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Catching Up With “Black Panther” Composer Ludwig Göransson

The GRAMMY winner talks “Redbone” and the movie people have been waiting to see their whole life.

Posted in News on February 15, 2018 by

Ludwig Göransson is having a very good 2018. Just weeks into the year, he saw “Redbone,” one of the unforgettable tracks he co-wrote and produced for Donald Glover’s Awaken My Love, win a Best Traditional R&B Performance trophy. And in February, the composer-producer, already beloved for his scores for Ryan Coogler’s Creed and Fruitvale Station, will leap to superstar status when moviegoers hear his revolutionary score for Coogler’s Black Panther.

A native of Sweden and graduate of Royal College of Music in Stockholm, Göransson’s producing oeuvre spans pop-rock (HAIM), hip-hop (Chance the Rapper), Glover’s acclaimed alterna-rap under the alias Childish Gambino as well as Göransson’s project Ludovin – an alt-indie genre in its own right. As a composer, Göransson has won acclaim for deftly capturing emotional nuances in feature films (famously incorporating the sound of jump ropes and speed bags into music for Creed, for example) and quirky TV comedies (Community, New Girl) alike. But Black Panther changes the game – both for Göransson and 21st century composing at large. Tasked with crafting a score that balances traditional orchestral elements with African sounds, Göransson embarked on a month-long educational sojourn to the continent, which opened up entirely new ways of thinking about music and life itself. BMI caught up with the multitasking musician to talk about the pressures of scoring the year’s most anticipated movie, what he learned on his trip, and how he makes time to do it all.

Your collaboration with Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) was rewarded at the GRAMMYs this year with a stunning five nominations, winning the award for Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Redbone.” Tell us about how you approached working together and what made you click?

We met through Community. He was one of the actors on the show and I was writing the music. He came by the studio; Donald had just moved to LA and he didn’t know that many music people. So we were just kind of vibing in the studio and Donald was telling me he has his own solo project and he needed some help on it. In the beginning, I was a little hesitant because I didn’t know he was actually a musician, but when I heard the song I was like, ‘This is amazing.’ So we met up together and we started. I gave him some input, changed the production and we wrote some songs together. We just had the same kind of creative spark and that’s been taking us on this journey for eight years.

“Redone” was the last song we finished on the album. Before we finished it, it was a different song; it had a different melody to it. Donald kept listening to this other song and he knew it had a bigger potential. So we went back into the studio – we had to turn in the album within a week. But he came to my studio and he redid the vocals. We did that in a couple hours and it was done. It became a new song. And the last thing I did…it took a different direction and Donald called it “Redbone.” It was such a great song and I was like, ‘For a song like this you need a really iconic outro.’ And I kept hearing this rock, old-school counterpoint melody in my head. I’m like, ‘I’m going have this one-minute guitar outro with different elements coming in every 16 bars.’

You’ve also worked alongside director Ryan Coogler - most recently writing the music for the upcoming Black Panther film. Both Glover and Coogler are very well regarded for their work that is about a specific slice of life in the U.S. that’s markedly different from your own. What has it been like, coming from so outside that experience, in working with them and creating music? How do you think you learned to translate some of the insights they’ve shared with you into music?

I think why the differences work so great is that both Donald and Ryan are some of the most creative people I’ve met. The way they talk about their art, it inspires me and pushes me to make anything I can better, to take my knowledge and try to understand their vision 100 percent and then take it even further. It’s such an inspiring thing for me. Even though we have completely different backgrounds, a lot of our tastes in music and art and stuff we’ve experienced and watched and listened to is still very similar.

You’re also close friends with each of them. How does having a close relationship with your collaborators impact the process?

It’s such a great thing to have because we’re extreme workaholics. And being able to hang out at work and just be with my best friend while we’re working…sometimes we’re supposed to work and we talk about other stuff. Sometimes we’re supposed to just hang out and we talk about things that inspire us, that move our creative ideas further. It’s such a great symbiosis.

Black Panther is such a highly anticipated film with a lot of expectations. Did you feel that going into it, and did it create pressure to create the score?

Yeah absolutely. People have been waiting to see this movie their whole life. This is the first time anyone gets to see a black superhero film. Culturally, being a part of it and being able to create something that so many people are going to see… I put a lot of pressure on myself because music is part of African culture and the movie and the story and the visuals are so great. I put a lot of pressure on myself for the music to be at the same level.

For Black Panther, you’ve talked about using distinctly African instruments such as the talking drum. How did the process of scoring this movie change you as a composer, as an artist? What do you think you’ll take with you to the next project?

I spent a little bit over a month in Africa researching and meeting musicians. I spent time with Baaba Maal, who is also featured on the score. He’s one of Africa’s biggest artists and I got, thanks to this movie, the opportunity to spend three weeks with him and the experience wasn’t just on a musical level. It was an experience on all levels, personally. How I learned different ways of looking at my life, different ways of taking my time and performing music. Because music in Africa is a language. Everything that they play – all the music is written for a specific reason or a specific celebration or a specific ceremony. So just being able to be around that, the African musicians – musicians in Africa are called griots. That’s something you carry with your family name. So the talking drum player I spent time with, he comes from a line of talking drum players. So have the talking drum rhythms been in his family for centuries. So spending time with those musicians, it didn’t just affect me on a musical level. It was life-changing experience on every level.

What are your inspirations for a score like this one? How did you balance incorporating traditional score elements with the cultural cues people are expecting?

The big challenge of the movie was, ‘How do you have a traditional African sound and infuse it with an orchestra but still keep the music in the African tradition?’  So that was really complicated. I had to think about the orchestra in a different way. The different instruments in an orchestra – I thought about that more in a rhythmical kind of way and how would the strings fuse if I wrote the string part for a Sabar drum. Being able to infuse the orchestra into African music, instead of putting African music into an orchestra. Another big element of the score is the modern production, which is basically Killmonger’s [played by Michael B. Jordan] character. He has a more modern production sound to him. So for that I brought in modern 808s and more a trap beat vibe to traditional African rhythms.

What scenes in Black Panther were your favorite to score and why? What were your objectives? There’s definitely a challenge between Killmonger and T’Challa [played by Chadwick Boseman] where I specifically worked with a percussion player. His name is Magatte Sow. And I was asking – he’s a Sabar soloist – ‘What are some rhythms you would play during a challenge?’ And he played me five to 10 rhythms he would play in Africa if a younger man challenged an older man. He would go up to him and they would have kind of dance together. So I was able to use music that was written for a specific moment. I was able to use that in the scene.

How is the process of scoring a film different than creating albums? Is one more challenging and/or rewarding than the other? What about TV - how is scoring for these epic movies like Black Panther and Creed similar or different from your TV work in Community, Happy Endings, and New Girl?

When I work on a film I’m mostly by myself in the studio 90 percent of the time. When I work with an artist for an album, I have the artist in the room the whole time. So it’s more of a social situation. Working on a TV show is very different because you have about five days per episode. An episode is 20 minutes long. And an episode is also - if an episode is 20 minutes long the scenes are a lot shorter. So you don’t have time or you can’t really develop the themes as much.

You’ve talked about the need to do things/projects for yourself. How do you make yourself do that? How do you find the wherewithal and time to finish?

One of the hardest things that you learn with time is to be able to say no. So that’s something I need to work on more. Being able to say no and sometimes I just need to take time for myself. It’s really important to do that when you’re working for someone else.

What’s the status of Ludovin? What do you hope to do next with that project?

It’s about 60 percent done. I haven’t done anything for myself for maybe five years. So all the knowledge I have now and all the things I’ve been around that I haven’t been able to use on other projects I just want to experiment – to try and see how much fun I can have. It’s a big mix of old and new sounds. Really weird musical ideas that not a lot of people would like to listen to.

You’ve said that you began working with BMI while in school - how has that relationship benefited your career over the years?

I got an award through them through school and that has got me – it opened up to me that they cared about your talent when you’re young. They care about discovering new talent in a way where it doesn’t matter about you just having big projects. They were able to tell that I was coming with something different and unique at an early age. So if they were able to do that when I was young, I wanted to keep them and show my loyalty.

What was it like to participate in BMI’s composer/director roundtable at Sundance in 2013? What, if anything, did you take away from the experience that helped you later on?

That was so fun. Me and Ryan had just finished Fruitvale Station. It was a life-changing week for both of us, especially Ryan. Being able to talk about that process, to discuss the music with Doreen [Ringer-Ross] and all these other talented people that BMI put together was just an honor. Any time I get a chance to spend with Ryan and talk about the creative process it’s a fun time.

What’s next for you?

I am working on the new Childish Gambino album right now and then I have a couple of movies coming out you’ll find out about soon.