I'm normally not one to watch Lifetime movies, but on a recent evening, my girlfriend persuaded me to flip the channel to the premier of Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, starring Christina Ricci. To my surprise, I was immediately drawn in to the dark edginess of the story, and the sinister tension of the film's unique score and soundtrack was a big part of the hook.

The composer behind the score is Tree Adams. Tree kindly agreed to take some time to answer some questions I had about the music (via email), and I thought it'd be cool to share it:

What led to you landing this project?

I had worked with the producer, Judith Verno before on a number of projects as well as Tony Scudellari the music supervisor at SONY and one of the writers, Stephen Kaye.  We all have a good working relationship and I think they were looking for something kinda gritty and edgy in the music.

Had you worked with director Nick Gomez before?

Nick Gomez is a friend and in fact we had worked together years ago on a film of his called Drowning Mona.  So, when they began discussing composers, my name came up naturally as I had worked with everybody involved.  He’s a great filmmaker and a great guy.  Real sharp.  Knows his music.

Given the historical era of the story, it can be tempting to use period music of some kind, or at least traditional acoustic instrumentation. However, many of the most compelling musical moments in the film feature electric guitar and have a gritty/bluesy rock sound. Was this the approach that the director and producers wanted from the outset, or did you influence them in this direction?

From the script level, it was already clear that this was going to be a period piece with a contemporary feel.  So, with the music, they intended to have some modern gritty flavor in there that’d speak to Lizzie Borden’s character and accentuate her angry side.  Tony Scudellari had a big hand in shaping the specific musical tone of the film.  He found songs that established that raw contemporary blues inflected pallette which seemed to fit Lizzie’s world so well.  In the script there had been some Iggy Pop and other punk directions that also might have worked well too but in the end, I think there was something about the bluesy approach that just kinda won out.  In effect, they wanted to portray her as a defiant bad ass and a rock star of sorts.  Raw guitar tones seemed right.  Something about bluesy guitars and trashy lo fi drums seemed to fit well with the rural landscape and so I think they thought I’d be a good fit as a composer- I’m kinda known as a gritty slide guitar playin guy.

Can I assume that like most music scores of today, that this score was a mixture of both synthesized and live instruments? If so, what live instruments were used?

We featured a banjolin that I have from the 1920s.  Obviously lotsa different guitars- electric, acoustic, National steel with slide etc.  Assorted percussion, pots n pans, an arrowhead water jug and a detuned chromaharp—which is truly the most evil sounding.

   Tree's banjolin above. 


Was that you singing vocals?

Mixture of me singing falsetto and some samples for the evil choir….quite an image huh?

Were you involved with the lyric writing?

The songs were licensed.  I had nothing to do with them in this case.  Tony Scudellari put together a brilliant collection of tunes.  See list below:

Act 1

The Black Keys - "Psychotic Girl"
Ian Clement - "The Hammer & The Nail"
Sons of Jezebel - "Whoo Boy"
Kreeps - "Pennsylvania Boarded House Blues"

Act 3
Paul Otten - "Dangerous Mind" (Currently not commercially available)
Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer - "Are You Listening Lord" 

Act 4
Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer - "Shake It"

Act 5
Pow Wow - "All In" (Currently not commercially available)

Act 7
Lady of the Sunshine - "White Rose Parade" 

Act 8
Cavendish Music Library - "Razzmatazz Man" (not commercially available)

How long did it take you to complete the score in total (from composition through the recording/mixing/mastering)?

We had a pretty tight schedule.  I believe it was about 10-12 days all told.  The mixing and stemming was done in a day and a half and then Brad Hamilton, our music editor did a fair amount of heavy lifting on the dub stage, bringing out different elements in the stems etc.  Also, with this kind of condensed schedule, things were getting modified quite a bit on the fly.  An element in the score might resonate with Judith and everyone at the dub and then it might get sprinkled around elsewhere and become part of the thematic soup.  In certain situations like this as a composer, you need to embrace the collaborative aspect of things, go with the flow and help facilitate the vision in any way you can.  If it means transposing or completely reconfiguring a cue to accomodate a different scene because at the last minute the powers that be are seeing it this way….you gotta check your initial plan at the door and figure out a way to get from here to there.   We had a great team and we supported each other well in the process which is the only way to fly on these gigs.

Were there any scenes or sequences in the film that were most challenging for you? If so, what were they?

Courtroom scenes were tough.  There is a lot of exposition that needs to be heard and many flashbacks that take us through some of the murder sequences intercut with character reactions.  The challenge is to keep things evolving and growing without stepping on the dialog and the unfolding story, despite the fact that everyone’s actually just sittin in a room for 5 minutes or whatever the case may be.  Part of our job here is to keep the motor running.  Just gotta make sure we aren’t revving too loud.

This is a made for TV movie – did you specifically need to compose endings to scenes that would allow for a smooth cutaway to a commercial break?

Yes, in television music, you always have to contend with the commercial act breaks.  Often we try to build to the act breaks and keep the viewer engaged and wanting to stick around to find out what’s gonna happen next.  

Is any soundtrack music from the film available for fans to purchase anywhere?

Not as of yet.  Although, I have done a number of projects for SONY at this point, and there may be something possibly in the works, so sit tight!  :))

What project(s) are you working on currently?

I recently finished a couple of films: a John  Hertzfeld action comedy called REACH ME (Thomas Jane, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Connolly , Kyra Sedgewick, Kelsey Grammar etc) and a Keith Parmer thriller called SWELTER (Jean Claude Van Damme, Alfred Molina, and Lennie James.)  I have several telvision series that I am doing: CALIFORNICATION (showtime series in it’s 7th and final season) PERCEPTION a TNT series for which I use a live orchestra every episode and SIRENS a new single camera half hour comedy (premieres March 6th on USA) for which I do a fun urban score and had the chance to write and sing the theme song, “Again I Ride.”

On to the next adventure!