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Liz Phair discusses the music of In Plain Sight

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The popular musician talks about her recent gig scoring the series.

By Brian Gallagher
MovieWeb, April 22, 2010

Liz Phair has been a successful musician for many years, but a new musical endeavor she has taken on is scoring TV shows. Phair recently came aboard the hit USA series In Plain Sight, which airs on Wednesday nights at 10 PM ET on USA and the composer recently held a conference call to discuss her work on the series. Here’s what she had to say.

I’m wondering how you became involved with working with USA and of course, becoming a part of In Plain Sight?

Liz Phair: Well, I started scoring television; I guess it was a year and a half ago. It seems like; I guess it might have been. A year and a half ago a friend of mine was a show creator on a show called Swingtown and we’d grown up together and he really loved my music and thought I could be good at doing something like this. I had no experience so I partnered up with two other musicians that I knew who had had experience and I found that I loved it. When they were looking for a new composer on In Plain Sight I just really identified with that strong female lead and we went for it. Luckily we landed the job.

I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit about the In Plain Sight theme song and how you came up with that. Did you watch some of the episodes to get a little feel for it? Did you take a look at the characters?

Liz Phair: That’s actually the original theme song. I didn’t compose that.

Okay, so you weren’t really – they weren’t looking for you to go in a different direction with the song –

Liz Phair: Well, we keep pitching them new – we’re pitching but they haven’t – they’re not biting yet. We’ll keep doing it.

In approaching the characters, how do you find the right musical identities for Mary and Fred?

Liz Phair: Well that’s hard because you really have to get to know the characters over the episodes. You may have an impression of them originally that then the writing shifts a little bit and as the writers explore their emotional lives and how they’re going to change with each new experience they go through, together and separately, so you really have to take it scene by scene. You do develop themes for the characters. Mary, I tend to come in with – I kind of love to play – the chase scenes are just bad ass and you just hit them guns blazing which is very exciting and that’s very orchestral, we really ramp up the percussion. The more intimate moments it’s fun to play them as well and give her character depth, use more sort of sparse arrangement and emotional guitar, chord changes that I love to do. I don’t know if you’re familiar with my music but it’s something I love to do. It’s fun to express ourselves in different ways musically. Each character does develop a musical identity as the shows progress and that’s half the fun.

In dealing with longevity as an artist, how tough is it to stay motivated to keep reinventing yourself? That must be an art on its own.

Liz Phair: Well I think you have to keep challenging yourself. You have to try things that you don’t know how to do. For me, scoring has been one of those things, and see if you like it. If you do become passionate about it you have a lot to learn and that keeps you engaged the creative process. That’s how I do it, although it gets me into a lot of trouble. Critics don’t always agree with my choices.

When you record an album you’re recording for you and your fans. However, with TV it’s kind of for a completely different audience so how does that process change for you?

Liz Phair: Well, you’re definitely working for your client so they have to be happy. You listen very, very carefully in meetings and take notes. I think occasionally there will be words – the funny part is someone can say, “I want it to feel more intense.” What they mean by intense can be very different from what you think they mean by intense. I think that’s something that develops as you work together for a little bit, then you learn what each person means and what they expect. For sure we work for the show. We want to make it as good as it can be and lift the performances to another level. I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t get really stuck on – I can imagine how someone would think an artist, a recording artist, who is used to a lot of control would come in and I get disappointed when they don’t like my cue. I don’t get mad. It’s like I’m there to support and I don’t find that inhibiting, actually.

Are there any additional projects that you do have in the works?

Liz Phair: I do. I’m writing a new record and it’s interesting how scoring and writing facilitate each other. Scoring teaches me to pare down my melodic ideas and really focus on emotional shifts in music. That sort of enhances my ability to, when I write songs, put the right musical moments underneath the lyric. You know what I mean? Like so that the music actually – I think it’s actually improving my songwriting, although it complicates it in my mind. It’s interesting. It’s very – they both enhance each other. I cannibalize, by the way occasionally.

Basically, you know recently you’ve been working more behind the scenes doing the scoring stuff and have been a lot less in the public eye. I was wondering how has your life changed now that you’re still working actively but you’re less public about it?

Liz Phair: I’m fine with that. I love some of the glamour of being a recording artist and I’m sure I will again engage in that sort of environment. It’s fun to do but my – I always was a studio musician. I think there are two kinds of artists, there are performers and studio geeks. I sort of always was the latter. For me what I get all itchy and excited about – I remember when we first got hired on In Plain Sight we would listen and we would read the scripts and stuff, but we were really sort of pawing at the ground going like, “When can we make music? When can we make music? When can we make music?” Because we just love to do it so it really works for me.

Also, throughout your career you’ve done several different jobs within the industry. You’ve been a singer, songwriter, composer, even written some articles for magazines. Which of those have you enjoyed the most, and why?

Liz Phair: I hate to say this, but I’m an omnivore. I love them all. I love expressing myself creatively and I have — maybe acting I was the worst at. That was pretty bad. I love challenging myself in new ways. I’m sort of a natural born artist. New media is always stimulating to me so if I can try my hand at new things, it really generates a whole new wave of creativity inside of me so I don’t know that I – I began my life as a visual artist, believe it or not. Music was a secondary thing. I was very surprised when that became my full career. So, I have to say I can’t single one out as my first and foremost love.

Why In Plain Sight and how did the gig come to you?

Liz Phair: Well, I mean there is a certain amount of randomness to it. You are floating your name out there hoping someone is interested in working with you and you’re also poring over projects that are becoming available in your agent’s office circling stuff. I think I really responded to the strong female lead. It’s an unusual dynamic between Mary and Marshall. They kind of – they remind me in funny ways of like old Capra movies or something, like It Happened One Night, that witty banter that you get between Clarke Gable and Claudette Colbert, like those kinds of movies, that kind of witty banter that happens, that sexual tension that’s percolating beneath the surface. I love that stuff. Maybe that’s a stretch but I feel like in its own ways my brain moves at that sort of rapid pace as well. I find it very stimulating. I say that a lot, don’t I?

I’d like to know what your viewpoint is on the significance music brings to TV shows.

Liz Phair: I have been – I can’t watch television now without hearing the score. It’s kind of corrupted me forever from just – I can’t divorce the two. It makes so much difference. I learned this early on with my son, when movies were frightening to him I literally would just mute the television and then nothing impacted you. If you just see the visual nothing – at least for most people it just doesn’t impact you. In a weird way music and of course dialogue are the things that strike you emotionally. Without them the visual is somehow separate; it’s removed; it can’t affect you, so I think music is extremely important. I love working with directors and show runners and creators that are passionate about that and recognize that as well. Then they have strong opinions on what they want and what they’re looking for and when a scene works for them and I respect that because I come to it with the same passion. We don’t always agree but we both care and we both recognize that the music can have a huge impact in how a scene plays.

I’m also wondering, how is it working within a creative team on the show? Do you also have kind of like a music team you’re working with?

Liz Phair: I do. I have two partners who deserve absolutely as much credit as I do for the music. I really felt more comfortable with that because I’d never scored before and I didn’t want to take on the responsibility of a show without people that were more experienced than I was. I still work with Evan. I couldn’t possibly do my cues alone. I write them and then I need him to help me polish them. We get into our little tiffs where we think the emphasis should be. I think just the other day there was a crying scene where I really got bejiggety without him because I’m like, “You don’t understand what it’s like when a woman’s about to pop.” We went over it again and again and again until I felt like the intensity mirrored my own feelings when I’m about like burst into tears. It’s fun. I find it to be really rewarding when you get the music that supports a well written scene and it comes together and you watch it. It’s kind of like a little bit of magic.

Can you tell us a little bit about what goes into being the music … composer for In Plain Sight?

Liz Phair: Well, we all meet up with people who are doing, I don’t even know what you call them. They’re people who make sure the door sounds sound like doors and that the dialogue can be heard over the ambient noises of the wind or the traffic where they’ve shot. You have the director and the editor and John McNamara there and a bunch of other people that are music supervisors making sure everything is coming together. That’s when you really go through the whole show scene by scene with the mostly last cut and you discuss and you point out where you want – they temp in music, maybe I’m obviously going too much in depth and that’s not really what you’re asking. Anyway you all meet, you communicate about what they want and you have a temp track that gives you a basic idea and then you go home and I sit and write on my computer while it plays, either on keyboard or on guitar and I write my cues and then I go in with my partners and we create them and add instrumentation and little notes to emphasize certain moments. Then turn them in and either they love it or they send them back and then you fix it and then everyone is happy.

Now if you had to pick one of your songs to represent the onscreen relationship between Mary and Marshall, which song would you choose and why?

Liz Phair: I’d probably have to pick – Oh my God! Well, that’s a little harsh, but I wrote this song when I was — it’s not – I think you could find it somewhere on the internet, but it was from Girly Sound which was my original incarnation. I used to write these long songs where I would sort of do a he said, she said thing. Then he said, and then she said, and there was this one that went like, “He came over to my house, didn’t even knock, he just walked inside and when I didn’t want to talk he said, oh yes what a lot of bullshit, don’t be so in love with yourself, don’t be so -” It kind of went back and forth and then he said, “Why she was so in love with herself.” They just have this great game that goes between them that I find, even in the smallest moments, like little looks when they’re sitting in the car, that kind of speak volumes. That’s fun for me to watch. When you score you really get micro-focused on that stuff and it’s actually there, written in there and performed In Plain Sight and I respect that.

Can you talk about the musical parameters that you have to work within, within the world of the witness protection program?

Liz Phair: Like, what is appropriate for witness protection sound and what isn’t appropriate?

Yes, like … no that’s a different show kind of thing.

Liz Phair: That’s interesting. That’s a really complex question because I’m not even sure how we do hit the mark. I think we listen to the music that was in there previously and we heard what John said about what he liked and didn’t like. Again listening is key. It is absolutely essential. When you talk about doing this when I was young, when you’re young you really don’t listen to anybody and it’s all about listening. I listen very closely to any little hints or preferences that I hear him talk about or anyone who’s speaking about the music. You have to do what you do; you can’t be generic. Sometimes I go a little too wild or left of center and I think it’s amazing but it just is too – I have to get reined back in. I’m not sure, I think with this show you want to keep the cues fairly spare so that it’s not too much orchestration except in intense scenes so that there can be a real division between when the intensity ramps up. The show itself is split between personal life and personal moments and the struggle within a human being, not just with Mary and Marshall but with the witnesses who are being relocated. It’s a huge part of the show to think about dropping most of your life and having to have a rebirth. That’s an intense thing. I think this show itself, between real life and death consequences, which tend to be the ones that we really flesh out with a lot of instruments and then the more intimate moments which we try to keep very spare and minimal and evocative emotionally. There is a big difference. It’s a very complex thing to score, it really is.

I was just wondering with television being such a strictly constructed form, you’ve got your teaser, your acts, and your tag, how does that play into what you compose? Also, in terms of light scenes and dark scenes using minor chords for melancholy and that sort of thing, how much scope does this series give you?

Liz Phair: Oh, a lot. There is a huge range of steps. I find that on any given episode when all three of us, my two partners and I decide who’s going to write which cues and who’s going to finish them. We all can come to it from a different place depending on what strikes us in an episode. I always start the ones that I really feel connected to. There is a huge range on this show. I don’t feel limited at all. Yet, when I’m actually bringing the cues that I’ve written in to actually put them down and add instrumentation – I’m often, Evan is often having me subtract chords. I’ll over write. I’ll write too many chords and less is almost always more. I have to continually learn to pare down what I’ve written into its essence, jus the minimal sort of fluctuation as you said between major/minor, but also in terms of descents and maybe sometimes I think of them in threes or fours where they sort of continue – I see them as rolling. You’ll get four chords in a row kind of rolling and how fast – you pace the cue – I’m getting way too in-depth here but you pace the cue to the movement on screen. You’re actually picking the temp based on the body movements and what’s going on. It’s fascinating, kind of.

We loved the show Swingtown and we were curious if there is a difference writing for a period piece like that than there is for writing for a show like In Plain Sight?

Liz Phair: Well, I think it really comes down to the creators, the show creators and what they want. Of course, there is a difference. In Swingtown we definitely had some comic moments where we played up the old 70s Funkadelic, we had some fun with that. When it comes to actual character driven emotional cues I think it just depends on what sound they’re going for. I wouldn’t say we 70s-ized most of the cues on Swingtown, I think most of the cues on Swingtown were character driven. Certain people had themes, depending on what was happening to them at that time, that’s how we tailored the cue. I think as a collective we have started to develop our own sound as well, which when they hire us we also bring to the table. For my part what I’ve noticed the most is that it’s about people; it’s about people interacting and helping you, the viewer, feel what they’re feeling. If there are three people in a scene, whose cue is it? Do you need to feel what Marshall is feeling in that moment? Do you need to feel what the witness is feeling? Does it switch halfway through? That is much more important than if it feels – and I think it always should be like stylized to the 70s, or if this is Albuquerque does it have to sound southwest? I think it’s much more important to have it ring true to the feelings on screen and what the characters are experiencing.

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