When the Emmy Awards added the category of music supervision back in February, it felt like an official acknowledgment of the growing significance of music in television. From music-industry series like Empire, The Get Down, and Nashville to dramas like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Fargo that make interesting and often ironic choices when it comes to music — not to mention the beloved tradition of forcing a character to make a fool of him/herself via karaoke — music and TV have enjoyed a particularly fruitful relationship over the past few years.
Nowhere is that relationship more evident than on The Leftovers, which seemed to hit peak ironic-use-of-music in its first two episodes of its third, and final, season. On last night’s episode, “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) gets a phone call from Mark Linn-Baker of Perfect Strangers fame, who, in the world of the show, was the only one of the show’s four stars to be left behind by the Rapture-like event that results in the disappearance of two percent of the world’s population. But before we see Linn-Baker, we get an aural introduction via the show’s opening credits song, which you might have recognized as the theme song to the 80s/90s sitcom Perfect Strangers.
It was all very strange and enigmatic and symbolic and specific; it was very The Leftovers. We spoke to the show’s music supervisor, Liza Richardson, about working with creator/showrunner Damon Lindelof, sourcing obscure religious music, and the benefit of limits.
There was a pretty noticeable shift in the show’s overall tone from the first season to the second — it became a bit funnier, more ironic, and more enigmatic.
Did you and Damon Lindelof talk about that shift and how to signal it through music?
Well, we talk a lot, but I think that [shift] was evident in the scripts, so I just kind of went with the flow. I don’t know if we had any overarching conversations like, “This is how it’s going to be different,” because that was just completely obvious. The first season is a lot more serious, and the music reflects that. We have a lot more fun in the second, and I think, especially, the third season.
We talk all the time about what a scene needs or what he’s looking for, and he’s great about saying, “Like this song, but it needs to do this.” I get a lot of information from him and if I ever have any questions, he’s the best person to go to because he knows exactly what he’s talking about, exactly what he wants. We have a term in our office, “FTS.” It stands for “fix that shit.” And sometimes that’s all the direction you get. Somebody says, “We need a new song here.” What are you looking for? “Just, FTS.” With this show, it’s not like that, because I get so much information from Damon. He’s just an incredible communicator. I get all the information I could possibly dream of!
I feel like there are two extremes to the music on The Leftovers — often, it’s either an ironic song in the context of the scene, or it’s much more literal, like the spiritual song “Sign of the Judgment,” or “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” which plays over this season’s opening sequence. Is that interplay between sincerity and irony intentional?
I think we’re open to both. Some shows want to be on the nose, and my philosophy with music supervision is, sometimes on the nose is — ugh. It just depends on the context. Sometimes it just seems cheesy, like you had your psychic do the music supervision for you. But on the other hand, sometimes it works perfectly. It’s a tricky balance. I think [showrunner] Damon [Lindelof] is very aware of that.
I don’t know if it’s a conscious, overall effort to either be one or the other [sincere or ironic]. It may have turned out that way and certainly that’s a really good point. I don’t necessarily think of it that way, just because we approach everything holistically, and approach each scene for what it requires, or what’s going to help tell the story or make it funny. For instance, in the second season, “I Am a Rock” at the end of one of the episodes, by Simon & Garfunkel — and that was Damon’s idea — was so ridiculously funny. It was so on the nose, but for no reason. It was beyond on the nose. It was hysterical. And it worked great!
That’s ironic, for this show. One of the more noteworthy music cues on this show is the opening credits. The first season had this very intense animated opening sequence with Max Richter’s classical score, and in the second season it changed to a lighter, almost ironically whimsical song that directly addressed the show’s characters in a way, in its chorus. And obviously, the most recent episode has a whole other song, the theme from Perfect Strangers. What was behind the choice to switch that up?
It was a surprise to me, too. I was thrilled, and just delighted. I love our Max Richter theme song and I love the Iris DeMent [“Let the Mystery Be”]. I love them. But how much fun is it to try something new?
There have been some particularly ironic music choices this season, first with “The 59th Street Bridge Song” playing while Kevin prepares to strangle himself in the premiere, and also on last night’s episode, when the police chief in Australia is drowning and there’s this soft, gentle harp music in the background. Are those kinds of cues in the script or is that totally up to the music department, or the director? Is it written, “Ironically cheerful song plays here”?
The Simon & Garfunkel song, that was not scripted, and neither was the harp music. Damon is a big Simon & Garfunkel fan — we used Simon & Garfunkel in Season 2, not only “I Am a Rock,” but also in the karaoke scene. Since we do a lot of repetitive stuff in The Leftovers — we use the same song over and over, or we use an artist several times — I think that was the inspiration for this. We’re fans of Simon & Garfunkel and they go along with Kevin’s character.
For obvious thematic reasons, there’s a lot of religious music on this show, a lot of gospel. Where do you tend to go to find those songs?
Oh, man. We have great resources. We have a lot of independent, authentic, oldie licensors we go to, sometimes for one-stops, meaning, they own the publishing and the recording. Some of the Australian music we use, the Australian religious music, I can’t begin to tell you how deep we dug to find it. There was a chorus, and it was recorded in the ’70s, so the guy has passed away. We found a church near that place, in Australia, and tracked down his estate or his ancestors through a neighboring church. Sometimes the connections are pretty far-fetched.
Looking at your credits, it looks like you’ve done a lot more work in TV in the past five or six or seven years whereas earlier you had more film credits. How have you sort of witnessed the evolution of music supervision in television specifically?
I just always thought that music supervision in films was sort of the holy grail, and when I did Friday Night Lights that changed things for me. I love that show so much. Since then I’ve kind of been on this path. I do still do movies, and I love keeping it diverse — I do commercials, too. Television is just constantly moving. It’s more ephemeral than film, and things get done more quickly, I feel. You have more rigid budgets, which I like. I like limitations. When somebody says, “Pick a song!” I’m like, can’t you limit it a little bit so I don’t have the entire world to draw upon?
Do you see television as a space for increasingly creative work in terms of music supervision and music in general?
Oh, yeah, for sure. The Leftovers is a perfect example. But it’s not always that creative, sometimes it’s pretty basic. That’s fine, too. If I were an interior decorator, I would have clients that know a lot about interior decoration and they just need a certain thing that they want, and I would have clients who know nothing and would need a lot of guidance. It’s the same with what I do. My job is to make the filmmaker happy, whether it’s providing something they already love and know, or it’s me filling in the blanks for them. I don’t care — either way is fine. I love both.
The Leftovers airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.