Amazon’s incredible original series Transparent stars Jeffrey Tambor as 70-year-old Maura. She’s lived most of her life as a man, and now she’s coming out to her dysfunctional-but-committed Los Angeles family. The series owes much to its honest performances, sharp writing, deft direction, and light-touch piano score from Dustin O’Halloran. But another critical element of what makes Transparent Must-Binge-Watch television is the next-level soundtrack selected by music supervisor Bruce Gilbert. He also worked on Orange Is the New Black and the indie smash Afternoon Delight, which was directed by Transparent creator Jill Soloway. Also: Gilbert and Soloway are married.
Gilbert’s almost uniformly cozy, instantaneously just-right song choices elevate Transparent to another level, even though it already exists on another level. The cuts range from Neil Young to Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes to the Yardbirds to Gotye’s 2012 smash “Somebody That I Used to Know,” in probably the best scene we’ll ever see the commonly used song set to. Transparent‘s soundtrack is the soundtrack to the Pfefferman family, the family we’re watching in what’s essentially a five-hour, ten-part movie.
Gilbert, 41, has been a music supervisor for a hot minute. He did four years on Weeds as well as working on Orange Is the New Black and Childrens Hospital. Our conversation touched on the making of Transparent and the specifics of seven great musical moments on the show. (We’ve also got the Transparent Spotify playlist you need.) Grab a fuzzy blanket, plug in your headphones, and press play.
Flavorwire: To start out, what’s your process?
Bruce Gilbert: On any show, I’m constantly on the lookout for the perfect song for any scene. I’ll just be listening to music like I do, day and night, and I’ll have, like, a Transparent filter, among others for other projects that I’m working on. And anything that passes through my ears is going to have to pass through this filter. I can’t even tell you exactly what makes a song live or die for a show, but for me it’s almost entirely by feel. I just know.
Once you cut out the week-to-week waits on a TV show, the flavor of the music becomes clearer. In Transparent, your soundtrack’s a whole character of its own by the end of the second episode, when Neil Young just plays on for about five minutes.
I’m so intimate with the material and the source of the material that it’s so obvious to me what kind of music was going to — you know, who “that character” was, if you’re describing music as a character on the show.
And it’s clear that there’s a person sort of “writing” that character — you. So are you basically the guy with the huge record collection and the huge music encyclopedia in his head, a guy who intimately knows an insane amount of songs?
I think so. At first I kinda couldn’t believe it was a real thing. I find myself doing this after many, many years, and it’s such a natural place for me to be, just as a fan, a consumer, and a lover of music since an early, early age. I never really considered it work and it never really feels like work. And for years, when I was doing it, I kinda wondered, “What am I gonna do when I grow up?” And then, years passed and I was still doing it and it became a real thing.
Music’s in this show’s DNA, clearly. Wild Flag’s Carrie Brownstein is doing her second big role ever, the first being Portlandia. The characters sit around and listen to music, and talk about it. They dance and sing a lot.
And those first three episodes have montages. It wasn’t the plan, but it worked out that way. I didn’t want to be obligated to end an episode with a song, because that’s what people expect in TV these days. In some cases we finish with original score, we have our composer, Dustin, kind of continue down a song’s same road and just sort of carry you off to bed, ease you out of the episode without being like, “Check out this bitchin’ song I thought of when I watched the show!” Let the thing breathe a little bit.
Do you think there’ll be a second season?
That’s up to Amazon, of course. My hunch based on the wildly enthusiastic response is “yes.”
The scenes: Siblings Ali and Josh (Gaby Hoffmann and Jay Duplass) bond over their dad’s old records; Croce is a big one from their past. Josh, who works in the music industry, has a young sister duo cover it with a modern spin.
Bruce Gilbert: This was ground zero. When Jill was writing the pilot — long before we even had a series order — she had an idea for the end, where Josh was gonna have those girls sing a song. She was like, “What they should sing?” And I was literally in the next room, she was in her room writing, I was in another room listening to music for whatever project, and … it’s kinda comical to say, but probably within a minute, I was like, “‘Operator,’ Croce.” She was like, “Huh, okay.” She typed it in, probably as a placeholder, and then the longer it lived in the script, the longer it made sense.
A couple people have asked me, “Why that song?” Someone said, “Oh my god, that was on my falling-to-sleep playlist when I was 10 years old, you have no idea what that song did to me.” I think that, right there, says so much. The Croce thing, like Dylan, or Neil Young, or J.J. Cale, there was some sweet spot that we located really early on.