Interview with Joseph Shirley

For 42 years, the sound of live-action “Star Wars” was the sweeping, symphonic language of John Williams, old school music for a long time ago in a melodic galaxy far, far away. It was a template impressively followed by Michael Giacchino and John Powell on the spin-offs of “Rogue One” and “Solo,” but it took Ludwig Göransson to truly “break” the sound barrier as such when all of “Star Wars” production polish was given to the Disney Plus armor of “The Mandalorian.” Over two seasons, “Black Panther’s” Oscar-winning composer brought a stunning world (s) music -centric viewpoint to characters hardcore fans thought they tunefully knew, all while paying off the gorgeous orchestral adventure that whose style a now 90-year-old Williams revived in the first place. 

Just as the light saber has been dutifully passed, or in this case a Gaffi stick, Göransson’s Jedi protégé Joseph Shirley (“Bad Trip,” “The Mysterious Benedict Society”) joins his Master’s daringly adventurous musical company on the side of a nefarious bounty hunter for “The Book of Boba Fett,” Except as “The Mandalorian” revealed, perhaps he’s not so terrible after all. With the “Book” having closed its first season chapter, the full dazzling scope of Shirley’s scoring, as graced with Göransson’s themes, can be appreciated in hearing the spiritual journey of cool-looking, but basically blank cinematic character into an intensely well-rounded Capo with the musically expressive benefit of being able to take his Mandalorian helmet off. 

In a way that emotionally captures the entirety of the “Star Wars” ethnic, chorally religious and traditionally exciting instrumental universe, Shirley’s impressive range plays Boba’s tribal transfiguration as much as it does his kick-ass prowess during a desert train chase. Prowling into the edgier intergalactic Cosa Nostra power plays of Tatooine, jiving with bar music, evoking ancient desert rhythms and hearing the exasperated anger of an increasingly valiant character who just wants to run a sane crime operation in the seediest city this side of Casablanca, Shirley is also allowed a two-episode detour to the armored way of the Mandalorian along with a spiritually majestic riff on Yoda’s training, by reverse way of his peskier, cuter relatives. It’s a stunning achievement that announces another disturbance of the “Star Wars” musical force, yet in the best kind of way that heralds just how far, far away that talent weaned on a generational franchise can take its scoring into its small screen (let alone cinematic) future for the many welcome spin-offs to come.  

Composer Joseph Shirley

Tell us about your musical background, and how you came to scoring

I was raised in a musical family, with three brothers who all played different instruments.  Naturally, I wanted to join in with them! We’d play around the house all the time, blues and rock mostly.  I started classical piano lessons when I was 7, and studied classical and jazz performance all the way through college.  Wanting to write more, I started scoring student short films and writing music for class projects.  I wrote a musical in High School that my friends and I filmed and presented. I realized then that I really loved writing music to picture.  I went to Loyola New Orleans for Music Composition, always continuing to play with bands, touring around the country whenever possible, and recording all the time.  Some great, great memories playing music with my brothers and friends then.  I’d score short films and do local advertisement music in the daytime, before the gig that night.  Several years later, I went to USC for the Screen Scoring program, always wanting to live in Los Angeles and have a career as a composer. 

Much of your first scoring experience was in shorts. How did that help develop your talent?

You learn musical styles, and how to work with different types of people, different approaches to picture. So, I started to learn how to work and collaborate with people while picking up musical lessons along the way. Some of the shorts I scored while I was a student at USC were phenomenal films, with talented folks I still keep up with.  

Ludwig Göransson (L) and Joseph Shirley (R)

You’d make a significant teaming with Ludwig Göransson. How did that come about, and what do you think he heard in your music? And how does your collaboration work?

Ludwig hired me as his assistant when he was in the middle of “Creed.”  It was right after I graduated from USC, and I sent my portfolio to him –  very much a fan of his, and in need of a job.  I assisted him for several years before he had me chip in musically on anything.  It started with additional music on some of his projects, and things grew from there.  Ludwig and I work together extremely well, I think because we both have a similar approach to loving music, discovering new music, and our personalities mesh in a creative way.  He’s been my mentor in this business, and I’m proud to call him a dear friend!

Did you get to work with Ludwig on “The Mandalorian?” 

Yes!  I worked on both seasons and did additional music on Season Two. 

Bobba Fett in “The Empire Strikes Back”

Were you a “Star Wars” fan before “Boba Fett” came your way? And what did that character mean to you?

I was probably 10, and I remember my mother telling me, “You know, you should really watch Star Wars…”  We had the original trilogy in a VHS box set and I watched those movies over and over.  I was a big fan of R2 (still am), because he was so funny and affable with his expressive sound effects. I started collecting the original 1977 action figures, when my folks would bring me to the local flea market. I had them all except I could never find an original Boba Fett! I remember seeing Boba in ROTJ as a kid and thinking he was just such a cool bad*ss, who had this gunslinger swagger and mystery to him.  

“The Book of Boba Fett” is a giant break for you. Did you have to do any demos as such, or was Ludwig’s word good enough to insure you the job?

Much credit goes to Ludwig.  His word means a lot with Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni, and I couldn’t be more grateful for his endorsement of me for the job. Jon and Dave were familiar with me from previous seasons of Mando while assisting or writing additional music. Even along the way, Ludwig was letting them know if I had written a cue or helped with something. So, it was a natural process to have Ludwig composing themes and producing, and myself scoring “The Book of Boba Fett.” Jon and I had also worked together on another project that didn’t quite get off the ground – though I think having that extra bit of experience with him also helped. It all comes down to trust in people, and luckily Jon trusts the music team wholeheartedly on Mando and on Boba. 

Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni at a press event for ‘The Mandalorian’ | Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney

I’d imagine you’d have the biggest collaboration here with writer and show runner Jon Favreau and frequent director Robert Rodriguez. How has that been?

It’s been the experience of a lifetime for me.  Jon, Robert, and Dave are some of the most trusting collaborators, who really know how to speak about music and what they want music to do within the scene.  Even still, if I chose to write a cue that veered off of what they originally envisioned for the scene, they were open to it. Sometimes the scoring process changes the DNA of the scene in ways that excites them, which is always extremely fulfilling as a composer. That said, they have the final say of course, so every cue needs to operate in a way that supports their vision for the show. These guys are the best, and it’s been a huge honor for me to be able to work so closely with them. 

What do you think makes the music for “small screen” “Star Wars” different from the films when it comes to their tone, and the stylistic opportunities you’re given?

I think “small screen” “Star Wars” opens up the possibilities more stylistically. “The Mandalorian” S1 and S2 touched on cinematic genres and tropes that all live within SW canon, but that show really leaned into those styles in a way that SW Films haven’t yet necessarily. Similarly, “The Book of Boba Fett” has an edgy and gritty aesthetic, following some of those tropes like Mando, and musically there’s license to “lean in” on a style or musical device that may not work as well for the major films. So, when “Book” touched on any of these in the course of the season (Western, Crime Mob, Fast Paced Action, classic Star Wars, Retro Futuristic), I thought it was fitting to actually go there with the music.

How did you want to incorporate Ludwig’s themes for “Boba” into your score?

I wanted to do my best to have elements of “Boba’s” theme threaded into any cue where it made sense story-wise.  The tribal vocal sound exists in almost every cue during Boba’s flashbacks.  Another challenge with Boba’s themes was dealing with the two different time periods – Boba’s rebirth from the Sarlacc (flashbacks), and his reign as Daimyo of Mos Espa (present day).  The “Main Theme” felt apropos for Boba’s flashback timeline and the Tuscan arc. The Boba theme that was introduced in Mando Season Two worked more in his present-day timeline, especially during his time with Fennec and Mando and his reign from the throne.  

In a way, throughout the flashbacks of Chapters 1 through 4, Boba “earns” the present-day theme. That theme plays heavily, in a heroic way, when he enacts his revenge on the Speederbike gang in Chapter 4, and then plays in full force as Boba’s last flashback comes to a close, while he invites  Fennec to join him on the throne. In a way, it brings us, as an audience, into the present-day Boba. But There was one other moment where I chose to “break the rules” with the timelines of the themes – when Boba finally defeats Cad Bane at the end of Chapter 7.  Since Boba wields his Gaffi stick in his surprise attack, I used the Main Theme there, the theme that we associate with his Tuscan flashback arc.

(L-R): Tusken Warrior (Joanna Bennett), Tusken Chieftain (Xavier Jimenez), Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison) and Tusken Kid in Lucasfilm’s THE BOOK OF BOBA FETT, exclusively on Disney+. © 2022 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved.

Tell us about your themes that you’ve threaded through this “Book.”

While Ludwig handled the Main Theme for “Book,” I helped him with the “Present Day” Boba theme from Mando Season 2 Chapter 6.  It has a bit of a mystical quality, a jaunty type rhythm, and horn calls that seemed to fit with Boba’s brute strength and savage-ness in battle.  So, I played a role in that theme becoming a part of the sound of this show, as well as when to use it.  

One important moment in “Book” Chapter 3 is when Boba discovers the Tuscan tribe had been completely and utterly massacred.  I decided to write an elegy for the Tuscans and use that as a theme for Boba Fett as he lays his friends to rest in a ceremonial Tuscan funeral pyre. The lyrics are in a language called Mando’a, which is spoken by the Mandalorians throughout “Star Wars.” We recorded the piece with an excellent male chorus made up of nine Baritone singers.  Here are the lyrics:

Aliit ori’shya tal’din

Burc’ya, burc’ya, burc’ya,

Darasuum kando

Aliit ori’shya tal’din.

:: which translates to ::

Family is more than Blood

Friends, friends, friends,

Eternal significance

Family is more than Blood.

While I wouldn’t say that Boba Fett is kinder and gentler, he’s much more “humane” as it were in his approach to being a crime boss. How does that new sense of emotion affect your scoring?

There are moments of this show that remind me of “The Godfather.” It’s a portrayal of underground crime that isn’t particularly scary or ruthless, but almost has a romance to it. Musically, I thought it was really fun to explore some of that classic Italian mob nostalgia, while still keeping our characters rooted in their proper storylines.  Boba is a sensible crime boss, so, musically there are times where I decided to score him with retro Italian film undertones, which softened the edge of the risky proposals and precarious positions in which he finds himself. 

Tell us about the “ethnic” opportunities that Tatooine affords, especially when it comes to Boba’s “rebirth” with the Sand People?

Whatever “ethnic” qualities may exist musically within the score to “Book,” it was never truly intended to be exactly one thing, or even directly reference a particular culture or region of the world.  But there are strokes of a lot of different types of world music, that when put together, I thought kind of worked for Boba, Tatooine and for “Star Wars.” The vocal element of the score has some more obvious connotations to primal, ceremonial, or even religious styles found all over the world.  The organic quality of some of the Percussion sounds I used (some Polynesian instruments), and the different string instruments (Vietnamese Banjos, Dulcimers, Mandocello) used in scoring felt like they fit with the dry, sandy environment of Tatooine.  There are so many types of cultures and people that live on Tatooine as a whole, that it made sense to reflect that in the score – including many different kinds of instruments found all over this planet of ours!

With your use of voices, do you think there’s a religious, or spiritual quality that ties Boba’s “redemption” with Mando’s faith?

I think the use of voices immediately connects the audience to a character. I mean, not everyone can play a violin, but most everyone has the ability to produce a sound with their voice. So, on a pre-musical level, subconsciously people will hopefully connect to Boba’s sound by the mere fact that we used a lot of vocals within the thread of the score and theme. Vocals certainly connected the character of Boba to the Tuscans, their ceremonies and traditions, in a primal way, which felt very right for him. Regarding “Mando’s faith”, I thought it was fitting to compose a piece of music in the Mando’a language. So, in a way, Boba (though he is not ‘by creed’ a Mandalorian), still has a connection to the Mandalorians by virtue of his father’s armor.

I particularly loved the “train heist” episode “The Tribes of Tatooine.” Could you talk about scoring it, particularly its central action scene?

Strangely enough, that episode’s score came together easier than other episodes. There was something very direct and clear with the arc of that episode, that the music came quite quickly for it.  The Train Heist sequence was so thrilling, even in the early stages of their picture edits, that I really wanted to find a musical thread that could carry us as an audience almost all the way through those 6 minutes of action.  The same bass synth and percussion pattern that enters as Boba and the Tuscans take off on their speederbikes carries all the way through the cue to the very end, which helped with the relentless, unstoppable nature of the fast-paced train.  Sprinkled throughout are some thematic episodes for Boba’s victories along the way, lots of vocal chanting, and a big musical crescendo as Boba finally stops the Train with his brute strength.  I decided to have the final section operate over a long musical pedal, which helped build tension steadily and deliberately, until the cue resolves victoriously with Boba and the Tuscans taking the train down.

Another musically impressive scene was Boba piloting Slaver One into the Sarlacc in “The Gathering Storm.” How did you want to capture the sound of these two immovable forces pitted against each other?

Much credit to Jon on this moment. He wanted this cue to feel like a horror movie, and not an action movie, which was totally a great call.  He had the sound department send me the effects for the Sarlacc Pit and for Slave-1, which I used in the body of the cue itself in musical ways. It’s almost like the music and the sound FX you’re hearing are so intertwined, that it’s hard to tell the difference. Much like the Sarlacc grabbing hold of the ship, it’s hard to tell who’s winning for most of it. I decided to record some really scary choir clusters throughout the cue as well, which helped add to the horror movie quality of this cue.

Tell us about writing the “source” music for “Boba Fett.”

These are always fun! John Williams’ Cantina music is some of my favorite music ever, which I love dearly.  In this show, each episode had a different quality to the source music, that Jon and Dave were keen on getting right stylistically. The Sanctuary particularly, needed to feel different each time we saw it, depending on the bar patrons and the time of day. The Max Rebo band played a lot of styles!  

Joseph, Thundercat and Kitten

For Chapter 4, Thundercat plays the leader of the Mods, and we wanted to go in a retro breakbeat, electronic direction for him. Ludwig and I had a recording session with Thundercat, who played Electric Bass on that cue.  It was an amazing experience to watch Thundercat, the musical giant that he is, play bass accompanying his own acting performance onscreen. I’ll never forget it.

Were there any particular characters you were happy to show up here to be scored?

I was very nervous, but very excited, to write music for both Luke and Grogu on screen together.  What an honor.

Before its final episode, “Boba” centered two episodes around the Mandalorian, as well as a throwback to “The Empire Strikes Back” training sequences. How did you want to capture these tones that evoked Ludwig and John Williams, all while still making this a “Boba Fett” show?

Right.  Well, I’ll say that I had to pinch myself in the middle of it, to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. John Williams’ music for “Star Wars” is the crown jewel of film scoring, and Ludwig carried that torch so elegantly and iconically as well throughout “The Mandalorian.” With both, they wrote amazing themes which I decided to reference at particular moments in those sequences. Almost the entire training sequence is an arrangement of one of Grogu’s themes, that we had used in previous seasons of Mando. Since that episode is a side-step adventure in the larger course of the “Boba Fett” show, I didn’t feel the need to reference the original Boba Fett sound as it were. I decided to go more classic Star Wars, and keep things more based in the orchestra, almost pastoral and adventurous.  To me, it helped give Boba’s sound more impact the next time you hear it in the course of the season.    

Anthony Parnther conducts “The Book of Boba Fett”

How has the scoring process been during the pandemic, especially with the impressive orchestral sound you’ve given to the show?

Lucasfilm has been extraordinary in helping me record during the pandemic for this show.  For the Main Theme, and for each episode, we were allotted ample time to record with a full orchestra, albeit masked. It’s rare to find a TV show studio that cares as deeply for its score as Lucasfilm, and I feel lucky to have been able to record this much music with live players for each episode. World class Los Angeles based instrumentalists, and a world class conductor in Anthony Parnther really added to the cinematic quality of the score.

Does the very attentive fandom around the “Star Wars” shows ever weigh on you?

I try not to think about it too much. With that said, the nerves were certainly there, no doubt. But being an attentive fan myself, I hope to do something with the music that I would think is interesting and honors the “Star Wars” tradition in respectable ways if I weren’t the one working on it. I tried to constantly go back to my 10-year-old self and approach the scenes with that childhood love I had for these characters and this universe.  

What kind of impact do you think you’ve made on broadening the “Star Wars” musical universe, let alone on Boba’s character?  

With this show, we now have a better understanding of Boba Fett, the man, the myth, the legend.  Musically, the score plays into his myth and background in ritualistic ways, often times heroic, and even savage ways.  We’ve introduced some new colors and tones, themes, and musical genres that fit with his story up to this point. And, hopefully, can be expanded upon within Star Wars in the future.

You’ve certainly run with the big break of “Boba Fett.” How do you think it’s impacted your career, and what’s ahead for you?

There are some irons in the fire for sure!  Though, all I can speak to is the amazing experience I had collaborating with the greats: Jon Favreau, Dave Filoni, Robert Rodriguez, and Ludwig Göransson.  I’ve learned a great deal from them each and have more confidence in myself as a composer working on projects I’ve always dreamt of working on.

Watch the complete first season of “The Book of Boba Fett” on Disney Plus, with Joseph Shirley’s score available on Walt Disney Records.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09QRT1J15

Visit Joseph Shirley’s website at

http://josephshirleymusic.com

Special thanks to Holly Battaglia, Maria Kleinman and Phillip Richard