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Herdís Stefánsdóttir Discusses Her Haunting New Score for ‘Y: The Last Man’

In the new FX on Hulu show Y: The Last Man, the acclaimed graphic novel series by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra finally comes to life. Part fantasy, part too-close-for-comfort, the story takes place in a world recently decimated by a mysterious virus that leaves every life form with a Y chromosome extinct. Well, almost every life form. While billions simultaneously die around the globe, it is Yorick, the quirky, privileged son of a powerful Senator and his pet capuchin monkey that remain bafflingly alive.

After more than a decade of will-they-won’t-they adaptation chatter, the timing is eerily perfect for this particular post-apocalyptic story to hit the mainstream. More than just a story of societal decay and crumbling infrastructure, Y: The Last Man addresses a bevy of prescient and ingrained cultural and societal issues both on and off-screen. Along with a mostly female cast that includes heavy-hitters like Diane Lane, Amber Tamblyn, Ashley Romans, and Olivia Thirlby, the production team skews mostly female as well. As the storyline explores the consequences of this cataclysmic event, special care was taken to make sure that the dramatic narrative shifts in social and political power were supported and mirrored behind the scenes too.

On top of some truly stellar performances, one of the most notable and emotionally engaging aspects of the show comes from its music. Created by Icelandic composer and musician Herdís Stefánsdóttir (The Sun Is Also a Star), it is the series’ score that beautifully captures the uncertainty and unprecedented adventure that becomes thrust up this fictitious, yet familiar world. Though fairly new to the composing realm, Stefánsdóttir’s natural ability to sonically channel and harness a vast array of emotions shines through the bleak, harrowing world of Y: The Last Man with ease.

Simultaneously balancing familiar moments of reality-based reflection with gracious fantasy, Stefánsdóttir’s music delicately descends upon this new world freshly stripped of its cisgender male population. Beautifully using a range of acoustic, human, and electronic elements, Stefánsdóttir explores the complex range of characters present throughout the series with impressive ease and cohesiveness. Like a cathartic breath of fresh air, Stefánsdóttir defies expected genre stereotypes and creates something genuinely new and noteworthy with her immaculate utilization of female vocals. Transcending the boundaries of generic score constraints, it is often Stefánsdóttir’s music that fills in emotional exposition gaps like so many words left (literally) unsaid.

In celebration of the show’s recent (and much anticipated) release on Hulu, I recently had the extreme pleasure of sitting down with Stefánsdóttir. Along with delving deeper into the world of Y: The Last Man, our conversation touches on her process, background, working with a talented team, learning curves, and her time spent working with Jóhann Jóhannsson. While we barely scratch the surface of the immense wealth of potential that resides within her, it is a candid and refreshing peek at a true and emerging talent on the cusp of greatness. Mark my words: This will not be the last time you hear the name Herdís Stefánsdóttir.

Vehlinggo: How did you first become involved with Y: The Last Man and what attracted you to the project?

Herdís Stefánsdóttir: I have an agent that sometimes writes me emails and stuff like, “Hey, here’s this project. Are you interested in it?” So, I was laying in my bed on a Monday night. It was late, around 11:30 am, and I was about to fall asleep when I see an email pop up. It was about how Y: The Last Man was looking for a composer and this is what the show is about. And, I just got this feeling. I was like, “Oh my God. That sounds so good. Whoa. This makes me really excited.” There was just something about the story. I immediately wrote to my agent and was like, “I’m really interested in this. Let’s check it out.”

And, you know, I’m a little bit new in the film scoring world. I’ve only been at it for maybe two and a half years. So, I don’t have a big, expansive reel of work behind me. I’ve never done any kind of music that maybe belongs in a show like Y: The Last Man. I really had to dig around and try to curate something that I thought might work for it. And I got some help from Sue Jacobs (Promising Young Woman), who is an amazing music supervisor. She helped me curate the reel and told me what she thought might be good for it. So we submitted it and I did an interview with Eliza [Clark] the showrunner. It was just a connection. I got hired and that’s how it happened!

It’s no secret that this show has been in development for a long time. Because it had such a rocky road to the screen, it makes me curious, did the production team have any early or particular ideas of what they wanted the music to sound like?

They didn’t really have any concrete ideas for the sound, but I remember on our first talk they were talking about how it’s a dystopic world, but it’s something that could happen. Obviously, it’s fiction, but it’s still a post-apocalyptic world. So they were asking me, “What do you think is the sound of Y: The Last Man?” And, after reading the script, digging into the graphic novel, and then finally seeing the first episode and seeing how they filmed that and what approach they took I was like, “This is just our world.” It isn’t a futuristic world. It isn’t a sci-fi world. It’s a very realistic world. So, I never had the idea of trying to make weird sounds we’ve never heard before or going into the sci-fi zone.

It’s such an expansive, big world — you’ve got to start somewhere. So my first initial idea of what I thought that I heard when I stepped into the world was the moment when the apocalypse happens and all these people are just dropping dead. There’s a lot of chaos and it’s extremely chaotic. If something like that were to happen, there’d be a lot of despair and it’d be really dark — really gnarly to be honest. And, I kind of just heard that despair and the screams and the clutter; all these female voices screaming at each other.

So, my first instinct was to write a theme and create a little world that was built only on the female voice and to use that as a core sound and instrument. I then went to the north of Iceland and I recorded a small choir of women and had them do all these weird things like, kind of mumbling and talking at each other; talking like aliens. And then I created instruments and stuff from those voices.

diane lane y last man herdis soundtrack
Y: The Last Man, “The Day Before,” Episode 101 — On the eve of the worst crisis in human history, Congresswoman Jennifer Brown clashes with the President. Her children Yorick and Hero reach an emotional crossroad. None of them know their lives are about to change forever. Congresswoman Brown (Diane Lane), shown. Photo by Rafy Winterfeld/FX.

The way you utilize those voices throughout the score is really stunning. It not only sounds very haunting, but it really helps support so many of the underlying themes running throughout the narrative. 

Then, kind of on the other end of the spectrum, we have the character of Yorick. Not really typical hero material, Yorick is a little quirky and funny, and the music that surrounds him is a bit different. Tell us a little bit about how you approached scoring Yorick and developed his unique signature sound. 

So, how I interpret things may be totally different from the showrunners and the writer, but after I read the script to try and understand the character, I perceived Yorick as a little naïve and kind of innocent. He’s a little bit of a doofus character, but what I thought was beautiful about Yorick is that his drive throughout the story, and his main motive, is his desire for love. And, his desire for Beth, who rejects him.

And, at the beginning of the first episode, we see that she bails on him. So he’s just like, “Fuck. I can’t do this.” He’s totally heartbroken…and then wakes up in the apocalypse. So, throughout the whole series, he is seeing this apocalyptic world through rose-colored glasses — always waiting for Beth to be on the horizon. Because of this, the first theme that I wrote for Yorick was a theme of hope, desire, and love.

Another really interesting character is Agent 355 (Ashley Romans). She is a bit of an enigma as she is everyone and no one at the same time. Because her identity and personality are so vague, how did you interpret and approach her when it came to her sound?

What I felt when I was reading the story and reading the script was that Agent 355… is the narrator. She is the one that is driving the story. She starts out very mysterious and we don’t know a lot about her. Throughout the season the layers start to peel and we start seeing a little bit more about who she is and where she comes from. But in the end, she’s really a magnificent and heroic character.

When I started to write her theme — it’s kind of hard to put into words. As I approached her, I wanted to not give away too much. I wanted to gradually add to her theme. So, I started with a small skeleton of sound to represent her. It was very much like a driving motor. She does have a vocal theme, but it’s bass-driven. So the first theme that represents her is this driving motor, but through the season that theme expands, flourishes, and develops just like she does.

Y The Last Man soundtrack
Ashley Romans plays Agent 355 in Y: The Last Man. Photo provided by Hulu.

While Y: The Last Man is not your first time working on a TV show, it is the first big, narrative TV project you’ve scored. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced or the biggest lessons you learned while working on the show?

Yeah, honestly, I had no idea what I was stepping into. But, I was very fortunate to have the guidance of two amazing women: Sue Jacobs, the music supervisor of the show, and Suzana Peric, the music editor. The three of us kind of formed the music team. And, when I started, I immediately just… started writing to picture, and then sent it off.

But then I got a phone call from [Jacobs] and she was like, “What are you doing?” And I was like, “Ummm…I’m scoring the show?” And then she said, “No. You have to create the world. What is the sound of the show? What is the world? What are the themes? What is the story? What are you saying with your music?” And I got a little bit scared. I thought, “Oh shit. I’m totally fucking this up. I can’t just score the show.” And that’s when I just threw the picture away, dived into the script, and started writing music based on what I was experiencing and seeing in the story.

And, that was very valuable. I realized that I could tell the story without having the picture attached. I felt by doing that, I could dive much deeper into creating the music and creating the themes. So what has been really cool and maybe a bit different with this process is that I didn’t write a single piece of music to picture. I wrote the entire score to the script and then [Peric]—who is an absolutely amazing, fantastic music editor—she basically scored the show. I wrote the music and then [Peric] took my music and put it to picture. That’s how we slowly developed and figured out how everything should be and what themes develop into which characters.

herdis stefansdottir y the last man
Herdís Stefánsdóttir has cultivated a haunting score for new show Y: The Last Man.

That’s pretty amazing. You always hear about composers scoring to picture and it’s fascinating that not doing that — actually stepping away and just feeling the story — ultimately benefited you and the final outcome more.

I can’t ever write to picture again after doing this. What was also different is that I wasn’t writing just snippets of music like you often do. Sometimes you’re writing to scenes and the scene is only like 45 seconds long. But this way, I was writing whole pieces of music where each of them were many minutes long. They have different chapters and they develop; they start and they finish. So in that sense, I felt like I could expand the themes and tell a way deeper story within each piece of music.

“I can’t ever write to picture again after doing this.”

It also sounds like you had a lot of trust in your team. The fact that you were able to give these full pieces of music to Peric and trust that she would use them in the best possible ways really speaks volumes about your working relationship. 

I think what I have kind of learned by working on films is that I think that very good directors are people that trust the people they’re working with. And that every person is really freaking good at what they do. And, if you put your trust in people, trust that they know what they’re doing, sometimes you can get amazing results. So [Peric] just… completely blew me away. She was a magician. She would take my music and do something that I would never have thought of. I thought that was a very inspiring process and I learned so much from that. She went very deep in the storytelling, too. It was a complete collaboration between the two of us. I often feel like with music editors, people don’t really know what their role is and they don’t get a lot of attention or are often talked about, but it’s incredibly important. Especially when they are so good and, like [Peric], go overly deep into what they’re doing.

While we’re on this topic, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the actual production of Y: The Last Man. Mirroring a lot of what happens in the show’s story, the production team and on-screen talent consisted of mostly women. Because this is a sadly rather uncommon event, I wanted to ask you what was it like working on this production surrounded by so many incredible women?

I mean, there’s nothing I can say about it, except that it was really cool. It was really inspiring and empowering. Not that I want to say that “Women are awesome and men suck!” Not at all. I’m not trying to be disrespectful towards men. But I love women and I love working with women. I thought there was a very beautiful kind of sensitive energy where nobody had a big ego.

And, to be honest, it was awesome to see women as the editors, the producers, the sound people. I’ve never had that. And, that’s typically so male-dominated. Most of the time you’re only working with men in the sound department, so I thought that was really, really cool. Plus, it’s just interesting to see a show like this that is big, dark, intense, and apocalyptic told from a woman’s perspective.

Before you started composing for film, you wrote and performed music as part of the pop duo, East of My Youth. Do you think your background in songwriting has influenced the way you compose? And now that you’ve been composing more, perhaps vice versa as well?

Yeah, I’m sure it does in some subconscious way. In some sense, I feel like I’m using two different parts of my brain and my soul when I’m doing films. It’s working within a story within a frame under somebody else’s direction, as opposed to when I’m just purely expressing myself. But I definitely think in some sense, you explore some dimensions when you’re working on yourself or working on your own music. You’ll learn something, you’ll create a new sound or you’ll do something that excites you. That kind of learning experience you can then bring into film music. When I turn on my composer brain and go down that road, I’m sure that somehow also gets into the other one. It’s hard to tell, but they are two parts of the same cell.

When you were initially getting into the field of composing you spent a little time working with the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. He was such an incredible talent. Was there anything you learned from your time working with him that you have since implemented into your own composing? Or any helpful lessons that you learned from him?

I don’t think necessarily composing-wise that it changed anything, but I really do think that he is an incredibly influential artist and composer. I think what he did for the film world is that he paved the way for something special and he left a really big imprint and mark on how modern scores have developed. But I think, especially his personal work, he was just a really, really amazing artist. And for that, I’m grateful that I was able to just get a peek into the studio and see how he worked.

You know, I always remember one thing that he told me that was maybe the biggest thing that led me on the track that I am on today. He asked me what I wanted to do. And I just said that I wanted to write music and be able to do just that without having to do other jobs. And he just said to me, “Then go. Write music. Surround yourself with inspiring people and participate in all kinds of projects, not just one thing. See what happens.” So basically, without saying it, he was saying, “Stop working for me. Just do your own thing. Do your own music.” I always thought that was really good advice.

Y: The Last Man is currently streaming via FX on Hulu. The soundtrack for the series will also be released on a future date yet to be determined.

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