Bono plumbs the mysteries of music in his work, his life and in 'Sing 2'

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  • Bono
    Bono
    Irish rock musician, singer of U2
  • Garth Jennings
    Film director

Bono is at home, literally, talking about his first substantial acting role and the ongoing mystery of what he does for a living.

"Making music has been a source of great frustration for me as well as great joy," he says over a video call. "I didn’t have musical training as a kid. So I have to depend on my three bandmates and others to get the melodies I hear in my head, or the ideas, across. And therein lies great frustration, that you depend on others — and the great joy, that you depend on others — and they happen to be your best mates."

When referred to as "an actual musician," the famed frontman of U2 grins in this cozy room in his Dublin abode and says, "Well, that might be an exaggeration. That's why I'm involved with this: I'm obsessed with what it takes to become one. But I know musicians."

In "Sing 2," Garth Jennings' sequel to his 2016 music-mad-animals hit, Bono voices Clay Calloway, a storied superstar singer-songwriter (portrayed as a great, silver-maned lion) who has long been a recluse since the death of his wife. Much of the film is about the search for Calloway and how the "Sing" gang might persuade him to embrace his gift again. It's a quest almost as improbable as Jennings' hopes to even land Bono for the film.

But the two connected right away. "I found myself on a call with [Jennings], walking in the hills there in Los Angeles," the singer says. "I got lost talking to him, every which way — I didn’t know where I was. He got me talking about singing, the nature of singing, what it was to be a singer, where does singing come from. And of course, being Irish, these are all the right questions!"

For his part, the British Jennings says he thought the pitch was a long shot. The "Sing 2" team, he says, "knew we needed a rock legend — not only a personality, but the music that would come with them. Bono was the first thought. He would be amazing and those songs would fit so well with that kind of a story. But he’s not going to say 'Yes.' I mean, this is a lion.

"But he got it right away. He was almost selling it back to me when we had this long conversation: 'I get what this character is; he has a big, passionate feeling toward music and what it can do for people.' That story is really about healing. And U2's concerts, they can be like a religious experience."

Bono says, "The lion had lost his roar. We ended up talking about what would cease you from singing. We ended up talking about grief. Grief can open up creativity or close it up. This is a subject I sadly know a little bit about. I’m talking to this dude about a children's film; are we really going there about grief? But that's the whole point of these animations, that you use these fun characters to play with deeper, darker themes.

"Kids and their parents watch them again and again. Much more than other movies that win the Oscars, these become part of our consciousness. They help shape the way we see things.

"Some of the music when I was growing up that we were told was superficial and not to be taken seriously turned out to be some of the most important music in my life. At the time of punk rock, we weren't owning up to disco," he says with a smile. "But disco is such a light touch — just an hour ago, we were listening to Sister Sledge, 'Lost in Music.' Comedy, to me, is a light touch."

Jennings says that despite the singer being an acting novice, little guidance was needed.

"He understood what the character was and you had to feel for him, that he was cantankerous and provocative and a bit intimidating, but underneath it all was really, really sad. Steeped in grief. 'Just be the gruff, old, nasty neighbor.' And when it came to getting to the root of it all, 'Don’t be afraid to break a little.' "

Still, there are some lively moments breaking through those walls of grief. "Mischief was the first instinct," Bono says. "Clay Calloway was a bit of a badass. He was riding motorcycles and shooting paintballs at the kids climbing his gate. I enjoyed that."

Jennings did help the singer tap into the badass lion within. "Garth said, in this very room, 'Have you come across any other lions?' I said, 'Oh, yeah.' He said, 'What's the striking feature?' I said, 'It's that low rumble. You can't explain it to people.' So the growl … I went downstairs to the kitchen here and I said to [wife] Ali, 'I think I've got the lion voice figured out.' She said she thought it was more of a stray dog. But there you go. I've been going house to house for meals all my life. Here's the thing — when applying that low growl to singing a song like 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For,' the tenor voice, I hit a bit of a problem. So I had to bring a little country there. I had to impersonate a man who'd had a few cigars."

It's all part of the passionate pilgrim's unceasing quest to learn, as he puts it, "What makes people sing, why do I sing, where does it come from?

"I'm amazed at a song's ability to become whatever you need it to be in the moment. One of the most profound experiences I've had of music — in my life — was as a late teenager coming home on the 19 bus and hearing a woman with her fish and chips singing Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night.’ She just was hanging on to every line for dear life." He blares in an approximation of her unadorned glory: "'I don’t care who’s right or wrong …' Singing to nobody and everybody, unaccompanied. I don’t think you'd find that online but it's one of the greatest versions.

"I think some people sing for very desperate reasons and there's no amount of money you can pay them. That is a kind of vulnerability there. You sing to have fun, you sing to show off, you sing in the bath. But there's another reason some people sing and I wanted to write that song."

And he did. The initial conversation with Jennings sparked a new song, "Your Song Saved My Life."

Jennings says, "He said, 'Of course, this would make a great song. Wouldn't that be great?' I said, 'That would be amazing,' but I thought it was a bit like when people say, 'You must come for dinner,' but they never really ask you. But then he turned up for the first [dialogue] recording session, and he says, 'By the way, I’ve got a song.'

"Now I’m thinking, ‘This is stressful. What if I don’t like it?' He played it and halfway through, I'm like, 'It's the whole end of the movie!' I'm trying not to cry in front of Bono. He's like, 'It's good, isn't it?' I'm like, 'Jesus, it's great!'"

Bono had been kicking the thought of the title around; he couldn't let it go.

"I thought of the songs that got me through my life, and I wanted to write it there and then with [U2 guitarist] Edge, and he said he was 'kind of hiding these chords away from me': 'If you jump off these chords, if you're ready to jump, there's some great melodies for you here ... Here they are!' And we got there. Yeah, there's a tiny little bit of Elton John thrown in there, I think," he says, laughing.

(L-R) The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr.,Bono and Adam Clayton of U2 perform at the Gocheok Sky Dome
(L-R) The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr.,Bono and Adam Clayton of U2 perform at the Gocheok Sky Dome on December 08, 2019 in Seoul, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

"I tried the lyric in the verses a couple of different ways, but it felt right just to cut straight in. Some of the best U2 songs start in the middle of the conversation: 'It's Monday morning / 'Bout a quarter past 4' — bop, you're in. I think my favorite line is, 'What are you hiding behind those eyes / Can anyone find you there or is it just me?' I like that a question hangs just before the chorus hits.

"The verses could have gone in different directions, but the chorus, I knew. I knew how to sing that."

The idea became so embedded in Bono's consciousness that, for his 60th birthday, he posted a list of "60 Songs That Saved My Life" on U2's website along with fan letters he wrote to the songwriters, or their families. Wanting to take the idea even farther, the band and Universal partnered with Education Through Music, a non-profit organization that partners with "under-resourced schools to deliver music as a core subject for all students," according to its site. ETM's work is highlighted in a special video for "Your Song Saved My Life" featuring some of its students.

Getting Bono onboard the movie was just the first step. The production also had to clear the use of U2 songs. The whole band had to be behind it.

"The question from the band’s point of view was, 'This is inspired by a kids' film, right?'" the singer recalls. "'Yeah, this is a great artist, Garth, and we should be honored to be part of this. There's going to be other U2 songs —' 'What?! It’s not just one song?' 'No, if we're in this, we're in all the way. I'm going to be in the film.' 'You’re going to be in the film?'

"I have a lot of explaining in my life to U2; that's just the nature of democracy, which as Bruce Springsteen said, is 'all very well for countries like Iraq, but in a band?'" Bono says with a hearty laugh.

He later showed them a key scene in which the porcupine Ash, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, sings a heartfelt, stripped-down version of the band's "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of."

"I've known Scarlett since she was a kid, I feel," says Bono, having worked with the actress on the (Red) campaign to marshal the might of major brands against pandemics. "She's so punk rock, nothing will make her nervous. However sweet she would want to sing this, she's just got a little street about her."

Perhaps there is one thing that could make Johansson nervous. "I didn’t have the pleasure of singing with Bono in person, although it was probably for the better since it would’ve taken me an hour or two just to get over my nerves," the actress told The Envelope. The two recorded their portions of the song separately. "I’m gonna guess that I was probably more nervous to sing a 'duet' with Bono than him having to act with me."

"Scarlett is besotted by music," Bono says. "She approached that very tenderly. She made that song her own. And you have to be true in that moment or people wouldn’t care. I wasn’t surprised she could pull it off. But the band were," he says with that MacPhisto grin. "I think it stunned them all. I just had to put that scene on: 'OK? Your songs are in good hands.' "

Thus Bono, Evangelist of the Church of Music, won new converts among his lifelong friends.

"It's a real thing for me as I look at what I do and I go, 'Wow, this thing is unknowable.' You’ll never be a professor of it; you'll always be a student as you study songs and why they move you or why they don’t. The ones that break all the rules, the ones that invent new ones. I am, as the song I was listening to earlier, ‘Lost in Music,’ more than I've ever been."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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