Interview: Composer Natalie Holt Discusses Her Work on Loki

The hit Disney+ series Loki featured a great soundtrack by composer Natalie Holt. ComingSoon’s Jeff Aames spoke with her to figure out how she came up with that incredible theme for the titular villain.

Holt received an Emmy Award-nomination for PBS’ Victoria, which she co-composed with Ruth Barrett and Martin Phipps, for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series, and performed at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

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Jeff Ames: What initially drew you to the world of TV and film composing?

Natalie Holt: Well, my mom’s a music teacher for one — she’s retired now — so probably hearing music around the house — she’s a cellist — I think that was a good start. And I remember watching E.T. when I was five and watching that scene where the kids take off on their bikes. I had that theme in my head for weeks, and then, of course, Star Wars. I just always remember hearing the music in a movie, hearing it in my head, and feeling those feelings from the film after it was gone. So, that’s probably it – John Williams.

What are some of the key differences between film and TV composing and classical composing for, say, an orchestra?

You’re kind of telling a story and part of a collaborative process when you’re writing music for film and TV. And I feel like you can inhabit the character of a film and just try out a style. Different projects require different voices and different instrumentation. I prefer to work with the director and collaborate.

I’ve tried to sit down and write a symphony and I don’t feel inspired. I don’t know where to take this. But whenever I sit down to write something for a scene or a character, I feel like this inspires me because you’ve got your structure and you’ve got your story and you’ve got so much to inspire you to create new. I mean hats off to classical composers who don’t need that [structure], but I need it.

What project would you consider to be your big break?

I don’t know … Loki? (Laughs)

Good answer!

I don’t know. I never feel like I’ve made it. I’m always worried that I’m going to have to go back and teach the violin or something, not that that in any way is bad — teaching music to kids is incredible — but it’s always been my backup. If things go wrong, I can always teach music to kids, which I enjoy doing.

How do feel like your music or style has evolved since you first started?

I don’t think I’ve ever worked on such a big scale with a project. The TV series and movies I’ve scored before this were generally more intimate, like character studies or chamber pieces and quite realistic stories as well. Like, Three Girls was actually based on a real-life situation that happened in Rochdale and focused on child grooming. That story didn’t require a giant score. It needed that emotional connection, but it was more of an intimate thing and the music had to be very subtle. This is the first thing that I’ve worked on where the music should not be subtle, it should be crazy, over-the-top, and bombastic themes going this way and that way; and when you think something is real it flips on its head.

I would say the score is very much like the Loki character – happy, fun, sad, lonely, violent. Was that by design?

Yeah, that was very much the intention. It was strange, I feel like when I’m writing I go into this space where I’m living through the character for a while – I don’t know how I’m coming up with things. I have a lot of empathy for what I’m seeing, where the character is going. I have to feel a real connection to the story and the character, or nothing comes out. For some reason, Loki’s character just appealed to me and I wanted to get inside it and explore it. The theme for his character came out on day one during the pitch. That’s what I sent [the director] Kate [Herron] and what got me the job, was that theme.

Well, it’s like how some people see colors and hear music, [a trait] called Synesthesia; and I think I get the same thing with story and music. I’ll watch a scene and if doesn’t have music I’ll hear how the music should go and have ideas buzzing around in my head and sit down at the piano. Sometimes things don’t come that quickly, but Loki just seemed to come quite easily to me in a way. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s like a weird alchemy, creating music or creating any kind of art. There’s no right or wrong and it’s so personal and I guess directors pick you for your response and what you feel and that just seemed to gel here.

After hearing that theme, what were some of the directions Kate Herron gave to you?

Kate and I discussed what we thought the sound palette should be. They gave Kate a lot of creative freedom with certain areas and I think she used a lot of music in her pitch to get the directing job, so she had quite a strong sense of how she wanted the music to be. She wanted that B-movie, sci-fi sound. Kate wasn’t sure if she wanted an orchestra, but I threw orchestral elements in there and they stuck, and then the score just grew and grew — by episodes five and six there’s huge choir involved. And then with the Norwegian instruments, Kate wasn’t entirely sure if that folky Norwegian instrument was the way to go because it seemed quite obvious. I think a few other composers had come up with that as well, and I think she said someone had put it in a pitch and she wasn’t keen on it. But I never did a straight thing. Like, I never did an orchestral piece on its own. I took it somewhere else or blended it with something. So, the Norwegian instruments were blended with synths and there was always something slightly different about the way I processed the sound. There was a Nyckelharpa, which is a Norwegian folk instrument, and a Hardanger fiddle … so, those two instruments were used for Loki’s mother and Asgaard and his past and his emotional connection and also for Sylvie, The Variant, her theme is all these instruments as well.

Did you feel like Loki gave you an opportunity to step outside your comfort zone?

I remember Hans Zimmer talking about this. He’s always one for coming up with a concept for everything that he does and trying something new. Like, “Oh, I need to record on 12 drum kits for this score,” or it’s gonna be this song backward with a huge symphony orchestra. He’s always got this thing in his mind of making sure it’s not what you expect. I’ve always taken inspiration from that of having something behind you that’s keeping you moving in a slightly odd direction. I’ve recorded with a French horn, I think — just a solo French horn — but I’ve always used samples before so recording with such a huge brass section was a first for me. But I felt like I needed that. I wanted that Wagner-ian horn section and that was super fun. I learned so much from that. And I’ve neer recorded with choir, either. So, those two elements were new to me, but I felt like they needed to be there for this.

String orchestral recording is what I’ve always leaned towards in the past because I’m a string player and those colors come quite naturally to me. So, yeah, I definitely pushed the boat out on this.

 Is there a scene that you found challenging?

The scene where Mobius is pruned. The chords there and the way I sued Mobius’ theme and Loki’s theme and they kind of fused and did this emotional thing when he was walking down the corridor. I love it when you feel like the music and the storytelling are just coming together and you’re adding that layer of emotion to something. It’s really satisfying. And also the moment where Loki and Sylvia are having their connection at the beginning of episode four. That was really challenging to get the right tone there, for it to feel, “Oh, these guys are having a moment,” and for it not to feel shmaltzy. I tried lots of different things there and we landed on that kind of “space love” that they have.

Was there a favorite episode for you?

I just have to say, I really enjoyed writing episode six. I was like, “I could just carry on.” It just felt like all the things I had seeded all came together in a satisfying way. That was my favorite episode to write for.

What’s it like to be officially a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

I’m so blown away by the whole experience. It was everything I could’ve hoped for and such a nice group of people. The executive producers rang me to thank me for my contributions. I felt really supported and appreciated. They’re really super progressive, like giving young female directors the opportunities and try to do new things. They’re trying to do something new with everything they’re creating. I loved working with Marvel and it’s a privilege to be a part of it.

What are some of the ways Loki has given you confidence moving forward?

It’s really pushed me. I wouldn’t have known that I had something like this in me when I first started out. I thought of myself as a violinist who wrote emotional string music, and now I know I can do action and space adventure and high notes and low notes. I’m really excited about what I get to do next and if that’s teaching the violin, then that’s also fine.