Oscars 2013: Best Song Contender J. Ralph on Scarlett Johansson's 'World-Class' Singing Voice

J. Ralph - H 2013
C. Taylor Crothers

J. Ralph - H 2013

The musician, nominated for his work on the documentary "Chasing Ice," faces stiff competition from Adele, Seth MacFarlane and "Les Mis."

This Sunday, five nominees will vie for the best original song Academy Award -- and the competition is stiff. There's Adele, considered a lock for her smoky vocals on "Skyfall" from the Bond blockbuster, and also Seth MacFarlane, who wrote the lyrics for "Everybody Needs a Best Friend," the theme for the first-time Oscar host's raunchy comedy Ted. Music from Life of Pi ("Pi's Lullaby") and Les Miserables ("Suddenly") is also in the running.

Amongst those splashy names and big movies stands J. Ralph, a New York-based musician and producer who beat out potential best-song rivals including Jon Bon Jovi's "Not Running Anymore" from Stand Up Guys and Katy Perry's "Wide Awake" from her concert documentary to score a nomination in the category. His song, "Before My Time," might not be as well known but it packs major star power: Scarlett Johansson sings, accompanied by acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell. It plays during the ending montage of the 2012 climate change-themed documentary Chasing Ice, for which J.Ralph composed the score.

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"Before My Time," haunting and spare, is J. Ralph's latest collaboration with the husky-voiced Johansson, with whom he produced a song for Wretches and Jabbers, a 2010 documentary about autism.

"Scarlett is a world-class singer in every regard. She was the only person I wanted to sing this," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I had worked with her before, she’s a friend of mine, and we experimented with a few different keys to find a place that would be tonally correct and have this kind of vulnerability and fragility but still also be strong and dignified. It’s very hard to do that, you know?”

J. Ralph, a self-taught musician who runs the New York-based music production company The Rumor Mill, has recently carved a niche for himself as a go-to producer of documentary film scores. His work includes the Oscar-winning Man on Wire (2008) and The Cove (2009) as well as the 2012 best doc nominee Hell and Back Again.

"It’s profoundly flattering and you’re at a loss for words," he said of his Chasing Ice nomination. "In the history of the Academy Awards, there’s only two other songs from documentaries that were ever nominated. It’s just not something that really happens. Documentaries are much smaller than those movies."

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For Sunday's awards, he'll sport a Jazz Age-inspired custom tuxedo by the famed tailor Martin Greenfield. And while the Oscar producers continue to roll out a starry list of performers (including Adele) in advance of the event, there are no announcements of yet to feature a performance from Johansson.

"She sings live -- she's an amazing singer," said J. Ralph, adding: "I’m not sure what they have planned. I think that we’re always ready to sing a song to help save the world. ... Putting that show together is, I’m sure, incredibly difficult and there’s a lot of different moving pieces ... so we’re just waiting to hear what they need us to do."

While juggling work for filmmakers and other clients, J. Ralph is planning to release an acoustic version of his critically acclaimed 1999 debut album, Music to Mauzner, a fusion of genres including rock and hip-hop which brought him breakout success and next-big-thing status as an emerging young artist to watch. However, he quickly became "obsessed with the orchestra" rather than growing his mainstream cred, and started The Rumor Mill soon after Mauzner's release.

"I often joke that I'm a reducer, not a producer, and a lot of times, the way you can work is you keep adding things until it sounds done like a recipe," he said. "But my process is I keep taking things away until it's as naked as it can be and still be compelling and sound full. Everything that I do is centered around the vocalist."

Listen to "Before My Time" below.

Twitter: @ErinLCarlson

Email: erin.carlson@thr.com