If the Hunger Games soundtrack had its own bow and arrow, it'd have to be Taylor Swift, whose surprise participation in the project instantly lifted the forthcoming album to another level of visibility and commercial potential.
In this exclusive interview with Yahoo! Music, she talks about the thinking that went into the not-so-typically-Swiftian first single, "Safe & Sound," which found her collaborating with the Civil Wars and soundtrack producer T Bone Burnett… and also the second tune she contributed to the project, "Eyes Wide Open," which fans will hear when the album hits stores March 20.
YAHOO!: "Eyes Open" turned out to be a much louder and more anthemic song than "Safe & Sound." It was definitely a surprise that the first song was so quiet, and maybe now it feels surprising that the other song isn't. Did you want to get across two pretty different moods with the two contributions to the soundtrack?
SWIFT: "Eyes Open" and "Safe & Sound" are two songs that I wanted to represent different relationships in the story. To me, "Safe & Sound" represents the empathy and compassion Katniss feels for Rue, Peeta, and Prim in different parts of the book. "Eyes Open" is more of a depiction of Katniss's relationship with the Capitol. She knows she can't trust anyone in the government, and that's why I wanted the song to feel more frantic—like the sound of being hunted or chased.
YAHOO!: How was getting into the mind of Katniss to write both these songs different from, say, getting into the mind of Taylor Swift? Did those mindsets feel close enough for comfort, even though you're not running for your life in a futuristic dystopia?
SWIFT: I really liked writing in character. I write so personally and so autobiographically most of the time, so it was actually refreshing to put on someone else's emotions and draw from them, instead of from my own. Katniss's world, motivations, and priorities are different than mine. I liked focusing on basic human emotions like compassion and fear, because that's all you have when you're simply trying to survive.
YAHOO!: It's been fun to watch you and the Civil Wars sort of circle each other as mutual fans and finally hook up to surprise everyone and work together. What was it like to collaborate with someone you admire like that who's so stylistically different from what you usually do?
SWIFT: I really loved writing with the Civil Wars because I'm a huge fan of what they do. I'm always trying to learn from people who I admire. One of the most impressive things I've ever seen was recording the song after we'd written it, and seeing Joy and JP come up with these intricate harmonies in a matter of minutes. They're so in sync musically, it was like watching a pair of twins speak a secret language. I think "Safe & Sound" is different than anything I've ever been a part of before, and I'm so proud of it.
YAHOO!: You and T Bone are two of my favorite music people, and I fully expected the two of you to work together someday, or some year, but not quite so soon, since he's better known for working with artists who are decades into their careers.
SWIFT: Thanks! One of my favorite things about T Bone is his tranquility and general confidence that music will just happen if you put the right musicians in a room together. He doesn't bring any level of stress, and he doesn't over-think the production of a song. He puts the song in the forefront and lets everything else exist around it. He facilitates things coming together, and they do.
YAHOO!: Looking at the track list for the Hunger Games album, it almost looks like the lineup for the Americana Awards, not the soundtrack you'd expect for a blockbuster. What do you think about so many of the songs being acoustic and reflective—with "Safe & Sound" really setting that tone— and not necessarily what people expect to accompany a young-adult-oriented action thriller?
SWIFT: One of the reasons I wanted to be a part of this soundtrack is that the people in charge of putting this movie together are obsessed with making the music match the tone of the movie and the emotions expressed in the book. They are in love with the characters and have thought about every detail that has gone into this movie. When I first met with the people from Lionsgate and T Bone, they said, "We're trying to make music that reflects what Appalachian music will sound like in 300 years." That authenticity was why I wanted to write music for this soundtrack.
Universal Republic's senior VP of marketing, Jim Roppo, points out that the companion album is "centered in the concept of it being 'songs from district 12 and beyond.' For fans of the story, district 12 is obviously the Appalachia area of the country that Katniss and the main characters in the story are from. And the music, with T Bone Burnett's production, is inspired by that region and that feel. We've tried to maintain that theme consistently throughout how we're handing the project. I think the video for 'Safe & Sound' is a good example of that, shot by Phil Andelman. We did it outside of Nashville in a little place called Watertown on a real working ranch—not a Hollywood or Disney set—to evoke that environmental feel and the theme of the song."
As her fans would attest, "Safe & Sound" was the unexpected Christmas gift that keeps on giving. Any word that Swift, the Civil Wars, and Burnett had been collaborating on a song together had been kept secret from the time they worked on the song in mid-November till it was unexpectedly released about a month later.
Roppo enjoyed being able to launch a sneak attack. "We were very happy to be able to drop 'Safe & Sound' right before the holidays and give the fans not only of the movie but also of the artists a real treat and a preview of what was ahead," says the label exec. "I think 'Safe & Sound' evokes the moment in the storyline where Rue has fallen and Katniss is comforting her and coming to the realization herself that she's going to have to carry on and win this thing now. My experience with Taylor, just from spending a little bit of time with her, is that she's a huge fan of the book and the story, and she and the Civil Wars wrote a really poignant song that connects to the storyline magically. Obviously the song responded incredibly well—it went to No. 1 on iTunes at the peak time of the year—and we came back after the holidays and quickly got into shooting the video, which we premiered in mid-February right after both artists were on the Grammys."
"It's been a race to the finish line now," Roppo adds, in getting the album ready for release. And Swift's other song was part of that race. "'Eyes ' is a more straightforward, up-tempo record. I think that could be a big opportunity, when the album drops March 20, that there's another brand new Taylor song in the marketplace at that point, and those don't come along every minute, so we have some exciting opportunities with that."
A more conventional approach might have had the soundtrack leading with a more conventional single than "Safe & Sound"—namely, the more overtly commercial-sounding "Eyes Open." But Tracy McKnight, the head of film music for Lionsgate, says there was never any question what the first single would be… and the fact that it was "Taylor Swift like you've never heard her before" was a boon.
"I think once we heard it, we all knew," says McKnight. "Plus Joy and John Paul (from the Civil Wars) were wonderful. I think everyone felt, when the song came together, that it was so beautiful, that's it. It perfectly captured what we wanted to say about the film. You know how you sit with an album sometimes and you go, 'Oh is it [the single] going to be this or that? It wasn't like that at all. We knew. And Taylor was so excited. She was a wonderful partner and so excited about working with us and so supportive of the project and the books. That's what's so rare, when you have books that everybody loves, and they're really connected to the material. It doesn't always go that way, by the way!"