Famously mercurial rocker Van Morrison has not shown the same enthusiasm for Oscar campaigning that many of this year’s other Academy Awards nominees have. He and the equally press-shy Beyoncé have done little or no promotion for their respective nominations for best song, or for anything else that involves interviews. So it’s something of an event that Morrison did take part in the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s annual panel of contenders for Oscars’ song prize, along with representatives from all the other films and songs.
The video of the panel, which premieres today, does not include a lot of reaction shots, but there are some stifled laughs from the other nominees at one comment from the legendary Irish singer-songwriter. Co-host Nile Rodgers asks about Morrison’s nominated song “Down to Joy,” from “Belfast,” and inquires: “Can you explain the meaning behind the lyrics?” Morrison, who rarely sits in the interviewee’s seat, answers, “Well, I’m not really very good at explaining meanings..” He recites a few of the song’s lyrics, like “She was standing there before me as I was coming down to joy,” and says “whatever way you want to interpret that,” before finally admitting, “It’s kind of meaningless babble, but it works, you know?” At that, Billie Eilish and Lin-Manuel Miranda are both seen stifling a laugh.
Morrison, Eilish and Miranda are joined in the hour-long discussion by Diane Warren, Finneas and Dixson, representing nearly 100% attendance among this year’s songwriting nominees, with the exception of the still-elusive Beyoncé (who is represented by her co-writer on the “King Richard” theme, Dixson). Rodgers, the famous writer-producer and current Songwriters Hall of Fame chairman, is joined as co-host by Paul Williams, the Oscar-winning songwriter who now serves as ASCAP president-chairman.
The video will be viewable for a limited time for free on the Songwriters Hall of Fame website, songhall.org, beginning today at 5 p.m. PT.
Miranda, the “Hamilton” auteur who’s nominated for “Dos Oruguitas” from Disney’s “Encanto,” was first up to be quetioned by Williams and Rodgers. And he addressed the ongoing question many have about how “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” can be the runaway Billboard Hot 100 smash of 2022 so far and yet not be Oscar-nominated. “Have you had any thoughts about, like, ‘Maybe I should have submitted that as well’?” asked Williams.
Miranda, evidencing no regrets, indicated he’s still baffled by “Bruno’s” success. “It’s a song that doesn’t even make sense unless you’ve seen the movie,” he noted. “And yet, I woke up to a text from my brother-in-law, who was at a bar in Chelsea and said, ‘It’s playing in the club.’ What is happening that this group Disney number, this ensemble number, is playing in clubs? I am very happily surprised and delighted by it. But it’s really weird to me.”
Of the wildly different song that is nominated from “Encanto,” “Dos Oruguitas,” Miranda said, “How do you write a song that feels like it’s always existed without outright copying a song? And the answer for me was, find a really perfect nature metaphor for it. So it’s about these two caterpillars who are in love and don’t wanna let each other go, but they have to, because that’s the only way you get to the next part of your life and you get to the miracle. So finding that metaphor was the key to the whole thing. And everyone on this call will relate: there’s that moment where you don’t feel like you’re writing the song, you feel like you’re catching the song and you’re pinning it down. And that’s a really lovely moment. I started dreaming in Spanish again, which I have not done since I was a little kid, with my grandparents in Puerto Rico. And so it was like your whole brain is catching this thing and pinning to in my case, the piano.”
Miranda said the nominated number is unusual not just for him but even within the rest of the song score. “It’s a weird song for me, not just because of the Spanish — I’ve written in Spanish before, though never a full-length song like this — but because it’s not a character singing the tune. Most of what I do in musicals is characters singing to each other. But for this moment, the tragedy being depicted was so profound, we actually needed the music to be a distance removed from it.”
A sunglasses-wearing Morrison talked about the Belfast heritage he shares with “Belfast” writer-director Kenneth Branaugh, though they were in the city in different eras, with the musician making it clear he was gone from the area before the start of “the troubles” that impact the family drama.
“Basically with the first phone call,” Morrison said, “Ken called me and explained what it was, and it was his story. … So I looked through the script. I’m from east Belfast, he’s from north Belfast. So I drove from east Belfast to north Belfast, the area that he grew up in, and I remembered my recollections from that particular area where I had friends there way back. So basically a combination of the script and my recollections of that particular area and that time — which was pre- when the movie was, but it worked anyway … I’m a different generation. He’s much younger than me. But there were similar kind of motifs.”
Morrison said that he did not consult with Branaugh with of the catalog choices the writer-director wanted to use and just let him sync the older songs of his choice — “He already had songs in mind from his background experience of listening to me way back” — although he did add a bit of fresh incidental music on saxophone and keyboard in addition to writing “Down to Joy.”
Warren, the next guest, was appearing on the panel for the fifth year in a row, Williams noted, a highly unusual streak that makes up a good chunk of her historic 13 nominations in the best original song category to date. Rodgers asks if she still gets excited when her name comes up.
“Fuck yeah, I do,” she declared. “Are you kidding? I don’t take it for granted. I stay up all night. I’m not cool enough to go to bed and go, ‘Oh yeah, my agent called me (and woke me up). Aw, fuck that! You’re all lying. You guys are all staying up too. You’re just too cool to admit it. I’m not cool, so I admit it. I stay up with my friends all night, literally counting the hours. And this year it was such a competitive year that it was kind of iffy… like, a lot iffy. There’s a commercial before they get to the songs, saying our category. so, yeah, it’s nerve wracking. And my song was the last song said, and at that last point I was having a heart attack. But to answer your question, it’s always fucking exciting. You get nominated for an Oscar? It’s hard to get nominated once, you know… When you think of it, the Grammys have 50 song categories [actually 86], and the Oscars have one with five songs chosen from hundreds of movies.”
Of this year’s fifth annual Diane Warren nomination, for “Somehow You Do” from the independent drama “Four Good Days,” she said, “When I write a song for a movie, I’m casting the artist to sing that song, so that artist has to fit the movie. And you could see Glenn Close’s character listening to Reba McIntire — that totally fit in. … Reba just resonates — she’s all about resilience and she’s a survivor, yso she just was the perfect call for that song and for this movie, which is also about survival. As soon as I heard her voice on it, it’s just like, there was nobody else that could bring that song to life like that.”
Unless it was… William Shatner? The actor invited her to come onto his podcast “I Don’t Understand,” to talk about what makes a hit song, and “I’d heard his version of ‘Rocket Man’ and thought, what if he did a spoken word version of (‘Somehow You DO’)? And so I kind of snipered him … and brought recording equipment.He was a really good sport, and it was awesome. They’re so opposite, but there’s a mashup out there of William Shatner and Reba that’s really fuckin’ cool, too. I wish they’d release that.”
Dixson talked about having “Be Alive,” for “King Richard,” be his first collaboration with Beyoncé. “I have been submitting songs to Beyonce and her team, as a lot of people do, and I didn’t know for sure if any of the things I was submitting had stuck.” When he got a call from his manager that she wanted to bring him in for a film song, he jumped, even before “I heard what the film was and I instantly connected to the story. I remember being a kid in, in middle school, seeing people present (papers) on the Williams sisters during Black History month, understanding the role that their father played in their life— also knowing what kind of role Beyonce’s father played in her life and career, and then having a father of my own who kind of let me spread my wings and discover things that I wanted to do and then doubled down on me being good at them.
“I just did a demo, and I think a lot of times, when you’re trying to impress a big name like Beyoncé, or big film producers, you might want to go big for it. But I think I wanted to leave some room for Beyoncé, who is also an incredible producer and incredible songwriter. We all know what she can do, standing flat-foot and singing, so I wanted to leave some room for her — and I’m glad I did, because man, when we got those vocals back, I had to rethink my approach.”
Williams wondered what it was like for Dixson, sitting across from Beyoncé and studying her. “You’re assuming that I looked at her at all during the playback,” laughed the songwriter-producer. “I’m pretty sure I stared at the ProTools session the whole time I played it back for her. I did not want to see her immediate reaction. And then I turned around and she was smiling and was super encouraging and gracious about the song. And it just sent me down a rabbit hole; when I was ready to work. But honestly, I play that moment back in my head [and think]: I really didn’t make eye contact with the lady during the playback?”
Eilish and her brother/co-writer/producer Finneas talked about putting themselves up for the theme for “No Time to Die.” “They were thinking of having us try it out, like basically audition, because it’s not a job you just get. … Finneas and I have never been more excited about anything.” Growing up, she said, “If we were kind of at a writing block point or we just wanna make something new… one of the main things we used to do was like, ‘Let’s pretend to write a Bond song,’ as a joke — or not even as a joke, but just as a lifelong goal of a thing that could never be possible.”
Said Finneas, “There’s 25 Bond themes now, and I really love all of them for different reasons. We had sort of a list of goals we were trying to achieve that some of the other songs within the Bond history have followed… We really wanted the title of our song to be the title of the film and to be the hook of the song. We got lucky that the movie wasn’t called ‘Quantum of Solace’ or something really hard as a lyric. Number two, we did want it to feel in that milieu that, if you wanna get really technical, (includes) the minor nine chord. those chords that just scream espionage and that kind of of world to you. And then the third thing was … in this song’s case, because of the interpolation of score and everything, melody was paramount to us. So we spent a lot of time working on melodies before we really had even a line (of lyrics)…. Now that we have read these first 20-odd pages of the script (leading up to the song’s placement in the movie), how can we articulate what this character is feeling and going through?”
Of putting down the rough track, he said, “We recorded the entire thing between weekends of Austin City Limits [the music festival]. Doing all of Billie’s vocals… we couldn’t get a quiet enough green room. So we went down into the basement of the arena, into the bus, into the bunk of the bus, and we turned off the air conditioning on the bus and turned off the lights that were humming. And then I just sat in the other bunk, in the pitch black, and Billie held the microphone in her hand. It was pretty awesome.”