Songwriters On the Secrets of Their Work

44 FEA Awards The Muppets H
Scott Garfield/Disney

Songwriter Bret McKenzie's first rule for "Muppetizing" a song: Add banjo.

Five best original song contenders discuss the inspiration behind the year's most memorable tunes.

Love Builds a Garden' is one of my favorite songs I've written for a long time. And I love the duet with Lady Gaga, 'Hello Hello.' It's a good pairing, both of us as crazy as the other. It was the start of what I hope are many things we'll do together. I don't know what the secret is to winning. Luck. Not always has it been a good song that won. With The Lion King, we had three songs out of five. 'Can You Feel the Love Tonight' won, but 'Circle of Life' probably deserved the Oscar a little bit more. I'd love to be nominated because I haven't been nominated with Bernie [Taupin, lyricist]. If we get nominated, I guess Gaga and I would have to perform. If we're nominated, I'll say, 'You design the outfits.' "

-- Elton John, "Hello Hello," "Love Builds a Garden" (Gnomeo & Juliet)

"Songs I obsessed over for weeks nobody ever hears, but the ones I did for fun for Singles wound up with millions of fans. That was a lesson. When a song comes in one chunk, naturally, it doesn't require much alteration. The same thing happened when I wrote the Casino Royale theme and 'The Keeper.' The first verse just came to me. Then I spent the next hour and a half riding a mountain bike in the hills repeating it in my head so I wouldn't forget it. I have what I call 'brain radio' going on all the time. Most of the time it's not interesting, like a test pattern. Occasionally a song will come from it in a matter of minutes."

-- Chris Cornell, "The Keeper" (Machine Gun Preacher)

"People are always saying, 'Could you do Beauty and the Beast again, a little slower?' But what keeps it interesting is doing something different. This is the first time I've done a one-off. Every other time I've had a nomination it's been a song for a musical. 'The Star Spangled Man' is just a real performance moment, Captain America selling war bonds, with Irving Berlin as the prototype and David Zippel lyrics that wink at the commercial nature of the moment. What I always love about pastiche is using associations that people are familiar with and playing with that -- like telling a horror tale through bubblegum rock [Little Shop of Horrors]. That's the fun of songwriting: You're always conscious of the history of it."

-- Alan Menken, "The Star Spangled Man" (Captain America: The First Avenger)

"I've got my paws in a lot of pots of honey in Winnie the Pooh. I was asked to sing the Sherman Brothers' beginning credits theme. They liked that, so they said, 'Why don't you write a song?' I wasn't trying to compete with the Sherman Brothers. Who could? Musically, I wanted to approach it like songs I grew up with: Harry Nilsson's The Point and Carole King's Really Rosie. The original Pooh had those 1960s very lush, very produced harmonies. We wanted it to feel very warm, with upright bass, drums, guitar, ukulele. I like writing catchy pop songs. I've always wanted to write a musical. Make my own movie and do it all."

-- Zooey Deschanel, "So Long" (Winnie the Pooh)

"The songs needed to be Muppety. The three steps to Muppetizing a song are: One: Use banjo. Two: Use tack piano, with thumbtacks on each hammer to make them louder -- Paul Williams uses it a lot, in the Muppets stuff and Bugsy Malone. And then three: vocals that aren't quite right. One of the challenges is knowing when you've reached the perfect balance of imperfection. Jim Henson used to say, 'If the music sounds too good, it's not right.' The sound matches the way they look. The longer we worked on it, the more Muppet-like everyone became. [Director] James Bobin's beard got longer and Muppety-er. It sneaks up on you if you work on it too long. I think that's the danger of working for Disney."

-- Bret McKenzie, "Life's a Happy Song," "Man or Muppet" (The Muppets)