“I don’t sing when I’m told. I sing when I’ve got something to say,” Rachel Zegler’s Lucy Gray Baird declares in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. As the film’s title would suggest, music plays a central role in the new Hunger Games prequel, which is set roughly 60 years before the events of the original trilogy.
When she’s selected to participate in the 10th annual Hunger Games, Lucy Gray’s act of defiance is to sing “Nothing You Can Take From Me.” When she—spoiler alert—returns from the arena, she croons a song called “Pure as the Driven Snow” to Tom Blyth’s Coriolanus Snow. At another point, Lucy Gray offers the original version of “The Hanging Tree,” a folk song Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss would eventually perform in 2014’s Mockingjay: Part 1.
Readers of Suzanne Collins’s novels will recognize the lyrics to Lucy Gray’s songs, which are largely taken directly from the book. But their melodies were written by executive music producer Dave Cobb. “Luckily, they were crazy enough to hire me,” says Cobb, referring to director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson. His songs work in tandem with a film score by James Newton Howard, as well as a soundtrack that features artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Molly Tuttle, who plays Lucy Gray’s guitar in the film.
Though Cobb revisited the existing films, none of them have much in-universe music. He got more guidance through expansive conversations with the filmmakers and with Collins, who he says is “the most brilliant person I’ve ever talked to.”
“When you talk to her, this isn’t in a book—this is a universe she’s created,” he explains. “When she’s telling you about each character in the series, she’s got a backstory behind a backstory, behind a backstory.” Collins told Cobb that her version of dystopian Appalachia was inspired by several sources, including the English Civil War and turn-of-the-century mountain music. “Suzanne is a historian. I’m a history buff,” Cobb continues. “If you talk about the history, I’m in. I can read for days about it. She definitely schooled me, and I went down a deep dive.”
That excavation process also involved a dive into his own personal history. “My granddaddy was a bluegrass musician. I grew up Pentecostal…. My grandmother was a preacher, and she sang like Snow White.” It’s a funny reference, he knows, because Zegler herself plays the princess in Disney’s upcoming Snow White remake—“I think a lot of these songs all harken back to hymnals,” says Cobb, noting that Collins was also well-versed in this genre. “She was a country music DJ at one time, so she knew exactly what she was talking about.”
Though he was guided by the folksy mountain music one would expect from Appalachia, Cobb wasn’t allergic to more unconventional influences as well. “There’s a lot of The Smiths in there,” he reveals. “I figure by the time we got to the future, [the characters] probably heard this stuff. It’s definitely a melting pot. We tried to stick to these very traditional roots, but there’s a lot of curveballs.”
Cobb wrote on an expedited timeline, working with the songs for less than a month before presenting them to the filmmakers. “I like getting that initial gut reaction,” he says. “When you hear the soundtrack and the songs in the movie, they’re very much first takes—first time we ever figured it out. I think the more you labor over something, the more it sounds intentional and cerebral, and I don’t think there’s much of a connection that way. Everything is very honest, raw, and first take, including Rachel’s voice.”
Inspired by Alan Lomax, the late musician known for his field recording of music across Scotland and Ireland, Cobb’s team recorded the film’s music in a remote 250-year-old house located in Savannah, Georgia. “We mic’d the walls…and obviously the wood sounds different because it’s nearly petrified,” he explains. “I wanted to have this real authenticity to match the recordings we were influenced by—and you can feel that super Southern dystopia.”
Thousands of miles away, Zegler was on the film’s set in Germany recording many of the vocals. “Singing is easy for her. There’s nothing hard about singing for Rachel, at all,” he says, noting that after pre-records, “she actually sang on set live,” a process with which she was familiar from 2021’蝉 West Side Story. Cobb, who watched feeds of filming, praised Zegler’s ability to tap into the complexity of Lucy Gray. “There’s a strength to everything she sings, even when she’s vulnerable…. I wanted her to appear as if she’s always got it,” he says. “Even when things may not be going her way, you feel like she’s going to come through. The music has that fragility, but with each bit of fragility, there’s a huge amount of strength.”
Cobb, who previously composed music for A Star is Born, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and Elvis, is eager to orchestrate another fictional environment next. “If somebody says, ‘Write a song about yourself,’ I think that’s incredibly constraining in a way,” he explains. “But it’s like, ‘Go write a song about futuristic, dystopian Appalachia.’ This is fun. I can’t wait to do more of it—that’s really my love right now.”