Patti Smith talks ‘Noah’ original song ‘Mercy Is’ and still feeling intimidated

Patti Smith loves movies. A few days before we chatted about her Best Original Song contender “Mercy Is” from Darren Aronofsky's “Noah,” Smith and her friend Ralph Fiennes took in two screenings at the currently running New York Film Festival: Mike Leigh's “Mr. Turner” followed by Paul Thomas Anderson's “Inherent Vice.” The double feature was “quite a juxtaposition,” she says with a laugh (Smith enjoyed both films). And it's her taste for movie-going that landed her a job writing the haunting melody that underscores Aronofsky's film. The two first met when they bumped into each other at the Venice Film Festival, catching one another at films and chatting between screenings. Three years later, their off-the-cuff conversation is now an Oscar-eligible single.

“Mercy Is” is not the first of Smith's songs to feature in a Hollywood picture, but it is her first original writing for screen. Below, she tells us about tapping into her long-standing love for religious texts, writing a song that would click with all aspects of Aronofsky's unique vision and why her “ancient” tune was never going to have a jubilant melody.

“Noah” is currently available on DVD/Blu-ray.


HitFix: Do you see your songs being influenced by film?

Patti Smith: I know how they've been influenced. Not the songs, per se, but the album. Right from the start, with “Horses,” I tried to put them together cinematically. Everyone of my records, the way they're sequenced in my mind, is a cinematic sequence. I don't think I could easily explain that, but the inner-narrative of the records have a cinematic rhythm. That's how movies inspired me. I've always loved movies.

What was Darren looking for in this song? Was there a quality in your music that made him think, “Patti should do a song for 'Noah?'”

I bumped into Darren at the Venice Film Festival. We watched a few movies together, then we were taking a walk and he told me about his vision for 'Noah,' which was really up my alley because I love Biblical-themed film. Then he told me he needed a lullaby for two pivotal scenes. I asked him if he'd let me write it. I had never written an original song for a movie, but I've written lullabies. I love lullabies. And because I knew a lot about scriptures and the Noah story, I comprehended his vision. He gave me a shot. It was my first time. I don't have a track record writing music for films.

What Biblical epics are you fond of?

I love [Pier Paolo] Pasolini's “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.” I've always loved Biblical stuff since I was a kid. Even though I broke from religion when I was a teenager, I had a strong Biblical education. What appealed to me was the idea of an artist, like Darren, approaching a Biblical subject. And Darren is an environmentalist. His vision was to use his political ideology and infuse it in the film. His vision appealed to me.

The song sounds like it follows the mechanics of Christian music. What is it we're hearing specifically?

It was rooted more in prayer, more spiritual than religious. I know I've written “Jesus died for my sins, but not mine” in “Gloria,” but that doesn't mean I don't have a reverence for certain aspects of scripture and an understanding of them. I've always loved hymnals. I used to sing in a choir when I was a kid so I have a relationship to arias and opera, the idea of a small, contained song that is written to encapsulate hope or an ideology. My task was to write a little song that was written post-Eden, perhaps by Methuselah, but it was supposed to be handed down generation to generation so that the child would have a hope, a memory of Eden, a memory of the Creator, waiting for them and letting them return to Eden from a very corrupt world. That was the message. I also had to make it viable for Russell Crowe's character to sing and for his adopted daughter to sing, Emma Watson.

It's not the sweetest lullaby. There's a musical sadness in there.

It's looking at the times. This is a song a man wrote, that a man would sing to his son. It was meant to comfort his child. But it also has the nostalgia of a world that was lost. It's describing paradise, which was lost. Hope is always synonymous with sadness. We have hope but we can't be told absolutely certain that we're going to attain what we hope for. I find all lullabies a bit sad. William Blake wrote lullabies. I wrote a lullaby with my husband for our son. The idea of the lullaby was that we would be there for him always. And then his father died not long after. When I hear it, the hope of that lullaby, the promise, there's sadness rooted in it. If you think about it, many beautiful songs, even love songs, have a tinge of melancholy because, in the end, everything has an end.

Plus, the Old Testament is a real downer.

What's rougher than the Old Testament? As a child, I remember reading the Old Testament and it's like war and lust and murder – and that's only in the first couple chapters. But you also find beauty and poetry. There was a lot of contemplation and study to this little song. And also, an understanding of my responsibly. Darren was generous. He let me read the script before they shot the film. He let me see storyboards. I was a big fan of Russell Crowe's work, so I know the man I was writing for, the capability of Russell as an artist. He brings a lot of the sadness into the song. He has innate sadness as an actor. He knows how to infuse his characters with sadness. It was inspiring to write words he was singing.

It sounds like you had to “act” as Noah to perform this song. “Mercy Is” couldn't be a Patti Smith song.

Because it's the first movie I've ever had a task like this, I took it very seriously. Even though it's a little song, it's in two very emotional sections of the film. It has an important duty. The little song has to comfort a little girl, has to move Noah's wife, has to be believable as a song handed down, so as I was writing it, I had to imagine Anthony Hopkins singing it, I had to imagine his wife being moved by it, had to imagine Emma Watson's character singing it. In the end, Darren gave me the task of singing it over the credits. That's one thing I hadn't expected.

Songwriting for a film is a collaborative process, but I heard even Russell had input in the final version?

Yes, that's true. For me, I was serving Darren serving Russell's Noah. Russell, when he sang a portion of it – the song was much longer than needed, so I wrote three minutes and they only needed a certain amount of seconds – but it had to be bended to how he saw the character. He changed a couple words that bended the melody a bit. I was so happy. My first duty was to fit Darren's vision, but my second most important duty was that it was good for Russell.

How did your other collaborators fit into the evolution of “Mercy Is?”

The song was relatively simple musically, but I wanted it to lift to another place. So I asked Lenny Kaye to help me because he and I wrote a couple of hymns together. I worked with Lenny since 1971, so we have a beautiful, collaborative process. I brought him the song and he found a way, musically, to lift it to another place. When I sang the song at the end, it's live with the Kronos Quartet. They had made an arrangement. I practiced with them for awhile because I had never sang with a quartet before and it's a specialized kind of work. You have to concentrate on your prime directive. I'm used to singing with a rock and roll band. It was fascinating. They were patient with me. I had to take a few deep breaths and get used to the harmonics. Once I did, we did it a number of times because it was a live recording. It would have been too difficult to separate. You can't really do a vocal track over that kind of instrumentation. I think it would be difficult.

How did Lenny Kaye “lift the song up?”

Well, it has to….

[Smith begins to sing the first few bars of “Mercy Is” to refresh her memory (and it's pretty much perfection)]

“Mercy is where mercy does,” I wrote that. Then Lenny brought that second place where it goes. When I was writing it, it was very lullaby-like. But I think it needed a little more majesty. Lenny brought that. It's a relatively simple song, it only has these two changes, so in the middle of the song, Lenny brought the change, another level of beauty. I couldn't really say to you [how it works musically]. I'm not really a musician. I sing, but I don't play anything. It's the only way I could have described it for you.

This is your first song written for the screen, but filmmakers have used your music in the past. Did it feel different? Better?

It's thrilling! It was daunting. Darren was like my psychiatrist. I'd call him and say, “I don't know if I can do this.” I'm not usually intimated, really, but the responsibility is so strong. When you do something for a movie you serve multiple masters, all of whom are important. When I write songs for my records, I'm writing a song and am happy with it. If I'm writing lyrics for a musician I want them to be happy, but this is another level. When I saw the film and heard Russell and Emma singing, I felt so proud. It's a dream come true. I love the movies. I love being part of Darren's vision. It's a movie I believe in and a movie I'm proud to be a small part of.

Listen to Patti Smith's “Mercy Is” from Darren Aronofsky's “Noah” below.