There’s a reason why Stephen King bestowed his die-hard fans with the nickname “Constant Readers.” A prolific well of creativity, King’s ability to fuse the surreal with the familiar has created an army of fans, ready to devour anything and everything the famous author unleashes upon the world.
Although perhaps best known in the mainstream consciousness for some of pop culture’s most horrifying stories and terrifying creations, it is often his evocative worlds and vast array of complex characters that keep readers returning to his books year after year and keep the pages turning late into the night.
It is also this fusion of horror, humor, and emotive humanity that makes King’s works so perfectly suited for adaptation. (That, and his enduring and ever growing popularity.) However, these same factors also make adapting his work inherently tricky. Often requiring a delicate balance of vision, focus, and a well-executed emotional undercurrent, nothing separates the wheat from the chaff like a production that somehow misses this memo.
For Lisey’s Story—the newest King property to get the adaptation treatment—binding the terror and fantastical with strong emotional threads was imperative. Adapted by King himself, the harrowing and affecting journey of Julianne Moore’s Lisey as she navigates the aftermath of the untimely murder of her famous husband (Clive Owen) is as shocking as it is heartbreaking. It’s a story that goes beyond the world as we know it and explores the mysteries that lie within the most intimate of relationships. Along with stellar cinematography and a top notch cast including Moore, Owen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Dane DeHaan, a big part of what sells Lisey’s Story is the music from British composer Chris Clark (AKA Clark).
After existing as a successful electronic musician for years and releasing a wealth of well-received solo albums, Clark began to dip his toe into composing work with projects like The Last Panthers and Daniel Isn’t Real. Seamlessly incorporating carefully curated orchestral textures with his incredibly dextrous use of electronic elements, Clark creates music that is as fresh as it is stirring. While more than technically proficient, it is ultimately Clark’s genuine passion and intimate understanding of music’s ability to evoke desired emotional responses that make him beautifully and wonderfully suited to tackle the complex world of Lisey’s Story.
In celebration of the show’s recent debut on Apple TV+, and the June 25 WaterTower Music release of the original soundtrack, I recently sat down with Clark (virtually) to dive into the lush and wonderfully terrifying world of Lisey. Along the way we talked about his process, his own connections to Stephen King’s works, and how his personal sound has evolved over the years. It’s a fascinating and honest conversation that provides a lovely glimpse at a true and genuine talent. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Vehlinggo: This show is really, incredibly stunning. How did you get involved with the project?
Clark: Pablo [Larraín], the director, heard Daniel Isn’t Real, which is a film I scored in 2019. He heard the soundtrack and just called me basically, wanting to work with me off the back of that OST. I had been actually recording some things in Budapest at the time. They were some orchestral things — just kind of for fun really, without any film in mind. That music actually ended up being used for this. It was nice to know.
It’s funny because you can get a funny picture of where you’re at with Spotify streams; because quantity doesn’t equal quality of listen, you know? I just ignore it all now. It’s too confusing. If a director hears your music and listens to it in a really detailed way— and they love it—that can lead you places.
Lisey’s Story has never been adapted, which really leaves the door wide open in a lot of ways. When it comes to the show’s musical direction, what helped shape your approach?
It always seems relevant to know what it wasn’t going to be, which was this fast moving, “wham bam thank you ma’am” horror-trope thing. It’s not so emotional sometimes when you watch a horror film. It can be purely this dopamine hit of tension, tension, tension, build, hit, dopamine release of fear and pleasure. It wasn’t going to be that. There’s eight episodes, so it was really kind of like climbing into the interior space of Lisey and her gradual realization of who her husband was. And also how she reconciles herself to him and resolves her anger at him. And her love for him!
It also has got these deeply unsettling characters, like Stephen King can do so well, with all of their little ticks and sinister on-screen presence. There was a chance to really develop harmonic material and themes that were quite emotive rather than just tension and anguish. It felt more than that and like a gothic romance in some ways. And the cinematography, I know it sounds obvious, but the way the color saturates the screen is phenomenal. For me, that always triggers such specific tones. It’s like synesthesia. There’s so much to work with. It’s really nice to work on something that’s kind of hard to mess up. The music isn’t saving it. The music is adding something. And that’s always a really nice place to start from where it’s great already and you’re enhancing it, rather than the other way around.
It’s interesting you bring up the cinematography, because you’re right, the look of Lisey’s Story is really just so beautiful. That saturation on the screen really highlights the incredible use of melody and the way you intertwine varying melodic lines to support the emotional undercurrent.
That aspect of scoring is more interesting. I’ve been doing sound design since I was a teenager and melody has always been this intuitive thing I don’t really think about. I just do it. All my music is pretty intuitive actually. But, it’s satisfying when people want themes. There’s a lot of music in films that work as this functional backdrop of drones. And it does work! That’s why people do it. It is effective. But, Pablo wanted to go beyond that and have these quite emotional themes that related to the character. That’s the most engaging thing — the most difficult thing as well. It’s definitely harder than sound design.
While we’re on the subject of melody, I want to talk about your opening credits theme. It’s a unique and haunting piece of music that really sets the stage for what is going to unfold throughout the show musically. When working on an important piece like this, do you have specific goals for what your opening theme needs to achieve?
I do actually. That was also the complete black sheep. I wrote that melody on a synth and then transposed it to MIDI for a MIDI string part. It was one of the best things I’ve written in a while, but it didn’t really fit in my head with what was going on with Lisey. I wanted it to be in the show, but sometimes you have this — well, I always have this — slightly stubborn streak where I thought, “Right. I’ll send it to them, but if they’re lukewarm on it, there’s no way they’re having it.” Because I loved this and I wanted it to be something else.
So I sent it and thought, I’m not going to take anything other than “This is amazing! We want this as the title theme.” And they did love it! And at first it wasn’t originally going to be the title theme, but it didn’t quite fit with many of the scenes. It’s just too fast and it’s too propulsive. It’s funny, that process of editing and music. You have time for that to be elastic at certain points, before the deadlines hit. We managed to make it work, mainly because it did have that drive and it did work counterintuitively against more reflective scenes and the internal scenes. It was good to put something against it that wasn’t expected.
There’s a line in the show where a character describes Scott Landon’s writing as existing between “the realistic and the fantastic.” I also thought that line really beautifully encapsulated your music when it comes to how you scored the surreal scenes involving Boo’ya Moon. Talk a little bit about how you approached scoring this mysterious world outside of a world.
A world outside of a world — yeah. It’s funny now, because I’m doing all the track titles for the pieces and you don’t just want to call them like, “Cue 1” and “Cue 2.” (laughs) So, the word that keeps popping up is “threshold” and “liminal,” and it’s like this boundary. There was so much talk of that from Pablo about this crossing over into Stephen King’s underworld of terror. It’s like a chamber and it feels hallucinatory, a lot of it. It feels like a place that you could imagine as a kid as somewhere you could go to resolve your darkest secrets, and that’s what it represents in the film.
Again, the cinematography was so lush that I think, for the first time, I really understood how beauty and horror go together so well — and feelings of intimacy and warmth, but with a bit of threat in there. Nothing is ever zero-sum in music. It’s not like, “This track is the sad track and this track is the scary track.” So even with those tracks that signified going into [dream world] Boo’ya Moon, there was always an element of, kind of warmth in a way. Like she was embraced by the Long Boy [monster].
He’s the most terrifying thing in the whole show. I’ve never seen anything as frightening as this creature made up of the corpses of children. It’s like a massive, carnivorous worm that has the bodies of kids. But, her relationship to it isn’t one of pure fear. He kind of consoles her and he looks after her. There’s a bit of ambiguity in all of the relationships, even [with] Jim Dooley, the psychopath. I’m never quite sure whether he’s a psychopath or whether he’s psychotic. There’s a difference isn’t there? There’s a difference between a cold sociopath and someone like Jim, who is really mentally disordered. You feel sorry for him. He’s not evil, he’s just disturbed. There’s a lot of room to play in the nuance of the characters with this show.
Speaking of characters, Lisey is truly our anchor and window into this world that Stephen King has created. She also experiences a very wide array of emotions and circumstances. Tell us a little bit about how you scored Lisey and how her sound evolves throughout the series.
It all kind of started from this one theme that I wrote for her, which I wrote as a choral piece. I started it in the morning and wrote it in like 20 minutes. I just sang it. It was a really simple counterpoint melody that was kind of fitting to her plight, but also significant of her relationship with Scott and this sadness while grieving him. So the process…it was completely mad thinking that it was just something that I was humming to myself one morning and then getting to watch it be performed by 30 players. It was only a little tune I was humming in the morning! But the parts of it reflected her mood very well.
It was really important to be able to go from complete, dilapidated intimacy and an almost lo-fi scratchiness that signified when she was on her own with that, but then transform when she’d confront Scott or the Long Boy. It needed to become completely grand and massive and played by a full orchestra. That’s the thing with composition— that’s why I was saying earlier it’s more difficult than sound design—because you’re just focusing on the purity of the notes. And I sort of knew when I wrote it that it was really versatile and efficient. I think that’s the main thing I look for in melody—it needs to be versatile and efficient. And no more or less than that.
That’s what is so exciting about scoring versus studio albums. A studio album, you render a file at the end and that’s it. With scoring, you need to be able to write 30 variations, so the themes need to be these three dimensional objects that you can move around and have against other themes. And that’s also where it gets so time consuming and engrossing. I’ve spent the last eight years learning composition and sight reading and studying scores, and that evolution is where it gets really exciting.
The worlds within Stephen King’s books are really unique and there have been some really incredible composers who have crafted the soundscapes to these worlds. For example, Danny Elfman, John Carpenter, Charles Bernstein, Tangerine Dream, Thomas Newman and now you! When you knew you would be entering this world, did you revisit any King-related scores to get an auditory lay of the land?
I have to admit, I didn’t. Although I respect all of those composers a lot and I know their work, I didn’t want to really see how anyone else had done it. I wanted to find my own path with it. I don’t know if I get influenced easily or I’m just aware of the fact that I might be, but…my wife always comments on it.
I always get angry when I hear other people’s music while I’m working on something. I get frustrated that it’s like a distraction. It’s mad that I do that, but I don’t like being influenced by what other people are doing. Unless I’m learning their music to play, then that’s fine. If I’m learning a piano piece by Bach or whatever, then that’s fine. I don’t like hearing…(laughs). It’s terrible! But that’s just part of the nature of focusing on your own thing and not getting distracted.
Did you happen to read the book before you started scoring?
I listened to the audiobook when I was going to sleep. I have quite a few Stephen King audiobooks and I love falling asleep while listening to them. So, the way I listened to it was very fragmented. But, in a way it was really cool because I just absorbed the emotion of it really, rather than the linear narrative. And then I had the script which was more than enough. I love Stephen King. I’ve been a fan since being a kid. It’s so visual as well. There’s such a feast of themes to work with in his work.
The book of Lisey’s Story is pretty heavy, and this new series is as well. When you’re working on an emotionally intense project like this, how do you keep from getting lost within the work?
I don’t really maintain healthy boundaries. (laughs) It’s all consuming. It’s everything to me. So, I don’t really have those boundaries, but I certainly never seem to get overwhelmed or bored with it. I just tend to get more and more into it. But in terms of getting too into it, I don’t think I ever do. In some ways when you’re scoring, it’s almost like character acting. You climb into the characters and you project how you imagine their emotions are—but you do it with sound. That’s one of the most rewarding things you can do.
While you’re well-known for being an electronic musician, your scoring work blurs the lines between traditional orchestral and more modern electronic soundscapes. How do these two worlds influence each other in your mind? Has your opinion or approach evolved as you’ve gained more experience?
That’s a good question. What is interesting is the way modern electronic techniques have influenced the way I compose synth melodies, and the way I view an orchestra is kind of like how I view a synth — except that there are people involved so you have to be nice to them. (laughs) It’s like dealing with a kind of human supercomputer, but I don’t have that complete reverence for the traditional form of composing. Making electronic music—and making it good— is really difficult. Over the last five years I’ve been studying piano quite a lot, and that is difficult as well.
Now, traditional composing is hard, but it hasn’t lessened the value of electronic music to me. And it certainly hasn’t made me think that electronic music isn’t real and orchestral music is the real stuff. Producing electronic music is such an open field that that becomes a difficulty in itself. Things like texture and production are almost like the modern equivalent to composing in the 18th century or something.
Having a familiarity with how to produce is no small thing. It takes ages to get good at it. I do think they influence each other. And I think there are similarities between certain textures. When I’m playing a sawtooth wave on an analog synth, I’m constantly thinking, “This is really similar to a cello.” There’s a certain way you can bow a cello that is like adding white noise on a synth. They’re not all that different to me and I see it all as raw matter that I can sculpt to my ends.
It is different in the way it’s so ubiquitous now. I remember when I used to write electronic music …when I just started, I had to do so much research just to find out where to get these tools. They weren’t common then. But now, you can make a track on your phone. I can’t quite get my head around it.
I also just have this background fear that at one point the internet is just going to turn off. Like, someone will just hit the off switch. I do like the idea, though, of being able to survive with just a piano, pen, and paper. If you said to me, “All of your technology is going to be defunct in a day,” I would still be all right with just a piano and a cello. I think you can become too reliant on tools.
Before you got into scoring for film and television, you recorded as a solo artist. Now that you have a foot in both worlds, has your experience scoring influenced how you approach your solo projects? Or vice versa?
Not in any conscious way, but it’s kind of made solo albums more precious to me. There’s a nice to and fro between being part of this bigger world and being a small cog in a massive machine. Of course there’s all of the excitement and thrills that come with that, but if you overdo it then you crave that hermetic, isolated, solipsistic world of the solo artist studio album. And they work in tandem together beautifully.
I’m really looking forward to continuing with solo album work as well. They feed each other. I think I’m just very prolific and the world of just pure studio albums doesn’t suit my personality. There’s too much work. There’s just too much of it. There’s an excess of work and that needs a channel. This blend is perfect for me.
(Editor’s Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.)
Lisey’s Story is now streaming on Apple TV+. The soundtrack releases on June 25 via WaterTower Music and Loud Robot.