Tag Archives: We’re Here

A Strange New World: Speaking with Herdís Stefánsdóttir about Y: The Last Man

Last fall I was blessed with the opportunity to speak with composer Herdís Stefansdottir about her work on the original series Y: The Last Man, adapted from the acclaimed graphic novel series of the same name. This was actually my second time getting to speak with this composer and I was really excited to get some insight into her work on this series, which unfortunately as of January 2022 is still cancelled and has yet to find a new home somewhere else.

Herdís Stefánsdóttir is a composer of music for multimedia, a songwriter, and an electronic musician. Her compositional endeavors — installations in museums, dance, theatre, and a successful electronic music duet she is a part of – are establishing her as an expansive artist. Herdís Stefánsdóttir graduated with an M.A. degree in film scoring from New York University in 2017. Since graduation she has scored two feature films, an HBO series and a few short films.

Her scoring work includes Ry Russo – Young’s MGM/Warner Bros. feature film, The Sun Is Also A Star and the HBO series We’re Here (which I previously interviewed her about).

I hope you enjoy our conversation about Y: The Last Man!

Were you familiar with the story of Y: The Last Man before working on the series? 

Actually I was not, I had never heard of it before. I received an email that had details about [the story] and I was really intrigued by it. It sounded like a very interesting concept, how they decided to adapt [the story] to television and go to those philosophical questions like, how do you decide your identity in a world that has changed so much?

How closely did you collaborate with the producers while working on the music for Y: The Last Man? 

The producers were pretty cool, because they actually left me alone. They didn’t have any idea of what they wanted [the music] to be, they just said “What’s your idea?” When I started writing, there was a music supervisor and music editor working with me on the team. Before sharing [the music] with the producers and the show runner, I would ask them both “What do you think of it? Am I heading in the right direction?” And they both loved it. Having their experience helped a lot.

It doesn’t happen that often to find the musical identity [of the show] so early on, but it happened with this show that they loved [the music] from the beginning. So I was left alone and kept expanding and experimenting, doing something that I found exciting.

Did that make the process easier?

In this case I think it did. I felt really free and inspired and I enjoyed writing like that. Sometimes if you are glued to a temp track or an idea that they decide they really want, then you’re working in a more narrow frame, it can be quite challenging as a composer.

Was it always a given that the music for Y: The Last Man would be centered on the female voice or did that idea come about gradually?

It was my first small idea, like “What is the sound of this world?” When I had seen a rough cut of the first episode and gotten into the first volume of the graphic novel, I’d gotten a feel for the aesthetics they were going for, which involved a lot of realism. I didn’t it feel it was a very sci-fi or futuristic sound. It immediately spoke to me as being organic, in a human way. So my first tiny idea that I went with turned out to work really well with the picture.

Besides the female voice, what other instruments or sounds did you decide to include in the music for Y: The Last Man? How did you decide which instruments to include (or exclude)?

Well, this is during COVID so I was working alone in my studio. I have a stack of synthesizers and I’m an electronic musician apart from film scoring, so I used my own voice and whatever I could record in my own studio. I also got some friends to come over, including one who built a magnetic harp, an electro-acoustic instrument and there’s only three of them in the world. I thought it would be interesting to record that instrument to see what would happen. That ended up becoming the sound for one of the main themes of the show for the Amazons.

What was your general process for scoring Y: The Last Man, as in, which themes were created first and how was the music for the show built up?

I actually didn’t touch individual episodes. I wrote the entire score to script, and I went by inspiration and feeling. I think I wrote 85% of the score in the first couple of months and I’d only read the scripts. The music editor would actually edit [the music] to the episodes. The themes I was developing were longer and bigger than if I would have been writing to the picture. It was a really free experience of creating. I always knew what was happening in the production but I did not write to the picture.

Did the pandemic affect the recording and composing process at all?

I was lucky to be in Iceland, I think it’s one of the few places that allows recording. Well, strings are being recorded but not vocalists, because you’re breathing air, and it wasn’t allowed in a lot of places. I got lucky to be here and up north where there’s an Icelandic film composer called Atli Örvarsson, he founded a film orchestra that’s going well and it’s one of the few places where you can record during Covid. There’s also a beautiful professional choir up there that I recorded with and they became the foundation of the female voices in the score.

I like how there’s almost a tribal sound to the modulated vocal melodies in ‘Kimberly Campbell Cunningham’ and other tracks, was that done on purpose?

What I was doing was imagining the sound of the world and imagining a group of female voices talking to each other in the moment of the world collapsing. I heard this resonance of the female voice, kind of like talking and disharmony kind of clustering together. That became one of the fundamental sounds that I integrated into the themes and melodies [of the soundtrack].

Do you have any thoughts on the show, so far, not being picked up for a second season?

I’m pretty surprised, I think it deserved to finish the story. It was just starting and the fact that it got cancelled mid-first season…it’s not fun. There’s so much more to say.

I want to send a big thank you to Herdís Stefansdottir for taking the time to speak with me about Y: The Last Man!

See also:

Composer Interviews

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Exploring the Music of ‘We’re Here’: An Interview with Herdís Stefánsdóttir

Recently I was given the opportunity to interview Herdís Stefánsdóttir, a film and television composer perhaps best known for working on The Sun is Also a Star and currently working on the upcoming HBO series We’re Here.

Herdís Stefánsdóttir graduated with an M.A. degree in film scoring from New York University in 2017. Since graduation she has scored two feature films, an HBO series and a few short films. Her scoring work includes Ry Russo -Young’s MGM/Warner Bros. feature film, The Sun Is Also A Star and the HBOseries We’re Here. Herdís was nominated for The Icelandic Music Awards for her score in The Sun Is Also A Star. Herdís interned for the Oscar nominated composer Jóhann Jóhannsson inBerlin while he was working on the film Arrival (2016) and she has scored numerous short films that have premiered at top-tier festivals around the world like Berlinale, TIFF, Sundance and Palm Springs International Film Festival.

The subject of the interview was Herdís Stefánsdóttir’s work on the upcoming HBO series We’re Here, a short series about people being transformed into drag queens and coached into stepping outside their comfort zones by famous drag queens including Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara, and Shangela. We’re Here is currently set to premiere on April 23, 2020.

What drew you to composing for film and television?

I started experimenting with it a few years ago when I was in school. I was collaborating with dance projects, theater, and all that kind of stuff. I really enjoyed working with people and working on stories. It’s a totally different way of approaching music that I hadn’t done before. That’s how it started.

How did you get connected with We’re Here? It’s an interesting premise for a show

We’re Here [came about] from my agent sending in a portfolio, essentially a reel of my music that the creators really liked and they thought it was a good fit. And it is a good show, I quite like it.

How did you approach scoring a show like We’re Here?

Actually I’m not quite finished [with scoring], I’m actually in the middle of the scoring process. I just finished episode 3 and I’m working on episode 4. It’s definitely something that I hadn’t figured out before I started because what’s interesting is that the episodes all have the same theme with going to small towns. They’re talking to people and getting their stories. Each of the stories are so different and the characters are so different. So it kind of developed through the process of scoring. And I feel like where I am now, basically I’ve been creating a sound world for each person. Each story and each character gets their own sound. That’s how it’s been developing. And that sound is changing from episode to episode.

How is the process for scoring television different from scoring for film?

It’s very different. I’ve never worked on a project like this, that has real people and a real story, and it makes the scoring process almost indescribable because it’s so different from working on fictional material. It has to be so right, like when a person is talking you don’t want to go overboard and make it cheesy. You want it to be the right emotion without taking too much space. It’s a lot of work to get everything right. In film, there are moments where you’re just writing music for something where no one is talking and you can just write a piece of music more inspired by the film. But this [the show] is more like weaving a thread of music within all the stories and conversations.

About how long was the recording process for each episode?

For the first episode, that was the one I had the longest time to work on. That was when I was starting to figure out what I wanted to do, how do I want this to sound. That was more a process of experimenting and trying to get the right emotion and the right heart of this show.

I’ve been mostly working my myself in the studio and I record instruments, synths, different sounds, the piano, and my voice. Then I get friends to record specific instruments that I might need. And the further we are in the process the faster it’s happening. There’s definitely been more pressure for each episode as it goes on. And [the process] has been interesting because in a [traditional] narrative or fictional series you start creating a sound world with themes that are reused throughout. However, because each episode has its own identity, I always feel like I’m starting from scratch when I start a new episode. I would say it’s about three or four weeks per episode [to finish scoring].

Is the music for each episode connected to that of other episodes, or are they in their own musical “bubbles”?

They are definitely connected because there are two sides to it. There are the characters but there’s also all the moments in the show. Some scenes need cues to bring out a certain emotion so there’s definitely a thread connecting them. It’s a special element that defines each story or character. There is an overall sound that connects everything, even when I might play around and change the instrumentation for the different characters.

Did anything in particular influence the sound of the music you were making? That is to say, were you going for a particular sound?

I wasn’t at all. I was just kind of open to see where it would take me. What kind of surprised me was the different people, with their different stories, and how they called out interesting things. It was like “this person needs this in their story.” All of it has been developing as we go. I didn’t decide anything before [we started]. I just knew I wanted to avoid a typical TV score, I just wanted to create a unique voice for everyone.

What do you want viewers to take away when they watch these episodes and hear your music?

I just hope it gets into people’s hearts. I hope they feel the story. I think that’s the purpose of the music. It’s a way of helping people tell the stories.

I want to give a big thank you to Herdís Stefánsdóttir for taking the time to talk with me about her work on the upcoming HBO series We’re Here. The show will premiere on HBO April 23, 2020.

See also:

Composer Interviews

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