The making of Normal People’s carefully-curated soundtrack
BBC Three’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s hugely-popular novel Normal People has managed to achieve that most uncommon of victories for a screen adaptation… it’s pretty good and fans aren’t angry.
This is for a number of reasons – the delicate performances, the perfect locations and a painfully gorgeous story spanning years of character development. Another key factor is the soundtrack, punctuating the show’s most poignant moments and making us even more weepy.
Juliet Martin is a music supervisor, publisher and an agent to composers based in Dublin who co-supervised the music for the series. We spoke to her about the work that went into Normal People and why focusing on home turf made the show extra special.
Talk us through the process of music supervision for people who might not know.
My job usually begins at the script stage. I would clear any tracks referred to in the script, or that are being performed in the production prior to filming. Then it would be my job to suggest tracks for scenes and clear all the rights to allow a production to include this music in their film, show, advert etc. I might also coordinate an orchestral recording, or suggest live players. I would sometimes be asked to suggest and contract composers.
How did you get involved with Normal People?
I publish the composer of the score, Stephen Rennicks and he is a long time collaborator with Lenny Abrahamson, who directed the first six episodes. He had scored two previous films that I had also supervised. I had already read the book twice so when I heard they were making a TV series I started making a playlist before anybody approached me! I sent Lenny a mail saying I’d love to be involved and that was it! I’d also read [Rooney’s other novel] Conversations With Friends. I was a huge admirer of both books.
Did you imagine any music or sounds when you read through it?
When I read the script it made me think of Stephen’s score for What Richard Did. There are some beautiful pieces in it when Richard falls in love which I thought of when I read the book and script. The tracks I thought of came from there. The playlist that I had from the start had tracks from Lisa Hannigan, Jealous of the Birds, Kate Bush and Soak in it.
What sort of brief did you get from the directors and writers?
I didn’t have any contact with the writers but met Lenny and the editors. We discussed references like Nick Drake and discussed a lot of Irish music like Lisa Hannigan. The amazing performances by the actors communicate Sally Rooney’s book and Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe’s script through just looks and expressions. It was important that the music didn’t interfere with that and allowed a sense of place and atmosphere to be captured. I was also lucky enough to work with the amazing music supervisor Maggie Phillips on this and it was a joy to collaborate and get her sensibilities
The story spans many years – how is music used in scenes to signpost eras?
This was a discussion we had because the tracks I suggested for filming were within the time frame of the script, up to around 2015 I believe. But in post-production we had a discussion about this and decided that on the diegetic [music that is part of the fictional setting of the scene] tracks, it was more important to have the feel right rather than concentrate on the date. So you have tracks like Rare by Selena Gomez that fall outside the time frame
Were any specific tracks and moments requested from the outset by writers and directors?
No – but I did have to do playlists in the week leading up to the filming of the club scenes. They both ended up staying in the production until the end. That doesn’t always happen as things can change in post-production in terms of the mood and tone of the scene or episode.
You’re based in Dublin. Do you think it shows when you watch Normal People just how much the production was centred around Ireland?
When we first met and talked about the music we all agreed it was really important to feature Irish music to capture the atmosphere and sense of place that are so strong in the book. Like the first track by Anna Mieke – it has a beautiful fresh feel. Lenny particularly wanted that track to be Irish.
I love that Marianne listens to Orla Gartland and Soak – an amazing artist from the north. A good portion of the music the characters listen to is made by Irish hip-hop acts, which reflects a really burgeoning scene here; the likes of Alex Gough, 7th Obi, Mango x Mathman and then other artists like Mount Alaska, Royal Yellow. That reflects contemporary Ireland.
Are there any musical moments in the series you’re especially proud of?
I love Metroma by The Sei at the end of episode seven. I had wanted to place them for a number of years and had that track in my head from the beginning.
Marianne is a very cultured, artistically aware character. Is that something you wanted to be reflected?
Actually we had that discussion and we were conscious that we didn’t want her to be listening to something really obviously ‘out there’ like some obscure jazz for example. We felt she could be listening to what anyone else her age might be listening to.
Has it been nice seeing the response to the show? The music seems to be a key thing people are connecting with.
It’s been incredible. When you are involved in something from an early stage it can be hard to get a sense of it as you are so submerged, you can’t judge it objectively anymore. But it’s been incredible and I’m so in awe of all the talented people who brought this together, the work that goes on behind the scenes is phenomenal.
Why do you think the story and this adaptation has made such an impact?
It’s a universal story. It’s very real and people connect with that – the book brilliantly achieved it and now the series has really honoured that. People connect with those two characters and their experiences; love, hurt, depression, isolation. Music is so emotional for people and I hope this music just helps with an emotional connection.
Normal People is available to watch on BBC iPlayer now.