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.