‘Tarot’ Song Writer Daniel Knox on Writing for Horror, Ghosts and Alligators

Daniel Knox’s voice plays over the credits of the new horror film Tarot. For longtime fans, it’s a situation that seems kismet. For a guy who’s been singing about ghosts for over 20 years, it was only a matter of time for the cinematic-sounding singer to be featured on the silver screen.

We spoke with the musician about writing for film vs. albums, ghost songs, John McClane, and the Alligator 1 and 2 Blu-Ray. 

Dread Central: Did you approach this any differently from any other song you’ve written?

Daniel Knox: This was very different, because there was already a title for the song. In Tarot, the song plays, this isn’t really giving too much away, the song plays on a 78 record. Then there’s a shot of the record and the title of the song, “I Saw You.” Having seen the scene that fits in is different than scoring something, which I’ve done before. But writing a song that’s meant to fit a moment that’s happening is very different from writing a song when you’re trying to say something about yourself or the world.

DC: I don’t know if it was intentional, but I got a lot of vibes from one of your best songs, “Ghostsong.” 

DK: The composer of Tarot, Joseph Bishara, who’s really amazing, he’s done the scores for The Conjuring and Insidious and as is in both of those movies. He’s an amazing guy and a great composer. My music was known to him and he reached out to me. We actually co-wrote this song. 

One of the ways that he sort of got the filmmakers interested was by playing “Ghostsong.” I took that into consideration, but I didn’t want to try to repeat that song in any way. I just wanted something that kind of evoked a bit of the feeling of that song tonally without trying to recreate any part of it.

DC: You are a modern artist, you’re not trying to recreate the past. But in Tarot, you’re represented on a 78. I think a lot of listeners and fans of your music might think of you as a throwback artist. How do you feel about that idea?

DK: Well, first, in the case of Tarot, something that Joseph and I talked about that was really important was not trying to force any kind of scratchy, old sound onto it, but rather to produce something as if it was made in that time. Because it also kind of exists out of time.

It was important not to lean too hard on aspects of the past. In terms of my vocal performance, I definitely was trying to fit it somewhere between an operetta from the 20s, something which I thought could be spooky, but also romantic. That was sort of a fine line to walk.

As far as my own work is concerned, I’m very openly inspired by music from the 20s and 30s, singers and songwriters from the Tin Pan Alley era, more so probably than modern artists. But that’s not anything I feel is like a label that bothers me.

DC: You’re not trying to recreate a sound using vintage microphones or reel-to-reel, etc. You embrace modern technology, you’re not a Luddite, you’re not intentionally rejecting the present to embrace an era that was never that good, to begin with. 

DK: I’m definitely not a Luddite. I think that there are great uses of limitations and I think that you can apply those in modern ways. Forcing yourself into limitations that don’t serve the work that you’re making is kind of unnecessary and maybe a bit silly. But that being said, there are artists that do retro versions of things and that’s their whole identity and there’s nothing wrong with having that identity. It’s just not one that interests me. I don’t hear Judy Garland and want to recreate a Judy Garland song. I want to find what it is in me that was stirred by the quality of her voice and in some cases actually, definitely the quality of and limitations of recording from that era. 

One thing that is a big preoccupation of mine is music recorded on wax cylinders, the very dawn of the recording age. The media itself is a part of that because you’re listening to people who are recording themselves and maybe even hearing their voices on a recording for the first time. And there’s an excitement in that. That is an interesting thing to try to replicate, I say replicate not duplicate, an interesting thing to try to grab the spirit of. 

DC: I feel like this is a good time to mention all the other film stuff that’s in your life. Let’s talk about your 2019 single “Die Hard.” Why did you call that song “Die Hard?” To my knowledge, it has nothing to do with the movie.

DK: It doesn’t have any…it does have something to do with the movie. It’s funny that you mentioned that because I actually just wrote a song and recorded a song the other day that I’m thinking of calling “Alligator 1 and 2,” because I just was so excited to order the Blu-ray for Alligator 1 and 2. The feeling of excitement I had about that was bleeding into this kind of weird, kind of ugly romantic thing that I was writing.

The song is not about the movie, the song is not even really technically about me waiting for that Blu-ray to arrive, what a boring song that would be. But it’s one of those things where like, if something is in the room with you and it’s part of the tapestry of what you’re doing, you kind of can’t deny it.

And I felt that the movie Die Hard, which I just like was obsessed with at that point. I mean, not just the movie, but its sequels. I was kind of coming into this part of my life where the canon of movies became really compelling to me, like when a world expands, whether it’s good or bad, that world is now bigger and that is interesting to me. The B-side of that single is “Die Harder.” And we did a slow version of the song. In a way, it has nothing to do with Bruce Willis. It’s got nothing to do with John McClane or whatever. But I was thinking about that, I tend to think about songs in, god I hate the word cinematic, but in a movie kind of way to put it maybe less articulately. 

DC: Your most direct tribute to previously existing media, I’d say, is your Twin Peaks record…

DK: If we’re talking about canon, I see my Twin Peaks and my Mister Rogers records both as being in the same universe, and that universe exists outside of the universe of my own songs, because it’s not my own material. While those are my records, I see them as not part of the Daniel Knox canon.

DC: How does this new song from a major motion picture fit into your canon?

DK: That’s a good question. I guess I haven’t decided that yet. 

I think that it is because it’s me singing it, although it’s also a character singing it in Tarot. It’s certainly recorded in the same way that I have recorded so many things. It was recorded at Electrical Audio, the piano and vocal were anyway. David Coulter, who is one of my musical mentors, played musical saw on it, which factors into the movie in a very overt way and is kind of perfect. And the title obviously. Then Joseph Bishara recorded some more stuff and did some production stuff on his own. But as far as fitting into my musical world, I think it does fit right in there.

Even though I’m kind of like the narrator of the song, I am playing a character. But it’s a character that I think is not too different from the character that’s somewhere between myself and my shadow self and my own work

DC: How often do you write in your shadow self?

DK: I would say that that comes in degrees. I think even when I tried to do that very directly and make it you know, not so much a direct example of my experience, but a reinterpretation of it, parts of my real self find their way in. And sometimes it can be awkward because there’ll be a line in a song that is very clearly referencing a person or thing in my life, but then the next line which supports it is about something totally different. I’ve become less precious about making decisions like that too carefully. I’m trying to be a bit more reckless in my writing habits.

Tarot is currently in theaters. The soundtrack is available for streaming and will be available on vinyl soon.



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