Lady Gaga knew the song “Shallow” was something special the first time she played the melody for collaborators Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt two years ago at a recording studio in Malibu. But when “Shallow” became woven into the story of Bradley Cooper’s remake of “A Star Is Born,” becoming the foundation of the film’s deeply felt love story, it turned into something else.
“It’s a song that gives you wings to fly,” Gaga says.
First heard in the movie during an intimate, late-night, parking lot courtship scene between Ally, the aspiring singer played by Gaga with disarming charm, and Jackson Maine, Cooper’s grizzled country-rock superstar, “Shallow” roars to full life later in the film when Jackson invites Ally on stage to sing it during a concert at the Greek Theatre.
Gaga’s soaring bridge as she takes the microphone — roughly transcribed as “Haaaaaa-ahhhh-ahhh-ohhhh-ahhaaaaaa-ahhhh-ahhh-ohhhh-ah!!!” — is the moment Ally’s star is born. And when the movie’s trailer dropped in June, it was also the moment that birthed a thousand memes and stoked anticipation for the film, which has grossed nearly $200 million in its domestic run.
Grammy-nominated for song of the year and record of the year and earning a Golden Globe nod for original song, “Shallow’s” dominion appears far from over.
“What the movie turned the song into is just another level,” Ronson says. “You feel pretty lucky to be along for that ride because somebody’s taken that thing that you did and hitched it to a cart on steroids.”
We spoke recently to Gaga and Ronson, both of whom still seem a bit shell-shocked by the song’s popularity, particularly since the country-tinged power ballad sounds so dissimilar from most everything else on the charts right now.
Gaga: When I wrote that song with Mark and Anthony and Andrew, it was different from any other experience I’ve had writing a song. There was a grave nature to the room. I was at the piano, the guys each had a guitar in their hands and we started coming up with lyrics and talking to each other. That’s really what the song is. It’s a conversation between a man and a woman. But we didn’t know that when we started.
Ronson: In the original script, Jackson was going to drown at the end. So Gaga comes in, sits down at the piano and starts playing a few chords, and it just sounds big, right off the bat. And she comes up with the chorus, “I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in.” She’s got most of the thing in her head, and I’m just trying to offer some words. “Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us.”
It felt like an end credits song because it was about the suicide. Or maybe that’s just me. In my mind, it was the end credits song, and he’s drowned.
Gaga: There was a time when he was going to drown in the end, so we thought it might be the ending song. Then as the script changed we made it a song about the two falling in love. I do feel it was more than the literal drowning element of the original script. It was much more about wanting a deep connection and love than it was about water.
Ronson: I’m no film buff or auteur, but this movie gets falling in love really well. And that parking lot scene where she sings that first verse to him … that’s two people who don’t want this night to end. For the song to be woven into that thread … seeing it for the first time, my hair just stood up.
Gaga: It starts in the parking lot. Then she arrives at the concert, and Jackson has had some time to think about it, and he has added his verse. And she’s so overwhelmed by what he’s done for her and this arrangement, it gives her the courage to go out there and sing in front of his audience.
It’s a song that essentially inspires both of them to be fearless in different ways. For him, fearless in love; for her, fearless in not just only love, but her ability to share that part of her that’s a songwriter, the part of her that doesn’t feel comfortable singing her song. I mean, this girl has completely given up. She’s completely depressed. She doesn’t think she has what it takes. And then she meets this superstar, and he believes in her, and she’s overwhelmed by that belief. That’s what drives her out there. And I think that’s what people are connecting to when they watch it.
Ronson: It’s melancholy and sad, but it’s incredibly uplifting because of the performance in the film. And the way he brings her on stage helps the song too. Lukas Nelson did a great arrangement for that performance. Gaga being nice and deferential told me, “You know, if you want to do another version of the song for the soundtrack, we can.” But the minute I saw the trailer, I was, like, “If that’s what the song sounds like, I’m not touching it. It’s perfect.”
Gaga: When she first goes on stage, she goes to the back mike, further away from the audience. She’s scared. I remember, from an acting perspective, putting myself in a place of “as if.” As if I’ve never performed in front of an audience before, as if I’ve never sang for that many people in my life. But I was also able to just look at the circumstances as they were. I have never been an actress in a leading role, and I was about to go out there and perform and be in a movie with Bradley Cooper.
So when I went out there and put my hands over my face, that was real. That was exactly how I felt. It was that fear. It was that insecurity. It was that “I’m not good enough, but I’m doing this anyway because he inspired me.”
Then he nods to me to go to the front of the stage, and she’s so into it and launches into that sort of ad libbed bridge … the reason she’s so into it, quite frankly, is because he sang to her, “I’m fallin’ in all the good times, I find myself longing for change.” And that change has occurred! And she listens. And she goes up there and gives it everything she has. And that moment — what you call an aria in the middle of the song — we knew what that was going to sound like, and yet it’s different because she’s been listening. That’s what I love so much about the song. It’s not just about talking to each other but really listening and then coming to a strong connection.
Ronson: In the demo of the song, she did that more like a falsetto. Even if it wasn’t in the movie, it would be one of the most intense vocal performances of any song this year. It feels like one of those old Maxell commercials where the guy gets blown back.
But that’s just Gaga. Who else can do that? I always love the Gaga-ness of the way she plays with words too. She is the queen of that [stuff], and it makes the song so weirdly interesting. I remember asking her with “Shallow”: “Do your Gaga [stuff] and play with the words.” And she came up with “In the sha-ha, sha-ha-ha-low.”
Gaga: [Sings] In the sha-ha, sha-ha-ha-low. You know, how do we make this something that is actually easier to sit in than it really is? Existing in the shallow where nobody wants to be, and yet we’re in it all the time. To say that we’re not in a shallow world at this moment, especially in America, would be a big lie. So how do we make this part something they can relish in? “We’re far from the shallow now.” But now that I look back at it, I can sing about it. I can play with it. I can look at it fondly, because now I’m in the deep.
Ronson: Bradley talks about how you could see the song, see the film, as an addict’s journey or that of a crestfallen, fledgling pop star, or you could just see it as heartbreak. “Shallow,” I don’t want to speak on anyone’s behalf, but the drowning could be drowning in heartache, drowning in the bottle, drowning, having your dreams shattered. Between the four of us in the room, we were going through all those things at the time. And that can’t help but work its way into the music.
Gaga: That’s absolutely true. There were sober people in the room and not sober people in the room. I don’t mean that, like, we were actually drinking or not drinking. But when you’re working with this caliber of writers — and I have to give it up to these guys, they’re amazing, wonderful musicians — you bring everything to the table. You bring your heart. You bring that library of your life with you. And when you’re working, you don’t even have to try — those books are flying out of your soul and landing in the song in some way.
Ronson: I re-recorded a version for when Ally plays at the Forum toward the end of the film when Jackson is committing suicide. Gaga wanted a version that would sound like Ally would sound playing it with her band. It’s more like a giant ’80s “Shallow” with big drums. A little more pop-tastic.
Gaga: I wonder if we’ll put that out someday. The studio version of the song is very different too and very good. But it didn’t sound like Jackson enough. It was getting in the way of the storytelling. That’s why we used Lukas’ arrangement, the one with Jackson’s band. I didn’t want Ally to sound anything like me. She was inspired by Jackson, and it’s their song together.
Ronson: The thing that I love about this is that Bradley Cooper is legitimately singing on a global No. 1 pop song. That just seems so bizarre and wild. But everything about this song and this movie feels that way. Have you seen that meme with this sweet suburban woman sitting in her kitchen and there’s a guy looking over her shoulder wearing a ski mask, and it says, “Me during a home invasion when the burglar tells me he hasn’t seen the trailer for ‘A Star Is Born’ ”? That sums it all up to me. I still can’t believe it.
Gaga: “You know, I snuck in to see the movie, but I can only watch the first half. And then I have to pull myself away from it. I’m still too much inside the character, and I’m still so connected to Jackson in a way that is all-consuming. I’d be lying to you if I said I can stay and watch the whole thing. Some of my favorite scenes exist in the end, but on a visceral level, I have to pull away from it. I know I’ll get past that and I’m excited for when I’ll be able to watch it all the way through again.
“I guess Ally’s still in there. And she was in the room with Mark and Anthony and Andrew and she was there on that stage when I sang that middle part before that last bridge. This is a woman releasing years and years of fear in front of a giant audience, and I think I released years of fear that night as well. I love her.”