Rosaline Composers Drum & Lace And Ian Hultquist On How The Score Evolved [Exclusive Interview]

Drum & Lace (Sofia Hultquist) and Ian Hultquist go back to the past for "Rosaline." The composers, known for their work on "Dickinson" and "Good Girls," score the twist on Romeo & Juliet with a similar spin of their own. There's the throwback to needle drops from early-2000s romantic comedies, as well as the renaissance instruments expected from a (loose) William Shakespeare adaptation.

The duo's score features a cover of Robyn's bittersweet feel-good classic "Dancing on My Own," as well as an Enrique Iglesias cover. The irreverent choices were tailored for the titular lead, Juliet's cousin (played by Kaitlyn Dever), whose voice helped lead the way for the composers' choices. Drum & Lace and Ian Hultquist met back in college and have made music together ever since, although both have solo projects and careers as well. Recently, the duo talked to us about their work on "Rosaline," how they approach film scoring, and lessons from college.

'It's a much more traditional score than I think we'd set out to do'

You both imagined an early-2000s sound for "Rosaline." How did the score evolve as you worked on it?

Hultquist: Well, I think our very initial stuff we started writing was maybe a lot more bigger orchestral sounding. So there was a lot of peeling back, going from a 30-string section to five strings, stuff like that, just to narrow down what the actual sound of the film should be.

Drum & Lace: I also don't think we necessarily thought we were going to be employing the period instruments as much. We knew that we were going to have to integrate those into the cover songs because it was an on-camera moment. The movie doesn't show the band playing live as much as I think they'd intended to, but it was supposed to seem like the band was playing it in the room. So, that was our period instruments.

The rest of the scoring we were like, "Oh, it's going to be more synth-y," but it ended up actually being a third Renaissance Instruments, a third strings, and maybe a third synth and electronics. I think that caught me at least by surprise — that it's a much more traditional score than I think we'd set out to do.

You don't hear too much obvious synth work, either.

Drum & Lace: It's pretty subtle. It's more for texture and for support, just because a lot of these period instruments don't have much sustain, so they're plucky. It's kind of the same thing with the vocals. The vocals and the synths are this textural blanket around the score. Like the crochet scene in "Rosaline," there's no synth in that, because it didn't work with the quality of the woodwinds. It wasn't meshing with the more analog and breathy delivery.

What specifically about the music in movies you've listed as references, like "10 Things I Hate About You," did you want to pay homage to?

Drum & Lace: I think the way that songs were used as score. So, the sensibility of there being something that can keep up momentum and that can make things contemporary and invigorated and good pacing. I think the inspiration was more like, "How can we make the cover songs in our score and everything feel seamless together?" Because a lot of those late '90s, early-2000s films didn't have that much score in them. It was all the needle drops. It was capturing that youthfulness, I think.

Hultquist: I think it was having that energy, excitement, just things feeling new and fresh in a way.

Drum & Lace: And also being very tongue-in-cheek about realizing that this movie is full of tropes and full of odes back to things. It doesn't take itself too seriously. I think musically, too, that helped us be like, "Oh, this isn't a slapstick comedy, but it's also not a serious movie. It's somewhere in between." I think those movies that were referenced, like "She's All That," "10 Things I Hate About You," are huge references. 

If it became too ironic, the score easily could've made the movie a parody.

Hultquist: Yeah. We do it a little bit at the very beginning of the film. We come in with a sweeping romantic cue and then Rosaline cuts it off like, "Why are you talking that?" We have a few moments where we play into that, but not too much.

Drum & Lace: And the character of Romeo and also a little bit of the story of Romeo and Juliet is where we could lean into the schmaltziness, just because of the way that they both play it. Whereas for Rosaline, she had to be this irreverent character, and musically as well.

'It is a solitary career, because you're just in the studio, a windowless room, just working non-stop'

For Romeo and Juliet, what instruments did you use for the schmaltziness?

Drum & Lace: For the schmaltziness, the loot and the harp, chimes, pizzicatos.

Hultquist: Traditional flute. A lot of the synths actually appear in a lot of the romantic moments. The actual romance, not the schmaltzy romance.

Drum & Lace: When Rosaline is in her head or when she's feeling deep feelings, that's where the voice and the synths come out.

Doing a cover of "Dancing on My Own" is a tall order. When were you both satisfied and knew you got it right?

Hultquist: Well, they actually came to us with those two songs first for Enrique and Robyn, because they were still filming and they only had a couple days left to shoot and they were filming the masquerade ball on the last day, so they wanted us to have those arrangements done. We didn't really have too much time to rethink it. It was like, "Let's get these done and make sure they're okay."

Drum & Lace: At least structurally they had to be sound and ready to go. When you don't have that much time, you don't have much time to tinker and procrastinate. So we just got them done, and thankfully they ended up sounding okay.

Is sometimes a lack of time good for making music?

Hultquist: It can be, yeah. I think famously on Peter Jackson's "King Kong," James Newton Howard came in and had three weeks to do something, and I think that score is fantastic. Thankfully, aside from those two songs early on, the rest of the score for this film, we had a fairly lenient schedule. 

You both have experience as live musicians playing to crowds. How did that experience of seeing how a crowd reacts to music in person influence how you score films?

Drum & Lace: In my brain, they're similar but also separate. The fulfillment I get from performing live doesn't necessarily inform the scoring as much as the compositional aspect does. There are a lot of things that I experiment with in my own music that then are techniques or ways of working that I integrate into scoring and vice-versa. Even though it usually comes more from my personal projects or from an improvisation I do live, being like, "Oh wow, this is a really cool arrangement. Or this is a really cool way of doing stuff." That translating into scoring happens more often than the other way around.

I think it humanizes our career a little bit. It is a solitary career, because you're just in the studio, a windowless room, just working non-stop. I think having the live performance aspect is great on a social aspect. It's validating and it's very — it fills me up in a way that the scoring sometimes doesn't in terms of human interaction.

Hultquist: I agree with Sofia. They are definitely separate worlds. It has been a while since I was performing live, but I learned a lot about gauging an audience, maybe. And when I'm writing, you're ultimately writing for this to be seen by an audience, whether it's at home or in a theater. So I think there are certain aspects of that where I'm thinking about how my music might be received by them, like whether this is going to get in the way of the real story here or the dialogue.

'Wait a minute, nothing here is older than 60'

Sofia, for Drum & Lace, you said you learned some more techniques that you bring to composing. What are some of those techniques from your solo career?

Drum & Lace: I think a lot of it is improvising and keeping myself open and in a place where I'm constantly experimenting, because I think when you sit down to work with a visual, sometimes you feel constrained. Whereas doing these improvisations or jamming on my own helps open something up in me, emotionally and musically. I'll be performing and chopping up a sample or playing something back a certain way and it's like, "Oh, this would be a really cool thing to do on a score." Whether it's with my voice or if it's a field recording that gets turned into a texture or into an instrument. 

Have you performed live in Italy much?

Drum & Lace: Not in Italy that much. I've performed a couple times, but always in northern Italy. I performed in Brescia twice and then I've performed in Florence, where I'm from. I think that might be it. Just because I've been living over here for 18 years. But I am hopefully going to be performing in Italy more.

Growing up there, how did it influence your journey as a musician?

Drum & Lace: I think there's a huge appreciation for music and for film in a way that ends up being a lot more cultural. I know that film is obviously huge for American culture, but Italian moviemaking is just very different. It's a lot more about interpersonal stories, family stories, and it tends to be a lot more rooted in sort of melodrama. With what I used to watch on TV or what's on the radio, Italy has a huge singer-songwriter history and traditional music.

I think the rich history of the country lends itself well to being drawn to the arts without calling yourself an art lover, just because it's all around. Especially growing up in Florence, I don't think I realized what I was able to see every day just walking down the street until I moved to Boston and I was like, "Wait a minute, nothing here is older than 60." It's this weird thing where you don't realize what you're in until you leave it.

When you both went to Berkeley College, how did you connect as composers?

Hultquist: I don't know if we were sure if what we were doing was ever good enough. I think we, really early on, started collaborating together on projects, whether it was just lending an ear to each other or giving production tips or ideas. And then eventually we formed — we had a side project band from my main band for a while, where we were writing songs together and making sounds.

I think it was always just another outlet for us. And then it wasn't really until we were working on "The First Monday in May," the documentary directed by Andrew Rossi, where he said, "Hey, I think you guys should score this as a duo." That started making this more of an official thing that we do. Granted, we still do our own projects separately, too, but when the right one comes along, we do them together.

When do you know for a project that you'll compose it together or go solo?

Drum & Lace: I think you get both of us together if you ask for it. I've worked on things where they've met Ian and been like, "Wait, why didn't I get both of you? Oh wait, I didn't know that it was an option to get both of you." But I think it's important for us to have our own separate careers, too, because we do have our own voices and we have our own sensibilities that I think pair well with each other when we do come together. But there is a certain amount of burnout that happens when we're working together all the time and when you cohabitate and when you are just together all the time. So having separate projects and working on music separately is important, too.

'We wanted to find our own path and way of doing things'

What lessons from school come to mind when you score a film like "Rosaline?"

Hultquist: We talk a lot about how we are grateful for a time at Berkeley, but the curriculum that we were taught was very old school.

Drum & Lace: I appreciate them teaching us how to do it so we can do it wrong and have a career from doing it wrong.

Hultquist: There you go. I actually took some actual film theory courses when I was there, where we'd really study story. I think those are more useful to me. Those were more enlightening to me, in some ways, than a lot of the actual scoring classes.

Drum & Lace: The teachers were not shy about being critical when we were there, so I think developing a thick skin and just keeping motivated through what were sometimes passive aggressive putdowns, I think was a helpful thing to learn. Because the industry — most of the time there's more rejection than yes and there are more hurdles than easy things. You have to learn how to get over obstacles. I think that they kept it very real at Berkeley, so I think that was a good lesson to learn early.

Hultquist: They did help us develop our inner critic, which is very strong for us at this point.

Now when you face rejection, it must be nice to be able to just go, "OK, I'll go work on an album for myself, then."

Drum & Lace: Even though scoring is kind of our day job and what pays the bills, to be able to have another outlet that you feel fulfilled in is definitely great. Especially if you have a bad day or if you lose out on a project, you can be like, "Well, I am an artist that is all of these things, so I don't need this to be the only thing today that makes me happy."

Do you mind elaborating on how they taught you to do things right so you can ultimately do them wrong?

Drum & Lace: I feel like what you're taught in school is, you study the John Williams scores and you study the way that Beethoven and Mozart have influenced classical/score music. In an academic setting, a lot of what is the right type of scoring is bigger orchestral, just very traditional. I think that it's important to know the sense of harmony and to know how to do the cadences that elicit a certain emotional response, because it's important to know how to do the things the way that people are used to. But I think it's also really important to just be able to do things differently.

We were talking to someone else about how when we sit down, we're not like, "Okay, this cue's going to be in E Flat Major." We don't think about keys; we just sit down and play. What comes from that is a lot of chords that are technically wrong. You're not supposed to have this chord go to that chord. But if it sounds okay and it services the picture, then I think that's where you can be technically, academically wrong, but you have to have learned why that's right. 

Hultquist: There are a lot of things, too, not even necessarily music-related directly, but they said, "Oh, if you want to get into scoring, you have to move to L.A. and become an assistant as soon as you graduate." We didn't do that. We didn't want to do that. "If you want to use scoring, you have to use this old piece of software that we teach you at school." Neither of us have touched that software since we graduated. We wanted to find our own path and way of doing things.

Drum & Lace: And technology has made that easier. I think that it's democratized so many things and the idea of hybrid scores doesn't really exist because everything is hybrid. There's synth in everything. Recently I was troubleshooting software stuff all day and another composer commented something like, "Well, you don't have this problem if you do manuscript and pencil." And I was like, "That's crazy..." I don't think I could ever wrap my head around doing that, but that's what you're taught. You're taught, "This is the big scroll and this is where the woodwinds go and this is where the range of the trombone..." But when you're at the computer, you just put an octave doubler or whatever on it and all of a sudden the trombone plays an octave below. So there you go. You know what I mean? It doesn't have to be the way that it was.

"Rosaline" is now streaming on Hulu.