Behind the music of ''Juno''
Meet Kimya Dawson, the singer-guitarist whose work is the heart and soul of the film's soundtrack
Juno‘s runaway box office success has spilled onto the music charts, landing its soundtrack CD at No. 3 this week. The disc’s MVP: Kimya Dawson, the quirky Seattle-based strummer with childlike pipes who turns up on eight tracks. (The soundtrack also includes stars Ellen Page and Michael Cera’s touching duet on a cover of ”Anyone Else but You” — originally recorded by Dawson’s on-hiatus band, offbeat New York folkies the Moldy Peaches — from the movie’s final scene.) EW rang up Dawson to see how she’s enjoying her newfound recognition, and find out how Jamie Lynn Spears fits into it all.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me how you got involved with the Juno project, from your perspective.
KIMYA DAWSON: [Juno casting director] Kara Lipson contacted me. I sell paintings online, and I painted a picture of her boyfriend like three years ago — a painting of him having a discussion with, like, a rabbit in a lucha libre mask or something. I guess Ellen Page had mentioned Moldy Peaches to Jason Reitman, and then he sort of asked around, and this woman working on the film was like, ”Oh, I know how to get in touch with Kimya!” So she just e-mailed me and was like, ”Hey, remember me? I ordered a painting.” She sent me a copy of Thank You for Smoking and the [Juno] screenplay. And then, once I’d watched Thank You for Smoking and read the screenplay, I was like, ”Okay, cool. I liked that movie, and this is a nice story about family and pregnancy and all that business that I like.” I have a baby, [and] she was just a few months old. I’m pretty particular about the projects that I want to attach myself to. So to have it be something so close to my world — family and awkward teens and parenthood — made it just right.
Did you have a say in which of your older songs they’d use?
No. I didn’t even know they were going to use my [solo] stuff at first. I knew that they wanted to use the Moldy Peaches song [”Anyone Else but You”], and I agreed to that. And Jason had asked me to send him some of my stuff. I thought that the movie was done, so I sent him all my crap, like, ”Yeah, here, buddy!” In the same way I would send anybody my stuff. I felt like we were kind of friends at that point. And then a little while later, he was like, ”Oh, I think I’m going to use a few of your songs, too.” And he sent me a list with like 10 songs. I was like, ”What?! That’s cool!”
What about the instrumental versions of your solo songs that you recorded for the film?
Jason and [Juno score composer Matteo Messina] flew to Seattle and met me at a studio there, and we just hung out. Jason knew which songs he wanted instrumentals of. He just sort of turned off the lights and ate some cookies and acted silly and told me to play them as gloomily and emotionally as I could. And I’m sitting here trying to get into this particular mood while Matteo is doing Dom DeLuise impersonations! It makes it kinda hard to keep a straight face. But I guess when you’re just doing audio recordings it doesn’t matter what look is on your face. [Laughs]
What was it like for you to revisit all this older material for the soundtrack?
Well, some of the songs are songs that I still play live. And some of them I don’t play live at all, never have. Like ”So Nice So Smart” is a song I wrote [when I was] totally bummed on a friend. Wrote the song and then totally hurt his feelings. I was like, ”My feelings are hurt and that’s valid too!” We worked it out and we’re friends again. But the song came from a hurt place, and also created hurt feelings, so to just sort of avoid it, I never played it live. And I have no idea how! My friend actually saw the movie and was like, ”Wow, I’m glad that song has a new context now.” But I would kind of have to learn it if I was going to play it. That was one where Jason was like, ”Maybe you can try?” And I sat there for 20 minutes and couldn’t figure out the chords. Someday maybe it’ll come back to me.
Why do you think your songs have touched such a chord with moviegoers?
I feel like the spirit of the movie is really similar to the spirit of the music — which is how I’ve always felt about music, and how we always felt doing Moldy Peaches stuff. So many times, musicians get stuck in a mood and limit their expression to one feeling, and don’t really let themselves combine happiness and sadness and anger and humor all within one piece. But I think in life all those elements are all so intertwined that it never made sense to me to unthread them from each other. I feel like they all go hand-in-hand. So I think my songs are kind of silly but kind of sad and kind of angry — it’s like, that’s how you deal with stuff. And I think the film really does that, too. It starts out, and you’re just like, ”Oh, this is a straight-up comedy.” And by the end, you’re just heart-wrenched. But there’s still humor, even at the end where it’s so touching. I think that’s more real. And that’s why I’ve always been a big fan of the dramedy.
NEXT PAGE: ”Part of my thing is, I’m there for the teens. If Jamie Lynn is having a crisis and my songs are helping her, that’s awesome. I’m on her side.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How has it changed your life to have millions of people hearing your work in multiplexes every weekend?
KIMYA DAWSON: I’m not really a part of any world where it would totally affect me yet. It’s surreal. I know that all these people are into it, but I’m still just doing things the way I’ve always done them so far. Like, I haven’t made any transition in the kind of shows I play or anything like that. And I’m a little hesitant to do that. I’m not a rock-club kinda gal, you know? I played a couple nights ago in New Orleans at a benefit for the Iron Rail Book Collective, and it’s just a bunch of punk kids sitting on the floor, and I was sitting on, like, some piled-up wood, playing without amplification. That’s my element, and these are my people, and I’m a little scared to lose that sense of community. I’m sure that I’m going to have to do some things differently. I’m afraid if we did the sort of group hugs that I’ve been doing in the past, then I might get crushed to death if too many people start coming around. [Laughs]
I imagine you’ve been doing a lot of interviews with the press, and it seems like in the past, you haven’t always been in the spotlight as much.
We’ve done quite a bit of press as the Moldy Peaches, back when we were doing that stuff. And I’ve done more in the past for my albums than I’ve done for Juno so far. We’re in New Orleans now — I’m participating in a conference for musicians who are also activists — and we’re doing a benefit tonight for Sweet Home New Orleans, which is helping displaced musicians down here get back into homes. And so it’s like, we’re doing this, which is really grassroots, groundbreaking work, but then flying to New York to start with the Juno promo tour. [Laughs] So it’s just weird. I know what’s important to me. There’s this movie that I love and I’m glad it’s getting so much attention — but at the same time, it’s like, yesterday I was standing in a patch of grass in a field with this old musician called Al ”Carnival Time” Johnson who lost his house to Katrina. We stood in the field where his house used to be, and it was totally bulldozed before he could even try to salvage any of his belongings. He stood there and sang a song about how his home is gone and how he has nothing. This contrast is like, these real-world things that are so concerning to me, and then there’s this weird Hollywood Top 50 universe that is just surreal. I just can’t be affected too much by all the press stuff.
Have you been getting a lot of calls from Hollywood producers who are like, ”We need a new Kimya Dawson song for the next James Bond theme”?
No. [Laughs] [The Juno soundtrack’s publicist] just called me before you and was like, ”We just got an offer for The View.” Which is so exciting for me, because I’m a massive, since-childhood Whoopi Goldberg fan. I might seriously s— my pants or have a heart attack. I love, love, love her. So that’s cool for me. But other than that, we got offered Conan but I turned it down because of the strike. [An NBC representative responds: ”The Moldy Peaches were, in fact booked. Not entirely sure why they bailed.”] Like I was saying before, I’m really particular about what I will do. And I’m not going to start doing commercials at all. If I’m going to do any more movies or anything like that, it’s going to have to be a story that I really feel good about. We’ll see. I’m pretty verbal about where I stand on those issues too, so maybe people read one entry to my blog and are like, [creaky Mr. Burns-esque voice] ”All right, I guess we don’t deal with her!” [Laughs]
The New York Post recently claimed that Jamie Lynn Spears—
Yes, I saw that! [The paper’s gossip column Page Six] reported that the pregnant Spears is a big fan of the Juno soundtrack. Spears’ rep denies this.”] Honestly, I feel like I’m one of the only people in this country who’s rooting for Jamie Lynn. Because it’s like, teenagers do it. Some of them protect themselves, some don’t. Some get pregnant and have babies, and some get pregnant and have abortions and don’t ever tell anybody. Some of them are really s—ty parents, and some of them are really good parents. But there’s plenty of really s—ty parents who are not kids and not teenagers. And from what I’ve read, she seems like she’s going to try to be a really good mom. Part of my thing is, I’m there for the teens. If Jamie Lynn is having a crisis and my songs are helping her, that’s awesome. I’m on her side. She’s her own person and maybe she’s going to totally kick butt and rise to this challenge in her life, and do awesome.