Taylor Swift joined up with Nashville singer-songwriter duo the Civil Wars to pen this melancholy acoustic ballad for the soundtrack to the movie The Hunger Games. The film is set in a post-apocalyptic world where teenage boys and girls fight to the death in an annual televised event and is based on Suzanne Collins' young-adult novel of the same title. It was released as a single on iTunes on December 23, 2011.
Whilst Swift sings reassuringly "Just close your eyes / The sun is going down / You'll be all right / No one can hurt you," the Civil Wars add restrained backing vocals. The Civil Wars pair, Joy Williams and John Paul White, originally met at a songwriting camp in Nashville. In 2010 the pair partnered up with CCM veteran producer Charlie Peacock to record their debut full-length studio album, Baron Hollow, which debuted at #12 on the Billboard 200 the following year.
The soundtrack was produced by T. Bone Burnett, who is well known for his work on rootsy-Americana records such as O Brother Where Art You and the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand.
The sullen track was penned by The Civil Wars and Swift over the course of just four hours. "I had this title that I had been working with called 'Safe & Sound,' and I just knew that I wanted it to deal with the empathy, sort of the more sensitive side, the bittersweet side of this story," Swift told MTV News. "Never imagining that this would ever be picked or a single, 'cause it's a lullaby. This song was such an amazing experience, because it's like it just happened."
T-Bone Burnett then added his sparse production. "We wrote this song and recorded it one day. When we got the track back, I was so surprised by the restraint," said Swift. "He created this ethereal sound without making it this big battle anthem."
Speaking at the 2012 Grammys after performing their song "Barton Hollow
," White joked of their superstar collaborator, "We told her to stop using us to further her career."
The song's music video was shot by director Philip Andelman in a forest, cemetery and log cabin in the Tennessee town of Watertown. It features Swift walking barefoot through the woods, wearing a long white gown as the Civil Wars accompany her in front of a fireplace. Swift had to endure uncomfortable shooting conditions for her part. "It was so cold. It was freezing. I was shaking the whole time and trying not to be shaking when the cameras were rolling. It was about 40 degrees in Nashville. It had just rained," she said to MTV News. "I'm wearing this 1920s vintage nightgown that didn't provide much warmth. I didn't get sick. I thought I was going to get sick. That was the upside." The video contains several references to the best-selling Hunger Games book trilogy including the iconic mockingjay pin. "I felt like I was really needing to pay tribute to this movie and tell this story," Swift said to MTV News. "There's this moment in the music video where I find this mockingjay pin and hold it up."
The song was penned during a spontaneous writing session at Bennett's home studio in the fall of 2011. "The Civil Wars had a show that night in L.A.," recalled Taylor to Rolling Stone. "So they raced right over to T Bone's house. There's so many things he could've done production-wise to make that song bigger sonically than it is, but I think that would have possibly been a mistake. For him to have left the song as a lullaby is brilliant."
The official Hunger Games companion album debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart, selling 175,000 copies in its first week. It was the first multi-artist film soundtrack to reach the peak position since The Twilight Saga: New Moon rose from #2 to #1 in its second week on the tally in November 2009.
Taylor and The Civil Wars were asked to write from The Hunger Games protagonist Katniss' perspective. "[Lionsgate] said, 'We want you to really understand [Katniss''] and know completely where she's coming from,'" the singer told Ryan Seacrest on the Golden Globes red carpet. "And we were given such an amazing opportunity to do that by Suzanne Collins, who wrote the books, and Jennifer Lawrence, who portrayed Katniss."
"We had this idea that we wanted the song to be about the empathy that goes into this film," she continued. "And the undertones of like, sympathy and human compassion that go along with such an incredible film with all this action and fighting in it. We wanted to highlight the fact that there's a lot of heart beneath all that."