As the pandemic kept Bryce and Aaron Dessner’s Grammy-winning band, The National, off the road for nearly two years, the twins also went 18 months without seeing one another. “We’ve never not been together for that long,” says Bryce, who lives in France while Aaron resides in upstate New York. Music became, as Bryce puts it, “a way of communicating with one another.” They contributed to Taylor Swift’s folklore and evermore albums last year and scored two films garnering Oscar buzz this year: the Cyrano de Bergerac retelling Cyrano and Mike Mills’ new drama C’mon C’mon.
Below, the brothers discuss how they managed so many projects at once, what they still hope to accomplish together and whether scoring an animated film is on their wish list.
What excited you about scoring a story like Cyrano?
Bryce: In this adaptation, the songs replace the letters and long monologues of 19th century poetry, which are so classic but for a modern audience it makes a lot of sense. We never expected to write a musical, it was not something on our wish list of things to try and do. When [Playwright Erica Schmidt] asked us I think I actually said, “I don’t know that that’s a good idea.” So we went back and forth a little bit and they finally convinced us.
Aaron: I haven’t seen a ton of musicals, I think that was our main concern. So it was out of left field, but Bryce and I were really interested in growth and learning. It ended up making us better songwriters.
As two people who have done it all, do you look at your résumé and consider those gaps when deciding to take on a new project?
Aaron: Most things we’ve done are coming from some sort of community aspect. I don’t think it’s something where we’re like, “Oh, this would be a good feather in our cap.” But I think for Bryce and I we do sort of like opportunities that allow us to collaborate and use our different skills to make stuff together — and sometimes it’s fun when it’s not for our band, because we’re so used to doing that for so many years. So I guess in that sense it did fit into some sort of like, “Oh, we can make stuff and we don’t have to go on tour? Let’s do it.”
Bryce: We do tend to enjoy getting thrown into deep water a little bit. I think there’s something really exhilarating about the unknown and like Aaron said, in terms of collaboration, film is just this crazy collaboration where there’s literally hundreds [of people] between the cast and the technical side and director and cinematographer and the editor and all these really interesting artists, really. So when you get involved in a good project like that, especially one like this where we were at the heart of it because the music is the driving force — it’s very exciting.
The National has worked with Mike Mills before on its 2019 album and accompanying short film, I Am Easy To Find. Why were you eager to work together again?
Bryce: Mike is very musical and collaborative, so [scoring his] film was almost like having a band with him. We were just constantly jamming and improvising.
Aaron: And we did that over Zoom. I’d have all these weird synthesizers out and Mike would be like, “What if you turn that knob?” And he’s in L.A. but as though he was in the room he’s like, “Can you squiggle it and then turn up the delay?” We all got used to working that way.
Considering you have two scores in contention for an Oscar nod this year, what were the timelines like of working on both?
Aaron: So Mike was working on the screenplay for C’mon C’mon while he was here working with us on Easy To Find. It’s a funny story because if you’ve seen C’mon C’mon the plot device and way Jesse, Joaquin Phoenix’s nephew in the movie, does this role play where [his character] Woody plays an orphan and asks Joaquin to act like he’s just adopted him and that his child has died. And that’s something that my child Ingrid does, where she’ll knock on the door and be like, “I’m your new daughter, tell me about your daughter that died.” It’s really dark and I don’t know why she does it, but Mike thought it was really interesting while he was here so that’s how that got into his screenplay. And I think early on Bryce and I did sketch a lot of ideas for Mike, even in the early stages of Cyrano, it was around the same time.
Bryce: One theme through both films I think is it’s the longest period of time that Aaron and I had not seen one another in our lives. I think it was 18 months or something. So these films kind of trace that arch of isolation. Similarly, I would say working on the Taylor Swift records was also the other thing that was going on across these 18 months, which Aaron was largely doing but I was involved in. So weirdly we were very far away but very close, creatively and developing new ways of working — and luckily we have 45 years of experience doing that. We became this sort of 24-hour machine where I would work all day in France and then send it back and he would do work in New York and send it back and we would just keep rolling like that. There’s also another score that we did, so we were lucky and fortunate because so many in the creative fields, especially performing artists, had no work. So we’re incredibly grateful for the opportunity.
That said, were you conducting orchestras over Zoom, Bryce?
Bryce: I conducted all the Cyrano orchestra sessions over Zoom. This was done with the London Contemporary Orchestra at Abbey Road and then Víkingur Ólafsson, probably the greatest living pianist, who was recording in Iceland. Would it have been better with us in the room? Probably. But it was pretty amazing. One lucky thing with Cyrano is that because I was in Europe and it shot in Sicily there was a weird [period of time where the region] opened in September when it shot, so I was on set for three weeks and recorded a lot of the score there. It was shot in Noto, which is considered a really important example of baroque architecture, so it all comes out of that. The music is very inspired by the environment in which the film was shot.
Sonically, what sets these two scores apart?
Aaron: Cyrano has this baroque-modern sound crafted with all the elaborate orchestration Bryce did. And then C’mon C’mon is very experimental by comparison and more impressionistic. We were experimenting with processing audio and using vocal samples and a lot of synthesizers. To us it was satisfying, artistically, to have that range. It scratches different itches. It was a heavy lift with Cyrano and in the end, when it was finalized and mixed, it was obviously really grand and ornate and intensely beautiful. And with C’mon C’mon there’s this elusive ambiguity to it that has a lot to do with how Mike makes films. There’s an improvised nature to his filmmaking that I think he also wanted to capture in the score. So anytime we were too composed he would push us off our axis.
Bryce: There’s a lot of clarinet in both scores, that’s a common thread.
You both worked with Taylor on folklore and evermore but Aaron, you were there with her at the Grammys. Coming off that winning experience, how does it feel to be entering an Oscar season?
Aaron: The Grammys felt like this surreal fever dream… It didn’t seem real until we were actually there, and even up until the moment that Taylor won I kind of in my mind was mentally prepared not to. I think we are naturally, with both of us coming from Ohio or something, just kind of self-effacing. Somebody said persistence and hard work equals luck or something, and I’m starting to be like, “Yeah, just make your best work and maybe some good things will happen.” When The National won a Grammy for Sleep Well Beast, our friend Sufjan [Stevens] was like, “Well, you stuck around long enough, they gave you an award.”
Does the term “EGOT” ever come up in conversations?
Aaron: We’re too superstitious.
What else are you two hoping to do together?
Bryce: We’re thinking about playing some really simple guitar music. We have these duos that we play with each other, Aaron’s [Big Red Machine] song “Ghost of Cincinnati” is a good example of that sound in a way, that we’ve been exploring a little bit. And I have a background of playing classical guitar, but I think doing that together is something we’ve been dreaming about. But frankly, I would also say it’s been a while since we’ve played with our band, so maybe that’s back on the list of just playing a rock show.
Aaron: Somebody made a book of photographs of 20 years of the band and it’s really beautiful and I have it here, it’s a coffee table book, and every once in a while I’ll flip through and it’s kind of weird because it seems far away now — even though we never really imagined there would be this distance.
And what about scoring something animated, does that appeal to you?
Bryce: Pixar would be the ultimate dream.