‘Black Panther’ composer Ludwig Göransson brings new sounds to ‘Star Wars’ series ‘The Mandalorian’
With his sidekick, a goldendoodle named Barbara, nearby, Ludwig Göransson sat in his recording studio in Glendale on a morning last month. The 35-year-old Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer was explaining how he came up with the epic sounds for his forthcoming project, Disney+'s “Star Wars” series, “The Mandalorian.”
On a large screen near him, scenes from the galactic show, which premieres Nov. 12 on Disney’s new streaming platform, played in the background.
To make this new “Star Wars” score, he said he bought a bunch of recorders (as in, the woodwind instrument) and he also took an adventure in the woods to be with nature, meditate and play the instruments.
“I wanted to get back to that nostalgic childhood memory I had watching ‘Star Wars’ and the excitement of seeing these kind of really amazing visuals and with music that sounds like it’s coming from other planets,” Göransson said, adding that he wanted to explore using “organic instruments” such as guitars and pianos in ways audiences haven’t heard before.
“For any film composer, ‘Star Wars’ is the holy grail of film music because it’s the most well-known music,” he said. “Period. The way I approached it was to try something completely different. The loneliness of a single solo flute. The bass recorder became the sound of the Mandalorian. That’s how I started. ... I wanted the core soul to be organic. Then I wanted to add a tech sound to it. And I also wanted to add on a cinematic orchestra, which makes it feel like ‘Star Wars.’ ”
It’s because of his creative streak that Göransson, who’s signed to the publishing unit of Jay-Z’s entertainment venture Roc Nation, has become the talk of the town. In recent years, Göransson’s muscial storytelling has turned up on a varied list of projects ranging from Childish Gambino’s soulful song “Redbone” and the social-political anthem “This Is America” to the sounds of Marvel Studio’s “Black Panther” and the “Creed” films.
For “Creed,” he recorded sounds at a boxing gym and worked them into his music. For “Black Panther,” he went the extra mile by taking a life-changing trip to Africa with his wife, violinist Serena McKinney, and working with Senegalese musician Baaba Maal. Go to the movie theater in 2020, and you’ll catch Göransson’s musical prowess in director Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” as well as in “Trolls World Tour,” for which he worked on original songs and music with singer-actor Justin Timberlake.
“We’ve been working on this for 2 1/2 years,” Göransson said of the new “Trolls” film. “It’s an animated movie. Justin is really particular over the details. It has been awesome working with an artist that’s so devoted. We’ve really been working hard on this.”
His stylish ways
In Hollywood circles, the accomplished musician-songwriter-producer, who’s from Linköping, Sweden, isn’t only known for his music — and what he does to create ear-catching sounds. He’s also known for his style: his mane of brown hair, his smooth skin and his funky self-styled looks.
Talk to his recent collaborators, and they’ll hear the same thing. Göransson dresses the part in and out of the studio. Bold fashion choices play a role in his music (and vice versa), unlike what he said he saw during his early L.A. days at USC where casual and everyday style — think sports jerseys and T-shirts — ruled. (Göransson said back then he felt as if he were in the film “American Pie.”)
Director Steven Caple Jr. has known Göransson for years and wanted to find a project they could work on together. Ultimately, the two collaborated on the music for Caple’s 2018 film “Creed II,” which starred Michael B. Jordan. Previously, Göransson scored 2015’s “Creed,” which was directed by his longtime friend from USC, Ryan Coogler, the director of “Fruitvale Station” and “Black Panther.”
Caple said he took note of Göransson’s fashion during the process of making “Creed II.” “He really dresses up,” Caple said. “You see him pop out with his clothes. I don’t know if that does something for him ... In the listening stage and stuff, I feel him in the zone and coming up with ideas, and I was like, ‘I wonder if his clothes have something to do with it.’ ”
During the mixing of “Creed II,” Caple said, Göransson wore a “cool jacket” that appeared to be an homage to singer Michael Jackson. “He was like, ‘Yeah, man, I’m feeling good,’ ” Caple said.
Caple said what helps set Göransson apart, in addition to his clothes, is that he’s the type of composer who understands story. “He really understands character,” the director said. “He’s definitely always looking from the sound perspective, but he’s always trying to find ways to connect and give insight on what the characters are feeling, their journey, their arc and what they are going through at the moment ... Talking to Ludwig is like talking to another writer or another actor or editor. He was just talking, essentially, about sound.”
In terms of his style, Göransson said he wears clothes that complement the music he’s working on. He regularly checks out online fashion sites such as Moda Operandi and Farfetch for new pieces, and he likes the clothes sold at Mohawk General Store. His roster of favored labels includes Ann Demeulemeester, Haider Ackermann and Sies Marjan. For now, he said, he’s into silky pajama-style dressing. (During a photo shoot for this story, he wore combinations of his favorite pieces.)
Perhaps his free-flowing and loose attire can be tied to him having a special year. Just as he wrapped up work on “The Mandalorian,” he and his wife became parents in September to a son named Apollo.
Their newborn’s name was inspired by the Greek god of music, prophecy and healing and also has a connection to fictional character Apollo Creed from the “Rocky” and “Creed” films. Göransson, who is named after German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, said his son doesn’t have to follow in his musical footsteps.
“Fatherhood is going well,” Göransson said. “I love him.”
“He is such a dream,” McKinney said about Apollo.
McKinney and Göransson met at a scoring session 11 years ago. They were the youngest musicians there. They were friends for about six years, attending concerts and dinner parties, before tying the knot in 2018. (They had three days of wedding festivities in Sweden, including a forest rave and an opera-house wedding officiated by Coogler.) Recently, they had the chance to work together again on “The Mandalorian.”
As for her husband’s style, McKinney said, “I think he uses fashion as inspiration even when he’s going to the studio ... He never leaves the house in a basic T-shirt and jeans. There’s always something interesting going on. He’s an artist, and I think that comes out in so many ways. With fashion, he’s always exploring new things. He has such a unique style.”
Göransson’s style — fashion, music and otherwise — comes from his curiosity and his Swedish roots. Growing up, Göransson, who has worked with Chance the Rapper and L.A.'s Haim, once saw his father, Tomas, a guitar teacher who’s in the cover band Chuck Berry Mania, rocking out to Metallica. He said the moment stuck with him. As for style, his older sister, Jessika, who once had her own fashion label, would dress him when he was a child. Another fashion influence for him was singer Beck, who has successfully married fashion and music. (“That ‘Midnite Vultures’ album was really cool,” Göransson said.)
“My music taste is all over the place,” he said, adding that it ranges from classical to songs by new artists. “It kind of depends on what I’m working on. Whenever I drive home from the studio nowadays, I put on classical music. I let my ears rest and get inspiration. It’s a soothing thing for me. I’m listening to a lot of Bach.” Also, he said he’s got Stevie Wonder’s 1979 album “The Secret Life of Plants” in heavy rotation. “I think it’s super interesting,” he said.
The dream year
In addition to having a banner year on the personal front thanks to the birth of his son, the award-winning composer has also enjoyed a series of career highs in 2019. In February, he was honored for his songwriting on the much-talked-about Childish Gambino track, “This Is America,” with actor-singer Donald Glover and rapper Young Thug, as well as for his work on “Black Panther.” (For the 61st Grammy Awards, he wore a colorful shirt and white suit by Louis Vuitton.) Göransson, a former assistant to composer and mentor Theodore Shapiro, and Glover first met years ago when both were involved with the TV show “Community.” Working on the show was Göransson’s big break, he said, thanks to Shapiro who recommended him for the job.
Weeks after this year’s Grammys, Göransson had another big moment at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. Dressed in a navy-blue Tom Ford tuxedo (for the special occasion, he had help selecting his jewelry), Göransson won his first Academy Award, for original music score for “Black Panther.” “It was crazy,” Göransson said about Oscar night, during which “Creed’s” Jordan and Tessa Thompson announced his category. “I didn’t expect to win. ... It was so surreal — that whole experience.”
The composer, who moved to L.A. in his 20s to attend graduate school, first worked with Coogler on the director’s short film, “Locks,” which Göransson speaks of with fondness. Thinking about the then-and-now of his career, Göransson said, “When we are working, I still get that same feeling that I had when we were students in our dorm room working on the short film. It’s the same spirit, and it’s the same kind of tingling feeling in your stomach when we’re working together. It’s really special and unique to have have a [friendship] that spans that young to now ... I guess we’re doing that same thing but on a bigger scale, and more people can hear it.”
Stepping into ‘Star Wars’
Göransson’s next feat, stepping into a galaxy far, far away, might end up capturing the hearts — and ears — of generations of “Star Wars” fans. Jon Favreau, showrunner, writer, creator and an executive producer on “The Mandalorian,” hopes so. He met Göransson thanks to Coogler and knew of him through Glover and “Avengers: Endgame” directors the Russo brothers among others. He and Göransson talked about the new “Star Wars” series, which stars “Game of Thrones” alum Pedro Pascal, more than a year before the first episode was shot.
“I had been unaware that I had known Ludwig’s work although I had heard it in many media, but I didn’t know who he was until Ryan Coogler had spoken so highly of him,” Favreau said by phone last month. “Everybody who had worked with him only had wonderful things to say about him. I was looking for somebody to work on this ‘Star Wars’ project, ‘The Mandalorian,’ and music is such a big part of ‘Star Wars.’ [Composer] John Williams had been such a defining voice in that world over 40 years.”
Starting with new characters in a new time frame, Favreau said he wanted music that took into account “Star Wars’” past but also went in a new direction. “I was looking for something that was a little grittier, a little edgier and a little more tech-oriented, something that felt half-tech, half-classic,” he said. “It was quite impressive how [Göransson] was able to incorporate everything that I was concerned with and then bring his own personality to make it extremely catchy and iconic and have all of the quality and breath of a ‘Star Wars’ score.”
Favreau, who’s now working on Season 2 of “The Mandalorian,” said the first reactions to Göransson’s new soundscape were positive. “I was very pleased with that,” Favreau said. “We have themes that recur throughout the eight episodes of the first season, but each episode is completely different. And he even recorded different end-credit music. We even loved the end-credit music so much that we built the whole visual language around the ending so that we can support the score that he would write. And then to be with him and his wife in the scoring stage was wonderful as well. That’s really when he really comes to life.”
Favreau said he also became aware of something about Göransson: his sounds for “The Mandalorian” are different from his previous work.
“He doesn’t necessarily have a signature style musically,” Favreau said. “His music adjusts to each story, and as a filmmaker that’s really compelling. ... He’s able to collaborate in many, many different worlds and many media. He has already proven at his young age that he knows how to connect with people — not just the people he’s collaborating with but audiences and listeners.”
And that might mean that at some future date, Göransson, who calls L.A. home, will end up with a night celebrating his music for a crowd at the Hollywood Bowl in a similar style to Williams’ popular concerts at the venue. Might that be of interest to the composer?
Pondering the question, Göransson said, “I would be very interested to see what the crowd would be like because music-wise, it’s a wide range. I’d be curious to see who would show up. What I like to do with my projects, ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Creed,’ is to create a totally different world — a sonic world for every project I’m doing. That’s literally how I work on every project — to come up with a new soundscape and new world that can inspire me to write music.”
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