Este Haim is most famously known as a sister. In addition to shredding bass and serving face at Haim shows around the world, she played a version of herself opposite sisters Danielle and Alana (and their parents) in last year’s “Licorice Pizza.” But somewhere between selling out Madison Square Garden and attending the Oscars, the eldest member of the trio has quietly been carving out her own path as a composer.
In 2021, she and fellow musician Christopher Stracey made their compositional debut with “Maid,” the Netflix limited series starring Margaret Qualley. Early into the process, a second opportunity rolled around by coincidence or perhaps fate. During a late-night coffee break, the duo overheard some producer friends talking about “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” indie wunderkind Cooper Raiff’s new film about a college graduate who works as a “party starter” at bar and bat mitzvahs.
“A movie about a bar mitzvah? Where do I sign? Have you been reading my diary?” Haim remembered thinking to herself, as relayed during a recent interview with TheWrap. “As very much a self starter, I was like, ‘Do you need music?’”
Haim has been interested in “the way that music intermingles with picture, and how you can play with people’s emotions” long before she was starring in her own music videos. In high school, she toyed with the idea of editing music videos for a living, as she did for her musician friends.
Though scoring has always been on Haim’s radar, she credits Oscar-winning “Black Panther” composer Ludwig Göransson for lighting the way. While producing Haim’s 2011 EP “Forever,” he was also juggling composer duties for “Community” and “Fruitvale Station.” “I would sit there and just watch, in awe of him,” Haim recalled. Knowing that they shared an academic background – Haim studied ethnomusicology and played bass for a Bulgarian women’s choir – made it easier to see herself as a future composer.
When that day came, Haim found the transition from writing and performing her own music to scoring “pretty intuitive.” Still, she doesn’t take any of it for granted.
“I don’t think it’s a given that just because you’re a musician, you can be a composer,” she explained. “As an artist, I take my craft very seriously and so obviously I felt like I had something to prove with both ‘Maid’ and with ‘Cha Cha.’”
Whether she’s puzzling over a melody with her sisters or sounding out an emotional sequence with Stracey, Haim takes a “no bad ideas” approach. She counts herself lucky for finding such a willing collaborator in Stracey, as well as Raiff and “Maid” showrunner Molly Smith Metzler.
“With [both projects] we had a really good time treating our studio like we were in a laboratory, you know, each instrument was like a different beaker,” she said. “We had a really good time experimenting and throwing the spaghetti at the wall – so much so that we want to do it over and over and over again.”
Speaking of things Haim wants to do again, a message for the powers that be: “Whoever’s reading this, put me in a goddamn movie! Put me in a TV show, I would love to!”
Which is to say, filming Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” was “the most fun” Haim and her sisters ever had – and not just because they got to act out their real-life sibling dynamic (and Valley upbringing) on screen.
“First of all, we hadn’t seen each other in such a long time because we were quarantining separately, and then all of a sudden we have this opportunity to make a movie together? In the middle of the pandemic?” Haim said. “It was so enlightening and fun and crazy and fast-paced and electric. Of course I would do it again in a f–ing heartbeat.”
Read on for TheWrap’s full interview with Haim, in which the musician makes a case for the best era of pop music and dives into her process on “Cha Cha Real Smooth.”
How did you end up working with Cooper Raiff and how early into the process were you brought in?
Essentially, [co-composer Christopher Stracey] and I were woodshedding the sonic landscape for “Maid,” it was pretty much the beginning of the process. I was at Stray’s house — Stray has a magical home studio – and we took a coffee break at like 10 at night. The producers of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” are friends with Stray’s wife and they were just in the kitchen talking about the project. And I was like, “A movie about a bar mitzvah? Where do I sign? Have you been reading my diary?” I had seen “Shithouse,” so I knew of Cooper, and when she told me that he was doing another project about a bar mitzvah, it was just kind of a no-brainer. Because we were having so much fun doing “Maid,” we wanted to [compose] again. And because it was a pandemic, it was such a creative outlet for the both of us.
Has composing always been a goal of yours?
I’d always wanted to score. Soundtrack music and score is something that I listened to on a daily basis even before I became a composer, and the same with classical music and jazz. I try to lend those things to making pop music because it helps with making interesting choices. Also, the first person that ever produced anything for us was Ludwig Göransson. He would literally be scoring “Community” in between producing our EP [“Forever,” in 2011]. We’d be sitting there and he’d be like, “Oh, I have a cue that I have to do,” and we would watch him score live. It was such a thrilling thing, to see a genius like that at work. Seeing that process and the way that he scores TV and film was super inspiring to me. I think that really planted the seed for me, without him even knowing it, I’m sure.
Was making the transition from being a musician and songwriter to composing intuitive? Were there any skills you had to pick up?
Because I’m such a fan of TV and film, for a long time I [thought] I was actually going to edit music videos. All my friends that were musicians in high school [would] put out songs and I would make the music videos for them. I loved being able to edit the video to the beats of the song, I just thought that was so much fun to play with. And then music really took over. But that was always kind of in the back of my mind, looking out for the way that music intermingles with picture, and how you can play with people’s emotions. There’s parts of movies where if you don’t have the sound, it’s not the same. The second that the swelling of the strings comes in, it does something to your chakras, it changes everything that you’re seeing on screen. Music is such an integral part of the moviemaking process.
I think that because I had been so tuned into that growing up, when I actually sat down to score it was pretty intuitive for me. The only learning curve that I encountered was, as a musician and an artist in Haim, I’m making this body of work for myself. There’s no other cooks in the kitchen. It’s me, Danielle and Alana and our producer [who] make all the decisions. But when you’re putting music to a picture, there’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen – there’s producers, the director, the showrunner.
What were your early conversations with Cooper like?
Stray and I have been really lucky, because everyone that we’ve worked with thus far has been super collaborative. The more I’ve talked to other composers, I’m learning very quickly that [not every project] is necessarily like this. The people that we’re working with trust us with our vision, but they’ve also been generous enough to provide us with playlists and talk endlessly on the phone about music. [“Maid” showrunner Molly Smith Metzler] just wanted to sit and talk about music with us for hours. And the same with Cooper. There was a lot of Alex G In “Shithouse,” and I know that he wanted a lot of Alex G in “Cha Cha.” The good news is, I’m the biggest Alex G fan, so I was like, “We’re 100 percent on the same page, you’re speaking my language.” He gave us playlists and we talked endlessly about sonics and instrumentation that he wanted to have in the movie and instrumentation that he wanted to avoid. There were things we came up with where he was like, “Oh, I didn’t even think about that. Yeah, that’s great.” Which was really nice to hear again, because Stray and I are babies in this magical, magical occupation.
I don’t think it’s a given that just because you’re a musician, you can be a composer. As an artist, I take my craft very seriously and so obviously I felt like I had something to prove with both “Maid” and with “Cha Cha.” Because also, TV is very different from movies. [With movies] I have this one chance to make an impression whereas with TV, there’s a lot of score, there’s a lot of score in “Maid,” and every episode was different. With [both projects] we had a really good time treating our studio like we were in a laboratory, you know, each instrument was like a different beaker. We had a really good time experimenting and throwing the spaghetti at the wall – so much so that we want to do it over and over and over again.
Was there a specific tone you were trying to set with the instrumentation for “Cha Cha”?
With “Cha Cha,” there was an amalgamation of organic and inorganic instruments, for sure. We also enjoyed making the organic instruments kind of sound metallic and maybe inorganic, so that you don’t really know what instrument you’re hearing. I always go back to this one amazing song called “In A Big Country” by Big Country. They basically made the guitars sound like bagpipes. How cool is it that I have to think about what I’m listening to? That was what was really fun for Stray and I: playing with not really knowing what you’re hearing, but it’s still emotional. I think we definitely wanted to hone in on the emotional depth of Cooper’s character, but also retain the fun of the movie.
The ice pop scene was I think [what] we’re most proud of and [was] also the hardest thing to score, because there’s so much going on in that scene. We didn’t want to make it too lovey-dovey [because] at the same time, it’s a heartbreaking scene. You learn so much about Domino in that scene. Striking a fine balance with that one that was super important.
In part, your job as a composer is to enhance the emotion of a scene, but at the same time, you don’t want to overpower the dialogue. How do you know when to turn up the volume, so to speak, and when to get out of the way?
That’s kind of the name of the game of scoring, right? You don’t want to tell the audience what to feel. You don’t want to give too much away. You have to take your composer hat off and just be [an audience member]. It’s easier said than done for sure. We kind of had to learn to watch something and ask ourselves, “Are we basically telling the audience that this is sad?” I’m an emotional person, but I also don’t really take myself too seriously, so I always deal with things with humor. We definitely tried to bring some of that to the score. There’s a little, “Da-da-da-da! Da-da-da-da!” It’s not comedic, but it’s light hearted. It was the same with “Maid.” Because the subject matter is already so intense and because of the emotional labor that you have to endure watching that show, we didn’t want to bring [heaviness] to the score. With “Cha Cha,” there’s some really heavy learning lessons that Cooper’s character goes through, and the same with Domino, but it’s still a comedy.
When I spoke to Cooper, he said he was adamant about having Lupe Fiasco’s “The Show Must Go On” in the soundtrack because it was the party anthem of 2011. What were the quintessential bar and bat mitzvah bangers when you were 13?
My bar and bat mitzvah era was ‘98, ‘99, which, in my opinion, is the best era of music. Actually, let me rephrase: [it was] the craziest time in music. [MTV’s “Total Request Live”] was the epitome of cool. You had artists like Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears sitting next to people like Jonathan Davis from Korn, Dr. Dre and Eminem, but also being played back to back. There was numetal next to pop next to hip hop, and you don’t really have that anymore. It was the same at the bar and bat mitzvahs. We would hear “Genie in a Bottle” next to “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)” next to “Forgot About Dre”, all in the same 10 minute span. And then I would go to Danielle’s friends’ bar and bar mitzvahs, and around then “Hot in Here” was a big one, Ying Yang Twins, Fat Joe, Ashanti, Destiny’s Child, Rihanna, all those early 2000 bangers.
I feel like everyone thinks that whatever was playing when they were 13 was the best.
Oh, but I truly do. I have this vivid memory of being at a bar mitzvah in ‘99 or ‘2000 and clearly telling people to get the f– out of my way, because I knew every move to “Oops!… I Did It Again.” [Britney Spears] did a “Making The Video” [episode] for that song, so I studied the choreography. I knew every move and made sure everyone knew that I knew every move. There’s a video on the internet somewhere of me, Danielle and Alana at a Britney Spears concert doing the choreography to “Oops!… I Did It Again.”
Going back to your collaboration with Chris Stracey, how is that process different from working with your sisters?
You know, it’s actually not that crazy different. I’m very lucky that I have two sisters that love collaborating. I mean, we wouldn’t be a band if we weren’t able to collaborate with each other. It’s easy being a trio, because it’s usually two against one if there’s something that we disagree with. And if [that happens], if one of us really thinks that something is an integral part of the song, we’ll try it. There’s no bad ideas within this band. And it was kind of the same with Stray. In Haim, and with Stray, all of us are just obsessed with music – I know that sounds obvious, but [it’s] to the point where almost everything that we talk about goes back to a song or an era or a sound. We are tirelessly looking for new music and new sounds, and I think that’s why we’re all so obsessed with world music. Stray’s obsessed with Brazilian music and South American music, as am I. [In college] I was an ethnomusicology major, so all I was studying for years was world music. So, I think that we definitely brought a lot of that energy and being curious and exploring different sounds to both “Maid” and “Cha Cha,” and it’s the same thing with Haim. We have an insatiable thirst for new ways of making sounds and tweaking sonics and making something sound new.
All three of you acted in “Licorice Pizza” last year. Did that experience give you any desire to get back in front of the camera?
Whoever’s reading this, put me in a goddamn movie! Put me in a TV show, I would love to! It was the best experience, it was the most fun my sisters and I’ve ever had. First of all, we hadn’t seen each other in such a long time because we were quarantining separately, and then all of a sudden we have this opportunity to make a movie together? In the middle of the pandemic? We were in this fun bubble with all these really amazing [people], f–ing Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael Bauman, all these amazing lighting designers and gaffers. I had been on music video sets, but I’d never been on a movie set before. It was so enlightening and fun and crazy and fast-paced and electric. Of course I would do it again in a f–ing heartbeat.
Maybe next time, Haim can compose and act and wear all the different hats.
Oh my God, that might take 10 years for us to do. But if someone wanted me to, I would do it.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” is now playing in select theaters.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.