Patti Smith’s Passions Have Led Her Into Oscar Season

Patti Smith Darren Arnofsky Noah
Matthew Eisman/Getty Images

Patti Smith has always been a renaissance woman. She’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for her work as a singer-songwriter and frontwoman of the Patti Smith Group; named a commander of the French Ordre des Artes et des Lettres for work as a poet; and awarded the National Book Award for her 2010 memoir, “Just Kids.” And 2014 may have been the year Patti Smith finally went Hollywood.

In her own small, measured way, that is. This past year saw the 67-year-old songstress contribute a tune to Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” which is up for consideration in the Oscar original song category, as well as act in Netflix’s “The Killing.” Last year, she wrote and performed an original song for “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”

“It’s entirely a happy convergence,” she insists.

She’s certainly earned the cultural capital to experiment with new roles, yet what’s perhaps surprising is that all three ventures originated with Smith’s own fandom. A fierce devotee of mystery shows and procedurals (she’s at work on a detective novel, and played a tiny part on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” in 2011), Smith wrote fan letters to the creators of “The Killing,” as well as a sympathy note when the show was cancelled by AMC. When it was brought back for a fourth season, the showrunners invited her to join the cast.

“It’s the part I was born to play: a neurosurgeon,” she says with a laugh.

Yet the project that brings Smith into the unfamiliar rituals of Oscar season is her haunting original song contribution to “Noah,” titled “Mercy Is.” Smith wrote the song to be a lullaby sung by Noah to his children, and she performed it in full over the closing credits with the director’s longtime collaborators, the Kronos Quartet.

Much like with “The Killing,” the genesis of the collaboration came when Smith approached Aronofsky as a fan at the Venice Film Festival, and asked to help contribute.

“Writing for films is very specific, and it takes a very special kind of knowledge,” she says. “But I just thought that I would be able to do it.”

Tapping Smith to compose a lullaby proved a deft decision. In spite of her canonization as “the godmother of punk,” Smith’s music has long dealt in hymnal textures, from the rockabye rhythms and maternal themes of “Kimberly,” off her groundbreaking 1975 debut “Horses,” to the more straightforward lullaby “Seneca,” which Smith wrote for her son on 2012 album “Banga.”

“My mother had a lovely voice, a very June Christy, Chris Connor-style voice, and she always sang lullabies to us,” Smith remembers. “I just find them beautiful, whether it’s a William Blake lullaby, or a traditional American, Appalachian-style one. It also suits the natural sound of my voice. I don’t wake up in the morning singing ‘Gloria,’ you know. I never sing rock and roll songs unless I’m performing. When I’m singing to myself walking down the street or in the shower or something, I’m usually singing little arias and lullabies.

“But I find lullabies both comforting and also melancholy — there’s always something innately sad about them, and I don’t know why.”

Smith is effusive in her praise of Aronofsky’s guidance into the world of film music — “there’s no point writing a song for a film if it doesn’t serve the character who has to sing it” — and notes that she took equal inspiration from his screenplay and the Bible itself, particularly the Song of Solomon.

“Darren does all these interesting things in the film,” she observes, “merging these futuristic environments with biblical chronology. Same with the song; it couldn’t be too modern, and yet I didn’t want it to feel archaic. It had to sit within the film’s own history. So I read (the Song of Solomon) just to get a sense of the language and the rhythms. There’s such a sense of longing in those poems, and in the Psalms. Everyone is longing for a time when they were unfettered by the fall of the garden, or longing for the completion of love. That probably sounds so ambitious for such a little song, but you have to think about all these things. And it’s sort of like alchemical, how these ideas that sound so lofty have to be distilled into a very simple song.”

Recording live with the Kronos Quartet was another first for Smith, representing her maiden collaboration with a string section. She likens the experience to “The Coral Sea,” her joint project with My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, in which she recited poetry and improvised songs while the shoegaze auteur surrounded her with “an intense cacophony” on guitar.

“I had to enter into a world that I wasn’t really familiar with, without my usual reference points, especially bass and drums,” she says. “Some of the melodies I might be singing were crossing over into a countermelody, and I didn’t have any experience doing that. But they gave me great guidance, and we finished it in a couple of hours.

“Besides, I’ve worked with my same guitarist (Lenny Kaye) and drummer (Jay Dee Daugherty) for 40 years, same bass player (Tony Shanahan) for 20, so I understand working with a group of people who have a band consciousness.”

But even if the past year saw Smith branch out into TV acting, film music and orchestral environments, she seems reluctant to push her luck, noting that while she’d be willing to contribute music to another film project, “I think that one has to know what they’re qualified for, and what their strengths are. I’d be happy to sing for the right project, where it’s right for the film. But there’s nothing worse than having a great film miscast with the wrong people, or the wrong music.”

She certainly isn’t lacking for work. Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of “Horses,” with Smith planning celebratory concerts in addition to her healthy regular touring regiment. The detective novel is still a work in progress, and Smith’s bestselling memoir has been mooted for a possible film candidate for the last few years. As for the possibility of an adaptation, Smith says simply “the only person who could make that decision would be me.” Yet she shares one condition for any theoretical “Just Kids” movie: despite her renaissance woman credentials, she has no plan to try her hand at scripting it.

“I am not a screenwriter,” she states flatly. “I think I could be helpful, as I’m a creative person who’s happy to help, but it’s not what I do. Just like I’m not an actress. I loved being in ‘The Killing,’ but that’s a real craft, acting, that I take seriously. So if I want a good script, I’ll go to the right person, who understands the mechanics.

“It’s like when I wrote (the play) ‘Cowboy Mouth’ with Sam Shepard back when I was 25. We took a typewriter and passed it back and forth to one another, and I wrote all of my character’s words. But Sam wrote the structure of the play, because he’s a playwright, that’s what he does. I’m just happy when I can do my part.”

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