For most of the music industry, awards season ended when the Grammys came to a close the night of Jan. 26. That wasn’t the case, though, for Interscope Records, which moved on to the Oscars with just as vested an interest in domination. Just two weeks after Billie Eilish swept all four top Grammy categories, the company managed to keep just as high a profile at Sunday night’s film awards.
With a best original song win for Elton John’s “I’m Gonna Love Me Again,” Interscope can now claim a triumph in that category for the third time in four years, following the triumph of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s “Shallow” in 2019 and “City of Stars” from “La La Land” in 2017.
Altogether, Interscope songs or artists have claimed the original song trophy five times in the last 18 years, and had 12 nominations during that time, far more than than any label.
The Academy Awards presence didn’t end there. Besides John’s inevitable performance as one of the five song nominees, the company also had a couple of news-making performances outside of this year’s nominations sphere, as Eminem made a surprise appearance to rap his 2003 Oscar winner, “Lose Yourself,” and Eilish sang the Beatles’ “Yesterday” to accompany the In Memoriam segment.
“It’s been an amazing year so far, between the Grammys and Oscars. I wish every year was like this,” says John Janick, Interscope’s chairman-CEO. “And there’s a lot of other good things coming.”
Indeed, if there’s one thing that the Oscar producers could almost safely book for the 2021 telecast right now, it’d probably be a return appearance by Eilish, and she won’t need a little help from her Beatles friends next time. She and brother Finneas O’Connell have a James Bond theme song shortly to be unveiled — Janick will only say that it’s “fantastic” and we’ll hear it “soon” — and it’d probably half to be less than half as good as the weakest track on her debut album for her to not make a repeat appearance next February.
That’s not to get too far out ahead of Elton being the king of the ball this year. John is not signed up as an Interscope artist, but when the company learned that soundtrack rights were up for grabs, it leaped into action.
“We saw the trailer for ‘Rocketman’ before it went up, because we had a relationship with Paramount,” says Janick. “Because obviously all the songs on the soundtrack are new recordings —Taron (Egerton) sings all the songs, with the exception of the song that won that was in the end title, which was Taron and Elton — we did everything we could to surround it and get it and, fortunately, we got it.” Besides engaging producer Giles Martin and everyone already deeply immersed in the soundtrack, Interscope worked to bring in Greg Kurstin to help co-produce “I’m Gonna Love Me Again,” which has a Motown feel but couldn’t feel 100 percent nostalgic. “How do you make something that sounds fresh, but also in a lot of ways kind of touches on every part of Elton’s history? Greg gets it — he understands new and retro,” Janick says.
Anthony Seyler, EVP of Interscope Films and Soundtracks, notes that the label’s history with Oscar nominations dates back to a Counting Crows/’Shrek” nomination in 2004, just a little before his time. Seyler says “2007 is when I really started focusing on soundtracks for Interscope. That’s when hard work and determination was met with a ton of luck and I was connected with AR Rahman and Mike Knobloch. In working with AR Rahman we went on to receive two Oscar nominations for his work on ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ with ‘Jai Ho’ winning. That entire experience was inspiring for me and gave me the desire to live more in that space.”
The Interscope/Rahman connection paid off again with a nomination for “127 Hours” in 2010. Subsequent noms arrived for a song from the animated “Rio” the following year, a number from “Begin Again” in 2014, and Gaga’s first nomination in 2015 with the Diane Warren song “”Till It Happens to You.” In 2016, two “La La Land” songs were nominated, with “City of Stars” prevailing, and last year, “Shallow” bested another Interscope-based song, Kendrick Lamar’s “All the Stars,” in what Seyler calls “an embarrassment of riches. To have two artists of that caliber who have such a grasp on culture receive nominations for such inspiring work was truly a special moment.”
Seyler’s role has become more important in recent years as Interscope has ramped up to become interdisciplinary, with investments in film production and a burgeoning, full-on movie division on top of its longstanding desire to dominate the soundtrack space. “Similar to our goals with our artists in music, we strive to work with the most creative and innovative filmmakers,” Seyler says. “I’ve had great success working with producers like Lynette Howell Taylor (‘A Star Is Born’) and Fred Berger (‘La La Land’) and directors like Baz Luhrmann, Julie Taymor and Bradley Cooper. Our strategy is to surround ourselves with the greatest creatives who understand the power that music can have in a film.”
Janick has also strived to engage filmmakers. “I met Damien (Chazelle) I think two years before (‘La La Land’) came out, after watching ‘Whiplash’ and just trying to figure out, just like with one of our music artists, how do we partner with him? Because you could tell he was a genius.”
Getting Eminem and Eilish on this year’s Oscars was a more shorthand process.
With the rapper, “our team was obviously very tight lipped, and it was for weeks that we couldn’t really talk about it,” says Janick. “There were only a handful of people internally that knew about it. But we thought it was a great moment since he never got to perform the song on the (2003) Oscars after winning the best song category. … Tony was running point on all of it, and (it was understood that) if it leaks, then he’s probably not going to do it.” Loose lips did not sink “Lose Yourself” ships. “We were happy to see it happen — the last thing we wanted to do is for it to fall apart.”
Some have assumed that Eilish was booked at the last minute as a result of her Grammys heat, but her appearance had long been in the works. “I think we announced it right after the Grammys, but no, we locked that in at the end of last year,” says Janick. “They were talking about it for a while, that it would be some type of cover for the In Memoriam. I think ‘Yesterday’ was pretty much the song for a while, even if it went for a moment where it wasn’t fully confirmed. I was watching the rehearsal with her mother the other day, and I said to her, ‘Does she have to go back and memorize all the words?’ And she’s like, ‘No, no, she and Finn know all the words. We used to play it.’ They’re such a musical family, so that was a song that was near and dear to her heart.”
Eilish’s involvement on the film side goes beyond her upcoming Bond theme — it’s been reported that Interscope filmed a documentary on her as she made her ascent, although no release plans have been announced. To a lot of her core audience, she’s already a veteran artist, thanks to the four years that Interscope and their partners in all things Eilish, Darkroom Records and its CEO Justin Lubliner, spent setting her up, starting when she was 14, releasing songs along the way. But it was reinforced for Janick these last few weeks that a lot of potential older fans are still just learning about her through Oscar and Grammy exposure.
“Being around people at the Oscars, it’s interesting to me how intimate the Oscars are compared to the Grammys,” he says. “I was sitting in the crowd after she performed and hearing executives of film companies talking to their wives or people around them who were (educating them), saying, ‘She’s only 18, and she won this and won that, and her voice…’ It’s funny because we’ve been in it for so long and have seen how big she has become, yet so many more people just got introduced to her. In a way it feels like it did before all this happened — that she’s still kind of scratching the surface.”
With 18-year-old Eilish and 72-year-old John as the company’s twin trophy titans, right now Interscope is nothing if not intergenerational, in its awards scope, at least.