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Dave Cobb Talks Working With ‘Genius’ Suzanne Collins on ‘Hunger Games’ Prequel Songs

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The Hunger Games films are no stranger to haunting musical moments that produce real-life hits, with six singles from four movies hitting the Billboard Hot 100 — including top 20 hits for Taylor Swift and even Jennifer Lawrence. When the prequel The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes hits theaters on Nov. 17, a batch of new songs will take center stage thanks to Rachel Zegler, who delivers a nuanced portrayal of a nomadic balladeer thrown into a dystopian fight to the death.

Almost two years after winning a Golden Globe for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake, Zegler is preparing to show audiences she can deliver gritty country-folk just as deftly as Broadway classics. To ensure the music of the film convincingly conjured her character’s Appalachia-esque milieu, Lionsgate tapped Nashville mainstay Dave Cobb to put melodies to lyrics penned by franchise author Suzanne Collins. Cobb, a nine-time Grammy Award winner, is primarily known for working with country artists including Brandi Carlile and Chris Stapleton. But he has produced music for major films along the way such as A Star Is Born and Elvis — and his latest Hollywood project presented a new challenge.

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What about this opportunity made you say yes?

One of the things that was so attractive about working on this film [is that] I don’t think I’ve ever talked to a more intelligent person in my life than Suzanne Collins. She’s an absolute genius. Suzanne telling me the impetus of the story had me captivated. I’m a history buff — I would teach history if I wasn’t in music — and everything in this film, everything she has written for Hunger Games, is derived from real history. She sent me the lyrics, and I had to make them feel like turn-of-the-century, timeless classics. That’s a very hard thing to do.

The songs have a lived-in rawness to them. How did you achieve that?

The big thing for me was to get the ability to be completely unorthodox. We had this crazy idea to come down to my hometown of Savannah, Ga., and rent an old mansion and record in that. So we went to this 200-plus-year-old house, and the sound is very Alan Lomax. Lomax, whom I’m very influenced by, used to go around and capture people on their front porch. It was the real, genuine, authentic article of whatever he was [recording], so we went for that. With all the creaks in the walls, you can hear the history in the recording — it wasn’t like a clinical studio. The old microphones we used looked like they’d been under a bed for 75 years.

Dave Cobb

And what about the band?

I brought in ringers who I thought were great musicians. Molly Tuttle played a big part — she played the guitar of [Zegler’s character] Lucy Gray. I found this ’30s Gibson that I brought down, and she played on that. I showed it to [director] Francis [Lawrence], and he used it in the film: It’s the one she’s actually playing in the film. It wasn’t just a regular acoustic guitar — it has character. That was a big part of making this come to life. There’s bleed between the bass going into the fiddle going into the banjo. It’s just absolute chaos in a way that makes things dangerous.

Did you work closely with Zegler, coaching her on how to approach the material?

I made the music before the film was made, and Rachel is such an incredible talent that she ended up singing everything live, which we were hoping she would do. She’s so naturally gifted — it was effortless for her. She can sing anything.

Do you have a favorite musical moment in the film?

There’s a song on [the soundtrack] I love called “Pure As the Driven Snow.” Rachel has this beautiful, almost ’30s American voice. The way she sings the last line of that song is so stunning.

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 7, 2023, issue of Billboard.

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