EXCLUSIVE: Music Supervisors for 'Americans,' 'Big Little Lies' and 'Master of None' on Season's Best Music

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HBO

For the first time ever, the 2017 Primetime Emmys will hand out an award for Outstanding Music Supervision, acknowledging the creative contributions made by the music supervisors on TV series. It’s an award that’s long overdue; music supervision is an often misunderstood art form thought to be as simple as pulling songs off an iPod. “There’s so much work that goes into it that you don’t see on the screen,” says Amanda Krieg Thomas, who works on The Americans. “It’s not, quote, ‘picking songs.’”

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Instead, a show’s music supervisor is tasked with establishing (or enhancing) a show’s atmosphere, navigating the storytelling and onscreen performances and licensing songs that make sense for that particular series. Nowhere is that better exemplified than on Big Little Lies and The Leftovers on HBO, FX’s The Americans, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s TaleMaster of None on Netflix and the NBC breakout series This Is Us.

Now that the 2016-2017 season is officially over for these five series, ET hopped on the phone with each of their music supervisors to discuss how the music came together and their favorite moments from the season.

‘The Americans’
Music Supervisor: Amanda Krieg Thomas and P.J. Bloom
Standout Moment: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John in Episode 13 

One thing that notably sets The Americans apart from many TV shows (and even others on this list) is its sparse use of music, which is only brought in for key moments week to week. Any given episode might only include one or two song cues. “They use it really sparingly and to great effect,” Thomas says. And now that the FX series about two KGB spies posing as an American married couple during the Cold War is five seasons in, Thomas and Bloom, a music supervision duo whose work includes other FX series such as American Horror Story and Feud, really understand The Americans’ tone. “We’re entrenched in the pathos of what’s going on,” Thomas says of having a deep understanding of not only how to enhance the vision of showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, but also an understanding of who these characters are and what the show’s about. “We’re very lucky the stories are particularly nuanced and have so much depth.”

In season five, the few moments that do get enhanced with music are put to expert use. For Thomas, a prime example of that is in episode three, “The Midges,” which features Roxy Music’s “More Than This” in the opening and closing moments. At first, it’s heard in a bowling alley just as it would be if it were actually playing there. But when the song comes back as Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) load a body into a car, “it takes on a completely different meaning,” Thomas says of elevating a moment that’s already there in the storytelling and acting. “We just help speak to that.” Another example is Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which is overheard during a montage of characters during the season five finale. “There were a lot of songs we tried for that sequence,” Thomas reveals, saying that John’s track was the only one that could “cover a lot of emotional bases and have different meanings.”

While “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” a well-known song among fans, was a choice put forth by the showrunners, Thomas credits both of them for encouraging her and Bloom to dig deep to find music that fits the show. While she asserts that everything is “period-authentic,” something the show takes seriously at all levels, they rarely rely on hits, preferring to find a band “that just fits into the ethos of the show,” like Bauhaus in episode six or even Peter Gabriel’s lesser-known song “Lay Your Hands on Me.” Also featured in episode six, “Lay Your Hands on Me” is the third Gabriel song to appear on the show. As to why he works so well for The Americans, Thomas says “there’s depth, there’s emotion, there’s lot of energy” to his music. “His is the right tone and vibe.”

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‘Big Little Lies’
Music Supervisor: Susan Jacobs
Standout Moment: “September Song” by Agnes Obel in Episode 3

HBO

Director Jean-Marc Vallee is famous for not using a composer, preferring to score his movies with a soundtrack of existing music. “He’s committed to that direction when he starts,” Jacobs says. So when she was brought in to work on HBO’s Big Little Lies, the first series for both of them, she had the task of filling seven hours of TV. “The volume of it was daunting,” she says of not only being responsible for getting rights to the show’s varied music, which includes at least five songs per episode, but also writing original songs and casting music and voice extras for certain scenes on the show. But Vallee was so committed to the idea that he came in knowing exactly which songs he wanted to use on the series.

Telling the interwoven stories of mothers -- Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Jane (Shailene Woodley), Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) and Renata (Laura Dern) -- living in a rich California coastal town, the director wanted the music on Big Little Lies to represent the power of these women. “The ocean was very part of that for him, too,” Jacobs says of finding music that spoke to the ebbs and flows of the characters’ emotions. One prime example is Agnes Obel’s “September Song,” a personal favorite of Jacobs’, which is first heard in the premiere and again in episode three as Madeline is driving home. Wanting something simple that could play in the background, the song matched Madeline’s heartbreak and its repetitive sound “rolls like a wave,” the music supervisor says.

Also in keeping with the strength of the women was the largely predominant use of female vocalists throughout the series. In addition to Obel, the soundtrack included songs by Martha Wainwright (“Bloody Mother F**kin Asshole”), Fleetwood Mac (“Dreams”), Alabama Shakes (“This Feeling”), Irma Thomas (“Straight From the Heart”) and Ituana, a studio musician who notably covered the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” in the series finale’s closing moments, jumping between Perry’s (Alexander Skarsgard) death and the women at the beach. For Jacobs, she liked how this version flipped what “tends to be such a masculine song.”

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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
Music Supervisor: Michael Perlmutter
Standout Moment: “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds in Episode 2

Hulu

Since its premiere, The Handmaid’s Tale has earned critical praise for its timely narrative about a near-future society in which women, stripped of their freedoms, have been placed into servitude shortly after the fall of the U.S. government. At the center of this dystopian saga is Offred (Elisabeth Moss), a handmaid placed in the household of Commander Fred Waterford and his wife, Serena Joy (played by Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski). Her journey (and perseverance) is largely what drives the show’s song selections, which Perlmutter says should form “a soundtrack that sounds like freedom.” Working with showrunner Bruce Miller, the episodes’ directors, including Reed Morano, who helmed the first three, and Moss, who serves as a producer on the series, Perlmutter put together a seemingly random collection of songs -- from Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” to “Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor -- that all ultimately speak to the same idea.

Perhaps the most standout scene is when a defiant Offred walks out of the Waterfords’ household, recounting her secret meeting with the Commander as Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” plays in the background. Her moment is destroyed when she discovers her shopping partner is no longer the same person. “F**k,” she says to herself. Thought of on the day of shooting, Morano explained that the moment felt very “high school,” leading them to think of John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, which famously ended with the Simple Minds tune.

Perlmutter says that iconic moment from the ’80s didn’t prevent them from using the song in the scene. “Everyone came out of it going, ‘This is a new world. This is a new use and it’s great,’” he explains, adding that the song has three levels of meaning on the Hulu series: There’s the defiant high school feeling; the shock when Offred discovers that Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) is gone; and Offred’s own point of view of not being forgotten. “We’re hoping that 20 years from now, people say that it’s an iconic song from The Handmaid’s Tale.”

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‘The Leftovers’
Music Supervisor: Liza Richardson
Standout Moment:
“Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)” by Wu-Tang Clan in Episode 2

If we’re in a golden age of music on TV, then The Leftovers is leading it with its third and final season. With a broad mission to take big swings with everything from the writing to the acting, the show’s music selection was far from an afterthought. In fact, Richardson was tasked by co-creator Damon Lindelof with the goal of choosing songs that would “surprise” the audience, which was heard week to week in the episodes’ different opening music selections that were chosen based on that hour’s theme.

The most apt example of a “surprise” moment, though, is the use of Wu-Tang Clan in episode two, during which Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) reveals to Erika Murphy (Regina King) she had covered a tattoo of her children’s names with the rap group’s logo. Admittedly, the Wu-Tang Clan has nothing to do with the show, having never been referenced or heard before in it. But knowing they were going to do an episode about it, writer Tamara Carter pitched an idea involving the group. “At first, [the writers] were going to have the tattoo have lyrics from a Wu-Tang Clan song, so we needed to have the lyrics cleared," Richardson reveals, saying she dug up songs with lyrics that would be appropriate for Nora. In the end, it became a tattoo of the logo, in part because it looks like a phoenix.

Nora’s story was equal parts sad and funny, and only made more epic by Wu-Tang Clan's "Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)" playing in the background as she and Erika jumped on an outdoor trampoline later in the episode. While there were a few options to choose from, Richardson says the Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) track “works best” in the moment. “I love loud songs with slow motion, especially on a trampoline with those girls and their beautiful bodies,” she says. “It was so great.”

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‘Master of None’
Music Supervisor:
Kerri Drootin and Zach Cowie
Standout Moment: “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” by Soft Cell in Episode 5

Netflix

When it comes to Master of None, creator and star Aziz Ansari had one mission: make it like nothing he’s never seen on TV before. Not confined to the conventions of a traditional sitcom, Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang pushed the limits of what their show could be, resulting in season two’s black-and-white homage to Italian cinema in the premiere to Lena Waithe’s personal tale of coming out in “Thanksgiving.” “It also made sense to do something no one’s ever heard before, musically,” says Cowie, who was ultimately inspired by Woody Allen as a storyteller who understands how music and film go together. “He takes contemporary subject matter and puts Gershwin behind it.”

Cowie’s version of that is using a varied soundtrack -- from Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” to Sylvester’s “I Need Somebody to Love Tonight” in one episode alone -- that doesn’t put Master of None in a specific time or place. And keeping to the idea of “pushing it further” in season two led the show to figure out how to get permission to use Lucio Battisti’s “Amarsi Un Po” in episode nine. The legendary singer had never licensed his music outside of Italy before; Master of None became the first international project to get the rights for one of his records. “We didn’t get it cleared until three days before the episode mixed,” Cowie reveals.

Another moment that Cowie really loves is when Soft Cell’s “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” plays behind a long shot of Dev (Ansari) as he sits alone in the back of a cab in the final scene of episode five. “It’s my favorite scene of the whole show,” he says of the transcendent moment. Thought of on the fly, it was an idea that came from Ansari, and when the team saw it in the dailies they knew it was a perfect fit. “It’s always really fun for me, in my job, to let something be,” Cowie says, knowing when not to mess with a good thing. Episode five also features a live performance by John Legend, who is friends with Ansari off-screen. Working with Ansari, Cowie came up with a list of songs that the singer might perform during a dinner party scene, which needed to serve as a turning point between Dev and Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi). On the list was a cover of Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It,” which Legend selected and performed live on set in one take.

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‘This Is Us’
Music Supervisor:
Jennifer Pyken
Standout Moment:
“If Only” by Maria Taylor in Episode 9

It's no secret music plays a crucial role in the fabric of This Is Us. For Pyken, finding the perfect song to match the emotion of the NBC drama's sentimental scenes is its own reward. "With music, everyone brings something, whether it's what they're listening to now or something they may have been listening to in the past," says Pyken, whose two-decade career includes credits like Felicity, Alias and One Tree Hill. While several iconic musical moments from the first season -- such as the opening (Sufjan Stevens' "Death With Dignity") and closing (Labi Siffre's "Watch Me") songs in the first episode or Cat Stevens' "Moonshadow" in the finale -- were creator Dan Fogelman’s suggestions, Pyken credits their working relationship as being a "collaborative" one, even though she often doesn't find out what's coming until the last moment.

"We look at each episode and work with what's going on in each episode. I don't think there's a specific formula that we use," Pyken shares, admitting that there was no clear "mission statement" given to her in the beginning. That freedom afforded her the ability to connect with the characters as they wove in and out of different decades in their lives. "We do flash back, so we use a lot of cool [artists] like Dire Straits, Blind Faith and Van Morrison that put us in those eras," she says. "We talk about what Jack and Rebecca would be listening to and who they are as people. When we go to the '90s, what are little Kate, Kevin and Randall listening to? What's happening in 1992?" 

One musical moment that stands out the most to Pyken accompanies one of the most heartwarming scenes of the season, though the "Memphis" episode holds a special place in her heart. In the ninth episode, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) puts young Randall on his back, completing push-ups as a metaphorical commitment to raising him into a respectable man, while former Azure Ray singer Maria Taylor's dreamy, nostalgic "If Only" adds depth and heart to the tearjerker moment. "When that scene came up, we dropped [the song] in and it was magic. It was done. We never had to look for another song," Pyken recalls, adding that she finds satisfaction in highlighting indie artists who "don't get placement." Funnily enough, Pyken's relationship with Taylor dates back to Felicity, and the song was immediately identified as the perfect soundtrack for a montage. "Her lyrics and her voice, something about her music just speaks to me." 

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