‘The Leftovers’ Has TV’s Best Soundtrack: Here’s How That Happens

(This column contains spoilers about The Leftovers, up to and including tonight’s episode.)

When you think of The Leftovers and music, you probably think first of Max Richter’s score, and the way certain pieces of it will rise and rise and rise until that gentle piano music has you doubled over with Pavlovian sobs.

But the HBO drama, which aired its penultimate episode tonight, can be just as surprising and powerful with its use of pre-existing music. In an era of Peak TV Soundtrack, when dramas like Fargo and The Americans are justly praised for their meticulously curated song choices, no show may use songs better or more distinctly than this one, from the use of the Christian folk song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” to detail the pain of a false Rapture in the 1800s to the way that a-ha’s ‘80s synth pop hit “Take On Me” told the story of the end of Kevin and Nora’s relationship in this season’s fourth episode.

The soundtrack is assembled by music supervisor Liza Richardson — whose current series workload is a full and eclectic mix that includes Narcos, MacGyver, The Path, and Bull, among many others — though she stresses that it’s a team effort. Some songs she brings to co-creator Damon Lindelof, like “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” Other times, a song like “Take On Me” will be written into the script, and at still other times, someone else will suggest a song that winds up in the show, like editor David Eisenberg trying “The End of the World” by Patty Duke over tonight’s closing credits after an earlier scene involves a character singing the theme to The Patty Duke Show.

Last week I spoke with Richardson about her role, how she delineates a Leftovers song from something she’d use in one of her many other jobs, songs that were hard to get into the show, songs she never quite managed to get in, as well as the origin stories of certain specific and memorable Leftovers tunes.

You’re working on a lot of shows now, and I’m sure that there are times when you hear a song and think, “This could be good for three of the shows I do.” Am I correct in assuming that’s not the case here?

That is correct. This is a unique-sounding show.

Talk me through the process from your perspective: how much is you bringing songs to Damon and how much is Damon bringing songs to you, how much are there other people being involved in the process?

A lot of the songs are written into the script. I prepare a collection of music ahead of shooting for Damon to listen to and for the editors to listen to. It’s got about 300 songs in it and it’s just for them to chew on, think and have time to get to know. So that they’re not rushed they can just listen to it on their way to work. And then the editors bring songs to the table. It’s a total collaboration. Completely. The guys in my office have a huge impact too. We all work together. It’s definitely not all the music supervisor.

When you are building up that collection of 300 songs, what are you looking for? What is a Leftovers song as far as you’re concerned?

You know how you might make a mixtape for your mom or a friend. I have a radio show on Saturday night, sometimes I’ll think of one person or maybe even a celebrity that I could base my show around and say, “Oh, this show, Mike B. would like this show.” And I will gear myself toward that. Or you think about a show having a certain demographic, what’s the difference between a show on the Oprah Network and the Lifetime Network or something. So with Leftovers, its based on Damon’s taste, that I’ve gotten to know over the years and the editors too. You see what they’re drawn to and what they like.It’s also based on the script, there’s a lot of talk about God, that kind of thing. That’s one thing to consider. I go down different rabbit holes. I remember when we were working on “Where is My Mind,” the piano version in season 2, I tried to find a lot of other piano covers of songs. I tried to find maybe quartet covers or orchestral covers. Just different: not your typical cover song but weird, odd cover songs. Even the Metallica cover that we did in season 1 by Apocalyptica. These are things that are touchstones for inspiration for building this sound. Also, Damon’s a big fan of, say, Otis Redding, so I know that we’re going to need stuff like that, so I’ll collect a bunch of stuff that’s similar to Otis Redding but maybe he hasn’t heard of this artist or maybe it’s less expensive, or a song that evokes a similar mood or vibe.

In this season’s seventh episode, you play “God Only Knows” over the big climactic moment where the one Kevin is killing the other Kevin. This is a song that, just thinking about HBO, was very famously used as the Big Love theme song. What’s your philosophy on when it’s good and when it’s not good to use a song that’s linked to some other show or movie?

In a lot of cases, it doesn’t matter. First of all, “God Only Knows” has been used not only in Big Love — and I love that show, I thought that was a really good show — but it gets used constantly. It kind of doesn’t matter how much it’s been used. I personally don’t love to use songs that have been used in a million things, but I mean even “Where is My Mind,” the Maxence Cyrin version that we use in season two had been a big spot in Mr. Robot, you know? I find that my show runners in general don’t usually care about that. Whenever I see something scripted or they request a song, I always look it up to see where it’s been used before. I would rather a song have sort of a fresh use, so I always warn them and say, “Oh this has been used in this, this, this, and this. Are you sure you want to go there?” I find that usually they don’t care. It doesn’t matter. There’s so much TV out there, everybody has a unique experience of it. It’s like music: there’s no two people in the world that listen to the exact same music. And it’s the same now with television since there’s so much TV, so why bother with all that worry?

Damon had wanted to commission an original song for the Millerist sequence in the season premiere, and you sent him “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” and he decided to use it instead. Where did you find that?

It was one of the rabbit holes I went down. I was looking for songs for the scene. Another one that I thought would have worked really well in that scene is the song, it’s called at different times ”Take Me in the Lifeboat” or “Take Me in Your Lifeboat.” It’s about being saved from the flood, basically. It’s an old spiritual but it’s mostly bluegrass. The direction he gave me first of all was a little bit different than where we ended up. He wanted something that had the repetitive nature of a song that could have, say, been in O Brother Where Art Thou. Like, those songs that have a sing-songy nature, that maybe have a call and response that start out with a verse and then they repeat and repeat. That’s what I was looking for, so I was looking in the bluegrass world for songs like that. And I found some. But during my travels, I found this one and the lyrics were like chilling, like your skin turns to gooseflesh when you’re discovering something that’s really cool. And I remember I got like chills when I found that song. And then when I tried it against picture, I was pretty excited. The only thing that I worried about when I gave it to them was it wasn’t that repetitive thing. But they recut the scene and it worked great. It didn’t matter.

Wu-Tang, they are famously difficult to license. How did you get the song for the trampoline scene?

Well certain songs are hard to license, certain songs are not. I’ve used Wu-Tang now in a lot instances, especially lately. They’re very popular right now. We’re using them in Narcos as well. They’re not difficult artists by any means, it’s just that those songs were written in a time when there were so many samples and they had so many writers in the band, so sometimes it’s really hard to track down all the parts. In modern hip-hop, it’s the same thing. You may have 10 writers, and one of those writers may be somebody’s cousin who’s not on ASCAP or BMI, and you can’t locate them. It’s kind of the same with the Wu-Tang. Hip-hop in general, because there’s so many writers, there’s so many collaborations, there’s so many samples, it’s hard to clear period. I think hip-hop artists are little bit more responsible about samples right now because they find a sample, they’ll either make sure that it’s clearable or they will recreate it in some way or replace it so it’s clearable. But I think they didn’t care about that, or know about it that much in the ‘90s, so that’s the reason the Wu-Tang stuff was hard to clear.

And how did you land on that particular track of theirs for this?

Nora’s tattoo was written into the script, and at that time Damon wanted me to bring to him clearable Wu-Tang songs. So me and my clearance person, Joey Singer, who is amazing, went through their catalog and discussed with their licensers which songs are going to be okay to clear. It’s a technical thing, not really creative. And then I send Damon however many, I think it was about five songs, and he picked the one that he liked the best.

I know that initially it was scripted for Kevin’s karaoke performance in the season two finale to be “Like a Prayer” and Madonna didn’t want to let you use it. How much discussion was there after the fact before you got to “Homeward Bound”?

With karaoke, it’s another thing. You have to pre-clear that music, you have to make a strong choice before they’re shooting, and I advise all my productions,”Let’s keep as many choices proposed, because things change.” So when it comes to karaoke that’s definitely something that you have to decide on early and you have to commit to it. Even the licenser of Madonna, Warner/Chappell, they felt really bad that she said no, because that’s a very special song to her. She even said, “You can have any other song of mine but just not that one.” So we looked at all of her other songs, but none of them were quite right. And then I go on these searches with the licensers that I work with, and we talk about what could work for the same home, getting home, a prayer. Anything like that could work for Leftovers, and we landed on “Homeward Bound.”

The opening titles in the first season used a Max Richter composition, for season 2, it was done over from scratch. How did the Iris DeMent song wind up being the season 2 theme?

We were talking about an Otis Redding song, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” and then while we were working to clear it… I don’t really know. It just was an idea that came up, we looked into it, it worked great, it was just so cool and different and unexpected.

Can you think of a song that’s had a particularly long or complicated journey towards winding up in the show?

“Rocking” by Australian Children’s Choir, which appears in episode 303, is a traditional carol more than 100 years old from the Czech Republic. This version by Australian Children’s Choir was released in 1982 and the recording label understandably didn’t know whether this version was in the public domain, and free to use, or was a copyrighted arrangement by the choir, in which we’d need permission to license. After many long distance calls to Australia (in the middle of the night) and several rabbit holes we went down, we finally found the church where this choir had practiced. The current church director remembered the name of the choir director from 1982 and was able to find his contact. We finally reached Richard Gerner who confirmed he had written the arrangement. Success! When we say we go to the ends of the Earth to clear a song, we mean it!

Conversely, is there a song that when you heard it, you thought, “God this is a perfect Leftovers song,” and for one reason or another there wasn’t a good moment for it, or it wouldn’t clear, and you never used it in the show?

There’s so many. I think that “Take Me in a Lifeboat” song would have been killer to use. I think “Have a Talk With God” by Stevie Wonder would have been a lot of fun maybe for the episode on the boat where Matt talks to God. He has that long conversation with God and then God says that he can enlighten him and then he snaps his fingers and he goes, “There you go.” I thought that was genius. I wanted to use this for main title so badly, the Charlie Rich song, “The Most Beautiful Girl.” I love that song, and I thought it would be great in episode 307. I felt like Kevin in that episode was just searching for Nora and regretting that he fucked it up and he was just longing for her and I would love to have used that song.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com