Jen Malone is the Emmy-nominated Music Supervisor of the groundbreaking FX show, Atlanta. Coming from a Rock-N-Roll background, we discuss her crash course into the hip-hop and R&B-steeped world of Atlanta, as well as the challenges with picking and then clearing songs for the show.
How did you get into the business as a music supervisor?
I started out in PR. I was a publicist for rock bands in Boston. I ran my own company. After about ten years of doing that, I got super burnt out, and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I went to go see Iron Man and the music supervisor credit rolled by, and I was like…music supervisor, that’s what I want to do! So, I packed up my stuff and moved out to Los Angeles, not knowing anything about the business, or really anyone. I just networked, took lunch with anybody who would meet with me, and worked my ass of learning about the business on my own.
Then about a month and a half after I moved here, I very serendipitously met Dave Jordan (Music Supervisor – Iron Man, and many other Marvel films), who was my dream mentor. We totally hit it off and I said I want to intern for you. He asked why would you want to intern? You have this career and you’ve been in the business a while, and I was very honest that I knew this was the entertainment industry and you start from the bottom. I respect that process. He said okay, you start on Monday. I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. He knew I was very serious and didn’t want to “just put music in movies”.
That’s the part that sounds like a dream job, right? Let’s put this Led Zeppelin or Prince song here (laughs). Tell me about the challenges of getting music into you project.
The unsexy part of music supervision is definitely (getting) clearance. Being actually able to use those dream songs that you want to put in the show. It could be the most perfect song, but if you can’t clear it, you can’t use it. Especially with hip-hop, which is the world we mostly live in with Atlanta. It’s notoriously difficult. Samples not cleared, tracking people down who own that 1% of the song the day before you mix. It can be very intense.
With Atlanta we were (often) up against airing and having a week and a half at most to get some of this music to clear. My partner, Fam Udeorji, the co-music supervisor, he and I would just divide and conquer and get it done. Both creatively and administration-wise. Whether he was helping to find people and pushing things through, we made a great team to get it done.
That’s one of those things viewers may not think about. There’s not one button to hit to clear a song (laughs). You have to get approval from everyone who has a piece of the song.
Yes, absolutely. Everyone who is on the master side to the actual recording. For example, if you have a recording with an artist featuring another artist, you might have to clear it with both labels. Then you’ll have on the publishing side, you might have ten writers on a song. I forget what my record is, but there’s a couple songs on Atlanta that had 8-10 writers. You have to go deep dive into Google. We’re detectives. We are absolutely detectives. We have to find people. It’s just like you can have the most beautiful costume, or location in mind, or anything, but you have to be able to execute and secure it before you can use it. Clearance is just as important as creative, even if like I said, it’s unsexy.
I can imagine getting clearances with hip-hop is more challenging than your average rock song due to samples. There could be a portion of a George Clinton track being used on the song and then you have to track his people down as well.
Absolutely. Even some of the older recordings that we use, because (while) Atlanta is about a rapper, it’s in no way wall-to-wall hip-hop, we use so many interesting songs. In the (season 2) finale we used the Nina Simone cover of Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released. So, we had to go to Dylan’s people, and his manager – who is absolutely lovely, wrote back an amazing email that he loved the show and everything that Donald (Glover) does. We were nervous about it, but it was a very successful clearance.
The other part I would assume isn’t just figuring out who gets paid and who the approvers are, but whether they want the song to be used at all.
Yeah, talking about ‘Teddy Perkins’ (S2 – E6), we had Stevie Wonder bookending the episode with songs (Sweet Little Girl & Evil) that were very crucial to the dialogue and the underlying story. The first thing Fam and I do is we read through the script and look for (songs) that are written in. Anything in the script we have to go clear before it’s shot. Especially if they are singing a song on camera or they mention a song. If it’s not cleared, you can’t go back and reshoot that. On paper, it (the episode) was a murder/suicide. When we went to Stevie Wonder’s people, we knew it would be delicate situation because Stevie is very conscious and aware of how his music is used. As he should be as the songwriter. We knew we needed to be very respectful of the process. Before it was shot, there was a lot of pushback and we were very nervous. It was the only time we brought Donald in. We’ve encountered so many roadblocks, but together, Fam and I have always been able to get it done. This was the one time when we needed someone above the music supervisor. So, we got Stevie and his people the cut (of the episode), and Donald and Stevie got on the phone and had a conversation. Which we all wish we could have been on that call! (Laughs). Donald was telling us about Stevie reminiscing about making that record and those songs. Talking to Donald about the scenes and the show, and we thankfully ended up getting those rights. It was a situation that needed to be handle with respect to Stevie Wonder.
With Donald be a tremendous musician in his own right, how involved is he with song selection?
He’s very open. Which is why it’s so amazing working with someone like Donald. He does empower us and Hiro (Murai – director and producer) to make choices about music. If he sees and cut and says Atlanta will kill me if we put this song in, we gotta switch this one out, of course, we do that. He definitely has favorites and songs that he wants. He’s our showrunner and we respect that, and we go get it. Like the Delfonics in episode 1 (season 2), he wrote that in. There was really no way to top that. Otherwise, with the younger artists on the hip-hop side, Fam and I are super dialed in. One of our favorite things to do is to give a placement to an artist who’s some kid in Atlanta making his own beats in his bedroom, he has no idea about clearance, so I have to talk him through it (laughs) – licensing 101. But also, we are able to dive into our dream sink, and put those in. He really trusts us a lot. That’s saying so much from someone as talented as he is to trust me and Fam, as well as the editors. Hiro has a huge say in the music too.
How did you get brought into Atlanta?
I got brought into season one through our producer, Kaitlin Waldron. I worked with her on Baskets. She’s a friend of mine from Boston. She would ask could you clear a song for me? Is this one public domain? Can you just be our music supervisor? (Laughs). She called me and said I have a really tough show, it’s with Donald Glover…and I said yep! Say no more. (Laughs). Besides the show being what it is, we’re so luck we got to work with so many incredible, talented, egoless people. There’s no ego on this show. There’s no drama between personnel and production. We are all just in it together. With Fam as my co-music producer, I just wouldn’t want to work with anyone else but him on this.
You mentioned that you started out in Rock-N-Roll, did you have a decent size learning curve familiarizing yourself with the music of Atlanta?
Absolutely. After I got off the phone with Kaitlin that day, I dove in and read everything and leaned as much as I could about what the Atlanta sound was. What this world is. Who the players are. Who are the producers? What are the studios? I made a lot of contacts in Atlanta who in season 2 I could just call them up and say, this kid, do you have his phone number? I’ve been able to create this network of artists, managers, lawyers, labels, even cool people in Atlanta who have great taste that I can bounce ideas off of. It was a really big learning curve, but now I’m working on another show (The Resident) based in Atlanta. (Laughs)
Have the clearances gotten any easier because of the reputation of the show?
I imagine you have artists coming to you now.
We do. We definitely have a lot of artists that hit us up through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Which is great because those are also the avenues we look for music. There’s no one place we go to to find artists. Especially younger hip-hop artists. We definitely get hit up by artists big and small.
I thought it was interesting when you used a Beach House song on the show. Which is outside of the hip-hop/R&B genre, but somehow fits in with the sort of woozy, baked vibe of the show.
Working on Atlanta there are no rules. There are certain things…like Paperboy, we make a playlist for him of all the stuff he would be listening to because of his taste. He doesn’t necessarily listen to what’s on the radio. But otherwise, we can use stuff like Curtis Mayfield, or Alice Coltrane and go for leftfield unexpected songs. The show is really all about vibe and what feels good. We are obsessed with atmosphere on the show.
One of the joys of watching Atlanta is discovering new music. The Billy Paul song “Am I Black Enough For You”, I recognized the title and the hook from the Schooly D version in Christopher Walken’s King of New York from 1990. Paul’s version is nearly 20 years before that.
It’s funny, I’m looking through my grid right now. After the season wraps, I’m like, what just happened? What songs did we use? Did they all clear? (Laughs). But going through stuff, there’s definitely a lot of gems that we found. Stuff that has been sampled in other songs. Just like the Billy Paul song. I didn’t know that about the Billy Paul song. I’m sure Fam and Donald did. There’s a lot of music to discover. Especially for the younger artists, but also for the more vintage type recordings. We’re excited when it airs, and people make a playlist and discover these artists as well. It’s a giant mixtape of all our favorite music.
Have you started looking into season 3 yet?
No, we haven’t. And that’s okay. (Laughs). We’re always listening to music. For season 2 we started looking a couple months before, making one giant playlist. I think we are up to eight hours now. Stuff we all share and think this could be cool on the show. It’s an inspiration list.
I know you worked on Creed II which comes out this fall, what can you tell me about it?
I’m so excited for it. Again, working with Fam. It’s a great story. It goes deeper into relationships. November 26. Our director Steven Caple Jr. is phenomenal and it also has great taste in music. It’s an amazing project and franchise to be a part of. I’m very, very lucky.
And next you have the Emmys.
Yes! Fam and I are grateful for the acknowledgement. We’re in some amazing company with the other shows. Nine years ago, I was an intern and now I just bought a dress for the Emmys.