Music has become even more integral in telling a film’s story over the past decade (ranging from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ work on The Social Network in 2010 to Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s team-up for 2018’s A Star Is Born). Lawrence Rothman, the St. Louis-born art-pop singer/songwriter, is the latest to explore this ever-evolving relationship for The Turning.
Directed by Floria Sigismondi (best known for directing The Runaways and music videos for Marilyn Manson, Christina Aguilera Justin Timberlake) and out today (Jan. 24), the film is a ’90s spin on the classic 1898 ghost story The Turn of the Screw starring Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince and Joely Richardson.
Rothman previously collaborated with Sigismond on a handful of music videos, so it was only natural for them to take on the challenge of producing their first soundtrack together. Featuring a mix of acclaimed indie artists and budding singer-songwriters — including Courtney Love, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Alice Glass, Soccer Mommy, The Kills’ Alison Mosshart and Kali Uchis — the soundtrack is not only a reflection of the film’s bone-chilling themes, but the strength that comes with female voices joining together.
“I produced the soundtrack with my brother Yves. We have a studio that we built in Laurel Canyon here in Los Angeles and hosted all the recording sessions there, except for Mitski and Alice Glass,” Rothman tells Billboard. “We wanted the whole thing to have a cohesive sound. It was a whirlwind because having all these musicians come over — some had song ideas loosely prepared — and knowing that after 12 hours we need to have a track that can be in the film. The pressure of that normally would’ve stressed me out, but something about this project made it even more fun. It was inspiring and I think that challenged inspired the musicians themselves.”
“It began with this idea that Floria wanted [the music] to be unique to the film — so that when the main character pops in a cassette tape, for example, the music coming out of it is a song that you never heard, as opposed to it being a Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins song. The film takes place in the ’90s, so a song from that era can kind of take you out of that. She really wanted to build a soundtrack that felt like a role of The Turning. I loved great ’90s soundtracks that did that: Like all the David Lynch films like Lost Highway to Twin Peaks, and also Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet soundtrack, and then the Twilight saga that happened in the 2010s. All of those soundtracks had a majority of songs created for the film. When you play them, you relive the movie.”
Below, Rothman breaks down their experience working with rock royalty and their all-encompassing visual approach to producing.
I have to begin with Courtney Love, who kicks off this soundtrack in her badass glory with “Mother.”
I went about compiling a list of musicians that I really loved. When I compared my list with Floria’s, no joke, we basically had the same thing — it was crazy. [Laughs.] Since Yves and I knew a lot of these musicians from past relationships, we reached out to them and they all felt very excited about doing it. We started with Courtney Love, and that was a magical experience because I had written that song about a year prior. Once I got word that Floria started shooting, she wanted me to write a song that they could play on set. I had “Mother” on deck and Floria said, “We should get Courtney on this.” It was a dream because she’s my favorite ’90s singer.
When I was in sixth grade, I got Hole’s Live Through This and played it over and over again. So to have her come to my studio to sing that track was an out-of-body experience. And that energy when she came over… it was a great session. She was so much fun to talk to and she was so incredible on the microphone. Her voice — holy s–t, she sang it in three takes! She jumpstarted our whole energy, and we brought that excitement to all the other tracks.
Was it difficult to fine-tuning a film to fit for the big screen?
Films are so specific. You can have a song that’s incredibly great, but it just doesn’t work when you put it to picture. I thought that could’ve been a roadblock early on, so I made sure inside of our sessions that we didn’t make that a focal point of “How are we gonna fit this song for a scene?” It was more of like, “Here’s the story of the film and the backstory of The Turn of the Screw. Now let’s get into that mindset and write a song.” We had a diary of each character. And it had to feel like the ’90s, that was the rule. Thank god that approach worked because if people felt like they had to write to a scene, they probably would’ve gotten writer’s block.
We just kept writing stuff we felt that was gonna work. When we started playing it to Floria’s film, we found that songs we thought could fit for particular scenes actually worked better for a different one. She just started tweaking everything and we ended up with 11 songs inside of the film which was really cool because I didn’t expect that. Typically a film has about five or six, so I was really happy about that. Since we had about seven that didn’t make it into the film, we thought to release the soundtrack with the entire Turning world.
Were there particular soundtracks that influenced your vision for this one?
I love the mood of the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack. It wasn’t just one genre: You’d have a song that felt a little R&B, then one that was English dream pop, then have Radiohead doing their more art-rock thing, then Everclear from the ’90s doing a commercial rock radio track. I like the fact that it genre-hopped.
On the vinyl release, this will make more sense, but we thought: “Why don’t we make Sides A-D and put different flavors of the soundtrack inside each one?” Side A is more rock, B is electronic, C gets ambient and more cinematic. We wanted to have all genres represented on this soundtrack, because the ’90s weren’t just about rock music. It had trip-hop, ambient music. You’d have Nine Inch Nails and Aphex Twin, but also have Nirvana and Mudhoney. We didn’t want it to be a straight homage to grunge rock or something.
Are there more recent soundtracks that sparked inspiration?
I mentioned the Twilight saga, which a little bit more modern. [Laughs.] feel like that was the last one that had the most indie rock music, which was all tailored for the film. 13 Reasons Why has also done some really beautiful and cool soundtracks, but a lot of the songs you’ve already heard on the artists’ records already you know? So Twilight was the last on my radar because it all came from that world — it all came from the book. The Euphoria soundtrack is amazing, but that was more of a score.
You’ve already established chemistry with Floria. How did that help elevate the soundtrack’s creation?
I’m a very visual songwriter. So when I’m writing I’ll either have a movie on or I’ll have some of my favorite art books from Bach or Mike Kelly, William Blake just spread out on the floor to help visual something. And Floria is one of the most visual music directors of all time — they’re so crazy-out there. They’re so Fellini-esque, and that was an inspiration even before I met Floria.
When we started working together, she realized I write in images as well and it made for a very happy collaboration. I can write a song and tell her visually what I’m thinking. She almost mind reads exactly what I had. I’ll show up on set and it’ll look exactly like what I imagined. It’s hard for people to have such a connection like that where you can artistically read their mind — the only other people I have like that are my brother and this producer named Justin Razan.
The soundtrack’s strongest factor is that it highlights mostly women and gender-fluid artists.
Our favorite artists music-wise happen to be women. When Floria and I were compiling our dream list, it was 99 percent women voices. We thought this was a great platform to get all of them on one soundtrack, because it’s rare to have them all in one spot. A lot of people are discovering indie musicians obviously through streaming, but also Netflix shows and film/TV placement. We thought this would be great to roll with what we naturally love already, and highlight them all where some of these artists can have a big platform to be heard.
There are a lot of major players featured on here. Was it difficult finalizing the tracklist?
Sometimes when you’re going through the proper channels like managers, it can be like “Ugh can we just ask the artists somehow?” [Laughs.] Once the project got on the artists’ radar, they thought it sounded interesting and wanted to get on the phone. But I have to say, overall it all came together magically easy. Everybody was very excited to get involved and there was never a moment where we thought we needed to think of another list. We got every single person we dreamt about to agree to take part. We were very happy with the fluidity of it all. As an album, this would be like my dream band.
Are there key songs that you think embodies the film’s story?
Absolutely Courtney Love’s “Mother” track. The kids in the film no longer have their parents, and it’s the main darkness that is the undercurrent of how they feel emotionally. That song really captures the perspective of those parents no longer being in their lives. Also “Skin Deep Sky High Heart Wise,” the collaboration I did with Pale Waves. That was written in the perspective of the main character Kate and her unraveling psychosis that she’s going through inside of her head. It’s revealed at the end of the film, but I don’t wanna spoil anything!
Kim Gordon is another icon featured here. That had to be an incredible recording experience.
That was cool. She’s a very freeform writer. Since I was a kid I’ve always been obsessed with Kim Gordon’s lyrics, I always read them as poetry. She always felt like a beatnik poet set to music. When she came by to the studio, that’s how she approached it. She’d make a musical bed of an idea that’s not fully developed yet, and she’ll just rant over it in her very poetic style of singing. It was interesting to watch somebody so free with how they create their songs because a lot of people are very crafty. They sit and work on the verse lyrics, chorus and bridge and then rewrite things. And she’s very of the moment. At the end of it you’re like, “Holy s–t this is a great song!” She has a very subconscious songwriting approach.
I like that Finn Wolfhard channels his character on the soundtrack as well.
He plays a character in the film named Miles, and he retreats to his bedroom a lot. That’s his safety zone. In there, he plays his guitar, he’s got a four-track — he’s a very musical kid. With the soundtrack, Floria wanted a song from the Miles perspective. Finn had begun his new band called The Aubreys with his friend Malcolm. He sent us a demo of [song name] and we were like, “Oh my god this is f–king amazing!”
We were getting in the mindset of more loose, bombastic and chaotic rock music. He and Malcolm laid down the track, and man they’re just brilliant musicians. I couldn’t get over how great they were and they’re young guys. They played that song in like two takes and it sounded great. He’s not only a great actor but a great singer and musician.
When people listen to this soundtrack, what is the mood that you want them to connect with?
I think just celebrating rock ‘n’ roll music, because a lot of it is not very popular these days. You don’t have a lot of guitar music being played. I love both worlds, but it’s just fun to flip to that guitar-based sound and celebrate the essence of rock ‘n’ roll. Personally, the most exciting rock right now is being led by women voices — like, St. Vincent as a guitarist is one of the best. The torch has been carried to the female perspective and the soundtrack highlights that. It’s been really cool to organically assemble that.
Listen to The Turning soundtrack in full below.