By Shannon Carlin
Having a song featured on an episode of Girls can be a career defining moment. Just ask Icona Pop.
After using the unknown Swedish duo’s song “I Love It” to soundtrack a season two party scene in which Hannah (played by show creator/writer/executive producer Lena Dunham) tries cocaine for the first time — in a see-through neon mesh top, none the less — the track immediately found a spot on the Billboard Hot 100.
Since Girls premiered in 2012, it has mixed things up by using songs from established artists like Beyoncé, underrated favorites like Robyn, newbies like Angel Haze, cheesy ’90s acts like Duncan Sheik and legends like Judy Collins — who played herself in an episode from last season — to set the scene for the coming-of-age comedy. And according to Billboard, in just two seasons the HBO series has shown its as influential, if not more, than Glee when it comes to the musical zeitgeist, helping new and old songs, including Oasis’ 1995 hit “Wonderwall,” find a spot on the charts.
Last year, the show even premiered a few exclusive tracks from the likes of fun. and Santigold — both of which ended up on the Girls- Volume 1 soundtrack — along with a previously unreleased cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m Going Down” from Vampire Weekend that accompanied a cameo from the band’s lead singer Ezra Koenig. Getting exclusive tracks from well-known artists is something the show plans to do even more of this season.
But while Dunham is the voice of the show — and at this point, let’s be honest, a generation — it’s Manish Raval, the show’s music supervisor, who curates the series’ song syncs for her. Before this upcoming season, Raval sent her weekly mixtapes filled with songs that he thought she might like. Dunham did, writing a lot of those mixtape suggestions into season three.
Raval first started music supervising in high school, soundtracking plays for his friend Jake Kasden, who would later call on Raval when he started directing films like Orange County, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Bad Teacher, all of which Raval helped supervise. His first real paid gig, though, came after college when the music consulting firm he interned for hired him to work as a music coordinator on the 1996 Farrelly Brothers movie, Kingpin.
Seventeen years later, Raval seems to be the go-to guy for finding the right song in movies like Donnie Darko and last year’s Fruitvale Station, along with television shows like Community, New Girl and The Crazy Ones. But Raval’s heart belongs to Girls, referring to the show as his full-time job. Part of the reason why he loves working on the series so much is the show’s open door policy when it comes to choosing music.
“We feel like a good song is a good song,” Raval said of the show’s wide musical range. “I feel like we do it in a way that doesn’t make it feel schizophrenic or like, ‘Oh my God, this show lacks direction.’ I feel like it’s pretty organic to the characters and to the moment. To me that’s all a testament to the writing. I think when that stuff’s good, it makes everything around it good as well.”
With the show’s two-episode premiere set to air this Sunday (January 12) at 8 p.m. on HBO, Raval chatted with Radio.com about what fans can expect to hear in season three, why he’d never turn down Randy Newman, and how Rihanna helped make Icona Pop happen.
Radio.com: With Girls, do you read the scripts and then find music, or do you start pulling music before they even start writing?
Manish Raval: Girls is a full-time job, whether we’re shooting or editing or on hiatus, we’re basically working on Girls and talking to Lena all throughout the year, whether she’s on vacation or she’s working. What we did before this third season, which seemed to be the most helpful, is we were just sending weekly mixtapes to Lena and Judd [Apatow, executive producer] and Jenni [Konner, executive producer] and the producers and the editors. It expedited our process where it was like, ‘Oh great, if we get this music to Lena while scenes are being written, they can listen ahead and while they’re writing, say, “Let’s put that one in the scene.”
So most of the music that we hear this season was actually written into the script?
Having now finished the season, for the most part, 60 or 70 percent of those songs written in the script made it in. We are the music supervisors, but it’s very much a group thing. We want to make sure we fulfill Lena and Jenni’s and Judd’s vision. We want to support them. These are their characters. We’re their voices.
How does the music featured in season three differ from the previous two?
It’s the same sound, same vibe, but one thing that’s different this season is we’ve had the luxury of getting people to contribute brand new songs for us. We had Miguel write us a new song. We have a new one by Jenny Lewis. We have a brand new Lily Allen track. A brand new Christina Perri track. We were able to get our hands on a brand new Beck song, which he just finished for his new record and gave to us to put on the show before the release of his album. We were in a fortunate position where we were able to get access to a lot of great songwriters and bands to give us new material or write us new material for the show. A lot of that stuff will appear on the soundtrack, which we’re working on right now.
How did you get Miguel to write a song for the show?
We reached out to him. We are a huge fan of his and very early on in the process Lena said, “Can we just call him and see if he’ll do something?” We did, he said yes. It was very easy, it was very simple.
You tweeted about getting hold of a brand new Jenny Lewis song. Can you talk about how the track is being used on the show?
It appears at the end of an episode. The end credit spot is for our prized possessions. It’s really for us to try and showcase something we’re really into, because that’s where we leave the viewer with a musical thought or message or emotion. And the Jenny Lewis spot scores a very emotional moment that happens in the second episode where you know the cast is reunited with Jessa. I love the song, I love the moment, I love the last image of that moment. I think that’s my favorite spot of the season.
There’s been a lot of musical moments on the show that fans love, but what are some of your favorite songs used on the show?
The first season, the end of episode six, the Fleet Foxes song. Just because I just love that album and as a fan getting to use their song “Montezuma” in that particular episode with the lyrics, they were so literal to the scene. It was just a great moment for me where I got to use a band that I love, in a moment I love, for a show that I love working on, with people I love working with. Deep inside it felt like, “I’m happy I get to do this,” you know?
What about season two, was there a specific musical moment that stands out for you?
The Icona Pop scene was something I was really proud of. You know after we had shot it and edited it, I was just waiting for it to come out. People responded so much to the Robyn song [“Dancing On My Own”] in season one, I knew people were going to have the same response to the Icona Pop thing. And also because, they were an unsigned band and no one knew the song. It was going to be an inherently original moment. Even when I hear the song now I think of the scene.
Is there a sense of pride when you help a band break out like that?
Yeah, you know, internally there is. Not in like an egotistical way, but I think we get the privilege of getting to turn Lena on to a bunch of great music that hasn’t really hit the mainstream yet. It’s just an affirmation, not that, ‘Oh we’re so great,’ but it just feels good to know that the stuff that we think is exciting ends up being exciting for the audience too. We featured Azealia Banks, Solange, Angel Haze, all before their singles even came out. And I know that for sure because when we contacted them to clear a song, none of their paperwork for licenses had been addressed yet. It was that early on. We’re just really excited about discovering new stuff. It’s always a great opportunity to give an artist a break when you can.
You recently tweeted that Randy Newman’s songs were less than $6. Will we be hearing a Randy Newman song on the show this season?
Well, he definitely is an artist that we would use because there isn’t an artist we wouldn’t use. You know this season a big chunk of an episode is based around a Harry Nilsson song. It’s something we haven’t done before. It’s the kind of thing, where it could have been any song. At the time we were pitching anything: hip-hop stuff, Cher, Harry Nilsson. The Harry Nilsson rocked everyone’s boat so it was great. We have an episode this season that has an artist covering a Warren Zevon song. There isn’t anyone who we wouldn’t use, I think that’s the rule with this show, there should be no rules. We should just do whatever feels right and that’s really how we’ve operated since season 1. We did it almost a full year before it came out and we’re working on this little show with no big Hollywood stars and we didn’t really know it would become what it’s become. We operated without any restrictions and we think it would be very unfair for our process to start putting restrictions on who we can use and should use.
You said in an interview that there are artists that have said no to having their music featured on the show, including Neutral Milk Hotel because they have a very strict no-licensing policy. But you also mentioned that Rihanna said no to the show using her song “Talk That Talk.” Do you know why?
You know, honestly, I don’t know. The scene that she denied it for was the Icona Pop scene. They didn’t give a reason, we didn’t ask for a reason. So I can’t speculate as to why, but you know, it’s a happy accident. She said no and we happened to find the Icona Pop song.