'Finding your own sound is important' This Is Us composer Siddhartha Khosla shares his TV journey
Siddhartha Khosla is the award-winning composer of hit TV shows This Is Us and Marvel's Runaways and the founding member of New York-based indie band Goldspot who have played world-renowned music festivals like Glastonbury, 02 Wireless and V Festival and whose music has featured on shows such as How I Met Your Mother and The OC. Here he talks to Mandy News about his process of composing and recording for TV.
Siddhartha, please introduce yourself and tell us how you got into film and TV composing?
I am a film and television composer. I composed the music for This Is Us, Marvel’s Runaways and a bunch of other stuff. I started very early. I was just a few years old when my parents started playing all the Indian music that they brought with them from India to the US.
I grew up listening to all the music they listened to. Listening to that old Indian music is what inspired me to start singing at a very young age and that was my official start in this business.
What was your next step? How did you start Goldspot? How did you start your band?
After graduating college my best friend from home called me one day (he and I had a band in high school) and said “hey, let's start and band and let's move to London,” and after college we moved to London, got jobs bartending and started Goldspot.
We just started writing music, and eventually I moved to Los Angeles. He went on to do something else and I started writing and really finding my sound. I wrote a record called Tally of the Yes Men, we released that album and that really started everything for me. It started getting played on all these really cool radio stations that I loved in LA, and then we got signed to a record deal with Mercury K.
My record came out there, so I moved back to London at one point and we toured all over and released a few albums. Eventually I came back to New York after my record deal was done, and got thrown into scoring film and television.
How did that switch of industries happen?
I had already been exposed to the film and television world because a lot of Goldspot songs were getting licensed for TV shows like How I Met Your Mother or The OC, and it was on these shows that people actually started paying attention to the songs that were being used on them.
So my music was already in there a little bit, and then a really good friend of mine from college was this incredible screen writer called Dan Fogelman, and he asked me to score his TV show. I had just come back from tour so I said well I’ve got the time to do this right now, and I’m happy to do it.
That call from Dan was really important because it set up a whole different career for me in music, and I have not looked back since.
Fantastic. So, how did you get the job on This is Us?
Dan created that show as well. We had worked together on a bunch of stuff and he called me and said he had this script and that it was a very special script to him and he wanted me to read it and see what it inspired.
He wanted me to write something based on the script only. So I read it and sent him this piece of music I wrote, and it became the sound of the score. He loved it and the other producers loved it and it got me the job. That became the sound of the show. It was very acoustic driven, organic, homemade.
When you are talking about the sound of the show - what’s the process for composing for the show, the instrumentation or the recording methods that you use, and how do you go about doing that?
What I love about the show is it does not have all the bells and whistles of your traditional TV drama or filmic drama. The drama is in the stories of this family and I wanted to make sure that the score felt organic and timeless.
Knowing that we jump back and forth decades, we’re in the ‘60s one minute, we’re in the ‘80s another, we’re in the ‘90s and, recently, we’ve seen hints of some flash forwards into the future. The music had to be something that could live in all those decades. To me there is nothing more timeless than a simple acoustic guitar, and so the sound of the score is me singing or humming, acoustic guitar and percussion played on wooden tables.
There are a lot of atmospheric elements that I have created organically through pianos, and other woodwind instruments like harmoniums and a couple of Indian instruments that I use.
I think keeping the sound coming from that homemade place where it feels like I made it in my living room – that’s what it is – has helped ground the show and allow the score to live under the skin, where you feel it’s like an invisible character on the show that plays with these characters.
What about the turnaround time for working on the show and the process of how closely you work with the team? How much time do you get for each episode?
Because this is a broadcast television show here in the US, the turnaround is really tight. We’re delivering 18 episodes of this a season, so I basically end up having a few days to write the score for every episode and record it. Then there’s a couple of days of fine tuning here and there, but it ends up being three to four solid days of work.
It’s a lot of work in a compressed amount of time. The process is that I get to see early rough cuts of the show. I see picture with no music in it, occasionally the editors will lay temp music in using some of my score as a placeholder, but often I request to get stuff with no placeholder at all so I can really see what the picture is inspiring and so that I don’t have any bias.
So, I get the picture dry (we call it) and I literally pick up my acoustic guitar, take up my microphone, put it right on the guitar and record live straight from start to finish in the early cut that I get. I just noodle and play along. Inevitably, in that process, I find a theme that ends up becoming the theme for that episode. I find that theme as I’m looking at picture in that very first pass. I’ll get picture and I’m very careful not to watch it before I’m in my element of being able to record what I’m feeling, because there is something about that initial feeling and instinct that you get that you can’t ever get back. So, I like to capture that very first watch, just in case.
There are times where I don’t get anything out of it but more often than not I always get something. Either I get the theme or I figure out where I want to score stuff. The editors and Dan will also say “hey we need music here, here and here, so focus on these areas,” and I like that. There is something about that very first watch that’s really special thats really hard to recreate.
Do you ever get stuck? What are the biggest challenges that you face as a composer?
The beauty of working on this show is that Dan has created this environment that is creatively free, and he wants the writers, the actors, the composer, all of us to be artists first on his show, and to never feel like we have to conform to whatever the standards of television are. Which is what makes This is Us not very TV. It feels like film to me when I’m watching it, and working on it. There’s a freedom to express, and I think when you have that type of foundation, where you’re not feeling confined, it allows you to not get into these writer blocks.
On this show I haven’t really experienced that, I feel like every time I see new footage, new picture, or a new story, there’s a new melody that pops into my head, or a new idea musically, and Dan is open to me tapping into what my soul is telling me to do. The score has evolved from the beginning of last season where it was simpler and more acoustic and not as much, to now something that is more elaborate but still homemade.
There’s a lot of Indian influence that has entered the score. I lived in India as a kid. I have a lot of this old Indian music in my soul I feel, and now the score has become, well, there are hints of what feels like this Indianish melody, and even some droney textures. I’m using from harmoniums to tambora which is something sitar players play to in a performance. You can hear those things in the score now and no one is telling me “that’s weird take it out.”
When you have the freedom to be doing stuff like that, and be bold it feels like the world is your oyster, and that what it feels like on this show.
How does that compare to working on something like Runaways where you’re in this massive Marvel universe? How do the two compare?
My approach to both shows is similar. When I write a score I like writing to the subtext of what's there. I like writing to why these characters are there, why is someone doing what their doing in a particular scene as opposed to scoring “oh somebody’s head turned I have to hit that with some sort of music.”
It’s more about the larger picture, the only difference in the shows is how vastly different the instrumentation is. In one show everything is plugged in, on the other show really nothing is.
So on Marvel’s Runaways that’s a fully electronic score where I’m using vintage synthesizers from the ‘80s. There's a Depeche Mode influence in the music. I was a huge fan growing up. So Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz who created Runaways also create that really open, free world for me to play in, and we can do some weird interesting stuff on Runaways too, where is doesn’t feel or sound like other analogue synth scores that are out there.
I think part of it is that they’re not confining me to a box. I am able to play around and be bold in those choices too. Especially in the main title theme that I wrote for Runaways. So there is a joy about working with studios, and networks who see your artistic freedom as beneficial not just to you, but to them as well, and that's when wonderful, magical situations can happen.
So after the season finale for This Is Us, what have you got planned for the rest of this year and beyond?
There's the new season coming up, we’ll start that in the summer, and then Runaways has a new season also, so that’s going to be beginning soon. The very first drama I ever got was The Royals and that's continuing. Its fourth season is airing I’m not sure if we’re going to move to a fifth.
So that's all on the plate and that keeps me really busy. I’ve got a couple of pilots I’m doing as well, a couple of comedy pilots that I’m starting to work on now, and I can’t announce details yet, but we’re finalising details of a movie that I’ll be scoring this summer.
And lastly what advice do you have for up-and-coming composers or musicians wanting to get into scoring for TV and film?
There are two pieces of advice I would give. One is on your sound. Creating and writing music is like working a muscle, and you have to work that muscle to find your sound, and it’s very important that it is distinctly you. I think if you end up sounding like everybody else you become part of mediocrity.
I think what sets my favourite composers apart is that they have a sound that is distinctly them irrespective of the genre. There is something unique and original about it. I think composers, especially upcoming composers, have the ability to be bold and make bold choices, and I think there are a lot of creative executives out there that want to see artistry in their work, and composing now for television and film has become a really wonderful a place for composers to be creatively expressive.
There are so many wonderful television composers out there that I feel are on par with some of the best film composers in the world. So I think finding your own sound is important.
The other piece of advice I would give is to treat every job as if it’s your first gig ever and also your last gig ever. Approaching every project like its your first and your last, I think, makes you always work really really hard to give it your all.
Every project for me, I want to have that same enthusiasm like I did on my very first gig, and I try to bring that to every show or film I work on.
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