend as much time as it takes to make music for movies ‘cause it’s very time consuming.
Song One is now playing in theaters and on VOD, and the soundtrack is also available.