The recent podcast boom has opened new avenues for gifted audio story tellers, reviving what many considered a lost art on a generation more inclined to gravitate to ADHD-friendly online video than a serialized audio account of decade-old murder.
Of course, we now know better. For the tuned-in millennial, names like Ira Glass and Jad Abumrad are just as likely, if not more, to ignite nerdy fandom than, say, Denis Villeneuve or Rian Johnson (directors of the upcoming Blade Runner and Star Wars sequels, respectively). But while vocal frying audio journalists have been getting all the accolades, podcasting’s popularity has also opened doors for another unlikely, audio-inclined profession: the Canadian indie rock musician.
For millions of Americans, the first time they heard of Nick Thornburn was through the absurdly popular podcast Serial. Two years ago, the Montreal-based musician, who first made waves as a member of the Unicorns before forming his current group Islands, was commissioned to compose a theme and score for the This American Life spin-off. The resulting melancholic march, "Bad Dream (Theme)," set the scene for the show's weekly episodes, which were subsequently downloaded a staggering 68 million times. Thornburn returned to help score the second season, which was downloaded an even more mind-boggling 80 million times, in the process landing the pugnacious musician more mainstream press than all of his previous projects combined.
Like Thornburn, Arcade Fire bassist Tim Kingsbury and the Dears mastermind Murray Lightburn have been producing cinematic indie rock for decades. So when producers of CBC's recently departed, Montreal-based Wiretap were looking for musicians to score their new podcast, Love Me, they didn't have to search far.
“[Love Me producer] Cristal [Duhaime] and I have been friends for years,” Kingsbury, who wrote the show’s dreamy theme (see below), explains over the phone from Paris, where Arcade Fire is recording a new album. “She emailed me because she said she was looking for some people to work on the score for [Love Me] and she wondered if I knew anyone? So I suggested myself.”
Likewise, Lightburn had a friend that shared a studio with Love Me producers Duhaime and Mira Burt-Wintonick. “I guess my name had come up so they reached out to me,” he says. “A week later I had sent them about 15 pieces of music.”
By its own description, Love Me is “a show about the messiness of human connection.” Each episode pairs short stories about the fallibility of love around a loose theme. Recent episodes include the tale of a widow confronting grief by dating her worst match and one man’s quest to substitute his “overbearing, fabulous Jewish mother” with friends.
Like their TV counterparts, many podcasts decided to license already created music (This American Life regularly uses the Timber Timbre song "Lay Down in the Tall Grass," for example) but Duhaime and Burt-Wintonick decided to follow in the Serial mould.
“I guess some of the stuff that they had had been overused and I think they wanted to have a unique, fresh sound. Which is understandable,” Lightburn says..
For podcasts such as Love Me, which aim at the 18-35 age range and deal with topics of the heart, indie musicians make the logical choice — not only for their economical availability but also because they share a similar disposition to the listener. And, as Kingsbury points out, musicians likely listen to more podcasts than the average person. “90 per cent of being on the road is looking for something to do,” he laughs.
To create the proper atmospherics, Duhaime and Burt-Wintonick gave Lightburn and Kingsbury musical and thematic reference points.
“They gave words like ‘nostalgic,’ Beach House and Au Revoir Simone” Kingsbury recalls.
The producers also sent over the pilot episode, which gave both artists an idea of the tone of the show.
After nine drafts, Kingsbury, Duhaime and Burt-Wintonick settled on a five-plus-minute version of the theme, weaving organ, two counterpointing melodies on analog synthesizer and drum machine backing, which they could chop up and use throughout the show.
“The piece goes on for quite a while and there are two main voices that mingle with each other,” Kingsbury explains. “I was trying to play with the relationship aspect of the show. It's about complicated relationships so it's two voices kind of interacting together. It's pretty playful.”
In contrast, the ask for Lightburn's score was to create something in the vein of CBC’s stock music but with a fresh, updated sound.
“My radio in the car is locked onto that station so I'm wholly familiar with the storytelling side of the CBC broadcasting,” he says. “I really had to line myself up with that aesthetic, even though some of the past stock music that they have ... some of it sounded like music you would maybe hear when you're watching a French TV station late at night.”
For Lightburn, who usually “carries the cross, mostly by myself,” the proccess proved rewarding. “I think some people would never think that someone like me, who's like this supposed dictator set in his ways [would enjoy the experience]” he laughs. “But to be able to communicate and ultimately deliver to them something that fits their needs, I enjoy doing that.”
Both Kingsbury and Lightburn say they are impressed with Love Me. And, like Thornburn, hope to return if the series gets a second season. For Lightburn in particular, hearing his musical contribtions on the radio was indicative of the transition in the industry.
“I wasn't expecting it to be on the radio but they were talking about a bunch of brand new podcasts and how great they were and I was like, this really sounds familiar to me,” he recalls.
“Honestly it didn't click in my brain right away because it had been off my desk for a while, so I turned it up and it was interesting to hear it in all its glory. One of the only times I ever hear music that I make on the radio.”