The first episodes of Defending Jacob premiered on Apple TV+ on April 24. The show is at once a dark thriller, a courtroom drama, and an intimate look at what happens to a family (Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, and Jaeden Martell) when secrets threaten to tear them apart. I’ve made my case for why the trio of performances behind the Barber family deserve critical praise and audience attention —Evans, Dockery, and Martell are at their very best in Jacob.
But there’s another aspect of the show that I’d like to draw your attention to as well: Defending Jacob’s stunning score, composed by Atli Örvarsson.
Örvarsson’s work [The soundtrack is available now] elevates Defending Jacob and enhances the viewing experience with thrilling and unexpected choices — The music draws you in and doesn’t let go until the end.
We spoke to Örvarsson about how his forthcoming album influenced his work on Defending Jacob, collaborating with director Morten Tyldum and showrunner Mark Bomback, and how a return to his native Iceland has served as inspiration.
Read the interview below:
Awards Daily: I have to tell you that when I was watching Defending Jacob’s first episode and the title sequence started playing, I was stunned by the music, so much so that I paused the show and went right to IMDb to look up your work.
Atli Örvarsson: Thank you, that’s very kind.
AD: I have heard that your upcoming album [You Are Here, set for release this summer] was actually the inspiration for the sound of the show. Is that correct?
AO: Yeah, it was! From what I know, the director and the producer of the show, they had an advance copy of my album. It hasn’t come out yet, but when they heard that, they felt that I would be the right person to do the score. So at the very least, the music on the album was what convinced them that I would be the composer to do this music.
AD: I think the score fits so perfectly with the show because it is so striking. What was your inspiration for the album? How did you come up with that sound?
AO: Well, it’s something I’d been working on for the last two or three years. I used to live in Los Angeles for a long time and moved back home to Iceland in 2015. There was something about going home that inspired this music.
Maybe it’s just the cold winters and the crazy landscapes. [Laughs]. But, I think there’s a stark beauty in the landscape of Iceland. I don’t know. I mean, it’s a really good question, but clearly, something that inspired the music fit the ideas that the filmmakers had for the show. And, there is a bit of a Scandinavian noir vibe to the show, the director [Tyldem] is from Norway. Maybe there is some sort of pan-Nordic vibe that permeates the show.
AD: That’s interesting! How would you describe the term “Icelandic noir?” What does that term mean to you?
AO: I think it’s generally quite minimalistic. It’s quite dark, it’s safe to say. Sometimes, there’s a bit of an almost claustrophobic feeling to it, which probably has something to do with being stuck inside because of the weather and snow. But, you know, there’s also an honesty and truth in it for me.
I feel like the emotions tend to be rawer, and there’s more rawness in the storytelling — whether it’s the scriptwriting, the acting, or the general emotion.
AD: I think claustrophobic is a great word to describe the score. As I said, it drew me in right away and didn’t let me go until the end. I did find it quite haunting. How would you describe it?
AO: Oh my God, I’m too close to it to be able to judge my own work in a way. [Laughs].
I come back to that same word: Raw. The show is about any parent’s scariest dream, that their child is accused of this horrible thing. And being a father myself, I think I was able to tap into this fear and horror that would come with something horrible like this happening to your child.
And so I think the rawness of that emotion is probably a part of the score. And there’s also another aspect to it which is that as the show progresses the family is isolated from the world. Their friends stop talking to them and Jacob can’t go to school. So maybe that’s where the claustrophobic vibe comes from. It’s a bit like the Coronavirus, you know, having to be home all the time, not being able to leave the house.
AD: When you were approached to do Defending Jacob, how did you alter the sound that you had on your album to then create the score for the show? What changes did you have to make and how did you go about that process?
AO: Well, weirdly, the music in the show isn’t that different from the stuff on my album, the instrumentation is quite similar. It’s quite a bit of piano, strings, and an electronic soundscape. So in that sense, it was kind of a natural transition from the album to the show.
But the album, you know, those tracks are written music for music’s sake and whatever inspired those tracks is what inspired them. For the show, I suppose I took my musical style, the style of the show, inspiration from the show, and what the show was about, and mixed all of those together.
As I said, they felt that the music on my album would be a good fit for what they envisioned for the show. And in a way, I thought the show would be the perfect vehicle for me to maybe develop and further advance the language of the music that I had been working on myself. So, it was kind of the perfect match.
AD: Defending Jacob is a mini-series with eight different episodes. Does the score change in any way throughout the series?
AO: Yeah, a little bit. The arc of those eight shows combined is like the arc of a regular film. It’s almost like there are these three acts that are so typical in storytelling and filmmaking. But in a way, I felt that each episode posed a unique question to the music which I had to solve. While there is a through-line— one of the episodes is more of a thriller than the others, one of them is like a court trauma, they each have their own kind of problems that I have to solve.
AD: Musically, did you just find yourself tweaking the instrumentation? What does that mean in terms of the work the score requires of you?
AO: Well, the first thing I did was to write a few themes. Some of the characters have their own themes and there’s a theme for the court proceedings. I have these thematic building blocks and I apply them to the show in a way that I think is appropriate for each episode.
You know, one of the episodes has a stakeout and a detective vibe to it, which what I’d done in the previous episodes, simply didn’t apply to that. So I had to come up with a new idea there, a new style. It’s a combination of adapting the themes that I did in the beginning and adapting to new situations along the way, coming up with new ideas and new styles of music as the show evolves. It’s a different kind of emphasis in the different episodes. And as new characters come into it you have to come up with new ideas for those characters. So it’s a bit of adapting the original themes and then coming up with new ideas as you go.
AD: What are you working on now?
AO: I am working on another film, two films actually, but they’re very different projects. And actually, it is in a way, a little bit interesting that I went straight from Defending Jacob, which is a really serious heavy drama to doing a comedy with Will Ferrell [the upcoming film Eurovision]. It was this almost schizophrenic change of pace.
AD: [Laughs] How does that shift in tone change the way that you approach your process? Does it change anything for you at all?
AO: Well, I’ll say this, I think the thing that those two projects have in common is that I’m just trying to be as honest as I can. You know, music is a funny thing, because there’s this production music and then there’s music for music’s sake, and film music is somewhere in between those two things.
And I tried to just sit down and write a piece of music that’s inspired by the film. I mean, that’s what everybody does, but I feel like you just have to be honest and try to feel the characters, feel the story and go into your own heart and soul and see if that resonates with you and see what that inspires.
AD: I know that you’ve done composition for Chicago Med and Chicago P.D., obviously those are such long-running series. How do you find yourself changing those original compositions for a years-long project?
AO: I would say it’s a slowly evolving thing. Once you’ve invented the wheel, you just gotta keep the wheel spinning. But you can’t always just do the same thing because that gets boring too. It’s a fine line between honoring your original sound and the original feel but also keeping some sort of reinvention and evolution going.
AD: Lastly, is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you were hoping to mention? Does anything come to mind?
AO: Not really, other than just how much I loved working on the show and how great I think it is. And what a joy it was to work with the director, Morten Tyldum, and the showrunner, Mark Bomback. I feel like we, the three of us, had the same vision about what it should be. It’s such a blessing to find when everybody’s on the same page.
AD: Thank you so very much for your time!
The first three episodes of Defending Jacob are available now on Apple TV+, with new episodes being released on Fridays. Paramount Music has also released the Defending Jacob soundtrack exclusively on iTunes and Apple Music. Örvarsson’s debut album, You Are Here, will be released this summer. You can listen to the first single now on Spotify.