Patti Smith on Her Musical Roots and First Shot at an Oscar With 'Noah' Song

The 67-year-old icon, whose lullaby 'Mercy Is' is the first song she's ever written for a movie, also tells THR why she relates to Katniss Everdeen and loves Rihanna
Niko Tavernise
Patti Smith records her song 'Mercy Is' for the film 'Noah'

On Tuesday, I met up in New York with Patti Smith, the iconic singer-songwriter-activist, for a long conversation about her life, career and latest work. Smith, who is 67 and a year away from the 40th anniversary of her debut album Horses, is still going strong — writing, performing and speaking out about social issues that are important to her. She is also, for the first time in her career, in contention for a best original song Oscar nomination.

Many of the songs for which Smith has been known and loved for generations — including "Because the Night," "The People Have the Power" and "Gloria" — have been sampled in movies over the years. But those songs were already in circulation when they showed up on film soundtracks. This year, for the first time, Smith wrote a song specifically for a movie: "Mercy Is," a haunting lullaby that pops up throughout and at the end of her friend Darren Aronofsky's biblical epic Noah. And people are loving it.

Don't read the word "lullaby" and assume that Smith, "the Godmother of Punk Rock," has gone soft. As she told me, "I still have the impetus on certain nights to kick over my amplifier, you know, and to play louder than everybody else. I still know what that tastes like. I haven't lost that. But that's only a fraction of who I am."

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Instead, what "Mercy Is" represents to her is something of a return to her roots. She had a strong bible education as a child and then, for a time, rebelled against religion (she famously begins "Gloria" with the line "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine"), but today says she loves the story of Noah and bible-themed films, in general, and couldn't resist being a part of one made by Aronofsky, "an artist," as opposed to "an epic-style filmmaker."

Smith — who's still very much still in touch with the people, explaining that she relates to The Hunger Games' protagonist Katniss Everdeen and loves Rihannadescribes her voice today as "a strong voice, not a perfect voice," but one which "reflects, at this point, years of experience" and her "tool for public service." My hunch is that Academy members, whose median age is nearly the same as Smith's, and who came of age with her music, will be happy to hear it again.

Growing up, what sort of music were you into and which musicians were your favorites?

Well, when I was a child, funny enough, I loved opera. I adored Puccini. I loved classical music. And as I got older, I was smitten by R&B and rock and roll, mostly to dance to. I’m from the Philly area, so Philly music in the '50s, early '60s was fantastic. And then, as I got older, it was Nina Simone and John Coltrane and The Animals. And then Joan Baez was a strong influence. But then Bob Dylan came along and eclipsed everything, I think. I can almost look at it as a timeline, you know? Of course, we had so many great bands in the '60s. I loved them all — loved Jefferson Airplane and loved Neil Young and loved John Lennon. But Jimi Hendrix, of course, was the king, the kind of rock and roll for me — well, beyond king; I mean, if we are going to let Elvis Presley be king, Jimi was a god. Jim Morrison was a strong influence. But Bob Dylan continued as a thread of strong influence over me.

Do you remember when you began singing, even if it was just sort of silly, around the house or wherever?

I come from a singing family. My mother was sort of a light jazz singer during the war. She stopped singing after she had children, but she sang in clubs and in ballrooms when she was younger. My father had a nice voice. Music was just a natural part of our experience. I lived in Philadelphia and then moved to rural south Jersey. Everybody sang. I mean, in that period — late '50s, early '60s — everybody sang. There were a cappella groups everywhere, boys sang on the street corner, we all sang. I sang in plays and in the school choir and things like that, but I never had any aspirations because there were so many great singers in my school. I came from a really interesting school that was multiracial — so many great singers in my school. So I had no real standout ability.

When’s the first time, though, that somebody really sort of recognized your talent said, “Wait a minute, you have a great voice?”

Actually, it was professors. I went to college for a few years. I had a professor that wanted to give me the part of Madame Dubonnet in The Boyfriend, and I really didn’t think I could sing these songs — I mean, one of them was a show-stopper — and he said, “You have a strong voice, in the middle between soprano and tenor.” And he gave me a few lessons, just a little, and I liked being on stage. I’ve always been comfortable on stage. And he was the first person really to say that I might have some ability — but truthfully, I didn’t take it seriously. I had fun. Then, when I met Robert Mapplethorpe in ’67, I used to sing to Robert around the house, and Robert thought I was really talented, you know? He would always say, “You should sing." And I used to like to sing to William Burroughs when I met him. He loved old songs and I knew all the standards because my mother taught them to me — songs like “Nature Boy” or “My Buddy” or “Heart of My Hearts.” And I used to sing a cappella to William. William always said, “My dear, you are a chanteuse,” and I’d be really embarrassed. But still I had no real aspirations towards singing. I wanted to be a writer/poet.

I’m sure that there were many incremental things, but, as you look back now, what do you regard as your big break? What sort of set you on the path that you’ve taken?

Really, it was a very organic type of thing. I did my first public poetry reading with Lenny Kaye in February of ’71. I sang some. It was Bertolt Brecht’s birthday. We did "Mack the Knife." I sang a couple little blues songs and read my poetry quite aggressively. And I thought that I got way too much attention for this one. I mean, someone offered me a record contract! I was working in a bookstore and I thought, “Well, I have to think about this.” And I sort of backed off. Praise is exciting, but it also can be daunting if you’re not completely sure you deserve it. So I thought, “I’m going to step back a little.” But every time I performed, truthfully, I got either great encouragement or people actually throwing things at me.

[laughs] That really happened?

Oh, yeah. People booing — mostly guys, 'cause I was a bit aggressive. I loved Johnny Carson and I just used Johnny Carson as a model, so when people threw things at me I threw them right back at them. I was really good at one-liners and I just found that I was comfortable on stage. Really, probably the big turning point was when Clive Davis saw me and found me interesting. And I think it might’ve been Clive who encouraged Bob Dylan to come see me perform at The Bitter End. I didn’t even have a drummer yet, but Bob Dylan did come. And back then, in 1974, that was a huge thing — ’74, ’75, I don’t remember what year. But to have Bob Dylan come see you was a very big thing. It was in all the papers, you know, big pictures of us.

Was that intimidating, to have him there?

No, I don’t get intimidated. And I didn’t know he was there. I sensed that somebody was there, something electric — I didn’t know if it was the moon or what, I just knew that there was a very special energy, and we did a really good show — and it turned out to be him. He was the special energy. But I don’t really get intimidated. I know what my responsibility is. But, it got so much attention that I think that really helped us make the next leap. I mean, I believe we did it on our own, but certainly, to get a nod from Bob Dylan was a very, very important thing at that time.

As you became more widely known, how did you handle the attention? Fame is a strange thing, from everything I can gather...

I mean, to me, it’s just like being in a bigger neighborhood where more people know you. In our present culture it can get complicated because people want to take pictures all the time, which can be time consuming and even a drag, really. But, except in certain places, like Italy, where I was so popular in the late '70s that I really couldn’t walk down the street without having screaming girls run after me, I always feel myself at one with the people. I didn’t come up intending to be a rock and roll star. I didn’t think of myself as equal to them. I knew my own worth, but I still thought of myself as one of the people who crossed the line, you know, and one of my missions as, you know, a so called "rock and roll star" was to always open the gates, open the doors and just tell people, you know, rock and roll, it belongs to the people, it’s a people’s art. Any kid can pick up the guitar, and it’s such a great way to express oneself to marshal their aggression politically, emotionally, sexually. I’ve always thought of it as the art of the people, rock and roll. I’ve tried to keep that philosophy. And I mean, I know what my position is and everything, but I’m not really interested in fame; I’m interested in doing good work. Fame itself can become an addiction or a motivation, and I’m not even criticizing that; it’s just that it’s extremely fleeting, it’s fickle and you really can’t count on it in terms of who your identity is. I have been like, beloved — and had the rug pulled out of me within months, you know? I always left because I think I’m the same person as I was months ago. So I enjoy the fruits of it, occasionally, but I don’t allow it to permeate my consciousness as to who I am.

That's such an eloquent answer. A lot of people can’t process it in the way that you’ve thought it through...

Well, on the other hand, I don’t have the pressures of like, a pop star or a big movie star. I have friends who are on that level, and I see what their life becomes. Really all an artist — I don’t care if it’s a movie star or someone with a number one record — what we owe the people is good work, and you know, a fair amount of communication, but you don’t owe them your private life, I don’t believe that.

If you had first become famous in the current climate, how do you think things might have been different? Would you have perhaps withdrawn a little bit?

I think I would’ve spoken out to try to have some influence on it. I’m able to have a certain amount of influence — like, during concerts, I’ll stop the concert and tell people, you know, “Put your cell phones away so we can communicate. Take pictures later, tape later.” Because I’m a channeler. I like to deal with people directly. But it’s amazing that you can reach hundreds of millions of people with the touch of a device, and a lot of political good could be done with that. I think if I was young and politically energized, I would try to use the tools of our culture toward bringing together the people for our environment, for various kinds of awareness. But I don’t think I would’ve changed. I think I’m the kind of person I am.

Critics, journalists and others try to define or describe somebody’s sound or the kind of music they do. If somebody living under a rock somewhere had never heard your voice, how would you describe the way you sing to them?

I don’t know. I mean, really, I think that my voice reflects, at this point, years of experience. I’m 67 years old. I’m in good health. I have a strong voice, not a perfect voice — you know, I go flat here and there. But I think of my voice in terms of being my tool for public service. Of course, in a concert it’s public service that you’re being paid for, but still. It’s an old-fashioned voice. It’s my voice. It stems from listening to years and years of opera and listening to years of Jimi Hendrix and Grace Slick. I’m more of a global artist than an American artist; I’m well aware that I’m 60 percent, maybe 70 percent singing to people where English isn’t their first language, so I try, within my voice, within the performance of a song, to express the inner narrative of the song through sound. And that is something I really learned from listening to opera. I only speak English, but I’ve listened to a thousand arias that I didn’t even bother seeing, you know, "What is Maria Callas saying?" I just feel where she’s going. She starts quiet and she builds herself to tragedy or tears or expansive love. And so I’ve learned a lot about expressing the inner narrative through voice.

Is that the defining thing about punk rock versus other rock? Is it more emotionally inflected? What distinguishes punk rock, with which you're so closely associated, from other sorts of music?

I can’t say. I mean, for me, punk rock — when I was young, what it meant was freedom, you know? I never thought of myself as much of a singer when I was younger. I was very expressive. I didn’t really know. I’m not a natural musician. I don’t really play anything except for loud feedback with any kind of expertise. I think that punk rock is always being redefined by each new generation, so I would never try to encapsulate it. For me, it’s just meant freedom. I think that our band has always been a more sophisticated band. We’ve never called ourselves a punk rock band. We are part-punk rock. It’s in our blood. I still feel like that. I still have the impetus on certain nights to kick over my amplifier, you know, and to play louder than everybody else. I still know what that tastes like. I haven’t lost that. But that’s only a fraction of who I am. And so I have it within me, but people that are devoted to that, they’d have to answer that question.

Noah is the most recent example of your music being in a movie but, over the years, there's been a lot of that. Do you work differently when you're writing a song for a movie? What is the process like ? How much do you have to know before you write the song?

Well, truthfully, I have never written a song for a movie that wound up in the movie. This is the first time. That’s why it’s so exciting for me and I’m quite honored and grateful to Darren, because, you know, I’m still an unknown quantity.

How do you mean?

Well, I mean, if they want a song for a James Bond film, they wouldn’t go to me, you know? They’ll go to someone that, you know, has the touch on the public consciousness, who has a strong contemporary voice and I understand that. I really actually have never been sought after to write songs for a movie — but my songs have been in movies. “Pissing in A River” was in a movie, Jean-Luc Godard put “Distant Fingers” in a movie, “Wing,” “People Have the Power.” I know that my songs have been in movies — I haven’t even seen some of the movies that they’ve been in. I look at the scene. I feel like it’s viable. Usually it’s the type of movies that don’t have a lot of finances for a song. But I have written songs for like a soundtrack album — for the last Hunger Games record, they didn’t ask me to write for the movie, which I thought was unfortunate because I could’ve written them a really good song, but, I did write, I felt, a really good song for their record. And in order to write that, I read all the books and saw the first movie and I related to the character. I love Katniss, you know?

Tell me, how do you relate?

Well, she’s young, she's free, she’s the girl with the bow and arrow — I just loved the image of her. And being a reluctant revolutionary, I can understand where you feel your calling is something else. She wants to be free, to be able to feed her family, to be alone in nature, not to be fettered by political ideology. I understand her, I think, and I had an affection for her — and her love for her sister. I have a sister who I love like that. So I wrote a little song, which I like very much. I think it’s a nice little song. And they really liked it. But if anyone asks me to write something for a film, I would spend a lot of time researching. Sometimes I listen to a song someone, even a big band or someone’s written for a film, and I think, “Have they actually even studied that film?” I wonder sometimes. And sometimes songs seem absolutely perfect, you know?

So, in the case of Noah, how did you first hear about it? And then was it sort of, “Hey, we’d love it if you would write a song? Or, "We’d like a song specifically tied to a specific scene?"

Well, it was truthfully Darren. I had to do some work at the Venice Film Festival some years ago and I bumped into Darren. He was the chairman, I think, of the jury. I had a couple of days off and he said, “Well, why don’t you stay a couple of days and we’ll watch films together?” And we did. We watched Steve McQueen’s film Hunger — no, Shame, we watched Shame — and several other movies. And we were walking around the streets of Venice and I said, “Well, what are you working on? What's your next dream? What’s your next project?” And he told me that he’s always wanted to do the story of Noah. Well, I loved the story of Noah. I had a very strong bible education as a kid, I loved biblical themed films and I thought, “This is fantastic: an artist — instead of, you know, an epic-style filmmaker, an actual artist — doing a biblical film.” And Darren’s also an environmentalist so I really intuited that he would do something special. And then he mentioned that he was getting the songs together and he needed a lullaby. And I just impulsively said, “Please, let me write it.” Because I’ve written like, three or four lullabies in my life. It’s one of my specialties. And I said, you know, “Just give me a chance, and if you don’t like it, fine.” And he was so happy and so welcoming. I mean, I’m not usually so aggressive. You know, I’ll usually be much cooler than that. But I just knew it was my project.

And so, were you in communication as it was being written, or did you just turn over the final product?

No, no, no, he let me see the script. We talked. I mean, the song is pivotal, even if it’s — I mean, it’s a lullaby and it’s a delicate piece, but it’s pivotal in the film. It’s in two very strong emotional scenes in the film. Noah has to sing it to a little girl he believes to be dying. And then, this little girl, he raises her and she has babies, which you know, he feels commanded by God that he has to kill. And, well, she just chooses that their last thing that they would hear is the song he sang her when she was close to death, and now her infants are close to death. And so, then she sings it. And you know, they sing a portion of it because of time, but it’s such a beautiful, fragile, but important part of the film. And you know, to have that responsibility, you know, it’s tremendous and daunting. So, I knew what my responsibility was, and I understood it. I know the story of Noah. Even any of ways that he, you know, embellished it or whatever, the essence of the story is there. And I re-read the scriptures. I read his script over and over. Russell Crowe is one of my favorite actors. I well know what Russell Crowe is capable of. Russell Crowe is a man that always seems, no matter how — because he’s certainly a male — no matter what his attitude is, you feel like he could on a dime, weep, you know? And he was the perfect person to have to write something for.

I know that Russell Crowe is a bit of a musician himself...

Yeah, I sang with him.

Did he weigh in at all on the lyrics?

Well, the song was written. He only had to do a portion of it. So he found the way to present it as Noah’s own. So the song is intact but, as I said, there’s just a thread of it in the film. And his voice, being a bit different timbre — he found a way to sing it and make it his own because that’s important that he do that. The quintessential performance is on the credits. I had to perform it with Kronos, but it had to be written in a way that both Emma and he could make it their own.

And just as a quick aside, I heard you tell a funny story about horses, right? There were originally lyrics about horses?

Oh, yeah. Well, I wrote it and there was a line — let me see how it goes: [sings] "Two white horses, two white doves, to carry you away into the land of memory," [speaks] because I was seeing like, white horses and the white doves. And Darren said, “Patti, it’s beautiful — but they didn’t have horses then. There were no horses, you know, in Noah’s world.” And we just laughed about that. I just changed it to two white wings, two white doves; it wasn’t difficult. It wasn’t a simple song to write. I had labored over it quite a bit because it was a particular lullaby. It wasn’t just to sing the little girl to sleep; it was a song that Methuselah, Noah’s father, had sang to him, so I had to take in account what Methuselah’s subject matter would be and how it would resonate to the little girl. The little girl’s father has just been killed. Noah, believing her to be dying, would be going back to God, the Father. And so, to comfort her, he sings her the little part of the song, “I think your father waits for thee.” And he is speaking of God — but he allows the little girl to interpret that her father is waiting for her. And so I had to really think about all these different little subtleties. And also, it tells a bit about the landscape of the new world and what’s in that landscape, you know? So Darren and I had a lot of talk, and Darren was great because I got to a point where I got slightly — I’m not easily intimidated, but I got a little intimidated of the responsibility and I was wondering, "I don’t have any real experience doing this. Do they need someone more experienced?" And Darren was like, “No, no, no.” He spent an extraordinary amount of time reassuring me and then, when we recorded it again, I had to do something I never did: record live with a string quartet — not only a string quartet, but one that has a tonal sound. So I had to sing against a melody, against not even a harmony, just something that tonally makes sense, but for a singer, trying to track a melody, it was challenging, but Darren was right there in the studio and the Kronos quartet was great. And I felt by the end of it that I had accomplished something.

That just begs one last question which I have to ask you. When I listen to popular music today, I find that there’s so much less of an emphasis placed upon lyrics or poetry. Maybe I’m listening to the wrong music, but I wonder if you feel that the sort of emphasis that was placed upon those things by the generation that you came up with, and that you continue to present in your music, is in danger?

Actually, no. I mean, Bob Dylan is one. Neil Young is still writing us great songs. I came from an R&B background. I grew up listening to Smokey Robinson and Carole King songs. I don’t know how to write those kind of songs. Sometimes, too much poetry, too much language can bog down the simplicity of the feeling. And I mourn that I can’t write that type of song with such simplicity. My lyrics are too complicated sometimes, but that’s how I write. And for instance, a song like “Stay”? I love that song. I guess Mikky Ekko wrote it [Ekko actually co-wrote it with Justin Parker], but Rihanna’s performance on that? I must’ve listened to that 100, 200 times. Amy Winehouse, “Back to Black” — very simple songs, lyrically. I don’t think that lyrics have to be— It’s the whole package, you know? I’ve stopped in the middle of a grocery store hearing Bonnie Raitt doing "I Can’t Make You Love Me" — I stood there and cried, it was playing over the loud speaker. I mean, that’s why I think [R.E.M. lead singer] Michael Stipe is one of our greatest lyricists: he has given us raps so complex and so genius and then come out with one killer line, “It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine” — and then he can write “Happy Smiley People.” It’s an art, you know? It’s a specialized art, being a pop lyricist, and I have great respect for it. I am not in that kingdom, but believe me, I have respect for it.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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