Under your spell

The surreal world of Johnny Jewel: David Lynch-collaborator, horror composer and synth prince
By Barry Pierce | Film+TV | 18 October 2023

Johnny Jewel is one of those musicals who can seemingly do it all. When he isn’t helming his numerous bands, namely Glass Candy, Chromatics and Desire, he is also an accomplished composer of film scores.

A frequent collaborator with Nicolas Winding Refn, Jewel composed the score for Bronson (2008) and contributed to the score for Drive (2011). He also composed the score for Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut Lost River (2014). In 2017, he appeared in Twin Peaks: The Return with Chromatics and also collaborated with David Lynch on the score for the series. On top of his work in film and television, Jewel has also provided music for numerous fashion runways. Starting with Marc Jacobs in 2003, his music has been used by Chanel, Gucci, and Balenciaga, among many others.

His latest project is the score for Fien Troch’s Holly, the story of a fifteen-year-old girl who may, or may not, have the power of premonition and who becomes something of a healer to people in need of help. Alongside the release of his soundtrack for Holly, Jewel is set to embark on a special live tour throughout Europe in October and November, performing 60 minutes of cinematic bliss from his music for films. 

Jewel chatted to HERO about working on Holly, his guest appearance on Twin Peaks: The Return, and why his forthcoming tour is beyond words.

Barry Pierce: How did you first get involved with Holly?
Johnny Jewel: I did a film with the director in 2016 [Fien Troch’s previous film Home]. After that was finished, she began writing a new film which had the working title Fire. She asked me if it would be something I’d be interested in and I said definitely. I’d done about four or five movies with the editor of the film, so we already had this language and rhythm and a way of working that was really efficient. From the previous film they had about 27 hours of music of mine, so they made a rough cut of Holly with my music and from that I got the tonal references of where they wanted to take it. I went to the piano and immediately wrote the main motif. I was struck instantly that this needed to have a recurring theme, which is very different from the previous film we had done. And, of course, that would become Holly’s main theme, which is The Witch.

BP: When you were creating the soundtrack, did you have any influences in mind? I got a lot of John Carpenter vibes from it.
JJ: Well, I mean, John Carpenter, Goblin and Tangerine Dream are the holy trinity of minimal synth-based scores. Based on the direction, I had the freedom to explore the uses of music in the classic horror and thriller films from the 70s. Definitely the witchiness of Suspiria was a huge inspiration. From the first time I watched the film I was really struck by how much wind there was in Holly’s hair and in the trees and on the playground and, for me, wind represents flutes and chimes swaying in the breeze and clashing. And these metallic tones and sort of corrosive wind-like elements in the synthesiser choices really influenced the decision-making for what type of voice I would use.

“John Carpenter, Goblin and Tangerine Dream are the holy trinity of minimal synth-based scores.”

BP: There’s a very pivotal moment in the film that you have soundtracked with a cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s The Power of Love. Tell me all about how that came about.
JJ: That came from the director and the editor. They had all my music in the rough cut of the film and then they had Frankie Goes to Hollywood. They didn’t tell me, they didn’t warn me, and after I watched it they were like, what do you think of that? I had never heard the song before, being an American growing up in Texas I knew Relax and Two Tribes, those were on MTV, but I didn’t know the song.

They had it in the rough cut and they didn’t know whether they were going to use it because it’s such an extreme tonal shift. But after a while, the director asked me if I wanted to make a cover of The Power of Love. And that’s a daunting task. It’s a big Baroque ballad. It isn’t what I normally do. She had the idea of asking Megan from Desire to sing it because she really felt the voice needed to be female and it needed to be fragile and intimate. It ended up being the hardest track to complete, trying to match the energy of the original because it has lots of brass and timpanis and, on top of that, Hollie [Johnson] is really belting.

BP: It ended up working really well! What are the main differences between working on a soundtrack and making a traditional album?
JJ: The main difference is when I work on an album, I’m the director. When I work on a soundtrack, I’m there to facilitate the director’s vision. It’s a much more collaborative process.

Photography by Paige-Margulies

“I told David [Lynch], anything you want to use, deconstruct, reconstruct, play backwards, forwards, whatever, like no strings attached, here’s a bunch of music.”

BP: I’m such a huge Twin Peaks fan, tell me what it was like working with David Lynch on Twin Peaks: The Return.
JJ: I watched Twin Peaks when it first aired, I was in high school. I approached the project first through the music supervisor and David’s musical counterpoint Dean Hurley. He was in charge of presenting bands for the Roadhouse [the bar in Twin Peaks: The Return] to David and that was when the door was first opened. [In every episode of The Return, a different band played a song in the Roadhouse]. I remember hearing that they were making a new Twin Peaks and thinking, “Oh my god, what a dream it would be to contribute some music to this.” So, when I started speaking with Dean about the Roadhouse and what they would like to try to do, I presented several bands. And, in the end, Chromatics was the band.

Once I had Dean and David’s attention though, unsolicited, I started writing music and sending it. And I told David, anything you want to use, deconstruct, reconstruct, play backwards, forwards, whatever, like no strings attached, here’s a bunch of music. And throughout the process of editing, they slowly started coming back to some of these themes that I’d sent, which was a massive, massive honour.

BP: A lot of your music has been used for fashion shows. To name a few brands — Chanel, Gucci, Versace, Balenciaga, Fendi, Dior and Louis Vuitton. How did that all come about?
JJ: I think the first time I was ever used was Marc Jacobs in 2003. There was a Glass Candy 7” that he used, and people were telling me that they were singing on FashionTV – I was completely oblivious to it. We entered the Chanel world, which was a big start, in 2007. Michel Gaubert, who’s a music supervisor for Chanel and other brands, used a couple of my songs for the Chanel runway. 

I’ve always been interested in fashion. I’m not an expert, but you know, I love Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, the photography, the fantasy of it, as an outsider.

“It’s a kaleidoscopic explosion of gore and violence – perfect for the Halloween season.”

BP: You’re going on tour soon, what can we expect from it?
JJ: This is a multimedia set. It’s a mix of films that I’ve scored and a mix of fantasy footage. It’s a kaleidoscopic explosion of gore and violence – perfect for the Halloween season. It’s very noir, giallo, in the horror/thriller spectrum. There’s a level of fantasy, there’s a level of nostalgia, but everything is new. And it varies from night to night because it’s primarily improvised. I did it at Southbank, I did it at the Munch Museum in Oslo, and I did it at the Cemetery in Hollywood. And each time everybody said, we don’t even really know what to call this, this is such a strange performance.

BP: It’s an experience beyond words.
JJ: Yeah, I’m sure someone will have a clever term for it. But right now, there’s nothing.

The OST for Holly by Johnny Jewel is out now from Italians Do It Better.

Johnny will be on tour throughout Europe in October and November, playing Dublin on Nov 15th, Manchester on Nov 16th, and Glasgow on November 17th.

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