6:44pm PT by Scott Feinberg
THR Song Nominees Summit: Common, Diane Warren, Other Nominees Talk Music, Oscars (Podcast)
People tune in to the all-star games of the various professional sports because they provide a rare chance to see a significant number of the great talents of a profession gather in one place and have fun with one another. In Hollywood, such opportunities are surprisingly rare. And in the music business, they are even rarer.
That's why The Hollywood Reporter was so excited to corral almost all of this year's best original song Oscar nominees for an extended conversation and photoshoot immediately following the Oscar Nominees Luncheon on Feb. 2. And perhaps that's also why the six individuals who joined us — Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois for "Lost Stars" from Begin Again, Common for “Glory” from Selma, Shawn Patterson for “Everything is Awesome” from The Lego Movie, Julian Raymond for “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me and Diane Warren for “Grateful” from Beyond the Lights — had such a blast hanging with each other that they hung around after we called a wrap to trade contact information, take photos with one another and plot a possible pre-Oscars collaboration.
(Unable to join us were Common's collaborator John Legend, who was traveling, and Raymond's collaborator Glen Campbell, who is now residing in a memory care facility while battling Alzheimer's Disease.)
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We covered a lot of ground over the course of a 51-minute chat that you can listen to or read a (lightly edited) transcript of below. In addition to discussing their interactions with the directors of the films in which their songs are featured and their individual creative processes (music or lyrics first?), Common rapped about the gathering; Alexander and Brisebois talked about being given the daunting challenge of writing a song that could save someone's life; Warren good-naturedly lamented that she has lost the Oscar each of the six prior times she's been nominated; Raymond explained that his song — Campbell's last — was achieved by feeding the legendary singer each of his lines one-by-one over the course of four-and-a-half hours; and Patterson revealed that he wrote the most upbeat song of the year while going through "a very ugly divorce."
I highly recommend that you check out all of the nominated songs via iTunes, YouTube or wherever you get your music — this year was rare in that each of the five selections have been pretty universally accepted as worthy picks (I predicted all five) — as well as the conversation about how they came to be.
To begin with, I'd like to ask each of you how you first learned about the film that your song is a part of. Julian, you first came to know about Glen Campbell as a fan. How did you wind up producing songs of his later music, including "I'm Not Gonna Miss You," the last song he ever recorded and the closing song in Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me, for which you and he are co-nominated?
RAYMOND: Well, I grew up in a house where my parents played his music constantly — it was a staple in the house. Then at Capitol Records a bunch of years ago, I was told by the label they needed to record somebody they called a "heritage artist," and they gave me a list of people. Glen wasn’t on it. I won’t name the people that were on it, but they were older artists that hadn’t been making records in a while, so I suggested Glen and they thought it was a good idea. They basically told me, “Hey, if you can get ahold of him and find him, let’s do it.” So I did, and we made Meet Glen Campbell, so that was how it all started. The film started because I’d been doing these records with him, and he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and he and his family decided to go public with it and do a farewell tour so he could see his fans one last time. And I approached my friend, James Keach, who was the producer of the Johnny Cash film Walk the Line, to see if he’d like to go along and film the events. He promised he would do five weeks’ worth, but it turned into 151 shows and 1,200 hours of film, and that turned into the movie I’ll Be Me.
Gregg and Danielle, you guys have worked together and known each other for years, going back to the New Radicals days of the late '90s. How did you two first meet? And how did you come to be a part of John Carney's Begin Again?
BRISEBOIS: A friend of mine worked at A&M Records and she had his CD and she gave it to me. I was like, “I have to meet this person."
ALEXANDER: This was 25 years ago. Aye aye aye!
BRISEBOIS: I called somebody, they answered the phone, they introduced me to Gregg and that’s how we met. And Begin Again? You [Gregg] can tell.
ALEXANDER: Well, Danielle and I have kind of seen the music business morph and change — it’s maybe not as much about real artistry or songs as much as it used to be, unfortunately — and we’re kind of Luddites, in that we pine for the old days. We always kind of wanted to make a segue into film, but we wanted it to be something that was quality and something that was independent, different and had something to say. Oddly enough, right around the time that we were talking about that, I got a phone call from an Irish guy that I thought was a prank phone call. John, the director, got my number from Bono and Simon Carmody and a couple of mutual friends, and he started telling me about this film that he wanted to make about how important music is to our lives, but how it seems to be changing and moving so quickly to a place that we don’t recognize. I said, “What’s it called?” And he said, Can a Song Save Your Life?" [The film's title was subsequently changed.] I said, "Will music be important in it?" And he said, "Yes, it’ll be the heart and the soul of the film. That’s what this film is about. It’s about music." We read the script, fell in love with it and then tried to write a song to save someone’s life, and we came up with "Lost Stars."
Common, how did you come to know Selma director Ava DuVernay? And had you been friends or collaborated with John Legend before "Glory"?
COMMON: John and I have been friends for I would say 10 years. We’re part of the same family, as far as music, good music, because there is a label that Kanye [West] started when John Legend first was put out. He’s on Kanye’s label. So we worked on songs together before and we toured together, so we’ve got a great bond and friendship. Creatively, he always can take songs that I’m working on and take them to the next level — we just have that connection. And Ava is someone who I actually got to meet at the Sundance Film Festival [in 2012]. She and I we both had films that were up there — I was in one as an actor and she was a director of one — and she eventually cast me in Selma, which is how I first came to be a part of it. I wasn’t projected to create music for the film, but as I went through the process as an actor it really touched me, the film did, so Ava said, “Do you want to do some music for it?” And I was like, “Yes, of course.” I felt like I knew the spirit and energy of the movie and what the movement is because of, you know, being a part of it. And then one day I was just laying in my bed and I said, "Let me call John Legend because I think he would be the right voice to collaborate with on this film." So I just called him and told him what it was, and he was like, "Okay, let’s do it."
Diane, your music has been a part of so many movies. Had you ever worked with Beyond the Lights writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood before?
WARREN: No, I’d never worked with her before. A friend of mine, Tamara, had told me about this movie. We were having dinner last year — I’ll never forget it — and she said, "I have the movie that you’re going to win an Oscar for.” I go, “I’m a six-time loser. I don’t know if I could win one these things, but tell me about the movie." She goes, "Well, you’re definitely going to get nominated," which is weird. And she told me about this movie — it was called Blackbird at the time. She goes, “This is one of the best movies you’ll ever see,” and she arranged for me to see the movie and I loved it. They changed the title, but it’s such a great movie.
Along with Begin Again, Beyond the Lights and Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, there were quite a lot of movies about music in 2014...
WARREN: Yeah, they have something to say. All of those movies have something to say.
Shawn, from what I understand, "Everything Is Awesome" was an intricate collaboration. Can you take us step-by-step through how we came to have this song that doesn't leave your head once you hear it?
PATTERSON: Well, thanks. I appreciate that. Collaboratively, I was kind of out of the loop on that — I think that’s been somewhat of a misconception. I mean, the back-story is this: Chris McKay is the animation director on the film. He and I worked together; we came through what I like to call "the gutter," but some people might call it "the trenches."
WARREN: I’m still in there, I think. [laughs]
PATTERSON: We all are. We’re never leaving. Chris and I worked together on Robot Chicken — I was the score composer and songwriter on that show — and Chris left. He said, “I’m going on to The Lego Movie.” And I went, “I have never heard of that, but good luck, man.” And, you know, I probably thought what everybody else thought when you heard that: “That’s going to be a disaster.” But this is such a strong and brilliant director that truly, in the back of my mind, I said, “He’s going to bring something to it very unique and very special.” Then he called me half a year later and said, “Hey, we have a need for a song in this film and there’s nothing we can find that fits the narrative.” The central character, Emmet, is a bit of an outcast. He wants to be part of a collective, part of a team, part of a big unity thing, but the core of the message was, "Establish identity and establish individuality and creativity." So it was a very complex process. So I sat down. He gave me a little bit of input, like, "Hand claps, poppy and catchy," but there was not much else to reference. But Chris has this funny way, with our communication style, where he’ll say something, and sometimes I’m like, “What do you mean by that?” He goes, “Yeah, you know, you’ll get it. You know what I mean," then he lets me off the chain and then I come back with something and I play it for him. Sometimes it’s a complete disaster, but usually, if he ends up laughing, I know that I got it. So the song was completed and fully-written — lyrics, bridge and everything — and I produced it and sent it in. I tweaked it a little bit: [Co-directors] Phil Lord and Chris Miller said, “Hey, how about this?” They added some lyrics and they said, “More of this. More of that.” And then, at the end, they brought in a bunch of people that they knew and had worked with. They didn’t know me at all — McKay wasn’t their director, he was their animation director — so we kind of just walked in slowly through the back door and said, “This is what we got.” And they were pretty happy with it.
Some of you talked about guidance that you received from your director, as far as what he or she was looking for. I want to ask the rest of you to do the same thing. Diane, did Gina say, “We need a song like this at this point in the movie?” Or, “We’d like a song from you, and then we’ll figure out what to do with it"?
WARREN: She didn’t tell me what she wanted, I kind of just went off. I saw the movie and I just kinda came up with something. I came up with the chorus. This movie is really about someone finding her own voice after going through so much, and I wanted to write a song that really spoke of that — just, after everything I went through, I’m grateful for it. So I had the chorus — I didn’t want to call Gina until I was kinda happy with that — and I called her. I’m like, “Fuck, I hope she doesn’t think this sucks.” I played it for her and she didn’t really say much. And I go, “Do you hate it?” You know what I mean? [Says to the others at the table] You guys know that feeling, you know?
COMMON: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
WARREN: But she goes, “No, I really love it.” She’s very soft spoken. I go, “Say that you really like it!” [laughs] She loved it. And then I was excited that she loved it and I came up with the verses and stuff and kinda would call her. She just wanted a couple of changes. [Jokes] I said, “You do not change my song!” [laughs]
With “Lost Stars,” the plot hinges upon the fact that this is a song that Keira Knightley's character writes, that is then reappropriated by Adam Levine in a way that she’s not thrilled with and that then re-emerges a key turning point near the end of the film. But for the rest of you, did you know from the start where in the film your song was going to be used?
WARREN: I knew it was going to be the end song.
COMMON: Well, Ava just kind of gave me it loose like, “Yeah, why don’t you create some music for the project?” So, my vision was like, “Yeah, I want this to be the end title song.” One reason is I’m a hip hop artist and I didn’t think it would be appropriate for a film that’s about Dr. [Martin Luther] King and the Civil Rights movement to have a rap — it just didn’t feel like during the film I would want to hear rap. That’s how I felt. I hadn’t seen the film yet. And there was another thing that I really wanted the song to have: I knew I wanted it to be the end-title song, but I didn’t want to put drums in for a second. What Diane said is funny because Ava later told me that when I first played the song for her she was thinking, “If I don’t like this song, what am I going to tell them?” Once I laid my vocals I was like, “You gotta hear this!” We were, like, 10 minutes away from where she was editing — the film hadn’t been finished — so we sent it over. And then I went over there, like, 15 minutes later, and she put it at the end title and that’s how I knew that it would potentially be the end title. But at that point she was like, “I like this, but we still need more.” I liked the intimacy of what we were creating, but she said, “We need more.” And one of her references was, “We need something like ‘We Are the World.’” And I was like, “Oh man, that’s depressing. ‘We Are the World’? Like, do you understand what you just asked for?!” But she was talking about just a song that had some type of spirit to it, but still could feel worldly. So anyway, we had the bassists and then we ended up putting in some strings. Once I got the vision across to John and Ava that we don’t need drums and this and that, then we found the right arranger, named Patrick Warren, and then the song felt like it was supposed to be in that film.
Coming back to what we were talking about a moment ago, Gregg and Danielle, you had to write a song that could be sung by Adam Levine, who obviously has his own sound, and Keira Knightley, who’s not really a professional singer at all, and that would work in three very different but crucial moments in the story. How did you come up with a song that met all of those different requirements?
ALEXANDER: Oh, my gosh, lots of espresso and sleepless nights and all sorts of stuff.
BRISEBOIS: I think one of the things that helps us is that, as a writing team, I’m a female and he’s a male, so the songs tend to lend themselves to either vocals. And I think we wrote the song that we thought we’d want to hear in that moment. It was actually originally written for a different scene in the film and then John kind of rewrote the script around the song to have it be more central to the storyline, so I don’t think we were thinking about a bunch of different characters and stuff when we wrote it. When we ended up producing it and making it happen in the studio, then we had to kind of think differently. But I think maybe, just naturally, we were those two characters writing this song together on our own.
Shawn, with “Everything is Awesome,” your task was essentially to create like a mind-control propaganda kind of song, and yet not be unbearably annoying. How did you walk that line?
PATTERSON: I wrote pages and pages and pages of lyrics, trying different concepts from a psychological standpoint of, I’ve got to say, things as extreme as Communism and being like — remember the Borg from Star Trek? I’m a huge Star Trek fan. So they’re, like, all part of a hive, bees in a hive. But then, there’s this central character that just wants to be loved and wants to be accepted by everybody within this collective. So I just started riffing and I just kind of let myself get into it. You know, there was also some import to thinking about Emmet in his world. I mean, I was shown a lot of concept art and I thought, “This is the most vanilla character you will ever find on the planet.” So I started thinking, "What are all the dumb things that some guys like to do? You know, riding scooters, playing kazoos and — it all just started going. The thing that he would love would be all this goofy stuff — or, as we might say, goofy shit. And it was fun. I really just let myself get into it and go, and I wrote pages and pages — I mean, "We’re all happy spokes on a happy wheel!"
The back-stories of each of these songs are so interesting. Julian, at what point and how, in the process of the tour — really the final chapter in the great career of Glen Campbell — did you decide, "Let’s do one final song, and not just any song, but a song that’s going to speak to the experience of what he and his family are going through right now?
RAYMOND: Well, I was heavily involved in the movie because I’d already been scoring the picture for a year at that point — I mean, I can recite the dialogue of the whole film. So I could see, even when I wasn’t on the road with him or going to his doctor appointments and doing things that he was going through, how he was doing. And it hit on me, during the making of this movie, that he wasn’t a man that really said how he felt; he was a pretty upbeat guy, pretty nice, funny. But he had a particularly bad day and he said to me, “I wish everybody would quit talking about this Alzheimer’s thing.” He goes, "I don’t know what they’re making such a big deal about." He goes, "It’s not like I’m going to miss anybody anyway." That’s what he said. So I thought, “I’m not gonna miss you.” It triggered something in me. It just takes that spark. And I went and did the song, and I ran it by him and I basically took it. I did a little demo of it and took it to James, the director. I pitched the idea — and of course, I had that moment when I was afraid, you know? And there were some people involved with the film that thought it was too dark, that it was just way too sad.
WARREN: Ugh, committees.
RAYMOND: Yeah. But James stuck up for me. He said, “No, this is great.” And then I pitched the idea of getting Glen's friends from The Wrecking Crew back together one last time to perform the song. Years ago, Glen was part of this little crew called The Wrecking Crew. They just played all this music — they got together and they were going from session to session to session, I mean, everything from Frank Sinatra to Nat King Cole to The Monkees, The Beach Boys, Mamas and Papas, you know, everything you could ever think of. And he always said to me that was the happiest time in his life, being with all those musicians and hanging out. So I wanted him to be together with his friends one last time — Hal Blaine, Joel Osborne and Don Randy.
WARREN: And they all played on the song?
RAYMOND: Yes, they did.
WARREN: That’s amazing.
RAYMOND: It was an amazing day. Those guys were just touched by seeing Glen one last time.
WARREN: It must’ve felt so good too, right?
RAYMOND: Oh, my gosh.
PATTERSON: That’s amazing.
RAYMOND: You can't help but wonder what it would’ve been like, back in the day, to sit through those sessions and just watch that iconic music go down. But they were just so happy to be there. It was an honor.
That’s great. Well, I want to ask all of you sort of a cliché question about music and lyrics. Which come first to you and which come easier to you? I’m curious if it tends to be the same or if it varies from time to time...
WARREN: Do you know what Sammy Cahn said to that? He said, “The check.” [laughs]
Gregg, if you’re being honest, when you sit down to work, what comes first?
ALEXANDER: Something like ma-na-na-na-ma-sha—
WARREN: That’s Steven Tyler!
ALEXANDER: —da-va-da. You know, it’s a little bit of scatting. And then, all of a sudden, you have to put words to it. That’s the scary thing. So I tend to think melodies happen first, because for me, personally, if I don’t like the melody I don’t even necessarily want to put words to it, you know? Although, occasionally, you’ll have a title, and if you get a title that stays with you— Like, I have this title — I don’t know if I’ll ever write the song — but it’s called “My Heart Broke Down on Memory Lane.” It’s like, you’ll have a title or an idea, and you’ll be like, “Well, how do I get there?” But usually it’s the melody first.
And on “Lost Stars,” which was it?
ALEXANDER: Oh, God, I think it was actually melody first, yeah.
BRISEBOIS: For me, it’s more of an emotion — like, "What do I want to feel when this song is over? How do I want somebody who’s listening to this song to feel when this song is over?" I have to clearly know what emotion I want to feel from it, and then things just start coming to you. You kind of jump around — playing guitar or piano or coming up with titles or words or something — and if you sit with it long enough, something flies out eventually and you just kind of go with whatever way the wind is blowing that day. But, for me, it’s definitely like, an endpoint.
Common? Generally and then specifically with “Glory”?
COMMON: Well, generally, I like the music first because the music, for me, creates a certain emotion, and I want to be an instrument on the music. Also, sometimes the music generates a thought of what the song could be and generates titles and leads me — I let the music lead me, usually. Specifically with “Glory,” I had that conversation with John: I told him three titles, the third one was “Glory” and that’s the one that he was most moved by, so he started the song musically and wrote the chorus part and then I got the music. He sent it to me and I was like, "Okay, good. This is beautiful." So then it led me to write. And I’m one of those guys — I’ll ride around in my truck and just say my thoughts in my head. I’ll be like, [raps improvisationally] "Right now, we’re talking about movies and scoring / with each other and with James and Diane Warren / Everything is cool and everything is awesome / We're moving forward with no precaution / It’s like this constant, yo, it’s just the style is free / I’m sitting here amongst four other nominees / For Oscars / It’s all proper / I can watch another movie / We do this 'cause we like newly- / Weds / Puttin' it together, I’m coming off the head / I said it forever so we can find it / I rhyme it, take it back and rewind it / Yo, this is for my daughter / This is the Oscar nominees for best music, Hollywood Reporter.
[laughter and applause]
COMMON: Everything is awesome! [laughs]
That leads us right to Shawn: with “Everything is Awesome” and just your usual working practice, music or lyrics first?
PATTERSON: I’d say a lot of times, as silly as it sounds, I see colors or I see an emotional shape. I don’t know how to quantify or explain that but sometimes it will come like that. In other instances, I’ve had people — like you guys have said — throw a title at you or something, and that title might mean something to me, I might feel it metrically. I always wanted to be good at math as a kid, and you hear people say, “Oh, music’s just math.” It’s like, “Yeah, you’ve got to feel that math, though. If you’re feeling that math, you don’t have shit.
WARREN: I can’t add.
ALEXANDER: You don’t need to, Diane, those checks are so big. Just deposit them!
PATTERSON: With “Everything is Awesome,” I don’t know if anybody knows this but they had scripted that there would be a song called “Everything is Awesome,” so that title existed — but that’s all. They said it would be the most poppy, catchy tune, and it would be annoying and never leave your brain. So I had that title, I sat at the piano and just kept hitting chords until I felt something. And then I started constructing lyrical phrases based on the concept of Emmet’s world and the hook. And then slowly, in about a week and a half, it fell together.
Diane, what’s the starting point?
WARREN: I mean, it’s always different. It could be a title. I’m title-orientated. Or I could just be playing with chords. A lot of times, that happens. And that’s kind of how “Grateful” happened. I just started playing the chord progression. The first thing was, “Yeah, I’m grateful for the star, made me appreciate the sun, and for the wrong ones made me appreciate the right ones.” I came up with that first. I was like, “Oh, I like that. I like what that says." I need to listen to my own songs [laughs] — I’m always complaining about something. "Be more grateful! You’re sitting here at this table with all these cool people nominated for an Oscar, you know?
Julian, we’ve talked about how "I'm Not Gonna Miss You" originated. But when you're working apart from Glen, on other things, where do you find yourself starting?
RAYMOND: Generally, with music. Then I get into the melody and then the lyric. I kinda challenged myself with the score of this film: I’m not a great piano player, so what I decided to do was try to do most of it on piano, just to kind of bring a different element and a simplicity to it. With a documentary, you have to do things that are a little bit more subtle because of the dialogue that’s constant, you know? So, that’s what I did.
I want to ask each of you about a couple of the lyrics in each of your songs that I find particularly interesting. Common, let’s start with "Glory," in which John sings, “One day, when the glory comes,” and then later, “One day, when the war is won.” Define "glory" and "war" if you would...
COMMON: Well, I have to be honest, John wrote that part. But what I picked up from it was that he was saying "glory" will be like when we all come together as one — that’s when we will be, like, reaching true glory. I think about that from a spiritual level, and just as human beings. And the "war," to me— When I heard him saying that, I was thinking about how we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go as a society, as a country, so it was making me think that the war is being fought in different levels. It’s not like a physical war; it’s like a war changing the mentality of society and the prejudices that existed and we all have sometimes that we’ve got to just put out on the table. Anyway, I think that was the whole premise. That’s what I was thinking about. It made me think that the fight is for all of mankind, for all of us, you know? It’s not just a black problem. No, it’s a problem that is existing for a lot of us in different places.
Now Gregg and Danielle, "Lost Stars" is the title of your song and a recurring verse in it: "Are we all lost stars trying to light up the dark?" What are "lost stars"?
BRISEBOIS: Well, to me, everybody is in this universe together and we’re all just people searching for love and searching for the good in ourselves. I always feel like we’re all lost. I feel like we’re all these beautiful things that could be so bright, but we’re all ultimately searching. And “Lost Stars,” to me, kind of represents how people all over the world in all different conditions are all the same. We’re all trying to look for that face in the crowd. We’re all looking for somebody to love us. We’re all looking for the same thing. We just have different ways of getting there. That’s what that means to me.
Julian, we talked about the origins of the line “I’m not gonna miss you,” but what was the driving reason for him and you to write these things? Is it to bring comfort to the family, telling them they don't have to worry about him? Is it for him, almost as a cathartic thing? Someone else?
RAYMOND: I think it’s for the listener because of the movie. I mean, so many people have commented about how the film has touched their lives, as far as things that they’re going through with their own family members. And I think it’s kind of a strange thing to say but, I mean, it kind of is a universal message to people who are going through Alzheimer’s. It’s a specific, strange thing to write about, but if I hadn’t been around him for seven years and saw him start here and end up down here, high to low, you know, I could’ve never— I mean, you just don’t understand really what that is unless you’re with loved ones that are going through that process. It was meant to be something that everyone could relate to that was pretty much going through that. And then, on the other side of it, you hope that there’s empathy and people will see, “Okay, wow, I get it.” The main thing with him, too, which was something we didn’t talk about, is that the song had to be done incredibly simple because he wasn’t in a condition to sing anything complicated at all.
You were literally feeding him line by line, right?
RAYMOND: Line by line. It took four-and-a-half hours to get a two minute-and-30 second song, you know?
ALEXANDER: In the pop world, that’s actually fast. A modern pop artist? How about four days!
WARREN: Four hours? That’s nothing.
RAYMOND: It was just a couple of words at a time holding a sign in front of him. I’d sing it to him, turn the music on, he’d say a couple of lines and we’d get it and keep piecing it together like a puzzle. So he did a great job. He just got frustrated because he knew he was better than that, but he couldn’t get it out, you know? As soon as the music came on, it went right out of his head. You’d have to do it over and over again.
WARREN: But when he was playing all those solos and stuff, it seemed like he was right there.
RAYMOND: Guitar-wise, he could hang in there and do that.
WARREN: Wow, that’s interesting.
Shawn, you were knowingly trying to come up with some platitudes here. And some of the funny ones were, "Lost my job / It’s a new opportunity / More free time for my awesome community / It’s awesome to win and it’s awesome to lose."
WARREN: Some of us are going to be singing that on Oscar night. It’s not awesome to lose, though.
When you're working on a song, does the emotion of it almost seep into you? In other words, were you a more optimistic person while you were working on this song?
PATTERSON: I was going through a very ugly divorce when I wrote that song.
ALEXANDER: That wasn’t awesome.
PATTERSON: And those lyrics, by the way, are The Lonely Island’s — those are the rap version's lyrics.
Okay, excuse me.
PATTERSON: Which is fine. All of us, I’m assuming, have gone through horrible breakups at some point. So part of what we do, I guess, with our tools and what we feel and have studied, is we create. But when you’re going through this personal trauma, how do you cut that off and just go, "Yeah, I’ve got to write this. I’ve got to do a reggae tune today and it’s got to really make people believe"? In that case, there were definitely elements of darkness seeping into my lyrics, sarcasm, heavy fucking sarcasm. And I’m like, "Hold on. Hold on to the reigns. Don’t get too sarcastic in this part." And that’s why I said I had pages and pages. It was very therapeutic, in many ways. So that process — I’m never going to say I’m grateful that I went through it but, in a way, it definitely affected me and it introduced an element of push and pull into the creation process, which I thought was, from a writing perspective, kind of interesting.
Diane, writing a song about how fame in the music world might shape a person—
WARREN: No, but that wasn’t what the song’s about. It wasn’t about fame in the music business. It was about her finding her own voice. She had this horrible mom, she came in second place in a talent contest and the mom made her throw away the thing because, "You’ve got to be a winner." And you know, she had to deal with this and just the industry over-sexualizing her to the point where she wanted to kill herself, you know? Finally, she met somebody that she fell in love with, but it wasn’t even about that, it was about that she found her own voice and she found the strength, after everything she went through, to be who she was. That’s what that song was. She's grateful instead of being bitter about it — everything she went through — because it made her stronger and it made her better.
And is there a person who really exists who you was a model for that?
WARREN: Yeah. When I do a song for a movie, I want it to really fit that movie. I want it to be like, the perfect song for the movie, but I also want that you can take it with you and it becomes whatever you want it to be. Like, a friend of mine said it’s her AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] song — you know, she plays it in her AA meetings. How cool is that? So it became that for her. And everybody makes it what they want it to be.
Now, none of you here except Common sing your song in the film, so I have to ask: What was it like to turn over your song to somebody else? And to what degree did you collaborate with the person who did sing it? Was it tempting to micromanage a little bit and say, “Do it this way" or "do it that way?” Shawn, let’s start with you...
PATTERSON: I actually sang on the film — does it qualify if it’s in the end credits? I did an arrangement of the song as a joke. After I finished “Everything is Awesome,” I had a singer there and I rapped the middle section, produced it and delivered it. And I thought, "It would just be so funny to do an acoustic like, heartfelt downtrodden version of it.” And then I thought, “I’m going to get the chance to poke fun at the movie here a little bit and I’ll take that chance." So I pulled out the guitar and I tracked the guitar and I sang it, "Everything is awe" — you know? And they heard it and were like, “No, no, this is going to go in.” So they put it in at the very end. It’s the last thing you hear.
But I’m always involved in the production process. If it’s something I can’t sing myself, which is many things, I will happily hire people. In the case with this tune, like I said, it sat there for a long time and I think the guys were all kind of scrambling to put together their technology — the animation style of The Lego Movie was very complex — and I think they probably went, "Okay, we’ve got to get some people involved." And they called in some people they knew [Tegan and Sara do the female pop part and The Lonely Island do the rap] and they got involved with the production. It would’ve sounded — I can say this — very different if I had produced it. I wanted Ice-T or Snoop to rap the bridge in my original version. But it came out cool and I’m happy with what the guys did. You know, they all did a good job. But, yeah, I can see the desire to micromanage because I’m used to doing it all myself.
WARREN: I think all of us would probably like to micromanage because we’re songwriters.
Gregg and Danielle, your song is sung in the film by Adam Levine, who is obviously a pop star in his own right, and Keira Knightley, who is basically an amateur. Did you work with them on perfecting the song?
ALEXANDER: Keira is very humble and she’s got a really good pop tone. She’s like a song stylist, almost like Carole King or Dionne Warwick. I mean, I love Aretha Franklin, but I was always kind of was partial to Dionne’s version of “Say a Little Prayer” because it was more plaintive, perhaps, even though they’re both amazing. And I think with Keira, she brought a certain kind of innocence and a different spirit to the song that allowed her character to kind of inhabit that song in the film. Whereas with Adam, he was a little bit more cocky and a little bit more bold in the film, and his vocal kind of encompassed some of the insecurity that comes along with that, because sometimes, when one tends to be overly confident, they’re compensating for something else, as it were, and that’s something else that was also part of the complexity of his character in John’s film. So I think what we were trying to do was bring out both aspects of who they were as characters and as artists, trying to take from the script and understand who these people were.
Diane, I’ve read interviews in which you’re very self-deprecating about how a song sounds when you sing it...
WARREN: It sounds way better when other people sing it, yeah.
ALEXANDER: Well, I’ve heard her sing. She’s amazing.
ALEXANDER: I was telling her earlier that if she sang all her hits, there would be The Beatles and Diane Warren.
WARREN: Oh, yeah, right.
ALEXANDER: She would be one of the biggest artists of all time.
WARREN: I get the point across and it’s emotional, but I don’t have a good voice..
So in Beyond the Lights, your song is sung by Rita Ora, a 24-year-old British up-and-comer. Did you work with her on it?
WARREN: It was the director’s idea to get Rita. No, I wasn’t there at all for it. You know, it’s a little frustrating — it’s like, there’s no support, to be honest with you. If we’re going to talk freely at this table, it’s just like, this is an opportunity: she’s going to sing for, what’d they say, a billion people? You know, what an opportunity! And she tweeted about it twice. I’m like, “Really? I mean, really?” You know, so everything is pulling teeth. I don’t know.
And it was even a challenge, from what I understand, to get to single of it released, right?
WARREN: They’re not doing anything! Maybe that’ll change. At the moment, like, I don’t understand. I mean, I’ve never had a song from a movie that this has happened with. I could see them not putting it out before the nomination, you know — they don’t know — but once you’re nominated, what the fuck?! It’s the sloppiest thing I’ve ever seen.
ALEXANDER: Maybe that’s the reason why the film business does so much better than the music business, right? Because with film people, they see an opportunity and they’re all over it. With music, it’s like, you know, there’s a hit, "Okay, go on vacation to Kauai for six months and maybe we’ll return a call," you know?
COMMON: For real.
WARREN: There's no video. There’s nothing. They won’t even take a few hours. It’s crazy. I mean, I am grateful to be sitting here—
WARREN: It’s just like, I scratch my head.
PATTERSON: The business end is unusual.
This leads into the next topic, which is the process of getting your songs out there — the good, the bad and the ugly. We’ve heard just now about a frustrating aspect of it. Some of you have also had more rewarding and probably surreal things happen with your songs. I would imagine, Common, that one of them might be going to Selma, to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to perform your song where the real events actually took place...
COMMON: Yeah, that was really fulfilling because when we filmed the movie I didn’t get a chance to go and be a part of the [filming of the] march. Throughout the journey of the movie, we had bonded so much and it really meant something to me. And another project I was on wouldn’t let me out for one day to go to the march. I was hurt, man, I was hurt.
WARREN: That’s so mean.
COMMON: [laughs] Yeah. So when I found out that Paramount and everybody had worked it out for us to go to Selma and speak and do something at a town hall meeting and just do things within the community and give back to Selma, and then that we were going to have the opportunity to perform “Glory” on the Pettus Bridge, it was redemption, in a way. And I have to say it was one of the best moments I’ve ever had in my life because, you know, when you get to that bridge and you realize that people really crossed this bridge to do something that really changed America and changed the world, you kind of just feel the spirit of that, you know? I was able to share that with my daughter, who is 17, and my mother came, and just a lot of people that work with me. And just looking out and seeing the people of Selma out in the town and feeling like we were really being able to give back? It just was one of those things like, “Wow, I never knew that I would get to experience this.” And I think for all of us as artists, we want to create art that can move some things and affect people’s lives, and that’s obviously what all these songs are doing or you wouldn’t have people nominating them.
Julian, I have been at numerous film festival screenings of Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, and I don’t think there’s ever been a dry eye in the house at the end of it—
WARREN: It should’ve been nominated.
It's a crime that it wasn't even shortlisted — just ridiculous. But I do think that the greatest legacy of the film may be that for people who have Alzheimer’s, and maybe even more for their families, there’s now a model, in Glen Campbell and his family, for how people can deal with it in a positive, upbeat way. What does that mean to you? What does it mean to have scored only the 21st nomination for a documentary outside of the documentary categories? And what does it mean that the song landed Glen back on the Billboard charts for the first time in decades and is now an Oscar nominee for the first time?
RAYMOND: Well, I mean, to be driving in your car and to hear that song on the radio, trust me, that’s life-changing. I mean, his last real hit was in the '70s — I think the last one was “Country Boy” or “Southern Nights.”
ALEXANDER: He had a longer span than Cher!
RAYMOND: So it’s just incredible, all that stuff. It’s stuff like that you just don’t ever anticipate, you know? We just did this little documentary and hoped it would move people. But to have it to grow and enter at number 21 on the country music charts? It’s crazy, yeah. So good for him. I’m so happy. It’s awesome. Everything is awesome.
BRISEBOIS: The two words – grateful and awesome — we keep saying them!
WARREN: Maybe we’re grateful that everything’s awesome.
Shawn, nominations morning in some ways must’ve been a little bittersweet because of another ridiculous decision of the Academy: to not recognize The Lego Movie in the best animated feature category. But the movie is still an Oscar nominee because of your song, so it must’ve been very special on that level, and also just having the song permeate the culture to the degree that it has. I mean, even when people were writing about the Lego Movie snub, they were referencing your song: "Everything is not awesome!"
PATTERSON: A lot of people have said that to me and it still really hasn’t registered. I mean, I’m standing up there [at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon] and I see Oprah, and Reese Witherspoon’s right in front of me and Ed Norton’s kinda like going, like, “Fuck, move over," and I see Common over there going, “You come over here, get over here!" I mean, it’s so surreal to me. With the exception of probably Diane, everybody here at this table sits at a room and does their thing and creates. [To Diane] You’re like, skiing the slopes. [Jokingly referencing how naturally talented Diane is and how much money she has made from her songs.]
PATTERSON: You’re, like, skiing on gold skis.
WARREN: First of all, I’ve never skied in my life.
PATTERSON: Okay, ice skating. And a kid in Yugoslavia — I have to mention this kid — was on YouTube, playing guitar, doing an acoustic version of "Everything Is Awesome," singing in his language.
WARREN: Isn’t that the coolest thing?
PATTERSON: I just kind of shut it off. I’m like, “I’m done.” That’s when it started to hit me.
COMMON: That’s amazing. That’s great.
Gregg and Danielle, there was a period with The New Radicals where you guys were front and center. Gregg, I know you made a very deliberate decision to step out of the spotlight and just write music for others — songs like "The Game of Love,” which you wrote for Santana and won a Grammy for writing. In the case of "Lost Stars," what has it been like handing off your baby and sort of seeing it take on a life of its own? You know, Adam Levine and Matt McAndrew do a rendition of it on The Voice and the next day it's in the Billboard top 100 songs and one of the 100 most downloaded iTunes...
ALEXANDER: Oh, cheers. Well, you know, I think Diane said it, and I’ve shared this analogy and maybe other songwriters have as well: you kind of see your songs kind of like children, so you’re kind of protective of them and stuff like that—
WARREN: You hope they don’t get their legs cut off. [laughs]
ALEXANDER: Yeah. And, you know, I think with this film we’re a little bit the underdogs: it was an independent film, it didn’t get the biggest push and stuff like that. And I think when it started organically getting love and belief from some people after we thought it’d been lost, especially when there were a lot of big studio films that came out in the fourth quarter that were in the running, as it were, it was a beautiful surprise for us. So we just had our fingers crossed that hopefully the song would continue to resonate and maybe draw more people back to John’s film, and maybe the message of the song and the film and all that stuff will get out there more, you know? That was our motivation. So when that comes to fruition to some degree — like, just being at this table with so many people we respect — that’s enough for us. It’s a wonderful honor and gift, as it were.