Marrying Music and Film: Luis Felber on Creating the Score and Soundtrack for Wife Lena Dunham’s ‘Sharp Stick’ and ‘Catherine Called Birdy’

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Luis Felber’s life changed in January 2021 when a mutual friend set him up on a blind date with Lena Dunham. The Winchester, U.K.-born son of a North London Jewish businessman father and Peruvian painter mom, Felber was at first hesitant, having been in lockdown for most of the year, writing love songs on his iPhone for his group Atttawalpa.

“I wasn’t in a place where I was looking for love,” the 36-year-old musician explains, revealing he’d never seen an episode of “Girls,” though his mom and sister were big fans. “Covid wasn’t exactly the sexiest time to meet someone. We texted for two days before we hung out. We’re not one-word types… we throw our emotions at the phone and our fingertips

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“Literally, the moment I met Lena I was infatuated with her. I just wanted to talk to her forever. I feel like she really saw me as an artist, who I was. I could be very much myself with her. Within the first 20 minutes, I spoke about my traumas, my fears, my demons. If someone loves you for who you are, even if you’re a bit eccentric and weird, that’s a rare thing.”

Within months, Felber was at work on the score for “Sharp Stick,” Dunham’s first major project since “Girls,” with longtime collaborator Matt Allchin. Fifteen separate, jagged, minor-key instrumentals reflect the inner life of lead character Kristine Froseth’s virginal Sarah Jo as she goes through a fable-like sexual awakening and self-acceptance. The film co-stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as her promiscuous mother, along with “Zola” breakout Taylour Paige as her influencer sister and Jon Bernthal as her married lover, the latter two doubling as executive producers. Dunham appears as the pregnant wife of Bernthal’s philandering husband.

“When Lena told [executive producers] FilmNation [Entertainment] the boyfriend she just met would be doing the score, they were a little skeptical,” admits Felber. “But I know myself as an artist, and I would never do something I didn’t think I could do.”

Given a minimal indie-film budget, Felber and Allchin assembled a team — many of whom had worked with them on Attawalpa — that included pianist Matt Jones, who plays the haunting top-line score that represents Sarah Jo’s interior voice, “smoky, jazzy” drummer Henry Danowski and a live string section, with Hayden Wynn on cello, a pair of violinists (Claudia Lily Tarrant Matthews, Ellie Hill) and a viola (Martha Campbell). The addition of a rare, reconstructed Ondes Martenot, a copy of an early primitive synthesizer first built in 1928 which boasts a Theremin-like slide pad “to glue the strings to the piano,” was inspired by its use on Radiohead’s “Kid A” and Jonny Greenwood’s score for “There Will Be Blood.”

“When I’d bring Lena these songs, there was no discussion, no argument,” he says of their creative collaboration. “She just told me to go for it. Matt and I had already built a good network of musicians and studios.”

Felber is no newcomer to the music scene. He was an early promoter of the Young Turks club nights, which spawned the XL Recordings/Beggars Group-affiliated label of the same name (now just Young) home to the xx, FKA twigs, Kamasi Washington and Sampha, among others. Felber also toured with U.K. singer/songwriter/rapper Jamie T, co-wrote a song with Mick Jagger for HBO’s ill-fated “Vinyl,” and played in Turbogeist, a band fronted by Jagger’s son James (by Jerry Hall), who also was featured in the show.

A fan of everything from ‘70s New York punk-rock to Prince and the Wu-Tang Clan to Tom Waits, Nirvana and Radiohead, Felber released a pair of EPs as Attawalpa, with Dunham directing the video for “Tucked In Tight,” one of the songs on the second which spoofs relationships captured on iPhone. His full-length debut, “Presence” (out Oct. 6) featured several tracks recorded at Electric Lady in New York with former Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings guitarist Binky Griptite and ex-Charles Bradley drummer Caito Sanchez.

Felber and Allchin have also recorded seven cover songs to be included on the soundtrack of Dunham’s next feature, “Catherine Called Birdy,” a medieval tale based on Karen Cushman’s 1994 children’s novel that premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival Sept. 23. Among them are Mazzy Star’s “Fade into You,” Supergrass’ “Alright,” Elastica’s “Connection” and the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” as well as an original co-written with the film’s star, “Game of Thrones”’ Bella Ramsey.

“Doing ‘Sharp Stick’ was a real palette-cleanser for me,” says Felber, indicating distributor Utopia is planning a release for the score and soundtrack. “It was quite liberating. All the character work had been done beforehand by Lena and the editors. I didn’t have to birth the feelings to these songs.  The emotions came from my reaction to the story on film. It’s such a beautiful way to work, so inspiring.  And it’s my girlfriend’s movie.”

Felber quotes his collaborator Allchin’s comments about the film composing process. “Writing a pop song is like running around in a building,” his partner said. “Writing a film score is like running around in a field.  Matt and I have known each other almost 20 years.  He’s six years older than me, and really helped me find my voice as an artist and singer.”

After meeting in January, Felber and Dunham were married in a Jewish ceremony just nine months later in London at Soho’s Union Club.  As of this conversation, he still hadn’t watched “Girls.”

“I guess I could see ‘Tiny Furniture,’” he says of Dunham’s 2010 film debut as a writer/director. “That’s just a movie. I don’t have to binge-watch six seasons. Lena and I watch a lot of TV together, and we’re currently on ‘The Sandman.’”

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