Sufjan Stevens is a renowned singer songwriter with a hushed croon that is known to cause rousing fits of joyous weeping.
He has seven studio albums to his name, one of America’s best independent record labels, and 15 years of bold musical collaboration with the likes of The National, St. Vincent, and Justin Vernon. Now, Stevens can add “inspired parts of a Canadian drama series” to his resume.
First things first, THIS LIFE is adapted from Richard Blaimert’s French series, Nouvelle adresse, but recently, Sufjan Stevens’ enigmatic new record, Carrie & Lowell, shined a light on the importance of the quiet, delicate dramatic moment. Moments that populate the entirety of THIS LIFE.
Joseph Kay, Showrunner and Executive Producer of THIS LIFE, has been a diehard fan of the Detroit, Michigan native since the (rather appropriate) release of Michigan back in 2003.
Carrie & Lowell is Stevens’ most recent concept album. When Kay first listened to the record back in March 2015, he became ensnared in its melancholic grasp. The album release also happened to coincide with the time he was working on the first three episodes of THIS LIFE.
“His music put me in this kind of mood (when writing),” describes Kay. A mood required for digging into THIS LIFE’s themes of loss, regret, love and family.
Underneath each song’s moody ephemera lies a masked complexity and an attempt at Truth.
In Kay’s favourite track of the album, “Should Have Known Better”, Stevens sings about being abandoned by his mother in a video store. He laments a “dark shroud” that’s been following him throughout his life. But, like much of the record, the song ends on an edifying note about his brother’s daughter and “the beauty that she brings, illumination.”
Like THIS LIFE, Carrie & Lowell isn’t afraid to inject light in dark places.
Finally, the addition of Stevens’ troubled past also helped encourage Kay to do the same. Kay’s family has been deeply intertwined with cancer since he was a teenager and, like Stevens, Kay remembers the tiny, often inconsequential moments. The cracks between the dramatic plot points of our personal lives.
These “moments between moments” that Kay wrote and Stevens indirectly helped foster fundamentally transforms Natalie’s plight in THIS LIFE from one that is mundanely depressing to one that’s overwhelmingly realistic and inspiring.
So while Sufjan Stevens helped facilitate the writing process in the beginning, it’s Montreal’s independent music that helped put a cherry on top of production in the end.
Early on, Executive Producers Virginia Rankin, Jocelyn Deschênes and Kay approached the CBC with a mandate to showcase independent Montreal musicians and their distinct sound in episodes of THIS LIFE.
“I can’t believe how deep the bench is [...],” says Kay in regards to the quality of Montreal’s musical output. Will Driving West, Folly & The Hunter, Patrick Watson, The Barr Brothers, and many more Montreal bands (whose names you don’t recognize but soon won’t forget) have offered up their lofty music for the series.
The process begins with THIS LIFE’s music supervisor Delphine Measroch digging up hundreds of songs that were then decided upon by Kay and Co. in the editing room.
Where the chosen song is placed and how it’s situated within the story is difficult to pinpoint but of the utmost importance because the deployment of these songs have the power to imbue the viewer with a veritable charcuterie board of differing emotional perspectives.
Ultimately, according to Kay, the role of music in TV is to “accentuate emotion” and not manufacture it.
THIS LIFE’s score, composed by Christian Clermont, is engineered to perform that same task. It seamlessly dances beneath the drama of the series, sparse but beautiful.
The addition of local music and heightened composing carries its fair weight in challenges. “When it comes to music there is no vocabulary that makes communicating your taste easy,” mentions Kay. And so, with that muddying of the waters comes “civil disagreements” about song choice, many of which I had the pleasure of overhearing in my shared windowless production office back in Montreal.
But like everything outside of your family dinner table, a consensus was made and with it, some of THIS LIFE’s most awe-inspiring moments.
Kay’s favourite comes from the series pilot when Natalie is given a shocking diagnosis and she proceeds, dejectedly, to drop her lingerie bags down a hospital stairwell. The Will Driving West song, “Better Lands”, pulsates throughout the entire scene and more importantly, “[...] it conveys everything we want to know about what’s going on in her head.”
Any favourite musical moments in the series thus far? Catch more on all new episodes of THIS LIFE, Mondays at 9pm on CBC Television.
I’m Max Morin, by the way, Story Coordinator and your official insider for all things THIS LIFE. Stay plugged-in to the blog -- we’ve got many more behind the scenes treats to come!
Watch a clip on the making of the music of THIS LIFE: