J. Ralph interview: ‘Dust and Ash’ songwriter

Before he started working on the song, “Dust and Ash,” for the documentary, “The Voice of Dust and Ash,” J. Ralph had never heard of Iranian musician Mohammad Reza Shajarian. He first heard about him from a very notable source. “It was actually Sting’s daughter, Fuschia Sumner, that turned me on to the project. She’s one of the producers and she said, ‘I gotta show you this trailer. I think you’d be really great to get on board,” he tells Gold Derby during our recent interview (watch the exclusive video interview above).

The experience of hearing Shajarian for the first time was nothing short of an eye-opener for him. “It’s this incredible revelation when you get to experience something of this magnitude. His heart and his humility and his talent is something that you very rarely get to see.”

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“The Voice of Dust and Ash,” from Mandana Biscotti, chronicles the life Shajarian and the legendary stature he attained as one of the definitive voices and sounds of Persian classical music. He first rose to prominence in the 1960s and his career continued to flourish even after Islamic revolution in 1979. After he criticized the Iranian government following the controversial 2009 presidential election, he was banned from releasing new music which was enforced until his death in 2020.

Ralph has long been a figure in music and over the past 15 years has become one of the main composers doing work for documentary films. He has since earned three Oscar nominations for Best Original Song, all of them coming for documentaries. He was first nominated in 2012 for “Before My Time” from “Chasing Ice.” He was then nominated again in 2015 alongside Anohni for “Manta Ray” from “Racing Extinction” and again the following year with Sting for “The Empty Chair” from “Jim: The James Foley Story.” The song “Dust and Ash,” which is a duet between Ralph and Norah Jones, recently made the Oscar shortlist for Best Original Song.

In crafting the song for the end of the film, Ralph made the very intentional choice to not have it be a song in Persian. “We wanted to bring a Western voice for a multitude of reasons. We wanted something that would speak to the West, that people understood and that would be a bridge to this story.” He notes that prior to the 1979 revolution that ushered in the religious government, Iran was known for its annual Shiraz Arts Festival that hosted musicians and artists from all over the world. “We wanted to punctuate that at the end of the film and create this statement of solidarity and then setting, in a kind of blues-folk modality to that is what would be a traditional setting for folk music and protest songs.”

When Ralph composed the song, it was not originally meant to be a duet with Jones. He knew it would need someone “recognized with their instrument having a transcendent quality in their voice.” Ralph had worked with Jones previously and sang a guide vocal to show to the director and give Jones an idea of what he was going for with the song. That all changed when they got into the studio and Jones tried singing it. “She’s like, ‘This is kind of an odd key for me. It’s too low and if I sing high, I’m gonna be kind of shouting the whole time at the top of my register.’” As they started experimenting, Jones kept going back to the tone Ralph had provided in the demo. “She’s like, ‘This thing that you did in the demo, having this very brooding voice; I can’t do that. It’s not going to sound like that. I think we should just sing it together.’”

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UPLOADED Jan 12, 2023 3:17 pm