Interview with Jeff Danna

(Jeff Danna, photo from Soundtrack.net)

Changing the face of how America ate via France and Boston public television while inspiring a likably whimsical cult of culinary personality, the lankily delightful and iconically vocal Julia Child still stands tall as the grand dame to which all TV kitchen personalities must bow. Finally moving to the  fictionalized big screen cinematic treat of 2009’s “Julie & Julia,” then telling the impossible truth with 2021’s acclaimed documentary “Julia,” the not-so-proper world-conquering Bostonian finally now returns to the streaming tube with the just somewhat fictionalized HBO/Max series “Julia.” Through her various incarnations from Meryl Streep to the real deal and now English actress Sarah Lancashire, the one musical recipe that’s passed from composers Alexandre Desplat to Rachel Portman and now Jeff Danna is a lush melodic touch that captures Child’s winning eccentricity, tender vulnerability and the hunger-inducing food porn of her work. 

But just because one shares scoring ingredients doesn’t mean the musical recipe tastes the same, a truth that Jeff Danna now serves up in his distinctive style over eight episodes of “Julia.” Given a sauce of classical and jazz stylings that paint a picture of the early 1960’s in which Child came to the black and white video fore, Danna keeps a firm grip on thematic seasoning as he effortlessly dashes to and fro from a kitchen of tangos, waltzing rhythm, intimate melody and rambunctious comedy – all  painting an enticing portrait of an unforgettable personality. It’s scoring that’s empathetically in tune with a French chef unlike any other, hearing Child’s boisterous determination and the very real woman within given the bedrock of her supportive relationship with her artful, gourmand husband Paul Cushing (David Hyde-Pierce). Mixing a tuneful sense of the erudite, earthy and above all the love and passion of cooking, Jeff Danna’s scoring is a healthy Michelin-worthy lesson in catchy melody. 

Hailing from Canada where his older brother Mychael also notably struck out into scoring, the Danna Brothers have long reigned supreme from their talent at character-based scoring, both apart and memorably together (“Fractured,” “Camelot,” “Onward”). Jeff’s range has been especially dynamic from eccentrically scoring virtuous killers (“The Boondock Saints”) to bible tales (“The Gospel of John”), videogame demons (“Resident Evil”) and high school Shakespeare (“O”). Veering from medieval instrumentation to drugged-out percussion and nightmarish electronics through his engaging career, Danna has never quite been so winningly and singularly elegant as he is with “Julia,” his music capturing a larger than life first lady with humor and heart that helps make viewers fall in love with a cooking doyenne on television all over again. 

Mychael and Jeff Danna (photo by Cassandra Church)

How did you and Mychael end up as musicians ? And did your older brother’s career path influence you to take that composing route as well?

Well, Mychael and I grew up in a musical family in Canada, but not in a professional music family. Our parents were avid singers and actors in local little theater, local Broadway, they sang in the church choir – that kind of thing. Music was all around us. It was being played in the house all the time. My dad sang at weddings on the weekends, so he was always in the living room on the piano, practicing and singing away. It was a natural step for everyone in the family to take piano lessons, which we all did – though some of us were better at piano than others! (laughs) 

Myke was a very good piano student, as you can imagine, but I really loathed the experience and longed to NOT play piano. I accidentally discovered guitar when Myke left a guitar lying around the house that belonged to one of the members of his band at the time. I think he was about 16 or 17 , I was 10 or 11. I picked it up and…suddenly I was a guitar player ! It happened very quickly. ( I learned after that, that we had 3 generations of mandolin players in the family going back to a mandolin school that our grandmother helped run back at the turn of the last century in Winnipeg – So I guess it was in the blood for me?). After that I proceeded to be more of the songwriter / “play in a band” guy, until I was about 21 or 22, and Myke was more the “play the church organ and study music properly”  guy; although he did also play in a band for a while – and even with my band , briefly – which perhaps set the stage for future collaborations. 

(Photo by Kayvon Esmaili / Walt Disney Company)

At one point I ended up hurting my hands – I got carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis etc , and they were just kind of really messed up to the point where I couldn’t play for a while. By that time, Myke had started working on films up in Canada, and he was just getting his feet wet.  He saw me wondering what the hell I was going to do, now that I couldn’t properly play my guitar, (or so it seemed anyways) and said, “Why don’t you come in and play the guitar on some of these scores I’m working on?” You could just play for an hour and put your hands in a bucket of ice, rest, and after we’ll go back to work.” I saw how it worked. And I thought to myself, “I could probably figure out how to do that.” So we took on a film together, our first co-write, called “Cold Comfort”It was my first film, and it seemed to go pretty well. He then said, (and I think I was around 23 at the time, he was about 29), “You can do this. You’ve got a sense of melody, storyline and characters. I think you should give this a shot, if you’re not going to be Sting” (hey, who doesn’t want to be Sting ?) So that was the beginning of  working towards a career as a film composer. 

As you became a composer in your own rite, what do you think you learned from Mychael, and what do you think he learned from you? 

Well obviously, we went on to do a lot of things together- we’re still doing things together. I think that one of the reasons that we’re such a good team is that we’re like two overlapping circles. There’s a bunch of commonalities there, and then there’s each of us having our own things that are outliers and strengths, separate from the other. If you think about it, the things that shape you as an artist are the things that shape you as a person. Growing up in the same family, in the same house, with the same parents is obviously tremendously formative. So there’s a foundation there that is always going to work for us. 

We also share a common overall aesthetic , I think. We tend to want to do try to do things that are just somehow a little bit different from the norm – or find an interesting way into the thing that we’re working on. We both want to lay a lot of thematic material in there, if possible. That’s the thing that makes music a joy for me.

Over the course of 25 years there’s hundreds of things you trade off, if you think about it. It can be as simple as, “Oh I know this guy that plays this weird axe, we should use one of those here” and the other guy saying, “Oh I haven’t used one of those yet, that’s pretty cool.” All the way through to, “You know we should do this session with no violas. Let’s just double the cellos, put a bunch of them up high. I did that on my last project and that turned out to be something really interesting to do.” So there’s just a huge transfer of information from people you know, techniques you’ve tried, things that might work, and then if you’re aiming at the same thing, more or less – which we tend to do- and you’re able to put ego aside, which is crucial in the collaborative arts, then I think the results can be really good. I’m really proud of the things that Myke and I together. 

A big cinematic breakthrough for you was with Troy Duffy’s “The Boondock Saints,” which is still an enduring cult movie. What was the experience like of working with Troy the two films?

I met Troy through Patrick Newell, who is now a big time Hollywood producer. But at the time, he was actually my physical trainer, ( laughs ) which is such a Hollywood story, right? He knew Chris Brinker and Troy Duffy, and they were looking for a composer. Patrick knew that I had experience with the Celtic thing from the 2 albums I had done with my brother, and another separate film score I’d done by myself that was also Celtic. When Troy and Chris were talking to Patrick, they said “We gotta find someone who can handle this Celtic thing cause the brothers are Irish, and we’d like to represent that in the music.” And that was how I got to meet them . It was a great experience. “Boondock Saints” was a film that had a lot of creative momentum. Troy was really on a roll with it and had ideas to be interesting and didn’t care about what was the standard way to do it. He just said, “Well let’s just try this or that.” I had a lot of fun with BS1, but I think the score on the next film was better – I had more time for sure. I only had three weeks to do the first score. It’s not really my most polished work! It was a total rush-jam the way the schedule worked out. I had a lot more time on the second film, and I believe it sounds like it. “Boondock Saints 2” included an Italian aspect to it to add to the Celtic sound, and that was a lot of fun also. These are larger than life characters, with very exaggerated kind of gestures in the storyline and such, and that makes for some fun in the music department. 

Another particularly creative score for you was the Bob Evans documentary “The Kid Stays in the Picture.” How did you want to capture an outrageous Hollywood lifestyle, and how do you think that score set you up to score real-life characters?

“The Kid Stays in The Picture” was one of my best film experiences, and a lot of the credit for that belongs to Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein, who were directing me on it. They had a strong feeling for how “schizophrenic” the score could be. Everything seemed to be fair game , stylistically. They would say “Bob’s life is a circus, let’s play circus music.” Or “Bob knows all these gangsters, let’s play gangster music.” They really did drive a lot of the style choices in that film, and it gave me the chance to write a main sort of “Bob” theme and then give it a multitude of different variations – or so it seemed as I was sweating through it with white knuckles!  But I’m very proud of the result, I think it’s a great movie, and one of my favorite scores. 

Tell us about working with Mychael on Terry Gilliam’s “Tideland?”  

Terry Gilliam is a dream to work for, for a composer. He invents these fantastical , crazy worlds, and then says, “Be creative. “Be Different.” “Work outside of the box” And because we are trying to think that way also, it seemed to be a good combination for us. Our first film for him was “Tideland,” which is –  listening back –  just an absolutely bizarre acid-trip of a score. In a fully orchestral sense, of course, but it came from the fact that it was a very unconventional, dark and odd film that Terry wanted the music to represent. Once we figured out what the direction of it was, it actually took a little bit of time. We found that dissonance and strangeness and hard left and right corners were a good thing for that score. We recorded it in a church in London at Trinity Church Square I believe. Recording in churches is my favorite sonic atmosphere because you get all that great, real reverb around it with that fogginess and those unexpected sonic angles, which added to the uniqueness of the “Tideland” score. It’s got its own setting in space, and that helped with the fact that the music very much had its own musical setting.  We went on to do “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” with Terry, which was another great and memorable experience. 

The real Julia Child

Were you familiar with Julia Child before the show came your way? And once you started the gig, did you research her, or attempt any of her recipes?

I actually had not seen a Julia Child episode before Chris Keyser called me about working on that show. I obviously knew who she was as a figure in culture, but I had not seen a show, or to my knowledge, eaten one of her recipes ! 

Sara Lancashire as Julia Child

In a way, this show ends the trilogy begun with the fictionalized “Julie & Julia” the documentary “Julia” and now this return to a slightly imagined Julia. How did you approach this challenge ? 

I do know that the idea of capturing who she was in a musical theme was something I had to think about for a little bit. (laughs ). She’s an iconic and broad character with a need for a single theme. In “Julia” she’s in almost every scene, so finding one tune that could take all of the different shades of her personality and career-situations into account was important – if a little tricky  It had to eventually end up being something that could swing, that could sound French. It had to be something that could waltz. It had to be something that could sound like the keys pounded out on a typewriter. It had to do a lot of things. 

The first thing I did was write the tune- I think it was for the typewriter scene in the first episode. I sent it to Chris and Daniel, – that’s Daniel Goldfarb (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), the co-creator with Chris. They said, “Great tune, we like it. Now could you also have it go a little Count Basie?” and a number of other things. And thus we ended up with that Julia theme that has many flavors and iterations, but is always the same theme, no matter how bent around and dressed up it is. And that’s been one of the joys of working on that show. Being able to have a joyful tune that really seems to fit the character on screen and try to find as many different ways to color it up as possible 

Bebe Neuwirth and Sara Lancashire

How did you want to play off of Julia’s vocal and physical quirks, as well as the show’s overall sense of humor? And conversely, what’s the trick of playing a larger-than-life person with empathy as opposed to condescension? 

Sarah Lancashire is giving me a lot to work with, as far as her performance of this character. I found that the key to scoring Julia was laying in her theme in a way that supports and embellishes her performance but doesn’t walk on it. So there are a lot of spaces in the music. Starts, stops, pauses. Things that I do to let those key verbal phrases, moments and utterances come right to the forefront. I will step out and step back in. That’s been one of the things that I think makes this music work in this particular show . It’s like comic timing for composition, I suppose. 

As far as the larger-than-life person and empathy, I think that it was important to me that the tune also have an emotional underpinning. There’s obviously moments where Julia is going to feel the weight of being Julia Child, but also the weight of living her life – her Human Experience. So I was writing a tune that I hoped was going to be catchy and malleable, but also have an emotional and empathetic underpinning. Hopefully the audience  can sense that in the show, that Julia’s heart was in there too and not just her ambition or showbiz persona. 

David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Lancashire

The strength of the show is Julia’s relationship with her husband Paul. How do you play their camaraderie, and the fact that he’s essentially in her shadow while enthusiastically promoting her?

Given the amount of screen time devoted to that relationship, and the importance of it in their lives- I thought that we’d better have a really nice, understated, but genuinely emotional theme to go with that relationship. That came second to the main Julia theme and it became the Paul & Julia theme. 

I’m fortunate that HBO & Evyen Klean really stepped up in giving me the tools to do the music for “Julia.” I asked for a 26-piece band, and we pandemically recorded at Air Lyndhurst, which is an amazing hall. This allowed me to write music that would have some echoes into the time period that this storyline originates from. I didn’t want anything sounding too contemporary, as I thought that would sit oddly with the 1960-61 setting of this first season. The filmmakers clearly went to considerable effort to get the wardrobe, the art design, production design, those sets – they’ve done beautiful work on this show. I wanted to honor their attempt to recapture that period of history with music that could feel comfortable in that period. Not to mention, sit happily astride Jonathan Leahy’s inspired source music choices, which of course are a huge part of the show also. Ultimately, it meant real music, real musicians, real orchestra, and Evyen and HBO gave me those resources. Thank goodness .

There are a lot of fun stylistic approaches in the show from Samba to Tangos. Do you think this gave you an “out of the box” opportunity in a way that Julia Child hasn’t been scored yet?

I’m actually not sure how Julia Child has been scored before – I didn’t catch the documentary ye , and I don’t remember the film, I probably saw it, but I don’t really remember it. Too many deadlines over the years , I’m sure! Julia is clearly Joyful as she cooks, so I wanted her theme to be Joyful. She’s cooking all these different dishes, this wide variety of courses and flavors. I thought that I could do that with the music, too. As long as I was  anchoring all these musical styles with that main Julia theme, I hoped that I could go out there and samba, and tango, and waltz and swing, and it would still hold together. Hopefully I can do those varied things, and it’s sort of like the fact that : Coq au Vin is nothing like Sweetbreads, which is nothing like Mousse a la Framboise etc 

Could you personally identify with Julia?

I think that anyone who undertakes an unlikely kind of profession can identify with their kin in that pursuit of the difficult things. I think that being a film composer is a somewhat unlikely career to still be doing after 35 years if you thought you wanted to do it when you were 21 or 22. And obviously, what Julia did is her own road as well. I would think that all creatives who want to make their way and say the thing they want to say and create the body of work that they want to create see a kindred spirit in someone else who has that kind of path in any of the arts or pursuits. 

Did you get hungry composing for “Julia?”  

Of course ! But I’m pretty much always hungry anyways!

Watch “Julia” on HBO/Max, and buy Jeff Danna’s soundtrack on WaterTower Music HERE

https://www.amazon.com/music/player/albums/B09V5792VC?ref=sr_1_1&keywords=julia+danna+soundtrack&crid=1RHKBE2CCBBMH&sprefix=julia+danna+soundtrack%2Caps%2C116&qid=1649871347&sr=8-1

Visit Jeff Danna’s website HERE

https://jeffdanna.com

Special thanks to Jeff Sanderson