Where Fargo’s Music Supervisor Goes to Find Rare Tunes

A pro music sleuth teaches us how to look beyond Spotify

By The Editors

Where Fargo’s Music Supervisor Goes to Find Rare Tunes
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26 February 2016

What comes to mind when you hear the Stealer’s Wheel song “Stuck in the Middle with You”?

“For me, it’s not a romantic little ditty from the ‘60s,” says Maggie Phillips, music supervisor for Fargo and a slew of other shows, including Grandfathers and Togetherness. “It’s the song in Reservoir Dogs where the guy slices off the other guy’s ear.”

The fact is, when most of us hear a song in a movie or a television show it’s incredibly impactful. We’ll never again hear that song without associating it with the scene that introduced us to it. And for some us, we have find it and own it. Which isn’t always as easy as Shazaming it.

So we asked Maggie about how she finds the music for one of the best shows on TV, and how we can hunt down those obscure tracks ourselves.

InsideHook: How does one become a music supervisor? Sounds like a pretty great job.

Maggie Phillips: I grew up in Austin Texas, a huge fan of music. When some good friends of mine — Mark and Jay Duplass — were making a movie (The Puffy Chair), they asked me to help out. I was their one friend who was a big music nerd, who liked to make mixtapes and knew a lot of musicians. I actually trained and worked for the first 10 years out of school as a painter and artist. I wasn’t pursuing this at all. Mark and Jay continued to have success and ask me for help.

IH: Can you talk us through your process for picking music for a project? Does it work on an episode-by-episode basis, or do you have a more holistic plan for the entire season?

MP: I’ll read the script, and after meeting with the director or the showrunner, I’ll create what I call a “Mood Board Playlist,” which is like a lookbook, but for music. It’s a very general tone and feel. It could be character-driven or plot-driven or period-driven. Sometimes there’s more specific direction. Noah Hawley from Fargo had very specific ideas for Season Two.

IH: We noticed that Fargo uses a number of cover songs (like “Go to Sleep Little Baby” and “Dropped In”) that have been featured in Coen Brothers’ movies.

MP: It was a way of working inside of a world while making it our own. We could bring in contemporary artists whom we really wanted to work with, and it opened up some new avenues on how to develop the season. It was also a practical choice. Getting some of the original music was very expensive and this was cheaper.

IH: Was that your decision?

MP: Noah texted me and Jeff Russo (the composer on Fargo) early on in the process: “How about we get Blitzen Trapper to do a version of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’?” Of course I was like, “Genius, let’s do it.” The next day I put the wheels in motion, and what they came back with was so good we decided to try it again. We quickly saw that we were doing something pretty cool and it became a thing.

IH: Did you find any of the covers elsewhere or were they all made specifically for the show?

MP: We had them made, except for the Chieftains’ and Bon Iver’s covers of “Down in the Willow Garden.” We asked Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco) to do the Eagles’ song “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” because if anyone could make that song cool, he could. He said, “Thanks but no thanks.” We asked what he would want to do and he came back with [a cover of the song] Jose Feliciano did live in Fargo the movie, at the dinner lounge.

IH: I loved Brit Daniel’s cover of CCR’s “Run Through The Jungle.” The only way I can hear it is to listen to the YouTube version. Will that ever be released on a compilation album or elsewhere? Is there a lot of music produced for TV and movies that is never made available for stream or purchase?

MP: I love all of the songs but that one I just love a lot. He’s from Austin, and I met him like 20 years ago and we’re good friends and I knew that he’s a huge fan of CCR so I reached out to him and he killed it. Unfortunately, I just found out this week that it won’t be on our soundtrack. The deal didn’t work out, and it’s a big fucking bummer.

IH: Totally. But there will be a soundtrack?

MP: We’re putting out a tri-fold vinyl and it’ll be incomplete because that one song won’t be on there. But everything else will be on there, and it’s available sometime in late March.

IH: What about the songs you didn’t have covered? Like “Yama Yama” by Yamasuki. I found that on Spotify, but what about songs that aren’t available online? Where do I find them?

MP: I’m happy when I can’t find it on Spotify or iTunes! That means it’s a song that almost no one has heard before. I have people who have back catalogues of previously unreleased gems that are ready to be found. That’s one of the other things I love about my job: I get to find stuff like that. If you can’t get it online, you have to try places like Amoeba. A friend introduced me to Yamasuki a couple of years ago, and I held onto it. There’s also a song by Musi-O-Tunya called “Bashai Mwana” that’s in the basement montage in Episode 8. I found that from one of my secret sources; it’s an artist from Zimbabwe. The dude we bought the song from ended up buying a plot of land in his country with the money we gave him for the spot in Fargo.

IH: That’s a great story.

MP: Another heartwarming story: I do a network show called Grandfathers with John Stamos, and we did an Elliot Smith song at the end of one of the episodes. I know hipsters would say with all their indie-cool judgment, “Oh Elliot Smith in a network show, that’s so lame.” But Elliott Smith’s mom happens to be a really big John Stamos fan and a really big fan of that show. It made her extremely happy to have her son’s music in that episode.

IH: What kind of music do you personally gravitate toward the most?

MP: I’m pretty eclectic. I would say my favorite music would lie between ‘65 and ‘78. And then I have a soft spot for anything in the ‘90s because that’s when I was in high school and college.

IH: Where do you discover most of the music you listen to outside of your work? Definitely asking for personal reasons.

MP: I do a lot of “who influenced who”: I like to read interviews of bands I love and listen to the albums they reference. KCRW is also a good resource.

IH: Who are some artists you’re listening to right now?

MP: I have a lot of work coming up and I’m listening to a lot right now. But here’s what I’m happy divulging:

  • Phil Collins and Genesis
  • Eddy Current Suppression Ring (“Fucking awesome. Got them from my Australian friend.”)
  • Majical Cloudz
  • Jess Ribeiro (“Also my Aussie friend”)
  • Crooked Fingers (“A band from the 90s that I’ve been revisiting”)

“And Bowie, as I’m sure a lot of people are. That’s been fun.”

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