Jen Malone used music to bring “The Umbrella Academy” season 2 to life
Joining the crew on season 2 of The Umbrella Academy wasn’t only a dream come true for Jen Malone—it was a no-brainer. Riding success as the music supervisor for television dramas such as Atlanta and Euphoria, Malone was essentially made to sonically document the Hargreeves siblings’ endless grocery list of shortcomings.
Whether in television or film, we can all agree that without the perfect score soundtracking the most climatic and moving scenes in cinema history, the moment would fall short. Is there even an alternate universe that exists where John Bender isn’t walking across the football field and triumphantly thrusting his fist in the air to the tune of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” in the closing credits of The Breakfast Club? We surely hope not.
From rock ’n’ roll publicist to TV and film music supervisor, Jen Malone’s in-depth knowledge and palpable passion for music have allowed her the opportunity to flex her strengths and work on a plethora of diverse scores. Not to brag, but she also won Best Music Supervision for the television drama Euphoria at the 2020 Guild Of Music Supervisors Awards.
To nobody’s surprise, season 1 of The Umbrella Academy has a very strong musical ambiance that acts as this invisible character in every scene. You can hear it, but it’s physically nonexistent. Going into the creation of season 2, did you feel a lot of pressure to create that same type of atmospheric musical setting?
I was such a fan of the show, obviously on a story level, and then as a music supervisor, it was like, “I want to do this show. This is a dream show.” They use music in such cool, interesting, exciting ways that it’s just a dream for a music supervisor. And then when the opportunity came up for me to meet with Steve [Blackman] and possibly come on, it [seemed] like a manifest situation. I knew one of the editors, and I was like, “Get me on season 2,” and when that opportunity came up, it was so exciting.
There are always season 2 pressures, just as there are in season 1. You don’t want to do the same thing, but you want to maintain the cohesiveness of the musical voice of the show. So with this show being in the ’60s, it also combined my love and excitement for crate-digging and being able to use ’60s soul, lost classic stuff like that, as well as some modern stuff. We were definitely able to get a few things in there, which was really exciting and spiced it up. It keeps the audience—I don’t want to stay on their toes—but just excited about each needle drop. Each song has served such a strong function in this [show], just as much as costumes or lighting or cinematography, for example.
The music is one of those things that’s so powerful throughout both seasons. As you’re watching it, it’s not distracting, but you do notice it, and you think about it.
Yes, it’s part of the story. It helps tell the story and support the scene, whether it’s a big action fight scene, like KISS [in episode four, “The Majestic 12”] [or not]. It’s a separate character in the scene.
Obviously, Gerard Way has a musical background, so it made sense to have him involved. In season 1, he recorded two covers for the series, but for season 2, he actually wrote a new song, “Here Comes The End.” When you heard that song, did you know immediately where it was going into the season storyline?
When I first heard it, I was like, “This aesthetically fits the throwback vibe.” It’s not necessarily a My Chemical Romance song, in my opinion. It’s psychedelic and ’60s- and ’70s-[influenced], and [Judith Hill’s] backing vocals [have a] very Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter” vibe. So aesthetically, it was like, “Oh, my God, this just fits in so perfect with the world of the show.” And then as far as finding a place, that was so much Steve, our showrunner, figuring out where the best place to use it would be. So we didn’t know exactly which scene, but as far as fitting into the sonic feel of the show, it couldn’t have been more right on.
How involved were Gerard and Steve with the musical selection and placement?
Well, I worked mostly with Steve, and [he’s] very involved. Steve has great taste in music, and it’s all over the place, which is like me. And he’s open to hear so many different types of vibes for each scene that I was pitching for. He would find stuff, [and] it was just a fun collaboration with [him] to find the right songs. And some of them were literally like Generation X’s “Dancing With Myself.” It’s a funny story about how that came up. That was literally the first thing I thought of, and I was like, “OK, sit down. I need a song for the scene, [and] I need it by the end of the day.” The night before was the Guild Of Music Supervisors Awards and, humblebrag, I won for Euphoria, so I was definitely tired. So it was just like, “OK, where do I start? Generation X’s ‘Dancing With Myself.’”
I checked it with Steve [because] it just came up after I watched it. It’s such a funny scene, and it’s a little on the nose, but not in a bad way. It just adds to the comedy of it. So that was one that just fell right into place. I was like, “Steve, what do you think of this?” And he is like, “Let’s try it.” Of course, my editor is like, “You got any more?” I was like, “Well, nope, let’s just try this one for now. I’m still looking.” And then just hoping this one would work because I played it up to picture, and it was so good.
I feel so lucky that I was able to pitch songs like that and pitch genres and ideas, like with the DJ Shadow and De La Soul [song, “Rocket Fuel”]. We were going [in] so many different directions [with] a Luther [Hargreeves] fight scene of what to do with that. The DJ Shadow song was something I was like, “Let’s shake it up. Let’s put something in that came out [in 2019].” It was just a cool moment where we could do something totally different, so that was a really exciting aspect to be working on with Steve.
Being that season 2 is set in the 1960s and you could have easily selected music strictly from or before 1963 to fit that timeline, the assortment of older and newer songs really added value to the vibe. How do you think the music selection enhanced the story?
For all of the diegetic music, which is the music that the characters hear [and] it’s in that specific world of the narrative, we were very true to stay in 1963 or before. There were a lot of dates and years and checking songs, and there were some songs that would’ve been perfect, but it was released in ’67, so we couldn’t use it because we wanted to stay true. But as far as the other songs enhancing the storyline, each one is just very different.
Having Adele’s “Hello” in Swedish, we were playing with the idea of maybe using some other Swedish artists and songs. But it was a conscious decision not to have anything in there until we had “Hello,” and I think that just really gave emotion to that scene of the Viking funeral, as we called it. And then songs like “Hold On, I’m Comin’” [by] Sam & Dave was another one where I was sitting with the editor, and I was like, “Try this song,” and it just fit in perfectly. It didn’t really need too much editing. It was just like, “Boom, there it is. My work is done here.”
Which song selection for season 2 are you most proud of?
I definitely think Sam & Dave. I think “Dancing With Myself” as well. [It’s] just really, really funny and fun, and everybody knows that song. And then I love the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m A Man”—that’s when Diego fights [Sir Reginald] Hargreeves. I really liked that one because it was late ’60s, but we were able to get away with it because it was not diegetic, and it was just like that early blues-rock British Invasion.
I didn’t pick “Hello” from Adele, but I’m proud of that one on a couple of different levels, and that was all Steve. Adele herself is very, very precious about where that song goes and how that song is used. It’s very close to her heart. I respect that a thousand percent when an artist is like, “Well, I don’t want to just use it anywhere,” so getting her to sign off on this one, it was very delicate, and it was one of those things that is really cool for the scene. But this artist [My Kullsvik] who covered it is a young singer in nowhere, Sweden. When I was talking to her, she was just blown away with this. She said, “How did you even find this?” I know Steve found it on YouTube. And I think getting Adele to sign on and having this artist whose career is hopefully going to really take off to the next level, I’m very proud of it. I’m very excited for her as an artist.
As a music supervisor, our first job is to serve the story and to serve a narrative. But when you get to, at the same time, use a song from a brand-new artist that can very well really impact their career, that’s magic when that happens. Because it’s one of those things where I want the world to hear and know about this artist. So I’ve been working with her to make sure [the song is] up on YouTube, make sure it’s up on Spotify, just get all your ducks in a row because I’m hoping in the same way with Tiffany and her resurgence after that playlist, this will hopefully happen with this artist. [It’s] just one of the most beautiful covers, and I’m proud of that one in that we get to really hopefully drive people to be introduced to her.
On other shows that I’ve worked on where we do get to go deep into older music catalogs, there is an impact that you see in the streaming numbers in the exact same way that you see the streaming numbers of the new artists. So in addition to introducing people to new artists [and] introducing the younger audience to the old catalog like Sam & Dave—because Sam & Dave and Spencer Davis Group are so amazing, and they influenced so much music that we listen to today—I want to tell the world about it. Having a show that is so popular and uses music in such a cool way [and] to be able to check all of those boxes, that’s a music supervisor’s dream. That is our dream.