Lovett's catchy "Don't Freak Out" seems made for these times. In fact, America should adopt it as the nation's theme song for this insane election year, no matter who wins the presidential race.
Written specifically for a project called The Asheville Symphony Sessions, which includes contributions from some of Western North Carolina's top musicians, Lovett's song begins with his pleasant plinks on a toy piano. With the symphony conducted by Daniel Meyer, it develops into a full-fledged collaboration that includes sweeping orchestral arrangements, a children's chorus providing Beach Boyish (and girlish) harmonies and the buoyant spirit of a singer-songwriter-composer-producer who will warm your heart.
Yet, Ben Lovett, who goes by only his last name professionally, had no political motives or heavy-handed messages to deliver when he wrote "Don't Freak Out." It's one of eight songs on the album released in May that, according to Asheville Symphony Orchestra Executive Director David Whitehill, "serves as a soundtrack for the city" of Asheville and its rich music scene.
"I wanted to do something fun with the orchestra and liked the idea of having this elaborate musical accompaniment supporting a really simple idea," Lovett (left) said in response to a series of email questions to coincide with the music video for "Don't Freak Out" that premieres exclusively today (Nov. 3) at The Huffington Post.
"Lyrically, I wanted to keep it pretty straightforward and get the point across without trying to be overly clever about it," he added. "The general sentiment of the song seems to be something that resonates with people in a variety of ways, probably since as listeners we comprehend abstract ideas by assigning personal meaning to them. In this case, I think it's because we all have a habit of letting the walls close in on us from time to time, regardless of how big or small the room may be."
The song, arranged by Van Dyke Parks and produced by Lovett and Michael Selverne, is among the tracks featuring ensembles from the ASO performing with artists such as Rising Appalachia ("Filthy Dirty South"), Steep Canyon Rangers ("Blue Velvet Rain") and Electric Owls ("Pontiac," of which Lovett said, "I wish I'd written it.").
Lovett (left) and Asheville Symphony Orchestra conductor Daniel Meyer work together on the recording of "Don't Freak Out."
Luckily, the recording process was shot on video to document the experience at Echo Mountain Recording Studios in Asheville by director Erin Derham. It is the only music video currently planned for this project.
"The atmosphere in the studio was so kinetic that day, and Erin really captured the spirit of the session in her footage," said Lovett, who knows a thing or two about films. He has scored a number of them, including Synchronicity, which was nominated for the 2016 World Soundtrack Awards alongside heavy hitters such as Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation, 10 Cloverfield Lane and The Big Short. "When I saw what she had in the footage I knew we had to cut something together to share with people."
A Georgia native who has lived in Asheville for the past four years or so, Lovett still spends time in Los Angeles, where he lived previously, New York City and Atlanta, Ga., but there's no place like his current home.
"I never decided to move here, it sort of choose me really," he said. "There's a special kind of gravity to the place; I've been everywhere, but nowhere like here. I got to a point where I was happy to trade the career advantages of living full time in those cities for the quality of life advantage I get being here. Both are important, but only one really matters."
After watching the video, learn more about Lovett, whose original work shows touches of class and whimsy that might soon put him in the conversation with Parks, Jon Brion, Randy Newman and Brian Wilson. He puts all those inspiring artists on his short list of musicians who "have had meaningful careers as both composer and songwriter."
Lovett's video is guaranteed to put pep in your step and relieve any stress affecting voters and other citizens before (and/or after) our next president is elected. His direct lyrics in the song also remind us several times that "we are gonna be OK."
Keep that in mind when times get tough and just remember -- "Don't Freak Out."
A QUICK Q&A WITH LOVETT
How did you get Van Dyke Parks involved in this project? As arranger, what did he bring to the song that you think it needed?
Lovett: "Don't Freak Out" was designed to be sort of a playground for Van Dyke. We had three mutual friends, so I thought chances were good I could at least get a demo to him. Fortunately, one those people was Jessica Tomasin, a producer on the Symphony Sessions project, who ended up sending him the song. He loved it and wanted to come on board. I've been a fan of his arrangements for a long time and encouraged him to just go nuts with it.
What were the challenges of performing the song with a symphony orchestra?
Lovett: The most challenging part was that there were no rehearsals. We got Van Dyke's arrangement the night before the session and the symphony players were learning the parts on the fly during the recording session. The parts he wrote were fantastic but not the kind you plan for a whole orchestra to sit down and sight read. The same circumstances of time prevented Van Dyke and I from engaging in a traditional collaboration. Instead, he had my blessing to write whatever he wanted, and I had his to use whatever I wanted. What you hear in the final version is a mixture of the two.
Having scored a number of films and TV programs, this song also sounds like it could be part of a film score, in the pop-rock tradition of Jon Brion or Randy Newman, with a dash of Brian Wilson.
Lovett: Yeah, I've been scoring films longer than I've been writing songs actually. These days I'm actively doing both, though interestingly they tend to sound nothing alike. For instance, I've had a lot of success this year with the soundtrack to Synchronicity, a film with a retro-sounding electronic score done entirely with vintage analog synthesizers. I enjoy that contrast and the opportunity to explore different types of music between the two disciplines -- "Don't Freak Out" has that clear Brian Wilson/'60s-inspired musical aesthetic, whereas the score to Synchronicity is more of a love letter to composers like Vangelis, Wendy Carlos and Jean-Michel Jarre.
Opening with the playing of a toy piano was a nice touch. Whose idea was that?
Lovett: The entire song was written on a toy piano, actually. The whole idea sprang from that little phrase in the opening. Originally, I wasn't sure the toy piano would make it into the final version but it turned out to be a pretty critical element. It just seems to communicate something about the song's intentions right off the bat.
If you had your choice of writing for films or a record, which would you choose (and why)?
Lovett: Well, I've found when facing a decision between two options in life, it's my default preference to try and choose both. That's not always possible, but fortunately for me in the case of writing for films and albums I haven't been forced to choose between them. ... For me they're both just an extension of my core interest, which is simply, storytelling.
Do you have plans to make another full-length record? What is your next project?
Lovett: There's another album of songs in the works, absolutely. Songs just tend to come when they want to come, so even when I'm working on a film or someone else's record, I always leave a window open and occasionally a song will flutter in out of nowhere and land right in your lap. I'm always trying different experiments to instigate the process as well, like last year I released Lovers & Friends, which was a collection of songs co-written on a series of blind dates with songwriters I had never met. On each song, album, or film, I try to employ some new process to engage the muse and keep it interesting.
What made you decide to drop your first name for your artistic endeavors?
Lovett: My first formal release was The Breath of New Color in 2005. It was a 12-inch vinyl of experimental music and I needed to call it something. I wasn't a band, so there was no democracy or obvious source for the name. I also wasn't writing and singing songs then, so I wanted a name to represent the music, not necessarily me. At the same time I didn't want to feel boxed in by some arbitrary combination of words that I'd just plucked out of the air because it sounded cool. Band names only really stick when they find you.
Around that same time my grandfather passed away. His first name was William Ervin but he'd always gone by his initials, "W.E." As in, "W.E. Lovett." He was a loving patriarch and a hero of mine; a champion of people fighting the good fight, and it was like he'd managed to form a synonymous relationship between his identity and his message. Just before passing away he gave me his blessing to employ the family name in pursuit of art. I'm a collaborative artist so I guess in a sense "Lovett" as the band name has as much to do with representing an idea as much as a person. But, all that said, it also comes from a couple of friends of mine were like, "Just call it Lovett dude, it sounds cool."
Photos courtesy of the artist.