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Este Haim Executive Produces Classic Songs with a Modern Twist for “A Small Light” Soundtrack

The eldest sister of the folk-rock trio Haim recruited an all-star team of musicians, including Remi Wolf, Sharon Van Etten.
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June 20, 2023
Este Haim. Used by permission.

As the vocalist and bassist in the band Haim, Este Haim has spent a lot of her time with her sisters Danielle and Alana — after all, they’ve been bandmates since 2007 and have released three records.

In addition to their albums and sold out tours, Este and her sisters have contributed songs to the soundtracks of “The Divergent Series: Insurgent,” “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” and “Barbie,” and guested on songs by A$AP Rocky, Kid Cudi and Primal Scream.

But over the last few months, the eldest Haim sister had her first experience as an executive music producer on a television series. The series, “A Small Light,” is the story of Miep and Jan Gies, the Dutch couple who protected Anne Frank and her family from the Nazis for two years in an annex in Amsterdam.

While composer Ariel Marx created the original score for “A Small Light” — and a phenomenal one at that — Este produced modern covers of eight songs.

The songs covered are from The Great American Songbook: Este’s sister Danielle singing  “Till We Meet Again,” a 1951 hit for Doris Day; “When You’re Smiling,” performed by Weyes Blood, written in 1928 and covered by legends including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra; “I’ll Be Seeing You” performed by Moses Sumney (a hit for both Bing Crosby and  Billie Holiday in 1944). The album also features performances by Angel Olson, Remi Wolf, and saxophonist Kamasi Washington, more than up to the task on his rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Cheryl.” The performances and production emphasize the songs’ yearning, hazy melancholy that’s especially heartbreaking when put in context of the millions forcibly separated from their homes and families, with only a fleeting hope they’ll see each other again.

Haim told the Journal that she hopes her work on the soundtrack for “A Small Light” is the first of many she’ll do as executive music producer. Though with “A Small Light,” it’s hard to imagine a subject closer to her family’s history.

Haim’s parents both have family members that perished in the Holocaust, and both grew up around survivors. There’s a whole side of her mother’s family that lived in Baranavichy (in the Brest region of Belarus) that was completely wiped out by the Nazis. So from her young days at Dixie Canyon Elementary in Sherman Oaks through graduating from Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, in Haim grew up well-aware of the Holocaust. She first read Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl” when she was eight. Before she became a musician, Haim wanted to work for the Shoah Foundation.

She grew up in a musical family where almost every generation going back to her great-great grandparents sang or made music. Her great-great-grandmother Fanny was a piano teacher. And some of her fondest memories while growing up were visiting her Bubby Blanche in Palm Springs, who turned on the Victrola and sang the Andrews Sisters’ “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön (To Me You’re Beautiful).”

In 2014 while on tour, Haim and her sisters visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam for the first time. The Journal spoke with Este Haim about her experience as executive music producer for the series “A Small Light.” This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

JEWISH JOURNAL: How was the experience of making music with artists that aren’t your sisters?

ESTE HAIM: I had an amazing time doing it. I truly loved being in the driver’s seat and I realized how much I love working with other artists that don’t happen to be related to me. Although I do love working with my sisters and I have the time of my life with them. There was something really nice about getting to work with people that I was a fan of and that I wanted to be friends with. It was my evil plan to just kind of gather together people that I either always wanted to work with or just wanted to be friends with.

JJ: How much freedom were you given to assemble a team?

EH: I’m lucky enough that the producers and the writers in the studios gave me carte blanche. I’m also lucky enough that everyone that I asked was also just as excited as I was about the project and about the material. When it came to song selection, that was more of a collaborative process with the artist. I wanted to make sure that the artist felt comfortable and wanted to sing the song that I selected for them. So there was a lot of back and forth with the playlist and discussions about tone. It really was kind of a puzzle. It was the song, the artist, and then the episode that it was going to correspond with. So a little bit of a puzzle and then people’s schedules. But I really found that thrilling and I had the best time doing it.

JJ: Were there any particular songs on the soundtrack that absolutely had to be there?

EH: It’s either “Autumn Leaves,” which Remi Wolf covered, and also the Moses Sumney cover of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” I was like, they have to be. I chose artists that I knew could handle the material because it’s so rich and the melodies are not the easiest things to sing. It really required vocalists that could handle it. I’m lucky enough that everyone that I asked kind of was just “like, yeah, I’d love to.”

JJ: How do you manage the expectations of remaking a song by a musical legend?

EH: The good news about all the artists that are on this soundtrack are just f–king incredible. I had been listening to their records for years, and so I knew that they would be able to do these covers justice. At the end of the day, I think that the proof is kind of in the pudding. It wasn’t even necessarily that we’re making an homage, it was more just about doing a beautiful rendition of a beautiful song and having there be heart and emotion. Having the vocal be the centerpiece of the song. Having the vocals really shine, and just making sure that the emotion was there. When you have vocalists Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen, it’s a dream because they’re just such incredible vocalists.

JJ: Why is it important to have covers of these songs to go along with this soundtrack?

EH: The brief of the show was they wanted to update and bring a modern spin to the story. Anne Frank’s story has been told many, many times, it’s been depicted in TV and film many times. But what I think attracted me to this version was not only Tony [Phelan] and Joan [Rater’s] writing, which is amazing, but also the way into the show—depicting the story through the eyes of a woman [Miep Gies] who was an ordinary woman just doing extraordinary things. I thought it was really interesting and a really great way into the story. When they came to me, that was what they said. They wanted to take music from that era and just kind of update it. I wanted to keep things really classic and just let the song speak for itself and let the vocalist really do their thing.

JJ: What struck you about the themes of sisterhood in “A Small Light”?

EH: I thought of Miep as Anne’s oldest sister. [Anne] had Margot, but Miep had access to the outside world. So she was kind of the older sister that would come back with photos of movie stars that Anne loved, and Miep gave her hand-me-down clothes. Miep was the window to the outside world for her. I think she idolized Miep. They were like any other family. Margot and Anne fought, and my sisters and I fight, but it’s always love there and support. They were just a regular Jewish family living in really unfortunate circumstances. “A Small Light” does a really good job also of depicting what it was — everything from the costumes to the performances —these were just regular people just trying to survive and live their lives. And Miep, you can tell from the book, but also from the show, that she was just really standing up for what she believed in. And not everyone did that, but everyone was capable.

You can listen to the soundtrack from “A Small Light” on Spotify and Apple Music. The series can be watched on Disney+ and Hulu.

 

 

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