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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Writing Songs for Pixar's Brave

One of the two songs I wrote for Pixar's Brave, "Into the Open Air," is featured in a new commercial celebrating Mother's Day:

Almost exactly a year ago, I was walking through the Pixar atrium when I heard a loud voice yell "ALEX MANDEL!!!"

I turned to my right and descending the stairs was Mark Andrews, Director of Brave.  "I have an opportunity for you," he said.

He explained there was a scene in the film that he felt needed a song, but they hadn't found one that worked yet. He'd like me to try and create one. Of course, I said what any self-respecting singer/songwriter would say under these conditions."You got it!"

I've known Mark for a number of years -- from scoring his short film "Violet," (see previous post) and jamming with him at the WALL-E wrap party (another story). Mark had liked my most recent album of songs, The Echo Falls. Even though it was a temporary song for the upcoming screening I was determined to create the best song I possibly could.

I got to watch a rough cut of the scene, and co-director Steve Purcell and Mark provided some helpful clues to what they were looking for.  I also recalled having lunch with Brenda Chapman where she told me her inspiration for the story -- her relationship with her daughter -- and as a father of two I could relate.

That night, once my kids were asleep I sat down on my couch with my guitar and notebook.

Folk-rock music from the British Isles has always held a special fascination for me.  Led Zepplin's "Black Mountainside" led me back to Bert Jansch's "Black Waterside."  I love the alternate guitar tunings; the mixolydian modal quality to the melodies. Richard & Linda Thompson's "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight", Traffic's "John Barleycorn", Nick Drake, Donovan, Fairport Convention...the list goes on.  The melodies of the Scots-Irish came with them to the Appalachian Mountains, a seed from which bluegrass grew. Listening to Scottish folk songs, especially Lomax's field recordings from the 50s, I was comforted at how familiar the music felt. An invisible thread that connects those Scots-Irish melodies, bluegrass, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, right through "O Brother Where Art Thou?" and most recently, Mumford and Sons (who penned a great track for the movie, sung by Birdy).

I found myself in an odd tuning which suggested the voicings of the song, and I found the melody with the words "This love it is a distant star/guiding us home wherever we are."

The song seemed to fit the Mark asked me to write a SECOND song -- on that one, Mark & collaborated on the lyrics, and it wound up as "Touch the Sky."

Although I normally sing my own songs, I knew this song needed to be sung by a woman's voice. Julie Fowlis, who is an amazing Scottish-Gaelic singer and musician, was selected to sing the songs, and she truly did a wonderful job. I'm thrilled to say both of the songs made it into the film and soundtrack. (That's me playing guitar.)

Like all the best Pixar movies, Brave has got thrills and emotion & I can't wait for the world to experience it on June 22.