Amazon’s incredible original series Transparent stars Jeffrey Tambor as 70-year-old Maura. She’s lived most of her life as a man, and now she’s coming out to her dysfunctional-but-committed Los Angeles family. The series owes much to its honest performances, sharp writing, deft direction, and light-touch piano score from Dustin O’Halloran. But another critical element of what makes Transparent Must-Binge-Watch television is the next-level soundtrack selected by music supervisor Bruce Gilbert. He also worked on Orange Is the New Black and the indie smash Afternoon Delight, which was directed by Transparent creator Jill Soloway. Also: Gilbert and Soloway are married.
Gilbert’s almost uniformly cozy, instantaneously just-right song choices elevate Transparent to another level, even though it already exists on another level. The cuts range from Neil Young to Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes to the Yardbirds to Gotye’s 2012 smash “Somebody That I Used to Know,” in probably the best scene we’ll ever see the commonly used song set to. Transparent‘s soundtrack is the soundtrack to the Pfefferman family, the family we’re watching in what’s essentially a five-hour, ten-part movie.
Gilbert, 41, has been a music supervisor for a hot minute. He did four years on Weeds as well as working on Orange Is the New Black and Childrens Hospital. Our conversation touched on the making of Transparent and the specifics of seven great musical moments on the show. (We’ve also got the Transparent Spotify playlist you need.) Grab a fuzzy blanket, plug in your headphones, and press play.
Flavorwire: To start out, what’s your process?
Bruce Gilbert: On any show, I’m constantly on the lookout for the perfect song for any scene. I’ll just be listening to music like I do, day and night, and I’ll have, like, a Transparent filter, among others for other projects that I’m working on. And anything that passes through my ears is going to have to pass through this filter. I can’t even tell you exactly what makes a song live or die for a show, but for me it’s almost entirely by feel. I just know.
Once you cut out the week-to-week waits on a TV show, the flavor of the music becomes clearer. In Transparent, your soundtrack’s a whole character of its own by the end of the second episode, when Neil Young just plays on for about five minutes.
I’m so intimate with the material and the source of the material that it’s so obvious to me what kind of music was going to — you know, who “that character” was, if you’re describing music as a character on the show.
And it’s clear that there’s a person sort of “writing” that character — you. So are you basically the guy with the huge record collection and the huge music encyclopedia in his head, a guy who intimately knows an insane amount of songs?
I think so. At first I kinda couldn’t believe it was a real thing. I find myself doing this after many, many years, and it’s such a natural place for me to be, just as a fan, a consumer, and a lover of music since an early, early age. I never really considered it work and it never really feels like work. And for years, when I was doing it, I kinda wondered, “What am I gonna do when I grow up?” And then, years passed and I was still doing it and it became a real thing.
Music’s in this show’s DNA, clearly. Wild Flag’s Carrie Brownstein is doing her second big role ever, the first being Portlandia. The characters sit around and listen to music, and talk about it. They dance and sing a lot.
And those first three episodes have montages. It wasn’t the plan, but it worked out that way. I didn’t want to be obligated to end an episode with a song, because that’s what people expect in TV these days. In some cases we finish with original score, we have our composer, Dustin, kind of continue down a song’s same road and just sort of carry you off to bed, ease you out of the episode without being like, “Check out this bitchin’ song I thought of when I watched the show!” Let the thing breathe a little bit.
Do you think there’ll be a second season?
That’s up to Amazon, of course. My hunch based on the wildly enthusiastic response is “yes.”
Jim Croce – “Operator (That’s Not the Way it Feels)” (Episode 1, “Pilot”)
The scenes: Siblings Ali and Josh (Gaby Hoffmann and Jay Duplass) bond over their dad’s old records; Croce is a big one from their past. Josh, who works in the music industry, has a young sister duo cover it with a modern spin.
Bruce Gilbert: This was ground zero. When Jill was writing the pilot — long before we even had a series order — she had an idea for the end, where Josh was gonna have those girls sing a song. She was like, “What they should sing?” And I was literally in the next room, she was in her room writing, I was in another room listening to music for whatever project, and … it’s kinda comical to say, but probably within a minute, I was like, “‘Operator,’ Croce.” She was like, “Huh, okay.” She typed it in, probably as a placeholder, and then the longer it lived in the script, the longer it made sense.
A couple people have asked me, “Why that song?” Someone said, “Oh my god, that was on my falling-to-sleep playlist when I was 10 years old, you have no idea what that song did to me.” I think that, right there, says so much. The Croce thing, like Dylan, or Neil Young, or J.J. Cale, there was some sweet spot that we located really early on.
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes – “Mayla” (Episode 1, “Pilot”)
The scene: The show’s first long montage, which begins with Jeffrey Tambor’s first time literally letting his hair down and introducing us to Maura.
Bruce Gilbert: There’s so much in this show that’s about real and imagined past and hidden histories and reconciling some of that stuff, and not being able to, and the conflicts that arrive as a result. Because of the sort of psychic chaos that lives inside their interwoven lives, I think I just wanted some of the music to be a relief. Not in a comical or comedic way, but just in a soothing, nostalgic way, that speaks to the past but also speaks to that feeling of like, “Ahh, that song!” When I started to zero in on Croce and that sort of golden ‘70s California vibe, I started to include more contemporary artists who sort of borrow from that same vibe.
Neil Young – “Razor Love” (Episode 2, “The Letting Go”)
The scene: The song plays over the episode’s last five-and-change minutes, continuously, heartbreakingly.
Bruce Gilbert: The last six-and-a-half minutes or whatever of the second episode of a half-hour show is all Neil Young, which, for a music supervisor, was a dream come true. And I’m not aware of any time “Razor Love” has been used. When I’ve worked at some studios and networks, the first thing out of an executive’s mouth can be, “Ooh, that’s gonna cost a lotta money.” And the first thing out of Joe Lewis, head of comedy at Amazon, was, “Oh my god, are we gonna get that song.”
Bettye Swann – “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” (Episode 4, “Moppa”)
The scene: Bettye sings for a good two minutes while Josh and Ali veg out and comfort each other. “I’m gonna need you to dance with me,” Ali says. We cry all the tears.
Bruce Gilbert: As much as I’d love to take credit for this sweet little jewel, one of our writers actually played it on set the night they shot that scene. And, as was the case with so many magic moments, in the making of this show, the song went on to live in the final cut of the scene. I decided to play it through the end credits because I didn’t ever want it to end. It’s a cover of a Casinoes song.
Gotye feat. Kimbra – “Somebody That I Used to Know” (Episode 7, “The Symbolic Experience”)
The scene: Maura and Davina do a full-length karaoke-style duet; the original song isn’t in the show at all. It might be the biggest musical moment.
Bruce Gilbert: I was in close contact with Jill’s sister Faith, who wrote the episode. She spends a lot of her time working on musicals and writing her own music and doing theater, and the Gotye was something the episode was sort of written around. I went to Gotye’s publisher and said, “This might read a little weird. The scene is gonna be a performance, at a talent show, at an LGBTQ event, and it’s part of a much bigger story, and we’re going to reprise the song with a gorgeous solo piano version. If it works out as scripted, it’s going to be poignant, and a tribute to the song.” It was such a delicate balance, because it could’ve just been really goofy, and it’s intended to be a little bit embarrassing, for the kids’ sake, and it needed to be a popular enough song that we would buy that these two people who aren’t necessarily hipsters would choose.
Flavorwire: It’s definitely a song that your 70-year-old mom or dad hears on the radio and gets super into.
Totally. Another example is this YouTube video of these two dudes singing the song, and they were kind of clowning each other for listening to it, like they were too cool, and then by the chorus they’re just screaming it at the top of their lungs. It’s so infectious.
Bob Dylan – “Oh, Sister” (Episode 8, “Best New Girl”)
The scene: A one-time replacement of composer Dustin O’Halloran‘s hypnotizing, unskippable piano theme on the opening credits.
Bruce Gilbert: “Best New Girl” is a standalone episode told entirely in flashbacks, so I thought: “If people are sitting through the main titles, or at least part of them, in every episode, they’ve listened to that beautiful piano piece for the first seven episodes. This Dylan was an opportunity to sort of mark this episode, just give a small hint, that you’re in for a different treat here.” I think that’s the first time I’ve been able to address the notion of the binge, with regard to how people encounter the music.
Heart — “Dreamboat Annie (Reprise)” (Episode 10, “Why Do We Cover the Mirrors?”)
The scene: The final musical moment of the series, where Josh has another duo cover a song from his past.
Bruce Gilbert: We knew going into the finale that we wanted to bookend the series with what we had accomplished in the pilot, where Josh is in his sweet spot, having an idea, being in his happy place, in music. He grew up with these awesome records, when bands were making albums instead of songs for digital download. He’s reminiscent of a time where there was just more integrity to the work, and he’s trying to recreate that with these girls singing “Dreamboat Annie.”
To go all the way back to the Croce, I wanted to find a song that was going to be timeless enough that it would appeal to these hipsters, in that it wasn’t supposed to be ironic. They were gonna hear it, think it was cool enough to try, dig it, and probably fall more and more in love with it. And “Dreamboat Annie” is actually a song from Jill’s past, that for one reason or another just hit a sweet spot for her, one that brings back so many memories.
A quick note on this 16-song, 66-minute Transparent Spotify playlist, which was assembled like a mixtape from ZD to you:Side A, “fallfolk,” is eight songs. It starts with “Razor Love” — one of Transparent‘s biggest songs — and ends with Leonard Cohen. It’s roughly chronological with the show. Side B, “Maura, 70,” has eight more songs. It opens with “Somebody That I Used to Know” — the show’s other biggest song — and is pretty much a haphazard party from there. It ends with the show’s big finale song, “Dreamboat Annie.”