Composer Michael Giacchino has scored everything from video games to Pixar features, including Up, which earned him an Oscar for Best Original Score. But this Friday, Oct. 30, Michael will release his first non-soundtrack album: Travelogue Volume 1.
In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, after wrapping up a few film scores, Michael found himself with time for the personal projects he’d been sidelining for years. “I had been wanting to do an album of music that was inspired by the likes of Martin Denny, or Esquivel, or Arthur Lyman,” he tells us from his L.A. studio. “It’s like fantasy music in a way. It’s music that takes you to this place that doesn’t really exist.”
This 11-track concept album, which Michael performed with his Nouvelle Modernica Orchestra remotely, tells the story of an alien who leaves her planet—filled with pollution, racism and all—and heads to Earth in search of a better life. She encounters many of the same problems there and is forced to decide whether to stay or return home.
“The whole idea was to formulate a story that spoke to what is going on in the world today and how we’re all feeling,” Michael says. “The last four years put a new spin on how we all kind of look at the world. I think when COVID hit, it was the nail in the coffin. So there’s a lot in this record that is a reflection of how I look at the world right now. And I’m sure there are a lot of people that feel similarly to me.”
The process of coming up with Travelogue parallels Michael’s film work. “It’s me alone, sitting here [in the studio], writing. It’s a sort of lonely existence when you’re a film composer,” Michael says, “unless you have a lot of people that help you and write things, which I don’t.” Michael came up with the story and Alison-Eve Hammersley followed with the narrative text. “She did an amazing job taking what I wanted to do story-wise and putting it into words,” he says. The alien traveler is voiced by actor Janina Gavankar, who recorded her lines in her closet and collaborated with Michael via Zoom.
For the music, Michael returned to the band he’s worked with time and time again. “I had been working with these musicians for almost 20 years now. Normally, we would all just sit around in the same room and record something together,” he explains. This time, he sent them all their respective parts and put them all together afterward with his engineer, Warren Brown. “There were eight core members in the band and we had a string section on top of that,” Michael says. “We recorded the string section in Australia.”
“It worked out perfectly,” he notes. “I do think part of the charm of the whole album was that it was done that way. Sometimes we had to drop off a whole little recording package, so that they had something they could use. Everyone made it work.”
“We know each other so well, and when you listen to it, you would never know that we weren’t all together. They know my tastes and sensibilities. I know what they can do, which is almost anything.”
Travelogue proved to be a great way to spend lockdown, “just being creative and putting something out into the world.” But it also put Michael in the director’s chair for the first time in many years.
“When I’m working on a particular film, and a lot of them are big franchise movies, there’s a box I work within, in order to make sure [the score] fits that story and those characters. This was really something where I could do what I wanted to do. It was almost as if I was the director of this film. I still wanted to create a box around myself. I still wanted to put limitations on what I could do, because I think that’s important—but they were my limitations and they were my decisions. It was very freeing.”
With Travelogue, Michael was able to mull over the questions swirling in his mind—“When things get tough, is the right thing to do to run away to somewhere else? Or is the right thing to do to stay where you are and try to make it better?”—to the rhythm of ’50s and ’60s lounge music and old radio sci-fi shows. The result is an album that allows you to “just sit down and listen to something and take the story that they’re telling you and visualize your own version of it.”
“That’s what I wanted to do with this,” Michael says, “just reach back into those days when I used to love sitting in front of a record player and imagining my own version of whatever art they were giving me.”
And he hopes listeners will takes advantage of these opportunities for stillness. “We are now at a place where everyone can just cherry-pick whatever song they want. They don’t have to listen to a whole album. And sometimes you miss out on the whole when you’re just picking parts out. This was a little bit about trying to put that back into the world in some little way, if I could.”
So how should one take in Travelogue Volume 1? “I would say lower the lights, either put on really good headphones or have it on really good speakers, and play it from start to finish without interruption. Don’t stop to answer the phone. Don’t stop to watch an episode of Parks and Rec. None of that. It’s an hour of your life to give yourself an hour of relaxation and imagination.”
“And I think when it’s over, you’ll feel better. You’ll feel hopeful,” he adds. “That’s the goal here, to recharge your soul a bit.”