By Amanda DK
Some people think music supervision is just picking the songs trending on blogs that week. While good musical taste is certainly a job requirement, it is by no means the most important skill a music supervisor needs to be truly great. You need to know how to clear a song, how to negotiate, how to draft a license, and not only how to keep track of all that paperwork, but translate the important information to the entire production team – while still keeping everyone happy. The best music supervisors are extremely creative and extremely organized. Madonna Wade-Reed is one such music supervisor.
A spitfire with wild hair and limitless energy, Reed got into “the industry” via the music video world and, after segueing into supervision, has worked on a wide variety of television and film projects. On the film side, A Thousand Words (yet to be released), My Boss’s Daughter, The Perfect Scoreand most recently, the television movies and FRED 2: Night Of The Living Fred and Fred: The Movie (based on Lucas Cruikshank’s popular YouTube character), for which she received a nomination by The Guild of Music Supervisors for their “Best of 2010” awards. On the television side the Montreal, Canada native has music supervised several hit series known for their stellar soundtracks: Summerland, What About Brian, Smallville, Felicity, to name just a few, the last being one of the first to bring attention to music in television, paving the way for the music driven shows of today. She even kicked off the first two seasons of CW mainstay, One Tree Hill, and most recently created the sound for the Charlie’s Angels reboot for ABC, which was unfortunately cancelled a few weeks ago, but featured tracks by artists from Lykke Li to Rise Against to Jennifer Lopez.
In between wrapping up her third season on raunchy college football comedy, Blue Mountain State (Spike) and the January 3rd premiere of Jane By Design (ABC Family), Madonna took time to put together a mix of songs for TA that are guaranteed to take you to a magical place, titled “Adult Fairy Tales.” We then met up at the delightful Oaks Gourmet, where she gave me some insight into her own journey, creating a successful soundtrack, the difference between fairytales for adults and children, and her most transcendent concert experiences (trust me, they can’t be beat).
Adult Fairy Tales
Au Revoir Simone “Through The Backyards”
Emiliana Torrini “To Be Free”
Telepopmusik “Don’t Look Back”
Madonna Wade-Reed: I loved this.
Tadpole Audio: I’m glad you had fun! What inspired this theme? Do you have a general interest in this type of music, or a particular artist that got you thinking about adult fairy tales?
MWR: I think there needs to be a genre of music that lets you be a kid again without being childish. That lets you write stories in your head to go with the music that just leave you feeling like you went somewhere really special. I suddenly noticed a pattern of what I would choose to play when I was alone in my office, where I could enjoy music and still get work done at the same time. These particular songs just sort of felt like they were tickling my imagination, so I just kept listening to them. People would ask me what I was listening to, and I would say “It’s adult fairy tale music! Don’t you feel like your caught up in a fairytale?” It’s my own genre. I like it. For me this what you would hear if you were watching an adult fairytale.
TA: What was the first song on the mix?
MWR: Patrick Watson, and I think I put Peter von Poehl on early as well. He has a personality that equally matches his music, kinda quirky and strange. That’s what I love about him. I mean, he has a two-part song about the tooth fairy. How does someone have enough information to write a two-parter? To me that’s interesting, it’s not what I hear on the radio. That’s the other thing. Sometimes you build up a thick skin with popular music, because your forced to listen to it at work, and while it’s my guilty pleasure, that music is not what I choose to listen to on my own time. I’m looking to make things more interesting and more challenging.
TA: What was the feeling you wanted to leave people with?
MWR: That they went into a fairytale. That they got to step out of life, still be functioning and moving forward, but have a childlike moment.
TA: For me it seemed like the one song that really captured that “inner child” was Chilly Gonzales “Pixel Paxil.”
MWR: Which is a totally strange song
TA: Yes, it felt very different from a lot of the songs on the mix. Did you add it early on or at the end, or did you intend it to just feel different?
MWR: It was a later add. I had seen Chilly Gonzales play live, and his performance completely supports the neuroses of his music. To experience the show, and hear him talk about all his songs, you can’t help but feel like he’s an overgrown kid. He also performed in his pajamas – a smoking robe and slippers. I was like, “Oh my god, you’re my music video for the song!” So the addition was not only about the song, but the visual as well. It was just so kooky and amazing and apropo. I had to include it. Plus you can’t ignore that this song feels like such a “big bad wolf” moment.
TA: I noticed that many of the songs were very slow and dreamy…It got me thinking about what would separate fairy tale songs for kids compared to adults. What do you think?
MWR: I think they are exactly the same for both. If you listen to it with an open heart and open mind, this music should make you feel like a child, taking you back to that feeling you used to have when you heard the words “once upon a time.” To me that’s a great place to go. To be honest, I think some of the more children-oriented fairy tale music might feel too juvenile. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for.
TA: Similarly, escaping reality is a big theme in this mix, was that intentional? Is that something present in fairytales for children as well?
MWR: I think the theme probably just came through. But when you look at the original fairytales that we all grew up on and compare them to Hollywood today, isn’t everything just a grown up version? I mean, that’s what the Disney machine runs on. They make two versions of every story, one for the under twelves one for the over twelves. For kids, the escape from reality allows them to figure out who they are without all the constraints of society, their parents, and their friends. They can be whoever the hell they want to be. Read any kid a fairytale and by the end they’ll announce that they’ve become one of the characters and act out their own interpretation of the story. Doesn’t get more brilliant than that. Put on a good “fairytale” song and they’ll write the story themselves, regardless of the lyrics. That’s the power of the music.
TA: Is this idea that “you’ve got to be willing to give anything” for love something found only in fairytales these days? Do you believe it’s a foolish, destructive or romantic notion? Do we still aspire for this romantic idea?
MWR: I think everybody does. Look at The Bachelor, The Bachelorette…I don’t think anybody ever really gives up on wanting to believe in the fairytale. Maybe they just don’ t admit it. But I totally believe in the romantic notion of fairytale love, you bet your ass I do. Proposals on one knee, flowers, chocolate…who’s not looking for that? Kate Earl is so just so earnest and honest when she sings it. She says out loud what is inside every person who hasn’t found their ultimate love yet. It’s like a grown-up Cinderella song.
TA: What songs didn’t make the cut?
MWR: Oh this could have gone on and on. I could have probably put more Peter Von Poehls and more Patrick Watsons, and new stuff that I’ve heard, maybe Other Lives.
TA: So what made you want to become a music supervisor?
MWR: When I realized the career existed. I knew really early on that I loved music. I’m not a big vinyl collector, when that was one of the only ways to listen to music, I just coveted my records. My two first favorite records were Marvin Gaye and Sam and Dave. What eight-year-old gets into that? Then I began noticing how it made me feel when I was watching films and commercials. I don’t say television, because I feel like television was the last medium to join the party and by then I was working in it. But I can remember crying because of a wordless commercial and realizing that it was the music and images working together that elicited such a strong reaction. It didn’t need words. I was working in music videos when I found out about music supervision and when the opportunity arose to work for a supervisor I just jumped at it. For nine months I assisted someone who did it, and she taught me so well I became good enough to go and have that job.
TA: Was there one job that you feel changed to course of your career?
MWR: There was one job that made me feel like I had finally found the right thing to do. When Jennifer [Pyken] and I were partners in Daisy Music, we took over doing the music for Felicity. At that time music for television was just becoming really important. People were starting to pay attention to it outside of traditional score. J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, they figured this out really early on and wanted the music to have a prominent place in the series. J.J. is actually a closet musician, back in the day he would have keyboards, guitar, and other instruments all in his office. People may not know this, but he had a writing credit on one of the Felicity theme songs (it changed once throughout the series). It was important to them that we have music in prominent places, supporting important scenes, emotional scenes and even wallpaper scenes. We put music in Dean and Deluca. The best part about though, because it was still so new, there were absolutely no rules with them. All it had to do was work. How amazing is that?
TA: Were they writing songs into the scripts?
MWR: Sometimes. But as a supervisor, I always try and make what I call “Hand Picks.” Hand Picks are CDs that aren’t specific to a scene, but capture the essence of a project. I will do them periodically throughout a season. When I get music that feels like a project, but there isn’t any place to use it just yet, I’ll create a folder specific to that project and songs will go in there. Putting an asterik in your iTunes when you have 50,000 songs just doesn’t work. You’re never gonna find it. So I will put it in the folder and if time passes and I still don’t have a place for it, it will be on the Hand Picks. If I can have that in the hands of a creator while they’re in the writing process, then sometimes the song can inspire a scene, and down the line they will walk that song into an edit bay and say, “This is what I was listening to when I wrote this, now try it to picture.” If I can have a hand in building the musical character from an early stage, it makes my job easier. I do whatever I can to help steer the ship.
TA: Has that ever gotten you in trouble, in the sense that they get attached to a song they can’t afford? Or do you gear your Hand Picks to be within the budget, only giving them songs that they would be able to place in a show?
MWR: I’m not in the habit of knowingly shooting myself in the foot so I try to make all the music on a hand-picked clearable. Often you’ll be sent songs that is a priority to a label and you’ll be in the process of trying to use it and suddenly the artist will change their mind about what type of projects they’re willing to license. Then you have to scramble to clear what you originally suggested. Not gonna lie, sometimes it gets ugly. I have a short black list of artists I hesitate to pitch because depending on the day, I just don’t know if I can clear them.
TA: Are the producers / production team members receptive to this?
MWR: On Charlie’s Angels, I worked with the executive producers that I did Smallville with for seven years, and one of the first things out of one of their mouths was, “Are you gonna do a Hand Picks? We want those Hand Picks. We love those Hand Picks.”
TA: You’ve worked on many different television shows. When you get a pilot that isn’t yet picked up, how do you approach it? Is it about choosing the music that will sell the story in the pilot, or setting up a long term plan that would hold up for the whole season?
MWR: Unfortunately pilots are such a beast in and of themselves, that however much their purpose is to set up a good television show, it’s really more important to sell themselves as a good television show. Much of the time the music used in a pilot doesn’t go to air. There are many Nervous Nellies in Hollywood who think that if you don’t approach your potential audience with things they’re familiar with, then they’re not going to respond. Which is why storylines are recycled, themes are recycled, and music is recycled, so depending on who you’re working with, the pilot will just be filled with recognizable music that appeals to what I call the “knob turners.” The assumption is, if the audience doesn’t recognize a song, they’re not gonna turn up the knobs. I think there is a lot of television that disputes that, but you put what you think you have to put to get the best response in a really commercial way. Sometimes there are creators who don’t care, and they’ll let you do what’s best for the material on screen, but mostly not. It’s very frustrating for me. It’s not very creative. When I have to start reading a Billboard chart to pick music, I’m not happy.
TA: And then when the show gets picked up…
MWR: Then you start building your musical character. You’ll either have creatives who are very music savvy, with strong opinions, and lots of ideas, or you’ll be working for people who are aware of what you’re capable of and they will trust you. They will let you take the lead – not have the final decision – but take the lead. There are always many discussions during pilot season, because even if you don’t use songs in the pilot that will stay in the airable version, it’s important to come to an agreement on what the target is. What are we trying to sell here? And you talk and talk about it, and when you’re placing music in the episode that will air, you try and just use the right music.
TA: What is the first element you consider when establishing a sound for a show?
MWR: Setting. People’s ears will get them somewhere before their eyes. I like getting the viewer to the location the second the first frame hits the screen, and sometimes even before, with the help of an aural pre-lap. They’re familiar and they feel like they’re a part of it. You aim for that.
TA: Summerland, Blue Mountain State, Las Vegas, Smallville…How does the specific location inform your choices?
MWR: Somewhat. Places often have their own sound and sometimes even their own musical history, like Vegas. For Summerland, there’s a sound that people associate with a beach lifestyle, so you choose the stuff that has that lazy, sunny feeling, like Jack Johnson or Jason Mraz. If it’s the background of the beach shack where they go eat french fries, that has a sound. You need to choose it. In Jane By Design, she lives in a New York suburb, but she works in New York City, so I’m working really hard to create a background sound so that you always know where Jane is. These songs won’t stick, but in the pilot when they’re at a high school party I’ve got Flo Rida and Weezer, and those kind of bands, and then when she’s in New York at a bar I’ve got Marina and the Diamonds. You split it up. In Charlie’s Angels, the location was Miami and I honored that. When selecting music for the show, I went for both the iconic Buena Vista Social Club sound or I busted out some Chayanne.
TA: In television, how collaborative is the composer/music supervisor relationship? Who would you say has the bigger role in defining a sound of a show?
MWR: At best you hope that you’re going to have a good relationship with your composer, because everything you do is like two puzzle pieces that have to fit together. It has to work. You can’t be on a different page. You have to clearly understand what both of you are trying to accomplish so that when your composer is writing a piece of music and you’re putting in a needledrop they mesh. Also sometimes you’ll have a budget constraint and they’ll just be like, “Oh just have the composer do it,” which might not be the best choice sometimes. It might not sound as organic as it should, because its being written by a composer and maybe that’s not their specialty. If you have a good relationship with your composer, then someone like me in the room can speak up and say, “No I’ll cover that.” Or you’ll say, “Why don’t you write something, and I’ll look for a song, and let’s bring it all to the table and use whatever works the best.” You can actually help one another out.
TA: Who would you say is your strongest ally on any show?
MWR: My music editor. It’s very hit or miss that you can get a picture editor that’s good at cutting music. If I feel like I have a picture editor that doesn’t, when I give them music to temp in I’ll put a note like, “Bring it in at this point, 22 seconds into the song.” But a music editor, they can make or break it. There have been times when I’ve been trying to get a song into something, and people just aren’t getting it, and I’ll have the music editor do a Quicktime and finesse the edit. They can get it right and solve a song. A bad music editor can kill your work.
TA: What is your favorite genre of show to work on?
MWR: For me one hour dramas or “dramedies.” They usually have the most variety of music. And I can’t deny it, I love making people cry…I know it’s so bad, but I love a good tearjerker and those shows give you those opportunities. There’s nothing more fun than finding the right song for a really sad or serious moment, and looking around the room to see people getting choked up. I put this really sad song in one movie I worked on, and I caught the composer crying at a test screening. I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s one of my peers. If I rocked one of my peers to their soul then job well done.” I also like working on comedies, there’s so much precise timing in telling a joke, setting up a joke, paying off a joke, a punch line. People don’t realize it, but comedies are the hardest.
TA: How many soundtracks have you worked on? Which would you say was the most successful (not necessarily financially) and why?
MWR: I’ve done four official soundtracks. Felicity: Senior Year, One Tree Hill (the first soundtrack), and Smallville Volumes 1 and 2. The second Smallville soundtrack was really the most successful for me in terms of really creating the most spot on souvenir of the show and what it sounded like. Back in the day you could buy a soundtrack for everything that was airing, so what was going to make your soundtrack the one the fans wanted to buy was whether or not it was made for them. Often times when you partner with a label, the label has a priority and you’re forced to put artists on your soundtrack that have nothing to do with the project, and it can lose it’s organic essence. That said, however, the second Smallville soundtrack was done with Hollywood Records and they put no pressure on us. At that point I had been on the show for five years and they trusted me, so together with Dominic Griffin we got in the trenches, and made what we thought was the absolute best fan driven soundtrack, and from what I understand we made our money back. Which means they must have wanted to buy it.
MWR: I want to say it was kind of sweet. There’s a certain sweetness to Clark Kent, this being the version of him before he’s Superman. We chronicled him through all of his teenage years, all the ups and downs, hiccups, love and puberty, the passing of his father and the discovery of who he is. It was definitely a pop/rock sound. And a singer/songwriter sound. I had very trusting executive producers who were open minded about music, so we used a lot of bands before they were big and we used big bands. We used Coldplay right out of their gates.
TA: So what are you listening to now?
MWR: I’m obsessed with Rome, the Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi album, which very much fits in my fairy tale world. It’s genius. Genius. I think I could honestly say I’ve listened to the record fifty times. I usually don’t get starstruck, but when I met Daniele Luppi, I lost it. I was at an awards show and recognized him from his picture, and marched right up. Someone I knew was talking to him, I barged in and gushed and embarrassed myself. I’m also listening to a lot of “new soul.” There’s this kid I met in Toronto called Slakah the Beatchild, who first handed me a record by a project he was in with the artist D.O. called Art of Fresh. That was the record that turned me onto his music and should be recognized. It’s very much in the realm of Raphael Saadiq, people who are taking a sound that I grew up loving and turning it on its side a little without losing the base ingredients. That’s what’s playing in my car.
Slakah The Beatchild “The Things I Do (For Her)”
TA: What is the most amazing concert experience you’ve ever had?
MWR: Jackson 5. I think I was nine. 1972. Montreal. It was my first concert ever and I just remember begging for weeks to be taken and then my mind being blown when we actually went. And then two years ago I saw Leonard Cohen and it was life changing. I was actually there with his son who is a friend of mine, and at the end of the concert he turned to me and was like, “Well, what did you think?” and I said, “I just crossed something off my bucket list.” If you grow up in Montreal you know Leonard Cohen as a poet, you study him in school. He’s a hometown boy done good. So I grew up with this person and then he didn’t perform for sixteen years. He ended up even being my neighbor for eight years, and I thought, “Well that’s the pinnacle, just that I’ve met him.” When he runs into me at Starbucks he buys me a coffee. But I was still filled with this sadness I would never get to see him play. Then two years ago he goes back on tour, and I didn’t get tickets in time, and I get this phone call from [his son] Adam, “What are you doing Saturday night? Want to go see my pops?” Everyone should see Leonard Cohen.
TA: What’s next for you?
MWR: Greatness. Working on three shows. And then my next goal is to do another film…not necessarily a big film. I like independent films, I just feel like I have a lot more leeway with the music. The big films feel like pilots in that it’s all about knob turning sometimes. In a perfect world you as the listener would experience the same joy and elation that I feel when a song fits. I just want to do good work. Not big work. Not loud work. Good work. I want to know that when somebody hires me they know that it’s gonna sound great. I once saw this composer get an award who I thought summed up my approach to my career. He said, “I do what I do because I love it. I do what I do for free. I just charge for the bullshit.”