Job Description: Music supervisors

Job Description: Music supervisors

Michael Pickard
By Michael Pickard
March 23, 2021

Job Description

Juliet Martin and Maggie Phillips discuss working as music supervisors on BBC and Hulu sensation Normal People, explaining how music can enhance drama and highlighting some of their favourite tracks.

Across more than a century, the words to Danny Boy have been sung by artists such as Johnny Cash, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Eric Clapton, Sinead O’Connor and Eva Cassidy. But it was a cover by Irish musician and singer Lisa Hannigan that bonded the partnership between music supervisors Juliet Martin and Maggie Phillips as they worked together to provide the soundtrack to BBC and Hulu drama Normal People.

Hannigan provided the vocals for a version of Danny Boy that featured in season two of US series Fargo, on which Phillips worked and Martin admired, leading them both to agree that Hannigan should feature on Normal People when they began work on what would become one of last year’s biggest drama hits.

“I knew Maggie because I loved Fargo season two and specifically checked out who the music supervisor was on that a couple of years ago. So when her name came up [to work on Normal People], I knew who she was,” Martin tells DQ. “Lisa Hannigan recorded Danny Boy and I was like, ‘Wow, love that.’”

“We first bonded over a shared love of Lisa,” Phillips adds. “We commissioned Lisa to do that for Fargo and the first thing Juliet and I spoke about was that we needed to get Lisa Hannigan into this show. And we did.”

Hannigan’s Undertow, from her 2016 album At Swim, subsequently played during the closing moments of episode four of the series, an adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel produced by Element Pictures that debuted to huge acclaim last year. Set in a small town in the west of Ireland, the series focuses on Connell (Paul Mescal), a well-liked, good-looking and athletic football player, and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a proud, intimidating and unpopular loner who actively avoids her classmates and challenges teachers’ authority.

Juliet Martin

Sparks fly between the two when Connell comes to pick up his mother Lorraine (Sarah Greene) from her job at Marianne’s house, and a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers, one that sees them weave in and out of each other’s lives as they move from school to university, revealing the complications of intimacy and young love.

While Normal People was filmed in Dublin, Sligo, Sweden and Italy during 2019, Martin and Phillips worked together remotely in a time before Covid-19, with Martin based in Ireland and Phillips in LA. But neither of them could predict the success of the show, which earned Emmy and Golden Globe nominations in the US ahead of a likely run of nominations for UK awards this year in the wake of director Lenny Abrahamson winning the Royal Television Society award for best drama director at the end of last year.

Stars Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones have garnered most of the praise for their touching performances on screen, but it’s also notable how much attention was given to the show’s soundtrack following the show’s launch. News articles and Spotify playlists dedicated to the songs featured sprang up as the show entranced viewers during the first coronavirus lockdowns last spring.

“It’s been exciting,” says Phillips. “Both Juliet and I knew we were doing something special from the beginning. I knew the show was amazing, but I was a little taken aback by the response to the music because we purposely went in there to be very reserved with our views. We didn’t want it to be wall-to-wall music. We didn’t want it to feel like your typical YA show, very melodramatic and heavy with a lot of new artists. We purposefully did the flip of that. Since the music was pretty quiet, I didn’t think it would have the response it has had, so it was pretty nice.”

In some episodes, as few as two pieces of music used, while a lot of the more commercial or recognisable songs that feature only do so as instrumentals, Green notes. “There’s a Nick Drake bit that’s just instrumental and a couple from [ambient music duo] A Winged Victory of the Sullen. I haven’t worked on anything as big or had such a big reaction as Normal People. I know Maggie’s worked on lots of big things but that, for me, was new and quite crazy for a few weeks. I was taken aback.”

Describing Roma as one of her favourite examples of screen music supervision, Phillips has an extensive back catalogue, having worked on series including The Handmaid’s Tale, Snowfall, Bosch, Mr Robot, Legion, Homecoming and the aforementioned Fargo. Martin, meanwhile, has worked on The South Westerlies, Can’t Cope Won’t Cope and film Rosie.

Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal in Normal People

“You’re working to the vision of the director and the creative team, so it’s about fulfilling what their vision is for it,” Martin says of her role. “You bring your idea of what you think will work but it’s in conjunction with what they want too. Sometimes you just get asked to clear a load of tracks and you come in at a later point, which is fine but it’s a little less exciting. In an ideal world, you’re in at script and building a playlist based on the script. Then it’s like revisions of a book, filing down each scene, cutting and cutting to develop the music.”

Phillips picks up: “A common misconception about music supervision is that it’s our taste, that it’s exactly what we want to do with the show musically, and I would say that happens maybe 5% of the time. There are few shows that I could point to and say, ‘That’s all me.’ Luckily, Juliet and I really bonded with Lenny about the sound of Normal People.”

Wanting music to enhance the story, the narrative and the characters, Phillips often prepares playlists for each of the main characters and the overarching themes of the season with ambitions to add layers to the characters. “In Normal People, so much of the whole story is internal,” she says. “It’s them, their own thought process and the conversations they have with themselves, but I felt like we had a few songs that could speak for Marianne or Connell.”

They also wanted music to punctuate the loaded silences between the central pairing, or to mirror the emotions they had just shared. “Sometimes the music that would come in at the end [of an episode], like the Lisa Hannigan track in episode four, would reflect what you’ve just seen and drive forward and flesh out what you knew they were thinking,” Martin adds. “There were a couple of spots that really reflected what we’d just seen and made you think about it.”

Maggie Phillips

Songs chosen early in the development process rarely make it to the final cut, they both agree, unless they are tied to the production in a particular way – perhaps the writer has specifically mentioned it in the script or it was played while a scene was filmed, for example. Otherwise, like actors, songs are endlessly auditioned until the music supervisors, together with the director, editor and producers, make the final decision.

“You do your general playlist, character playlist and theme playlist, but when you’re really in the thick of it, you’re looking for [specific] songs,” says Phillips, who originally trained as a painter. “I would be virtually in the room with Juliet, Lenny and Nathan [Nugent, editor] and we might have five scenes Lenny wanted us to look at and then Juliet and I would get on the phone afterwards and be like, ‘You take this scene and this scene, I’ll take this,’ so you have the scenes you want to find something for.

“I will do a brainstorm playlist of 20 to 30 songs and then I watch them to picture and narrow it down to five or six to send to the editor. Then the editor cuts them in for the final decision. But music is subjective – that’s the hardest part of this job.

“The producers weigh in, then the studio weighs in, sometimes the network weighs in – and everyone has an opinion about music. We’re only one vote. What’s more heartbreaking is when you think a song is so perfect, you love it so much and you want it to be what the audience hears but it ends up not being the one everyone selects. That’s hard for me.”

Those first conversations with Abrahamson focused on the desire to feature a range of Irish artists on the soundtrack and to make the music feel universal, just like the love story it supports. They also talked about not using too much music on the soundtrack, which would be backed by Stephen Rennicks’ score.

“Lenny actually uses very little score and almost no commercial music on the things he’s worked on before,” Martin says of the Oscar-nominated director. “We just generally discussed Irish musicians and people we knew and liked. You have that general chat and then you start to look more into scenes specifically and have a discussion about whether we would have a track at the end of each episode. There was some discussion about whether that was beneficial, because songs that go over closing titles are more expensive yet the closing titles tend to get whisked away.”

Phillips recalls speaking against one suggestion that a song be played over the first time Connell and Marianne have sex in episode two, which she says would have been a big mistake. “The way Lenny shot it, those sex scenes were really intimate and really close up and you felt like you were in the room with them. You felt uncomfortable and awkward, but you could also feel the intense chemistry,” she explains. “If you put a song over that, you’re immediately taken out of that and it’s going to be one-note emotion. You’re not going to be in there with them. That was one of our first conversations. After that, we were all on the same page creatively, which doesn’t happen all the time.”

The BBC and Hulu drama received widespread critical acclaim

The music supervisors also sought to avoid overly familiar or commercial songs that might pull viewers out of the story, leading to a discussion about using Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek, which became a huge hit after featuring in US drama The OC in 2005 and subsequently being used in a Saturday Night Live sketch that parodied the YA series.

“I don’t like to be taken out of a scene; I like to suspend the emotion,” Phillips says. “The only time I like to be taken out of a scene because of a song is if it’s super stylistic, slick and fun. But whenever you put in a song people know or is really commercial, you’re inevitably going to bring the audience out because they will have other associations with that song.

“I did not want us to use the Imogen Heap song because The OC had such a huge use of it and then SNL did the skit and I thought there was too much attached to that scene. It had too much baggage. Lenny decided to go with it and then there was a whole group of kids 25 and under who had never heard the song and they loved it. There’s no right answer.”

“A lot of people loved that scene more than any other music,” continues Martin of beach scene where the track eventually landed in episode two. “They found that the best music/scene combination or felt that it delivered the most for them. You’re definitely on safer ground when you’re using music not everybody knows. You can just focus on the tone and the feel of the track rather than all the other baggage that might come with that song.”

As for their favourite tracks that did make the cut, Martin’s picks include London Grammar’s Hey Now and the use of Nick Drake’s Horn as Connell and Marianne walk through some fields in episode two.

Phillips highlights two songs by A Winged Victory For the Sullen – Atomos XI and We Played Some Open Chords And Rejoiced, For The Earth Had Circled The Sun Yet Another Year – Yazoo’s Only You, Anna Mieke’s Warped Window and Frank Ocean’s Nikes. They both also name Carly Rae Jepsen’s Too Much among their favourites.

“I just love that we gave Marianne some bubblegum, mainstream, great songs,” Phillips says. “Carly Rae’s a great songwriter but I love that we made Marianne a girl and were allowed to do that with her story. She’s a teenager; she’s not only going to be listening to obscure stuff.”

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