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Interview: 'Hearts Beat Loud' songwriter/composer Keegan DeWitt

Interview: 'Hearts Beat Loud' songwriter/composer Keegan DeWitt

The feel-good movie of the summer, Brett Haley's Hearts Beat Loud centers on a Red Hook father (Nick Offerman, Parks and Recreation) and daughter (Kiersey Clemons, Dope) who write songs and form a band before she heads off to college, an experience that changes them both for the better.

The man behind the music, including the titular track that sparked the project, is Keegan DeWitt, whose instrumental scores have buoyed the likes of Listen Up Philip, Gemini and HBO's Divorce. The Los Angeles-based artist recently spoke with me about his fruitful collaborations with Haley, how his songs shaped the content of the Hearts Beat Loud script and getting phone calls from Ron Swanson.

Edwin Arnaudin: Do you have any history with Asheville?

Keegan DeWitt: Well, right now I’m in the middle of building out a crazy modular synth rig which...Asheville is home to Make Noise, and Moog has a long line of synth stuff, so Asheville has been in my mind a little lately.

EA: Have you been here physically or do you communicate with those companies via mail?

KD: I lived in Nashville for a couple of years and we would drive to Asheville a bunch. Actually, my wife and I used to always stay at the Grove Park Inn. That would be our thing: drive there and spend a weekend together. That’s where we decided to have kids. [Laughs]

EA: That’s neat! Well, I of course want to talk about Hearts Beat Loud, which opens Friday at our art theater. Last summer, I got to interview Brett Haley when The Hero played at our other indie theater, so I’m glad to talk with one of his regular collaborators for his new film. 

KD: Great!

EA: I’m curious, how did you and Brett first connect?

KD: We are connected through this loose network of directors and filmmakers all to come out of the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. I was really close friends with another director named Aaron Katz and his close friend Chad Hartigan. We were all kind of friends and they were also friends with Brett and we all kind of loosely connected because I was working on their films and we were all kind of coming into our own as young filmmakers together. And it kind of radiates outward from that, too. I’m working on a film right now with another director named Pete Sattler who is also from the School of the Arts. Everything always ends up tying back to the North Carolina School of the Arts in a weird way.

EA: What specifically about Brett as an artist and as a person makes you want to work with him again and again?

KD: Well, I mean in a more abstract, I like to have repeat collaborations with filmmakers, whether that be Brett or Aaron Katz or Chad or anyone — Alex Ross Perry. I enjoy doing that because you get to skip a lot of the niceties that… On a lot of projects, I spend the lion’s share of my effort figuring out who the person is as an artist and how to work with them. You sort of have to feel out the instincts and everything. And the nice thing about repeat collaborations in general is there’s just that inherent trust there where you just dig in and get to go. You know? 

And in Brett’s case, specifically, Brett and I are similar in that we’re both very fast workers and we like to just sort of dig in and get shit done, which I appreciate about him. As you can see, making three movies in the last four to five years, he’s determined and I like that because we can get in and work quick and there’s not a lot of philosophical discussions. Not to mean that it’s not…we’re not trying to do something really great, but we don’t have to…. On some projects, I just lose an entire month to listening to a director talk about music, which is fine, but it’s nice to be able to skip that and just get busy.

Brett Haley (Photo by Jon Pack)

Brett Haley (Photo by Jon Pack)

EA: So, when did you write the song “Hearts Beat Loud” and what inspired it?

KD: “Hearts Beat Loud” was something that kind of was existing in one shape or another back when I was doing more singer/songwriter oriented stuff. I kind of recorded it by myself in my bedroom and self-released it way back then. But Brett had always — because I was always kind of making music and it was getting passed around between Brett, Aaron and Chad and everybody — he had that song and was aware of it and he was always kind of attached to that song. We had written original songs for all of his other movies up until this point, so I think we already knew that we could collaborate in that sense. 

And so, at some point, he said, “I’ve got this idea, Hearts Beat Loud,” which to me at that point was like this old, dormant, self-released song. He was like, “I think I want to write something around this.” And it’s like, “OK.” And he’s like, “I think we can take that song and write a bunch of other original songs.” And at the time, I was kind of like…we were in the middle of making The Hero, and I was kind of like, “Great! Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ll deal with that when we get there.” But then once we were at Sundance, the morning after The Hero premiered, I remember we were walking down the street and he’s like, “All right — let’s get started on Hearts Beat Loud.” So, then it was time to dig in and get those other original songs written for the movie.

EA: So, once the film started moving forward, I’m curious how the collaborative process evolved with Brett and [co-writer] Marc Basch. Namely, to what extent did you help them shape the material?

KD: Well, they had the framework. They had the elevator pitch for what the movie would be from the beginning. It was going to be about this father-daughter band, so I kind of knew that. And then I knew that he wanted there to be a genesis moment of them discovering and writing together “Hearts Beat Loud.” That was kind of his pitch. But then we also needed other stuff, and so really early on, I was getting to meet Nick [Offerman] and talk to him a little bit about what he’s into musically and I was trying to hit specific needs for the film, but also at the same time trying to keep it pretty wide open because I really wanted to be able to surprise myself in terms of what I wrote.

So, it was a little bit hard. From the very early conversations, I knew that we were going to have “Hearts Beat Loud” be the genesis, sort of their discovery during the recording process and all that. And then I also knew — during that same conversation, I was like, “Hey, there’s this other sort of half-finished song I have called “Shut Your Eyes” that could be really nice for Nick to sing. So then that was as they were writing, so then that got worked into the script as something that they were writing.

And then as they were still writing, I was demoing and demoing and demoing. Like I said, we usually work really fast, and especially with I’ll See You In My Dreams and The Hero, I wrote both of those songs and sort of delivered them to Brett as finished things, and he was like, “Yeah! This is it!” So we were kind of lucky in that way, that they were done. And I just kept beating my head up against the wall for original songs for this, I think because it’s intimidating to meet Nick, who’s so talented and has a specific taste of music.

And then also to have my own taste and then also have a playlist from Brett of what he’d ideally like it to sound like, but then also, I’m trying to make sense of…write stuff that could A) feel like it would be something that gets shoved on an indie playlist that would be a standout track, that you go, “Ooh! What’s this?” But at the same time feel believable that somebody who’s an amateur could have recorded it in their bedroom in a single night. So, there’s just a lot of balls in the air.

And then I finally sent him — it was taking a little while. Brett was being really polite, but lots of texts like, “Hey man! How’s it coming? Just let me know!” That kind of thing. Finally, I sort of gave up and was like, “I’m just gonna send him this folder of, like, 40 ideas,” that ranged everywhere from full songs, more or less, to literally just a loop, with a little drum part around it, or something. And he came back, and thankfully out of that was like, “This song ‘Blink’ is really special. I think that this could be something.’ Which I was happy about because it was a song that I had written and was like, “I don’t know where this would go exactly,” but I knew I liked it, so it made me happy that he keyed into that.

So then most of the lyrics for that were essentially done. There was maybe one or two little things that I think Marc came back with and was like, “Well, could this change? Or let’s repeat this line instead of a change,” or something. And then lastly, I just knew that I had to have a big finale piece. We had this loop of a steel drum and this kick drum, and Brett heard that and was like, “That should be end song. Whatever it is, finish that.” And that was the “Everything Must Go” song — the guitar hook and stuff.

Kiersey Clemons  (Photo courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky)

Kiersey Clemons (Photo courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky)

EA: I’m also curious what kind of involvement you had with Nick and Kiersey Clemons on their performances and interpretations of your songs?

KD: We were hand in hand throughout throughout the entire thing. I was meeting with Nick before we even had songs written, just to talk about the stuff he liked, how he played guitar — because we were kind of juggling two things. Me and my collaborator on it, Jeremy Bullock, he was more the…he prepped them for live performance and he was there for all the live performances and worked with Nick and Kiersey to learn their gear and stuff. He was kind of doing that in parallel to me and he also helped write that song “Everything Must Go.” So, I was kind of having to worry about the bigger, like, “How do we create songs for this movie that fit in the narrative?” And that sort of world. And Jeremy was more the, “How do we actually get this so that it’s believable and works?”

So we were kind of doing those things in parallel and meeting with Nick and talking about guitars and just getting him excited and trying to get him stuff to rehears to. And they were having trouble finding somebody for Kiersey’s role, and I remember at the last minute, thank God, somewhere, she appeared. And she came over and we just met and we were talking through this stuff and I remember we did exactly what she does in the movie [with "Hearts Beat Loud"] where we played the chords of like, “Your heart is what it is/You stood...” you know, and just her singing was, “Whoa, this is going to work.” You know what I mean? It just felt like, “Yeah, that’s it. OK.” Then I remember texting Brett as soon as she left, and being like, “Kiersey’s a star. She’s a legit talent.”

But a big credit to both of them because Nick’s taste is very much like, he loves Wilco and Neil Young and has such a very awesome musical taste, but it’s very folksy and more acoustic-oriented. And Kiersey likes a lot of the younger, more R&B stuff. So, somewhere in the weird middle of that triangle is a 35-year-old white guy writing music for them, you know? So I think both of them had to at some point sort of trust in me, which felt like a big compliment, but a lot of pressure at the same time. Right? It just felt like Kiersey, of course, probably wouldn’t sit down and write “Hearts Beat Loud” like I did when when I was 25 or whatever. So I think that she really had to…that was part of her acting, having to go, “How would I do this if this were me?”

And same with Nick in terms of figuring out — I think he did such a good job of understanding that him performing those songs in the record store, it doesn’t have to be that those would be the songs that he would be like, “Oh my gosh. I hope people listen to this long after I die.” Instead, he keys into that Nick energy, which is like the joy of being able to share and play loud music live, which is a really exhilarating feeling, but have this moment with his daughter. All those things seem very clear in retrospect, but as you’re sitting there and it’s an abstract idea, it definitely was a little bit of, like, you’re wandering through the dark and hopefully you hope it takes shape.

EA: You talked about having more of a singer-songwriter focus in the past. Have you performed these songs live — maybe even with the cast?

KD: At Sundance, we did the closing ceremony, like, the awards show. We did “Hearts Beat Loud” live with Nick and Kiersey. It was fun, but I think we were also like…weird, like, “This works in the movie. I don’t think…we may not need to take this out on the road.” [Laughs] It’s like that thing where you study up for the math quiz and you’re glad that you passed, but you’re like, “I don’t know that I need to take it again.” [Laughs]

EA: Or apply to be in NASA.

KD: Yeah, exactly.

EA: And then you also composed the score. What was your goal there? Were you aiming for a sonic consistency with the songs? Because I feel like you achieved that, at least for me.

KD: Yeah! Well, it was definitely a challenge because you’re taking a movie that’s filled to the gills with music already and trying to find a way to add more music in a way where it doesn’t feel like it’s too much — like sensory overload. You could definitely detract from the effectiveness of the songs and the film if you had some crazy score.

So, I was just lucky enough to be at the beginning of my very nerdy modular journey that I’m on now, which I recommend to no one because it’s expensive and it is elaborate. But I had stumbled across, from Asheville, the Moog Mother 32, which is like a little semi-modular synth. And you essentially throw basic sequences into it, like arpeggiating sequences. It’s just basic, basic, basic synthesis, but it’s really beautiful if you put it through some reverb. And I had started kind of going down this rabbit hole and sent a couple things to Brett, and I was like, “This could maybe work, man.” And he came back, thank God, and was like, “Yeah! This is really interesting.” So, the entirety of the whole score is all one synth made by Moog in Asheville, which is kind of cool. It’s a lot of these arpeggiating, dreamy things and then these bass lines that are kind of adding the emotional shifts beneath it.

And it served in a nice way, sort of…I don’t know if I totally planned it this way, but I started to realize that as I was digging that it sounds almost like memory. Like, the score, when it comes in, is like formation of memory, and that drifting sort of memory feeling of, like, the live performance in the music store if you were kind of thinking back on it three years later, or something like that.

Nick Offerman (Photo by Jon Pack)

Nick Offerman (Photo by Jon Pack)

EA: I like that idea a lot and definitely get what you’re talking about. So, like I said earlier, the film opens Friday and then on Monday, another local critic and I are hosting a screening of it. And after the credits roll, we have a discussion with the audience and they love to hear behind-the-scenes tidbits about the movie they just saw.

KD: [Laughs] Yeah.

EA: You’ve given me some great info so far, but are there any other nuggets you’d like to share about Hearts Beat Loud that you either experienced or heard about from other cast or crew members?

KD: In general, I’d say that it’s an intimidating thing to have your home studio and know that Nick Offerman is going to come over and play guitar at your house and just go through songs. Especially if you’ve never met Nick. He’s an incredibly warm guy, but he just comes with this presence because you’ve seen him on Parks and Rec for however long. Especially for me, that was one of my favorite shows, so it felt a little intimidating.

And also, Nick’s sense of humor is so funny and dry that he’ll do the thing where he’ll call you five minutes before he’s supposed to be at your house, and you’re like, “This is Nick Offerman calling me. That’s intimidating.” And you answer and he’s like, “Hey, man! Can’t wait to work on stuff tomorrow with you!” And you’re like, “Huh?” You’ve been sitting there. You cleaned the studio, and he’ll be like, “Can’t wait, man! Can’t wait to see you tomorrow!” And there’ll just be dead silence, just long enough to make you extremely comfortable, and then he’ll be like, “I’m kidding. I’m outside. Can you come let me in?”

EA: [Laughs]

KD: [Laughs] So, overall, it’s intimidating. And it’s also intimidating with Nick because he’s best buds with Jeff Tweedy, who for me was my childhood songwriting icon.

EA: For sure!

KD: So, it was definitely a terrifying prospect to be writing songs that Jeff was going to hear, but also more than that, I had to put my pridefulness aside because I’m like, “If I were going to write a song for Jeff Tweedy to hear and be representative of my musical talents, I don’t know if it would be an indie rock song composed on a laptop, because to me that sounds like the antithesis of Jeff.” You know? So I had to just sort of go along for the ride and not be too judgmental of myself or the process.

EA: So, what’s next for you? Are you doing film and TV scores full-time?

KD: Yes. So, right now I’m in the middle of working on a TV show for Facebook called Sorry For Your Loss with Elisabeth Olsen, and then I’m working on the new Alex Ross Perry movie [Her Smell] with Elisabeth Moss. And I’m working on a new movie [called Love & Oatmeal] with another North Carolina School of the Arts grad, Pete Sattler, with Ben Platt and Lola Kirke.

EA: The Facebook show, is that the one directed by James Ponsoldt?

KD: It is! Yeah.

EA: Nice. He’s a terrific filmmaker

KD: James is amazing. James is another director with a really great ear for music. He’s one of those people that…sometimes you get in the room with directors, and they’re like…if I had a dollar for every time somebody was like, “Listen, I don’t really know how to talk music, so you tell me.” But James is great, and so is Brett. They have this huge, encyclopedic knowledge of music and will send you a Spotify playlist where you’re like, “Man, this is impressive.”

EA: Keegan, thank you so much for speaking with me today. It was a delight and I really like the songs you’ve made for this film and hope that, come the end of the year, you’re remembered in the awards conversations. You deserve it.

KD: Well, I just hope people keep telling their friends to go see the movie, because it is, like, “the little movie that could.” It really needs everybody to keep saying, “Hey, there’s this special movie. You should go see it.”

(Main photo by Brett Warren)

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