Even when music supervisor Nora Felder isn’t in active production on the runaway hit Netflix series Stranger Things, her ears are perked up. “I have the characters constantly living in my head from each of my projects,” says Felder, alluding to the show’s memorable cast, from the psychokinetic Eleven to police chief Jim Hopper. “When I’m driving, I’m either surfing radio stations or Spotify, and jumping between genres and decades. My musical radar is always on, even in my sleep, and I’m constantly seeking, in any way or form, whatever message the universe might decide to send me.”
Felder’s two decade-plus career as a music supervisor stretches back to the 1997 comedy Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion and includes other hit TV series such as Californication, Ray Donovan, What We Do In The Shadows? and Baskets, but Stranger Things is her biggest calling card these days. A cultural sensation, the foundation of the show and its fandom is an inherent nostalgia for ’80s culture, style and storylines. Of course, that encapsulates its soundtrack as well, from its now-famous theme song (courtesy of the synth duo SURVIVE) to montages and diegetic music. It’s such a major facet that the soundtrack to season three, already out on CD and on streaming services, sees vinyl release on Friday (July 26) via Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings.
“As the show has grown, the post-production team and I have gotten to know each other quite well and really have a rock-solid groove down,” says Felder, who joined the team before the show premiered on Netflix in 2016 with nary an expectation in sight. “We’ve shared this wild ride together since the beginning. I really adore this team. And the good news is we all love music, so I try to keep the net wide open in order to catch ideas that might float around.” According to Felder, the hunt can be as rewarding as the results. “It’s not only what you know, it’s what you find out. You never know where a great idea is going to germinate.”
While the task of crafting an ’80s-era soundtrack is a gift for any music supervisor, Felder notes it can ultimately be tricky to pinpoint songs that were released in the exact timeframe of the show. “Season three takes place in the summer of 1985, and we try to use songs that came out with the year of that season,” says Felder. “Specifically (with songs) that play as diegetic music coming from a source within the world of these Hawkins, Indiana characters; like music playing on one of their radios or in the background at a party.” Take for example the placement of Corey Hart’s 1985 hit “Never Surrender.” “Mike (played by Finn Wolfhard) is serenading Eleven (the actress Millie Bobby Brown) with his quirky, yet pseudo-sexy, rendition of ‘Never Surrender,'” says Felder. “Having Mike introduce a song to Eleven that was popular in 1985 was a romantic and effective way to establish the year in which season three is taking place (right in that) first episode.”
Another notable placement, in episode three, involved a popular track from the ’70s. “When viewing the footage for the ending of the third episode, Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ magically seemed to pop into my head as an idea,” says Felder of the classic 1971 ballad from the singer-songwriter. “I played it against the scene and instantly loved the way the song, in both lyric and mood, ironically enhanced (the scene).” Felder then got co-signs from editor Nat Fuller and director Shawn Levy, who both gave their blessing. “After the use was greenlit, I still had the nerve-racking task of getting the use of it cleared for a scene with such delicate subject matter,” says Felder of asking for permission to use it. “We were really happy that Mr. McLean and the label were able to approve it.”
While the aforementioned Hart was an ’80s star (“Never Surrender” peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100) and “American Pie” is obviously an iconic cut from classic rock era, Felder also tries to do what she dubs “retroactive A&R” — bringing lesser known songs to the forefront. Case in point: the use of an obscure track dubbed “Open the Door” courtesy the band Gentlemen Afterdark. A Phoenix, Arizona-based group once championed by the rocker Alice Cooper who never enjoyed mainstream success, the song found its way to Felder courtesy Fervor Records which specializes in television and film placements. “We were originally considering a widely known song,” she says of a breakfast scene during the first episode of the season. “For a number of reasons, however, we decided to experiment with other options and I decided to test ‘Open The Door’ and loved the way it flowed with these scenes. I’m also quite fond of it and often thought it sounded just as great as many hit songs from the ’80s. Thankfully the producers felt the same way, and I’m hoping that it will deservedly find a new audience.”
At the same time, Felder also admits they’ll fudge the musical timeline if the creative team comes across a perfect song that doesn’t fit the exact year, pointing to a specific moment that eagle-eyed viewers might’ve noticed during the new season’s eighth episode. “We used ‘Goldrush Il’ by the ’80s Swiss electro duo Yello,” says Felder. “The song wasn’t released until 1986, but it effectively captured the pacing of this getaway scene with our main characters speeding away in a muscle car. As long as a song enhances the sonic ambiance of the story, we think it’s AOK to take this kind of creative liberty.”
With the third season behind her, Felder says the only real challenges she faces are the ones she puts on herself. “I try to kick the creative levels up a notch each season because I don’t want to ever feel too comfortable or become too complacent by relying on music I’m already familiar with,” she explains. “The good news is that with each new season comes another year of songs that we get to rediscover.”