Grammy winner Lili Haydn’s six critically acclaimed major label recordings as a solo artist have been NPR favorites, and she has appeared on numerous TV shows, including the “Tonight Show,” “Californication,” and “Transparent.” Also known for her legendary collaborations, she has played violin, sung, and opened for everyone from Herbie Hancock, Sting, Cyndi Lauper, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, to Roger Waters, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and George Clinton’s P-Funk All Stars to name a few. Her film composing career started as part of Hans Zimmer’s team, a fellowship with the Sundance Institute, and has blossomed into eighteen feature films and documentaries to her credit, including Sundance Selects’ “DriverX” and “The House that Jack Built” both by Henry Barrial, Freida Lee Mock’s documentaries “Anita” and “RUTH: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words,” Johanna Demetrakas’ documentary “Feminists: What Were They Thinking?”, Oscar nominee Michèle Ohayon’s Netflix documentary “Strip Down, Rise Up” and the hit Netflix series “Ginny & Georgia.” She contributed additional composition on Amazon’s hit series “Transparent.” As the daughter of iconic feminist comedienne Lotus Weinstock, and a graduate of Brown University in Political Science, Haydn has been a life-long activist, and believes music and stories have the power to heal and uplift, now more than ever.
Tara Karajica talks to Lili Haydn about her work on Netflix’s hit series “Ginny & Georgia” and the documentary “Strip Down, Rise Up,” as well as her career as a film composer and recording artist, being a feminist and who she would love to work with.
How did you get into film composing?
Lili Haydn: I was recording sessions for a lot of great film composers, including Hans Zimmer with whom I played and sang for several years, and my very first film was for a friend and fan of my albums who asked me to score his documentary: The Horse Boy. It got into Sundance, and I did the Sundance Labs, and started getting other opportunities to score more projects. Now, my scoring comes a lot from word of mouth, working for directors I’ve worked with before, and for people that have liked my work and my recording artist albums.
When you create scores, how do you tap into what music makes you feel in order to find the perfect sound to accompany the images in the special moments that transport us to another place, another time and even another world when we are watching films?
L.H.: It’s a combination of direct guidance from the director and magic. When I read a script or watch a new film or TV project, a melody will come to me – like an angel whispering in my ear. Usually, the music is revealed to me like clues in a mystery. So, it starts with learning about the characters, what they say, how they think, what time it is, where it is, what kind of music our main character likes and then, you get the palette, the colors that are right for it. For me, it’s really a lot about melody and theme and the theme is something that’s just given. It’s sort of like being given a secret passcode or something and you just listen to the angels. The truth is you don’t know. I mean, where does any creativity come from? But for me, it’s a combination of guidance from the director, the temporary music (what is called “temp”), and magic. I put those things together and then I start experimenting.
And, when I watch something without music and I feel one thing, then I watch it with the music, and if I feel more, then I know I’ve done a good job and if I watch it and then I listen to it with the music that I’ve made and I feel less, then I’ve written too much and it’s not the right thing. So, it’s a process of trial and error and luck, and guesswork and just putting clues together. It’s a very instinctive thing.
How do you get in the zone? What is your creative process like? Do you have rituals? And, does the creative process differ from project to project?
L.H.: Definitely! What I like to do is to immerse myself in the world of my main character. I started out as an actress when I was a kid, so I know what it’s like to method act. On Ginny & Georgia, the main characters like a certain kind of music; they’re born in a certain kind of place like Georgia who comes from the South. She also really likes pop music, and she came from a really destructive background. So, I started listening to a lot of pop music, some country music and some of the music that I felt represents the darkness that she had. So, I’ve listened to other people, where other people have been; it’s kind of like method acting. And then, it’ll start filtering through and I’ll start thinking and speaking and falling in love with my star. This is the advice that Hans Zimmer gave me when I asked him: “What is the best thing you can teach me about film scoring?” And, he said: “Fall in love with your star.” And so, I do that. I’m listening, I’m supporting and I’m making sure that they are the most important thing in my world.
Can you talk about scoring Ginny & Georgia and working with Netflix on this particular project? How much freedom did you have? What was the process like apart from what you have just told me? Can you delve a little bit more into that?
L.H.: I was brought in to this with my writing partner on this project. His name is Ben Bromfield and he’s a wonderful composer. He’s mostly known for his great scores in animated TV, but his friend created Ginny & Georgia, so he had the opportunity to pitch for it, and he wanted to bring in another composer, actually specifically a woman composer, because he felt that it would help with the point of view of the characters. So, he brought me in and we started putting our ideas together and we created a bunch of music for it. When we were chosen, we thought we knew what we were going to do, and we did the whole first episode, and most of it was rejected! And, that was very scary because we thought we had done a good job. What was tricky about this show was that it was that it wasn’t just one thing. It wasn’t just a comedy; it wasn’t just a drama; it wasn’t just young adults; it wasn’t just a woman’s perspective… It was actually pretty complicated, so the music really needed to speak to all of those influences and the show’s creators’ vision. So, we threw away everything, and we got into the head of the show’s creators and listened to all the music. We said: “Okay, what do you like? What should we be listening to?” Because we couldn’t just imitate the temporary music; we had to find the sound of the show. Fortunately, a melody was “given”, and that became our theme, which sort of encompassed a lot of the levity, but also the ominousness that was about to unfold in later episodes which we actually hadn’t seen yet. The process was really about immersion into the world of the show’s creator and the characters’ and then creating a whole new sound for the show, finding the sound of the show. Netflix wasn’t really too involved, except in the approval process – it was more the show’s creators and showrunners, Sarah Lampert and Deborah Fisher. They both fought for their vision in every department, whether it was design, casting, music, everything… And so, it was really important that we serve their vision. I think the show is particularly engaging because they stuck to their guns, and it tickled the fancy of a lot of different people because it wasn’t just one thing. The process was finding that hybrid, finding all the elements and making it into a sound of the show that you wouldn’t really hear in another show. And, that’s what I’m most proud of – that we’ve managed to create a sound that is really just Ginny & Georgia.
There are a lot of songs. Did you listen to the songs to be able to find the sound that you were talking about? Did you know the songs that were going to be picked and then have to work around that and with that? Or was it that you did your thing without knowing and then, the combination had to somehow work?
L.H.: A little bit of both. As I’ve said before, it’s sort of like solving a mystery. The more clues there are in place, the easier it is to find your way. When there’s a song that has to be incorporated, you’re matching a feeling and also making sure there’s a smooth transition with keys… For instance, if I know that there’s going to be a song in G major at a certain moment, then I know that I need to be coming from another place that was in a compatible key like C minor. The songs are anchor points, guideposts, so I’ll make sure that the keys are going to work out and I can get there seamlessly so there’s nothing jarring.
Can you talk about your work on Ginny & Georgia season 2 where you created an entire musical for the show called Wellington, including two original songs, “Marriage is a Dungeon” and “I’d Never Love Someone”?
H.H.: I love scoring this deliciously eclectic show! Getting the right tone in the score has been its own delicate challenge, but writing the musical was its own treat! I come from a background of classical music with my violin, and songwriting as a recording artist, the combination of which lends itself well to musical theater. My fabulous co-composer in the show, Ben Bromfield is a great pianist, and has a musical theater background as well, so the combination of our respective backgrounds and our creative chemistry was electric!
The writers did not come to us with a specific plot for the musical, just points of reference, and general themes. They knew they wanted it to have a Jane Austen, Victorian English romance vibe – like Bridgerton –, but they also wanted it to have girl power like Enola Holmes, or Ms. Marvel. The love song couldn’t just be a love song, it had to wrestle with feelings of wanting to lose yourself in love, but not get lost… Find your perfect match, but not be owned… and this is where “I’d Never Love Someone” came from.
The duet between evil witch and the ingenue needed to be funny, and provide Sarah Waisglass, who plays Max, with her character development. I was a little confused as to how to integrate a witch into our Jane Austen aesthetic, but then I remembered my grandmother’s evil older sister’s last words to me… She leaned into me with her shaky hand, and exclaimed: “Marriage is a dungeon!” And I knew that was our song! I put the best insults and worst negative thinking I’ve had in my life into a Kurt Vile meets “Into the Woods” melody and brought it to Ben, and we had a blast writing it! In addition to the hilarity of the song, it was also important to me that it have some social relevance that would speak to the female empowerment theme of the show… For most women around the world, marriage is still really a dungeon of sorts, and this sentiment has deep historical roots, as the demand for women’s rights has evolved.
The orchestration of the musical included violin, a specialty of yours? Can you delve a bit more into that?
L.H.: My mom used to joke that I started playing violin in the womb, and it was very irritating… Kidding aside, I started playing violin at seven years old, and scoring films when I was a member of Hans Zimmer‘s team, playing violin and singing for a bunch of his scores. While I’ve been hired for most of the projects I’ve scored because the Director has been a fan of my albums, and I use my violin and voice for emotional impact, I’m careful not to over-use this sound. For “Wellington,” we do use violin, but we also used a slightly irregular ensemble to conjure up a high school rendition of a Broadway musical. Ben Bromfield, who actually music directed “Into the Woods” in high school, said that he bad to orchestrate based on who played what instruments in school, so we thought it would be a cool touch to use slightly irregular orchestration: two violins, cello, clarinet, French horn, trumpet, flute, and piano… Not the standard ensemble, but perfect for the show!
What other directions did you receive for the composition of season 2?
L.H.: Season 2 allowed us to dig deeper into characters themes, and since we’re more comfortable with the eclectic and delicate tone of the show, we were able to zero in on what was needed more quickly. It was also great because they temped with the season one score, so we were really able to immerse ourselves into the sound of show. We got a little more playful for the comic moments, a little darker for the emotional spirals, and a little groovier for the pop culture factor…
The show’s crew is almost entirely composed of women. You connected deeply with the show’s theme of connection between female characters. Can you elaborate on that?
L.H.: The relationships in the show are rich and nuanced and laden with universal themes of trust, belonging, identity, and love. These are not uniquely feminine, but the point of view… What details we are asked to notice – language of judgment or inclusivity, mental health, body images – is very much of “the female gaze.” It makes it more juicy when you identify with themes, and although I don’t think of myself specifically as a “woman composer” I think being able to relate to certain experiences does allow me to be more sensitive to these emotional aspects of the show. In addition, I really like being a part of a project that brings this feminine perspective to the fore…
Can you talk about your work on Strip Down, Rise Up, a Netflix documentary?
L.H.: For that, the incredible Oscar-nominated director, Michèle Ohayon, really wanted it to sound like Fight Club for women. She wanted it to be aggressive, but she wanted to also have a feminine sensibility. It was challenging, but extremely rewarding to find the balance of sounds and give the characters what they needed.
Can you talk about your albums?
L.H.: My last solo album is called “More Love,” and about half of it is movie music and half of it is songs. I called it “More Love” for the title song, and because there is no problem in the world for which more love and understanding is not the answer. We’re in such a divided world now… and I know from my own behavior and from the research I’ve done on the brain, that when somebody feels fear or feels their basic needs aren’t being met, the amygdala is activated – the fight or flight part of the brain – and actually hijacks the energy from the rest of the brain. So, logic and confrontation actually only reinforce the fear that causes aggression, greed, divisiveness. Only more love is the way to heal and allow the parts of the brain that control empathy, compassion and nuanced reason to flourish. So, the album “More Love” is born out of that belief… Some of it is from Strip Down, Rise Up, some of it is film music for a film that hasn’t been made yet because it’s the sound of the scores that I’d like to be making.
Touring hasn’t been happening this last year, but I have a band with my husband called Opium Moon and we won a Grammy two years ago and our double album of cinematic other-worldly music “Night + Day” just came out August 27. We hope that we’ll be able to tour the world with that as well. So, for me, my TV and film scoring is richer because of the albums that I make, because I’m still coming from an innocent place. And, it’s music for music’s sake, and not solely in service of a client. So, I think it helps to keep the music that I write for films and TV fresh and because I’m still making records and performing live.
Is there a difference between scoring for a film and composing your music for an album?
L.H.: It’s still the same process of coming to a blank page with humility. Each new project just makes you think: “Oh my God! What am I going to write? What if I can’t do it this time?” And, everybody says that. Hans Zimmer says that. Harry Gregson-Williams says that. But I think it’s trusting that the muse and the angels will be there for you. The only difference for me between scoring a film or TV show and making an album is that you’re making music for a different master… An album is made hopefully simply for the sake of making music that satisfies the soul, and nobody’s the master except the muse and what you like. You can do anything you want. For scoring projects, obviously, you’ve got to make sure that you’re basically serving your director, the story, and your star.
I was part of Herbie Hancock’s band, George Clinton’s band and I’ve played with Roger Waters, Sting, Tom Petty, and Cyndi Lauper among others, and when there’s a lead singer, you don’t want to step on their feet; you have to get out of the way… and that’s the same with the dialogue. When I perform with my band, I go out there and I’m entertaining and I make the most beautiful sounds I can try to make. If I’m performing for somebody else, if I’m supporting another person, then I’m making sure that they are making the most beautiful sounds, and I’m still channeling, so to speak, I’m still trying to bring all of my beauty to it, but I’m serving somebody else’s vision, and the same is true for me when I’m scoring for media… So, the only difference is who the master is.
There are more and more female film composers working now. How was it for you when you started composing in terms of female role models in the field of film composing, because I would assume there weren’t that many?
L.H.: Honestly, I think probably most women composers will tell you that composing has never been about gender for us. Most of us are used to being the only woman in the room, at least for me, once I started making records. There are a lot of women singers, a lot of singer-songwriters, but I’m an instrumentalist as well. So, I had a band that went to the Montreux Jazz Festival in the mid ‘90s and I was the only woman instrumentalist at the festival. Since then, there are more, but the year that I was there, though, I was literally the only woman instrumentalist who performed. Of course, there were many women singers there, but there were no women instrumentalists and it didn’t even really occur to me because I was so used to that. And then, when I was on tour with P-Funk, I was the only woman instrumentalist, and I was, for a time, the only woman and in many of the bands that I toured with, I was the only woman on the bus. Then, when I ended up on shows or as part of a post-production team, I’ve been the only woman in the room and the only woman composer I knew until the Alliance for Women Film Composers was created. And, I have to thank Laura Karpman, Lolita Ritmanis and Miriam Cutler for really leading the charge on that. It didn’t even occur to us – every single woman that I know was so used to it and was used to being the only one and the exception to the rule. We didn’t think twice about it and it wasn’t until the Alliance came and Laura said: “You know, it’s not enough to just be the exception to the rule.” They did a study where they found out that actual equality isn’t even possible. Fairness isn’t possible until the minority demographic achieves 25% parity. At the time that this study came out, women composers were scoring 1% of the studio projects were that were in production. 1%. We are now probably up to about 5% or something like that. So, we’ve grown by 500%, which is amazing, but it suddenly seems like: “Oh, there were no women composers before, but now, there are a ton of them.” We have always been composing, we’re just finally being given a chance to even pitch on the projects that are bringing us to international recognition. Before, it was basically Rachel Portman, and now, we’re starting to be invited into the room. And, there are so much amazing talent that are just now being discovered. It’s about time!
What was the best advice you were given when you were starting out as a film composer? And, what would you say to a young woman who would come to you and say she wants to be a film composer?
L.H.: There are two things I’d say: serve the director’s vision, no matter what, and also find your own voice and write music that is really coming from your heart, and eventually the two agendas will merge. And, the best advice I was given, well, apart from “Fall in love with your star,” my mom actually told me: “The only thing that’s fair is between you and the creation.” Okay, I’ve worked on this wonderful piece of music and I’m in love with it and then, it’s not right for the show and they throw it away. Well, that may not be fair, but what was fair was the relationship I had with the creative process, and that is mine no matter what. My advice is to enjoy the process and to not worry about what happens after you make something; just make it from your heart. So, it’s really a solemn oath to stay absolutely true and keep your emotional innocence, integrity, and gratitude when you’re creating.
What would you say your sound is? And, what would you want your audience to feel when they hear your scores?
L.H.: When people hear my scores, I want them to feel the heart of the character, and I want them to feel their own hearts. I want them to walk away feeling some kind of emotion, even if they don’t know what the emotion is, like that strange feeling when you leave a theater or when you finish watching something and you just have to be in silence for a minute, and be like: “What was that? Why am I feeling emotion? What am I feeling in my heart? I’m feeling love for my husband. I’m feeling love for the people around me. I’m feeling the emotion of the character.” I want them to have a sound in their head. I want them to leave with heart, with a feeling of feeling their own hearts and the people around them. And, usually, I don’t always play violin and sing on my projects, but if I do, I save it for the moments where you really need to feel the depths of the pain or the emotion of the main character, and usually that is the violin, which is my unique sound. Of course, people use the violin in everything, but I’ve got my own way of playing, of leaning into a note with my own tone. So, I guess that would be a recognizable hook, but, ultimately, at the end of watching something that I’ve scored, I want people to have a sense of emotion and be left with something stirring in their chest or belly.
What is the best score ever, according to you? And, your favorite score?
L.H.: Ennio Morricone is my favorite. Of course, there are so many amazing composers, but for me it’s Ennio Morricone and The Mission. The score is so perfect for the movie, and he wasn’t trying to sound like anything else. What I love about Ennio Morricone is it’s like he’s inventing a new art form. It feels like it couldn’t have been anything else. And, his music is literally the fabric of the universe of the film and so gorgeous and so creative. What inspires me is just hoping that there’s a sound that is supposed to be created or channeled, and I’m just going to be there to catch it and give it to this film. So, I aspire to that.
There are a lot of amazing composers I love now…Michael Abels, Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, Nicholas Britell who did the scores to The Underground Railroad, If Beale Street Could Talk and Moonlight. I love when I hear people creating something that really feels like it’s their own sound. There’s a feeling, the sound of the blood coursing through their veins, and I aspire to that. With the right project, I aspire to that.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your composing?
L.H.: I don’t understand why the word “feminist” is controversial. To me, if you believe that women should be able to have a point of view, and that it’s a valid point of view, you’re a feminist. More than half of the world has a point of view and has thoughts of their own and they’re valid. That’s feminism and, absolutely, I’m a feminist and what that means is that it’s so ingrained in me and I have to thank my mom for that. My mom was a feminist, but I didn’t like the word “feminist” when I was growing up because to me, it was speaking to the obvious because my mom raised me with such a sense of empowerment. I didn’t see the need for the word “feminist” because it seemed like it was an unnecessary identifier that separated me from other people. And, it wasn’t until I ran into sexism in my own world… people not listening to me and objectifying me that I realized that feminism was in fact still relevant. I think feminism just means that a woman’s point of view is just as valid as a man’s point of view. And, ultimately, my mom used to say: “The most oppressed minority is the individual.” So, once we can finally outgrow and transcend the primitive notions of hierarchy, I think we’ll finally get to the place where we empower each person’s individual voice, whether they’re non-binary, woman, man, whatever…the individual…that we’ll really start to revere life. By revere, I mean listen to, respect and honor each voice – and everyone has a voice, everyone no matter how simple, no matter what path they have. And so, ultimately, it’s about honoring the dignity and the value of every being in front of us. And I’m talking about every being, not just humans…I mean animals, the environment, things that we can’t see. I mean revering science, respecting people. And so, to me, feminism is inextricably linked to my spirituality and my evolution as a human being. Interestingly, all of the screen projects that I did this year, almost the entire creative team was women, and the characters were women, and it didn’t even occur to me until later. All of these women’s voices have been heard. And, it really felt great. It didn’t occur to me because I try to give every voice the respect and love to be able to create a sound for them. But it’s wonderful to see that these are women’s perspectives and experiences, and I’ve just given them a lot of love in the form of music, and have been a part of amplifying these women’s voices. And, it feels great!
Talking about women in film, do you have a favorite female filmmaker, one you would really love to work with?
H.L.: I love Mira Nair, Elizabeth Moss, Greta Gerwig… I’d love to work with them. Kathryn Bigelow, she’s fierce! Truly, I revere anybody who’s able to take an idea and turn it into something real.
What are your next projects?
L.H.: I’m on a new docu-series titled Justin. I have just released a double album titled Night + Day with my band, Opium Moon, and I have just written, produced and scored a short film that I’m going to be entering in festivals this year, based on one of the songs on “More Love,” and I’m working on new music for season two of Ginny & Georgia.
Photo credits: White Bear PR.