Bear and Shirley in the studio, recording vocals for “Samson and Delilah”
- “If I had my way…
- I’d burn this whole building down”
The second season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles began with a bang tonight. As the series composer, I returned to the smashing metal percussion and electric string quartet textures of the Sarah Connor musical soundscape. However, Samson and Delilah also allowed me to once again stretch from the confines of underscore composer into song producer and arranger, and gave me the opportunity to work with Garbage lead singer and songwriter Shirley Manson.
The song I produced for her was featured prominently in the opening moments of the episode. And it will be the first track of the forthcoming Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles soundtrack CD that I’m thrilled to announce will be released by La La Land Records as early as next month!
The evolution of the song began last spring, long before scoring or even production began, in fact before the second season was officially picked up by Fox.
Writer / producer / showrunner Josh Friedman emailed me a description of how the first episode would open, assuming that we had the opportunity to make it. He envisioned a sequence where Cameron crawls out of the burning jeep wreckage, “fighting to get herself into the house to save Sarah and John.” He wanted to incorporate an old American spiritual called “Samson and Delilah”.
The spiritual was recorded in New York City by the Rev. Gary Davis in 1956, though it’s roots go back much further. Since then, it’s been performed by many artists over the years, including the Grateful Dead and Ike and Tina Turner. But, it was this especially rousing performance by Bruce Springsteen that caught Josh’s ear. However, the Boss never recorded a studio version, and the Bootleg-Recording-Via-YouTube audio quality is obviously heinous and not useable for broadcast. So, even in his first communication to me about this episode, Josh suggested that I re-arrange this tune for our show, that “it might be an opportunity for Bear Magic.”
My initial reaction was fairly lukewarm, which is amusing since this song evolved into one of the most exciting tracks I’ve ever recorded. When I first responded to Josh’s email, I expressed enthusiasm but cautioned him that we should be careful about using too many songs. After the spine-tingling use of Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” in the first season finale, I worried that yet another cleverly placed song would feel like a gimmick. I felt that the more often you place music counter to audience expectations, the less effective the technique becomes.
After that initial round of communication, Josh began writing the first script, the network finally greenlit the new season and I shifted my focus back to the monumental Battlestar Galactica concerts I was preparing, as well as scoring the epic Galactica episodes The Hub and Revelations (April was a busy month, what else can I say?). But, the whole time, I kept thinking about the possibilities for “Samson and Delilah.”
Sometimes ideas just need to percolate for a while, like a teapot on a slow burn on the back burner of your brain. I knew I needed to keep the gospel spiritual recognizable and yet not have it feel like a re-tread of the Johnny Cash idea from the previous season. My eventual solution was to incorporate elements of the Terminator score, to connect the song with the musical soundscape I’d created for the show. This approach had already proven effective with my arrangement of “All Along the Watchtower” for Battlestar Galactica. (Am I getting typecast as the guy who’ll make a kick-ass contemporary version of your favorite folk song? I suppose there are worse fates.)
A few months later, I was hanging out at the Warner Bros lot on the first day of production for Season 2, watching David Nutter shoot the scene where Cameron crawls from the burning wreckage. (It was hotter than hell that day, and the all the pyrotechnic effects didn’t help.) I found myself sitting next to Josh Friedman and we naturally struck up a conversation about the music for this sequence.
I pitched him the “Gospel-Spiritual-ala-Terminator-Score” idea and he thought it sounded cool. Then he told me news had hit the trades that morning that Garbage lead singer and songwriter Shirley Manson had officially joined the cast! Immediately, I knew she had to be our vocalist, though I suspected it was a long shot.
Getting Shirley to sing on the track was entirely up to Josh. Shirley explained his approach: “Josh took me out to dinner, plied me with champagne and then broached the subject somewhat shyly.”
Another couple months passed. Now, that slowly percolating idea was boiling over. I’d been thinking about arranging “Samson and Delilah” for so long that it felt like my brain was about to explode if I didn’t start working on it.
I first met Shirley Manson in Josh Friedman’s office. The three of us sat down to discuss ideas, in what I’m sure would be described by all parties as “rather uncomfortable.” I brought a demo I’d scratched out at my studio with my brother Brendan McCreary.
The demo was a serviceable effort, and definitely showcased the Terminator score elements, but it didn’t really light a fire for anyone. The lack of a real rhythm section in the track made it hard to explain my vision for the song. I caught myself saying variations of “Trust me, when it’s all done, it’s gonna’ sound amazing!” with some frequency.
We spent an hour discussing ideas. Shirley said she “wanted the song to have a somewhat authentic quality to it, rather than be traditionally orchestrated like most cinematic scores.” Josh wanted… well, at that point, Josh made it clear he just wanted me and Shirley to be happy. He gave us complete creative control of the music. Our initial plan was to premiere the song at Comic Con, but it became clear that didn’t leave enough time for Shirley and I to hammer our visions of the song together into a cohesive whole.
Steve Kaplan recording drums at The Village
For the following week, I was back in the studio with a renewed sense of purpose. Shirley was right that the track needed more raw, rock energy. My initial plan was to feature the Terminator drums and strings and simply add a few guitars. However, I pushed those score elements into the background, beefed up the guitar tracks and added live drum kit and electric bass.
This subtle shift of focus, moving the rock instruments to the foreground and the score elements to the background, allowed all our ideas to come together. The sound of the Terminator score remained intact (for me), the spiritual Gospel element had been preserved (for Josh) and an authentic rock / blues feel had been infused into the mix (for Shirley). We finally had a track that everyone loved. The process of arriving at this balance was complex, but the finished arrangement sounds utterly natural, like it had always been that way.
My approach to “Samson and Delilah” was the same as for “All Along the Watchtower.” I kept the key signature and groove, but changed everything else to put the song in a new context. My first step was to compose a signature guitar riff to propel the song forward:
The sound is very bluesy and folky, but the syncopated accents (not to mention the occasional 7/8 bars thrown in because it’s me) are deceptively sophisticated for gospel music. I also had the guitars and bass drop-tune a half step so that the low Eb would add some serious bottom to the track. I also effectively used drop-tuning in “Watchtower.” In fact, I write in this manner so frequently that Steve Bartek now asks me every session how far he should drop tune all his guitars!
Steve Bartek plays baritone mandolin on “Samson and Delilah”
However, the most significant change I made was adding a harmonic progression to the chorus. The chorus on the Gospel arrangement is over a steady root of Bbm with the occasional F7 thrown in. In my arrangement, the chorus sits over a slippery progression of Bbm, Db/Ab, Bbm7/F, Gbm and Ebm7. The result is a much more lyrical and emotional feel that distinguishes the choruses from the verses. I also added a lush electric string quartet to the choruses for added dramatic effect. These new chords sound so natural and organic to the melody, that now, when I now hear the older recordings over the steady Bb, it sounds like something is missing.
The rhythm section was comprised of Galactica alums Steve Bartek on guitars, John Avila on bass and Nate Wood on drums. Eureka guitarist Ira Ingber also played. I’ve found that he and Bartek have a great dynamic when recorded together. Steve Kaplan co-produced and engineered as always. These musicians brought incredible authenticity and energy to the song, and I couldn’t have done it without them.
Once the basic tracks had been laid down, Shirley and I went into the studio, with her engineer Billy Bush, to record the vocals. Shirley later described the session to me: “Working with you was extremely easy in the actual session itself, but I think we were both a little suspicious of one another to begin with! Its hard to strike up a creative rapport within a few days when you have an insane deadline to meet but I think we managed it in the end.”
Producing her was a very fun vocal session. We’d only met once before, yet by the end of the night, I felt like we’d known each other for years. Watching her process was amazing for me. She delivered a knock-out performance in every sense of the word. Her voice is filled with passion and pathos, and solidifies the song’s relentless crescendo, building from a ghostly opening chorus to a powerhouse finale. She “wanted to make sure the vocal had an emotional arc to it because the song is over five minutes long! It’s essential that the listener’s attention be held throughout.”
Speaking about the finished track, Shirley said “I am pleased with the result. I think the song matches the visual action in the sequence perfectly and I feel like we did a good job!”
However, Shirley Manson’s involvement with the show impacted my score in other ways. Her on-screen portrayal of the mysterious Weaver required I write her a theme, which is heard several times throughout Samson and Delilah and will continue to play a big role in future episodes:
Like her character, the Weaver theme is shrouded in mystery. It simultaneously feels minor, major and augmented, an elegant fragment that at any moment could shift into any emotion. The ambiguity of the melody prevents it from playing a heavy-handed role in manipulating the audience’s perceptions of her. After all, we know very little of her intentions and the score shouldn’t give anything away.
The Weaver Theme is first new theme for Season 2, adding to the relatively small body of melodic ideas that generate the entire score for this series. For a complete breakdown of the other major themes of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, check out this entry.
Completing “Samson and Delilah” was a long journey, but the finished song is worth all the effort. I always leap at the opportunity to write and produce songs, as I have for Battlestar Galactica, Rest Stop and the forthcoming Rest Stop: Don’t Look Back. However, working with Shirley was an incredible, new experience for me. And this season is just getting started, so I suspect there are more opportunities ahead.
And the delightfully unexpected surprise of this process was striking up a friendship and working relationship with Shirley Manson, who’s work I’ve always admired. I think she described it best: “I love that I now know someone called ‘Bear.’ It makes me laugh every time I see your name come up on my telephone!”