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‘Fargo’ music supervisor Marguerite Phillips talks about capturing the sound of Minnesota circa 1979

Patrick Wilson in 'Fargo' (courtesy FX)

The FX series Fargo is now in its second season. The show is adapted from the 1996 Coen Brothers movie of the same name, but features different characters in different (chilling) situations. The second season takes place in 1979, with the principal settings being Luverne, Minn. and Fargo, N.D.

Tracy Mumford and I are recapping each episode for an MPR News podcast called Aw Jeez. This week, we talked with Marguerite Phillips, this season’s music supervisor. She told us about how she and showrunner Noah Hawley selected the many unforgettable music selections that are heard on the show — from Gustav Mahler to Burl Ives.

Read our conversation below, and hear it in this week’s episode of Aw Jeez. You can follow us on Twitter — and subscribe to Aw Jeez on iTunes for weekly recaps, as well as more interviews with people who have unique insights on this fascinating show.

TRACY MUMFORD: Marguerite, thank you for joining us.

Hi, thank you for having me! My name’s Maggie; I just use Marguerite [because] that’s my real name, my grandmother’s name. You can call me Maggie.

JAY GABLER: Given the mix of music in this season, how do you decide what fits — how do you know just what the right music is for any given scene?

You know, I tell people it’s always just sort of a gut reaction. I just feel if something works…but with Noah, it took me a while to get inside his head. With every project, I’m working with a new person who has new taste and they’re creating an entirely different world for each project — so it takes me a little bit of time to get into their head and feel what they’re thinking. [With] Noah [that] was almost impossible, ’cause I never knew what he was thinking. I tried to find stuff that I thought he would like, but he just had some crazy, crazy, fantastic ideas. By far, it was the most challenging project I’ve ever worked on.

We’ll talk it out in the spotting session, and I’ll have a direction to go in. I’ll send a few choices over to Noah, and he’ll watch them and pick the one he wants.

TM: How many choices do you give him for a given scene?

As far as stuff I send, I think I would send him like three or four selections; but some of those songs, he just knew from the outset what he wanted. “The Eve of War,” Jeff Wayne — that was a Noah pick.

That and “Children of the Sun” by Billy Thorpe: those were the first two songs that Noah played for me when I met him for the first time.

Actually, for this project — this is a year ago now — when I first met with Noah and I’d read the first few scripts, we sat down for a while and just talked. He gave me like eight directions to go in over entire season: different themes he wanted musically. I want home and I think I spent almost a month really diving in to those eight directions, and then I sent him over a huge — maybe an overwhelmingly large — amount of music for him to listen to and pick from for the season.

TM: Do you have a favorite song that didn’t make the cut?

Yeah. I do: “Gun” by John Cale.

TM: When did you want to play that?

Episode nine.

TM: We’ll have to look out for that one…

JG: …try to figure out where it would have gone.

Noah wanted it too…let’s just say we had some budget issues.

JG: We wanted to be sure to ask about a song that comes at the very end of the very first episode: “Go To Sleep You Little Baby.” We understand that’s Noah himself singing.

Yeah, that is Noah! He’s singing with our fantastic composer, Jeff Russo. There are seven or eight covers throughout the season of different songs from various Coen Brothers movies, and that’s the first of them. We were in discussions of who could cover that song, and unknown to me, Noah calls up Jeff and is like, “Hey, can I get into your studio?” All of a sudden I just get this MP3 from Jeff; he’s like, “This is what Noah and I did last night in the studio.” I had no idea that Noah could sing! I was just totally blown away by it. It’s beautiful.

TM: Obviously a lot of the music this season has been from the ’70s, but you’ve also mixed in more modern music. How did you balance that? Did you have a guiding principle?

It is all [from] before 1979 — the music we have in there. The only stuff we have in by current artists are songs from Coen Brothers movies.

JG: You’ve been talking about working with Noah on this season in particular, but I think a lot of viewers are thinking about the Coen Brothers’ universe generally; clearly you are as well. The Coens are clearly known for their classic soundtracks — the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack was a cultural phenomenon. Do you think there’s a Coen Brothers sound? Did you think of the Coen Brothers’ aesthetic when you were choosing music for this season?

No, not at all, actually. Noah is creating his own thing, and the covers were just a kind of nod to such a tremendous body of work.

TM: How did you prepare for this job? Did you just sit down and immerse yourself in the ’70s? How do you even take on a project like this?

It happened to be one of my favorite periods of music of all time. I was already a little schooled in it. I was born in ’75; it’s not really music I grew up with, but it just happened to be my favorite. I did a lot of research, honestly. Like I said, in the beginning Noah gave me eight directions. One was, he wanted me to listen to a lot of Jethro Tull — which, for me, was like a dream project ’cause I’m a huge fan. He wanted me to listen to a lot of music that came out of Kansas City before 1979 because we have the Kansas City contingent [of characters], so I did a lot of Kansas City music.

We also wanted to listen to music for Simone’s character, so I listened to a lot of a lot of girl punk; the Runaways were the first band we started listening to. Noah wanted me to go out and listen to international music from that time period, and prog rock: that was the biggest genre that he wanted me to explore. Before they’d even started shooting, Noah kind of knew what he wanted, and so to prepare for a job like this, it took me about a month of research — of really digging in.

Another thing was the character of Constance, who is an out lesbian in ’79; not a lot of women were out at that time. [Noah] wanted to explore what kind of music she would listen to. It [was] just kind of going into different worlds of music: listening a whole bunch, and learning a whole bunch, and picking out your favorites from that world.

TM: I was really interested in the [classical] music that we just heard in episode four. Can you walk me through how that happened?

I wasn’t [working] on season one, but I do understand that episode four ended with a requiem. Noah wanted to end this episode in a similar way, as a nod to the first season. We also had been listening to German classical music — Mahler is in there — and it had been inspiring Jeff Russo’s score throughout the season.

That episode, for me, that was the episode that left me sort of shell-shocked. I watched it for the first time in the editing room when we were spotting; for me, it was the first time that I [thought], “This is going to be something that’s really going to blow people away.” You would have to ask Noah, but I would say Noah’s choice to use that really dramatic music was to say, hey, this is a really crazy story that we’re getting into.

TM: In your mind, do you have really specific songs that speak to characters — kind of character anthems?

[For] Ed, I would say that song “One Hour Ahead of the Posse” by Burl Ives. It’s from the ’50s, [Ed] wants to live in the world he grew up in, in the ’50s. He wants to have a wife and a house and a family like his father did, and he’s obviously in over his head. It starts off as just kind of a jolly, crazy song, but it gets pretty dark — just as Ed’s story in this season does.

Constance’s character is one of my favorite characters; her song plays in her car in the background. It’s a song by an artist named Cris Williamson: the song is “Song of the Soul.” That song was, so I’ve been told, kind of a calling card for lesbians in the ’70s. If you had that album at your house, it was a way of saying that you were a lesbian without having to say it, because that was still the world they lived in.

TM: Do you have a song for Peggy? For me, she’s so difficult to figure out.

She is, right? Her song is going to be coming in episode ten, so I can’t talk about it — but yeah, there is a song that is specific to her and sums up her dreaming. A lot of the big songs, I would say, happen towards the end.

TM: Well, we won’t have you give anything away — but we will definitely be listening for it.

I can say that episode seven, listen for more covers. We have one from Fargo, we have one from O Brother, we have one from Miller’s Crossing.

JG: Well, you certainly give us a lot to talk about every week!

TM: Thanks again, Maggie, for joining us.