By Greg Cahill | From the March-April 2022 issue of Strings magazine
“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” says actress, singer, violinist, and composer Lili Haydn when asked about her varied career, “and there are a lot of wonderful highlights—a Grammy, performing on all the major stages around the world, scoring film and TV. But the thing I am most proud of is being able to get into the ‘zone,’ where I am truly connected to spirit and emotion, and that that emotion and spiritual imperative are connected to my technique enough to be able to express it somewhat gracefully in whatever context I am asked to, whether that’s onstage with my band or with Opium Moon or with somebody else’s music or as a composer for film or television. I feel like there is an authenticity and heart-centered intention in every note. There are certainly people who play and compose more virtuosically than I do, but I know that what I do is filled with heart and I’m told people feel that.”
Haydn can add a 2022 Grammy nomination to her list of accomplishments, this time for the recent Opium Moon concept album Night + Day. But increasingly, this classically trained jazz and New Age artist is spending her time scoring music for such TV and film projects as the hit Netflix series Ginny & Georgia and the critically acclaimed film documentary RUTH: Justice Ginsberg in Her Own Words.
Haydn debuted professionally as a violinist at age 15 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, playing Luciano Berio duets, and has gone on to record or perform with Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, George Clinton, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, John Williams, and Hans Zimmer, among many others.
Strings asked Haydn about her diverse career.
You’ve been called the “Jimi Hendrix of violin.” That’s a lot to live up to.
I’m very flattered by that compliment, especially coming from George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelic, with whom I was lucky enough to play and record for many years. I think this speaks to a spirit of playing like your life depends on it, leaving no drop of life’s blood behind, which is what I do. I have spent a fair amount of time figuring out what some of the great classic rock guitarists have played, but I find this same passion in players of all genres and I am inspired by anyone who gives everything to the music.
In recent years, you’ve been scoring TV and film projects. How do you approach those?
The first thing I do when I’m asked to score something is talk to the director or creator and listen to what’s on his or her mind. What is the vision, what is the inspiration, what are the musical references and the “sound of show?” Usually the director has some point of reference that they like, and then I immerse myself in that. Either way, whether or not I am given free rein, I watch the film or read the script, and somewhere in that first reading or viewing, a melody is “given” to me and I write it down, and 99 percent of the time that first inspiration finds its way into the final score. I approach everything with complete humility and reverence, with the belief that I am simply a vessel through which this story will be told and that the muse—and the director—will direct me.
Of course, once the inspiration is given, then it’s a lot of organization, technical undertakings, and tenacity to see the vision through. And then there is the often-nerve-racking process of finally playing for the director what you’ve created, and the inevitable revisions. Sometimes the revision process can be grueling, and you have to throw away pieces of music you worked on for days or even weeks because it simply isn’t it what the director has in mind. Usually those pieces will find a home in another project or solo album—my last solo album, More Love, has two of those pieces and they’re some of my favorites. It’s a very humbling process, but so rewarding when it works and you’re a part of telling a story in the most magical way.
Just how much free rein do you get?
Free rein is a rare occurrence, but when you have relationships of trust established with directors they will often relax and simply set you in the right direction and see what magic ensues. There’s also usually what we call a “temp track,” which is the music the editor puts in as a place holder, which serves as a guide and point of reference for what the director and editor feel is needed for a given scene. That can be helpful, but it can also be quite oppressive, especially if the director has lived with the temp track for so long they can’t imagine or even have ears for anything else, or if the production budget and the temp are not aligned. The best thing is when the direction and inspiration marry and a new, even better creation comes out of it.
Walk me through the process of one of the scores, from inception to completion.
It all starts from an idea and being set in the right direction. I like to immerse myself in the world of the character and the world of the director and their favorite music and just create a ton of music, not actually writing to picture at first, and then very organically see where those themes and pieces land and work best. The film I’m working on now is extremely inspiring and very intense, and I’ve been given a lot of freedom to create from the heart, with not too much allegiance to the temp track, other than its being a guide. I started this film just watching it and crying and praying that the angels would give me melodies that would honor the story and help open people’s hearts. I was flooded with emotion that precipitated an intense period of creativity, yielding many themes and motifs.
I started putting the music into scenes and I’m now in the process of developing those themes as the characters develop—and creating a cohesive sound of the film that supports and elevates the arc of the story. Violin is my first instrument and my most passionate voice, but I have to be sparing with it because it is such an intense sound, and it can steal focus from what’s happening on the screen or lead the audience too much in an emotional direction, which is not my job. As a soloist, I use my violin like a powerful medicine or weapon to really underscore something at the right time.
What are the challenges you’ve encountered?
The biggest challenge I have is how to get enough sleep as I balance my scoring and my performing and playing. Both are more than full-time jobs, but I’m not willing to give up either, especially as I rely on my playing for scoring, even while I use it sparingly. I always have to be ready to play or sing at my best for either my scores or for collaborations with other composers like Hans Zimmer or Marco Beltrami or Harry Gregson-Williams or Pinar Toprak, for whom I have been a soloist on both violin and voice.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently scoring a beautiful film called Split at the Root—it’s about the families that have been separated at the U.S./Mexico border. I’m also writing songs and score for Season 2 of Ginny & Georgia, which I score with my friend Ben Bromfield. Season 1 surprised us all as it became Netflix’s longest-running number one hit, watched by over 400 million people! I’m navigating a concert schedule with my group Opium Moon as well as solo Lili Haydn shows. And I’ve been scoring a docuseries about a wrongfully convicted guy on death row.
How do those scoring projects differ from your work with Opium Moon?
I think of each of these projects as simply another manifestation of the same muse and intention to open people’s hearts and create a magical world. That said, Opium Moon, which won a Grammy in 2019—and hopefully by the time your readers see this may have won a second Grammy—requires a virtuosity that is both fluid and spiritual and compositional, and a lot of practice above and beyond what I would have to do if I were simply scoring films and television. When you improvise on violin, especially in such an exposed setting, you have to practice with all the rigor of classical repertoire, except that you don’t know where you’re going to land. You have to practice as if you’re jumping out of an airplane, for every eventuality, connecting your imagination with your technique with precision, emotion, spontaneous interpretation, and, of course, perfect pitch and rhythm, while listening and honoring your collaborators. You’re producing and composing and performing all at once, and the preparation for that is intense, actually. There are guidelines, and certainly my lifelong experience of doing this gives me a baseline of preparation, but it’s a daily regimen, especially in the lead up to a performance or recording.
Where would you like to be in five years?
My goals are to continue to get better as a violinist, singer, and composer, to score more films and television programs that are in alignment with my aesthetic and tell stories that open people’s hearts, and maybe even change lives. I would love to work with more great directors—a few I like are Martin Scorsese, Jane Campion, Wim Wenders, and Mira Nair—and continue to play concerts all over the world, for bigger and bigger audiences, and to be a powerful enough voice that if I want to bring attention to an issue—like voting rights or amending the filibuster or promoting women’s rights or civil rights or the environmental crisis—I am able to be a voice for change and the betterment of our society.