As the music supervisor for shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas has long been TV’s musical rainmaker. Pinpointing emergent, primetime-ready tunes for those shows is one challenge, but for her work on Scandal, another drama from Grey’s creator Shonda Rhimes, Patsavas faced another one — breathing new life into old-school R&B classics. Below, Patsavas discusses how she takes a well-worn track like Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” and gives it new meaning, plus her one major exception in Scandal‘s soulful set list.
As told by: Alexandra Patsavas
I’ve had the opportunity to work with Shonda now for 10 years. I’ve been on Grey’s Anatomy since the pilot and have had the good fortune to work on all of her TV shows. I knew that she wanted this show to have a unique voice. Very early on, she talked about [showcasing] soul and R&B — specifically vintage tracks. Most of the tracks are very classic and, in my opinion, underused. There are definitely some wonderful [Top 40] hits from the Ohio Players or Booker T. [and the M.G.’s] or The O’Jays, but we’ve also used some lesser-known gems of the genre. I do think that this show introduces some of these songs to a new audience in the same way that Grey’s does.
Choosing the music varies from scene to scene. Shonda has a great deal of these songs in mind. Sometimes they’re written into the script. Sometimes she takes a look at footage and decides what’s going to go in there. Our composer, Chad Fischer, does a good deal of the heavy-lifting on this show and has created a beautiful score. Always the toughest scenes are the ones where songs are used as the score… to tie together a group of moments and perhaps need to say more than one thing and move along with the action. Those can be difficult.
When Shonda doesn’t have a particular song in mind, I send options until we find one that works. Sometimes the very first option works, and sometimes there’s a good deal of digging. [Laughs] I use records and iTunes, of course. We’ve been able to focus on some catalogs from publishers — Warner Chappell and EMI, labels like Concord that have so much of this music. Another company called Bank Robber has lesser-known tracks from the era.
I’ve had such a good time speaking with publishers and labels and managers and bands themselves. It’s not often that a supervisor in a television show has the opportunity to dig this deep into a genre. One facet of my job is to clear all the music, and that’s been an interesting part of this — to speak with artists’ estates. Artists like Stevie Wonder are still creating amazing music, but with artists like [the late] Nina Simone or the Ohio Players, it’s definitely a different kind of challenge. These are not artists that have songs on the chart right now. It’s a great help when they like the show because, just like in any of Shonda’s shows, the artists know that the music is going to be used respectfully, with grace and humor or poignancy — whatever the scene calls for.
I’ve been hoping for a chance to use these artists my whole career. One of my favorite placements was “Green Onions” by Booker T. & the M.G.’s. It’s a song that I feel changed how Americans thought about [the genre]… it was such a pivotal song, and I loved how it was used in episode 2 this year.
Also Leon Haywood’s “Don’t Push It, Don’t Force It” in episode 3, I thought was a beautiful moment.
And then Stevie Wonder always. He wrote one of my favorite songs ever — “I Believe” — and you can’t go wrong with Stevie.
One of the few contemporary tracks we’ve used was from The Album Leaf. They’re such a great band. I’ve been licensing them for years now, and their song “The Light” has scored the loves scenes — really the love story between Fitz and Olivia. The love story between Fitz and Liv is so palpable. I’m so entranced by it, and I feel like that’s a common reaction. It’s a situation where the song doesn’t need to tell you how to feel. The audience already feels a great deal for this couple, so the understated choice made the most sense. Shonda and our editor, Matt Ramsey, always had that song in mind. It has the same sort of deep emotion and feel that the rest of these [older] songs have.
Moving forward, I haven’t discussed any of these with Shonda, but I would love to see Little Jimmy Scott, perhaps some more Billie Holiday. I have a great affection for this genre, so I don’t really ever get to a point where I’m tired of any of these songs. I’m one of those lucky people that my passion turned into my job. I’m still having a great time.