10.22.10 Ben Harper On Documentary Soundtrack
Norah Jones, Carly Simon, Ben Harper, Many More Contribute to Documentary Soundtrack
By Bonnie Stiernberg
The songwriter will be joined by a slew of big names for the upcoming Wretches & Jabberers soundtrack, out Jan. 11, 2011.
The film follows Larry Bissonnette and Tracy Thresher, two autistic men on a quest to raise awareness about the disability. In a press release, Ralph said he was inspired by the story of the film. “To me the story is about finding a voice, for those who’ve suffered so long without one of their own,” he said.
Ralph will be joined on the soundtrack by Norah Jones, Carly Simon, Ben Harper, Antony, Vashti Bunyan, Ben Taylor, Bob Weir, Devendra Banhart, Judy Collins, Steven Stills, Scarlett Johannson, Paul Brady, Vincent Gallo, David Garza, Bonnie Bramlett, Nic Jones, Martin Carthy, Lila Downs, and Leah Siegel.
1. “The Reasons Why” by J. Ralph
2. “Change Is Gonna Come” by Norah Jones
3. “The Letter” by Carly Simon
4. “More Like You” by Ben Harper
5. “Killingly Hard” by Antony & J. Ralph
6. “Flower and The Lion” by Vashti Bunyan
7. “Given to Us” by Ben Taylor
8. “Breaking the Hold” by Bob Weir
9. “Lying Down Statues” by Devendra Barnhart & J. Ralph
10. “Birdsong Judy” by Judy Collins
11. “Low Barefoot Tolerance” by Stephen Stills
12. “One Whole Hour” by Scarlett Johannson
13. “Hello For The First Time (Four Words)” by Paul Brady
14. “No Regard” by Vincent Gallo
15. “Four Brave Souls” by David Garza
16. “Breakers & The Wind” by Bonnie Bramlett
17. “Pretty Words Lie” by Nic Jones
18. “Fighters & Factitioners” by Martin Carthy
19. “Entenderse” by Lila Downs
20. “Birdsong Reprise” by Leah Siegel
POP & HISS: The L.A. Times music blog
'Wretches and Jabberers' documentary on autism draws support (and music) from Scarlett Johansson, Antony, Bob Weir, others
October 22, 2010
J. Ralph confesses to having a major cultural flashback experience while working with the stellar musical lineup he assembled to record songs for a new documentary about autism, “Wretches and Jabberers: And Stories From the Road.”
The remarkably diverse list of participants includes Norah Jones, Scarlett Johansson, Carly Simon, Devendra Banhart, Antony Hegarty, Ben Harper, Vashti Bunyan, Bob Weir, Stephen Stills and Vincent Gallo among many more.
They all signed on to be part of producer-director Gerardine Wurzberg’s film centering on a road trip undertaken by two autistic adult men.
“It was the craziest thing,” said Ralph, the New York singer and songwriter who composed scores for two previous Academy Award-winning documentaries, James Marsh’s “Man on Wire” in 2008 and Louis Psihoyos “The Cove” from last year. Ralph’s work on those projects prompted Wurzberg to seek him out to supply music for her exploration of the isolation and alienation that often accompanies autism.
“Nobody asked about money, nobody asked about contracts or managers,” he said this week from his studio in Manhattan. “It was like something out of the 1960s, like Max Yasgur’s farm — people just said, ‘When can I come over?’ ‘How many guitars can I bring?’ ‘Should I bring my friend? He plays drums.’ Bob Weir said, ‘You can stay at my house.’ There was not one roadblock through the whole thing.”
“'Wretches and Jabberers" currently is making its way through the indie film festival circuit. The soundtrack is scheduled for release on Jan. 11 — after the fourth quarter period in which all attention in the music business is focused on bestselling albums by superstar performers.
Part of the altruistic motivation for all concerned is that the album will first be available, a month ahead of its general release in February, in conjunction with a charity promotion benefiting the Autism Society of America and the Wretches & Jabberers Fund of the Institute on Communication and Inclusion at Syracuse University in New York.
Ralph wrote most of the songs himself, and collaborated with some of the participants on others.
“I had this idea to write some songs for the film and to get some iconic voices to sing them. Because these people [in the film] are at the threshold of finding their own voice, I wanted to kind of honor them, meditate on some of the film’s themes that I experienced watching it. Then I just put together this great group of people to help write and sing the songs. It happened very organically.”
Johansson, who applies her breathy jazz phrasing to Ralph’s bluesy “One Whole Hour,” said: “We’ve been friends for years and I’ve always been a fan of his sound and aesthetic. … What struck me very much about the film was not only the courage and perseverance of the film’s protagonists, but by the effect that Josh’s music had on the project as a conceptual whole.”
One of the ideas that resonated deepest with Johansson was a comment by one of the men who says, “I know what it’s like to wait for a voice inside.” The actress and singer said, “We built the song around that idea: what it must feel like to be a fully conscious and self-aware individual with no means of expressing oneself. A mind trapped inside a body.”
It’s a theme also particularly relevant to the guest with perhaps the most extraordinary back story on the album: British folk guitarist and songwriter Nic Jones. He was one of the leading lights of late-'60s and '70s Celtic folk. His musical career ended in the early '80s when he was involved in traffic accident that left him with catastrophic injuries.
Ralph had been a fan and passionately persuaded Jones, through his wife, to step into a recording studio for the first time in nearly 30 years to sing “Pretty Words Lie.”
“His wife said, ‘Kid, you’ve got a lot of hope and spirit, but if he doesn’t like something, he’ll tell you it sucks,' ” Ralph said. “He doesn’t mince words.”
Ralph followed his instinct that Jones would rise to the occasion. “I hear the heart in his records, and that does not die,” Ralph said. “Maybe the singer changes, his voice changes, but the heart that connects does not die.”
He felt Jones’ situation mirrored in some way the film’s portrait of its autistic focal points, Larry Bissonnette and Tracy Thresher.
“I couldn’t help but notice the parallel,” Ralph said, “of him wanting to try and record and find his voice again — having been such a luminary of folk music, and then losing it — and these guys [in the film] never having it, but trying to find a voice.”
Paul Brady, a contemporary of Jones’ who also appears on the soundtrack, said, “I got an e-mail from Josh. I didn’t know that he knew my music, but he’s been into stuff I’ve done for years. Obviously for the film’s music he’s turned to artists whose work he likes and was inspired by. When someone comes to you like that, that’s the kind of thing I respond to. ... I was intrigued by what would come out of it.”
The song Brady sings, “Hello for the First Time,” centers on how “even a simple thing, like saying hello to someone, becomes a monumentally important occurrence.”
Said Johansson, “I think all of the songs on this soundtrack are so personal to each artist, both musically and lyrically, because they represent the effects the film’s heroes, heroines and subject matter had on each one of us.”
-- Randy Lewis
Ralph's score veers to the vulnerable
Composer adopts unique approach to autism documentary
By Andrew Barker
In the ongoing renaissance of innovative music scoring for documentaries, composer-songwriter J. Ralph, who scored such recent docs as "The Cove" and "Man on Wire" and made song contributions to "Crazy Love," has certainly played a part. But his scoring work for recently released autism docu "Wretches and Jabberers" has taken on a strange life of its own, birthing a generation- and genre-spanning companion soundtrack after the fact, all composed with a recording philosophy that closely mirrors the film's subject.
Ralph was tasked with scoring Gerardine Wurzburg's film, which follows two autistic middle-aged men who have find an artistic release in writing, earlier this year. As he prepared a song to play over the end titles, he got the idea for a full-length record exploring the experience of autism, with different singers on each song.
He began work on the project with two friends, veteran SoCal roots-rocker Ben Harper and starlet-singer Scarlett Johansson, and then followed collaborators' recommendations and his own personal wishlist. His cold calls to a plethora of singers yielded fruitful results: Norah Jones, Carly Simon, Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons), Devendra Barnhart, Judy Collins, Vashti Bunyan, Stephen Stills and British folk icon Martin Carthy were enticed onto the record. The Grateful Dead's Bob Weir even invited him to stay in his San Francisco home while waxing his contribution.
The film's theme of voiceless individuals discovering a mode of self-expression was key to Ralph's songwriting; he refused to play his songs for the singers before they entered the studio, essentially treating their earliest attempts to interpret the songs as finished versions.
"Maybe half of the people (asked to record) said, 'Yes, I'd like to do this, can you send me the song?' And I said, 'I'd rather not, I'd like your discovery of the song to be here in the studio, because once you've discovered it, it's no longer a tenuous, vulnerable experience for you, so this way will create a much more vulnerable recording.'
"These two gentlemen (in the film) are at the precipice of discovering their own language and what it means to have a voice, so I wanted to telegraph that into the recording process. To have these great artists discovering these songs for the first time with a little trepidation, not that bombastic confidence that you can get later on."
Ralph's biggest coup was recruiting Nic Jones, a legendary British folk musician whose guitar style was an admittedly major influence on Bob Dylan. After suffering a catastrophic car accident in 1982, Jones had completely ceased recording -- his take of "Pretty Words Lie" on Ralph's soundtrack is his first recorded performance since the accident.
Ralph first spoke to Jones' wife, who eventually invited him to play Jones the song he had written, but cautioned him, " 'You might come all the way to London, but if he doesn't like the song, he's not going to sing it,' " Ralph recalls.
"So I just got on a plane. I didn't have any place to stay, and I didn't have a studio booked, but I just really believed it would work," Ralph says. "The parallel here is that of having one of the greatest voices ever, then having it be taken away and trying to find it again. These guys in the film never had (a voice) and are also trying to find one. There's something so uncanny about that."
The soundtrack will be released digitally on Jan. 11.