L to R: Johnathan Rice and Jenny Lewis with "Song One" Star Johnny Flynn

Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice Discuss Their “Song One” Soundtrack

New Film Features Seven Songs By Lewis & Rice

Jan 21, 2015 Web Exclusive
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In filmmaker Kate Barker-Froyland’s Song One, a budding songwriter (Ben Rosenfield) is involved in an auto accident and falls into a coma. His older sister, Franny (Anne Hathaway), returns home and discovers a demo of one of his original songs that was intended for his favorite singer: cult indie-folk musician James Forester (Johnny Flynn). She tracks down the enigmatic artist at a local gig just to pass along her brother’s song, but finds there’s a strong attraction between the two of them.

The film features seven new songs written by Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice, a.k.a. Jenny & Johnny. (Six are performed in the movie by Johnny Flynn, and one by Ben Rosenfield.) Additionally, the pair helped curate Song One’s soundtrack and select the artists who perform live in the film—including Dan Deacon, Sharon Van Etten, and the Felice Brothers.

Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice spoke with us about composing songs for fictional musicians, writing from alternate points of view, and Song One’s East Coast indie soundtrack.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: This project came to you through Anne Hathaway and her husband, Adam Shulman. Can you walk us through how you came to be involved with the film?

Jenny Lewis: Johnathan and I have known Annie for a couple of years now. I actually had a guest spot—this is a total non-sequitur, side note—on a television show that Annie was on in the mid-90s called Get Real. I played a pregnant teenager in a high school. That’s when we first met. We definitely, immediately liked each other. Cut to many, many years later, we’d hung out a couple of times and Adam sent Johnathan the [Song One] script.

Johnathan Rice: A very simple note came with the script, saying “Take a look at this story. You’ll notice there are a lot of songs written into the script that don’t yet exist. Take a look at it, and see if you connect with it.” We read the script, and liked it. We noticed there were seven songs with imaginary titles. A lot of the scenes, the way they were written on the page, were almost entirely musical. This singer-songwriter, James Forester, would walk into a room, or he’d be on stage or in a hotel room somewhere, and he’s playing these songs—sometimes in their entirety.

So, that was appealing to us: to get that much of our music out there, and to attempt to tell the story of someone other than ourselves, which meant that we could draw from other things for inspiration. Not just our own wellspring of ideas. We had to decide who this guy was: where he was from? Does he believe in God? What is his relationship like with his romantic partners, and what is it like with his mother and father? All of these things that make up a young artist. That discussion was very collaborative between Jenny and myself, Anne Hathaway, Adam Shulman, [writer-director] Kate Barker-Froyland, and [producer] Jonathan Demme. Once we established who these people were, we set about creating the characters through song.

Were there any biographical details about the characters that they gave you during those conversations that wound up playing a large role in the songs you wrote?

Johnathan: Oh, sure. The fact that [James Forester] lives in the state of Maine—I’ve always loved Maine. I’ve always thought it was a really, really stunning place, but also a very melancholy place. So, we looked at a map of Maine for names of little towns, and bridges, and stuff. We tried to put them into songs to see if they resonated.

Jenny: We wanted to know what James’ relationship was like with his mother; if he graduated high school; if he got a job as a teenager. We kept pestering Kate for those details. We kind of discovered some of them together. And then when they cast Johnny Flynn, some of the songs shifted at that point because, you know, he’s English. We then had to go back over some of the details and revise them.

Johnathan: We had to de-Americanize him. And then that was one of the coolest things about this project: we were writing these songs, and then when we were finished with them and were happy with them, just the two of us, we would submit it to the [filmmaker and producers.] They would collectively decide whether or not the song would make it into the film. If it made it into the film, Kate would then send the song to Johnny Flynn, and we never heard any of our songs until we got to the set. That was a deliberate decision on her part as the director, to let him absorb the material and make it his own and add his sensibilities to it. Johnny Flynn is a singer and songwriter in his own right; his singing is really accomplished, and he’s a really good guitar player and a killer violin player. He kind of created this character based on the songs. We saw him at the Bowery Ballroom on a major shoot day for the music, and that was the first time we ever heard him do our tunes. We were pleasantly surprised by how he interpreted them.

I’m curious – as you’ve both acted, does getting into a character to write from their perspective compare at all to, say, getting into a role as an actor?

Jenny: I have to think about that. It’s been so long since I’ve been in a film or commercial that I’ve kind of forgotten about that process. I think, for us, it was more about being able to tell a bit of the back story through our lyrics, which is something you can’t do when you’re acting in a film. That kind of filling-out the characters.

Johnny Flynn’s character in the film has this sort of underground, cult hit debut record. Were there any real-world artists in that vein that you looked at for inspiration?

Johnathan: Absolutely. Initially when we started conceptualizing it, we talked a lot about the early Elliot Smith records. We talked a lot about Nick Drake records. And then Jonathan Demme, during one of our meetings, brought up Skip Spence’s Oar. Those were all records we touched on—not necessarily trying to make a record sound like that, but [figuring out] what were the essences of those records. For the most part they’re acoustic-based and the sound is pretty lo-fi. So we definitely thought about artists like that.

It’s important to note that all of the performances in the film are live, but we actually went into the studio and made that cult record on a weekend when the production was off. We recorded the basic tracks in New York with Johnny Flynn, and then we took those tracks to Rob Schnapf in L.A., who—with Tom Rothrock—had made a few of the Elliot Smith records. We really wanted to employ as many of those recording techniques as we can to make this sort of bedroom, folk record.

We’ve seen behind-the-scenes clips of you working in the studio with the cast. What sort of direction did you give them, for their performances there?

Jenny: On set we let Kate direct the musical sequences; we didn’t want to interfere with that relationship or process. But when we actually got into the studio—and we only spent two days in the studio with both Ben [Rosenfeld] and Johnny—because we were making a record, we had ideas as producers of the record. We talked about tempo, and we talked about he phrasing. We took one of the songs up a step, because it was never for Johnny’s voice. We just sort of stepped into our roles as record producers, which is something that we’ve done together for many years. We also wanted to create space for the actors to interpret the songs because I don’t think it would have seemed authentic if it felt forced. And Johnny, being a talented singer-songwriter in his own right, was pretty darn close—he was so good.

Johnathan: He was so close. He was so good. And I think that was a really good choice on behalf of production, to cast an actual musician and not just an actor. I think the fact that Johnny’s a double threat works in the film’s and in the music’s favor.

You mentioned you didn’t hear the songs until they were played live on set. Were any particularly surprising, in the way they were re-interpreted?

Johnathan: Yeah. We have several default settings—Jenny and I—like, types of songs we tend to write. We can really get into this almost Lemonheads-y type thing, when we’re singing and playing together. The first song we wrote for the film was “Little Yellow Dress.” When we submitted that song it was kind of upbeat and almost sugary in the way we delivered it. It’s kind of a dark, romantic song, but we like to juxtapose those two things. If you’ve heard Jenny and Johnny, it’s these dark-as-fuck songs that sound like sugar. So, [“Yellow Dress”] was kind of in that vein, but when we heard it on set Johnny had kind of re-invented it. He kept the lyrics, the basic melody and the chords, but his interpretation was much more melancholy and dark, and really fit the tone of the film.

Jenny: It was way better.

Jenny, you’ve mentioned that it was exciting for you to be writing from a male perspective for this project. I’m curious if you can expand on that thought? I imagine there’s a lot more to it than just switching pronouns.

Jenny: Yeah, there is. And this came at a time when I was experiencing my own sort of writer’s-slash-creative block. We wrote these songs while I was trying to complete The Voyager. For me, to step outside of my own narrative was almost a relief.

Johnathan: “Little Yellow Dress” again—you came up with that phrase, that loose concept. I think that must have been interesting for you. I mean, for me, I’m always thinking of girls in yellow dresses. [Jenny laughs.] You kind of switched genders there, because you were the seed of that song.

Johnathan, you spent a few of your early, formative years as a young musician in New York City. Do you see many changes from the music scene when you were there, compared to the contemporary one portrayed in the film?

Johnathan: The portrayal in this film is contemporary, but I think it’s important to note that Kate has had this script for years. When she wrote it, it was probably closer to the scene I remember. And you’re from New York—you know that you can walk out of your apartment on any given night and have a totally different experience than any other night. There are myriad different scenes within New York that contain so many multitudes, musically and culturally, that it’s kind of impossible to encapsulate the New York scene. But it is possible to, I think, to walk out one night and see The Felice Brothers, and see Sharon Van Etten. That all seems very believable to me in the film.

Nowadays when I go to New York—I don’t live there anymore, I mostly visit—it has changed so radically that there are parts of it I barely recognize. And I think it has to be said: I do think that a lot of the artists are being pushed further and further into Brooklyn, Queens, and The Bronx. I don’t know. I don’t think that it is as fertile a place, culturally, as it once was. That’s my opinion. So I kind of look on Song One fondly, because it reminds me of being a young songwriter in New York.

Jenny: It’s sort of like New York is a Choose Your Own Adventure, musically.

Johnathan: Exactly.

You’re close enough friends with Anne Hathaway and her husband for them to just e-mail you a film collaboration idea. Is the reverse how the “Just One Of The Guys” music video came about? Did you send an e-mail with a subject line along the lines of, “Bring a fake moustache”?

Jenny: [Laughs] Well, I said I would supply the track suits and the moustaches, because I’d love to have you be part of this music video. And she was really excited about it.

Offhand, what are some of you favorite musical performances in other films?

Jenny: I’m a big fan of The Long Goodbye. To watch that theme song evolve throughout the film is really great. You hear the song being played by a piano player at the bar, and then in muzak form at a supermarket. I remember the first time I saw that movie, it made me really interested in how you use music in film. As far as live performances in films…?

Johnathan: I really like Joaquin Phoenix’s performance of his original song, “I’m Still Here,” in the documentary of the same name.

Jenny: [Laughs] That’s so uncomfortable!

Johnathan: It’s truly unique. There’s no other film quite like that one. He’s kind of making his rap debut, and it’s one of the most claustrophobic, unique things that I’ve ever seen. I don’t know why that sprang to mind, but it did.

Jenny: We also really like the Jackson 5 biopic. [1992’s The Jacksons: An American Dream]

Johnathan: Oh, yeah, I love that.

Jenny: We watched that about ten times together.

***

Song One opens in select cities on Friday, January 23rd. For more information about the film, check out its website.

Song One: The Official Soundtrack is available from Lakeshore Records. 



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