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

EMMYS 2017: The Standout Performances of the Season

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.”

MORE: How 'The Americans' Budding Spy Holly Taylor Stole The Season With a Single Word

‘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.”

MORE: How Well Does the 'Big Little Lies' Cast Know Each Other?

‘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.”

MORE: 'The Handmaid's Tale' Music Supervisor Talks Season 1's Best Musical Moments

‘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.”

MORE: Breaking Down the 7 Best 'Leftovers' Musical Moments From the Final Season

‘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.

MORE: Director Melina Matsoukas Pivots From Beyonce to Must-See TV

‘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." 

MORE: Milo Ventimiglia Satifies His Creative Curiosity With 'This Is Us'