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Interview: Composers Drum & Lace and Ian Hultquist on Concocting the Awesome Music of ‘Dickinson’

One of the reasons that Apple TV’s Dickinson is so successful at straddling genres in its modern reimagining of Emily Dickinson’s life is that the music navigates those themes so well. It’s not an easy feat, and one that Sofia Hultquist, better known as Drum and Lace, and her husband Ian have put tremendous effort into since landing this dream gig.

Awards Radar had the chance to speak with Drum and Lace and Ian about their approach, working together as a couple, and one of the best musical moments of season two.

Q: I love your backdrop.

Drum & Lace: Thanks. It’s actually a studio. A lot of people are like, oh is it just a photo, and I’m like, it’s real.

Q: What was your knowledge of and relationship to Emily Dickinson and her work before coming on board this show?

Ian Hultquist: It was somewhat limited. I think we had studied her poetry when I was in high school, and I was always aware of her and aware of her talent, but I never knew too much of the background of her history, of her family life. So we learned a lot. And I’m still learning honestly. As we work on more seasons of the show, I keep learning more things that are actually true. That actually happened with her.

Drum & Lace: My knowledge was the same and I feel like it’s been amazing to learn her poems through each episode since each episode is named with a poem in each one. It’s just incredible when you look at how many she has, because there’s just so many poems to choose from. So I don’t know how Alena ends up sifting through them, but we learn every season so much.

Q: How did you get involved with the show?

Ian: It was kind of one of those like magical Hollywood moments where we were approached. Our agents reached out and said, hey, Apple wants you to do something, and we were like, what?

Drum & Lace: David Taylor, who is head of music at Apple TV, had heard about us and I think, while they were looking for composers, may have reached out to some other bigger composers, or just people in the industry. These people told us they put our name in and somehow it came back to us. It was very serendipitous.

Ian: They were looking for a musician or composer who knew how to score traditionally, but also has production chops and knows how bands work. I think because of us both having a bit of a background, we seemed like ideal candidates and thankfully it worked out.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit more about your backgrounds?

Drum & Lace: Do you want to go first?

Ian: Yeah, I was playing music with friends all my life and then decided to go to Berklee College of Music to study it properly. And while I was there, I started getting interested in film scoring. I had always been interested in film, but never really thought that I could combine film and music together. It seemed like the perfect combination for me. But at the same time, I also was playing with some friends and we formed a band called Passion Pit and that really took off as soon as we graduated. So I followed in the band life for about seven years or so before having my fill of touring around the world and being exhausted all the time, and decided I can stay at home and score movies and TV instead. Or I can try to at least. In 2014, we moved to LA and since then, I’ve been working full-time as a composer.

Drum & Lace: My story’s pretty similar. I grew up in Italy, being the music person, the music go-to person amongst my group of friends. There was a band that the music school I was going to had, and I performed here and there, and I went to Berklee to be a vocalist actually. Once I got there, I realized I just didn’t really have the chops nor the desire to do that. And it was the same kind of thing where I had always loved film, and I actually wasn’t aware that there was such a thing as film scoring. I hadn’t ever really thought about it. It was like six thousand miles away from home, and I was like, well, I have to try to put being at Berklee to good use. So I wound up doing film scoring and met Ian the last year of college in the same program, and we’ve been collaborating since. Once I graduated, I went to grad school for music tech, which I think really feeds into the production chops that we both have acquired through different things. I think everything changed once we moved here because once we were in the city, once we were in LA, it was easier to really put ourselves out as film composers. Then it’s been seven years of hard work. Dickinson has definitely helped us level up, and we’ve been able to get a lot of other really great projects from doing this. But Dickinson was really the OG big break for us which we’re so grateful for.

Q: What is it like working together as a couple all the time?

Drum & Lace: It was not super easy before the pandemic and then now we’ve been together for like a year straight.

Ian: With a one-year-old.

Drum & Lace: Working together, having a kid, being in the same place.

Ian: It has its challenges, but I think we’ve also gotten really good at working together, so much so that when we have projects we’re like, hey, can you come see this?

Drum & Lace: Yeah, it’s really great to work separately, but it’s also hard because it’s like, wait, it’s just me. I think we subconsciously become each other’s finishers of musical moments. But it’s really great. There’s no judgment. Whenever we start working on something, it’s nearly as if the other person isn’t there. We’re just so used to it at this point, and I think we’re a lot more efficient. For a TV show, it’s really helpful to work together, because oftentimes you’re getting through a lot of music and just to not second-guess yourself is really good. The biggest challenge is to not talk about work all the time.

Q: I hear that. But let’s talk about work for a second! The main title theme does a great job of setting the tone and jolting us out of the past, showing Emily’s perspective through sound. What was the genesis of that opening?

Ian: When we first were asked to look at it, they had temped with a really powerful, kind of punk energy song. They really liked it but it didn’t want to keep it. They wanted something original. That set us on that path, and we also did something really weird. It’s very strange.

Drum & Lace: I don’t think that, if someone was like, can you write sheet music, I don’t think that we could. It’s tonal in the sense that you can hum how it goes. But it was never written with notes necessarily, because it’s like guitar feedback, a synth pedal.

Ian: We’re just sliding down the neck.

Drum & Lace: The sound effects. I mean, our dog’s bark is in there. It’s kind of like a little quirk, but we wanted it to be a punch in the gut. In the pilot there used to be this scene of Emily in front of a tree, and she just looks so badass. Remember that?

Ian: Yeah, she was smoking.

Drum & Lace: We took that out for obvious reasons. She really is honking her attitude, you know, for being that forward-thinking and that non-conformist at that time. We really wanted to externalize what the inside of her mind would have been like. And the graphics are just so cool. Those were already there, so we got to work off of that too.

Q: How do you handle the transitions from lighthearted comedy to very serious, dramatic themes in music?

Ian: That’s tricky, actually. We both always agree that comedy is the hardest thing to score.

Drum & Lace: Those little comedy things that they put in there are really important, especially with Mrs. Dickinson, with her character or anytime George is around, I think there’s this silliness. It’s hard. Those are the hardest fifteen seconds.

Ian: It’s tricky to walk that fine line of actually making it funny and not having the music be too distracting. Or having the music make it not funny. We both agree that the cast is so good. A lot of the time, they’re hilarious just on their own with no music, but I think it does sometimes help to support it a little bit with something from us. But we toil over those fifteen seconds quite a bit.

Drum & Lace: For the scored moments, we love leaning into them. There’s a great scene, I think it’s episode nine, with Austin and Emily, where he’s explaining how he’s feeling. It was so great for us to be able to dig into that because I think all season, you’re just waiting for this unraveling to happen, and to be able to do it musically was really fulfilling. I think there’s going to be a lot more of that in season three because – this isn’t even a spoiler because it follows history, we’re going into the Civil War – I assume that there’s going to be a lot more of that. We love getting to score some of the montages. Those are really great.

Ian: It is funny too, because we have those really great comedy moments, and then, as we get into the really true drama that happened, how do we not make it too depressing? A lot of dark stuff is happening and I think it’s going to be interesting to, again, bring some levity into it and not take us all down into the sadness.

Q: I think you achieve that well in terms of balance with Death and Nobody. Can you share anything about your approach to those characters, an imagined element that comes through in her writing and isn’t based as much on historical events the same way?

Drum & Lace: The Nobody thing we worked on a lot, and there ended up being a lot of versions. The first version we did was very weird, and I think it might have been like a little bit too much avant-garde, almost. What ended up coming together was also with the help of the sound designer, we were scoring a new scene, I think it’s episode two where she’s trying to come up with a poem. The way that the sound design was placed in helped us shape it, and that’s what ended up staying. It’s hard, because you don’t want to be too heavy-handed, but at the same time this is supposed to be like a really foreshadow-y moment. For Death, I think we just went with our guts. To get to score an awesome character like Wiz Khalifa’s, he’s just so cool. It had to be something that was just cool enough to be on screen with him.

Ian: That theme, surprisingly, came together very quickly compared with some of the other ones. We were just like, Wiz Khalifa, sexy, intriguing, cool.

Drum & Lace: Upbeat, but also a little bit of scary. Like a track that an impressionable woman or person would fall in love with.

Q: One of the most powerful moments of season two was Split the Lark. How did you approach setting that to music?

Ian: It was a bit intimidating at first. We had read that it was happening in the script. At first, we weren’t even sure who was going to sing it. At one point, Emily was going to see herself singing it, and then it was just going to be the opera singer. It wasn’t until we had written a few versions that they decided to have Sue sing it, which I think is the best, most brilliant choice. We treated it like a traditional song. We took the lyrics and tried to set it to chords and a melody. Very simple. The first demo we sent was just voice and guitar. Alena was like, this is pretty, but we need grand.

Drum & Lace: It was a little too singer-songwriter-y, and I also think that the delivery of it was a little bit subdued. It’s hard to take something that is a poem that isn’t necessarily written to be sung and try to come up with phrasings and stuff. Some of the words are very archaic. One of the versions at the end was more like a Perfume Genius-sounding one. I think that was too contemporary. So then we ended up with something very moving. I think our biggest reference was Adele’s Skyfall James Bond theme. We wanted to do something that was very beautiful, and when we found out it was Ella, we were like, oh, she’s got the range. She’s got this fantastic voice. We didn’t get to interface with her too much. We sent sheet music back and forth and she rehearsed it. They were in New York, so we weren’t able to be there when she was recording. It was a really fun process, and we got to bring some friends that record for us a lot. Our friend Aaron Steele on drums and RoRo on cello. Devoe Yates, the music supervisor, and Alena were very helpful in coordinating. Silas Howard, who directed the episode, was also very helpful. It was a team effort. We’re very glad. The fans and everyone resonated very well with it.

Q: Is there anything aside from the Civil War that you can tease story-wise or musically for season three?

Ian: There may be more musical moments.

Drum & Lace: There might be more music involved on screen.

Ian: The characters will continue to evolve and grow up. I don’t want Apple to swoop in here…

Drum & Lace: If anyone goes on Wikipedia and they look at the dates – Samuel Bowles says in season two, it’s 1859, baby! It’s almost the 60s. You can just assume that anything historically that has happened through the 60s and the Civil War is going to show up in the show.

Ian: In some form.

Drum & Lace: Musically, all we can say is that we’re already working on some fun stuff, and they’re still filming. Whatever that means to whoever.

Seasons one and two of Dickinson are now streaming exclusively on Apple TV+.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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