Megan McLachlan talks to Siddhartha Khosla, composer on NBC’s critically acclaimed hit This Is Us, about his subtle, complimentary score.
One thing you may not always notice about NBC’s This is Us is its original score, which the composer, Siddhartha Khosla, sees as the ultimate compliment.
“That is the trick,” said Khosla. “You never want the score to be distracting, unless it’s a montage where there’s no dialogue.” The music, with its nostalgic strings and melodies, adds more emotional punch to scenes, without the audience even knowing it.
For example, in Episode 13 of Season 1 titled “Three Sentences,” one of the most powerful and revealing moments of the episode (and perhaps the series) is when Kate (Golden Globe nominee Chrissy Metz) participates in a drum-therapy class to lose weight. As she drums, the insistent, guitar-strumming score pushes Kate toward acceptance, culminating with the release of a scream and a big revelation.
“We see something we’ve never seen on the show yet, and it’s haunting.”
The show plays on the uncertainty of life. In the pilot, we learn that Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) are the flashback parents to modern-day characters Kate (Metz), Kevin (Justin Hartley), and Randall (Sterling K. Brown).
“For this particular show, [creator] Dan Fogelman sent me his script before I saw any footage of the pilot. Immediately, as I read the script and the ending of that pilot episode, a sound came to me. This is a very honest show about life’s twists and turns. There’s enough surprises in life that happen just by virtue of people being born or dying.”
In the opening scene of the pilot, we see a box of photos labeled “’78 to ’79” and that sets the tone for the entire series. There’s a sentimental feeling to the show, like the sensation of a warm vinyl sound from a needle on a record. Khosla often plays on this wistfulness and longing for the past.
“I approach everything I do like I’m making an album,” something Khosla has a lot of practice at, having released albums with his band Goldspot. “I really focus on creating organic sounds that you don’t really hear anywhere else. From the score’s perspective, I wanted it to have simplicity without being simplistic, so there’s a lot of acoustic guitars, with Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell influences. I never want it to feel too trendy, just classic and timeless.”
But if Khosla is being honest about this “very honest show,” he had no idea it was going to be a huge hit.
“You never expect that. You usually just feel so fortunate that you’re making music for a living and at this level. So the fact that all of this is happening is exciting.” And with the series being renewed for two more seasons, there’s an added bonus of job security. “In this back half of the first season, the show is going to a darker emotional place. I’m seeing cuts of the show and am able to suggest placing music here and there.”
Some characters have developed their own melodies that drive the story, as well. “There’s definitely a Kate and Toby theme. It’s romantic, as if Joni Mitchell got behind the scenes and started playing guitar.” But mostly, Khosla works in episodic themes, with music depending on what’s going on in a particular episode.
Khosla has composed music for everything from film (upcoming Fat Camp, which has a more hip-hop sound) to commercials, but television brings its own unique challenge.
“Your time is compressed. Movies can take years to score. With TV, the challenge is committing to something very quickly, going with it, getting everybody to approve it, and going through everyone’s revisions and changes.” Plus, Khosla works under a very intense schedule, with typically only a week to do an episode. “It forces you to work with your instincts a little more, instead of going down 15 different paths to get to ultimately the same goal.”
And for the This is Us audience watching these characters’ lives unfold over Khosla’s beautiful soundtrack, their challenge is going an entire episode without going through a box of Kleenex.