Noted journalist Jenna Wortham (of The New York Times and the NYT podcast Still Processing) sits down with superb music supervisor Morgan Rhodes (Middle of Nowhere, Selma, Dear White People) and talks beginnings, process and chance.
Jenna Wortham: I really want to start off just hearing about your relationship to music and your earliest memory of really being engaged with sound or song or a sample.
Morgan Rhodes: I think my earliest memories are sitting in the car with my father. My father is a very cool guy and growing up [he] didn’t talk that much, but was really into music. And so we would take these really long drives together, I guess I was just his road dog, and I’d be in the front seat and he would play music. And every now and again he would jump into the conversation and tell me a little bit about the music. So, those are my earliest memories of music. But music has been in my life for a really long time. I treasured opportunities to go to record stores when record stores were still a thing. That was my favorite thing to do on Sundays after church…was change my clothes and my friends and I would jump into the car and go to record stores. And it was just a thrill, shopping for music and then getting in the car and comparing what we all bought and then playing it on the way home. So music has been like a best friend for me for a really long time.
JW: Oh, I love that. I really love that. And then you were a DJ for some time as well?
MR: I was on the radio, and I’m still on the radio. I started my career at KCRW in the early 2000s and I sort of worked my way up to be a production assistant for two DJs there. Then I ended up getting my own show in 2007. But before that, I went to Clark Atlanta [University] and I would hang out at WCLK all the time because I was a fan of two of the DJs. They had a show called “Hot Ice in the Afternoon.” And I would hang out all the time. I was a mass communications [and a] film major, but of course the radio station was in the mass communications building. And I would just hang out because I was a music junkie. So that lead me, later on, to be a DJ at KCRW. I was there and then I was on several other stations. I’m still on the radio, except now I talk about music on the air instead of play music on the air. I’m on a show called “Tuesday Reviewsday” on KTCC here. There’s a revolving panel of music critics and commentators and we talk about our favorite new releases that we think you should buy and why we think you should buy them. It’s still a part of the same love. I’m still digging for that fire, but I’m talking about it now as opposed to playing it.
JW: That’s amazing! What are you looking for in a sound? What appeals to you? Is it something that is very much attuned to a mood or a season or just a headspace you’re
trying to get into? Or is there a certain sound you’re always interested in?
MR: The way that I get attracted to certain songs and sounds is really organic. I can always tell if I’m going to love something in about the first 15 seconds. I have this weird reaction like “Oohhh.” It’s always the same [laughs]. I don’t know how to describe that in words, but it’s always the same. I’m looking for something across genres and tempos, it doesn’t matter, that makes me feel that way. There definitely has to be an emotional component to me. And it doesn’t matter what that emotion is. Happiness, sadness, joy… But I base my interest in that song on that first 10 or 15-second reaction. I do that on the radio and I do that when I’m looking for source music for a project.
JW: Let’s talk about that, too, when you look for source music. Because you have one of those jobs that sounds so incredible. I remember growing up I used to read this magazine called ReadyMade and they had a column in it called “How did you get that awesome job?” You belong in that column. I really want to hear about how you got into this work.
MR: Well, I wasn’t aware of music supervision as a career. If you go back into television and film 20 years ago I don’t think music supervision was a thing like it is today. We heard certain things but it wasn’t really a career. So I wasn’t that aware of it until I started working at the radio station [KCRW]. A few of the DJs there were music supervisors. I was hanging out at the radio station because I was interested in doing voiceovers. I didn’t even know I was going to end up being a DJ. It was just a great place for me as a music fanatic, listening to sounds and just honing my craft as a DJ. By chance, if you believe in chance, I was at another radio station and that show was the show that launched me into this career. It was just complete happenstance…ordered steps by God, if you believe in that thing. Whatever you believe, that’s what happened to me. I happened to be doing a show and Ava [DuVernay] heard that show and that’s how I came to do her first project Middle of Nowhere. It took me a while to catch on that this is actually a real job because, to me, I just thought, Well, this is like a two-hour radio show. Except it’s going to be in a film. I prepared in the same way; I researched the same way. My thing is digging for indie and obscure music across genres. Certainly soul music, but certainly everything across genres. Obscure folk, obscure pop, obscure country. Current stuff and old school stuff. I’m digging. I’m trying to find stuff. And so I prepared the same way. And that’s what started it. (continued)
JW: Can you talk a little bit about your process when it comes to selecting? You’re watching the scenes and then…what is that like?
MR: You come into the project at the script phase. Generally the script phase…I read the script and I make notes in the margins about what my feeling is about that scene. Oftentimes, writers and directors have written songs into the script or they’ve written music moments into the script. Certainly background music moments. If your character or characters are at a diner or they’re in the car listening to the radio, those moments… Or [if] they’re at a dance, they might put a music cue in there. Either they have something in mind or that’s left up to my imagination. So when I’m reading the scripts I make those notes. After the project is shot, then I watch the cuts. And by that time I’ve gathered up like bunch of material and I run the songs over the cut and under the cut over and over until I find something I like.
JW: That’s great!
MR: And then I pitch those 10 or 15 or 20 [songs] to the director and we decide on what works and go from there.
JW: How many songs are you looking at for one scene?
MR: I listen to so many songs in preparation for both cues, I think because my sensibilities are as a DJ. So I keep pulling and pulling until something in my heart says, “Okay, you should probably chill now.” I think there’s never too many songs. I just keep pulling. And you want to work closely with the showrunners and the director. It’s their baby. Your job is to help them carry the story; navigate them and the audience through the scene. The more I pull, the better prepared we are.
JW: This might be a silly question, but how are you finding all the music that you work with? Are they songs that you remember from your childhood and your younger days spending time with your friends at the record store? Is it stuff you’ve accumulated over the course of your career? Are you still going to concerts now? What is the collection process like?
MR: I look everywhere. I have stuff in my old collection. I love vinyl records. I have a lot of records. I go to shows. I search online. Every place you can think of… If I’m in a restaurant and I hear something that I like I Shazam it. I stock away material for projects I don’t even have yet just in case. I amass music from every place you could think of.
JW: You mentioned Shazam. Are there other ways the collection process has changed since technology has gotten… I was going to say better but I should say how technology has evolved.
MR: I think Shazam has made it easier because it’s instant. Before Shazam I would just ask someone. If I heard a song in a coffee shop I’d say, “What is it that you’re playing?” I love record stores! So that’s my favorite place to dig. I’d give myself homework, as the child of a college professor. I’d give myself assignments. I come home, study genres, study movements…time periods. Just to make sure I am fluent in all genres. If I don’t feel like I’m fluent enough I keep researching. I just want to grow as a music supervisor and hopefully make elegant choices.
JW: So what is your personal set up when Morgan is just on Morgan time, vibing out at home or maybe with a glass of wine? What is your setup and what do you use?
MR: I have two turntables and speakers in my living room. I play music on records. I have a wireless speaker in my office. Sometimes I just go off on tangents and start playing stuff. And I read a lot about music. I don’t recall the last time I listened to music just out of leisure. I love music so much, but I always see music now as ripe with possibility for a project. I think growing up and falling in love with music I always try to soundtrack my own experiences. So I could experience the same thing that someone else did, but let’s say…you mentioned you were on a slow train. I would be thinking, What should I play if a character is waiting on a slow train? I’d be thinking, This needs a soundtrack. What do you play if you find out shoes are on sale on a day that you happen to have money? It’s hard for me to just listen to music without an agenda. I’m already in love with music, but I see it as having a place in our experience of how we view film, how we look at television now.
JW: I was going to say, too, it’s interesting because there are so many classic moments from TV shows and movies that you associate with a song or a sound. Now, it’s interesting, too, because there’s so much TV and there’s so much music, it kind of feels like there’s such an interesting opportunity to create an audio book just because there is so much more music to choose from.
MR: Oh yeah, oh yeah!
JW: Do you have a sense of your favorite music moments from a show or a scene or a film that you feel are iconic… that made you want to create a music moment that would evoke the same kind of response?
MR: That’s a great question. Taking it back a couple years, one of my favorite moments is in The Color Purple when Shug Avery comes back to church. And her father’s standing at the rostrum. And she walks in and you hear that “Speak Lord” start to build into “God’s Trying To Tell You Something.”
It’s a moment that belongs to everyone. It’s a sense of coming back home. It certainly has spiritual aspects. It’s personal. It is a larger than life moment. A big moment for a small church. So that, to me, resonates a lot with me. I think because I grew up in the church. And I know the relationship between gospel music and the black church experience. To me that moment was a flip on the Prodigal Son. The Prodigal Daughter. And the song said what the characters didn’t say. God is trying to tell you something. And what he’s trying to tell you is that you are welcome to come back home. And I like that the music carried that moment. I’m getting chills thinking about it [laughs]. But it was just a moment that for me was so big and I’ll just never forget that. I think that the music choices in film and television should be elegant. They should be poignant. And they should speak to the moment without beating you over the head with emotion. I think that big, powerful moment, to me, underscore what I think is the still, small voice of your conscience and of God. I thought it was a beautiful juxtaposition between the silent voice of your conscience and that big musical moment. I’ll never forget it.
JW: Amazing. Is there a moment from your career that you feel like you got close to doing that? Not the exact same sense of emotion, but something as iconic and as memorable? Maybe all of them are, but I’m wondering if there’s something that stands out from your work on “Queen Sugar” or “Dear White People” where you were just like this is my moment from Shug and the church.
MR: Well…I’ll say this: I aspire to have someone experience a musical moment in the same way that I experienced The Color Purple. I think my responsibility is to hold the moment and the music equally as precious. With Selma, I had my own history in my hands.
MR: And I had to be delicate. Bloody Sunday for me will always be a moment I remember. It was the hardest moment to cue, to soundtrack, because it’s a historical moment. It took me a long time to find the right song. And I came to that moment because I had my Mom to pray for me. I was struggling. And she said “I am going to pray for you.” And shortly after that, I found that song “Walk With Me,” a song that belongs to generations of freedom fighters, but it was a new seventies, soul, rock interpretation. And that’s a moment that I will never forget. I know how I experienced it and I just hope that people experienced it the same way, that it resonated with people.
MR: And I think the purpose of music supervision is to hold these stories in your hand and do the best you can to interpret them sonically. For me, all of the deep digging is because I think I owe the music as much as much as I think it’s given me personally and spiritually and for those moments in my life where it’s been so important. I owe music that. I owe music and some of these artists that are obscure, that maybe people have forgotten about, I owe them that search. It’s worth looking for them. Because the stories are worth that search, and the people that have invested their time writing and creating these, getting these stories through the system, certainly as black creative and black producers and show runners, writers, directors… For whatever it took them to get wherever they are, I want to make sure I give the due diligence on my end to serve their stories the best. It’s worth the waking up at two o’clock in the morning to listen to my heart or running across a store in stilettos to get close to where I can Shazam it… going in the stacks in a record store, trying to go to shows in crappy places, all that is worth it because the music is worth it!
–More of the conversation between Jenna Wortham + Morgan Rhodes in Seeing Sounds Pt.2.