On April 1, the soundtrack for the independent film “Sophie Jones” was released by Gardener Recordings, which featured a wide range of artists selected by director Jessie Barr, including Grammy-nominated composer Nate Heller.
The film — initially released on Sept. 10, 2020 and produced by Oscilloscope Laboratories — tells the story of a 16-year-old girl from Oregon that loses her mother to cancer and goes through a journey of self-discovery and acceptance. Jessie Barr does an excellent job at projecting an aura of authenticity and purpose, as if each scene were made under a microscope. This level of authenticity comes from Jessie Barr’s personal experience with losing her father to cancer at 16.
“I never completely processed or dealt with the loss, in fact I ran from it,” Jessie Barr said. “Then about 16 years after he died, I finally started reflecting on the experience, writing about it. And around this time, my cousin (Jessica Barr), who was also an avid filmmaker and actress, reached out to me and sent a very raw script detailing her experience of losing her mother from cancer at 16.”
The similarities between the two were uncanny, especially since they were both named Jessica after their great-grandmother — their dads were brothers.
“I was so moved by the script, and it felt like I was answering a call I hadn't answered for a long time,” Jessie Barr said. “I wanted to be the kind of support for my cousin that I wished I’d had at her age.”
Even more surprising, before working on the film the pair barely knew each other.
“I grew up on the East Coast; she grew up in Portland, Oregon,” Jessie Barr said.
Jessica Barr ultimately agreed to play Sophie in the film, and the rest was history. “Sophie Jones” was both cousins’ major film debut.
As for the film’s soundtrack, if you listen all the way through the album it feels like a fever dream, ranging from punk pop ragers to electronic dance music to calm lo-fi.
To find the artists for her soundtrack, Jessie Barr met up with her friends from Portland who own a music publishing company called “The Crystal Creative.”
“I sent them what I was looking for and I listened through cuts of the songs to decide,” Jessie Barr said. “I also did a lot of searching on Bandcamp, SoundCloud and got my friend who’s in a band called ‘Beverly’ to be on the soundtrack. Everything I’ve ever made has at least one of her songs on it.”
In the film there are scenes of complete tranquility. For instance, there are worm’s eye views — a shot with upward perspective — of Sophie by a waterfall, or Sophie’s sister taking a clothed photoshoot within a bathtub of flowers by flickering candlelight, or staring hazily out a window. These are all accompanied by Heller’s ambient and melancholic melodies. But these scenes were always followed up by something more high tempo, like Sophie shaking her head to fiery pop in her car.
When trying to explain this particular level of angst within the soundtrack, Jessie Barr claims that there was an inner ferocity she was trying to tap into.
“I wanted to have a lot of girl-next-door female vocalists,” Jessie Barr said. “I wanted to represent an inner ferocity, the desire to obliterate oneself through hard times. These were ultimately the sounds of Sophie’s world.”
Jessie Barr notes that she often turned to that kind of music when she was Sophie’s age because it was destructive enough to serve as an escape, yet bold enough to be empowering.
“[The range of genres] mirrors the fragmentation of when you are in that state of grieving,” Jessie Barr said. “It feels very discombobulating, and it feels emotionally like a roller coaster.”
In the latter half of the soundtrack Nate Heller, who is basically the Bob Ross of music, fully encompasses the essence of being trapped in one’s mind. He paints a seamless soundscape between all six of his pieces, each track adding an element to the other and flawlessly transitioning.
Sophie was caught in a sort of mental purgatory throughout the film, not knowing how to move forward. Heller conveys that wonderfully, by keeping the instrumentation the same throughout, with only slight variations and an inevitable buildup as Sophie nears the end of her journey. This particular buildup occurs on the final song of the album, “Ashes into the Sea,” with vocals added by King ISIS — Heller’s niece. In the film, this song accompanied the literal spreading of Sophie’s mother’s ashes on the beach. The sky was dim and gray, with light fog blurring the distant mountain line, portraying a very bittersweet family moment.
“Jessie and I had a lot of conversations about how to take the beautiful Oregon coast and turn its essence into music,” Heller said. “We thought it should be delicate and light. I was drawing upon my own personal reaction to the movie as inspiration, being in the mindset of a parent dealing with grief.”
Heller wisely chose to manipulate King’s voice to sound like wind and implemented wind chimes electronically via his own home studio.
“I think it's a particularly tricky thing, what Nate did, because the score really is a character,” Jessie Barr said. “It’s linking Sophie to her mother but also this sort of transcendent space, that's not quite in reality.”
Unsurprisingly, the film made a global impact by winning Best Feature in the Next Section category at the Americana Film Festival in Barcelona.
“The next section was primarily composed of filmmakers, like myself, who it was their first feature film,” Jessie Barr said. “This was really such a small and truly independent film, so the fact that it's been playing in France and Spain is really moving and really gratifying.”
Follow Lauren Johns on Twitter, @lje2017
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