What do the racially charged streets of America, a barren outer-galaxy landscape and revolutionary Wakanda all have in common?
The answer is a long-haired Swede called Ludwig Goransson.
The unassuming producer and composer, 36, has been quietly taking Hollywood by storm. His 12-year career is full of the kind of acclaim that most seasoned artists could only dream of.
This week, he received an Emmy Award for scoring the Disney+ sci-fi series The Mandalorian. This is only the latest accolade to be placed on his increasingly cramped award shelf, also home to an Oscar for best soundtrack for Black Panther and a Grammy for Record of the Year for Childish Gambino's This is America.
And judging by the reception to his thunderous score in the recently released blockbuster film Tenet, another Academy Award is imminent.
So who is this guy? And why isn’t he already mixing it up in the studio with the likes of Beyonce?
Well, that has never been the way Goransson has approached his craft. The fact that he became one of the world’s hottest musical talents is an unexpected consequence of a career built on strong friendships and an anthropological approach to music.
Who is Ludwig Goransson?
Born in Stockholm, Goransson’s father was a Swedish guitar teacher and his mother a florist from Poland. His name was the result of a debate between the music lovers.
A rock aficionado, his father pushed for the name Albert, after the blues legend Albert King. His mother, however, was having none of that. It would be Ludwig, the first name of her favourite composer Beethoven.
She may have won that battle, but Goransson's father can claim to have influenced the musical war. Showing prodigious talent as a guitar player from the age of six, Goransson became even more obsessed by the instrument after watching his father perform the signature chugging riffs of Metallica's Enter Sandman.
That enthusiasm led to hours in the basement, where Goransson spent his teens fiddling with a drum machine and an eight-track recorder while listening to film scores by the likes of John Williams (Star Wars) and Danny Elfman (Batman). After some time spent at Stockholm's Royal College of Music, he moved to Los Angeles in 2007 to study film composition at the University of Southern California.
Laid back and personable, Goransson was never driven by ambition alone. A steady paying job composing music was his ideal situation.
This was something he expressed to burgeoning director Ryan Coogler, who was studying filmmaking at the institution. Bonding over their love for hip-hop and rock, that first encounter in a pool hall led to a partnership that saw Goransson score Coogler's key films, including Fruitvale Station (2013), Creed (2015) and Black Panther (2018).
Goransson's entry into the music industry was also born out of a friendship. After landing a job to compose bits for the television sitcom Community, he bonded with star Donald Glover. In their first meeting in 2010 Glover initially hid his musical ambitions from the Swede.
"We had a good time together," recalled Goransson in 2019 interview with The New York Times. "A couple weeks later, he emailed me and was like, 'hey man, I'm also a rapper, so I wondered if you could take a listen to this, and maybe mix my song?'"
That was it. Goransson went on to heavily contribute to all of Childish Gambino's four albums and his 2018 modern classic single This is America.
Listening to stories and translating them into notes
That laid-back charm is only part of his score sheet. What both Glover and Coogler saw in Goransson was the same restless curiosity that they too apply to their crafts.
By the time Goransson arrived in the US, his repertoire extended beyond rock to take in styles including hip-hop, funk and electronica.
And what Goransson took to the most was the use of samples. The idea of building a track through the layering of disparate sonic albums – whether dirty funk bass lines or fluttering woodwinds – is, to put it simply, his jam.
Such an approach, however, is a process. Unlike some of his peers, Goransson doesn’t begin the work through improvisations. Instead, the process begins with a conversation.
"I think I'm a pretty good listener," he told the radio station NPR last year. "When Ryan is telling a story or when Donald is telling a story, I'm always listening. And I think I'm maybe pretty good at listening to them [and] being able to translate it into notes."
Once given a rough idea, Goransson approaches the subject like an academic would. Related books and music theories are studied, in addition to field trips to record natural sounds, which he renders with various effects before infusing them into the tracks.
Research: Black Panther took him to Senegal and Ghana
Such an approach benefited the gritty realism defining Coogler's first two films Fruitvale Station and Creed.
For the former, based on the tragic shooting of black American Oscar Grant by police officers in a San Francisco train station in 2009, Goransson went to one of the city’s train stations to record the sounds of the carriages.
"One thing that we always wanted to be conscious of with the score, was to make sure that it always felt organic," he told the website Soundwork Collections. "I manipulated the train sound and made it almost feel like a dark ambient synth sound and I used it almost throughout the whole platform scene."
As for Creed, Goransson went to an Oakland gym to record a sparring session. The resultant heaving breaths, exasperated exclamations and jabs were manipulated to pulsating rhythms that underscored the film's key fight scenes.
When it came to capturing the wonder and grandeur of the fictitious African kingdom of Wakanda, Goransson spent a few months in Senegal, Ghana and South Africa, where he listened and learned from traditional local musicians.
Goransson's foraging approach has allowed Glover, under his musical moniker Childish Gambino, to build intriguing tracks. Indeed, listen to the blistering This is America, with its chants, gospel choirs, sirens and loping beats, and it is a cinematic experience, even without watching the evocative music video.
Goransson did drop a 2012 solo instrumental EP, Ludovin, but he scrapped that career move after realising he was more effective as a collaborator.
This is a startling and brave admission in an entertainment industry rife with hyper individualism. He is ever the chameleon, and has managed to blaze his own path, while still being comfortable staying in the background, simply listening in order to concoct the next musical trend. We can't wait to see what he does next.