During the first season of This Is Us, Susan Kelechi Watson (Beth) remembers being at creator Dan Fogelman‘s house and cornering music composer Siddhartha Khosla with the intention of finding out what we’ve wanted to know for so long: How did This Is Us get so good at making us cry?
“We literally cornered him,” Kelechi Watson jokes, “and asked him: ‘How you making us cry?! Like, what are you doing?’ There’s something in the scoring, but Sidd just knows how to capture the emotion in the scene without beating somebody over the head with it. He grabs on to the subtext and writes a melody to it.”
It sounds simple in theory, but scoring a hit piece of music—let alone one for a popular TV show—is the equivalent of capturing lightning in a bottle. The theme music to This Is Us not only captures the emotional tone of the show, but it’s timeless enough to go down in TV score history. “It stays in your head. There there are scenes where I can remember [exactly what went on] and the music will actually flood my head is it happens,” Kelechi Watson points out.
It should come as no surprise then that Khosla (who has his own band, Goldspot) perfected his talent by writing and performing original songs for The O.C., while This Is Us music supervisor Jennifer Pyken began her career overseeing the music for fellow indie/emotionally-heavy shows like Felicity and One Tree Hill. “This Is Us has emotional, modern day, authentic characters like Felicity had, even though it was a totally different type of show,” Pyken says. “It’s indie singer-songwriter with a bit of modern folk. The kind of music that brings out emotions.”
While Pyken sifts through hundreds of pieces of music a week—she’s largely responsible for finding the perfect song to match the scene, as well as getting clearance to then use those songs—Khosla is the one who created the memorable main score, as well as several newer songs that are guaranteed to get the waterworks going.
“I picked up my acoustic guitar after reading the pilot script, and I wrote the theme piece of music and then sent it in to Dan Fogelman,” Khosla remembers. “It was me finger-picking this acoustic guitar with some other interesting sounds around it. It was emotional without it being overwrought with emotion. The trick was something that was simple enough to tug at the heartstrings.”
Surprisingly though, Khosla says the intent is not to make you cry (go ahead and insert your disbelief here). “It never is!” Khosla swears. “The intention is never to cry but just to put emotionally honest work out there.” Whatever you say, Sidd.
One of those scenes in particular was when Kate went to the weight-loss immersion camp and had a breakthrough thinking about Jack’s funeral. “It’s this piece of music that you hear that speaks to her own emotional heartbreak over her situation,” Khosla says. “I remember just losing it writing. It was a combination of Chrissy Metz’s performance, and Dan’s writing and concept. That became the sound. It came from instinct.”
That instinct comes from Khosla’s close friendship with Fogelman, which goes back to their days as college roommates. “We’ve been around each other through important moments in our lives. Successes and failures, heartbreak, loss…we’ve seen each other go through some stuff. A lot of this show is informed by Dan’s own life, so when I’m writing music for the show, I’m kind of writing for him on some level.”
Listening to Khosla talk about his dear friend is enough to make anyone tear up; if that doesn’t do it for you, then this particular story will. One of the songs on This Is Us is “Evergreen Cassette,” which Khosla wrote for episode 12, when viewers see Rebecca in the 24 hours leading up to the birth of the triplets. The song is about Khosla’s own mother, who left India for the United States with Khosla’s father in 1976.
“They were the quintessential immigrant story of coming here with literally nothing. They were both in school trying to work full time jobs and support a living, but they had to send me back to India when I was two years old to live with my grandparents [because they couldn’t work all those jobs and take care of me],” Khosla recalls. “And so, that sacrifice that a mother and father had to make of sending their new child away from them for two years while they built a life here is the kind of sacrifice that is heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time. They did this for this end game of ‘We’ll bring him back once we have some foundation here.’ At the same time, it’s one of those sacrifices that a parent makes that they might not quite ever get over either. There’s a guilt about it.
And so, when I lived in India for those two years, a long-distance phone call cost $20-something a minute, and that was three times their savings. The only way to really communicate with each other was through this cassette tape. My parents would record their voice on it, and my grandparents would play it for me and then record me saying something unintelligible because I was two. We recorded over the same tape for two years. I wrote “Evergreen Cassette” about that experience with my mom as my way to tell her it’s OK she did that and I understand why. So in episode 12, Rebecca is concerned about how she’s going to be as a mother and if she’s going to be good enough. Since the song is also about believing in your mother, it just felt like the perfect way to end the episode.”
While Khosla and Pyken are not ones to take credit for bringing all of our emotion to the surface (they are relentless in their praise of the writers and the cast), they do admit there’s one thing in particular that holds the key to all that emotion: nostalgia. “That’s what it is,” Khosla says. “There’s a nostalgia in that acoustic guitar instrumentation that’s timeless; it brings you back to another time in your life. That’s one of the reasons why this palette works, because it feels connected.”
Pyken adds: “We remember songs from our childhood, and they affect us later when we hear them. It’ll bring up an experience. So we think, ‘What would Randall be listening to?’” One of those songs is Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me, Al,” which plays when Randall remembers his childhood. “It’s such a long process to get these songs approved and cleared,” Pyken says of the material. “Once they do, they really make an episode.”
This Is Us (Music from the Series) is available now and features 20 songs curated by Dan Fogelman, Jennifer Pyken, and Siddhartha Khosla.