Emma Ruth Rundle Talks the Self-Reflection and Freedom of Composing the Score to Dual

Musician Emma Ruth Rundle's solo albums initially draw listeners in with evocatively eerie instrumentation and ghostly vocals, with the lyrics themselves showcasing her introspection and vulnerability. This duality of introductory surrealism paving the way for deeper meditations of one's own identity matches perfectly with writer/director Riley Stearns' new film Dual, which saw him use Rundle's tracks to serve as a temporary score as well as enlisted her to officially score the absurdly comedic sci-fi experience. Having been a member of bands like Marriages and Red Sparowes and having also released music frequently with Thou, Rundle is no stranger to collaboration, yet for her first feature-length score, she was presented with new opportunities that offered her freeing experiences not afforded to her in her solo work. Dual lands in theaters on April 15th.

In the film, "Upon receiving a terminal diagnosis, Sarah opts for a cloning procedure to ease her loss on her friends and family. When she makes a sudden and miraculous recovery, her attempts to have her clone decommissioned fail and lead to a court-mandated duel to the death. Now she has one year to train her body and mind for the fight of her life."

ComicBook.com caught up with Rundle to talk her process, the themes she identified with in Dual, and her love of the British crime drama Midsomer Murders.

(Photo: Wondra/RLJE Films)

ComicBook.com: How did this whole partnership come about? Had you been wanting to dip your toes into the scoring waters? Did Riley just reach out to you, thinking you'd be a good fit?

Emma Ruth Rundle: Riley did reach out to me several years ago, actually. It's hard to remember exactly at what point the plan became to do Dual, do the score for Dual. I feel like that might have been what he reached out to me about many years ago, maybe three or four years ago. I had just finished On Dark Horses or was working on that record. And I was living in Louisville at the time and Riley reached out to me via social media. We knew some of the same people, I think he had already been friends with Mitch [Wells] from Thou, and I think I was just about to start working with them. It's hard to remember, but it was super cool. And I, of course, watched Faults and, when it came out, The Art of Self Defense, which she had filmed in Louisville, in Kentucky.

Over time we became friends, we had several phone calls and met in person. At one point, I asked him to direct a music video for me and that never worked out. He did a short, really short film called The Blanket, I think that was in 2019 or maybe 2020 even. It must have been 2020 because I was at home all year. So I did the score for that as a little getting to know you.

He really loved the record I made called Electric Guitar: One, that's improv guitar music, very textural, ambient. I would probably put it in the world of ambient music. There's not really any singing and that really lends itself to complementing picture. So yeah, that is the history of it.

At that point in your career, obviously collaborating with Thou, or you're probably more accustomed to collaborating with other musicians, so when this whole process started and it was like, "All right, I'm going to move forward," did you look to specific scores or specific films to inspire the direction you wanted to take it? Or was it just entirely watching Dual, just messing around and experimenting with some sounds and just going from there?

Well, I grew up in L.A., first of all, and my grandfather was an actor. I did some scoring of short films when I was an art student and I've made a lot of ... I actually have directed some music videos on my own, so I have some experience editing video and working with picture and sound and had an idea of how that dynamic and relationship worked, so it wasn't completely new to me. Doing a feature-length film at this level was totally new and nerve wracking, but the way that I worked was very collaborative with Riley. He had generated a temp score to the film based on my other work, which was ... I can't really imagine that anything like this is ever going to happen again. It was so nice and natural and cool and intuitive.

So there was a temp score, yes. I watched Dual, I watched it in its early edits, I watched maybe four or five iterations of the film and worked on it pretty much every day for three or four months and worked really closely with him. We watched it together and we're like, "This is where all the temp score is," and then I would think about, "Maybe this moment can have something," and he would say, "Maybe this moment can have something, da, da, da, da, da," back and forth. I would write a few things. I really just took his direction about where music should happen, but intuited some spots, it just was a very natural process. I think having that temp score there was so helpful.

Maybe this is deep or a little too heady, but I'm just curious what your response is to watching a movie, hearing music that you created years earlier, and then being asked to replicate what you've already done, but not to just repeat yourself. Was that, for lack of a better term, a mindf-ck or was it just like, "I can totally whip that out and crank something like that out relatively easily,"?

I mean, the record that he was referencing, I made that when I was 26. So that was a while ago now. I think it was nice to get back in touch with that. There's no way to completely duplicate exactly what was happening in that music, because I'm not that person anymore, but I think it was extremely helpful. It allowed me to ... It's a language I can understand, since having it be my own stuff as a reference point, I think the main things you're looking for is, what's the tone of the scene? How does this music help push the narrative that Riley has set out to create? How does it support his world and piece-to-piece wanting to do that? 

It was as subtle as ... So I wasn't ever trying to directly copy a work that was already existing, but just get in that universe, in that solar system and would work up something, send it to him. He would say, "Oh, this is an inquisitive sounding piece," or, "Is this too ominous or is this grating or should it be more grating?"

With your own solo work, you are playing guitar, a piano, and doing lyrics, you're really allowing yourself to explore any avenue you are compelled to pursue, or you get to follow the artistic thoughts that are coming into your head, so working this closely with Riley, working for a film, did you find that to be freeing, knowing, "I don't have to write lyrics for this," or was it more of a challenge of, "It needs to be this timing. It needs to fit in this box, these limitations of what the movie is calling for,"?

I found it really freeing. I think limitations are actually so helpful. It's like, we're going to set up a perimeter of where this is going to take place and then let's fill it in, rather than limitless possibility, and working with Riley, it was just so affirming in so many ways. I mean, I cannot recall another project or person I've ever worked with, who's so positive and cool. I kept being like, "Is this really happening? This person is so thoughtful and nice and insightful and intelligent." It was just like, I would work for Riley forever. If I could just score films for Riley for the rest of my life, I would totally do that. 

It's not to say there wasn't hard work involved, but it was such a positive experience. I never felt like I was pushing a boulder up a hill, which is how I often feel when I'm working on my own music, not singing -- well, I did sing actually. There are some songs in film, there's a pop song that actually, that was hard, that took a lot of work to make that song.

But most of the scores, the guitar-based stuff, that instrumental stuff, that was just a sheer joy to do. And even some of the other stuff, like I got the chance to research mall music from the '70s for the scene where she's watching the infomercial moment of the cloning process, trying to sell you the clone procedure, getting to do that music was based on '70s mall music and that was great. It's nice. The whole thing took me out of ... For as much of myself there was in it, in the references that he was using for the score, there was a lot of it that wasn't and I got to do some styles of music I wouldn't get to do otherwise, and that was a fun creative exercise.

It sounds like so much of this project came out of your love for Riley and just the ease of collaboration and how much fun it was to work with him. Speaking more specifically to the themes of the movie, what was it about the narrative that really resonated with you and really struck you and made you that much more passionate to take part in this project?

Oh, man. So I knew what the film was about. He'd set me up for it for a couple of years before it actually got shot. It was the first ... So I left my relationship and got a divorce, and the first thing I did when I moved into my own apartment, and I'm in this apartment now, as we speak, and there was nothing in here. My desk and my music composition stuff. I find myself in a different city, a total change of circumstance, rediscovering who I am as a person and having this film to focus on every day to keep me on track. 

I really felt like I related to the main character a lot, to Sarah. She's this ... I don't know how I would describe the way she speaks, she's this really analytical person, she's a redhead. I felt connected to that. And she finds herself in this -- her world's been turned upside down and she's really got to find a way to fortify herself, to carry on, rediscover who she is, and basically get strong and decide that she's going to kill this other person.

Actually, the film inspired me. I started taking ballet lessons. I scored that scene, where she decides to start taking the dance stuff and I made this dance track. I was like, "I'm going to go dance also." It really ... There was a parallel in my real life that was following some of the story of the film in a weird way, and so I really enjoyed working on it for that reason, too.

Again, I could be going way too far out into that field, but did you use those thematic elements, those figurative themes that the movie is tackling, did you try to replicate that stuff more practically in your instrumentation or just in your overall approach? As opposed to just, "I'm watching this, I'm feeling this, this is how I'm going to make those sounds come out," were there other deeper, behind-the-scenes layers of using instruments to try and evoke that?

Well, two things came to mind when you were asking that. There are some scenes or some moments where there are emotion or textures or elements, like in the dream sequence -- I don't know how much of the film I am supposed to give away? I don't want to give away things in the film if someone's going to see it. So there's a textural moment with these pennies and seeing that object misplaced in a setting, in a situation where it shouldn't be, gives you ideas to think about an instrument and interacting with objects that wouldn't necessarily go together. I dumped a bunch of marbles on my guitar neck, things like that. "How can I use the instruments to mirror things that are happening in the film?" 

And then another interpretation of an answer for you was, there's a song, there's a scene where she has this reconciliation moment in a cafe with her partner, ex-partner, and I had a dream. I had a dream that I was in love with this person that doesn't exist. But I woke up from that dream really carrying over this sense of deep love and compassion and wrote the song for that scene from a dream space. It's like this shoegaze-y song called "Love Untouched."

I think you nailed it. I was really shooting for the moon and talking some real ethereal, existential stuff, but playing guitar with marbles, we got there, we figured it out. You mentioned you'd love to collaborate with Riley again and continue working with him. Has this now opened the door for what you might be looking for in the future? If Riley puts in a word with someone who maybe you don't know as well, or you don't have that built-in connection with, are you now going to potentially be more excited to do more film scoring work or do you think it just depends on the person, depends on the project, has a lot more specifics?

I think the latter, yeah. I'm apprehensive about everything that requires time and effort, but I think if the project is good, I mean, I would love to do more scoring work. I really do enjoy collaborating and getting behind someone else's vision. It's a really nice vacation to get away, out of my own mind, into the world someone else has created and do what I can with my skills to support that world. So, yeah, I would definitely do it again. 

I don't think I could work for someone that was mean. I'm super sensitive, but I would absolutely love to do more of it. And with Riley, we built a friendship over time before the project came to fruition, so by the time it came around, we had a nice relationship, so I would hope that that tends to be the way things have worked. Touring with bands, you get asked to tour with the band, you don't know them personally, but by the end of the tour, you're fast friends and that's a lasting relationship. So work has historically led to deeper connections that last and that's one thing I like about the creative world.

Along those lines and assuming, for all intents and purposes, that it's very nice people behind all of these projects, do you have a favorite filmmaker or series or a franchise type of thing, is there a realm that, if that opportunity presented itself, you would jump in immediately?

Man, okay, there's a whole bunch. Like Wim Wenders, in a heartbeat, Lars von Trier, just for free, I would be there. Man, I wasn't prepared, I would love to have a list. Yeah, I don't know. I would work for David Lynch. That would be cool. That would always ... It's always been a dream.

Listen, we got to get David to do Season 4 of Twin Peaks. The Chromatics played the Bang Bang Bar, Nine Inch Nails played the Bang Bang, I could totally see you playing the Bang Bang. You don't even have to come up with new stuff. You could just play your own stuff and I think it would fit right in. I'll put in a word with David next time him and I chat. I'm in Seattle, so I'm not too far from all the Twin Peaks locations, next time I bump into him as he's scouting, I'll put in a good word.

Oh, thank you. That'd be great. I appreciate that.

It's the least I could do. You mentioned short films and that you've directed videos and things like that and you're an artist of so many different mediums, do you have an interest in directing something that's more feature-length or writing something that's more feature-length?

I do, yeah, I do have an interest in that. Actually, World Fair is a new company that just launched and I'm part of their roster of directors. I do have an interest. I'm not actively writing right now. Well, there is a documentary I have an idea for and I'm going to do maybe a proof of concept with my dad, but it has to do with vision loss and pairing the experiences of people who are blind or visually impaired with artists, so there can be a representation across time of what it's like for a person with low vision and how they experience the world. And that, in a way, can communicate to fully sighted people. My dad is legally blind, he's mostly blind and he is an amazing musician. He does improv piano. Anyway, it's something I'm interested in and will maybe get around to doing but, for now, there's so much touring and promoting of albums and movies and things to do.

I would also love to get into something that's more like storytelling and less documentary, but I just feel like that project needs to happen just to do something of service for that community of low-sighted and blind people.

I don't know how you're going to find the time to do it. You just keep making music, you finally get to tour, you finally get to do shows. I mean, I believe you can, I just don't know how you're going to find the time.

Well, touring isn't a forever thing, it's hard on the body and I have this dog who I will miss a lot. Got to find a way to stay home.

Super lastly, I read you're a bit of an anime fan. Is that true?

It's funny. I was a huge anime fan for a long time when I was younger and into my 20s. I think I watched all of Naruto, all the different levels of Naruto. But that, it's been a while ... It's been a while since I've been super, super into anime. I'll always love the Studio Ghibli stuff and I watch that over and over again. But as far as serial anime stuff goes, I haven't really watched anything for a while.

I guess I was using that to transition to see if there's anything else that you feel like you're a real nerd about. Obviously art and music, but is there anything that, when it comes up in conversation casually with your friends, that all of a sudden you're like, "Oh, I have one million thoughts about this,"?

I love how you assume I have friends, first of all, that's great.

I love dogs. Dogs are my life. I've actually thought about becoming a dog trainer, escaping to another country, that's just this island of dogs. No, I don't know. I have to think about that, outside of music and art. Hmm. I'm not really one to argue my opinions for things. What about you?

Oh, I mean, dogs, of course. But no, I'm not a nerd. I'm a cool guy who also happens to like horror movies and Star Wars and comic books. I'm also with you in the sense of I don't like to argue my opinion. I like to say, "Oh, you love a thing that is awesome that I know nothing about it? I don't like that thing, but that is so cool that you love anything," and I'm not going to argue about, "No, this one's better, that one's better." It's like, no, just love what you love, whether it's dogs or metal or whatever the hell it is you're interested in. I'm not going to say, "Well, actually, that record is more funeral doom as opposed to sludgy, atmospheric, ambient metal." I don't give a sh-t, just, who cares?

Yes, yes, yes, absolutely. Okay, there is one thing I'm really nerdy about. It's a show called Midsomer Murders. I don't really know anyone else who's watched it other than my sister. It's a British crime show but the production value is very weird. I'm particularly a fan of the early seasons and they look like they're from the '90s, but they were actually shot in the 2000s. John Nettles is the star. If anyone out there wants to talk about Midsomer Murders with me, please hit me up.

Just putting that out into the universe, that you are open to take calls, to take emails, to take DMs, so long as it is solely about Midsomer Murders.

Yes, absolutely.

Dual hits theaters on April 15th.

Emma Ruth Rundle is touring Australia and Europe this summer. Her new album Electric Guitar Two: Dowsing Voice is now available for pre-order before being released on May 13th. Stay tuned for updates on Rundle's future projects at Sargent House.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.