Among several other changes put into place by the Television Academy this year, in anticipation of the 2017 Emmys, the category of Music Supervision was added to the fold—and rightly so. As with the composer, the cinematographer and every other craftsman working in television, the music supervisor plays a critical role in establishing an atmosphere and tone particular to a given series, as illustrated by music supervisor Zach Cowie’s work in Season 2 of Netflix original series, Master of None.
With over 10,000 records neatly arranged on shelves in his Downtown Los Angeles studio, Cowie has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, helping Master of None creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang to achieve a classic, vintage feel with the series’ music, and bringing pivotal pieces of music to the table, as Ansari set out to Italy for the first two episodes of the second season.
Speaking with Deadline from his studio, Cowie discusses the second season’s Italian theme, and the process of licensing one of the season’s most colorful tracks through the Burundian government.
You had a varied career in music before transitioning into your role as a music supervisor. Can you give a sense of how this career move came about?
I worked at record stores, and then record labels for like 12 years, toured with a lot of bands, and I’ve been DJing since I was like 18, and then got sucked into this.
I guess it’s kind of lame to say, but I sort of just follow the music. That’s what got me from the stores to the labels to the touring, all that. Like a lot of people, once I realized that music supervision was a job, I wanted to do it, but I didn’t know how, because nobody really knows how you get the job.
I’d always studied music and collected records, and when the record label started to change so much—like, when the digital world took over—I felt it was going in a way that I didn’t really enjoy doing anymore. I loved just selling records, and turning people onto music, and it became clear to me that the new voice to do that with is supervision, for film, TV, advertising.
I just got super lucky and fell into a couple of movies that some people saw, and that’s what led me to Master Of None. And now, this is the thing that I do.
Master of None is clearly the product of a love of art and culture, and particularly a vintage, classic feeling. Beside the collaborators involved, what spoke to you about this series?
We had some very specific conversations about what you just said. When we started Season 1, taking advantage of the freedom that you get in the streaming world, because it’s still kind of the Wild West, you know? We just tried to capitalize on all fronts—we wanted our show to sound different.
Something that we all decided on was to use things that were a bit lesser known, in this way that it gives us this permanence, built into some contemporary subject matters. If you were to match that with like the biggest song on Pitchfork right now, in a year, it would look kind of tired.
It’s kind of a Woody Allen trick—putting Gershwin in his New York movies gives them this weird timelessness, because you see things that you know are from a certain time period, but the whole package becomes kind of permanent.
That’s what we decided on, and that doesn’t just mean like old music; we used a lot of newer stuff, too, but it’s things that are still kind of gestating in the underground a bit.
The ultimate goal with all that is for the viewer to have their first experiences with a lot of these songs through our show. And I can’t believe they let me do it.
With its Italian plot line, Season 2 afforded you the opportunity to do something quite different. What did Alan and Aziz convey about their hopes for the music of the series’ second season?
The first season, it was really interesting. It’s wild in this streaming world to disappear for a year, think about something everyday, and then in one weekend, the whole world sees the entire thing and makes up their mind about it.
We were just so psyched and amazed that it hit so hard, so we really challenged ourselves on every level to go bigger. Netflix gives you so much freedom, so we all just wanted to do our job times 10, and for me, that was going even deeper on the music.
The Italian thing was like the first thing Aziz said—he was like, “I think we’re gonna go to Italy.” We have a shared playlist between me, him and Alan, and we all just started loading it with Italian music, and in that playlist too, they would just send me a text and be like, “We’re gonna do one [episode] on religion.” So we’d start putting that stuff in the playlist, and they’re listening, and they’re writing.
Sometimes, I’ll get little versions of the script that’ll have some of the songs from our playlist in there; sometimes, nothing works, so they put me on specific missions; sometimes, there’s just stuff that they think of and put it in there, and it’s perfect, so I don’t mess with it.
But the Italy thing was amazing. In the black-and-white episode, almost everything in there is repurposed Italian film scores from the ‘60s, and then [Aziz] had the idea of, well, what’s the full-color version of that for the second episode? And we’re like, “Italian disco.” So almost everything in the second episode is Italian disco—late ‘70s, early ‘80s club tracks from over there.
And then we carried a line through, and it picks up again in [Episodes] 9 and 10, with this singer named Mina. She’s our Italian muse, and totally an Aziz discovery. He just got obsessed with her when he was living over there.
When you approach a project like this—with music from a specific country, at a specific time—do you resort to your physical library first, or is there a mental inventory you draw from, as well?
Absolutely. Like the records here, that’s just the way I like to listen, and the way I like to study. It’s something me and Elijah [Wood] do; we travel around together to go record digging, so I’ve taken plenty of trips to Italy, and I consider myself a bit of a student whenever I’m in a country that has such a distinct sound.
Then, I meet up with other people that are like me in all those places, and just learn as much as they’ll teach me. I’m lucky enough, after doing this for like 20 years, that I have a pretty good grip on most stuff, but more importantly, I have the expert for each one whenever I need more.
It’s kind of all in my head, but the records are usually the first place I start to think from. But really, I don’t know; when I read stuff, music just shows up, and some of it, I don’t know, and some of it’s in my computer. It’s like a really bad superhero ability.
Was there a particular musical discovery or revelation that came out of this season?
I’ll tell you something that I knew about already, going into this season, but the role it played, I would have never guessed.
There is an Italian singer named Lucio Battisti, who is, no joke, as popular in Italy as The Beatles are in England. He’s one of their biggest singers of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and he has this track called “Amarsi Un Po’” that I’ve always loved.
When Aziz said “Italy,” it’s one of the first songs I sent him. Aziz latched onto the song, and the ninth episode, which is our hour-long, crazy one, was always an untitled script when they were working on it. Then one day, the script showed up, and he’d named the episode after the song, and chose to close the episode with the song.
I got so psyched, but it opened up this very difficult licensing process. His music has never been licensed outside of Italy—like, ever. Even though he’s a household name there, nobody knows about him outside because they’ve never granted permission to use it anywhere.
We got obsessed with the song, and I have a co-supervisor on the show, Kerri Drootin, who’s like our detective. It took her five or sixth months to figure out how to do it, but we ended up getting the song like three days before we mixed the episode.
The whole saga with that song is a really big deal to me. We had to have an alternate track in place, in case it didn’t come through, but we didn’t love it, we just really liked it. When we got the call on a Friday, we had to mix on Monday. I can’t even envision the season without it now. It became that big of a deal to me.
When you’re working with songs in a language like Italian in an American series, are you thinking about the content of the lyrics, as much as the feeling they elicit?
I always start with the feeling, and I think that comes from DJing for so long. I’m way more away of how something feels than what it says, so my second step is to analyze the lyrics and make sure there’s no contradictions to the story we’re trying to tell. I very rarely grab something because of what it’s directly saying, which is something I’m kind of proud of as a supervisor, because just as a movie fan, I get a little bummed out if people are running, and there’s “Running Up That Hill” from Kate Bush, or something. [Laughs]
In Italy, I got lucky with the language barrier stuff because the first [episode] is primarily instrumentals, and the second one, which was very popular in the Italo disco thing, was to sing in English. Anything else that was Italian, Aziz is pretty seasoned, at this point, in speaking Italian. He’s obsessed, and a real, true perfectionist, so when he takes it on, he gets into it.
He would make sure there were no weird lyrics, and then we had a whole Italian crew who we’d kind of run stuff through, here and there.
One of the most interesting songs this season is “Umugabo Wukuri” by Canco Hamisi, which stands apart from the rest of the soundtrack, and has a really interesting sound to it. How did that song come into play?
That’s a really cool story. That episode is one of my favorites—when they first sent me the script, I was like, “This one is going to be so special.” That was Alan’s idea: the lead actor in that story, with the cab drivers, is from Burundi, so Alan asked him, “What’s some music from Burundi? Because we want to honor where you’re from.”
He sent us the name of that guy, we found some stuff on YouTube and loved it, and it worked perfectly, but there was like no way to figure out how to license this stuff, at all. I couldn’t even find the existence of vinyl records of this stuff, in the past. I talked to every heavy collector I know, and they were like, “We don’t know who this guy is.”
It turned out that the actor helped us communicate with the Burundian government, and we figured out how to license it through their government. No masters exist, no vinyl exists, so what you hear in the show is a restored YouTube clip. We put that on the official soundtrack, and we’re so psyched about it, because everyone who’s seen the show is asking about that song. It’s also not Shazamable, it’s not on Spotify—nothing.
So, yeah—that’s where that track comes from.