Featuring the pros from 'This Is Us,' 'Stranger Things,' 'Westworld' and 'Atlanta'
The Emmys’ Outstanding Music Supervision award is only in its second year -- Big Little Lies’ music supervisor Susan Jacobs took home the inaugural trophy in 2017 -- but it’s already established itself as one of the most fun categories to dissect.
Here, four of 2018’s nominees — This is Us’s Jennifer Pyken, Stranger Things’ Nora Felder, Westworld’s Sean O’Meara, and Atlanta’s Jen Malone, who shares her nod with Fam Udeorji — take Billboard inside the episodes they chose to submit for consideration and share their most successful strategies for creating memorable music moments on TV. (The category’s fifth nominee is the team from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: Robin Urdang, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino).
ALWAYS SERVE THE STORY
O’Meara submitted “Akane No Mai,” which immersed viewers in Westworld’s Shogun World theme park, in part because its use of music captures the mission of the show (which often features re-recorded and rearranged versions of modern songs).
“Our show is a study in the ways in which different cultures collide and cross-pollinate with each other through music, film, television, video games, etc.,” he explains. “‘Akane No Mai’ was an incredibly exciting challenge because it gave us the chance to explore the give and take between Eastern and Western filmmaking – a conversation that I have always been fascinated by -- and delve into musical choices that play on the Eastern-Western collision.”
Yet finding a song to rework with Japanese instrumentation for the scene in which Akane (Rinko Kikuchi) is forced to dance for a shogun (Masaru Shinozuka) after he brutally kills a loved one of hers turned out to be a relatively easy process. “I was drawn immediately to the Wu-Tang Clan. Their music is incredibly rich and layered — and built on repurposing Samurai film dialogue and mise-en-scène in their music,” O'Meara says. “Composer Ramin Djawadi, music editor Chris Kaller and I explored a lot of options, but ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ has such an iconic riff that it quickly became the clear choice. Ramin’s stunning transformation of that song is one of my favorites in the series.”
Felder, who was also nominated last year for her work on Stranger Things, chose season two’s “Trick or Treat, Freak” because she felt the episode shows how effective evocative music can be when it comes to establishing the identities of new faces and introducing key plot points.
“This episode’s music created melodic and lyrical opportunities for the viewer to meet new key characters such as the endearingly romantic Bob, with the use of ‘Islands in the Stream,’ and our testosterone-fueled bad boy, Billy, with songs such as Ted Nugent’s ‘Wango Tango,’” she says. “This episode also uses the backdrop of Halloween, along with some iconic songs, to enhance subliminal clues concerning what is to come this season. A couple of examples are ‘Ghostbusters,’ which is about heroes fighting sinister forces, not unlike Lucas, Will, Mike, and Eleven, and the always playful ‘Monster Mash,’ with its easily overlooked lyrics such as ‘I beheld an eerie sight’ alluding to Will’s private terror and the impending danger for the town of Hawkins.”
For This is Us’s Pyken, the job is particularly special when a script calls for the creation of an original song for a character to sing, which is why she submitted “That’ll Be the Day,” the episode of the time-hopping family drama in which a faulty crock pot sets the Pearson family home ablaze. In it, teen Kate (Hannah Zeile) records herself on cassette tape singing a song she wrote, “Where I Belong,” while dad Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) films her with a video camera on the sly.
Conversations with the show’s creator, Dan Fogelman, helped Pyken figure out what the tone of the song should be. “What we know about Kate is she's a young teen, she's angsty, she’s sad, and she’s really, really smart. We wanted the song to have that come across,” Pyken explains. So she went out to a handful of songwriters, and one of them -- Elise Davis -- came back with “Where I Belong.” The show’s composer, Siddhartha Khosla, then quickly worked with Davis to fine-tune the track in addition to producing Ziele’s vocals. “We started on a Thursday and the song was done by Sunday,” Pyken says.
Malone and Udeorji, meanwhile, selected Atlanta’s season two premiere, “Alligator Man,” which centers on Earn (Atlanta creator Donald Glover) diffusing a domestic situation at the home of his uncle Willy (Katt Williams), because it showcases the series’ no-rules attitude when it comes to its soundtrack.
“We're obsessed with atmosphere on this show. It's just what feels right -- that helps not only the narrative, but also the vibe and the tone of the scene, and sometimes connecting the episode as a whole,” Malone explains. “We can [go from] something like Death Grips’ ‘Hot Head,’ an electro-punk song [Lakeith Stanfield's character] Darius is listening to that fits his kinetic energy perfectly, to digging into that late ‘70s, early ‘80s R&B disco-funk with Willy: Rene & Angela’s ‘I’ll Be Good,’ L.T.D.’s ‘Love Ballad.’”
LET THE BEST SONG WIN
The decision to use Curtis Mayfield’s “When Seasons Change” for the closing moment of “Alligator Man” shows how Malone and Udeorji like to work. They both watched the scene -- in which a homeless Earn leaves his rapper pal Paper Boi’s place -- and spoke with Glover and director Hiro Murai about what they wanted to convey. “Then Fam and I go back, and he picks his options, I pick my options. We swap them and figure out the top five,” Malone says. “We submit them, and then the editor always has to work up against picture. So that was a Fam choice they chose.”
Sometimes writers will work songs into their scripts, but that doesn’t mean the music supervisors won’t try to top them. Glover had suggested using the Delfonics’ “Hey! Love” during the climactic reveal of Willy’s alligator. “There were a couple of ideas thrown around, but no, you couldn't beat the Delfonics with an alligator named Coach walking out in slo-mo,” Malone says.
The song that crushed This is Us fans’ hearts during the memory-and-fire-fueled montage at the end of “That’ll Be the Day” — The Cinema Orchestra’s “To Build a Home” — was also scripted. “It’s not like if it's scripted, we have to use it. When we shoot an episode, we have to watch and see how it comes out, and that's where I come in,” Pyken says. “We did clear a few songs for the scene, but that one [fit] the mood and the tone of what was going on. It just really worked.”
There are also times when both Pyken and the show’s composer will be working on the same scene, not knowing who’ll win the placement. “For instance, in the funeral scene, we had a song [as a placeholder], and it was in there for a while, but it made sense that it should be scored,” she says. “Sometimes my songs get pulled out, but I understand why. That was such an emotional scene that I really felt like, ‘Wow, the score just made that scene.’”
The beauty of any song-versus-score battle on Westworld, O’Meara says, is that, either way, it’s still a collaboration with composer Djawadi, as he does all the new arrangements of existing songs. (Djawadi is nominated in the Emmys’ Outstanding Music Composition category this year for his work on both Westworld and Game of Thrones.)
“Every once in a while Ramin will compose a piece of music where we’re unsure if the song we are considering will work. His original music seldom loses,” O’Meara says. “In fact, we had [made a version of] the opening credits for the entire series with a song that felt like a perfect fit – an updated take on a classic. We had watched every cut of that pilot with that song in the credits. But I had a nagging feeling that Ramin could beat it. And he did. We talked about the idea of a violin teaching a piano the melody, a metaphor for the hosts and their human creators. We screened an early version of Ramin’s glorious theme and never looked back.”
The debate for Felder is often about which lesser-known ‘80s gem to unearth for Stranger Things. Mining the “lost, forgotten, or dusty pockets of music history sometimes feels a bit like retroactive A&R,” she says. But the payoff is worth it.
“For one of the scenes in The Palace video arcade, which became the kids’ new hangout in season two, we used a song by German electronic artist Robert Görl called ‘Darling Don’t Leave Me,’” she says. “I was instantly drawn to it, and while listening I realized that it also featured Annie Lennox in the recording. … I think that’s one of the successes of Stranger Things. When the audience experiences these songs, whether previously known or perhaps never heard before, they are experiencing the music in a fresh new light when [these songs are] associated with this amazing world and these dynamic characters.”
MASTER THE NEGOTIATIONS
There’s a less visible, more practical side of music supervision that TV fans may not spend enough time appreciating: securing rights. “No matter what project I am working on, it’s always that delicate balance of trying to stay within a budgetary financial box while trying to think out of the box to find great songs,” Felder says. Consider her nominated episode: “With so many iconic copyrights by artists such as Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, Ray Parker Jr., Duran Duran, and Motley Crue, the practical negotiation process had to be handled in a delicate and respectful manner. Though some negotiations took longer than others, I do think everything worked out well for all involved.”
The clearance process involves all sorts of hurdles. For Malone and Udeorji, the collaborative spirit of hip-hop means a track can sometimes have half a dozen to a dozen credited writers, all of whom must be contacted. And sometimes it’s difficult to get ahold of the artist in consideration: Take Tay-K, whose track “The Race” is in “Alligator Man” as the pump-up song for the kids robbing a fast-food restaurant. “I just got a notification that he is in solitary confinement right now,” Malone says. “He actually has management and a label taking care of his affairs, so even though he's in jail, it was actually an easier clearance than most. But it was still like, ‘Okay, so we're going to the jail tomorrow, and we'll get the sign off.’”
Music supervisors are often under the gun to meet deadlines, but sometimes they need to work far ahead -- as was the case with Westworld’s “Akane No Mai,” as songs were built into the story and tied to dances that needed to be choreographed and taught to the actors.
“For Akane’s dance, the music is such an integral and emotional part of that sequence,” O’Meara explains. “We chose ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ far in advance so that we could ensure that every element of the scene — the music, the dance, the costumes, the set design — all came together to perfectly and wordlessly express the unfathomable grief, anger and pain Akane has to be feeling in order to do what she does in that moment.”
Supervisors can also get a heads-up when the show’s writers know a song will be a big ask that requires much back-and-forth, like when This Is Us wanted Jack to play Kate a Bruce Springsteen song, “My Beautiful Reward,” in the episode “The Car.” “We worked with his lawyer and his publisher and his label to get him the information to proceed to get the clearance,” Pyken recalls.
Artists understandably require a description of the scene in which their music will be used. That can be tricky when, say, you’re approaching Stevie Wonder for two songs (“Sweet Little Girl” and “Evil”) to bookend the Atlanta season two episode “Teddy Perkins,” which begins with Darius driving to the home of a Michael Jackson-esque figure to pick up a piano and ends with a murder-suicide. There was hesitation from Wonder’s camp, Malone recalls.
“It’s the only time in the two seasons that we've had to enlist Donald to help push it through, because it’s his episode, his vision and such a pivotal moment,” she says. “We did send [his team] the episode to watch, and then Donald and him got on a phone call. Donald was telling us that it was an amazing phone call, even for him to be talking to one of his icons. We're all like, ‘Could you tape it? Could you do it again, and we’ll be on the call?’”
Malone never wants to be the one to tell Glover that her team couldn’t clear a song. “I learned how to dig very, very, very deep to find people,” she says. “I mean, obituaries are always helpful when you're trying to find estates. So that's kind of a trade secret that I just realized after working on this show.”
Their preference for more obscure musical choices also means they have their work cut out for them. “We'll go for track 11 or 12 on an artist’s third record, or sometimes there are samples that haven't been cleared,” she says. “So we have to go and take care of it. With Fam and I, it's very much a divide-and-conquer type of situation. Doing this job, on this show, you learn something every day. And learning how Donald, Hiro and the editors look at music to picture is just always inspiring.”
ALWAYS BE LISTENING...
As you can imagine, music supervisors always have their ears open for song ideas. Pyken had seen singer-songwriter Langhorne Slim at a showcase and took note of his storytelling skills. When she went to work on “That’ll Be the Day,” she thought his uptempo song “The Way We Move” would be perfect for the light-hearted sequence in which brothers Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) bond while making repairs in an apartment building. “I sent it to the editors, they cut it in, and, bam, it was done,” she says.
Malone has found a couple of artists on Instagram, following different labels and manager friends who might tease music she bookmarks and investigates later. But there are less obvious means of discovering new music, too. Pyken remembers being in her local dessert shop and Shazam-ing one of the songs the cool kids working behind the counter were playing. “It didn't get in the show, but I did put it on one of my mixtapes [for the show's editors],” she says.
Felder stumbled upon one song idea she’s yet to use while visiting a large antique flea market outside of Budapest last year. “I was eyeing an extremely old European record player and was asking if it worked,” she says. “The proprietor of the stall took out a pile of old records and proceeded to put on a 45 with a 1920s song by a French female singer. Upon hearing this recording, I was instantly mesmerized and asked if I could buy the record, but to no avail. I then took a picture of the vinyl label so that I would remember the song. I hope to one day be able to place it somewhere for the right scene and moment.”
…BUT DON’T FORGET WHAT YOU’VE ALREADY HEARD
Some songs take on such a special meaning in the world of a show that supervisors use them again. This Is Us’s pilot closed with the Labi Siffre song “Watch Me,” and fans might have recognized a cover of that song by Grey Reverend playing in the end montage of season two’s “Super Bowl Sunday” episode.
For Westworld fans, the song on repeat in “Akane No Mai” is the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black.”
“As part of that interplay between Eastern and Western filmmaking, we knew we wanted to convey that Delos had copied Shogun World’s mountain village from Westworld’s Sweetwater, [and] we wanted to ease the audience into the realization,” O’Meara says. “In season one, we used Ramin’s bravura orchestral arrangement of ‘Paint It Black’ to remind the audience that, though seemingly antique, Westworld is set in the future, not in the past. Taking the song and translating it into Japanese instrumentation felt like the perfect way to introduce Shogun World to the audience.”
Shows can also draw on the audience’s pre-existing relationship with songs from outside the show. “It’s a shorthand you share with the audience that can help instantly convey an entire range of emotions for the viewer,” O’Meara says. “In the Super Bowl spot we shot for season two, we used Kanye West’s ‘Runaway’ because the song itself speaks such volumes. It’s powerful and beautiful – and simultaneously subversive and revolutionary. [It’s] exactly what we wanted to convey about the season in the 30 seconds we had on everyone’s television screen.”