It’s not every week we have a band that’s performed in front of 90,000 people take part in our Writer of the Week interview. But sometimes, you just get lucky. If you don’t know DeVotchKa from their brilliant, genre-defying albums (the latest of which is the just-released 100 Lovers) you may know their music from the hit film Little Miss Sunshine. We talked to the band’s frontman, Nick Urata, one of Hollywood Reporter’s ten up-and-coming film composers, about songwriting, soundtrack work, and happy accidents.
You went back to the Arizona desert, where you made your last record, to record 100 Lovers. Why?
It has become a ritual for us. We drive through the desert of New Mexico and Arizona to Tuscon, try to get some perspective under the wide open skies. It is one of those towns that I feel is frozen in time and we find that very comforting, any connection to the past is key when recording.
How did you find the experience of scoring I Love You Philip Morris?
I’m not going to lie, scoring a film is no day at the beach. However it helps when it is a great film, and that is a great film. In the end I got to work with some great musicians, directors, and I can only hope that the music helped convey the story, which is 100% true by the way.
How did this compare to other film work you’ve done?
Every film becomes it’s own little universe and the music has to fit in those parameters. This one was unique because it lent itself to a variety of styles. The story had so many twists and turns that it made for very interesting scoring opportunities.
You’re music melds a lot of influences. Is this usually a smooth process, or do you have arguments in the band about what’s working and what isn’t?
It’s never smooth but we all have a good sense of what is working and what is not, and the song itself , in the end, tells us where to go.
You opened for Muse recently in front of 90,000 people. What was that like, and how did that experience inform the new album?
That was thrilling and especially in that situation you have people’s attention you are entering a conversation with strangers often in a foreign land, so you better have something to say. We wanted to have something meaningful to communicate for the next round of audiences we find ourselves in front of.
What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of on the album?
Lyrics always look so lame on the page and I’m not particularly proud of any of it, however since this is about songwriting, you all can appreciate the value of a good line. I want to preface by saying I don’t remember writing the best lines,the best ones always seem to come from somewhere far away from your own consciousness.
I like the flow of this one, its one you cold use in a long distance love letter:
You and I can conquer distance
space and time and mass resistance
and I really must insist
you come with me my dear
Are there any words you love, or hate?
I love terms of endearment like darling, my love ,my dear ’cause there is no faking those and I feel like I’m carrying on the time-honored tradition of using song to woo a lover.
How do you typically write songs? Words first, or melody?
It comes in waves. I like to write the first few lines and the music first, then fill in the rest with trial and error.
Do you find yourself revising a lot, or do you like to write automatically?
Always revising, like I was trying to say earlier there are some lines that you know are keepers and the rest I’m always uncertain about. Lately I have waited up until the moment of recording to leave some room for divine intervention or happy accidents.
Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?
Johnny Cash. Probably not so underrated but such humanity in the simplest rawest sentiments, he conveys what it is to be a Man.
What song would you like to be known for after you’re gone?
Well I guess after that last question I think about how I wrote a song called “You Love Me,” or I should say it wrote itself. When I heard it played back the first time I felt like I had finally become a Man. For three minutes and 30 seconds I had done something good with my life.