JESSE HARRIS: I’ve known Ethan on and off for a very long time. We’ve never been the kind of friends that would call each other up and hang out but we knew each other. And actually, the first time that he ever did call me was in regards to this. He said that he wanted to meet and I went and met him for a drink and he said, “I wrote a script based on my novel and I would love for you to read it. I need music and I’m very interested in your doing it and would love for you to be involved in it in any capacity that you want.” So I read the script and I loved it and I called him and said I would do as much as he would let me do.
AD: Did you know from the beginning what that meant? Did you have any idea that you would be providing the entire soundtrack?
JH: Not at all. I knew that he needed score music and I knew that he needed songs for Catalina Sandino Moreno, the lead actress, and I knew that he needed songs for my character—oh he also told me I could be in it. The whole concept of having other artists sing songs of mine came about through us talking about what we could do and we just decided, “Wow wouldn’t it be cool if we did an all original soundtrack with artists covering songs by me.” He felt it was important to be all one writer because then it would be cohesive and it would have a through line.
AD: Was that a big responsibility?
JH: That was a very big undertaking. From that point it took us about 8 months until everything was recorded—which is actually pretty fast. It went pretty quickly.
AD: Did you set out writing on your own or did he give you a lot of direction?
JH: Well there are only two songs that are original to the film. The other songs are taken from old albums of mine so he went through all my old albums and said, “I love this song, this song, and this song” and created the list and then we began matching the songs with the singers that we wanted to sing them.
AD: And they fit?
JH: For the most part. Norah Jones, Feist, and Bright Eyes picked their own songs but everybody else played the song that we suggested.
AD: You’ve written many songs for Norah Jones. Is writing a song different when you know somebody else will be recording it?
JH: Anytime I write a song by myself I just write the song for the song’s sake. I write the song to make sense for itself and be finished for itself—to be something complete. After that, then I think about whether or not somebody else can sing it. I don’t think I would be able to write a song for someone specifically—I don’t think so.
AD: Has anyone ever asked you to?
JH: Usually if they do, they want to co-write it with you.
AD: How has that experience been?
JH: It’s quite different. It can be very impersonal. I find the songs to be good but to me I don’t feel connected to them. I don’t feel like I want to sing them. But I like them.
AD: Is that always the case?
JH: I never sing songs I co-write.
AD: How has this experience been?
JH: It was a lot of fun. It was a great way to be creative and I enjoyed it immensely. I would do something like it again although I’ll do other things in the meantime. I’m not out looking to be a music soundtrack guy.
AD: What’s the difference between working with the music business and working with the film business?
JH: I got very lucky because the film business can often be very difficult. Someone says, “Well we like this song but the director has to check with the producers and there are 10 producers and they have to ask the writer and the star of the film.” Luckily in this case Ethan and I had a very close relationship. Ethan had great instincts and so I had the great fortune to work with a director that knew what he wanted and had great taste and had the ability to let go.
AD: How did you go about setting the music to specific scenes?
JH: In the scoring process I knew what it needed and set music specifically for that. In a lot of other cases we would assemble everything and then use it as a palette from which to draw from. A lot of that was, believe it or not, the editor of the film. She would say, “You know I really think this song would work beautifully here” and often it would. Sometimes it didn’t and we would talk it over. It was a big process.
AD: How does it feel to see it all come together?
JH: It is very gratifying. It’s really fun to put on the record and just listen to it. For so long I didn’t want to listen to it because every song was on a separate CD and so to have it all on one record and all sounding so good is great.
AD: What’s next for you?
JH: Right now I’m on the road touring to promote this album and my own album Feel—my seventh solo album. So I’m promoting that. That’s about it for now. Just performing live which is really refreshing for me because I’ve spent so much time in the studio for the past couple of years it’s just fun to get out and tour and play live.
AD: Why don’t you live here?
JH: Well after tonight I’m wondering the same thing. I didn’t know Austin was this lively. This place is crazy. It’s Wednesday night and there is no parking downtown, the streets are jumping with people—it’s like the Wild West. I normally only come during SXSW which is such a drag. This is really eye-opening. I’ll be back.
AD: What wisdom would you pass on to a musician starting out in the business?
JH: Well this is just my point of you: I would impress upon young musicians to not worry so much about the business and to focus on their music and really make their music as good as they can be. Be good on their instruments, and practice, and write lots of songs and make good music because the world really needs good music and there are a lot of people really waiting for it. Make good music and people will want to hear it.