The musician behind ‘Gilmore Girls’’ ‘la-las’ reveals how she found the sound of Stars Hollow
You cannot have a “Gilmore Girls” revival without cheerful guitar strumming and sing-song “la-la” melodies. Music is just as important to “Gilmore Girls” as its characters’ rapid-fire dialogue and pop culture references. It’s as essential as coffee.
It makes sense then that show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and director-writer Dan Palladino brought back composer and musician Sam Phillips to create a fresh series of “strange little micro songs” (as Phillips describes them) for the new Netflix series “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life,” set nearly 10 years after the series’ final episode on the CW. We chatted with the singer about crafting the inner soundtrack to the beloved mother-daughter characters of Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) and Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel).
Why is music so important to “Gilmore Girls”?
Amy and Dan love music. Dan was actually a musician and Amy was raised on Broadway. She was a dancer before she became a writer on “Roseanne.” There’s a lot of music going on in their lives. That was part of it.
But it was really Amy’s vision. She decided that she wanted my voice on the score, which was odd. At that time television was mostly a lot of pop music and needle drops. She wanted my voice and she wanted my voice to be another character. She wanted it to be the voice inside Lorelai and Rory’s heads.
I wrote some lyrics and tried that, but it didn’t seem to work because the dialogue is so fast and funny. It seemed like Amy should have been writing the dialogue. Or Amy should be writing lyrics if there were going to be lyrics on the show. I started singing background vocals, which I had done on my records for a long, long time. Amy really liked it.
I approached it that way mostly because I didn’t know any better at that point — because I’d never scored a show — as writing little tiny songs. It created a funny, little thing between my voice. Also, I had a commitment to try using all real instruments and not use any kind of programmed sound. That was another limit that I put on myself. [Amy] was fine with that. I started learning what did work and what didn’t work. The Gilmores have a unique sound. It’s a unique score that we kind of created by accident.
Do you remember the first song you recorded for “Gilmore Girls?”
The first song, called “Waltz No. 1.”
You brought that one back.
It’s the very first “la-la” that you hear on the “Winter” episode, the very first episode of the new series.
What was it like discovering that sound, and did that sound influence the rest of your recording?
It did. As usual, I was doing a lot of things at once. I had a small child, I was a mom. T Bone Burnett and I were married. We were working on my album and on other things that he was doing. He was doing a Sam Shepard play, I think, at the time. I was doing some vocals for him. There was a lot going on in the studio, so I think all those things kind of bled into each other. For instance, [Burnett] did a lot of the beautiful guitar cues on the first season. Really beautiful, just simple playing on an acoustic guitar. It was lovely. I was doing albums and writing songs at that time that were sounding a little bit more sparse, with no programmed instruments. All of that music was feeding each other. I used the same engineer for my albums that I did for “Gilmore,” Mike Piersante, who has won a lot of Grammys and worked with T Bone for years. It was funny. We were working on all of that music at that time.
What was it like returning to “Gilmore Girls” after a nine-year span and writing new music for the revival?
It was, sadly or happily, so easy. Amy invited me to the table read and I had not been to those during the series. It was so interesting, even with bad lighting around a conference table and with some of the cast on their phone. I think Kelly Bishop was on the phone. Alexis and Lauren were there. Once they started reading that script, we were in Stars Hollow. I was amazed at the writing. At the great acting of the cast. It didn’t seem like anything but “Gilmore Girls” from the get-go. I was amazed how the story lines dropped in and the cast just went right back to their characters.
When you’re watching the table read, do you start humming in your head? Can you hear the la-las coming in?
I didn’t start humming, but I did think, “Hmm. I think maybe some music there, some music here.” The very last table read, Lauren has an amazing monologue. I was really embarrassed (and I think a few other crew members were embarrassed) because the Netflix and Warner Bros. people were there and she made us cry. She was so beautiful. It was really moving. Thanks a lot, Lauren. Won’t be going to those table reads again unless I take some Kleenex.
I felt very honored to be the second choice, because Carole is such an amazing writer and musician.
Sam Phillips on coming onto “Gilmore Girls” after Carole King turned down the job
When you’re watching a scene like that do you feel responsibility or pressure to really nail it?
I always, always wanted to support Amy and her vision and the show. The way I work is just very instinctive. When we first started, we got VHS copies of the show. That’s how long ago it was! I would put it on or watch in on my computer and then just sit down with a guitar and write to whatever. Amy was really beautiful. A lot of times, she would say, “No music there” or “something different.” She, for the most part, really let me go. I think that luxury of having somebody who knows what you do and letting you do what you want, and letting you have your head — that’s probably the main reason I’m not a career composer. I love working that way so much and I’m not really sure I’d be of much use to somebody who didn’t understand.
Nine years ago, shows on the WB and the CW were full of pop songs. A lot of bands got discovered because of shows like “Dawson’s Creek” and “The O.C.” Was there a lot of push-back from the studio to include more modern-day music?
Amy took it on and she stood up to WB at the time. Warner Brothers music was sending over all kinds of records to put in her show. She just said, “No. I want to put in XTC.” They loved Tom Waits. They had a very odd idea of what kind of music they wanted to put into the show. I loved her for sticking to her vision and for going the extra miles for jokes too. “Hollaback Girl” with Sebastian Bach singing. It was hilarious. I’m sure it wasn’t cheap to do that.
Your music is supposed to sound like it’s coming from inside a woman’s head, so is that what it sounds like inside your head?
It does. I had this funny conversation with my drummer, Jay Bellerose — he played on the series, and also these four episodes — a wonderful drummer. I said, “Jay, do you ever play drums in your mouth with your teeth?” He said “Yes. I do. It’s insane.” Sometimes there is a whole band and a whole arrangement in my head as I’m walking around. That’s not just when I’m looking at the “Gilmore Girls.” It’s just, sort of my life. That is really true. I do have a soundtrack running all the time.
What came first: your score or the decision to use Carole King’s song for the theme song? They’re both so important to the sound of “Gilmore Girls.”
When I first met with Amy, she told me straight up that she asked Carole King to be her composer, and Carole said, “You can use my song. I’ll do the theme song, but I’m not going to do the score.” Normally, I think people would say, “Oh, wow. I’m so offended. I’m the second choice.” I felt very honored to be the second choice, because Carole is such an amazing writer and musician. I love the time that she was working in, during the Wrecking Crew, and all of that. Some of the greatest musicians played on her songs and were playing in that era. I think we all kind of have a little sweet tooth for that kind of pop music — that and maybe some Harry Nilsson influence, which all showed up in the “Gilmore” score. “Hey, will you do this because Carole King doesn’t want to?” I said, “Yes. I don’t know how to do it but, yes, I would love to do it. Let’s try this.”
You, King (who appears in the new series), Sherman-Palladino and the two main leads are women. Did you realize at first how female-centric this series was?
No. Not at all. Obviously, Amy did. She was trying to hire a lot of women. I never really approach anything thinking I’m a woman. I just approach it as a freak. But it is fun. I grew very close to our post-producer, Helen Pai, who did just about everything. At one point, Amy was directing more so we saddled Helen with a lot of the music stuff. She would meet with us in spotting sessions and help us with music. She was a big force behind the scenes, in the post-production. A lot of great women in cast and crew.
You’ve performed for live audiences before with your music but what was it like seeing this iconic music that so many people love, the la-las on the big screen, with the audience at the premiere?
It was such a blast for all of us to hear the peoples’ reaction to the new show. TV people [almost] never get to hear that. I’ve been in front of audiences a lot in my life, but for the actors, Amy and Dan, I think maybe it was one of the first times they got to hear an audience that loved the “Gilmore Girls.” When they went to Austin and participated in a TV festival there, a lot of fans showed up and just went crazy. It was great. I’m not sure they realized [how big it still is]. At the premiere, Amy talked about how that was the moment when they looked at each other and went, “Maybe we should do some more.” It was brought back by the lovers of the show.
When did you get to find out what the last four words of the new series would be?
Oh, man. First of all, we didn’t hear this at the table read. And when we got our first copy for scoring, it wasn’t there either. I think it was in the editing, right before we had to turn in all the music for that episode that we finally saw it. It was pretty intense. They really guarded it carefully. I was completely surprised. My initial reaction was, “Oh, my God. No. We can’t stop here.” As a fan, come on, Amy. There’s got to be more. I really hope there is. It’s a very interesting last four words to end with.
I know that Amy wanted that last episode to go later, so that people wouldn’t spoil it and post it online. I love how they kept it under wraps. It’s not that kind of a series anyway. The plot is great. It’s the jokes. It’s being immersed in Stars Hollow with all the characters. It’s the ride. It’s the experience. It’s not necessarily where it ends up. In that sense, I think, if they all want to do it, it can just go on forever.
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