A product of Lake Highlands, Daniel Hart made ‘S-Town,’ ‘Pete’s Dragon’ and ‘A Ghost Story’ even more magical

(Photo courtesy of Daniel Hart)
(Photo courtesy of Daniel Hart)

The music in him

Daniel Hart chuckled when the woman on the phone said she was Ira Glass’ assistant. Could he spare a moment to speak with Mr. Glass, she asked.

It’s a friend pulling a prank, Hart figured.

The Hart family reveres the radio broadcaster who hosts “This American Life” on National Public Radio, says Daniel’s father, Kenneth Hart, laughing softly, “So, I can imagine his disbelief.”

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Then Glass’ venerated voice was on the line. He was working on a new project, a podcast called “S-Town.” He wanted Hart to write the score.

It wasn’t something the 41-year-old composer from Lake Highlands had done before, but that never stopped him.

He’s traveled a winding career path, learning something significant from every endeavor, he says.

Carried along on a current of Daniel’s music, the “S-Town” series was a hit which listeners downloaded a record-breaking 10 million times in the first four days following its March 2017 debut.

The call from NPR shouldn’t have been a shocker, really.

Hart’s sundry achievements include a stint with pop rock choir Polyphonic Spree, a solo album produced by singer-songwriter sensation St. Vincent, and several musical beds for programs and movies. He composed the score for “The Exorcist” on FOX; for the documentary “Eating Animals,” produced by Natalie Portman; and for four feature-length movies by Dallas-based director David Lowery, including Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon” and “A Ghost Story,” starring Academy Award winner Casey Affleck.

Now Hart is preparing to tour with his band Dark Rooms and arrange the music for Lowery’s upcoming film, “The Old Man and the Gun,” whose notable cast includes Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Sissy Spacek and Elizabeth Moss.

When we spoke in late summer, Hart’s parents, both professional church musicians, had just returned from the Los Angeles premiere of “A Ghost Story,” which dad Kenneth Hart calls “profound and thought provoking.” And that is not a father’s bias; the critics love it too.

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The indie explores the enormity of time, space and loss. While it stars powerhouse actors Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, Daniel Hart’s music is as pivotal a player.

In a flashback scene, a centerpiece of the story, a musician plays for his wife the song he’s been slaving over, his final artistic bequest, as it turns out.

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Headphones on, unmoving, she hears in its entirety “I Get Overwhelmed,” written and performed by Hart and his band Dark Rooms. The song also serves as the track for the movie’s trailer, which has been viewed some 2 million times on YouTube. The piece has this mesmerizing, habit-forming effect — Lowery told music magazine Vents that Hart sent him the song before he began shooting.

“I listened to it over and over again, in the car, at home. After about three days of this, I called Daniel and asked if I could use the song in ‘A Ghost Story.’ ”

In a later scene, Affleck plays a brief ditty on an old piano — Hart taught him how.

“Daniel taught Casey enough piano for him to look like he knew what he was doing in those short scenes,” says Kenneth who has lived in Lake Highlands with Daniel’s mom, Ellen, for 30 years.

St. Vincent, formerly known just as Annie Clark, happens to have lived on Kenneth and Ellen’s street, right off Ferndale, though Daniel, who is a few years older, would not become friends with her until later in life.

Daniel and his brother Justin began their musical education at an early age, with Daniel playing the violin before he was 3. Music was a family pastime, “something we all wanted to do,” Kenneth says.

It did not take long to realize Daniel had a gift — specifically, two lessons, Kenneth says. Daniel had a unique vocal ability, phenomenal for a child.

Daniel was 10 when the family came to Dallas. Kenneth took a position teaching at Southern Methodist University.

The kids took lessons and sang in choirs, Daniel, from a home studio in Los Angeles, recalls of childhood. For fun, the family played a lot of board games. “And there was religion, and religious music, and Bach, which is also religious.”

Daniel attended Northlake Elementary, Lake Highlands Junior High and Richardson High School, the district’s arts magnet, where he participated in orchestra and drama.

“In theater I learned to be full of myself and see how great I thought I was,” he jokes.

During a senior-year jazz concert Daniel had a solo and performed his own music.

“That began a lot of things for me including not just playing what others had written,” he says. “I started writing songs in high school — they were terrible. I had yet to learn there were much more interesting things than love ballads with awful lyrics.”

At SMU, Daniel earned a degree in playwriting, laying off the music for a year or so.

The theater program at SMU was intense, Hart says, and everyone is good — among his fellow theater majors was Amy Acker, a hardworking Hollywood actor, also a Lake Highlands native.

“Well, I learned I was not as great as I thought I was,” Hart says.

When he returned to music, it was as a member of a band called Doubting Scholars, led by SMU composition professor Kevin Hanlon.

“It was a band, but like a class. We played Irish jazz … Oingo Boingo, originals, and so, you see, I was getting exposed to styles … it sparked a desire to explore.”

His post-college ventures included collaboration with locally raised artists including St. Vincent, who produced his solo album, “The Orientalist,” and Polyphonic Spree while they toured with David Bowie.

“He was friendly and quiet,” Hart says of Bowie. “He and Tim [DeLaughter] would talk, but he was also very kind to the rest of us.”

In 2011 Hart turned much of his attention to scoring films. Through Polyphonic Spree, he met (another Lake Highlands native) Toby Halbrooks, a musician-cum-producer, writer and actor, who is friends with Lowery.

At the time Lowery was making short movies. He and Hart clicked.

Lowery’s first film with a budget, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” in 2013 earned praise for its evocative strength. Wrote The New Yorker’s Richard Brody: “It gives me a sense of having seen a great deal, of having been through a teeming microcosm of powerful emotion …”

Hart’s music, such as the instrumental “Ruth and Sylvie,” contributes to that sensation highlighted by Brody and so many other critics.

“Saints” was Hart’s second foray into full feature (he wrote some of the music for Lowery’s “St. Nick”). There was some back and forth, some disagreement, but generally he and Lowery had the same ideas, and they “approach storytelling in the same way,” Hart says.

Lowery liked Hart’s work so much that when Disney tapped him to direct a reimagining of “Pete’s Dragon,” Lowery pressed until Disney hired Hart, a virtually unknown composer, to score the big-budget picture.

It was a risk, Hart says.

For him, it meant going from arranging music for a six-piece ensemble to a 104-piece orchestra.

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It was high pressure and he worked tirelessly and learned as he went along, he says, “but we were really proud of the work we did.”

It also was the first movie “Uncle Dan” made that his 8-year-old niece, brother Justin’s daughter, could watch. (Justin is now associate chair of the history department at Texas Tech University.)

“S-Town,” the PG name for the Ira Glass-produced nonfiction series about a place one resident nicknamed “Shit Town,” is decidedly not kid friendly.

The darkly entertaining audio series follows the brilliant, disturbed, immeasurably complex John B. McLemore and a parade of characters from his southern Bibb County town.

Hart wrote the music upon listening to each segment.

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Though vastly different from the approach to movies, the type of music composed for S-Town comes most naturally to Hart, he says. Complex, nuanced, enigmatic, captivating in its twists and turns, in its fits and bursts of jauntiness and intensity. In the hands of a less-capable composer, S-Town’s score easily could have played on southern stereotypes, but, as Hart told the Columbia Chronicle, “In a time of oversimplified and often exaggerated, headline-grabbing lives we live, I am searching for the complexity I know to be actual human existence.”

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Hart excels at and prefers darker, soul-searching sound, one might assume. Not entirely true, he says. While that indeed comes most easily to him, he also loves the big, epic, inspirational, feel-good stuff. “Like ‘Enchanted.’ Have you seen ‘Enchanted’?”

It’s a live-action, musical, fantasy, romantic comedy, and Hart calls composer Alan Menken’s score one of his favorites.

The new Lowery collaboration, “The Old Man and the Gun,” is slated to hit theaters in mid-2018.

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