Maggie Phillips is one of the most prolific music supervisors working today. She has 15+ credits listed for 2019 through 2020 alone. If you’ve turned on the TV recently, then you’ve probably come across a project Phillips has worked on. Her credits include the Oscar-winning Moonlight, Ingrid Goes West, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, and many, many more.
Her latest project, Normal People, is a spellbinding look into love, sex, intimacy, and romance. Normal People is utterly unique in the way it explores the depths of human connection. It’s quiet and meditative, and ultimately haunting. There’s nothing quite like it on TV right now. And as it turns out, Phillips agrees. It was precisely that quiet nature that drew Phillips to the Lenny Abrahamson-directed series.
But, how do you go about choosing music (or as it turns out not choosing music) for the most intimate moments between two people? Phillips and I spoke in-depth about her work on Normal People, her incredible career thus far, and how a lifetime surrounded by music has informed not only who Phillips has become but also the soundtracks we can’t stop listening to.
Read our interview below:
Awards Daily: Maggie, I came across something you and I have in common—we’re both Longhorns! So, how does one go from the University of Texas to becoming one of the busiest and most incredible music supervisors in the business?
Maggie Phillips: [Laughs] Thank you! It was not planned, that’s for sure! I went to school for studio art as a painter. I did that for the first 10 years out of college.
But, I met Mark and Jay Duplass, who went to UT, and we knew each other tangentially. We ended up moving to New York around the exact same time. It was our early twenties. We’re going out all the time. Mark was in a band, and we became fast friends. Mark and Jay started making movies, and I was always that friend in the group that was introducing people to new music. I was a painter, but also, a huge fan of music.
I grew up in Austin, grew up seeing live music from a really early age. So, I started just helping them out and it grew from there. [Mark and Jay] started making bigger movies, and I kept helping them. I was still painting at the time, but eventually, I was only doing music supervision. But it took a while, 15 years.
AD: How has your background in art has shaped your view of music supervision?
MP: I see myself as an artist. I don’t think that I make art with music supervision, but that’s how I view the world. And with music supervision, I get to blend visuals with music, and I get to sort of combine my worlds.
I also really side with the artists when it comes to negotiations and supporting artists. I know how difficult it is to be an aspiring artist. I’ve lived it. It’s hard.
AD: How would you describe your approach to music supervision and how do you think that carries on to the different projects that you take on?
MP: You know, I approach each project in the same way. It’s almost like a research project. I am not a musical historian. I’m not an expert. I learn genres as I need to learn genres. I have the ones that were my favorites, but with every project, I’ve learned something new, and actually, I’ve specifically taken projects with musical genres that I’m not familiar with so that I can keep learning.
But going back to approaching it like a research project, I dig in really early on— into the scripts, into the time period, into the characters. The characters are very important to me and into the overarching theme for the entire show. I start listening with everything in mind. And, also actually talking to the creators and what they’d want. I just start listening and building huge folders of music that I’ll pull from for the rest of the season.
AD: Let’s talk about Normal People, specifically. It’s very different. It’s very quiet.
MP: Well, I actually came on to Normal People a little later than I normally would. I would normally come on in the script stage. And, I got called in after they shot, so significantly later in the process which was great because I got to watch the first three episodes before I took on the job. And I responded instantly to how restrained the music was, how quiet it was, how they were handling the show because I felt like it really stood out as something that I haven’t seen in a while and something that I’ve been wanting to be a part of.
I feel like I’m bored with so much cool music in so many TV shows. I feel like everyone’s trying to one-up each other, you know? And I’m part of that, too. Like, I have shows that do that. And I understand the fun and the excitement of putting in a ton of songs, but I feel like everyone’s doing it and it’s just lost its impact.
Two [projects] that really stood out to me as far as music supervision were the show Succession because there’s hardly any source music and the other was a film, Roma. I thought it was so beautiful how quiet it was and really stood out to me. They had already started that [process]. And actually, in that initial call with Lenny, I was encouraging him to take more songs out. I said:
You have such an authentic, genuine show, and you have two characters that are so real. You’ve shot them so beautifully and honestly. It’s such an intimate portrayal of their connection, let’s make the show feel as grounded as possible. And I think the best way to do that is to only use songs coming out of real source. We’ll only hear songs out of the radio, or at parties, or at the bar. And don’t use songs to score, except for end titles.
That was my pitch. And it did change. We talked about it and we were initially excited to do it that way, but there were already montages that had been built with songs in them. And there were some moments where it was hard to go back because people get attached to that.
I really responded to that and just wanted to keep it up and have a light hand. And honestly, I didn’t expect that there would be such a response to the music because it is so quiet. It’s been very rewarding to see that the audience is responding to the music. And, I think it makes sense because if you are restrained and economical with your choices, they’re so much more impactful when they come on. If you wallpaper a show with music, they’re all going to get lost. If you have no songs and one comes on after 15 minutes, then it’s going to hit hard. I love that people are responding to it.
AD: I completely agree. And honestly, that was something that stood out to me. Like you were saying, I think a lot of shows now are much louder than they need to be. And I really enjoyed having an almost meditative experience with Normal People.
AD: Normal People is all about communication and intimacy, whether it be, you know, sexual, or a friendship, or whatever. In what ways do you think that the music, or the lack of music, in Normal People impacts the show’s message?
MP: I mean, the way that Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) communicated initially, and continued to communicate, was physically, and we made sure not to put any songs in the love scenes so that we could be in that moment and feel that the awkwardness, and the love, and the connection. I think so often if you think of a love scene, people just drop songs on it and It can make for beautiful imagery, but it takes you out of it. You’re not there with them. You’re watching it as an audience. I think without songs, and also because they shot it so close up, you’re really there with them. The first time I watched that first love scene, I felt almost uncomfortable because I was so a part of it.
AD: Yeah, it feels almost like you’re there.
MP: Yeah, it really does. And it’s brilliant. And it helps you connect with them. Everyone feels so attached to these characters, and I think it’s because we let them be. We can sit with them quietly when they’re talking, but then also when they’re making love. I think that’s one way the lack of song helps with the communication.
Marianne and Connell, for all the ways they communicate physically, there’s a lot of miscommunication in the story because of pride, or because of immaturity, or just being too afraid to be honest and direct, and ask for what you want. I think what we did with a lot of end title songs was get inside their head and further the story along without having them speak what they’re saying, what they’re feeling. We do it for them with the end title (music). There’s a handful of times where we are basically putting words in their mouth.
A great example of that is using a Lisa Hannigan song called “Undertow” at the end of episode 4. (Marianne and Connell) have seen each other for the first time in college, they’ve had some time apart, and when they get together, it’s so evident how they have missed each other and how that connection is still there. And then we go off for the rest of the episode and they’re still apart and everyone is just yearning for them to get back together. And then, at the end of it, instead of hearing what Marianne has to say to Connell, or what she’s texted him, we use the song, and the lyrics are so perfect, she goes:
“I want to swim in your current, carry me out, up, and away. I want to float on every word you say.” Then later: “I want to sink down like a stone. You never lost me. You never broke.”
I think she’s so drawn to him. And the feelings are still so raw and real that it’s like she’s being pulled under by him, and decides to put aside her pride and reach out and start again.
AD: I wish I had time to ask you questions about individual projects. I won’t put you through a five-hour interview, but do you think that there’s a theme that ties all of your work together? Is there a through-line in all these different shows and movies that you’ve gotten to work on?
MP: Actually, it sounds cheesy, but I think empathy. I don’t have a specialty when it comes to music, right? I work on Snowfall, which is like early eighties Hip Hop and R&B. And then I work on Fargo, which is super flashy, stylized obscure tracks. And then Normal People which is quiet, singer-songwriter stuff. I work on The Handmaid’s Tale, which is feminist, ironic choices.
But, I think what I’m good at is putting myself into different characters’ spaces and feeling what they’re feeling. I can do that with different characters, different times, in different spaces, in different environments, different ages— I’m good at getting into the minds’ of the creators that make the shows. You know, I’m not Maggie selecting music for Maggie’s show. I’m Maggie selecting the music for Noah (Hawley)’s show (Fargo), or for Lenny’s show. So, I have to make myself think like them. I think that takes a little bit of empathy. Maybe that’s not the right word for it, but just the ability to morph into different people? [Laughs].
AD: That makes total sense to me! I was also curious, how has working in music supervision changed the way that you listen to and consume music in your personal life?
MP: It changes everything. And unfortunately, that’s one of the most negative parts of my job, listening to music is not a purely joyful experience for me anymore. It’s just impossible to listen to a song and not think: “Who is this? How much is it? What would it be good for?” And it’s unfortunate. I search out music that I don’t think I’ll ever use so I can listen just for me.
Every once in awhile, I get lost in the moment and forget. And actually, right now during the hiatus (due to COVID-19) because I have so many projects on hold, I’ve been looking to music just for myself again, and it’s been really exciting, and fun. It’s refreshing.
AD: As you said, you’re from Austin, “The Live Music Capital of the World.” Music has been such a big part of your life. I’m just curious, over the years, what changes have you noticed? What trends have you noticed? Where do you think that the industry and your work are going to go? You really are at the forefront of this industry and you’ve done so many incredible projects. What’s your view on music, the media, and the interaction between the two?
MP: What I’ve found the most fascinating for me is how the younger generations consume music. Even 10 to 15 years ago, it wasn’t as easy to get your hands on music, and now you can get your hands on any kind of music, any genre, from any time period — it’s right there at your fingertips. And, it doesn’t take a lot of work.
You know, when I started listening to music as a teenager, the only way I discovered new bands was through friends, reading articles in magazines, reading liner notes, reading interviews with bands, or from my friends who were fans, and asking them what they were listening to.
And I’m not going to say that one way is better than the other, because in a way my knowledge was limited because I only had a few ways to get music. But I think [now] people have much more eclectic tastes because of that at an earlier age, because they can listen to one song from one album, one song from one genre, and they have a really eclectic catalog.
I also think we’re over-saturated. I think we’re over-saturated with music. I think we’re over-saturated with TV and films. I wonder what will happen. I really do. I think that’s one of the reasons why people (connected to) Normal People. That’s why I wanted to do something quieter, and I continue to want to do something like that. I don’t know what will come from the fact that we are showered with new content daily. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.
What’s also frustrating for me is that because of everything’s available to everyone, it’s been harder to introduce people to new music because everyone’s just searching it out for themselves. You know, I probably think I could have been more of a tastemaker earlier on because it was harder to find new music.
AD: Everyone’s already heard everything.
MP: Yeah, it’s available for those who are looking. I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. I really can’t predict the future when it comes to music. [Laughs]. You know, I get really sucked into my projects and I don’t think of it in a larger sense. I just think about what’s in front of me. I put blinders on and get sucked into the world I’m in.
AD: Well, you’re balancing so many projects at once, you kind of have to laser focus. Just to close out our time together, is there anything else that you wanted to mention?
MP: I should mention I collaborated on Normal People with Juliet Martin, who is a music supervisor in Dublin. And I loved working with her, she introduced me to so many new Irish acts, which was a really exciting part of the job. And one of the best parts of the job was working with her and learning all those artists.
AD: Did you get to go to Ireland?
MP: No, I wish! [Laughs]. Maybe once the pandemic is over, I’ll get to go.
All 12 episodes of Normal People are available to stream now on Hulu.