Interview: Daniel Hart, composer for 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints' and 'The Girlfriend Game'

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Daniel Hart is a composer who garnered acclaim last year for his score to Ain't Them Bodies Saints: a 2013 hit on the indie film scene whose score I counted as one of the best scores the Oscars missed. Featuring a distinct blend of hand clap rhythm and organic instrumentation, it's work of a talent far beyond his years.

Now Hart's back with a new score for a short film called The Girlfriend Game from director Armen Antranikian. The film is due for release next month, but Daniel was inspired to keep going, having expertly crafted an entirely new experience of very short cues; he'll also be releasing this work in extended form as his next solo album on Jan. 20.

I recently spoke with Hart about this new project and how his sound has changed over the last couple years.

How and why did you become interested in music?

My parents, who were both professional (now retired) church musicians, started me on violin lessons just before my third birthday. My father says I also used to correct him when he would sing me commercial jingles in the wrong key, so it's fair to say I've been interested in music for longer than I can remember.

When did you know you wanted a career in music?

I've been a late bloomer in almost every aspect of my life, from dating to eating more than peanut butter sandwiches to working out what I wanted to do professionally. I played music the entire time I was growing up, but it wasn't until after college and a year of AmeriCorps that I decided I wanted to try and make a living as a musician.

When I came back home from the AmeriCorps year, I made plans with some college friends to move to North Carolina together and start a record label and play in each other's bands. After doing that for a few years, and making absolutely no money, and having fairly little success in other tangible ways, I was still passionate about doing it as full-time as possible. That's when I knew.

How did film scoring begin?

I think it began for me the way it begins for most people who scores films now: some friends of mine were making films on their own with little to no money, and they needed a musical friend to score those films. They asked me, and I said yes. Film scoring was never something I pursued outright; I always wanted to focus on live performance and songwriting. But once I started scoring, I found that I really enjoyed it, and after the first couple short films, felt like I could actually be good at it if I kept working.

Has it been a natural evolution for you as you continue to release stand-alone material not directly related to films?

As opposed to performing in bands as a hired gun (which is how I made my most of my living before scoring films), since I've started scoring films, I am constantly writing music. Sometimes I worry that I'll eventually run out of ideas if I keep up this pace, but, at least for now, scoring films has actually made me more creative. The more music I compose, the more comfortable I feel composing music. It can also be very educational to be stretched in different ways, according to directors' visions. I end up learning new techniques and writing in new styles which undoubtedly affect the way I write songs when I'm just writing for myself, or for my band.

How did you come to The Girlfriend Game?

Armen Antranikian, the director, reached out to my agent with the short film, which was already pretty far along in the editing process at that point. My agent was impressed by it, as was I, so Armen and I started talking. Unlike most film scoring jobs I get, where the director or the producers are interested in me because of other film scores I've composed, Armen wanted me to score The Girlfriend Game because of my band, Dark Rooms. He had listened to some of our songs and felt like something in that vein would be right for his film.

When did you start actually developing music? Was it to picture or stand-alone musical cues that were then put in?

Everything was developed to picture. We did start out with a Dark Rooms song in one of the scenes, but it didn't quite fit, so it was replaced early on. Armen and I had multiple conversations before I started about what kind of music he was looking for, which was mostly background music in bars and dance clubs, but also included some dinner jazz and some atmospheric sequences. All the music in the film was written specifically for it.

The sound is dramatically different from work like Ain't Them Bodies Saints. What is the sound of this film for you? How did you find it?

I've spent a lot of time lately working on music in styles similar to what I did for The Girlfriend Game. I've been studying ambient and experimental dance production techniques — listening, reading up, talking to friends in that world, a lot of trial and error — so I actually couldn't have asked for a more perfect project to explore further what I was already doing on my own.

The film itself delves into multiple themes on the darker side of love and lust. I tried to echo that with a certain murkiness to the music but I feel like these are already the themes inherent in the kinds of experimental dance music I like the most. The whole process felt symbiotic.

Your naturally rich organic backbone really allows the more electronic sound to distinguish itself. Were you cognizant of that? Were any composers — my first thought was Lynchian Angelo Badalamenti — leading you to what became the final tracks and the way they should feel?

I love Badalamenti, but I hadn't thought of him when I was making this music. [I was] thinking more of Trent and Atticus, and the lines they run between ambient/atmospheric soundscapes and dark, pulsing electronic music. Armen also shared with me the music inspiring him when they were shooting the film which centered around the Brooklyn label Tri Angle Records, and in particular the music of Holy Other and Forest Swords. So I listened to that quite a bit before I dug in on the score.

The human voice is a really important factor in your work. How much post-production work did you do to make the voices work so effectively on the track "My Fingers On Yr Lips"?

A lot of post-production work went into the vocals, especially on "My Fingers on Yr Lips." After watching the film a couple times, I wrote a poem inspired by what I had seen, and that poem, which I was writing partly in French and partly in English, became the source for 95% of the lyrics in the score. You can hear my friend Michelle reciting the poem in full in French on "My Fingers on Yr Lips," cut up, resampled, effected. But the rest of the lyrics sung throughout the song are also just samples from that poem. For my own vocals, I sang it at a higher pitch, and then tuned everything down, so that the vocals would sound darker, slower, creepier.

On "Textin N Drivin" you experiment with a lot of sound drop and having it almost seem like a telephone conversation being dropped or fading in and out as you're driving. Why did it make sense to bring the idea of that scene into the music so prominently? How did you find the right balance of presence and loss?

So much of the action in the second half of the film takes place on phones, so I think it was absolutely necessary to try and reflect that in the music. Texting can be such a curt, cruel way of communicating, especially if, by texting, you're actually saying, "I don't care about you enough to want to talk to you," which is essentially what one character is saying to the other for most of that second half. Beyond that, I was just trying to follow the action happening during the scene scored by "Textin N Drivin," and stay true to what I was watching.

How are you developing this to be a full-length album?

Since most of the film takes place in clubs and bars, it was necessary for me to write a lot of 30-45-second clips of songs that might be playing in the background of those clubs and bars. As I started writing those clips, I realized it was easier for me to write an entire song than it was to write a disembodied clip from a song, so I just kept writing and recording. Though I had no intentions along these lines when we started, I took stock of all that music when we finished and thought, "This feels like an album." I wrote one more song inspired by the film to round out the bunch and, after discussing with Armen, decided to release this work as a solo album.

Garrett Tiedemann is a writer, filmmaker and composer who owns the multimedia lab CyNar Pictures and its record label American Residue Records.

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