In Cue & A, music supervisors guide us through the record collections of our favorite television shows.
Manish Raval is an expert in finding the perfect music for comedies, having wrangled music for Community, New Girl, and Fresh Off The Boat, among others. Raval worked with his longtime collaborators Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Leahy on the fifth season of Girls, which covers the momentous beginnings and endings of several relationships and a trip to Japan. The interview covers the music from season five and discussed major plot points in detail. (As is typical of Girls, some of the accompanying video clips feature strong sexual content, so play with caution.)
The A.V. Club: Describe your working relationship with Lena Dunham.
Manish Raval: It’s a very fluid relationship. We work in very broad strokes at first. For example, season six is about to start up, and we’ve been shooting some emails back and forth between Lena, me, and my partners Jonathan [Leahy] and Tom [Wolfe]. It starts with just general emails back and forth like, “Hey, look at this clip.” Just the other day Lena sent us this old Betty Davis song, a song she wrote with Miles Davis after they were divorced. That kind of sums up the working relationship, which is like, “Let’s just turn each other onto cool stuff.” We inform each other of interesting music, which is different than most shows where someone will say “In scene 24, we need a song for this moment where the character runs to the other character and they fall in love.” It’s not so much scene-specific as it is us turning each other onto cool stuff. Nine times out of 10, that’s how we find music for the show. At the heart of it, we’re always going back to music we like as fans. That relationship has formed the basis for why the show sounds the way it does.
AVC: Most music supervisors work solo, but you work as a team with Jonathan and Tom. Is there a standard workflow or a division of labor?
MR: We really handle everything together. We’re all listening to music for the same show and the same episode. We don’t divide the labor, and that way at any point we can have a conversation about the current thing and we’re all on the same page. We compare the way we work to the way a band works. We feed each other ideas before it gets to the producer or the director. We vet everything internally before we send it out and talk about whether it’s cool or whether it’ll work. Sometimes we all say, “Yeah this will be great,” and other times it’s like, “This sounds crazy, I don’t think this is what they’re looking for.” It’s nice to have like-minded people to bounce the ideas off of. Tom Wolfe and I started this company almost 20 years ago, so I don’t know any other way of doing it. The idea of doing it on my own would be crazy at this point, like trying to write with my left hand.
AVC: After five seasons, do you feel like you’ve gotten better at gauging what Lena will be into?
MR: I definitely feel like five seasons in, I know what she likes and what she’ll respond to, but that almost makes the job harder because she raises the bar. So now, like with the Betty Davis track, I feel like we have to top that and find something even cooler. So there’s still pressure to keep up and find the stuff she’ll really be excited about, not just stuff she’ll like.
AVC: You guys use lots of different kind of music, but is there any style or genre you’d consider generally off-limits for this show?
MR: We’re definitely open to everything. There was a moment last season when I went on a country kick, and I was rediscovering all these old Tanya Tucker and Loretta Lynn albums. I simply emailed Lena and saying “We should end an episode with a country song. We haven’t tapped into that yet.” Her immediate reaction was “Totally, let’s do it.” We ended up finding a Patsy Cline song for the end of episode 404. I hate to make it sound so simple, but it’s basically the freedom that Lena gives us. If we’re experiencing something or we want to explore an idea, she’s totally down to do it. There are times when we have to get really specific with things, like with a scene in this season where we used a Casey Veggies song in episode 506. We were dancing around some different stuff, but Lena really wanted it to be a hip hop song at that moment. So sometimes we’ll have a guideline like that, which is very rare, but it gives us a different type of challenge. We’ve never talked about trying something different and gotten resistance to it.
“Wedding Day” (season five premiere)
The song: Lord Huron, “Fool For Love”
The scene: Just when it looks like the wedding of Marnie (Allison Williams) and Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is headed off the rails, Hannah (Dunham), Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), and Jessa (Jemima Kirke) rally and save the ceremony.
AVC: Is the end credit the spot where you’re putting the stuff you’re most excited about?
MR: Yeah, definitely. For us, those are the main moments because that’s where supervisors get to make the most emotional impact. We try to figure out how we want to leave the viewer emotionally and how we want to continue the emotion of what they’re doing on screen as the episode cuts to black. In this show we rarely use big music montages, only a few times a season, which is less than you would expect from a show that’s as music-heavy as Girls is. We don’t do that because the acting, the writing, and everything is so strong that you don’t need to be manipulated with music during the episode. I think that’s why the end song is so important for us, because you don’t have a whole show full of music telling you how to feel at this or that moment. It’s also a testament to how effective Michael Penn’s score is, which is a very distinctive sound and works very well with what we’re trying to do with the final moments of each episode.
“Japan” (episode three)
The songs: Flip, “Girl” and “Niruadomirari”
The scenes: Shoshanna, who has taken a new job in Japan, goes through her morning ritual. Later, she visits a club where Flip is playing.
AVC: How did Flip get involved with the show?
MR: Flip got involved because there was a whole separate Japan team putting everything together on that end, and there was a Japanese casting director that had already found them and cast them. So we got word at this was the band they had selected for this particular club scene. It was scripted as this all-female Japanese punk band, and Flip fit the bill right away. So we listened to all their music and pitched the songs we thought would work best as a live performance to the director of that episode, Jesse Peretz. But then, the great thing was that we got a bunch of their music and it turned out that their brand new album was a completely different sound. It’s a very pop sound, not at all like the punk sound they perform in the club. But it wound up being the perfect thing for the opening of the show. It’s the first thing you hear, but it’s such a different sound, it sounds like a completely different band from the one you hear in the club. The sound of the song is so perfect, it literally is the sound of Shoshanna in Japan. And it just happened to be called “Girl,” so we couldn’t pass it up.
“Old Loves” (episode four)
The song: Hana, “Clay”
The scene: Jessa and Adam (Adam Driver), Hannah’s ex, finally give into their forbidden attraction and make their first awkward attempt at having sex.
MR: The song is kind of playing in the background. We had a cut early on where Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange” was playing, and it just didn’t feel right. It felt like it was commenting too much on the scene. So we tried to find something that could sit in the back as something the characters liked and were listening to in the moment. We didn’t want to put any emotional importance on the song itself, so that’s how we ended up on that song. But I remember we definitely came back to that moment after some deliberation because we wanted to be careful with what we chose. We didn’t want it to sound like a love song because this was a very odd moment between these two characters in this important storyline. We were trying to make sure there was no musical manipulation in that scene.
“Queen For Two Days” (episode five)
The song: Tinashe, “All Hands On Deck”
The scene: Hannah cuts loose at a new-age women’s retreat in one of the show’s many classic scenes of Hannah dancing.
AVC: Lena is a very vocal Tinashe fan. Had you guys been trying to find a place to put her for a while?
MR: Oh yeah, that’s all Lena. She’s a huge fan, and it was one of those things where… you know, we don’t need to tell Lena, “This is the song we think you would do a kick-ass dance to.” She knew what she wanted and we exchanged like two or three emails about it at most. I think there was something scripted that we couldn’t get, so as we got closer to shooting we had to pick something else, and she was like, “Let’s just do the Tinashe song.” It came together really quickly.
The song: Aurora, “Life On Mars”
The scene: Shoshanna takes a long, lonely stroll after realizing her time in Japan is coming to an end.
AVC: “Life On Mars” is used fairly often, but the Seu Jorge cover seems to be the most popular. How did this cover come about, and are you generally opposed to using a version of a song that you’ve heard elsewhere?
MR: We don’t shy away from anything as a rule unless it’s cliché. Like, will we ever use “Tiny Dancer” in Girls? Probably not. But the “Life On Mars” thing was really interesting. We were looking for new, exclusive stuff to use for the show, and there was a band that had done a David Bowie cover that was really cool. We asked Lena if she liked it and thought it would work in the show, but we couldn’t find a place for it.
In the process, we discovered this YouTube clip of Aurora performing it live in concert and we just flipped out and thought it was amazing. It just so happened to be at the moment we were looking for songs for episode 505, one of which was this shot of Shoshanna walking alone down this Japanese alley. We pressed play on the YouTube clip and watched it with the picture, and our jaws were on the floor. It was amazing. So we called Aurora and asked if she could record it, and she did it really quickly, then it was in the show. It’s one of those songs that’s so universal, and lyrically it totally pertained to Shoshanna in that moment. You can’t plan for that. We weren’t looking for a Bowie song for that moment, and we weren’t even aware of Aurora. We just happened to find her. Bowie was still alive at this point, so there wasn’t the heaviness of his legacy, we just thought it was a killer song. The stars kind of aligned and Lena was really open to it, so it worked.
“The Panic In Central Park” (episode six)
The song: Lia Ices, “Little Marriage”
The scene: Marnie takes a moonlit rowboat ride with her ex-boyfriend Charlie (Christopher Abbott), and when the boat capsizes, Marnie has a moment of introspection.
AVC: This seems like a scene where a lot of songs could have worked. How many things did you try out?
MR: I don’t think we ever looked at any other options. Her voice is so unbelievable, and we just couldn’t beat it. We try to use bands only once, but she’s one of the artists we’ve used multiple times on the show. Her voice is so moody it immediately transports you to somewhere else, so it was perfect for that moment and we decided on it pretty early in the process. There was no way it was getting pulled out.
The song: Ellie Goulding, “Here’s To Us”
The scene: The previously unreleased song plays over the end credits after Marnie tells Desi she wants a divorce, then curls up in bed with Hannah and her boyfriend Fran (Jake Lacy).
AVC: You’ve used a lot of exclusive and unreleased songs, like the St. Vincent and Family Of The Year songs last season. When and how did previously unheard material become a priority for the show?
MR: It’s something we go into every season with. I wouldn’t say it’s a priority, though. It’s right up there with finding a cool, hidden gem from an older artist. That’s as important to us as finding an artist with exclusive material that would work for us. For us it’s just part of the sound that we’ve come up with for the show, which is a little bit of everything. So sometimes that means getting new, exclusive material from huge stars. There are artists we love and we want to find an interesting or unexpected way to include them in the show.
“Hello Kitty” (episode seven)
The song: Brenda Lee, “Someday (You’ll Want Me To Want You)”
The scene: At an immersive play about the murder of Kitty Genovese, Hannah discovers Adam and Jessa’s affair.
AVC: This reminded me of the Patsy Cline placement in “Cubbies,” another scene where Hannah discovers Adam in a relationship with another woman. Was that intentional?
MR: It wasn’t intentional, but it’s interesting that you picked up on that because the Brenda Lee song was in the batch of stuff we were considering for episode 404. That song was always in our back pocket and we really wanted to use it somewhere. It’s one of those country gems that not a lot of people have heard. It worked really well for the episode because the play they’re attending takes place in the ’60s, so we had to find different period music for the play, and it was one of the songs we gravitated to. It ended up becoming a bigger thing than we had imagined because instead of just playing in the background of the play, the song ended up scoring a huge moment in the season.
AVC: This episode also has the scene where Marnie and Desi celebrate being discovered by Grey’s Anatomy’s music supervisor, Alexandra Patsavas. Did you reach out to Alex about that, and how did she feel about it?
MR: I’m friends with Alex and I let her know immediately when I read it in the script. I think she was totally thrilled. She’s a fan of the show, so it was great. I can imagine how exciting and cool it must be to get name-checked like that in a show you like.
“Homeward Bound” (episode eight)
The song: Toto, “Rosanna”
The scene: Ray (Alex Karpovsky) sings the Toto classic as he drives upstate to rescue Hannah, who’s stranded at a rest stop after bailing on a road trip with Fran.
AVC: What’s your approach to budgeting? It seems like the songs that would be most expensive to license came near the end of the season.
MR: We have a general idea of how much we can spend. Luckily, the producers and Lena and everyone is very conscious of the budget. We don’t overspend or underspend. There will occasionally be a moment like this, where Ray is singing Toto or Bobby Bland, but then there are a ton of episodes where there’s nothing like that. It tends to balance out, so we’re never that concerned. Plus HBO is so supportive that if there’s a case where we really need something desperately, we feel comfortable asking them for it. But we haven’t had to do that.
The song: Michael Penn, “Anchors Aweigh”
The scene: This exclusive, written and performed by the Girls composer, plays into the end credits as Hannah rides back into New York City after catching a ride with a stranger (Guillermo Díaz).
AVC: Was this song written specifically for the episode, and how often do you call on Michael to write pop songs for the show?
MR: He’s written songs for us before. He wrote a song called “Good Girl Down” for the final episode of season three, and he wrote another one for the season one finale. He’s so amazingly talented, and when we go into each season, one of the things we ask ourselves is how we can use Michael Penn as a songwriter. The moment where Hannah returns to New York needed something original and new, and Michael just nailed it. We’re always trying to find a way to use him as an artist in addition to his work as a composer.
“I Love You Baby” (episode 10)
The song: Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You”
The scene: A closing montage finds a renewed Hannah jogging across the Williamsburg Bridge and Adam and Jessa recovering in the wake of a violent, destructive fight and the subsequent make-up sex.
AVC: Was this baked into the script from the beginning?
MR: I don’t know if it was in the script, but Jenni Konner, who directed the episode, really wanted to end the episode with that song. I know it was a part of her vision early on, and once it was in there and we cut it to picture and it was perfect. But we did try some other music in there, stuff we thought was going to kill, but nothing else worked.
“Beach House” (season three, episode seven)
The song: Harry Nilsson, “You’re Breaking My Heart”
The scene: During a vacation in New York’s North Fork, the girls learn and perform a choreographed dance.
MR: This is one of my favorite episodes of the show, and musically, we got to check off so many items from our music supervisor bucket list. We used The Weeknd before he got really huge, The Smiths, a bunch of stuff. The Harry Nilsson song is one I’ve been wanting to use for such a long time, and because of the line “You’re breaking my heart, you’re tearing it apart, so fuck you,” you know, I can’t use it on New Girl. I can’t use it on Community. But we could use it on HBO. They were looking for something to do a choreographed dance to, and we were pitching out all these random ideas, like here’s some old Cher stuff, lots of things. But then there was kind of a tacked-on email like, “Oh, and by the way, what do you think of this Harry Nilsson song?” Immediately, everyone said that’s it. It’s not the song you’d go to first for a choreographed dance number, but that’s the kind of thing being a music supervisor on Girls allows us to do. We can have a crazy idea and pitch it to the producers, who are totally open to our ideas and willing to try interesting things.