Taylor Swift became famous with diary-entry-like songs about old exes and school bullies. But for her first new tunes since 2010, Swift is telling stories about a fictional character from the future – The Hunger Games' lead character, Katniss Everdeen, played by rising star Jennifer Lawrence in the new blockbuster movie – with a knack for hitting bull's-eyes and spotting poisonous berries. "Slipping into her mind was such a wonderful break," says Swift, who wrote "Safe & Sound" and "Eyes Open" for Hunger Games' T Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack. "It's pretty intense writing about my own life, my own struggles. It was almost like a vacation to get to write from someone else's perspective."
When Lionsgate tapped Burnett to record new songs for the movie last summer, he corralled a serious lineup of artists: Swift, Arcade Fire, the Decemberists, Miranda Lambert, Maroon 5, Kid Cudi and Neko Case all contribute original music to the film. Arcade Fire's track, "Abraham's Daughter," came together after Win Butler and Régine Chassagne met Burnett in October at Neil Young's Bridge School Benefit near San Francisco. "He's a great dude to talk with about music, and that was kind of the driving force," says Butler. "We're kind of taking a break right now, and it was a really fun little project to do with the band."
The Hunger Games centers around a group of kids living in a dystopian version of Appalachia. In the most twisted reality-TV concept of all time, a chosen few are forced to fight each other to the death while their friends and families watch at home. Swift's "Safe & Sound," the soundtrack's stark, alt-country-ish first single – which also features her Nashville buddies the Civil Wars – came to life during a spontaneous two-hour writing session at Burnett's home studio last fall.
"The Civil Wars had a show that night in L.A.," Swift says. "So they raced right over to T Bone's house. There's so many things he could've done production-wise to make that song bigger sonically than it is, but I think that would have possibly been a mistake. For him to have left the song as a lullaby is brilliant."
With box-office projections for The Hunger Games estimated at $200 million, and 23.5 million copies of the original book currently in print, the soundtrack is shaping up to be another Hollywood-inspired smash for Burnett, who won an Oscar for his work on Crazy Heart and helmed the Coen brothers' bluegrass-driven O Brother, Where Art Thou? At 8 million certified copies sold, the latter is tied with Grease as the eighth-best-selling soundtrack of all time (Whitney Houston's The Bodyguard is first, with 17 million copies).
Given The Hunger Games' sci-fi setting, the filmmakers might have gone with a more futuristic sound for the movie – a lot of Skrillex, say. But they chose Burnett because they wanted music that would tie in the characters' regional roots. "Katniss comes from District 12, and we know that would be where the Appalachian Mountains were," says Tracy McKnight, Lionsgate's head of film music. "It takes place in the future, but it still has this organic sound."
Songwriter and producer Greg Wells, who worked with rapper-singer Kid Cudi on "The Ruler and the Killer," says Burnett gave him clear instructions. "He said, 'The one thing I caution you on is if the music does get big, it should never feel grand,'" Wells says. "It should be big in a darker, intense way, more like a threatening way rather than a Celine Dion way."
As album sales continue to slide, original soundtracks have become less of a priority for movie studios and labels. Aside from Burnett's projects and recent scores by Trent Reznor (The Social Network) and Daft Punk (Tron: Legacy), the biggest recent soundtracks have come from the Twilight franchise. But sales of those LPs have declined, too, from 2.7 million copies for the first installment, in 2008, to 476,000 for last year's Breaking Dawn.
So far, at least, Lionsgate and its label partner, Universal Republic, seem to have a major hit on their hands. The soundtrack's campaign kicked off with Swift, one of music's most reliable current hitmakers. "Safe & Sound" has sold 655,000 downloads since its premiere in December, according to SoundScan. But for the artists, getting to tap into their inner sci-fi geeks was the coolest part. "I'm really big into science fiction," says Butler. "I had a teacher in school, this old beatnik dude who showed me Blade Runner and Brazil when we had just read 1984. I saw these examples of how people used science fiction to talk about the present." Adds Swift, "The first thing I did was read the first book in about two days. I thought it would be an action-adventure type of thing, but it's so much more emotional than that. There's a huge amount of sadness."
This story is from the March 29th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.