By: Jessica Nakamoto –
Kicking off its debut season on the brand-new Apple TV+ streaming platform, the comedic-drama, Dickinson, is one coming-of-age story you won’t want to miss.
A mix of humor, history, and 19th century teenage antics, actress Hailee Steinfeld transports viewers back in time and provides an edgy twist to the life of acclaimed poet Emily Dickinson and her battle for literary recognition.
However, fans are constantly reminded that the series is by no means a strictly boring “by the books” account. Rather, the combination of past and present elements is what adds to the characteristic atmosphere of the show.
For while modern language and period-accurate clothing do create a fascinating contrasting atmosphere, it is this intersection between classic methods and modern sensibilities in which the show’s composers, Ian Hultquist and Drum & Lace (Sofia Hultquist), truly enter the spotlight.
Having worked individually, writing music for theatre and dance, as well as completing remixes for artists such as Portugal. The Man, Imagine Dragons, and Tegan & Sara, this husband and wife duo were clearly the best fit for implementing a modern yet cinematic flair to the multi-faceted production.
And with Season two of Dickinson already in production and a variety of other projects on their plate for the upcoming year, we were excited to catch up with Ian and Sofia to get the inside scoop on the new season, Wiz Khalifa’s character theme, their collaborative process, and more!
I know you both have experience composing for film, but I heard that Dickinson was actually your first time scoring a narrative TV show together. How did you originally get involved in the project with Apple TV?
Drum & Lace: We’ve worked on documentaries before, but never anything narrative or TV. Honestly, looking back on it, it’s one of those wonderful stories of people recommending us! Apple was launching a new network, and Dickenson was one of the smaller of their first new releases.
I’m pretty sure, especially now that we know her, that Alena Smith, the showrunner, wanted to bring in people who could both create interesting music and make something that sounded contemporary. Also, on my end, a composer that I’ve worked with at The Echo Society and who’s very fond of Ian as well, had done some things for Apple in the past. He mentioned our names to David Taylor at Apple Music. Then, someone else who works at a publishing company put a good word in for us.
So, when the time came for Apple to start asking around, our names came up and that’s really how it came together. We have our community and peers and are really thankful for it!
I like how the show is able to straddle the line between comedy, drama, a coming-of-age story, all the while being set in Dickinson’s world with a modern script. How were you able to find cohesive threads and work with all the different angles in the story?
Hultquist: It definitely took a minute for us to get a handle on how to best approach the music for the show. It’s a comedy, but then as you get further into the story, it goes away from that. Scoring comedy is so difficult because you can actually take humor out if you add music. You could also overdo it and lose the effect.
It was a bit of a process at the very beginning to kind of find the right footing. But the thing that really opened it up for us was when we really started focusing on Emily’s inner dialogue and using the music to express that. I think that was our first big eye-opening moment where the music started making sense.
Drum & Lace: And not only that, I think one of the first things we wrote for the series was the main title! Just knowing that they were into what we were offering sonically, and that they were excited about it was great! We were very aware of how much contemporary music was in the show. It was a good indication for us to be able to know and gage what we were working with.
So, I think it’s a mix of what Ian’s saying. Emily’s theme and the main title are what really brought us to being able to figure out how to compose for the series.
Ian, you had mentioned tapping into Emily’s inner dialogue. It seems that Sofia, your vocals really added a lot of layers and texture to that area of the score. Is this something you think you’ll explore more in the future or even in other productions?
Drum & Lace: Yes, absolutely! We’re actually starting on season two of Dickinson right now, and the feedback that we’ve gotten from almost everyone on the show, people at Apple, and the production company, is that the vocals worked really well. They want more! (laughs) It’s something that people find themselves resonating with, so there will definitely be more vocals in new season moving forward.
In my personal work, I’ve always used vocals. They have been something that might not be very obvious, maybe because they’ve been manipulated, but they’re always there.
I’m actually working on another TV project right now with Ian. They love the vocals as well. In a way, it’s cool when you find something that can help make a particular thing “your sound”. I always thought that it was going to be something a lot less obvious than voice, but people seem to enjoy it and it works well for scoring. I’m excited to do more and more of that!
Were there any other unique instruments or field recording sounds that you guys were able to incorporate into the score for Dickinson?
Hultquist: Yeah! (laughs) Actually, our dog barked! it can be heard in the main title. It’s pitched up and kind of sounds like whoof.
Drum & Lace: We used an instrument called a waterphone as well. It kind of looks like a tray from Game of Thrones! It has these metal rods coming off of it and you bow it. We played that for some parts. Then, we also had a ton of synth-type instruments. There’s one called the Lyra-8. It’s essentially a touch synthesizer noise maker. There’s a lot of synth running through all sorts of pedals, and a bunch of distorted guitars. Nothing that’s “off the shelf” or from a store necessarily, but there’s a lot of stuff that’s been really mangled and manipulated and flipped on its head, for sure!
I love that! I was talking to another composer earlier this year, and he used his pet squirrel in one of his songs. So, the more outside the box, the better!
Hultquist/Drum & Lace: Oh, we think we know who that is! Was it Eskmo?
Drum & Lace: Yeah, Albert the squirrel is quite popular! (laughs) He’s great!
I read that you’d described your score for Dickinson as a “deconstructed pop song”. What was the inspiration behind some of the more pop-orientated sounds?
Hultquist: The way we wrote our instrumentation was derived from pop music. We tried to create and give a nod to contemporary work and constructed the cues as if it were a song, as opposed to just dramatic underscore.
It’s interesting that as the season progressed, and by the time we got to the end, we were almost doing more of a cinematic score. But I think we created a new language with the earlier cues that we were writing. It was a really interesting palate of sounds that came together!
Drum & Lace: At the beginning, the first few episodes were challenging for everyone, including the filmmakers trying to find their footing and us trying to find the sonic palate. And while the whole season is great, it’s really from episode four or five onward, that musically, lyrically and composition wise, the show really opens up. I feel like it allowed us to start exploring longer cues and longer motifs. Now, with season two, judging from the little bit that we’ve seen of the first few episodes, there’s going to be a lot more score in it than season one.
I remember hearing a piece from one of the later episodes which even had an acoustic guitar in it! I thought that was really interesting. It’s good to mix it up!
Drum & Lace: Yeah! And that’s one of the only episodes that has the acoustic guitar in it. It’s neat because people seem to like it even though it’s so different from the sound in the rest of the show. But like you said, sometimes you need things that sound a little bit different every once in a while!
You’ve both worn a lot of different hats, whether it be Sofia, your composition work for fashion, dance, and theater, or Ian, your experience as a founding member of Passion Pit and work as a producer. Do you think that exploring different areas of music has helped you adapt or gives you a different perspective when it comes to scoring for film or TV?
Hultquist: Yes, totally! I think part of the reason we’ve been able to get some of the opportunities we’ve had is because we come at scoring from a background that’s not as traditional as a lot of other people. We always try to walk in the door and come at things with an interesting take. I think it’s definitely helped us be able to do a lot of work that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.
Drum & Lace: In a way it’s a very humbling thing. Scoring for us isn’t something that comes with ease. It can be easy for someone who’s never heard of us to think, “oh, who are these nobody’s that are getting to score an Apple show?”
But, like you mentioned, if you look under the hood, Ian and I have been working in some facet of music and composition for years. We graduated from music school in film scoring. It’s been a fifteen-year journey for us. They say an overnight success is ten years in the making. And getting to work in all these different things is literally one of those moments! Ian is still touring and I’m still performing live to this day. I think that helps connect us with others. You meet people that aren’t just in the film scoring world. That’s neat because, where’s the fun in meeting everyone who does the exact same thing? I think our diversity has really helped for sure!
In addition to your music background, you guys have a really unique situation being able to score together. Are there any challenges or benefits to sitting down at the same time, in the same room, and working things out together?
Hultquist: Yes! The way we approach it has been great! We’ve spoken with other composers that work in a pair and they don’t necessarily all sit together and work together like we do. I think there’s definitely moments where it feels frustrating depending on who’s running the ship. You might have an idea that’s not coming out as fast as they wish it did or vice versa. A lot of the times however, I’ll have an idea that I don’t think is great and I’m ready to throw it away. Then, Sofia can kind of come in and salvage it. It really goes both ways. We’ve both been on opposite ends where we’re coming up with an idea, trashing an idea, changing ideas. It’s a constant collaboration that’s happening when we work together.
Drum & Lace: It think it also helps get rid of a lot of insecurities and vulnerabilities. When you’re sitting on your own, sometimes you can get into a spiral of thinking, “oh this sucks”, or “I’m the worst!” But when there’s someone else in the room, they can come in and say, “hey, how about stepping outside for a second. Just go sit on the couch or the back of the room and let me take a stab at this”. And then, something good can come from it.
It’s not very often that something one of us starts gets completely scratched. Rather, if I start something and say, “oh my God, this is a piece of garbage”, Ian will be able to come in and salvage it, or vice versa. I think that’s a huge advantage of having two people working on the same thing at the same time, who have the same sensibilities and respect for each other.
Is there a base instrument you both sit down at to start the process, or how do you go about building the score from the ground up?
Hultquist: Everything starts with the keyboard, but because we’re always using samples or synths, it can be any kind of instrument. I’m a guitar player so sometimes we’ll start with that or with the bass guitar. Honestly, it’s different all the time. Some tracks we’ll start with the beat or figuring out a rhythm. Sometimes it’ll be a piano melody, which is a little more traditional. It really depends on what show we’re working on and what’s in front of us.
I know Wiz Khalifa’s character and the death theme have been very popular with fans. What was the inspiration behind the hip-hop-esque sound surrounding his character?
Drum & Lace: We were so excited when we saw that he was playing death! There’s an inherent coolness about him, and he seems to brings this extra element of real legitimacy to the show. I don’t think there was even any temp music for his character. It was more, “what do you guys think?” Of course, we thought it would be great to have something that lives within the contemporary hip-hop trap world. But we didn’t necessarily think it needed to be super explicit.
To be honest, that particular cue started with The Prodigy! I’m a huge fan of old jungle techno from the nineties and beyond. I loved The Prodigy, so I was like, “you know what, I’m just going to start a track with a bunch of drum machines that sound like the film, and then, let’s go from there”. That’s kind of what became the basis of the sound. After that, Ian and I built upon it, and we ended up with what turned out to be the Death theme!
It’s definitely the most Shazamed. On the artist version of Apple music, you can see that people have Shazamed the Death theme nearly a thousand times, which is at least twice as much as any other of the tracks! I think when people watch the show, they think it’s an actual song. That’s the biggest compliment!
That’s awesome! Earlier, you guys mentioned that season two of Dickinson is already in progress. Do you have any upcoming goals for the year or any other projects that are currently in the works?
Drum & Lace: We have a lot coming up both together and separately! For Dickinson, we’re going to be working on the score both right now and at the beginning of 2020, which is super exciting. We don’t know when season two is going to be out but hopefully, the fans keep asking for it sooner than when season one came out!
Ian and I also just got brought on to score season three of the NBC show, Good Girls. They were looking for a newer sound, and it’s been a ton of fun so far! Then, we’re doing another docu-series episode or episodes together which we can’t talk about it quite yet. Personally, I have a feature film coming up called Grace, which I’m starting in January. Ian also has some things coming up as well.
Hultquist: 2020’s going to be a busy but fun year!
The best kind!
Drum & Lace: We’re just bracing ourselves! (laughs) It’s nice when you kind of have an idea that it’s going to be crazy. So, for the first time in five years, we’re actually going out of town for the holidays. We’re going to try and take two full weeks off because we know that 2020’s going to be a doozy!
To wrap things up, I have a couple of fun, fill-in-the-blank questions. Would you like to give it a go?
Drum & Lace/Hultquist: Sure!
In my spare time, I love to…
Hultquist: Take the dogs for a walk.
Drum & Lace: Hang out with friends and eat pizza! (laughs)
One song on my winter playlist is…
Drum & Lace: One that I’ve been listening to at the gym, and it’s nothing like what I usually listen to, but it’s a really catchy song between Charli XCX & Christine and the Queens, called “Gone”. It’s such a good pop song!
Hultquist: “Partition” by Beyoncé!
A TV show I can’t wait to binge watch would have to be…
Hultquist: Dickinson season two!
Drum & Lace: Ian that’s cheating! (laughs) We would watch His Dark Materials!
Last one for you guys! If I could travel anywhere, I’d love to visit…
Drum & Lace: Japan.
Hultquist: I would have to say Thailand!