Juliet Martin, music supervisor on Element Pictures’ Normal People for BBC Three and Hulu, explains the musical choices in the hit Irish drama and the wider importance of music in accentuating visual performances.
We were incredibly lucky to have a fantastic team working on Normal People. The music choices were a collaboration between the director, Lenny Abrahamson, editor Nathan Nugent, Maggie Phillips and I as co-supervisors, with input from Emma Norton and Catherine Magee, the producers.
The series is different to so many dramas out there: it’s so quiet and restrained, and such an intimate portrayal of the connection between these two characters. Some of the most affecting scenes are when we are just sitting with the characters as they talk in this incredibly realistic way and we didn’t want to put music there to take you away from that intimacy. Generally, we wanted to be restrained with our use of music as we felt that would take the audience away from Marianne (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal).
When we used source music, I think it served a number of key roles: to make you sit with and intensify the emotion/feeling of the scene, and to make you reflect on what you’ve just seen. There is also a lot that remains unsaid between the two characters and I think the music sometimes said what they couldn’t say.
Classic & contemporary sounds
One of my favourite pieces is Fionn Regan’s Dogwood Blossom – it comes in after Marianne has met Connell for the first time since school. She’s with Gareth (Sebastian de Souza) and the contrast between that relationship and the one she has with Connell is really marked. She wakes up the day after the party where she’s met Connell and is beside Gareth. The lyrics “You keep climbing into my head without knocking” perfectly encapsulates what she feels, without Marianne articulating it. The tone of the song is so wistful and beautiful, there is no dialogue, the audience senses her longing to re-connect with Connell – so the music heightens and gives you access to the emotion that Marianne feels.
We’ve also got a lot of tracks from contemporary Irish artists and I love that Marianne listens to Orla Gartland and Soak (an amazing artist from Northern Ireland). And a good portion of the music the characters listen to are Irish hip hop/rap acts that reflect a really burgeoning scene here – the likes of Alex Gough, 7th Obi, Mango x Mathman, Super Silly and then other artists like Mount Alaska, Royal Yellow. That really reflects contemporary Ireland and I think that helps build the world of Marianne and Connell.
Generally speaking I think people really connected with the series emotionally and our connection to music is really emotional. People connect with those two characters and their experiences – love, hurt, depression, isolation. Music has probably sound-tracked so many peoples journeys and the experiences that a lot of people share with this couple.
The choice of music that you use, and where you use it can have a huge impact on the story and the right music choice with the right scene can create a magical moment. It’s a way of storytelling with the music to compliment what the drama is saying. We all have our favourite scenes from film/TV series that probably work with incredible music choices. Removing that music would completely change the scene and that makes it such a powerful communicative tool.
It doesn’t have to be overt usage either. Diegetic music used in the background can create a sense of the time and place, I’m thinking of the music used in Roma, a lot of it from when the drama is set and that helps to bring the audience into that world. In Normal People we used a track called ‘Deep Blue’ by a Dublin rap act Mango x Mathman, with vocals by Lisa Hannigan. It plays in the background of the house party in episode four when Marianne bumps into Connell for the first time since school and though it’s low in the mix, it soundtracks this big moment for Marianne and Connell. The track is a euphoric love letter to Dublin, but could as easily be their love letter to each other: Lisa Hannigan sings “No matter where I go, I know, you’re always going to be there waiting for me”. Which sums up that moment and in a broader sense, what Marianne and Connell have for each other.