One of the greatest attributes of Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere is its excellent music – nearly all of which hails from the 90s in which the limited series is set. But to close the series, showrunner Liz Tigelaar wanted an original song to sum up the raw emotions expressed within its final minutes. To do that, she reached out to a long-time friend, singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson.
For Michaelson, there was no shortage of thematic material available in the limited series when sitting down to write the song.
“What are the last pieces of music you want to hear when watching this television series,” Michaelson explained. “Specifically, it deals with motherhood, what defines a mother, race relations, lack of communication, being a daughter and that mother/daughter tie. I had a lot of things to work with in my own life and in the show, and that’s how I wrote the song.”
And the resulting song is “Build It Up.”
That it explores all of those themes in a handful of minutes is a testament to Michaelson’s connection to the project. “Build It Up” can be most directly associated with the turbulent relationship between Mia (Kerry Washington) and Pearl (Lexi Underwood), but even Michaelson admits it’s completely up to viewers’ interpretation as to who the song is about. It could speak to any number of characters within the limited series.
But “Build It Up” wasn’t something that came to her immediately.
Michaelson’s first draft emerged as a very personal exploration of her own relationship with her mother. Everyone loved that song, but all agreed it didn’t fit the themes of Little Fires Everywhere. Returning to the series multiple times, Michaelson learned that she needed to give away some control over the song to create a better fit.
“I was trying to make it about me and my mom, so I turned away from that. But inevitably, because I’m the one creating it and writing it, there are pieces of my relationship in there. 100 percent. Once I removed myself, I was able to put myself in the position of these characters, of that narrative. Then, the song came pretty quickly.”
This wasn’t Michaelson’s first exploration of creation music based on a television show. Little Fires Everywhere features another one of her songs – “Hate You” – from the album Stranger Songs. Unexpectedly, that album was inspired by Netflix’s sci-fi smash Stranger Things, a show that returned Michaelson to her childhood – as she says, “A sweeter, gentler time in my life.”
It also helped her cope with the loss of both of her parents.
“It was this comforting thing whenever I would watch it. It was like a warm hug,” Michaelson said. “The need to feel that childhood gaze again was always therapeutic for me.”
Up next for Ingrid Michaelson is a Broadway adaptation of the 2004 film The Notebook. Originally scheduled to premiere this fall in Chicago, the project’s premiere is now in limbo due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic and associated impacts. Creatively, the project – including Michaelson’s score – feels ready, she says, particularly after the cast performed a Zoom workshop this spring. All that’s left is finding a time and place to premiere it. Until then, it’s really just a waiting game.
“We’re all continuing to fine-tune things, and we want to make sure we have the best, most beautiful piece to present to the world when the world is ready for it. I’m incredibly excited, and I’m incredibly proud of what we’re doing.”
Little Fires Everywhere is now streaming on Hulu.