Songwriter Daniel Heath has one of the best working relationships in the music industry today - he writes songs with pop songstress Lana Del Rey. Though they've been writing partners for quite some time now, one of their most recent songs is the title track for Tim Burton's newest film, Big Eyes, and it just received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song. The track itself is a work of cinematic and musical mastery, embracing the story of the film and evoking the cinematic relevance throughout the tune. In a recent exclusive interview with Heath, he opened up to us about working on the song "Big Eyes," how he and Lana Del Rey work together on their songs, and what the future holds for him and his songwriting career.
How did your songwriting partnership with Lana Del Rey start?
I've known her for about 10 years now, and she used to go out with my best friend in New York. And the way this sort of came together was she would come out to LA and do these writing trips and work with producers on music. At the time, I was doing my own music and we would play each other bits and pieces of music and I guess the stars all aligned one night because, right before she signed to Interscope, her song "Video Games" went viral on the Internet, and then we wrote a track together called "Blue Jeans." It was the first writing session we'd ever done together, we just went in the studio, which at the time was in Santa Monica, and we just wrote "Blue Jeans" together in one night, which ended up being her next single. So that's how our writing relationship really started. That was the start and obviously since then we've done a lot more stuff together, but that was the beginning.
Was writing songs for movies always part of your mindset while working with Lana?
Oh definitely! I've always been a film score junkie. I've always loved that stuff and always wanted to write music for films and I think what we've gone for in the tracks that we've done has been like a very cinematic sound that she loves and I love. So it's been a good sort of marriage of creativity between me and her, and I think her voice lends itself really well to cinematic sound as well. She loves strings and she loves brass and I love that stuff too. At any time I come up with an idea, I send it her way. Sometimes she'll sing on top of it and then we'll have a song, or sometimes she'll sing me in a little melody and I'll create a song around that. It just depends, but I think, I gave you a really long-winded answer to your question, but I think definitely, I've always had films in mind when writing songs.
How did the project "Big Eyes" get started?
Well it all happened quite quickly. She gave me a call one day from New York and said, "Look I'm on my way to LA and I've talking to Harvey [Weinstein] and he wants us to write a song for this new Tim Burton movie called Big Eyes." And I got really, really excited because I'm a huge Tim Burton fan. So she came back from New York, we had dinner with Harvey, and then within a few days after that we had the song. She sang me a little melody on my iPhone, which I recorded, and I started building up the music around what she had sung. It all happened quickly, and then when we sent it off it was really nice to hear that Tim Burton really liked the song. It was a big success, just that was really big. That's how it all happened. She saw the film before I did and then I saw the film and that's when I started building up the track a bit.
How much creative freedom did you have on the song? Were you given any direction at all or was it just you two together?
As far as the lyrics go, I'm not sure because Lana wrote all the lyrics. But as far as the music itself goes, I think there was a lot of creative freedom. I didn't actually start writing the music until I'd seen the film and got a vibe of Danny Elfman's score because I think I got some inspiration off seeing the film and listening to the music already in the film. And there were talks about making it sort of a 1950s song. I mean that was the direction we had, it blended in with film score or it could be like a period piece; a '50s '60s sort of vibe. And I opted to go with the film score kind of vibe. But I think there was a fair amount of creative freedom as far as the music goes.
On top of original songs for films, you've also worked with some notable film and TV composers in the music departments on projects and done movie trailer music in the past. Do you think that you're set with original songs, or are you looking to get back into that, or maybe just get a composing position yourself?
Well I would love to! I have to say it would be a dream to get my own film; I would absolutely love that because that's what I want to do the most. But I also really love writing songs for film as well, and I have to say, I really like doing trailer music as well because you get this such good music that's really sort of really powerful. But I would say between those three things, the top would be writing an original score for a movie, which I would love to do. It seems like the song writing world- I sort of fell into, and all the stars aligned and it just happened perfectly, and I'm so grateful for that and it's been an amazing journey getting to write all these songs and working with all these cool people and getting all this production and arranging work. It's a miracle, I think, and I definitely think if I could, I would love to do a film of some sort down the line- something I could really sink my teeth into.
Are there any artists out there that you'd like to work with?
There's a couple actually. Trent Reznor is one of them. I think he's an absolute genius and that would be amazing. Another band called Massive Attack, I've been a huge fan of them for many, many years. And I would love to work with Bjork at some point. Those are my three top. They're all incredible. And I know they're from generations before what's on the radio now, but I just think what they're doing and what they've always done is just groundbreaking and if I had to have a top three that would be it.
What was the first instrument you learned how to play? And as a songwriter, what is your favorite instrument to write for?
My first instrument I learned how to play was piano. And I still write a lot on the piano now, that's my main writing instrument. I used to be a sort of semi-decent piano player, but I'm not really anymore; I lost my chops because I don't practice enough these days. But my favorite instrument to write for will probably be a cello because I just love the sound of the cello. And the one instrument I've always wanted to be good at, but never put enough time- I'm sort of a real hack guitar player, but I'd love to be a great guitar player. I think the piano is just wonderful. I love writing for orchestra as well, but if I had to pick out a single instrument it would be the cello.
Do you have any projects that you're currently working on or will be working on?
There's one artist that I'm really excited about I've been working with: Jamie N Commons, who's signed to Interscope. He's got the most amazing voice you'll ever hear. I guess that's up for interpretation, but I think he's got the most amazing voice in the world and his music is just incredible. If you get a chance to check him out, he's amazing. And Lana's working on a new album as well, which I might be doing a few things on. I'm also working on my own EP right now, which is like a crossroads between film score and song. I'm doing four tracks. A different singer on each track. The concept behind the album is sort of dark versus light, not that that hasn't been done before. There's going to be two tracks which are dark and heavy with light thread through them, and then there's going to be two light tracks with dark thread through them, and they're going to be all sort of original songs. And we're recording a real string section for that too which will be amazing. But that's the stuff I'm really excited about right now. I'll be doing various different session throughout the year, so we'll see what happens, but that's the stuff that's currently going on. And there's a couple of films actually, I've been offered a couple of films, so I'm going to be reading a couple of scripts to see if I can get sort of stuck into those. But that's the stuff that's going on currently. The EP is going to be taking up a lot of time.
Do you have any advice for aspiring songwriters?
I would say work ethic is pretty strong sometimes; to have a good work ethic is pretty important. I know that there's sometimes an illusion, I had it growing up, seeing all the rock stars and everything like partying, throwing TV's out the window, but that's not really the case. A lot of it is a lot of hard work and a lot of grinding away. And then another piece of advice I would say is to do stuff that you feel connected to because I think the mistake sometimes for me in songwriting and production is listening to what's on the radio and trying to replicate it or do something is maybe not authentic for the music that you really want to create. I think that if you're creating music that's really true to yourself and true to your heart, something that really resonates with you, I think that other people will resonate to it because there's a real honesty in that. I would say, not to be cheesy, but just to follow your heart in doing what you love. I think that's really what people resonate towards. There's a lot of people out there right now trying to get hits on the radio, but my stuff has never been that radio friendly, but I still managed to keep the lights on through doing it, which is what the dream is for me- to be able to make music and have it as my primary job. I think when I'm doing stuff that's true to myself; I think people respond to it in a good light, in a good way.