How Sharp Objects Created Its Killer Soundtrack

A scene from Sharp Objects. Photo: HBO

Before the twisted world of Wind Gap, Missouri, materializes in Sharp Objects, the very first image we see — before the Victorian mansion, the hog farm, or even a vodka-filled Evian bottle — is the drop of a needle on a record player. So begin the opening credits of the HBO miniseries, which usher in each new episode as Camille (Amy Adams) returns to her hometown to report on the murder of two young girls, dredging up her own traumatic memories in a journey that’s accompanied by a carefully curated selection of music. Whether it’s in Camille’s car with an aux cord or in her bed with earphones, that sonic cocoon is always there for her, always present, ready to transport her mind away from the hellish confines of Missouri.

To learn more about the show’s soundtrack, Vulture called up music supervisor Sue Jacobs, who previously worked with director Jean-Marc Vallée on Big Little Lies, which earned her the inaugural Emmy for music supervision. She discussed the importance of Led Zeppelin, how a song can save lives, and the words a music supervisor never wants to hear. (Hint: It also involves Led Zeppelin.)

The Sue Jacobs HBO Musical Universe continues!
I’m thrilled that the show feels so cathartic for people right now. It makes me so happy!

Why do you think it’s cathartic?
There’s a lot of internal screaming going on with all sides. We’re in a tough place right now. Not only with this nation, but with the world. It’s like we’re in an alternative reality. What the eff is going on? The rhetoric everywhere, and feeling like we don’t know each other anymore, it’s like we’re relating against each other now. That’s like Camille and Adora. They’re family and they don’t get each other. This is totally just my feeling, but it feels so cathartic to me. There’s a metaphor there. As much as you try to relate, it’s just getting harder and harder, and the more Camille tries to relate to her mother, the worst it gets. They’re never going to be on the same page.

Why was it important to have each opening credit sequence feature a different song?
It doesn’t actually feature a different song. Everybody is gonna go back and go, ooooooh.

What! Really?
It’s the same piece of music interpreted in eight different ways. Now you’ll go back and check that out, girlfriend. Some people have gotten it, but most people haven’t figured it out. For Jean-Marc, title sequences always come late with him. He always starts it with the end. It was the same with Big Little Lies, too. In Big Little Lies, the ocean was the power of the women, and that’s where he wanted to build his main titles from. In Sharp Objects, the one thing that’s very consistent is Alan, who’s always in that record room, playing records all the time and trying to deal with his dead-end marriage. He loves Adora and loves living there, but it’s not a loving relationship. It shows what a painful existence he’s in. So he has his music, and so does Camille. With the titles, we started with Alan’s music and a piece from the score called “Dance and Angela,” which is very much something Alan would put on. We put that through machinations of all the different mirrored textures of music we have in the show. You’ll hear that same melody in solo piano, in solo voice, in hip-hop — really representing the vibrations we have musically throughout these characters. Once you pick up on the melody and play them all back-to-back, you’ll start to hear it’s an interpretation of the same thing.

Some of them are very subtle. There’s so much in Sharp Objects that I love that’s super subtle. This is a very subtle show! It’s one of those shows where you’ll go back and watch and be shocked how much you missed. Working on various versions of the cut, I never noticed that this character was doing that or this was going on. There are subtleties Jean-Marc put in the opening titles, too, with visuals.

What are some of your favorite subtleties, musical or otherwise?
Someone said to me the other day, “Jean-Marc finally broke down and used a score.” Um, no he didn’t. “Well, you’re using songs as a score, because sometimes they happen without a source.” No, that’s not true. “The whole opening!” No, then we fall into her iPod and everything is coming out of her iPod. All of the music is coming out of her iPod. In the one scene where she wakes up from her dream and the phone’s ringing, she picks up an iPod thinking it’s a phone, so we know all of the music has come out of her iPod. Those are the kind of things that you really appreciate — that everything is coming from that point of view. Also, what kind of music is playing in what places? What type of musical taste is in the barbershop versus the bar versus Camille’s iPod versus Alan’s sound system? All of it is very purposeful.

Alan’s sound system is an audiophile’s dream. I’m too jealous.
We definitely wanted that level of pretentious. That was something that was very important to Jean-Marc. There’s a certain level of entitlement that comes with that.

How would you define Camille’s relationship to music, especially in comparison to the other people in Wind Gap?
Alice taught her that when you play music — and I think this is such an important part of the show, and I hope it can change everyone’s relationship to music — music is not entertainment. It can downright save your life in the right time. There are times when the right song can take you from feeling super depressed and feeling that nobody cares to feeling that you’re connected and have something to live for. I’ve known Michael Stipe for many years and he’s a great friend, and people have come up to him many times and said, “‘Everybody Hurts’ saved my life.” Music can save your life. Alice, in some ways, was trying to say it can make your life bearable, even if she ultimately succumbed to everything being too much for her. She taught Camille, Hang on when things get really bad, and put on a record. I think that’s true for Alan, too. He’s just hanging on in that house, plugging into his sound system all the time. But the main relationship is that Camille learned music can be helpful, and can help connect with people.

Led Zeppelin is the most prevalent music cue in the series. What does Zepp do for Sharp Objects’ world that you think no other band or musician can accomplish?
They’re in a category like nobody else. They were hugely important to Jean-Marc, and many of us, growing up. Talk about substantial musicianship to the blues on forward — just how they made everything. An incredible band. There are other incredible bands, but Zepp just communicates in a way that’s so powerful. “Thank You” is such an incredibly beautiful song and it’s so deep. And you got the raw power of “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and “What Is and What Should Never Be” — the rawness is incredible. When you hear a Led Zeppelin song, you’re not confused. We don’t even have the most famous songs in here, but people know a Led Zeppelin song. It’s about how substantial they are. And I think it’s an homage to Jean-Marc. He’s like, “Man, they meant a lot to me [during] those tough years we all had to navigate.”

They strike me as a band that charges a lot for music rights. Do you know how much HBO had to fork over?
What I love about HBO, and it’s true for Big Little Lies, is that they understood the importance of what music plays in Jean-Marc’s shows. They’re supportive of that vision. Led Zeppelin wasn’t too crazy or out of reach. Everybody in the show is in the show because they understood the power of what Jean-Marc was trying to do. Writing a check isn’t interesting to people who have a lot of money. The budgets aren’t high on these shows because any individual artist is paid crazy money, because they aren’t, really — it’s average for them in the end. They don’t care, really. It’s high because of the volume that we use. We use over 150 songs in the season because we don’t use a composer, so that’s a big savings there.

I think Led Zeppelin was interested in being in the show because of the artistry. It was a good marriage between artists and artists, Jean-Marc and them. I also think they’re turning a soil. They know a lot of kids don’t know who they are. A lot of kids don’t know who Led Zeppelin is! I can look right at many twentysomethings and play them a really famous Led Zeppelin song, and ask them who they are, and they won’t know. So they’re also smart in keeping themselves in the zeitgeist. The way Jean-Marc uses music, you want to know what that music is. People are Shazam-ing the hell out of his shows. Hopefully, people will take a deeper dive after this.

One of the things I admire about your Sharp Objects work, and you brought this up earlier with Camille’s iPod, is that it’s always presented diegetically. Why do you think presenting music in this way is more effective than cueing it up as background noise for the viewer?
It definitely goes back to Jean-Marc’s intention of not having a composer. Everything is intentional to pace and move the internal narrative along, which is what a score does. All of those things are happening and that’s really the Jean-Marc storytelling style — he’ll call me way before we shoot a show going, “Record player here, iPod over here,” so we know where we’re going. His commitment to this faces a lot of challenges, though, especially when you get something tension or thriller-y. You read the book and are like, “Well, how do you do that without a score?” Because people use [the] score for tension and the unknown and all that, and we don’t do that. Never!

Between collaborating with Jean-Marc on Big Little Lies and now Sharp Objects, do you think there’s a musical thread that connects both of these works, however small it may be?
We definitely wanted them both to have [a] different musical language. It was really important that the language in the show was musically quite different. That’s why I think Jean-Marc and I are thrilled everybody is responding to it so well, because a lot of Big Little Lies’ music was recognizable songs. We have such a broader palette that we’re working with here, from LCD Soundsystem to the Acid to Engelbert Humperdinck. It’s about being true to the character. Who are these characters and what would they be listening to? What bands are going to be substantial for Camille’s iPod and pull her in with loving music? Alice obviously leaves that iPod for her after her death, so that’s important. The language and thread is to support your character. Chloe was so pretentious on Big Little Lies. So pretentious! Of course she’s going to be up-to-date with her Elvis Presley songs and give her dad recommendations! Some kids are just like that. But the emotion of Alice’s iPod is very supportive of Camille. I think escapism is important, too. Like, by the time Alan puts on the Doors, that’s an unexpected thing from him. Oh wow, what’s happening to him now?! He’s going into a dark place and playing it on the piano! Who would’ve thought about Alan playing the Doors? It gives a complexity to his character.

Jean-Marc and I have been very lucky to have very strong characters with Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects. My first job is to support Jean-Marc in wherever he wants to do and not be afraid to go there with him. Even if he says he wants Led Zeppelin. [Laughs.] No music supervisor wants to hear those words. But you’ve got to try with an open heart.

How Sharp Objects Created Its Killer Soundtrack