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“I Like the Challenge of Trying to Find a New Approach to Music That Doesn’t Feel Tired”: Music Supervisor Jemma Burns on Creativity and Musicology

Jemma Burns (Photo: Pier Carthew)

After going to school for film at the University of East London, Jemma Burns began music supervising on TV series Summer Heights High. She has worked on noteworthy film and TV series’ like Okja and Top of the Lake. More recent credits include Heartbreak High, which featured 128 songs of different genres, from pop ballads from musical artists like Dua Lipa and Steve Lacy to more underground drill and trap beats. For the Ari Aster film Beau is Afraid, Burns was able to land Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” for a peculiar and freaky sex scene by being strategic in how she approached Carey. This year Jemma also founded her own film and television music supervision company, Pulse Points based in Melbourne. 

Filmmaker: You have a background studying film, which, I noticed, is kind of rare in music supervision. Can you tell me how you got into music supervision?

Jemma Burns: A lot of music supervisors used to be executives at record labels, but I think that a lot of directors like working with me because I have a film background and I’m very tuned in to the storytelling process. When I lived in London, I worked at an experimental film and video art center [the Lux Centre] for quite a number of years, and then I studied film. Originally, I wanted to be a screenwriter, but while I was studying film, I somehow landed on music supervision. I worked on some of my friends’ short films, and the first song I ever licensed was Cat Power’s [cover of] “Sea of Love.” I didn’t know [about the details of] copyright. I just used to call up the equivalent of BMI or ASCAP in the UK and ask, “So what do I do now?” But then I returned to Australia and worked for production companies in different capacities. There was an entry-level job going into a music supervision company, and to be honest, they were sort of boomer dudes who weren’t terribly good on the creative front. They were more in tune with the business side of things, and it was very apparent that there was a gap that needed filling. I just ran with the opportunity and very quickly became sort of indispensable, and they came to rely on me creatively. I think it goes without saying that you have to be able to do deals and get the best possible prices and the best possible music for each project, but I think the fact that I’ve always had an affinity with directors on a creative level has served me really well.

Filmmaker: You said that you majored in film — were you a film or music nerd growing up?

Burns: Yes, definitely. I was talking to someone the other day about that moment when you realize you’ve grown from a child to an adolescent and you start to notice that you like weirder things than everyone else — even just listening to sort of old-fashioned music like Billie Holiday when I was a teenager, and everyone else was listening to grunge. I mean, I liked my grunge too, don’t get me wrong, but I had all these secret passions at home.

I grew up in a very musical household, so I was always very deep into music. And even though I studied film, I’d always been surrounded by friends who were music people. In London, I lived with my best friend who worked in a record store, so we had walls of records. I worked in record stores and for labels as a young person in London. Film wise, I remember seeing my first couple of arthouse films as a young teenager and going, “This is me, this is my jam.” So I always kind of had a foot in both camps. But it was film history that I studied, not filmmaking — why certain films are being made at a certain time in a certain country, and their cultural contexts. And that’s why doing all the research on the milieu of a film — like what the characters would realistically be listening to on an ’80s-set Australian film that I worked on — is interesting. The characters were punks, but I was like, “Okay, but what kind of punks? There were the more skinhead types over in this side of town and there were the kind of Nick Cave types on the other side of town who were all very arty. I just love drilling down into the nuances and details.

Filmmaker: What musical artists inspired you earlier in life?

Burns: Enya– she was one of my guilty pleasures way back then. And, I suppose, actually, a lot of film music, people like, for example, Michael Nyman, who did the score for The Piano. And then I got really into the Peter Greenaway’s films [because Nyman] scored The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. I loved Zbigniew Preisner’s scores to the Three Colors: Red, White, and Blue — I used to play them to death. In my early days in London, I got into quite underground dance music and experimental artists, and those actually can be really interesting to use in film. It can be quite hard to avoid cliche, because everything has been done before, and so that’s why I like the challenge of trying to find a new approach to music that doesn’t feel tired.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me about any other needle drops that you’re proud of or were maybe difficult to license?

Burns: There’s one that I’ve been interviewed about before, which is probably one of the most challenging ones, which was using Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” in Beau Is Afraid over this rather peculiar sex scene where sort of freaky stuff happens. With someone like her, even though she’s so famous, she’s a bit of an enigma. Trying to think of how best to approach someone like her is always tricky because you can’t second guess what she’s going to think. I always find it’s best to sort of bypass all the business folks and get the director to write a letter directly to the to the artist, so it’s artist to artist. That was how I managed to get that one over the line.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me about a director you’d like to work with but haven’t?

Burns: Absolutely. I’d love to work with Yorgos Lanthimos, I just love the way he uses music. Or Joanna Hogg. They both just use music in such impactful but also very surprising ways. I really like when a director uses music sparingly — it’s much more impactful to just use a couple of pieces really, really well. I feel like it’s a little bit old fashioned to do all licensed music. Unless, it’s something like this big TV show I worked on called Heartbreak High, which isn’t famous in America, but it’s huge everywhere else. And, of course, being a teen show, it’s mostly music. We had 128 songs in the show.

Filmmaker: Can you also tell me about any film or TV series that you’ve seen recently, or any that come to your mind that have impressed you musically?

Burns: Yeah, I’ve just been watching The Bear. Like I said, I don’t think it’s always necessary to have wall-to-wall music, but it actually has a lot of music in it, and I really like the way they’ve used it. It’s quite a big-hearted show, and they’re just leaning into that, using a lot of very classic songs and classic sounds unashamedly —wearing their heart on their sleeve. That could obviously tailor into cheesiness, but I think they’ve struck a really nice balance.

Filmmaker: When you’re watching films or TV series, or even when you’re just listening to music, have you noticed that your job has changed your experience?

Burns: Absolutely. There’s a very big film that won an Oscar recently that was starkly beautiful and very realistic — not stylized at all. It had so much soul, it just didn’t need the incredibly sentimental score that they put over the top of it, and that really ruined for me. I find that a lot. I’m obviously super sensitive to the use of music, and more often than not, I find they use too much music, unless it’s a very intentional thing to really lean heavily into the music, like something like Phantom Thread. Actually, in all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films the music is very present, but that’s a very conscious decision of his to do that– to make the music stand out. But yes, I’m constantly thinking of how sync-able a piece of music is, and because of the sheer volume of music that we have to listen to, I find that my personal tastes has gotten more and more esoteric. Or, you know, if [I’m listening to] music in a specific genre, say blues or hip hop, it needs to be either a very standout iconic version of that genre or it needs to be doing something quite interesting.

Filmmaker: You mentioned that Paul Thomas Anderson uses music quite specifically in his films. Do you like it when directors have a clear vision of what they want and when they’re attached to a certain tone, or do you like it when they leave it up to you?

Burns: It’s always a collaboration but it depends. Of course, it’s not as interesting for us if they just come to us with a shopping list of songs that they want us to clear. But inevitably, there are pieces of music that don’t work out even in those instances, so we still always have a hand in coming up with alternative material. But no, I prefer it if the director has a pretty clear vision, as long as they’re open to teasing out what they’d like. They might have a few reference pieces in mind at the outset, and then I love the process of teasing it out and saying, “That’s a great starting point, but what does the actual story need?” Even a writer-director, who may have written songs into their script, is never really going to know exactly what’s going to work until all the elements have come together. When you’ve got the pictures in front of you, it’s only then when you can actually try songs against them and know what’s going to work. Even songs that I’m extremely familiar with, every time I work on a new project, I still have to really listen to them through that lens of that specific context. So there’s some magic that happens once everything comes together. You can try endless pieces of music, and then, suddenly, there’ll be that a-ha moment of, “Okay, this is it.”

Sometimes people are quite territorial about music; everyone’s a music fan. It can be harder to collaborate sometimes when the director has a very idiosyncratic worldview, or the world that they’re building is quite idiosyncratic, because then it’s harder to second guess. If they’re coming up with some very odd combination of pictures and music that sort of fits within the logic of their brain and the world that they’re creating, that can be harder to collaborate on than a project that is less peculiar, I suppose. Like, I can imagine a Yorgos Lanthimos film could be potentially difficult. The song choices he makes are often quite surprising. I don’t think anyone other than him could have come up with those ideas, because he’s the one who truly understands this world, if that makes sense.

Filmmaker: And at what point do you usually get on a project?

Burns: Ideally, especially if it’s someone that I’ve worked with before and already have established trust and a relationship with, as early as possible. For example, on a film I’ve been working on recently, I was discussing music with the director two years before they were even fully financed. We sort of started with a few rough references, and we were just having a lot of back and forth until we landed on the sound. And also because I like to be involved in helping choose the right composer as well as the songs. I know that’s not always the case so much in America — as far as I can tell music supervisors aren’t necessarily as involved in the score side of things. But I like to make sure that not only is the composer we choose aesthetically appropriate, but also that the director and the composer are going to gel. It’s a very intense relationship, and it can get very fraught and frustrating for both parties. I especially like to get involved in that process if it’s a relatively new director. I like to be a bit of a conduit between the director and the composer, at least until they’re up and running and have established some sort of shared language. We’re one of the first people to be on a project, but we can also be one of the last because we’re still delivering all the paperwork and whatnot until the very end. I can often be on a project for several years.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me about some things about working with licensed music that young directors maybe don’t understand as they’re just starting out?

Burns: I think the first thing is that I just don’t think people understand that most of the songs that they know they know because they’re very famous. I am always surprised that people haven’t thought about how expensive a very well-known song will be. And the price difference between a famous song and a less well-known song that’s maybe on an indie label, as opposed to a major label, I think they’re always very surprised by how big the difference — $2,000 [versus] $200,000 — can be. Also, people always assume artists will just say yes. At the end of the day, it’s the artist’s prerogative. There’s only so much I can do to persuade them if they’re just not interested or if they object to the story.

Filmmaker : It’s quite a low bar, but compared to other jobs in the film industry, there are a pretty solid number of women music supervisors. Have you noticed this as well and why exactly do you think it is that way?

Burns: Absolutely. Of course there are still some very well-known male music supervisors like Randall, and most of them have been around for quite a while. Although there are some newer ones too, like the guy who did White Lotus [Gabe Hilfer]. But I have definitely noticed that some of the biggest names happen to be women, like Susan Jacobs. When the Emmys finally had a music supervision award, she was the first one to win. And I’ve been finding a lot of the most likable, interesting and amusing [women music] supervisors, especially people like Lucy Bright and Maggie Phillips, are doing the type of work that I really admire. You could definitely even say it’s a female-dominated industry. Probably 70% or so of the big names are female now, which is awesome. I’m not quite sure why that is. Maybe we’re better collaborators? I feel like maybe some of the women have come from the music industry, where it seems like behind many of the male bosses, there is a team of women behind them actually doing the work. The men are out there grinning grips, as they say in Australia, and the women are actually quietly doing the actual work itself. I mean, that’s how I sort of took over in my role at my first music supervision company– the male bosses were out having meetings with other executives and I was actually at the coalface doing the work and gaining the necessary experience to actually do the work well. Those are my own observations, but it’s hard to say– it’s fantastic regardless.

This post is part of a series of interviews of women music supervisors. Click here for talks with Lucy Bright and Susan Jacobs.

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