Carla Patullo Howls and Heals on Grammy-Winning Ambient Album
When composer and songwriter Carla Patullo B.M. ’01, M.M. ’13 was young, her grandmother often sang to her. With that singing came a reminder of the cycles of life, of what it gives, takes, and returns to us. “She used to tell me, ‘Record this [singing] on a little tape recorder, because when I pass, I want you to have this so you can listen to me and remember me,’” Patullo said.
The image of the tape ribbon, winding and rewinding itself around its spool, is a powerful one, and not just because of how it preserved her grandmother’s voice. The memory of those tapes would help Patullo rediscover her own voice as she fought through a nearly three-year cancer battle, emerging with So She Howls, which earned a 2024 Grammy Award for Best New Age, Ambient, or Chant Album.
Watch Patullo's powerful Grammy acceptance speech:
In the early stages of treatment, Patullo's primary focus was survival, with all the ups and downs that entailed—she wasn’t thinking about her career or her art at all. As the months went on, however, she found herself needing to vocalize. “It's funny how music circles back,” she said. “I began howling. I call it that because I didn't have any lyrics, and I had no motivation to write lyrics in the beginning. So, I just started like, you know, singing.”
During her treatment and recovery, this singing served a primal, deeply personal need. But at some point, she remembered her grandmother’s lessons, and thought, “I should really just go and press record.”
I hope that people can feel . . . me finding my voice again.
These were the first breaths of what would become So She Howls, an ambient collection of nine songs that feature those original vocal recordings, alongside contributions from the Scorchio Quartet, vocal ensemble Tonality, and violinist Lili Haydn. The album’s instrumentation is rich in swelling synth textures and warm string arrangements, while the vocals soar and haunt, calling to mind the more cinematic side of Sigur Rós. And much like that Icelandic band’s early albums, where vocals eschew the use of lyrics, So She Howls is largely wordless. The first discernible lyrics don't emerge until track six.
That pacing was a conscious choice. She wanted the album’s narrative to reflect the experience of finding herself through healing. “The last track on the album does have lyrics, and I think that's because I finally got to this place where I could sing and articulate more what I'm saying." she said. "So I hope that people can feel . . . me finding my voice again.”
More Than One Way to Tell a Story
The way the narrative is felt rather than told speaks to Patullo’s skill as a songwriter as well as a film and TV composer. As an undergraduate at Berklee, she studied songwriting, and 12 years later she returned to study film, TV, and video game scoring at Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain. Now an award-winning composer, she’s worked on a range of documentaries, feature films, and shorts that often align with her passion for supporting women, immigrants, and the LGBTQ+ community. Most recently, her work can be heard in Maxine, a short film from Disney+ starring Margaret Cho.
Each discipline has helped her build a sustainable career both as a multimedia composer and a solo artist, and she views storytelling as the thread that weaves together her dual interests. But while writing her own songs had always come naturally, composing for other collaborators was an interest she first discovered while working with the comedian and musician Sandra Bernhard. “Working with her was interesting because it was the first time for me to take someone else's story and see it from a different perspective,” Patullo said. “That led me to film scoring, because all of a sudden I was just so receptive to these other stories and not just writing about my own personal story.”
She enrolled at Berklee Valencia to help her gain the skills she felt she was missing. “By the time I got to Berklee Valencia, I felt like an underdog in the class, because I didn't have some of those film scoring skills that some of my classically trained classmates had,” she said. “But it was so fun. And I've been loving orchestrating and getting into this cinematic sound, which I really found to be something that resonates deeply with me.” Her professor, Laura Karpman, who recently scored the feature film The Marvels, helped her land her first scoring job in Los Angeles, where Patullo now resides and runs her own in-home studio.
Balancing the Professional and the Personal
One way that Patullo balances her musical passions is to try to give herself at least an hour a day to work on her own art. But as she points out, both practices feed and nourish the other. Her songwriting gives her composition work a more defined sense of voice, and the scoring provides her personal work a wider sonic palette—something that is very much on display on So She Howls.
Patullo’s life and career is full of this looping back to help her move forward. She hopes that by sharing her journey, even through howling, people will feel less alone—especially if they’re experiencing the isolation that a difficult period can bring.
“We go through these cycles of healing, and we go back and we remember things, and then we close down, and then we open up, and it's like this circle,” she said. “And I hope the album from start to finish can help guide people on that.”