‘This Is Us’ Music Supervisor Jennifer Pyken on How She Sets the Tone for TV’s Most Emotional Show
There’s no arguing that This Is Us hasn’t brought all of the emotions over the last two seasons — partially because of its stellar cast of actors and top-notch writing. But we can also thank Jennifer Pyken for setting the tone in these tearjerking episodes.
Currently serving as the music supervisor for the NBC hit drama, Pyken has worked on films such as Tarzan, Happy Gilmore, and The Package and for TV, she’s collaborated with This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman on The Neighbors. But it’s her work on This Is Us that finally nabbed her the recognition she deserves — a Primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Music Supervision.
On TV, Pyken’s work has ranged from this gut-punching drama to comedies like Workaholics, which a testament to her craft — she’s able to curate sounds that fit genre and tone. But her nomination comes as a surprise to her, “I am so humbled and honored to be nominated for this show especially,” she tells TV Insider. “It was just a wonderful surprise and I can’t be more happy and honored.”
We spoke with Pyken about the NBC series and how her experience has differed from past projects. “Everything from an on-camera band to someone singing a song, to curating all of the music that goes in the show is part of my job,” she reveals. “And I do clearances as well.” What’s a clearance? Well, when supervisors like Pyken wish to use music from specific artist, they must get permission to do so.
And if it sounds difficult, that’s because it is. “It can be really challenging but I actually really love it,” laughs Pyken, “it’s a research project part of my job. The first year of This Is Us was a little more difficult. But as we became a more well-known and loved show, it became easier.”
What viewers might not know though, is that things are being worked on close to airing, “The biggest hurdle I’d have to say is the quick turnaround,” she reveals. “So sometimes we’ll be mixing a show airing on Tuesday and the final song clearances don’t happen till Sunday [Laughs] It’s crazy.”
It’s a collaborative effort on the series. Pyken says of her working relationship with Fogelman, “I was already part of his team, so we had a real second-hand dialogue. I already had a relationship with him music supervising another one of his other shows so coming into This Is Us made it a lot easier to work with him.”
“I usually get a script and start coming up with ideas, sometimes he has his own ideas and he’ll email them to me,” she continues. “That’s always good so I can get a head start in clearing those — it goes from script ideas to edit to actually seeing picture so things change a lot once it goes to edit. So, not only do I collaborate with Dan, but I collaborate with the editors, as well. I start working on the process as soon as I get the script.”
It helps that all of the other important parts are taken care of. “The scripts are just absolutely incredible, and the acting – it’s lightning in a bottle — you’ve got great scripts and you’ve got great acting, and you’ve got a creator of a show who treats people kindly. So, it’s run from the top down, where everyone’s really respectful of each other which makes it different for me,” she says. “They really make the music shine.”
The music is a melange of genres and artists, and working with a variety of time periods is a fun challenge. “It’s great to go back and forth in time,” she explains. “We go back in time quite a bit in a montage, so sometimes we approach it with a song from the era that we might start the scene out [with]. And then other times, we just go straight with an indie song that just works under all the scenes. So there’s no formula.”
Yet the pressure is certainly on when it comes time to hand in the finished product. “TV is such a quick turnaround, so there’s not a lot of time to watch the scene and work on it again because it doesn’t get edited as much as a film,” Pyken details.
Despite what fans may think, Pyken swears that she’s not trying to make viewers cry. “I am just trying to set a mood and tone. I’m never trying to change what’s going on on-screen cause it’s all there,” she reasons. “It’s there without the music, so I’m just kind of helping with the setting of the tone and the mood and moving – especially in the montages – moving things along.”
“But if you listen to a lot of our songs, some of them are spot on and some of them aren’t at all. ‘To Build a Home‘ was a Cinematic Orchestra but then we used songs like ‘Jesus Etcetera.’ I’m not trying to change the feelings. The actors are all there.”
And Pyken doesn’t just select the music that is played on the show, she also oversees all of the live moments — including Chrissy Metz and Mandy Moore‘s scenes in which they sing, as well as young Kate’s (Hannah Zeile). Plus, she’s constantly communicating with and getting feedback from artists they’ve used in episodes, including Grey Reverend, whose “Fate” was featured.
“We used ‘Fate’ in the battle scene in the movie scene with Kevin, and that got such a good feedback. We felt it worked so well in that scene that we went back to him and had him cover another song that we had used in the pilot, ‘Watch Me.‘ The feedback from the artist was that he was just so honored to be covering a Labi Siffre song.
“So I’ve gotten emails like that from people. I’ve gotten other emails from other artists,” she reveals. “Each song has a story I swear, I could tell a million stories. I got an email forwarded to me from Bill Fay — he was an artist in the ‘70s — he did a cover of a Wilco song. It was just so beautiful that he’s an older artist covering a new artist. And he was so touched by it.”
Pyken remained tight-lipped when it came to Season 3, but she did note that Season 2’s soundtrack is available for those who are experiencing withdrawals of This Is Us‘ fabulous music. Catch Pyken’s supervision in Season 3 when This Is Us returns next month.
This Is Us, Season 3 Premiere, Tuesday, September 25, 9/8c, NBC