BWW Interview: Emmy-Nominated Composer Siddhartha Khosla Talks This Is Us and Looking For Alaska
Siddhartha Khosla is an Emmy-nominated film and television composer, singer/songwriter, and producer of the critically acclaimed band, Goldspot. He took the time to speak with us about his work on Hulu's Looking For Alaska and NBC's This Is Us.
Tell us a bit about your background. How did you decide to become a composer?
I started my career as the singer/songwriter of an indie band called Goldspot. We'd made a few albums, had been signed to a major label, etc. - and so all the signs pointed to me staying course and fronting that band. But my career path evolved; I realized that I enjoyed being in the studio and making music, and I wanted to do it for a living. Having a band and touring had been an incredible experience, but I also needed to find ways to have a longterm career as an artist. As I was toying with these decisions, my college friend Dan Fogelman called me to score the second season of his ABC series The Neighbors. I took the job, and have been scoring films and television ever since. I do want to make another Goldspot record in the future though, and I will when the time is right.
Most recently, you created the score for Hulu's new limited series, Looking for Alaska, how did you get involved with this show?
Interestingly enough, Josh Schwartz licensed two Goldspot songs back in the day on his show The O.C., and so there was already some familiarity with my music. A couple years ago, I had a meeting with Josh, his producing partner and co-showrunner Stephanie Savage, and music supervisor Alex Patsavas to score their Marvel series for Hulu, Runaways. I ended up scoring that show, and they asked me to come aboard Looking for Alaska.
What was your process like when creating the score for this show? Was there a set direction from the start or were you able to explore some?
As I read the script, I wanted the score to feel like what it felt like to be a teenager. As a teen, everything felt like a series of extremes-just as love felt like the most euphoric feeling I'd ever experienced, heartbreak felt like the greatest loss. Josh and I then discussed the larger emotional cinematic and emotional quality of Sigur Ros and Brian Eno and I then went and found an original palate that could convey all those feelings. I recorded live strings with a wonderful quartet here in Los Angeles, and we made the strings feel breathy, vulnerable and fragile, like they could fall apart at any moment. The score is a combination of these cinematic strings, my voice (I sang on most cues), and varied analog synth and electronic elements that give a slightly Postal Service quality to the score as well.
If you could describe the feel of the score in Looking for Alaska using only three words, what would they be?
Under The Skin.
With a drama like this, how do you decide when a scene needs music and when it doesn't?
I think the choice of when to use music is almost as important (if not more) than the music itself. I generally prefer less music, not because I don't want to do the work, but because I genuinely believe that showing that restraint can also create something that's as immersive. It shows a certain level of confidence in the filmmaking. And with a show as stunning as this one, it was able to breathe and be so effective without music but then be doubly gut-wrenching when the music did come in.
At the top of episode 107, one of our editors Matt Ramsey, decided to put no music or score to start the episode. It is such a tense beginning, in part because there was no music. That choice by Matt made us all collectively hold our breath for several minutes. We also then did the opposite and scored some incredibly emotional moments as well. I wrote a 9 minute piece of score to end the series, as we felt it was the most effective way to underscore Miles' beautiful monologue and visuals.
Do you have a favorite piece or one that was challenging but turned out rewarding that you composed for the show?
The score I wrote to end the series was probably my favorite. It was a 9 minute piece and Josh Schwartz's direction of the scene and his visuals moved me so much that I played the piano in one single pass on my first viewing. The scene had multiple layers to it. It needed to be emotional but not overwrought, you had to hold your breath and feel shock and catharsis as Miles and the Colonel recreate the car crash in their minds as they drive by the site of the accident, and it also needed to feel hopeful and uplifting over Miles' final line of his monologue: Thomas Edison's last words were: "It's very beautiful over there." I don't know where there is, but I believe it's somewhere, and I hope it's beautiful.
I know you're also the composer for NBC's This is Us and I have to geek-out for a minute and let you know that the score for this show is one of my all-time favorites. I listen to Jack's Theme all the time-it's simple yet powerful and extremely beautiful.
How did you get involved with This is Us?
Thank you for that. The show's creator (and my college roommate) Dan Fogelman and I had already worked together on a number of projects. For This Is Us, he sent me the pilot script. After reading it, I was inspired to write a 6 minute piece of score, which ultimately sealed the deal and got me the job.
How would you describe how the score changed over the seasons to reflect the plot and character development?
The show is about this larger connectivity of life. It's about this idea that a seemingly small action by your grandmother or great grandfather can have a profound effect on the future, which includes you, and then the future that follows. And when I discovered this about the show, the score began to follow that idea as well. It's inspired me to use a lot of the Indian sounds and instrumentation of my childhood in the score. Everything is hand-made (all the percussion you hear is my hand tapping on my wooden desk), and most of the sounds are organic (cellos, I sing on the score, acoustic guitars, pianos, etc.). Like the show, I wanted the score to feel timeless and cinematic.
Do you have a favorite piece you've created for this show?
I think Jack's Theme is the most iconic musical theme of the show, and it's melodically my favorite piece. But I really enjoyed scoring the Vietnam story, particularly Jack and his brother Nicky's experiences there. The show became a military drama film at points, and I got to really stretch and create a score that felt dissonant and at times uncomfortable to hear.
Can you give us an insight into your process for creating Jack's Theme? Did you know at the time that it would reoccur multiple times on the show?
I wrote Jack's Theme in episode 113, when Kate is in pound class at her weight loss camp. In the middle of her class she has a flashback to Jack's funeral. It's the first time we see his funeral in the series. That scene still haunts me to this day. I remember picking up my guitar and singing that melody to that scene. I immediately sent that piece to Dan. When he loved it as much as he did, I knew we had something special.
Do you have a favorite genre you like to compose for best?
I'd say drama?
Is there one person you'd love to collaborate with that you haven't had a chance to yet?
Paul McCartney. I'm a huge Beatles fan. It'll likely never happen, but I can dream, right?
When you're not composing, what do you enjoy doing?
Spending time with my wife and kids. They're the best.
Do you have any advice for anyone pursuing music as a career, like anything you wish you knew when you were starting out?
Relationships are the most important thing. In life, in work, in music. And treat every gig like it's your first, and your last.
You can hear Siddhartha Khosla's music on This is Us (NBC, Tuesdays, 9/8c) and on Looking For Alaska on Hulu.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ALDEN WALLACE