'A Most Violent Year': Inside Alex Ebert's Enraged Original Song "America for Me"
The Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros frontman and film composer explains how the structure-less track has changed his songwriting process for the band's future release
For Alex Ebert, A Most Violent Year began as a joyous reunion for the Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros frontman and director J.C. Chandor, who worked together on 2013's All Is Lost and nabbed the Golden Globe for original score last year.
However, nailing down the sound for Chandor's capitalism drama starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola and Albert Brooks became one filled with anger, as it centers on Isaac as Abel Morales, a businessman trying to stay out of the criminal dealings of the heating oil supply industry of 1980s New York City.
"I'm watching the movie, and I just get pissed off," Ebert tells The Hollywood Reporter. Originally tasked solely with scoring the film — jazz-inspired compositions solely of alto flutes, horns and synth — the rocker-turned-composer spontaneously recorded the structure-less track "America for Me" to help guide audience's explosive emotions after the film's final scene. "You have this cauldron of ambition winning out, really, over empathy, and I wanted to react to that."
Listen to Ebert's original song and score below, followed by his breakdown of his particularly offbeat creative process for the enraging project.
How did you settle on a score for this film?
It’s a character study of Abel. He's really meditative, almost in like a half-trance — almost the entire movie, his eyes are half-closed and in a very, very, very, very focused state. So let's extend that state, that bubble over the audience.
I moved New Orleans a few years ago, and had recently watched Ken Burns' Jazz. But also, that era embraced jazz, especially in New York. It was sort of left over from ‘70s moviemaking, when you had a lot of Quincy Jones-type scores, and what you ended up with was the juxtaposition of movie and score that created a byproduct. This Hollywood movie and avant garde score that don't seem to go together, so they'd create this tertiary vision. It’s just alto flute, horns and synth; it sounds like a strange combo, but I dig it. I'll probably never not explore trying to work that alto flute into my scoring. It's one of my favorite instruments, and I discovered that from All Is Lost.
Did you know you’d write “America for Me” for the film?
No. It was the last thing I did, more or less. I'm watching the movie, and I just get pissed off at the end of the last scene. You have this cauldron of ambition winning out, really, over empathy, and I wanted to react to that, because the times reacted to that. You had punk rock, hip hop, pop art and the birth of a general mode of self-destructive — destruction didn't work, so self-destruction in the face of imminent destruction of the Cold War and those sorts of things.
You ended up with a stripped-down, free-form track solely standing on beats and a closing saxophone. How did you go about writing it?
I had this late '70s beat machine from a friend. I turned it on, started recording, and without writing down lyrics or even a melody, I just started freestyling — letting the melody go as long as it wanted to and end where it wanted to, and then as soon as I f— up, I'd stop recording and then start recording again where I f—ed up. ... I finished the song in that way, and happened on that melody that ends up coming in.
That was so liberating — I've never really successfully done something like that in my artistic life. It’s a nice position to be in, to be of service to the song, as opposed to have the song be of service to you, which is sometimes what you're doing in rock and roll. It definitely changed my perspective: I have this new economy of artistry, economy of voices, economy of production — for a guy with ten people in his band, that's an interesting place to have arrived! I’m recording now with Edward Sharpe, and we’ve relied heavily on production techniques in a sense — reverb, overdubbing, and many, many layers, and right now, yeah, I'm just not interested in that. I'm interested in exactly what says exactly what needs to be said and really not much else.
What specifically inspired the lyrics?
I thought about the interesting predicament of being a “successful” American while being a conscious and empathetic and ethical American. In “doing the right thing” by paying your taxes, that very act is doing the wrong thing in the sense that there are wars that I really don’t approve of that my money is genuinely supporting. Plenty of murder of innocently people that my money has directly or indirectly paid for; the defamation of a native population that my money, my inhabitance here has directly benefited from. There's a lot that's problematic once you really start thinking about things, and I just felt like expressing all of that, and expressing the entire dilemma of wanting to be a free nation and a free person, and also wanting to be righteous. The song doesn't answer the question, but it definitely poses it and gets somewhere near the answer for me.
The film, and the song, can leave a moviegoer pretty angry by the end.
I'm a big proponent of anger to some degree — it can be helpful and useful, a tool that can inspire. So if for some reason, someone felt angry enough to feel galvanized to talk about the movie, or talk about the general idea of greed or examine their own sense of ambition and exactly what costs their ambitious too, and what costs we are willing to pay for our ambitions, and all these questions, what is life in the end really about? … It's the question that's constantly circulating, and it's a good question to deal with in a pretty serious way and really contemplate. These days especially, as our economy is now faltering and isn't the robust, impervious economy of the '80s and '90s even, that this conversation of, exactly what is the point of success at all costs when that success doesn't actually necessarily mean success anymore? I think it's a good conversation to have, and it's a conversation as a country and people we'll be having more and more.