'The Hobbit': Neil Finn on the making of 'Song of the Lonely Mountain'
The films of the Lord of the Rings trilogy left its audiences on the note of three ethereal women’s voices, including Annie Lennox, who earned Return of the King one of its 11 Oscars. Now as director Peter Jackson returns to Middle-earth with the dwarf-packed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the voice of New Zealand musician Neil Finn serenades the audience when its final frame fades to black.
“The story is very much a dwarf tale as much as it is called The Hobbit,” says Finn, who sings “Song of the Lonely Mountain,” the majestic and epic yet intimate and warm ballad of the dwarves that closes out the first film of Jackson’s new trilogy.
“Song of the Lonely Mountain” shares its melody with “Misty Mountains,” a tune heard earlier in the film that the 13 dwarves bellow in solemn baritone before setting out on their quest with Bilbo Baggins. New Zealand artists Plan 9 and David Long, who wrote and performed songs in The Lord of the Rings, brought their talents again to The Hobbit, setting J.R.R. Tolkien’s verse to music for “Misty Mountains.” The melody also appears in Howard Shore’s score, where it is brought to even greater heights with a stately brass section.
The Hobbit co-writer/co-producer Philippa Boyens reached out to Finn about crafting the end credits song, and soon after that he was traveling south from his home in Auckland to The Hobbit’s post-production office in Wellington, where the film’s producers told Finn about the dwarfs’ story they wanted to tell with the closing credits music.
Finn said he had “never been asked to think dwarf before,” so to prepare for writing the song – which features his original lyrics and his arrangement of the “Misty Mountains” melody – he re-read The Hobbit, watched parts of the as-yet-incomplete film and listened to some audio recordings of dwarvish language Jackson and his team gave him. Finn considered including lyrics in the dwarvish tongue Tolkien created but realized “that was difficult. The elves speak the more musical tongue.”
The song (which has qualified for Oscar contention) features a few key phrases close to Tolkien’s own, like “get our long-forgotten gold” and “Far away the Misty Mountains cold.” Most of Finn’s original lyrics are less archaic and other-worldly than that of “Misty Mountains,” though Finn’s verses do use the same rhyme scheme as Tolkien’s dwarvish song.
Beyond tapping into the mindset of the race of dwarves, Finn also channeled the characters audiences get to know throughout the first Hobbit movie, the dwarves led by Thorin, the prince of a lost kingdom. It’s a song that, like the dwarves’ quest, is about determinedly seeking retribution.
“They are a solid, earnest, hard-working, loyal bunch, but they’re also very fixated on getting back what’s theirs,” Finn said of the band of dwarves. “There’s a great wound in their psyche, so it seemed appropriate to refer to that in the lyric.”
Also giving the song a dwarvish ring to it – quite literally – is the clanging metal of an anvil. Finn was looking for something that “sounded underground and mine-y” and settled upon the sound of a hammer pounding away on an anvil. The recording uses a sample of the tool-turned-musical instrument, but there was a real anvil at the world premiere in Wellington when Finn performed it for thousands of Tolkien fans.
Finn furthered the rumbling, earthy sound of the song’s chorus with some backing vocals that come in about when the anvil does. A collection of men’s voices sing “aye aye aye yah” – nonsense syllables Finn says are evocative of traditional Jewish music. Cantor Dr. Brian Mayer of Hebrew College pointed out to EW that it is reminiscent of Hasidic niggunim, wordless, impassioned prayers traditionally sung by men. The choice was made with Tolkien’s influences for the dwarves in mind – the English writer has said the dwarves, dispossessed of their home, Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, were created with the Jewish people in mind when he wrote The Hobbit in the 1930s.
Those backing vocals are sung by Finn and his two sons, Liam and Elroy, over-dubbed a few times. So the project became a family affair – fitting, given how The Lord of the Rings had been beloved and shared by the Finn family.
“My son Elroy was about 12 years old when the first Lord of the Rings film came out, and he was quite obsessive about them and continues to be to this day,” Finn said. “The films have a lot of impact in our house. They’re still played a lot. We even bought a domestic 5 surround sound so we could watch Lord of the Rings at home.”
Finn himself first became engrossed with Tolkien’s stories when he was 16 years old. He won The Lord of the Rings books for a history prize at school. The Kiwi singer recalls nearly getting the books taken away from him, though, as punishment for laughing and goofing off with his friends during a practice for the prize-giving ceremony.
“They tried to take them off me, but I obviously had to have them,” Finn said. “There was some foretelling of the future there.”
“Song of the Lonely Mountain” is on the soundtrack for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, with an extended edition of the song on the Special Edition soundtrack.
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Read more about The Hobbit:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey