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Composer Danny Elfman is delivering an album, a Coachella performance and concertos

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

American music legend finally speaking for himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY")

DANNY ELFMAN: (Singing) I'm so happy - happy. I'm so happy - happy.

SIMON: You decide. Danny Elfman has composed music for more than a hundred films, including "Men In Black," "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Edward Scissorhands" and "Milk." And there's this very familiar TV show theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANNY ELFMAN'S "THE SIMPSONS THEME")

SIMON: Yup. Danny Elfman composed the theme for "The Simpsons." He's won a Grammy and been nominated for Oscars. And in his latest album, Danny Elfman reflects a little more on himself. It's called "Big Mess." And its 18 songs are raw and absurdist. Danny Elfman joins us now from Los Angeles.

Thanks so much for being with us.

ELFMAN: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: You said when you started this project, you didn't know what Danny Elfman sounded like anymore. What did you mean by that?

ELFMAN: Well, I mean, it had been almost 30 years since I was on stage and recording and doing that kind of stuff. The question was - when I started "Big Mess," it's like, who am I? What is my voice, you know? And I didn't know. I wasn't expecting or setting out to do an album at all.

SIMON: What happened?

ELFMAN: I was preparing months of work into this - coming back on stage for the first time in ages for Coachella two years ago. And I was all ready to go. And then, of course, (laughter) it cancels.

SIMON: Oh, my.

ELFMAN: And that's just really, like, the Elfman luck. I have a home up north that I've had for 25 years. We said, well, if we're going into quarantine, we'll go up there. And after a while, I found myself reflecting about my life and trying to figure things out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYBODY LOVES YOU")

ELFMAN: (Singing) Everybody loves you. Everybody needs you.

SIMON: Mr. Elfman, how do you write music?

ELFMAN: You know, I didn't have any training. And to write cold onto paper, you use solfege, which means you hear all the notes in your head, and you know what they are.

SIMON: Yeah.

ELFMAN: I'm of the other side, that I need to hear the pitches, and I just compose completely from top to bottom as I go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYBODY LOVES YOU")

ELFMAN: (Singing) Everybody.

SIMON: Why do you think your album wound up being so closely evocative of events going on now?

ELFMAN: I felt in 2020, but it hasn't changed today, that we're still living in an addendum that George Orwell wrote to "1984." Truth is turned in reverse. Two plus two equals five.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHOOSE YOUR SIDE")

DONALD TRUMP: This is a great thing that's happening for our country. It's a great day for everybody. It's a great day for everybody.

ELFMAN: The stolen election, voting machines pre-programmed by Venezuelan - I mean, it's too insane to be real. And yet now we see in the disinformation that's coming out of Russia regarding Ukraine - it's the same thing. That is constantly on my mind, you know? It's like it's what George Orwell always spoke of. It's taking any fantasy that you come up with and present it as reality, and people will buy it as reality.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHOOSE YOUR SIDE")

ELFMAN: (Singing) Choose your side. Choose your side. Just choose your side.

SIMON: Do I get this story right? You were discouraged from studying music when you were...

ELFMAN: (Laughter) Yeah.

SIMON: ...A youngster in grade school.

ELFMAN: I tried to join the orchestra. I think it was trombone I wanted to play. I was told I had no propensity for music (laughter). It's a phrase that I love. And I didn't pursue music. My entire career in music I owed to the fact that I moved from one school to another between middle school and high school in Los Angeles - one neighborhood to another neighborhood. And so I tried picking up the violin.

SIMON: I mean, the violin, not the tambourine.

ELFMAN: Yeah. Understand, at that point, I started really getting into 1930s jazz, as well as contemporary jazz. And I was a huge fan of Django Reinhardt. And there was a violinist named Stephane Grappelli.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEPHANE GRAPPELLI'S "RAIN CHECK")

ELFMAN: I said, man, would I love to play like that. That's what started it off. It was kind of secretly wanting to learn an instrument and not even telling my friends because it was embarrassing for me.

SIMON: Another thing we want to ask you about - you are in the process of premiering a series of classical music concertos across the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANNY ELFMAN'S "ELEVEN ELEVEN")

SIMON: There's a concerto in Austria.

ELFMAN: Yeah - and a percussion concerto in London. My goal right now is one concert piece per year every year. I've been trying to stay on that course since around five years ago, when I did my violin concerto.

SIMON: What will you be doing at Coachella? - 'cause you're going to be finally able to play there this year.

ELFMAN: It was, like, half live onstage rock 'n' roll and half film music. Now it's going to be between stuff from my past, Oingo Boingo songs reinvented, film music and "Big Mess" all, again, mixed together in even a crazier mishmosh.

SIMON: I'm moved to ask you this question. What do you think you've learned over the past two years, either about yourself, your life, music, the power of music, us?

ELFMAN: I need to push myself out of my comfort zone. And if I fail, I fail, you know? What are they going to do, shoot me (laughter)? I did feel that way in England. I had - there was a moment backstage where I was going to walk out to start my suite for "Nightmare Before Christmas." And I had stage fright. I was kind of frozen at the door.

Helena Bonham Carter was behind me 'cause she was going to sing Sally. And she goes, (imitating Helena Bonham Carter) Danny, what's wrong? And I was going - and I don't know if I could walk in there or not. She said, (imitating Helena Bonham Carter) Danny, [expletive] it, right? And I said, oh, my God. Yes, of course. Blank it is the motto of my entire life. And I walked out there and had one of the best nights of my life. The thrill of not having a safety net - it just makes life more interesting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRUEL COMPENSATION")

ELFMAN: (Singing) I'm resistant now to change. Feeling different can be very strange.

SIMON: Danny Elfman - his album "Big Mess" is out now, and he'll soon be at Coachella.

ELFMAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: And gosh knows where else he shows up in the world. Thank you so much for being with us.

ELFMAN: Oh, thank you. It was really fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRUEL COMPENSATION")

ELFMAN: (Singing) Compensation - living a lie gets so easy to take because time has no friends, no beginning, no end. Perpendicular anomalies – crowd my space and sap my energies. Take my weapon before I forget. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.