Interview: Composer Mark Phillips Discusses Scoring 'Serial' Podcast

January 12, 2015

Podcasts are an increasingly popular medium to communicate stories, news, and other content with listeners, episode-by-episode. In fall of 2014, a podcast series titled Serial emerged as a spin-off to the critically acclaimed “This American Life” radio show/podcast on NPR. Over the course of 12 weeks, host Sarah Koenig took listeners through a murder case that occurred in the winter of 1999 in Baltimore. Through extensive research, recapping of the trial, and incredibly personal phone and in-person interviews with suspects and family members, fans became addicted to the story’s overlooked, unreported, and formerly unheard details. A case you may have read about in the newspaper or watched in a nightly news segment 15-years ago suddenly became a viral sensation. It’s no understatement to call Serial‘s popularity a cultural phenomenon, even earning itself an SNL-spoof treatment. If you haven’t yet listened to the series, prepare to become enthralled!

One undeniable element that made the podcast so compelling was the musical score. Lurking in the background of each episode is carefully composed instrumentation and hooks that help move the chilling story along in an unbiased way. It’s no easy feat providing a soundtrack to a murder case podcast with no visuals. TuneCore is proud to be the distribution choice of the podcast’s original score, and we were psyched to discuss the process with composer of the score, Mark Phillips! Read more below.

1.) We haven’t seen any podcast series become quite the cultural phenomenon like we did with Serial. As a musician, or even a fan of podcasting in general, what were your expectations going into this project?

Mark Phillips: I love podcasts and think we’ve been seeing the whole medium gaining all sorts of momentum with people like Alex Blumburg (former This American Life producer) launching a podcasting company called Gimlet, and Mike Pesca launching a daily Podcast on Slate. It just seems like podcasts are having their moment. And I’m a HUGE fan of This American Life and Sarah Koenig’s work in particular. She did a story a couple years ago called Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde that was one of my favorite pieces of journalism ever. I made two different friends sit down and listen to the whole hour-long story while I watched them, just because I wanted to be sure they’d listen to it. So when I heard the idea for Serial I knew it was going to be fantastic – all those great details and tangents wouldn’t have to be cut out. But of course I had no idea it would connect with people on THIS level. I think we think of only dumb things going viral – like a 30-second YouTube clip of a guy slipping on a banana or something – but great storytelling goes viral too. Breaking Bad, Lost, Mad Men, Game of Thrones… those shows went viral. It’s great to see it happen with a podcast. Hopefully we’ll see more podcasts go this viral soon!

2.) Describe your relationship with Nick Thorburn (songwriter for Serial’s theme song).

Nick wrote a batch of songs before the season started, which included the theme song. I actually didn’t interact with him – I think he was on tour – because it was just that initial batch that he sent in. Those songs were used to score the first two episodes and then after that I wrote the score. (We continued to use two of Nick’s tracks pretty regularly – they worked great as score). His theme is obviously amazing and super catchy. It acts as a sort of sign post that show is beginning or ending so we found we couldn’t really use it during the show as score or else it gave this false cue that the show was ending, so I tried to make my tracks sound pretty different from the theme for that reason. With my scoring I was trying to make it super subtle and not noticeable. People always say when a film is well-scored you don’t even notice there was music, and I guess that’s what I was trying to do. So when the theme song is the only music people remember, I take it as a sign that I did my job!

3.) You’ve scored other podcasts – how did your approach to Serial based on the nature of the content differ, if at all?

I really tried to approach it like scoring a film. I’ve worked on a lot of public radio shows and podcasts and the model there is you usually use songs as the score. It works great for a lot of shows but the producers told me they wanted this to sound a bit different than This American Life or some other public radio shows. So I told them I wanted to write score instead of songs – like something you’d hear on a film or an HBO series. That means it was usually pretty simple – like a solo piano or just a synth pad – and would just kinda creep in unnoticed. That way it would be doing the one thing we wanted to help the story.

What made the show so addictive, I think, was that we didn’t know what to think about Adnan or the other characters. Whether to believe them, whether to feel sorry for them or what. So the scoring became a really delicate process. If it sounded too ominous then it started to feel like we were telling the audience “Don’t trust this guy! He’s lying!” Or if it sounded too sad in other moments it felt like we were telling the audience “He’s innocent!!” So we really didn’t want the music to act as a cue for what people should feel about the case. Of course that’s really hard in practice because music is never emotionally neutral. So I tried to focus on the things that were true regardless of what really happened. Most of the time that meant focusing on Sarah Koenig’s emotions and her feelings of ambivalence. She’s sort of a proxy for the listener so it felt OK to score for what she was thinking and feeling. The sound of ambivalence isn’t immediately obvious, but I guess I tried to make it feel unresolved. In one episode Sarah described a piece of information as a “disturbing buoy” that kind of bobs above the water and I tried to keep that image in mind and make music that fit that visual.

4.) Given that this series was so journalistic, how much advanced preparation from a scoring standpoint went into the release of each episode?

There was very little time! They sent me the episode on a Tuesday and we had to post the final mix by Wednesday night. I also mixed the show, (which involved a lot of audio restoration), so there was often very little time to come up with new music. I also needed to build in time so we could have some rounds of edits and tweaks with Julie Synder, the show’s executive producer. Often I’d send her my first mix and she’d want this piece moved 30 seconds earlier, that piece removed, or another piece re-done entirely. She was always spot-on with her notes because the story was so sensitive and she knew it so well. Sometimes I had to write three different pieces for a section before we found one that worked. So speed was the name of the game. In a way it was liberating. There’s no time to get hung up on the small stuff – it forces you to focus on the bigger picture. (Maybe if I set insane deadlines I’d stop overthinking and finally finish the album I’ve been working on for five years!)

5.) Without a visual component, is it difficult to capture the mood of the story using music? Or are there certain advantages to this?

I mentioned that line Sarah wrote: “that kind of bobs above the water for me, like a disturbing buoy.” She’s actually a very visual writer. Another way she described the case at one point was as a Rubik’s Cube. So I really tried to visualize the imagery she created in her scripts. On top of that, I think radio is actually a very visual medium. It forces you to picture things and imagine how stuff looks. Like Leakin Park [a key setting in the podcast] – everyone who listened to the podcast has an imagine in their head of what it looked like. So I’d like to think it’s similar to scoring a film – it’s just the imagery is in your head instead of on a screen.

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6.) Aside from being a musician, you describe yourself as a “sound editor/designer/mixer” – tell us a little bit about your public radio experience and how you came to make working with media and music a full-time job.

I guess I’ve just always loved sound and had a special relationship to it. I got into recording and layering sounds when I was 10 or so, (after I discovered the Beatles), and since then I always hoped I’d be a professional musician. But after playing live and touring a bit after college I realized I loved the writing and recording process a lot more than all the stuff that comes after making the album – basically all the stuff you have to do to have a successful band! So it seemed like I should get a job. I was obsessed with public radio so I started working for a lot of different shows as a producer and reporter. I worked with On the Media, Radiolab, Soundcheck, The Brian Lehrer Show… a lot of great programs. I learned so much about editing and narrative and surprisingly that really helped me as a musician. I learned so much about leaving space and editing out unnecessary elements and when I applied that to music it helped out tremendously. Also when scoring projects I realize now that my job is to understand the story first – well before I even think about writing music. So all that work in public radio really helps out.

7.) As an independent artist who has released music, how was your experience distributing through TuneCore?

I received a lot of requests to release the music as the season was going on but I was so busy I didn’t really think about actually doing it. Then with a week left until the final episode I thought, “Oh, I should probably do that now!” So once I finished fixing up all the tracks I wanted the album to be available for purchase in a couple days but when I checked with a TuneCore competitor they told me they wouldn’t be able to get the album up on iTunes for a month! Luckily, I called TuneCore and you guys got it up on iTunes in about 24 hours! It was amazing. Now that I know it’s so easy I’m definitely going to try to release more music. I think I’m going to release a track under my band name (Sono Oto) as a single this spring!

8.) Given the popularity of Serial, what kind of initial impact has this credit had on your career?

It’s mostly just been street-cred so far! No, I have received a lot of emails and calls to work on cool new projects already. I’m really hoping to score a feature film this year. Up until now I’ve mostly written a few pieces for this film or a few cues for that film – always as the “additional composer.” It’d be great to get an opportunity to really create the sound and musical feel for a movie like I got to do with Serial. That’s the hope for 2015. But I’ve been so busy working on Serial, an HBO film called “It’s Me, Hillary” and another great podcast called StartUp, I’m looking forward to catching up on sleep for a week or two!

9.) What kind of advice can you offer to independent artists who are looking to break into scoring for films and podcasts?

I feel like I’m still trying to figure everything out so I might not be qualified to give advice! What I’m still trying to internalize is that being great at scoring means really understanding narrative. So I’m trying to work on my storytelling chops as much as my musical chops. Also, I’d say what’s worked for me is being able to do a lot of different styles of music and being able to do a lot of different things besides music, (sound design, reporting, editing, mixing, sound effects, foley, etc..). Part of me wishes I was GREAT at one thing but being decent at a lot of different stuff has allowed me to approach each discipline with with a unique perspective and ultimately has allowed to me have a career working in music and sound. So I feel really lucky!

Be sure to learn more about Mark Phillips’ work in film, music & podcasts via his website HERE!

Tags: featuring mark phillips music score podcast sarah koenig serial serial podcast