Among some of the most profound pieces of Tolkien’s writings are those concerning the concepts of death and immortality, and the ultimate fates of Elves and Men. And a little more than a decade ago, as the tale of Aragorn and Arwen unfolded in The Two Towers, it was the evocative voice of Sheila Chandra that spoke to the hope and heartache of their destinies.
A vocalist of Indian descent hailing from the UK, Sheila Chandra performed “The Breath Of Life” (also titled “The Grace Of The Valar“) as Aragorn’s unconscious form floats downriver while Arwen holds him in thought and sends him a blessing from afar – “May the grace of the Valar protect you“.
The song’s lyrics (adapted from Tolkien’s writings) were written by Fran Walsh:
Shadow lies between us, as you came, so you shall leave from us.
Time and storm shall scatter all things.
Sorrowing you must go, and yet you are not without hope,
For you are not bound to the circles of this world, you are not bound to loss and to silence.
As our exclusive series of interviews with vocalists from The Lord of the Rings continues, join us today as we talk to Sheila Chandra about how the song, its mood, and her delivery of it were all carefully crafted with the aim of conveying the understanding and mature love that is shared between Arwen and Aragorn.
In his book The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films, author Doug Adams says that Howard Shore encountered one of your Indipop records and noticed your unique voice, describing it as “a mezzo-soprano sound”. How did you come to work on The Two Towers?
I got a call in the late summer of 2002 from New Line’s lawyers in New York saying that they wanted me to do a vocal session for ‘The Two Towers’. Naturally I was very excited at the prospect. I found out later that one of the senior technicians on the film had handed Howard Shore a retrospective album of my work on Real World Records (called ‘Moonsung’) saying that he was sure Howard would like it.
And later, I got the chance to meet him (I wish I could remember his name!). He asked how New Line were treating me – they’d put me up at the Dorchester in London. I laughed that because of him, I’d been forced to endure conditions of unimaginable luxury…
Prior to recording for these films, you worked primarily as a pop artist. What was your experience like working with Howard Shore on The Lord of the Rings films?
When I spoke to Howard before the session, it was obvious that he’d really listened to my voice. He said there was a very distinctive timbre to it when I hit certain notes. And that he’d based the melody for ‘Breath Of Life’ around those notes specifically to take advantage of that. I was delighted! It’s not often you have a melody specifically crafted for your voice handed to you on a plate. So often, if you do session work, an inexperienced writer or producer will want you to sound like someone else. But Howard was wise enough to try to bring beauty out of what was naturally in my voice. That’s the mark of a maestro.
For the decade before I did the ‘Breath Of Life’ session, I’d make recordings that were exclusively either solo voice, or solo voice and drone. Of course I’d made pop/Asian fusion recordings before that, with more conventional arrangements and instrumentation, so I was no stranger to singing to a backing track. But I hadn’t done it for a long time. And I’d never sung with an orchestra. For me, the biggest thrill of the whole day was singing with that huge orchestra backing. The difference between singing alone, or with simple drones, to feeling the huge swell of an orchestral chord change under your melody line, is rather like the difference between being in a still pool, and riding the waves of a stormy sea. Your heart ‘turns over’ as you feel the emotion of the song swell under you.
The second biggest thrill was seeing the vocal synched with the footage of Aragorn near death and struggling back to life, for the first time. The score fitted so perfectly to that first edit, that it brought a tear to the eyes of everyone in the control room. But the film’s running time was horrendously long at that point. And the sequence that made the final cut isn’t quite the same.
The text of “The Breath of Life”/”The Grace of the Valar” was written by Fran Walsh. Did you have any interaction with Fran whilst working on this song?
No, none at all. Paul Broucek at New Line just sent a CD with the correct pronunciation, so that I wouldn’t mangle the ‘Elvish’ when I sang.
You usually prefer singing solo, accompanied only occasionally by a drone. Did the instruments that accompanied “The Breath of Life”/”The Grace of the Valar” (the altoflute, the dilruba, and the monocord) influence your style of delivery?
The monocord is particularly evident at the start of ‘Breath Of Life’. It’s a pretty harsh sound. Howard could have played it safe, by only using conventional orchestral instruments, or he could have made that particular song quite ‘sweet’ or even saccharine. After all, it’s a very romantic moment… the image of his love saves Aragorn. But instead he chose to emphasise the danger and the darkness in the instrumentation; the harshness of being alone in blistering heat, smarting from your wounds, and nearly dead from the fight. So I knew that I could afford to use some harsher tones in my own voice at times, to hold back on the vibrato too at others, and that he wouldn’t shy away from that. That ‘darkness’ both in the melody, the instrumentation, and in parts of the vocal, gave the whole recording more emotional depth.
You don’t have to understand any of the Elvish words to know what Arwen is saying. On the soundtrack album, the first two lines of the melody speak of her loss and desolation without Aragorn. The next two, seem to be saying that she knows he’ll make good, and that he’ll ‘make sense’ of her sacrifice. And that’s the part of the song that seems to get him up and onto his horse. The final line sings like a blessing and a farewell. There’s no other way to interpret it. It’s all there in the notes.
Howard could have written something ‘sweet and floaty’ or ‘magical’ for a very definite ‘magical, floaty’ happening in the story. But he remembers that the relationship between Arwen and Aragorn is a mature one, and well tried. Many love songs are about desire or the first thrill of a new relationship. This one has all the emotional overtones of a mature strong woman giving her partner the strength to go on. Arwen isn’t just a pretty face. She’s older than she looks, and she’s wise and steady. She takes an active part in the fight against Sauron. Her strength is there in the melody, and I tried to make sure it was there in the depth of my interpretation as well.
Could you tell us a bit about the process of rehearsing, and ultimately recording, “The Breath of Life”/”The Grace of the Valar”
The session was arranged at quite short notice. And the rehearsal time was all the shorter because Paul Broucek, (then VP of music at New Line) who produced the session at AIR studios whilst Howard was working on other parts of the soundtrack from a suite at the Dorchester, initially only sent me the sheet music. Well, I don’t read music! So then he sent me a synth demo. But as there was no vocal, I didn’t know quite how the words were supposed to fit. This was 48 hours before the session, and I’m surprised that he wasn’t freaking out, that I didn’t even know the song. Finally he sang it down the phone to me…
During the session, we had a direct ‘live’ audio link to Howard, so that he could tell us which takes he liked best etc. Naturally there were times when Paul soloed the vocal so that he could work on basic effects for it before he played it to Howard. Chatting between takes, he told me that he’d been lucky enough to have access to the multi-track tapes of some of the most famous recordings in the world; the early Beatles recordings with George Martin for instance. And he had heard the vocals from those soloed too. He said he could tell that I’d spent a decade singing only to simple drones because my vocal was so finely and absolutely perfectly in tune. In fact he said that his favourite version of the song was with just my vocal, soloed. I think that’s still one of the biggest compliments a producer has ever paid me. But don’t tell Howard!
It was a long session but Paul was very considerate. And when they were doing the orchestral parts for ‘Return of the King’ he invited me to come and listen at Abbey Road. When you’re a musician that’s well used to picking up on the small nuances, watching an orchestral performance being refined, take after take, is thrilling. It was hard to tear myself away.
Many, many thanks to Sheila for being gracious with her time and sharing her stories even after so many years have elapsed. For sound clips of the “The Breath Of Life“/”The Grace Of The Valar” and other soundtrack-related information, visit The Sheila Chandra Interview.
And if you’d like to join in discussion with fellow fans of the movies and the soundtracks, consider hopping over to the TORn message boards.