Since the 1990s, Lisbeth Scott has been making music for Hollywood, from Munich to The Chronicles of Narnia to True Blood. Writing and recording for film, for television, and for herself, Scott has had the privilege of working with many talented teams, including those of Hans Zimmer and John Williams. While her journey is difficult to replicate in retelling, there is a reality to her path as a musician that is as relatable as the hundredth time you practice a scale in your room with the doors closed while no one is home, and only you can hear yourself and that one string that refuses to stay in tune. We sat down with Scott and asked her about her path, her inspiration, and how she overcame stage fright and the trap of perfectionism.
Describe a moment where you felt most connected to the music you were writing or performing.
Quite a while ago—before I even started touring as a solo artist—I had been asked to perform in a bookstore in Santa Monica. I lugged all my equipment in, and I setup my keyboard, microphone, and my own sound system. I took a deep breath, got behind the piano, and played a few songs. People were walking by and listening.
Then I started my third song, “I Fall,” which I wrote from a very spiritual place. As soon as I started singing it, I felt the entire store stop. Like I was floating. I had my eyes closed, and I felt all this buzzing around me. I was envisioning the images of the song so clearly, and I was so present within them. When I finished, I had forgotten that I was performing. I was so enmeshed and one with the music and the voice.
i put on the crown of the kingdom
stretch these arms ride these wings
i jump into shells when the waves come
the kind in which the ocean sings
-Lisbeth Scott, “I Fall”
That was a huge transition for me in my life as an artist. From that moment on, I realized that’s the place I always want to come from whenever I’m performing and writing. I wanted it to be that authentic, that truthful, and that much a part of my entire spirit, soul, mind, body—everything.
Some musicians would find it scary to be that vulnerable. When you’re in that state of mind, you completely let go; anything can happen. Is it challenging to balance the fear of rejection versus being in that moment, completely honest and open?
I had a really good friend—an opera singer—who asked me the same question. There are three things I told her that we have to remember.
For whatever reason, we’ve been given this gift, whether it’s as a writer, a lyricist, a singer, or all three. There are other people on the planet who can’t do what we do, just like we can’t do what other people on the planet can do. We owe it to our gift to share it. We also owe it to this gift to be completely embodied in it and to let it completely embody us.
In order to get from that place of self-doubt to that place of “I’m just going to do this,” you need to have some tools. For me, the tools are to remember (a) I have a gift, (b) I need to share the gift because that’s why it’s been given to me, and (c) this is our opportunity as artists to fully express ourselves.
Many people don’t have that opportunity to fully express themselves. They find it by listening to music and watching film. That’s how they let out their emotions. Something that’s moving, something that’s scary, something that’s funny—they bring out all those emotions in us that we’re not processing ourselves; this is what I believe. So when we have the opportunity to actually do that for ourselves by singing or playing or creating a piece of art, that is the biggest gift of all. We really have to honor that.
That would be my recommendation: know who you are, why you’re doing what you’re doing, and fully own what you’re doing. There are going to be people who like it and people who don’t, and that doesn’t matter. That is completely irrelevant. What’s relevant is if you’re fully committed to what you’re doing.
It seems like when you’re performing, it’s a certain mindset, a certain place; but when you’re recording, it’s different and there’s a perfection that you’re trying to achieve. How can you get over the entanglement of perfection while recording?
Acceptance is a huge tool for an artist, especially a recording artist. Especially if you’re a recording artist who doesn’t have access to millions of dollars. You can make pretty amazing recordings now for not that much money, but if you sidestep, if you make a wrong decision, choose the wrong anything, mix or play or whatever, your vision that has been living in your mind for a year doesn’t end up coming out in the recorded piece. It is a very hard lesson to learn as a recording artist, because oftentimes you can’t go back in.
I once read an interview with Elton John, and he said that listening back to his first three albums, all that he could think was that he wanted to go back and re-record all of his vocals, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, someone like Elton John thinks that way.” You have to start asking yourself, what is perfection? Perfection is where we are at any given moment. We have to really practice acceptance and letting go.
How did you get introduced to music?
In the womb, literally. My parents were ballroom dancers, they have won awards, and my dad was a huge music fan. He listened to jazz, he loved stage musicals, and he liked to go see the pop music of his time. There was always music playing. My sister was a ballet dancer, so when my mother was pregnant with me, she was dropping my sister off at rehearsals and then sitting and waiting to take her home; so it was really in me, always.
I can’t ever remember a time when it wasn’t in me. I just read the Rodgers and Hammerstein biography that recently came out, Something Wonderful, and someone asked Rodgers what he did before he became a musician. He said, “I was a baby.” That’s how I feel. I don’t ever remember a time when I wasn’t listening to, aware of, or creating music.
Did you start with singing or with piano?
I started with piano. My mother won a piano on a radio contest when I was five-and-a-half, and then the piano was delivered to us when I was six. I started lessons when I was six and I have played ever since. I’ve added lots of instruments to the initial piano world I was in.
How did you get to vocals?
I loved listening to vocalists—all different kinds. I used to listen to Judy Garland, the Mills Brothers, Joni Mitchell, and every different kind of music you can imagine. But I was so shy when I was young that opening my mouth to sing seemed like an impossibility. I would daydream about singing onstage.
When I was in junior high, I set up a little record player and speakers in my closet. I would go in, put my headphones on in my closet, shut my bedroom door and my closet door, and harmonize with everybody I could play from Led Zeppelin to Genesis to Blood, Sweat & Tears to Joni Mitchell to James Taylor—everybody. I would just make up harmonies, and it was blissful for me. In those times, I was in such euphoric moments. I never realized it was any big deal. I thought everyone could do that.
Cut to graduating from college, and I moved to California to be a dance musician; I never wanted to take a nine-to-five job. I wanted to be in music, and I loved playing for dance classes for ballet and modern. Usually I would play piano and sometimes drums. I was playing piano at an outdoor music festival and was improvising. I was messing around with some melodies and I started singing—humming, oohing, aahing. There was a guy in the studio next to mine who had just started working for Hans Zimmer, and he came running over after class.
He said, “Hi, I’m Jeff Rona. I just heard you singing, and what a great voice you have.”
I’m thinking, “What? I do?”
And he said, “Would you be interested in singing on a film for Hans Zimmer? I just started working for him, and he is looking for a voice like yours.”
I didn’t even know who Hans Zimmer was, which was so funny, but I said, “Okay, sure!”
We left the next day, and for the next three weeks I spent twelve hours a day on Hans Zimmer’s movie Toys with Robin Williams, which was in ‘92. That was the beginning of my singing career. Soon after that I recorded my first solo album and released that probably six months later. I got a record deal, then lost that deal, and got another deal. I started singing on lots of films for Hans, Mark Isham, James Newton Howard, Danny Elfman, and just tons of people back then. That was my launch into my singing career and finding my voice.
How did you get introduced to the composers you have worked with?
I met Nathan Barr in the hallway at Hans Zimmer’s studio, Remote Control. Jeff Rona, again, introduced us. I met Harry Gregson-Williams there as well, and we have done so many films together—twenty or something. Other people would contact me or contact the composer whose work they heard me on. Then that composer would connect me with that other composer who was looking to use my voice. That’s how it happened.
There were also music contractors around town. A wonderful woman named Sally Stevens was a huge help to me when I was starting out with the union process—health insurance, everything—she was a huge help. There were many kind people along the way who helped me find my footing in this new industry I knew nothing about. It was all word of mouth for working with other composers, including John Williams.
When did you see a life in music?
Ever since I was little. In seventh grade, our English teacher told us to write a letter to ourselves that we wouldn’t open for twelve years. I did the assignment, and twelve years later I opened the letter. I had kept this letter with me all that time. The letter said the following: I am living in Venice Beach, California, in a house by the ocean with a recording studio in my home making my living as a musician. And that was exactly what I was doing. It also said I would marry John Carlson, who was this guy I had a crush on in seventh grade—but that part didn’t happen. I have always known since I could remember this would be my life.
What are you working on right now?
I’m very excited actually. I’m scoring a beautiful film called Justine. It’s a feature film about a young woman whose husband dies in Iraq. She has to figure out how to support her two children. In doing so, she takes a job caring for a young girl with spina bifida, and it’s [about] how they heal each other. It’s a beautifully done film by Stephanie Turner. There are a lot of women on this project actually. She wrote, directed, and starred in it. Mindy Elliot is the film editor. I’m the composer. It’s nice to be involved in a project with so many talented women.
Also, we are in the final stages of a Broadway musical for HBO’s True Blood. We have a great team. We are doing our first read in December of this year, and a workshop in New York in February. It’s opening sometime in 2020.