6 Apr 2019

The Mixtape: Karyn Rachtman

From RNZ Music, 3:00 pm on 6 April 2019

Karyn Rachtman is one of the most influential music supervisors in the world, due to her work on film soundtracks including Pulp Fiction, Boogie Nights and Moulin Rouge.

Joining us for the RNZ Music Mixtape, she discusses five notable songs from soundtracks she's worked on, and shares five of her favourite tunes. 

Karyn Rachtman

Karyn Rachtman Photo: supplied

Karyn's five soundtrack picks:

1. Reservoir Dogs

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Notable song: ‘Stuck In the Middle With You’ by Stealers Wheel

That movie was done for very little money. Quentin was told he couldn’t afford to have seventies songs in the script.

A friend of mine, [film proucer] Stacey Sher, was a very good friend of his and she called me and said, “You gotta meet this guy, he’s gonna be a big deal!”

She told me he needed help getting ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ [for the film's soundtrack]. I went home and read the script that night. It blew my mind, and I said, “I will do anything to work on this.”

Quentin was like, “I’ve been told I have to get soundalikes for [Resevoir Dogs' fictional radio station] K-Billy's Super Sounds of the Seventies.” Can you imagine?

He said, “Even if I have to get all soundalikes, I want ‘Stuck In the Middle With You’. I wrote the scene to it. I’ll pay for it myself, I’ll pay up to ten thousand dollars if I have to.”

I got in touch with Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan. One of them was religious, and didn’t want his song to be in a scene where a guy gets his ear cut off.

I pitched it to them like, "This is paying homage to your song, like ‘Singing In The Rain’ in A Clockwork Orange." It sold them on the idea and they said ok.

I believe the licence was actually ten thousand dollars. Quentin said, “How can I repay you for this”, and I said, “Hire me to be your Music Supervisor.”

So he did.

We did Four Rooms and Pulp Fiction, and then I took a job as Vice-President of Capitol Records, and he didn’t want to be committed to that label, so he hired my assistant, and she’s still working for him.

2. Boogie Nights

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Notable song: ‘Brand New Key’ by Melanie

The same friend who introduced me to Quentin, Stacey Sher, introduced me to Paul Thomas Anderson, who was working on his first film Hard Eight, and needed help, so I came in and gave him support.

He left me a script and said, “Can you please read this?”

It was called Knuckle Sandwich [which became Punch-Drunk Love]. I said, “Wow. I just read the best script I’ve ever read.”

At the time I was dating a man who went on to become my husband (we’re divorced now), who was a producer. He ended up reading the script too (unbenkownst to me), and made a deal with Anderson to produce the film.

Stacey got really mad at me. And she was right to! She said “I don’t do development for your boyfriend.”

Anyway, my husband went on to produce another film of Paul's, Boogie Nights.

What’s so amazing about Boogie Nights is that every song in it tells a story. If you listen to the lyrics, they go with the story of the movie in an odd way.

Paul felt safe with me, that I was going to deliver his vision. And I think I did. I got to choose one song, and that was ‘Brand New Key’ by Melanie, which is used in the Roller Girl scene. The lyrics are ‘I’ve got a brand new pair of rollerskates’. He’d never heard that song.

3. Romeo and Juliet

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Notable song: ‘Lovefool’ by The Cardigans

When I was at Capitol Records, all of a sudden I got to pick what records I wanted to make. I heard Baz Luhrmann was making Romeo and Juliet, and went and met with him. He had books full of pictures, and videos he’d put together of how he wanted to do the songs.

We made a deal to do the soundtrack at Capitol, and I really got to know Baz, and saw his genius. I’ve been lucky, I’ve worked with incredible people.

I brought a couple of songs to the table. I was responsible for ‘Lovefool’ by The Cardigans. They were being dropped from another label, and people were saying, “That song’s not going to do anything,” and I said, “That song’s going to be a hit!”

I really like being right.  

4. The Rugrats Movie

Director: Igor Kovalyov
Notable song: ‘Safe’ by David Bowie [didn’t actually make it into the movie]

Back in the day, if you were working on a movie, you had to go sit with the artist. It was the best job in the world! That’s why I got to go to Thom Yorke’s, meet U2, I’ve been to every rock star’s house, ok? *laughs*

And I would get to watch them watch the movie, which was a lot of fun.

We wanted David Bowie to do a song for Rugrats, and he said, "Ok, come and show me the movie." His manager set it up, and I went to his house in Bermuda. [Bowie's wife] Iman cooked me lunch, and we watched the movie, and David played me the song he had in mind. It was so beautiful. It was called ‘Skylife’ [later renamed ‘Safe’].

He was just the most amazing, kindest, most wonderful person. He gave me a painting that he did of Iggy Pop.

He was so encouraging, and so kind. We walked along the beach that day, and later he would send me Christmas cards.

But then what happened was, the filmmakers decided they didn’t want the song. David Bowie was upset! And I was devastated.

I didn’t get a Christmas card the next year. But meeting David Bowie was absolutely one of the highlights of my life.

5. The Rugrats Movie (again)

Director: Igor Kovalyov
Notable song: ‘This World Is Something new To Me’ ft. Phife Dawg, Patti Smith, Lou Rawls, Lisa Loeb, Lenny Kravitz, Laurie Anderson, Kate Pierson, Jakob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Gordon Gano, Fred Schneider, Dawn Robinson, Cindy Wilson, Beck & B-Real

Mark Mothersbaugh from Devo wrote the Rugrats theme, and he wrote ‘This World Is Something new To Me’ for the opening scene of the movie.

He'd created so much music for the film, and when I came on he was like, “Don’t ruin it for me,” I said, “I’m not, I’m not.”

In the opening scene Tommy Pickles is having his baby brother, and all the babies sing in the nursery. I said, “Let’s get people to sing all the voices.”

I got Patti Smith, Lou Rawls, Lenny Kravitz… crazy right?

Everybody did it for scale, which is $300 a day, and donated their royalties to charity.

Karyn's five personal picks:

1. Harry Nilsson - ‘Coconut’

I was a young child when this came out. I would go to my dad’s house and play his records, and this was one of my favourites. I know every word on every Harry Nilsson record, actually.

This always felt like a kids' song because it was so goofy. I always wondered what ‘lime in the coconut’ would do.

You know how you just get these thoughts sometimes, like intuition or something? I was going through a really hard time in my life. I was pregnant with my first son, and I wasn’t working, and his father left me. I just had this epiphany: ‘Don’t worry, one day you’ll meet Harry Nilsson, and everything's going to be ok’.

And a year later I got Reservoir Dogs, and Quentin Tarantino asked me, “What shall we put over the end titles?”

I said, “Coconut,” and he said, “Great.”

Harry Nilsson had to see the movie in order to approve it. He got up straight after the movie and said, “Crime doesn’t pay!”

And then I went and sat in his car and listened to his demos, which was pretty cool.

That was the first time I’d met him.

The sad part of the story is, he’d call me all the time after that. You’d think that’d be great – here’s the hero of your life and he’s calling you all the time. But he thought I was another Karyn, when he’d call me. I’d answer and he’d go. “Oh… wrong Karyn.”

There’s no other songwriter like him. And this isn’t the deepest song, but everybody loves it.

Let’s face it, when you work with Quentin Tarantino he knows what he wants. So on those rare opportunities where he didn’t know what he wanted, and I got to choose, they were great.

But ‘Coconut’ was my first choice. It just made sense. Because it didn’t make sense. At the end of that movie you need to take a deep breath, and go, "Phew," and what better way than with ‘Coconut’.

2. Kate Bush - ‘Suspended In Gaffa’

I remember the first time I heard Kate Bush. I remember hearing ‘Suspended In Gaffa’ and trying to figure out what the song meant. It meant so much to me! I was listening to those lyrics and trying to figure out what she was saying, but I FELT like her.

I thought ‘suspended in gaffa’ meant like floating in space, not really knowing where you are.

‘Can I have it all, I want it all’. But no, you can’t have it all, you’re just hanging in space.

I though 'gaffa' was some space word or something, and it turns out it’s gaffer tape.

3. Sparklehorse - ‘Sad and Beautiful World’    

After Pulp Fiction, Clueless and Reality Bites, I did a movie called The Basketball Diaries. The producer Liz Heller was becoming the senior Vice President of Capitol Records, and she said “Do you want to come and be Vice President of Soundtracks and A&R?”

I was like “Sure, I’m a highschool dropout!”

I took the job, and I was getting familiar with the artists, and Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot by Sparklehorse had just come out, and I was like, “This is the most amazing record I’ve ever heard”.

And right before it came out, he overdosed. [Mark Linkous overdosed on alcohol, Valium and antidepressants, and collapsed with his legs pinned beneath him for almost fourteen hours, requiring the use of a wheelchair for six months].

And he couldn’t promote the record.

So it didn’t sell well, but I fell in love with it. And I put that song in quite a few films.

I put him as an actor in Laurel Canyon. Frances McDormand plays a record producer, who’s working with a rock star, played by Alessandro Nivola, and the songs he sings are actually Sparklehorse songs – Mark Linkous songs.

That song, ‘Sad and Beautiful World’, just IS him. I could cry just thinking about that song.

4. Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach - ‘God Give Me Strength’    

Alison Anders was the writer and director of the movie Grace of My Heart. It’s a really great movie about the early singer-songwriter days. So we paired songwriters old and new together.

She had all these great pairings, and I reached out to Elvis Costello, and he told me Burt Bacharach wanted to work with him, so I reached out to Burt Bacharach, and it just happened.

This is another song like ‘Sad and Beautiful World’, or ‘Suspended in Gaffa’, or any Harry Nilsson song, that just moved me. And to be lucky enough to be a part of its creation, and get to work with those two on such a beautiful song, was really great.

5. Harry Nilsson - ‘Think About Your Troubles’

This is my all-time favourite song. Lyrically it’s very meta, and sort of puts you in your place when you’re having a bad day.

And Harry Nilsson means a lot to me. And I did get to meet him.