The place? The modest (and fictional) Indiana town of Hawkins. The time? The early ‘80s. The show? The one you and everyone you know can’t seem to stop talking and talking (and talking) about. When season one of Stranger Things dropped on Netflix in the summer of 2016, neither the streaming giant nor the people involved in its making, from show creators The Duffer Brothers to music supervisor Nora Felder, had an inkling that the retro-Spielbergian series would tap into the cultural zeitgeist and quickly become a breakout smash.
“I certainly felt it was something that could resonate in a big way,” Felder explains from her Los Angeles office, the location of which she’d rather not reveal to ward of rabid fans. “But international zeitgeist big? There’s no way to predict that.”
Felder is the force behind Stranger’s totally ’80s soundtrack, helping to add an authentic musical feel to accent the trials and tribulations of the paranormal world of the series, which recently returned for its second season and features cuts ranging from Corey Hart’s pop classic “Sunglasses at Night” to the Devo hit “Whip It.” For Felder, it’s a job she initially fell into after breaking into the music business in New York, first promoting music events at a club on the Lower East Side. From there, she began working closely with the legendary producer Phil Ramone, first as his assistant and then working her way up to becoming vice president of his production company. Says Felder: “(I think) those past experiences, which included coordinating events and shows, working with both new and established artists, interfacing with various music executives and the endless hours spent in the recording studio, provided a perfect backdrop.”
Eventually Felder became a go-to music supervisor for a variety of buzzy shows, most notably a string of Showtime series including Californication, Ray Donovan and the recent White Famous. It’s Felder’s association with Stranger Things, however, that stands out among them as a show where its soundtrack is just as important, and well known, as what’s happening on screen. The gig came her way through Stranger’s picture editor Kevin Ross who suggested Felder for the role of music supervisor. “He knew I was so hands on,” says Felder of her intense attention to the details of her craft. “I only take on a certain number of projects a year as opposed to other big music supervision companies that take on many projects at once.”
Felder was hired and while she could have never imagined the show’s success, she did realize she was working on something special. “When I read the script, it gave me goosebumps and made me forget to breathe or blink,” she says of her initial foray into helping craft the show’s pilot episode. “When I saw the casting choices bring the script to life, from Eleven’s stare to Dustin’s smile and natural comedic timing… that’s when I knew I was part of something extraordinary.”
When it comes to Felder’s process, it always starts with the script. “I want to immerse myself with each chapter,” she explains. “From there, the stories, characters and scenes remain constantly alive in my mind’s eye around the clock. Ideas will pop into my head randomly, sometimes they’ll even wake me up in the middle of the night. At the same time, I’m assessing the needs the producers want to accomplish.” Felder’s job is a juggling act that involves collaborating with creators Matt and Ross Duffer (“they’re heavily involved in all aspects of their story, including the music”), as well as the show’s budget. During the debut season, there was also the aspect of clearing songs for an untested series. “Sometimes with new shows it can be tricky, especially when you’re trying to sell a story about monsters in an Upside Down world,” says Felder. “But we were able to get everything we hoped for, so we didn’t run into any problems other than keeping our budget which is always tricky with any project. I also have great, long-standing relationships with many labels, publishers and managers, so I think it helps when you’re a trusted source who gravitates toward quality work.”
The positive reaction to the show’s debut caught the Stranger team so off-guard there were no plans to release a soundtrack aside from a score composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. For the show’s sophomore season (nine episodes in all, which took Felder a year to work on), Netflix via Sony Legacy is making up for the oversight with the release of a collection of tracks from season one and two — on CD, vinyl, and, true to the spirit of the show, cassette.
“I think ‘exciting’ is the key word here,” Felder says of being in the middle of the Stranger phenomenon. “When you love a project you’re working on with a huge passion and it resonates on such a huge scale, it’s just so darn thrilling and exciting.”