How to score a ‘Star Wars’ series, according to ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ composer Natalie Holt

She's the first woman in 45 years to write music for the franchise

“Is it doing well?!” asks Natalie Holt, completely unaware of whether or not Obi-Wan Kenobi is a hit or not. “I really can’t look. I’ve got a filter on Twitter so I don’t see what people think of it! I’m sure there are so many opinions about what my music should and shouldn’t be. If I start thinking about it too much I completely freeze up.”

Holt should be used to it by now. Working with Marvel on the score to last year’s Loki, and with DC on the score to the upcoming Batgirl movie, she’s no stranger to a frightening fanbase – or to working on a project that she’s literally not even allowed to tell her own family about. “My daughter was the last person I was allowed to talk to!” she laughs, chatting to NME from her home in Kent. “Kids talk to other kids at school, and as soon as I mentioned anything about Princess Leia or something it just would have been everywhere.”

Writing the score for Disney’s prequel series, with a main theme provided by the legendary John Williams, Holt became the first female composer in Star Wars history – having to invent a whole new musical language that still felt like it was part of the same saga. Here, she tells us what went into making one of the most significant new Star Wars scores since 1977.

Legacy was everything

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“I watched the original movies in the ’80s with my dad, when I was a kid, and I was obsessed,” remembers Holt, a life-long Star Wars fan before she started work on Obi-Wan Kenobi. “I was always a huge John Williams fan too, because I remember watching E.T. when I was about five years old and really noticing that film music was a thing for the first time. So I held John Williams in such high regard, he’s a genius, and it was just such a privilege to have gotten to work with him on this franchise. It’s just bonkers,  actually. I’m still pinching myself that it even happened.”

It had to feel fresh

Getting the job before Williams was even confirmed to be writing the main theme, Holt wanted to make sure her own approach felt as new as it did familiar – hinting at the classics while standing apart from them. “We didn’t want to lean into the original Star Wars music, but we wanted to lead towards it,” she explains. “Deborah Chow [director] wanted the score to feel sparer and more modern. We were ultimately doing something much more emotional and I wanted something that felt angrier and more wild. The famous ‘Imperial March’ is so militant and organised, and I wanted visceral. I wanted pure rage.”

The dark side found depth

“The Inquisitors, the stormtroopers and Vader all sit at very different points on the sonic scale,” says Holt, describing a writing process that began with thinking about each character separately before weaving them all together in the score. “I was playing around with dark frequencies for Vader, right at the bottom of the scale. I wanted the Inquisitors to have a percussive drive and a feeling of modernity, so they had a lot of synths and percussive sounds. And then the Stormtroopers represented the imperial sound of the dark side that we’re used to hearing, with a more traditionally orchestral and melodic theme.”

Reva’s story was key

As much as the series is about Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen), episode five reveals Reva Sevander (Moses Ingram) to be just as central to the plot – with her own tragedy framing the whole story. “Reva very much needed her own voice,” says Holt, who worked backwards on the character’s theme, starting from the moment she finally shares her past with Obi-Wan. “I wanted her to have a classical weight because she’s got this powerful emotional through-line, but she also needed to feel appropriately powerful and badass. I started off doing something with a low female voice, and there’s a bit of that left in there, but Reva’s theme has so many layers.”

Darth Vader was all about the bass

“When we see Vader in A New Hope, he’s kind of an old man. He’s an old general. So this was our chance to really show his dark side,” says Holt, talking about her favourite character to write for. “The first time we see him he’s choking people left, right and centre. It’s all unfiltered rage. So I was using war sticks and ancient hunting horns to just really figure out how to make him darker and creepier and more aggressive. But the bass was really everything for that character – I was using a slowed-down double bass and really playing around sonically with those really low frequencies”.

Star Wars finally went female

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John Williams provided the music for all nine major Star Wars films, whilst John Powell, Michael Giacchino and Ludwig Göransson scored the other spin-off films and shows – meaning Holt is the first woman in 45 years to write music for the franchise. “Composing is still very male-dominated,” she says. “But I don’t think it’s just about female voices. Especially now, with university being so expensive, it feels like it’s becoming financially impossible for people to enter into this industry, so I don’t want to pretend that it’s just a gender issue. But hopefully this is the start of being more inclusive. I’m a state-educated female composer, hopefully showing other people – including my seven-year-old daughter – that anything is possible”.

‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ is available on Disney+

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