Q & A With All Is Lost's Golden Globe Nominated Composer, Alex Ebert

2013 was a great year for musician Alex Ebert, known to most as the lead singer/songwriter for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Ima Robot, he awoke Thursday morning, Dec. 12th with news that his soundtrack for the JC Chandor film All Is Lost starring Robert Redford had just been nominated for a Best Original Score Golden Globe.

As a fan of Ebert and his bands, I was intrigued and picked up a copy of the soundtrack at Los Angeles' Amoeba Music. I knew it was going to be good, but this soundtrack exceeded my expectations -- a truly mesmerizing work. There's something weirdly fitting about driving around L.A. in my car with the music playing from a movie about being lost at sea.

I had the good fortune of getting to ask Ebert a few questions about this magnificent soundtrack, and how it evolved.

Xaque Gruber: How did All Is Lost find you?

Alex Ebert: The story I have been told is that JC Chandor and my now-agent Amos Newman got together and decided to take a listen to some "out of the box" musicians, of which I was one. I'm guessing from listening to my albums JC felt it would work. As he put it, he liked my layering. We had a good meeting, where he let me sort of talk a lot about my feelings on music as it related to this script. That was basically that. I was hired.

All Is Lost official trailer

XG: Taking on a project like All Is Lost seems daunting to say the least. How does one begin approaching composing the score for a dramatic story of a man lost at sea? With only one character in the movie, what is your "starting map?"

AE: Simply a feeling. I wrote Excelsior, the primary recurring theme, before any footage was sent to me, I think. It really is a version of the process of method acting -- I put myself in a space to feel the story, the elements, and see what comes. And with such an open forum, with no real "cues" as they call them, it felt like I was taking those first steps into space, unaware of how the notes would interact with the atmosphere -- but that was probably the most fun part, gathering that courage to jump.

Alex Ebert's All Is Lost soundtrack

XG: Any interesting Redford-related anecdotes? Did you get to meet him during the process of scoring the film?

AE: I got to run down to Mexico to live with the production for a day. They happened to be shooting one of the treacherous storm sequences and Robert was getting pounded with literally tons of water. As they called for lunch he came out of the shed, soaking, surrounded by folks, and I thought not to interject and instead began heading for a bathroom. Then I heard some iconic voice call out "Mr. Ebert!" I turned -- it was Mr. Redford. We had a good talk -- he somehow knew I was from the valley -- turns out we both went to school in Van Nuys. We had a few laughs about it. He poked fun at us both saying he went to school a long time before I did. We talked about a mutual inspiration named Tim DeChristopher who helped to stop the illegal sale of Utah BLM land to oil companies and wound up in prison for it. Then he went to his room while the rest of us went for lunch in the mess hall. Haven't seen or spoken with him since -- hope to see him again.

All Is Lost Academy Conversation with Director JC Chandor and Robert Redford:

XG: You chose to have one vocal song, "Amen", in the soundtrack. In listening to the score, I imagine the one vocal song is like an echo to having the one human character in the film. Is that how the choice of the one vocal song came about?

AE: At First, the whole score was wide open to ideas, and JC had initially suggested that I might try to do some singing through the movie. I couldn't imagine it. Honestly, I enjoyed the movie very much in its original three hour, music-less cut. It was punishing. Anyhow, language is clunky. Even the most deft pen is a meat cleaver to silence's chisel. So if I was going to have a song in there, it was going to have to be as deft as cleavers get. But nothing was coming that I felt lent itself in a meaningful way, so I just kind of dropped it. And then one day something came, and the refrain was "Amen". Redford's character's name in the script is "Our Man." And so I felt I had something that was deft. My favorite tidbit about it is that JC wanted no piano in the movie (much to my initial dismay), but since the movie was over, and this song was for the end credits, I recorded not just one, but four pianos on the song -- of course it was the song who asked for the pianos, not me.

Alex Ebert's "Amen" from All Is Lost

XG: Congratulations on the Golden Globe nomination! Were you shocked when you heard that news? And can you comment on the others in your category (Mandela, Gravity, The Book Thief, and 12 Years A Slave)?

AE: Thank you! I was in a dazed "Are you serious!?" shock. I did not get out of bed in anticipation of the announcements because I wasn't seriously following it, likely because I didn't seriously think I was going to get nominated. The sensation that came over me was quite emotional. And yes, then to see who I was nominated along with, that was and is a wild feeling.

XG: Do you see yourself navigating (nautical word choice there) between the worlds of scoring, and crafting your own music with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, etc? I've noticed interesting musical things can happen with these two simultaneous careers (scoring and pop) -- look as Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead), Wendy & Lisa, and so many others.

AE: In short, yes. The form of songs, 'folk songs' as I call them, is relentlessly regimented. Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Out. You can play with this formula, switch things around, scrap the bridge, do an all-verse song here and there, but essentially the form is the form and that is that. This is for good reason -- folk songs (pop songs, etc) are there for the people to memorize and sing themselves. That is the history of it, and that history is still the deal today. I love that quality of songs, but after years and years of writing, I am bored by it. I find I now have a keener sense and courage to disregard the form when the song itself does not desire the form -- memorization, time-constraints, and expectations be damned. Much more exciting to me is that I am writing experimental and orchestral music now, for no particular reason other than to share it some day.

Alex Ebert's fun chat with Rainn Wilson about music and Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros:

XG: What advice would you have for young, would-be composers of film music? What should they be doing, listening to, devouring, to prepare them for the trenches of scoring a dramatic film?

AE: Oh boy... Well, speaking directly to whomever they may be -- be courageous. In the realm of music, hunches, no matter how strange, are to be followed as divinations. You can feel just fine standing up for them and just as fine being embarrassed by them. Remember this -- whatever is rejected you get to keep!