How This Is Us's Music Supervisor Creates The Show's Timeless Sound
In 2017, TV's Emmy Awards introduced a new prize for music supervisors — those people that choose the songs to help nail a moment and get you swept up emotionally. That means Jennifer Pyken can finally get recognized for her creative contributions, more than 20 years into the business.
Pyken's responsible for both the recognizable and not-so-recognizable songs you hear on This Is Us's soundtrack. Sometimes she even commissions original tracks. Her Emmy nomination came from an episode where the show's teenage character, Kate, has to write a new song — only it was Pyken who did the legwork.
"We only had two days to do this," Pyken said, "which is a crazy, short amount of time. So we went out to a handful of writers, but one that really stood out was written by Elise Davis, who is based in Nashville."
The narrative style of This Is Us poses a continuity challenge for Pyken, telling the story across several eras, often jumping from the '80s to present day. Solving this, she said, is about understanding each character's musical identity.
"We think about what [teenage] Kate would listen to," Pyken said. "In a previous episode, she's listening to the Pixies in her bedroom, then another episode, she's going to an Alanis Morissette record signing party. So each character has definitely a theme going through it through the whole series."
Pyken's nominated for her work on This Is Us, but her resume goes back to everything from films like Happy Gilmore to shows like One Tree Hill and Felicity.
"It's kind of like I'm representing all the music supervisors for all the hard work for all the years we've put in," she said.
She's licensed legacy artists for This Is Us like George Harrison, Elton John, and Bruce Springsteen, but said she's most proud of her work with indie musicians.
"They're usually the ones that either come by my office or track me down, or come by with a bottle of wine thanking me for something so they can pay their rent, they can make more music, they can be themselves — it means something to them," Pyken said. "And on top of it, it also helps them get credibility or possibly signed to an indie label."
English musician Bill Fay is one of those artists. He didn't know his cover of Wilco's "Jesus, Etc." had been used in an episode until he watched the show and heard it for himself. He reached out to thank her for using his song.
"I remember reading it in the car with my husband and I started crying, because it was the sweetest thing getting an email from this man," Pyken said. "He's like on the other side of world. I think he lives in the north of England now, and talked a little bit about how much it meant to him and about what was going on in his life."
It's that kind of emotional response that viewers often get listening to Pyken's song selections. You can listen to a bunch of them right here:
This Is Us season 3 premieres Sept. 25, and the Emmys are Sept. 17.
You made it! Congrats, you read the entire story, you gorgeous human. This story was made possible by generous people like you. Independent, local journalism costs $$$$$. And now that LAist is part of KPCC, we rely on that support. So if you aren't already, be one of us! Help us help you live your best life in Southern California. Donate now.