Nearly 40 years ago, Patti Smith announced herself to music fans with the cutting, iconoclastic lyric that led off "Gloria," the first track on her debut album, Horses: "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine." Earlier this year, the poet and singer recorded the serene, Biblically inspired lullaby "Mercy Is" for director Darren Aronofsky's biblically huge film Noah.
"I wrote the first lines of 'Gloria' when I was 20," says the silver-haired singer, who is seated in the conference room of a Times Square office building. "I recorded it some years later for Horses, but really, it was a declaration of self, not so much about Jesus. He is the vehicle, but I was declaring my existence, my right to make my own mistakes, my right to make my own choices. I was defining the type of artist that was entering the domain of rock & roll and the type of artist that I was, one who was going to make her own decisions. I'm not groomed by anyone."
"Mercy Is" shows just how far Smith has been able to take her career. Lushly orchestrated by the Kronos Quartet, the gentle song offers hope and wariness in equal measure as Smith sings of two white doves guiding the listener to peace. The characters played by Russell Crowe (Noah) and Emma Watson (Ila) both sing the song in the film, which ends with Smith's recording. It's the first song Smith has ever written for a movie, and it's an experience that has impacted her immensely. "I have a great life," she says, smiling. "I've had many opportunities and many special things have happened to me, but there's always something new. To be at this time in my life and get the opportunity to write a song for a movie – because I love the movies – it turned out beyond my expectations."
Rolling Stone met with Smith – who recently completed her second book and is currently planning her next album and 40th anniversary Horses celebrations for 2015 – to find out how she arrived at "Mercy Is."
What is your relationship with religion like these days?
I left organized religion at 12 or 13, because I was brought up a Jehovah's Witness. I have a very strong biblical background. I studied the bible quite a bit when I was young and continue to study it, independent of any religion, but I still study it.
My sister is still Jehovah's Witness. We talk all the time. I like to keep abreast of what she's doing and what she believes in. I believe there is good in in all religions. But religion, politics and business, all of these things, have been so corrupted and so infused with power that I really don't have interest in any of it – governments, religion, corporations. But I do have interest in the human condition.
Darren Aronofsky told Rolling Stone earlier this year that you offered to write the song. How did you meet?
I was introduced to him at a small dinner party some years ago, but then we met again at the Venice Film Festival, and he was chairing the jury. I asked him what he was doing. He told me of this project, Noah, that he's been dreaming of since he was a boy. He mentioned he needed a lullaby for it and I just asked him if I could do it, because I love lullabies. I've written a few, and I felt that between my biblical knowledge and my love of lullabies, I could do it.
Is writing a lullaby easy?
It might seem like a modest little song, but it was a complicated task. I had to write a song that Methuselah, Anthony Hopkins' character, sang to Noah's father, and Noah's father sang it to Noah; it was handed down. And then Noah had to sing it to this little girl who might be close to death. And I had to imagine Russell Crowe as Noah and Emma Watson's character having to sing it to her babies, and then I had to sing it at the end. So I had a slew of responsibilities.
It sounds like a tall order.
Well, I asked for it. I went back and looked at the scriptures. I really studied Darren's script. I'm a big follower of Russell Crowe, so I just watched a few of his movies again. I wanted to write something that he could feel in the singing of it. And it had make sense historically, some kind of biblical sense or some kind of sense of its time and its mission. The song is supposed to remember Eden and hope that the Father will come and deliver us back to Eden, the hope of a new world.
These are things I know about because of my own education: The promise of a new world is paramount in the teachings of Jehovah's Witnesses. There was a lot that I could draw from.
Did you workshop it heavily?
Lyric writing does not come easy to me, because you have so much responsibility. When you're writing a song, you have a real responsibility to connect with as many people as possible. And certainly I'm no Smokey Robinson. That's for sure. Just writing, going, trying to say something with simplicity is a laborious process. But I worked very hard. I had Darren's feedback. I made one historical error, so he corrected me.
What was your historical error?
Originally, I'd written a line like, "Two white horses, two white doves to carry you away." And he said, "It's beautiful, Patti, but there weren't any horses in Noah's time." [Laughs] So I just changed it to, "Two white wings, two white doves." But besides that, everything was fine.
And then I asked Lenny Kaye to help me, because Lenny and I have written lullabies or hymns together, and he wrote the second musical change in it. I even sang it to my sister; we still study the Bible together.
You recorded your version with the Kronos Quartet. Have you ever done that before?
No. I've never sang with a string quartet and never recorded with live strings ever. But we did it in a couple of hours. And it's a live take. I do a lot of live recording for my albums, so that wasn't daunting. Darren was there, and he lent his support. In some ways, once I figured out my path, I found it to be liberating. Beautiful. I felt like it was singing a delicate aria or something.
So what went through your mind when you first heard Russell Crowe sing it?
Really, I cried [laughs]. I was so moved. I was moved by this film. I was moved that Darren could bring the urgency of the present concerns or our world, the environmental concerns within the context of this film. And I am a big Russell Crowe fan. He's one of my favorite actors. To see not only someone sing and interpret part of a song I had written but to see someone that I so greatly admire, my words coming out of his mouth, it was a moving experience. I was moved to hear Emma do it. And to sit and listen it at the end, it was exciting.