Composer Tamar-kali on the Perks of An Intimate Score

Tamar Kali
Felix van Groeningen

Tamar Kali

Tamar-kali, who wrote the moving, spare score to Palmer — a drama starring Justin Timberlake as an ex-convict who finds himself in charge of a young boy named Sam — recalls the challenges of composing in a pandemic below.

The film's director Fisher Stevens, called me. He had been working with someone else and needed to make a change. I knew I would be spending part of my summer on my family’s compound in South Carolina. I had just had quite a bit of work, and I hadn’t imagined that I would be scoring something at the moment because there were a lot of things that COVID-19 had knocked out of the water.

I asked, “What are you hearing?” and he said, “Guitar and cello.” I watched the film and thought it would be a great palette. We had our spotting session outside in Brooklyn before I left for South Carolina. I like to go up in my hidy-hole, have that initial connection, then go do my work.

I have a rig down in South Carolina because I try to spend as much time there as I can. I had this whole plan to have my 3-year-old goddaughter, my spouse and I hunker down, and now I had this job. It was this really pivotal moment with COVID, with traveling and trying to shift how to be creative. I loved that I was in a rural setting and not in my two-bedroom in Brooklyn. I could walk out on the land.

The score is just a range of guitars — acoustic, a resonator guitar and an electric guitar with effects — and two cellos. I came back to Brooklyn and we did two days of tracking at Found Objects Studio. I used two cellists and they were able to be spread apart. The more experimental electric guitar music I did myself, and then I had another guitarist in the studio by himself.

I was just lucky that this called for something minimal. If it had been a grand orchestra, like on Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for Mank, it would have been hard. I’m glad I had this intimate, soulful, folky score to do.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 30, 2021, issue of Billboard.