Interview: Patti Smith on her Original Song Contender from Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’

pattismith_noahKnown for her gritty vocals and head-thrashing stage presence, you wouldn’t expect someone like punk rock legend Patti Smith to collaborate on a song based on a biblical tale. But that’s exactly what Smith did on the film Noah.

Her song “Mercy Is,” featured in Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky and released earlier this year, is the first song she’s ever written for film and already has Oscar buzz surrounding it. The song, which features the elegiac sounds of The Kronos Quartet, has Smith singing in a slow, somber voice – quite a departure from her earlier work in the 70s. Smith’s best known for her song “Because the Night,” co-written by Bruce Springstein. In 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Since 1975, she has released 11 studio albums, her most recent being Banga, released in 2012.

I spoke with Smith over the phone, where she shared her love of the Academy Awards, her auspicious religious background which inspired her to be a part of Noah and her reaction to the film.

AC: I heard this is the first time you were approached to do an original song (“Mercy Is”) for a film. How did the song-writing process change compared to songs you’ve written in the past?

PS: I should admit. I wasn’t approached. I actually asked Darren if I could write [the song]. I was familiar with the story of Noah, so I was enthusiastic to be a part of the project…and he said “yes.”

I was very excited. It was different – I had to write a song for these two characters: Russell Crowe’s Noah singing to a dying child and Emma Watson’s character – a song of comfort in the face of death. I also had to write a song to be in biblical context and have the language be believable. I had different responsibilities. I embraced them. I can’t say that it came easily; I worked hard on it. I’m happy with results.

AC: Now, there’s a bit of Oscar buzz surrounding “Mercy Is.” Is that something that excites you – winning an Oscar for your song?

PS: Well, first of all, that’s… I can’t even talk about that. That would be if – I mean really – I have watched the Oscars since I was a child. My mother used to watch them. I remember back when they were black and white in the fifties and Greer Garson’s long speech*. I know so much about the Oscars. It would be like a dream come true and something that my mom, who isn’t here, she passed away …she would be so excited, but hard for me to even think about it. I don’t get daunted easily. And this is daunting.

AC: How much creative liberty did you have in writing the song?

PS: I had as much as one can take having responsibility…. I tried to keep the music simplistic…my guitarist, Lenny Kaye, helped with the music. I also consulted Darren for the song in putting it together and figuring out if it would serve his needs and Noah’s character needs. I had no restrictions.

AC: I also noticed you wrote a song with Russell Crowe (Father Song “Lullaby”). How was your experience collaborating with the Oscar-winning actor on a song?

PS: I wrote the song and he interpreted it in his own way… [The song] was already written when I presented it to him but much longer. Russell, he had all the freedom that he needed to interpret it in his way. I wrote it to serve him. He did sing it. He has a different voice and had a different way of wanting to phrase it.

AC: Did you wait to see an early cut of the film before writing the music?

PS: I read some of the early scripts and I know the story of “Noah.” I had a strong biblical education growing up. I comprehended Darren’s vision of the film and we had long talks about what the mission of the song was…I had no trouble with comprehending what he needed. I didn’t see the cut of the actors singing the song until the movie was completed. I also watched and re-watched Crowe’s films to try to give him a song he could put his touches on.

AC: Have you seen Noah? What was your reaction to the film?

PS: I’ve seen the film four or five times. I saw it before it was screened…I also attended the premiere in London…to hear one of your favorite actors (Crowe) performing [your song] with the Kronos Quartet for the credits is quite an experience.

Noah is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Check out Smith’s song, “Mercy Is,” below:

*In 1942, actress Greer Garson gave a five and a half minute speech after accepting a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Mrs. Miniver.