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An Interview with Angelo Badalamenti

Composer

“THE HAUNTING SOUNDS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN THERE,
THE OFF-CENTER INSTRUMENTALS… EVER SINCE I WAS A CHILD.”

by Frances Badalamenti
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Angelo Badalamenti

Composer

“THE HAUNTING SOUNDS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN THERE,
THE OFF-CENTER INSTRUMENTALS… EVER SINCE I WAS A CHILD.”

by Frances Badalamenti
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Angelo Badalamenti

Frances Badalamenti
76 Snaps

I spent my formative years in suburban Jersey as an aimless, misguided youth. My uncle (the composer Angelo Badalamenti) and his family lived less than a mile from me, the by-product of a classic Italian American migration from New York City’s outer boroughs. I was still in my first year of high school when David Lynch’s Blue Velvet was released. I graduated the same year that Twin Peaks aired on television—these were the first two projects that my uncle collaborated on with David. My uncle created the eerie, synth-infused, otherworldly sounds that often accompany David’s bizarre, poetic lyrics. Their relationship evolved into one that many artists dream about—a highly productive, lucrative creative partnership. It was symbiotic. And even though I was still a kid when all of this went down, I was certainly witness to the transition my uncle made from being a struggling artist to having financial security. We had always been a close-knit clan. And when you have someone in your family who’s suddenly creatively successful, your landscape is altered. You start to see the world through a wider lens, and realize there are possibilities beyond the mundane, uninspiring, check-to-check types of careers—especially if you have creative aspirations yourself. 

In the summer of 1996, after graduating from college, I went on the classic coming-of-age backpacking trip around Europe. About halfway through, I got word from home that my uncle was in Prague. He was in the process of recording music with David Lynch for the soundtrack to the film Lost Highway. So I abandoned my traveling partners, and I absconded on a night train.

I arrived in Prague, where my uncle and David were being interviewed by a man wearing a T-shirt that read I Fucked Laura Palmer. I spent the afternoon watching my uncle work. I don’t remember much. I remember that there was a full orchestra. And that David sat nearby drinking many cups of coffee. Before I went back to my hotel, my uncle said something that has stayed with me for a long, long time. He said, “You need to do what you are good at. You need to do what you do best.” This piece of wisdom has stuck with me, mostly because of my admiration for my uncle. He is charismatic and funny and highly intelligent. Yet beneath what most people see, there is a deep, melancholic complexity to his persona. I believe the ominous nature of his music resides in this dark emotional landscape.

Before he started working with David, my uncle had some major successes. He worked on two feature films in the 1970s, Gordon’s War and Law and Disorder, and he wrote the hit song “Face It Girl, It’s Over,” which was performed by Nancy Wilson. But it took quite a bit longer for him to find the kind of success that doesn’t involve constant hustling. There was a lot of struggle during those in-between years—near successes and rejections and financial worries.

When I think about my uncle and my own father, who was also a musician, a jazz trumpet player, and how my great-grandfather would listen to opera and cry, I am truly able to feel where I come from.

—Frances Badalamenti

 

I. ANDY BADALE

THE BELIEVER: Was music a part of your life early on?

ANGELO BADALAMENTI: In a way, I was actually composing for film long before I even knew that I was. When I was very young, maybe seven years old, we had a tall upright player piano in the house. The music would play from rolls, and I would watch the keys as I pressed down on the pedals. I was mesmerized by a particular song called “What’ll I Do” by Irving Berlin. It brought me to tears. I played it over and over and over. That song really had an effect on me. And I just couldn’t get enough of it.

In terms of the family line, my father was a wonderful singer, and his father had been a percussionist in the town band in Cinisi, Sicily. There was musical talent on both sides of the family. On my mother’s side, my grandfather and his four sons, my uncles, all sat around after Sunday dinner, and I would join them in listening to Italian opera on an RCA Victrola record player. My grandfather would sip homemade red wine that he poured from a big jug, narrating the opera’s story line. He would become very emotional. It was a profound experience to witness how music could make someone weep.

BLVR: When did you start playing and then composing music?

AB: I started taking piano lessons at eight years old. And by the time I was in fifth and sixth grades, I was asked to play piano at different school functions. In junior high school, I wanted to be in the band, and the teacher in charge told me I would need to learn an instrument other than the piano. He had me take up the French horn, which I started to play in the seventh grade. Eventually, I took private lessons with an accomplished teacher who played in the John Philip Sousa band. But I still played piano in all the assemblies and shows throughout high school. I really began to fall in love with the French horn. I played French horn in the orchestra. I composed and orchestrated music. I was composing the whole time during high school, writing processional marches—things like this.

During the last two years of high school, I got very involved in songwriting. I would write page after page after page of instrumental pieces, which I would actually go back to later for reference or inspiration. The music was strange and melodic, quite abstract, more like poetry. When I needed lyrics to go with the songs, I would go to the library and find out-there kinds of poems and I would set them to music.

My brother Steve [Frances’s father], who was seven years older than me, was a brilliant jazz trumpet player. He would bring all kinds of terrific musicians to our house for jam sessions. There was a studio set up in the basement. One of those musicians was a flutist named Herbie Mann. He became quite famous. They played a style of jazz called bebop but in a very progressive way. After jam sessions, my mother would make a big pot of spaghetti and meatballs for everyone.

BLVR: Wasn’t there a family member who was a musical influence?

AB: Our father’s younger cousin Vinnie Badale was a big influence on both my brother and me. He was our hero and we looked up to him. He had taken our last name and shortened it to not sound so ethnic, as I also did, later. I went by Andy Badale on my first films and in my early songwriting. That was common in those days. When I worked on Blue Velvet [1986], I saw the beautiful names Rossellini and De Laurentiis, and then I started to go by Angelo Badalamenti.

Anyhow, Vinnie Badale was a phenomenal trumpet player. He was quite successful in the big band era and played with greats like Benny Goodman and Harry James. He also played on movie soundtracks. So I saw there was a member of our family who was very successful at music, and it made me think there was a chance that I could be successful with music too. Even though my brother Steve did not make a living at music, he was an incredible talent and he played a pivotal role in making sure I stuck with music. He was really my greatest influence and the most important thing that happened to me in my life. At a time when I wanted to be out with friends, playing stickball in the streets, my brother would make me go back inside to practice. There was even a time when our father wanted me to  drop lessons to save himself a few bucks, because money was so tight back then, but my brother told our father it was a big mistake to allow me to stop, and then I was right back to taking lessons and playing music.

BLVR: I know you studied music at the college level. What was that trajectory?

AB: I graduated from Lafayette High School in Brooklyn and received a full scholarship to the Eastman School of Music upstate, in Rochester, New York. While at Eastman, I majored in the French horn and took composition courses and studied music theory. I spent two years at Eastman, and then I wanted to get more involved in the business side of music. So I moved to the Manhattan School of Music, where I eventually received both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

BLVR: Did you write music while in college?

AB: I was writing for film long before I knew I was. I was always writing music, composing in a wide range of genres. I even went back to some of that writing many years later, and some of it was actually quite good. I was both arranging and orchestrating.

During the summers off from college, I would go work up in the Catskills, also known as the Borscht Belt, at the popular resorts of that era. I played piano for the comedians, singers, dancers—all kinds of acts. I had to play a lot of the standards, so I learned quite a wide range of music. I had to learn them very quickly, and learning so many different types of music was a tremendous help later on in my career. I also learned how to deal with people while playing those gigs, something that was foundational when I worked on the business side of music.

 

II. “PEACHY KEEN”

BLVR: Did you ever have any job that didn’t focus on music?

AB: I don’t know if there is anything I could have done other than music. I just don’t have a clue about anything else. [Laughter] Although there was a time when money was really, really tight, when I considered driving a New York City cab.

BLVR: Weren’t you a teacher for some time?

AB: In my last year of college, as a backup plan and in case music didn’t work out, I took a full year of education coursework. So after graduation, I got a job right away at Dyker Heights Intermediate School, otherwise known as PS 201. I was twenty-two years old at the time, and I stayed there for five years. It was a wonderful school, in a great neighborhood in Brooklyn.

It ended up being a breaking point in my career, because at one point I needed to do a Christmas musical with the kids. I didn’t know what to do, and then I just decided to compose one myself. I had a writer friend adapt A Christmas Carol into a script and I wrote the music. It ended up being a very successful production. The Department of Education heard about it and came to see it, and then PBS came. PBS asked me to take the kids into the city to record at their studio. We put a band together and filmed it and then it aired on television during the holidays for a few years.

And here’s where my first real break came. After the show aired on PBS, a small music publisher named Frank Stanton called. He wanted to publish the music from this holiday show. He also asked me to write some more music, some instrumentals. I went up to his office in the city and played the music for him. Right away, he asked to record it.

After hearing more of my work, Frank basically told me that I should not be teaching, that I should be writing music full-time. So even though I was very happy in that job and I loved the school and the kids, I quit the teaching job and began writing with him. I was sad to leave that job. It was a wonderful experience and it offered stability, but I knew this could be a big step for me and I took the risk.

BLVR: You wrote some pop and soul songs. I really love the one you wrote, “Another Spring,” that Nina Simone sang.

AB: I was into writing pop and soul songs for a while. There were some female artists who admired those songs. Nina Simone was one of them. I actually went to Nina’s office in Manhattan and knocked on the door. Her manager, who was also her husband, let me in, and then soon after, Nina came in from shopping. She did not have a piano but let me sing her some melodies from lead sheets. One of those was “Another Spring.” They invited me later to the studio to hear her performing my songs. It was an unbelievable feeling. And then there was a big hit called “Face It Girl, It’s Over,” which Nancy Wilson sang. It was high on the charts for a while and was an important song for me that opened many doors.

BLVR: When did you start writing for film? How did that come to be?

AB: A friend of mine, Al Elias, also a writer and composer, was working on [an episode for a television] series called It’s a Brand New World. This was during the early ’70s. At the same studio where Al was working and where I spent a lot of time, Ossie Davis was directing a film called Gordon’s War. It was a Blaxploitation film about a Vietnam vet returning home to Harlem, coming back to a neighborhood of drugs and hustling. Ossie had just finished shooting the film, and Barry White was set to write the score. I got hold of the script and basically told Ossie that I could write the score with Al Elias’s lyrics. After a lot of begging and prodding, he let me do it. We released a full soundtrack.

The second film right after that was called Law and Disorder. It was a cop film starring Carroll O’Connor and Ernest Borgnine. The director was Ivan Passer. I read the script and wrote a few themes for it. He also had a composer in mind, Aaron Copland. And then I convinced Ivan to let me do it. The picture was a bust, but people really enjoyed the music.

And then there was a big gap in time when I didn’t write for film. I didn’t have an agent, because the films I worked on weren’t that fiscally successful. But I did continue to write songs and did some recordings in Europe and some ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] songwriting.

BLVR: How did you end up collaborating with David Lynch? In my mind, that has always been the big break that all artists dream about.

AB: Things were tough for quite a while. The music landscape had changed so much in the ’70s . I had moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey and had a family to support. And then one day I was at home and got a call from my friend Peter Runfolo. I’ll never forget it. I knew Peter from working on Law and Disorder [1974]. He was a unit manager, and his friend Freddie Caruso was a line producer for Dino De Laurentiis. At that time, they were working on a movie called Blue Velvet starring Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini. The director was someone named David Lynch.

They wanted me to help, because Isabella needed to sing the Bobbie Vinton song “Blue Velvet” for a crucial scene in the film. There were many attempts but nobody could help her; they were struggling to get it right. And because I had worked with so many singers in my career, Peter called me to help.

They were shooting down in North Carolina, and so they flew me down to meet with Isabella and to see what I could do. When I got there, we went into a little room with just Isabella and me and a piano. I worked with her for two or three hours straight until we got a good take on a small recorder. We came out of the room and I told Freddie we were done.

David was shooting the last scene. We brought him the cassette tape. He put on his earphones and right away said, “That’s the ticket! This is peachy keen!” I had to ask the line producer what peachy keen meant.

And then he sent us to New York to record the song. Later on he said they could have used that cassette tape for the film, that it was that good.

And here’s where things truly shifted for me. David wanted to use Cocteau Twins music for the film, but it would have cost a lot of money. And because David had full creative control, the producers had a conundrum. They didn’t have the budget to pay for the Cocteau Twins, so Dino asked me to write a song instead. I asked that David write some lyrics. David wrote these beautiful lyrics, which Isabella brought to me on a scrap of paper. I wrote music for them, and the title was “The Mysteries of Love.”

When I played him the music, David just loved it. He asked me to find a singer who had a unique voice, someone who could sing like an angel. That’s when I made a few calls and found Julee Cruise. We went to the studio and I had her whisper the song. She made that song float and David went absolutely nuts. And then he asked me to do the score for the film.

BLVR: And that led to you working on Twin Peaks?

AB: David had told me he was working on a show for television called Northwest Passage. Of course, that show later became Twin Peaks. Before he shot any of the scenes, he would come to my office in Manhattan and we would talk through the scenes as I wrote the music. He would go through details, walking me through each scene, and he would get me on a track. We would get into this space. Every project of David’s that I’ve done has been like that.

In Twin Peaks, for every outrageous character, I had a theme. I would disguise it in different ways. Some of the music went with the action, but in many cases I tried to make the music go against the action. David felt that the music of Twin Peaks would have to cover a lot of ground, a wide range of moods: sadness, passion, ecstasy, love, tenderness, and violence. He wanted the music to be dark and abstract. He asked me for music that would tear the hearts out of people. I had David’s words and his descriptive moods in my mind.

The music played a very important part in the show. I tried to make the music have a haunting feeling. The haunting sounds have always been there, the off-center instrumentals—they have been with me ever since I was a child. When I would go to the movies as a young person, I was drawn mostly to the film noir genre. Something was very dark and haunting about those films that inspired me, that really stuck with me. I especially liked the music for the film Laura, which was composed by David Raskin.

 

III. DISSONANT THINGS

BLVR: You worked on many projects with David, all quite similar in theme—eerie, haunting. But then there was The Straight Story, which is so different from his other films. Was writing that music and going through that creative experience different from working on David’s other films?

AB: David’s partner at the time, Mary Sweeney, wrote the script for The Straight Story and wanted David to direct it. He didn’t want to do it at first, but eventually Mary convinced him and he finally agreed. He approached me and I read the script. It was in the Americana style. And it wasn’t eerie at all! But, ironically, I had been working on country music at the time, because my colleague Frank Stanton had moved to Nashville.

So David came over and we were in my house. I had a synth and he had some footage he had shot. I really didn’t relate to it at first; I wasn’t feeling inspired. But then we started talking about Sissy Spacek’s character, Rose, who stutters. So anyhow, David and I talked at length about Sissy’s character. And the more we got into the minds of the characters, the more I began to understand them. I could relate to them. And so I was able to write to their psyches, to their emotional landscapes.

So once again, it was David’s words and his talking to me that did it. David always made the music fit his films.

BLVR: You’ve worked with so many great directors: Walter Salles, Paul Schrader, Danny Boyle, Jane Campion, Neil LaBute, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Did the creative process with these directors differ from working so intimately with David?

AB: It is quite obvious that there is only one David Lynch. And the music of David Lynch films is its own unique creation. In terms of all the other films with the other directors, the difference is that the writing has to cater to their specific visions. It has to encompass their personal ideas and their concepts. The one thing that is similar [among] all the films is that I have my own personal identity. There are certain things I put into the music I write. It is recognizable. It’s how I use certain dissonant things, and I pride myself on that.

BLVR: Didn’t you know the writer Norman Mailer?

AB: After Blue Velvet, I got a call from Norman Mailer. He told me a film was being adapted from his book Tough Guys Don’t Dance. He said he needed a country song. I told him we could write a country song together. We got Mel Tillis to record it.

BLVR: What about The City of Lost Children? That is obviously such an amazing film and soundtrack. A cult classic.

AB: That happened because David Lynch was working in an editing room in Paris. Jean-Pierre Jeunet knew David was editing next door. So Jean-Pierre worked up the courage to ask David for my phone number. [Laughs] And then Jean-Pierre called me to tell me about his film. His process was different, because he sent me storyboards. And I saw a world in there I hadn’t ever seen before.

There were so many beautiful, off-center things. I just loved it. And when he was doing A Very Long Engagement, with Audrey Tautou, he called me to do that film as well.

BLVR: Among these other films, do you have any favorites?

AB: Outside of David’s projects, I would say The Comfort of Strangers is one of my favorite films. It was directed by Paul Schrader and based on a book by Ian McEwan. Harold Pinter wrote the script. Christopher Walken, Helen Mirren, Natasha Richardson, and Rupert Everett starred in the film. It is such a powerful script and every single word has meaning to it.

BLVR: You wrote the Torch Theme for the ’92 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. How was that experience?

AB: I knew that the theme, which ended up being called “The Flaming Arrow,” had to be something very special. So I was taking my time and, honestly, I was putting them off because nothing was coming to me. Nothing whatsoever. And then one night I was getting ready to go to a wedding and I sang something in the shower. And that was it—it just came to me in the shower. I went downstairs and played it on the piano. I wrote it in half an hour.

And of course it was a thrilling experience to compose and then conduct “The Flaming Arrow” in Barcelona during the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics. It really took everything I had done, everything I had been through, and culminated it into this profound experience.

BLVR: You and David recently released an album titled Thought Gang. It was work you recorded back in the ’90s. How did that recording come to be?

AB: We took our collaborative process and expanded it; we gathered a bunch of fantastic Los Angeles–based studio musicians and we laid down some instrumental tracks. They had a jazzed, improvised feel about them. David came with some storytelling lyrics. He would give the musicians scenarios to inspire them, and they really fed off of [one another]. I told David I would sing some of the lyrics he wrote, which David thought was an awful idea. I went into the studio and had the lyric sheets in front of me and vocally improvised on each of the tracks. David just loved the way it turned out. He ended up putting one of the tracks, “A Real Indication,” on the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me soundtrack. That album was a very experimental project and a true culmination of our relationship.

BLVR: What was that story you told me about Paul McCartney, the Queen, and Twin Peaks?

AB: I got a phone call from Paul McCartney one day to come work with him. He wanted me to come to Abbey Road Studios, so they flew me on the Concorde, because I was busy, short on time. He had asked me to use my Twin Peaks–style writing on a project. It was Paul, the engineer, and me, with a full orchestra. We worked on one piece of material. And during our time together, Paul told me he had been invited by Queen Elizabeth to celebrate her birthday at Buckingham Palace. He had prepared some music for her, and after he performed, she came over and to thank him and said that she needed to excuse herself to go upstairs to watch Twin Peaks. And so I guess that’s all there is to say!

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