At Paste we’ve always been concerned with—and excited by—the relationship between music and television. We’ve celebrated the use of soundtrack and score in shows like Mad Men, The Sopranos and many others. But I can safely say that nothing has quite prepared us for the musical trip that WGN’s Underground will be taking us on, as it premieres tonight.
To say that Grammy Award-winning composer Laura Karpman had a difficult task in composing for the series, alongside Raphael Saadiq, would be an understatement. But to say that she accomplished a great feat would be an even bigger one. In a series that promises to offer endless twists, turns, complications and nuances, the music must somehow speak to the motivations of its characters, the 19th century setting, and—perhaps most importantly—the contemporary relevance of a slave narrative. Karpman and Saadiq worked together as co-composers to provide the musical backdrop, one of the most important elements and—according to creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski—characters on the series. Paste caught up with Karpman to talk about her collaborative history with Saadiq, the cinematic stylings of the series, and how she believes Underground will change the way we talk about race in America today. (We strongly believe that too).
Light spoilers follow.
Paste: I got to screen the first four episodes of the show, and one of the hardest things has been sitting around, and not being able to talk about it.
Karpman: Well, for me the show really begins in episode four, in a way. So wait till you see where it goes.
Paste: I can’t wait. Can you tell me a little about how you first got involved with the project, and what the beginning stages were like for you?
Karpman: It’s kind of an amazing story, because you never know what’s going to take you from one place to another place. I wrote this piece called Ask your Mama, which was the setting of an epic Langston Hughes poem and we got two Grammy Awards for it. Through a series of convoluted, wonderful things coming together, it lead to me scoring with Raphael Saadiq on Kasi Lemmons’ Black Nativity. And Raphael and I just really loved working together. I come from a very classical background, playing jazz and classical music. And Raphael comes from growing up in Oakland, playing in the church, and playing gospel and R&B music. So coming together was this great thing. I knew I wanted to continue to do stuff with him, so I basically pitched us to Sony. We met with the executive producers on the show, and then John Legend came aboard and that’s how the whole thing came together.
Paste: Once John got involved and you found yourself working with him, along with [creators] Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, what was the process like?
Karpman: The hardest part was finding the language for the show. There are lots of songs on the show, and there’s lots of score, but then there’s this middle ground of song-y/score pieces. That’s the thing we really hashed out with John, Misha and Joe—where we’d be using song, where we’d score, and where we’d be in this kind of intermediary world. Then it was a matter of just doing the work, and continuing to find that voice.
Paste: In the same way that the plot of the series is completely unpredictable, so is the music and the score. Because of the contemporary sound, I’m so curious to see how people will react. Was that something that you all talked about a lot?
Karpman: All of the time. But what you’ll notice if you go back and watch the episodes again is that there’s both—there’s actually a lot of classical scoring, which is really important. It’s not just about claiming space for everything, it’s a way of saying, “This is cinema.” One of the things about the show that’s so amazing, is that this is a story about black people and white people—and those in-between—and it’s also a thriller, and it’s a historical piece that resonates today. And musically we have to show all of that. So sometimes you feel that you’re very much in a period piece, and sometimes you feel like you’re relating to it with the contemporary music. But you’re also in a place where the two are really combined.
Paste: When you’re working on finding the voice and tone of the show, how might that also apply to specific characters?
Karpman: Well, Rosalee, for example, the very first thing you hear after “Black Skinhead” in episode one is Rosalee humming in the fields. We wanted to write something very lyrical for her, but I also wanted it to be relevant for the times. I have a book of slave songs, and so that was roughly based on a traditional song. And we use it over and over again, almost like what you would hear as a score cue—and then it twists and turns. And that opening is a good example, because you start out with these fiddly strings, and then you have Rosalee’s scene, and then it turns on its ear with Raphael doing a distorted bass line, and then there’s his breathing. It all sort of turns.
Paste: Was there a scene that was particularly difficult to work on, or one that stands out among the rest?
Karpman: That opening scene was one of them. That was one that we went back and forth with Joe and Misha about. One thing that came very easily, from that first episode, is the Rosalee whipping scene. There was a clear direction—we wanted it to be this pain that goes through your skin and to your bones.
Another thing I can talk about without revealing too much, is episode seven. It’s the children’s episode. So we used contemporary versions of children’s songs. We hired a children’s choir, and that episode is heartbreaking. There were no licensed songs for that episode; it fell on Raphael and I to do those arrangements and record the children’s choir. That was a really beautiful music experience.
Music was a driving force on the show, and it always was, from the conception. Misha and Joe wanted the music to be another character on the show, and it is. And that made it such a pleasure to work on Underground.
Paste: The timing of this show is so important, and I feel like it’s a series that almost requires you to feel strongly about it—one way or another. On a personal level, what are your hopes for the series when it premieres?
Karpman: First of all, what’s so amazing about the show is that these are richly drawn characters. It’s just good TV. Also, we have a multi-racial, multicultural team, and that’s reflected in every aspect of the show. We have a woman composer—and that’s rare in Hollywood. And we have an African-American composer—an even bigger rarity in Hollywood. Misha’s African-American, Joe is white, and we had all these different perspectives in the room all of the time. That’s the world that we want to live in.
I hope the reaction will be, “This is our history. This is why we are talking about this, still.” We are still talking about race in America, because it is in the fiber of our being as Americans. It doesn’t matter if your family came over in the 20th century, it’s in the fabric of who we are as a country. Until we really look at it—and look at it the way Underground does—in this richly drawn landscape of good and bad, and people in the middle—black and white—then we can’t even begin to have this conversation. And American Crime is a show that does similar things, though it’s a contemporary setting.
I love American history, I’m passionate about it and I’m passionate about American musical history—because I think music tells the story of American history. If you look at the songs of Stephen Foster—he’s considered the first American songwriter—he wrote during the Civil War, you can see the whole landscape of America! You’ve got minstrel songs, patriotic songs, love songs, and the lyrics can make you very uncomfortable—especially the minstrel stuff. But it is our history. And it’s okay to look at it and say, these are exciting stories. And it’s okay to ask, “How is this manifesting itself in 21st century America?” And how can we change that? I think this show is one of the ways that we can. Because if Shonda Rhimes creates a post-racial society, where in some ways, we’re ten years in the future and we’ve gone beyond this, then Underground says, look at this! So what [Misha and Joe] have done is groundbreaking, and I’m just honored to be part of it. And I know Raphael is too.
Paste: I’m so excited for the premiere, and for the whole season. Thanks so much for this!
Karpman: Thank you.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.