Thu. Oct 1st, 2020

Interview: Music Supervisor Jen Malone (‘Euphoria’) on Shaping the Sound of the Emmy-Nominated Show

Last summer, HBO’s Euphoria captivated the cultural consciousness thanks to its boundary-pushing plot and its sensational soundtrack, which included both Labrinth’s stunning score and a surplus of standout songs, recent and retro, from varying genres. This sonic atmosphere was arranged by Jen Malone, a former Emmy nominee for Outstanding Music Supervision for Atlanta, who will be returning to the ceremony once again this year after earning her second nomination in this same category for her work on Euphoria. We were able to speak with Malone – who has already won the Guild of Music Supervisor Award for Best Music Supervision – Drama for Euphoria – and hear about her fondness for the field of music supervision and her process when it comes to curating playlists for the projects she works on.

ZG: How did you first get involved with music supervision in general?

JM: I was actually a publicist for rock bands in Boston. But I had just gotten super burnt out, and I knew I needed to do something different, but I wasn’t sure what. Again, I was in Boston, so there [wasn’t] really a big music industry there. I went to go see the movie Iron Man, and the music supervisor credit rolled by, and I was like, ‘Music supervisor… okay, that’s what I want to do!’ So, I packed up all my stuff from Boston, moved [to California] not really knowing anyone or knowing anything about how music supervision works. Obviously, it’s creative, and you pick songs to put in movies, but of course, there’s a huge industry and business behind that, and I didn’t know anything about that business aspect. So, I just kind of came out here and I was hustling, and I was meeting people, and I was taking coffee with whoever would meet with me. Very serendipitously, I met Dave Jordan, who is the music supervisor for all the Marvel films, and we really hit it off, and I just told him, ‘I want to intern for you.’ And because I had been in the music industry for so long, and he came from record labels [I had worked with], we had a lot of mutual contacts, so he was like ‘You’ve run your own business, you’ve been in the music industry for so long, why would you want to intern?” And I told him, ‘Because I don’t know anything about how this industry works and how this business works!” (laughs). And, being that this is the entertainment industry, you start at the bottom, and I respect that process, as nobody is going to pay me to do something that I don’t know how to do. And, he was like, ‘Okay, start tomorrow!’ (laughs). So, I got an internship with him right away, and that was amazing, and it helped me learn the language – like what a line producer does, for example, and what publishing means, or how to ‘clear’ a song. After the internship with Dave, there were no jobs for me there, and I knew that just because you intern somewhere, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a job there for you. I was on an e-mail group of women in the music industry, and somebody posted that MTV was looking for interns in their music supervision department. I was kind of like, ‘Okay, well, going to Dave’s funky, cool office on Sunset is a lot different than going to work for Viacom.’ And I remember when I was in college, and you know, a lot of my friends were going to intern there. And it was just kind of like, alright, you’ve got to throw my ego out, you’re going to learn, you’re going to meet people, just suck it up, and do this. So, I did the interview, and the people at MTV were like, ‘Do whatever you need to do to get into the internship program, just trust us.’ So obviously with a big corporation you have to get school credit, so I went to L.A. Community College, I filled out an add slip, I never went, I never paid, I got into the internship program, I interned for three days, and then I got a job as a music coordinator on VH1 shows. And the rest is history.

That just sounds so incredible. I can also see why you would take to Iron Man, because that film has such a specific sound, especially with the way they use tracks from bands like AC/DC to bring out Tony Stark’s ‘rocker side.’

I mean, it was just so big and loud, and of course, I love AC/DC, and they have that whole opening scene when he’s coming out in the Rover and it’s just blasting. I was just like, ‘That’s what I want to do!’ I call it my ‘Iron Man moment.’ That was when it all clicked, and I realized what was next for me.

I love that. So, what all goes into supervising the music on a project? Could you walk us through an average day of work?

Well, there’s definitely no two days that are alike. Music supervisors are pretty much the only people on the crew outside of producers and show runners who start the show during pre-production and stay on the show all the way until the final mix. We have to start at the script stage, because if there’s anything that’s going to be shot on camera that needs to have music that’s been cleared or choreography or a hired band or featured singing, that’s on us. We have to take care of all of that – all of the logistics dealing with everything from working with unions to working with casting to working with props (since a period-type show would require a band which obviously includes props such as that vintage equipment that fits the time period). So, that’s kind of where we start. And then, as the show gets put together, and we start working with editors – giving them music to ‘temp’ with and giving them options – and we really kind of help shape the sound of the show. Then, obviously, there’s the unsexy clearance part, but it’s very important. If you can’t clear a song, or you can’t afford it, you can’t use it. So, we have to manage all of that. And then, again, the creative process just kind of goes on with every episode and with every scene. We’ll get a scene, and we’ll try and find different options and then present this to the editor, and then they present this to the director or the showrunner, and then they make their pick. We help to support the narrative and support the director’s vision or the showrunner’s vision through music. So, some of my days are just calling around to find a marching band that’s available for certain dates that fit under whatever union rules apply [for them], or sometimes it’s just listening to music all day, or sometimes it’s just being on the phone all day, trying to find a writer that has 5% of a song that is 80 years old or belongs to an estate – you know, just kind of untangling messes, but then also just dealing with every aspect of music and any musical element in the show outside of score.

That’s so cool. I feel like a lot of people don’t know how much effort goes into all of this. We love listening to the soundtracks from our favorite movies or shows but having to curate those playlists and clear every song sounds like a lot to deal with.

I mean, and in Euphoria, we had a movie clip, where they were watching Fear, that Mark Wahlberg movie, and you hear the movie’s score, and we had to clear that. Music supervisors have to clear that separately. So, the workload and the fact that we are on a project from start to finish is just a lot. It’s definitely a lot (laughs). But it is very rewarding at the end for a show obviously like Euphoria, where people connect so much to the music. 

Absolutely. The music is its own character, honestly.

Yeah, it is. And that was always the intention. That’s definitely one major goal, and another goal is [putting] a more unknown or undiscovered artist in the show, and [watching them] blow up. Like, Donny Hathaway was trending on Twitter after the finale aired. And our audience is not necessarily the audience that would know of Donny Hathaway, but now they do, and so, in the same way we used Megan Thee Stallion, who was pretty unknown at first [before blowing up], it was the same thing with [what we did] for Donny Hathaway. And that’s really exciting to have maybe a little part in their success. That’s very cool. That’s a great feeling.

What are your go-to methods for finding new music? When you approach a new project, do you start from scratch and search for material that fits that specific project, or do you already have playlists for ‘teen’ content that you can go and dig through?

So, when I start a project, I start a collaborative playlist with the showrunners, the editors, and basically anybody else that’s kind of in our little ‘secret’ group on Spotify. And I just kind of start pulling stuff that may or may not work but is something that I don’t want to forget or something that I think is a really cool song that we should try and find a spot for. And we just kind of add to that over time. I mean now our Euphoria season 1 playlist – or ‘mixtape,’ as I call them – is like 10 hours long. And obviously not all of those songs made it in. So that’s kind of like the first thing I start doing – just getting general ideas. And then, as we move along, it’s very much about the specific scene and what song works. And for that, we look to everything from Spotify to Instagram to Twitter to friends and friends of friends and obviously the labels and publishers and licensing companies that represent artists and songs [we’ve used before]. So, it’s really all over the place.

How did you first get involved with Euphoria? Were you approached by someone to work on the show, or did you have to reach out first?

One of the producers that I worked with on Atlanta brought me in to meet with Sam [Levinson] and the producers. It was a very ‘easy’ meeting, in that everybody was on the same page, and there was a real excitement in the room. Then, I found out basically the next day that I got the gig.

Speaking of Atlanta, how did your work on that show differ from what you had to do for Euphoria?

They’re very different shows. Music plays a different character in both shows. You know what I mean? In the same way that an actor does two completely different roles, it’s kind of the same thing with the music [on Atlanta and Euphoria]. The music functions in the same way, as it helps move both shows’ narratives, but it’s used differently on each project. Although, I will say that, the music in Atlanta, and Atlanta the show, has also made an impact on a lot of people, and a lot of people just really loved it, so I was lucky to kind of have that opportunity to make my mark, since people were then very excited to have that similar experience with music on a show like Euphoria.

When you were compiling your playlists for Euphoria and integrating music into each scene, what was the biggest challenge that arose?

One of the biggest challenges was just that there was so much music in the show. The volume of it was pretty overwhelming at times (laughs). Dealing with something on that scale was pretty massive. I think the biggest challenge overall honestly was just the sheer amount of music and keeping it fresh and exciting. Like in the Halloween episode for example (‘The Next Episode’), the whole thing basically takes place at a party. We didn’t want to make it wall-to-wall hip-hop, since your ears would just get very, very tired. We wanted to make the music dip in-and-out of diegetic and non-diegetic sound and include such a wide variety [of songs], but it was such a puzzle. And we had to put that puzzle together, where, music may sound different, but it makes sense [together], and songs [don’t] take you ‘out.’

That makes a lot of sense. No matter how different the songs are from one another in any given episode, they definitely all coalesce into a greater whole in the end and contribute to the whole sonic atmosphere of the show.

Yeah, and it’s hard sometimes to do that, because, again, we would put an obscure 60s girl group in an episode in the middle of the party, bookended with two up-and-coming hip-hop artists, and we’d have to work to not have that [choice] take the audience out of the ‘moment.’

One thing I love about Euphoria is how it feels like so much of the music is tailored to specific characters. How did you go about matching songs with Rue or Jules or any of the others?

It was more of just a natural part of the process. We didn’t make different playlists or anything, it was just more like, ‘Well, Jules would be listening to this, and Maddie and Cassie and others would be listening to Megan Thee Stallion.’ It was kind of like we knew that certain characters would just be listening to certain music or have their own music vibe. It wasn’t anything that was said like, ‘Okay, Jules is this character, so this is her playlist!’ It wasn’t a conscious decision or anything, it just came naturally. It was kind of a no-brainer that each character would have their different personality and their different songs.

I can definitely understand that. Like you said, all of the songs do feel related to one another in a way, and they share the same space, so you wouldn’t want much differentiation in your planning process.

Yeah. Everything just came together very naturally because of the story and the visuals at hand. And it also all comes back to a single song [on its own]. If a song works, then that’s the ‘one’ [that we’ll go with].

Going back to Sam, what was your relationship with him like as you went about creating the sound for Euphoria? How much input did he have? Did he have final say on decisions regarding musical placement?

Absolutely. As the showrunner, the director, and the creator, Euphoria is Sam’s vision, and he would absolutely have the final say. He had already scripted in music for some moments as well. And when we were editing the first couple episodes, Sam was directing and writing the rest of the season on a constant basis, so we had to be as ‘in sync’ as possible to get what we needed to get in front of him and [hear his thoughts]. I actually worked a lot with the editors, quite frankly. I was over there at post [production] a couple of times a week. They were working with Sam on a much bigger level, for each episode and the edit as a whole, so I was constantly working with them to get the sound right, but I’d also always send Sam playlists to listen to either on-set or to-and-from set so that I was always feeding him new music and new cool shit that I would find and ideas that I would have. But most often, I’d just be working with the editors to be as efficient as possible at getting signed off on the songs. Although, if Sam had a great idea for a song, we would all just go for it and try it together and make it happen. Again, at the end of the day, it is his vision, and it’s his show, so he definitely gets final say on everything.

Did you ever work alongside Labrinth, who composed the score for Euphoria, as well? Or was he involved in a separate process?

We both had our own missions. Him with the score, and me with the sources. Outside of working on ‘All For Us,’ we both had our own lanes that we needed to work in, so we didn’t work that closely together. Our music editors were also really important to the process to help make everything sound seamless and have the songs cut in the right way.

I was really curious on what your guys’ relationship looked like, because I felt that his score complemented the soundtrack for each episode so well, and I didn’t know how much integration happened, if any.

Yeah, he was actually in the U.K., and also, there was just so much score [for him to focus on]. I mean, in Episode 4 (‘Shook Ones, Pt. II’) with that carnival scene, if you think about it, it was basically at least a half-hour long score – he had to write one cohesive piece of music that lasted for 30 minutes. An artist’s entire album is usually about 30 to 40 minutes! I can’t even imagine how he did that. In a TV timeline, that’s insane – to create 30 to 40 minutes worth of music just for one episode? You know, we had eight of these to deal with (laughs). And that goes back to another one of your questions [about the challenges on the show] – the timeline is just so fast. For instance, when we were getting ready to shoot ‘All For Us’ and putting that together on the last day of shooting, we had to get the marching band and the choir and the pre-record and [Zendaya’s] vocals and [Labrinth’s] additional production all while working on finalizing four other episodes. We were working in post-production while prepping for on-camera shoots.

How does all of that differ from working on a film like Creed II? Do you have a lot more space and time to work with a longer production?

Yes, exactly. Towards the end of working on Euphoria, we were actually up against air. It was tight. I also did [The King of Staten Island], and I was on that for almost a year, so with film, you do have a lot more time to put it all together. Of course, at the end, everything is a mass scramble (laughs). Especially when everything starts to fall in place and a picture is locked. But you do just have so much more time. I think the last day of shooting [on Euphoria] was around [the end of May], which was the ‘All For Us’ overnight shoot, and then we premiered in early June. So, we were still like working on episodes as we were airing. It’s insane. People have no idea.

I’m glad we can enlighten them now! 

Oh yeah, for sure (laughs).

I think one of my favorite tracks on the show is in Episode 8 (‘And Salt the Earth Behind You’) when Cassie is getting the abortion, and it’s intercut with the scenes of her figure skating, and ‘My Body is a Cage’ is playing in the background. That’s the song that just always stands out to me the most. Do you have a similar scene that has stuck with you or a favorite contribution that you keep coming back to?

I’m very proud of Episode 6 (‘The Next Episode’), which is the Halloween episode, because there were about 28 songs in there. And again, that was the episode I touched on earlier, where the whole thing takes place at a party, but you can’t have hip-hop music wall-to-wall. You just get tired, it’s not special, and it’s not adding to the narrative. I remember finishing that episode a night or two before the mix, and we were all in the edit bay – and Laura [Zempel] was the editor of that episode – and we were just going back-and-forth like ‘Okay, well what if we move this song here, and use the intro to this song, and pre-lap it over to this scene’ and on-and-on. So, I think overall, that episode in general is just a great one. But I also think, like most people, that the Donny Hathaway song in Episode 8 (‘And Salt the Earth Behind You’) is a favorite. It was just one of those music moments where it felt like the scene was made for the song and the song was made for the scene. We just played the song and started the scene. There was no editing, there were no questions, and there was no attempt to beat it. It was like, ‘Okay, well, we’re done!’ (laughs).

I know a lot of productions have been delayed in light of recent events surrounding COVID-19, but will you be assisting again on season 2 of Euphoria? Have discussions started for that process yet?

Yeah, we were supposed to start shooting season 2 on March 16, which was the day we went into lockdown. It was a heartbreaker. I had already started in pre-production, getting a lot of stuff ready, collecting music, and just starting the job. So yeah, I’m definitely excited for season 2, and I now know what to expect, and I’m in the right frame of mind, since I don’t think I knew what I was getting into at first (laughs). I don’t think you ever do on a first season show. But yes, I’m fully on board and just waiting on coronavirus to go away so that we can all get back to work, as I know everybody is. We’re so excited to make season 2, and I know our fans are so excited to watch it. I know everybody is really inspired because of the response we got for season 1.

I’m really looking forward to that continuation as well. Overall, is there anything else you want to add about your work or this position?

There are of course ‘technical aspects’ to a music supervisor’s job, but our [position] is also so creative. In a lot of shows, and more [that come out] every year, music is so essential to every aspect of the [production], so being a part of that creative process – whether it’s Euphoria, or The Umbrella Academy, which I also work on – and being able to contribute and being a part of that vision is so intense but so beautiful. And, yes, we have to deal with clearance and the business aspects and the technical aspects, but it is very much an exciting and creative job. Other music supervisors and I cherish giving that experience to audiences and television as a whole.

Jen Malone is Emmy-nominated in the category of Outstanding Music Supervision for the episode “And Salt the Earth Behind You” from the first season of Euphoria, which is available to stream on all HBO platforms.

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