Siddhartha Khosla On Bringing The Music Of This Is Us To Life – With A Touch Of Desi

Not many shows can make you feel the way This Is Us does. Created by Dan Fogelman, the critically-acclaimed NBC show is not your regular family drama. It’s so much more than that. Based on the life of the Pearson’s – a family of five – the show delves on the past, present and future of the main characters while also focusing on topics less spoken about. Backed by powerful writing and an elevating soundtrack, it strings together an ensemble cast to touch upon mental health, race, familial relationships, sexual orientation, and the circle of life.

Watching the show from India gives it an even more interesting perspective. There’s a certain, perhaps intangible, connection towards it when you watch it. One can obviously credit its focus on the ups and downs of a close-knit family for it, but go a little deeper and you can find a certain familiarity in it, in the way it sounds. The man behind this is Siddhartha Khosla, who helms the music of the show. Nominated for the Emmys for three consecutive times now – twice as a composer and once for the music and lyrics of the song, Memorized he had co-written for the show – Khosla seamlessly weaves in a hint of his Indian heritage in the soundtrack. By infusing touches of classical music and vocals to his tunes, he makes the show touch a previously untapped chord for an Indian audience.

With exactly a month to go for the Emmys, the composer, in an exclusive conversation, talks about his process of creating music for This Is Us – his ‘gig of a lifetime,’ the Indian influence in its soundtrack and how he initially learnt music by listening to old Hindi songs by Kishore Kumar and Mohammed Rafi.

The music of the show doesn’t only look at the larger picture, but can be very specific – down to the minutest of details playing out in a particular scene. It’s like getting into the mind-frame of a character and turning into a sixth Pearson. What are the boons and challenges of a project like this?

Honestly, I think the only challenge was early on trying to figure out what this will all sound like. Ultimately, I rely a lot on organic instrumentation – acoustic guitar, piano, my voice, cellos, there’s even harmonium in the score. It doesn’t sound like a harmonium since it is mixed with cellos, making it feel like a unique sound in itself. I think as soon as I figured out what sounds seemed to work, then the rest of it fell into place. I just feel the show. I love the show so much and I connect so much with Dan Fogelman who created this show. He and I are long-time friends. I’ve known him since I was 17 years old. I’ve known him longer than I haven’t. So there’s a connection there, he’s like a brother to me. That adds so much ease to the project for me.

As you can probably hear, there’s clearly an Indian influence in the score too. It’s done in a way that the western audiences don’t know what it is. They hear it and find the sound interesting, new and unique. But a desi listener can hear it and say, ‘Oh that feels like classical.’

Yes, exactly. One can find traces of India in the soundtrack. Sometimes, it’s there in the instruments, sometimes, in the alaaps and the vocals or just in the tempo or the beats. And yet, it’s so subtly done. Because ultimately, it’s a show about an American family. How do you find that balance to maintain its authenticity?

For me, the turning point where the sound of the score started getting very Indian influenced was in the first season when Kate (Chrissy Metz) is at a weight-loss camp. She’s doing an exercise with sticks on the mat and we see a flashback. We are now in her headspace where she’s a little child playing with her dad. They’re doing Madonna’s Vogue poses, and all of a sudden, it cuts to a silent minute-and-a-half of Jack’s (Milo Ventimiglia) funeral. That’s where it went so desi in the sound in terms of influence. It wasn’t overt. But that’s when I started tapping on my wooden table [for a percussions effect] and sang this theme with four descending notes, which ultimately became the main hook of this show – Jack’s Theme. When I sent that in to Dan Fogelman, he was just like, ‘This is transformative.’ He said that I had unlocked something. I asked him then whether it was too Indian for an American drama on NBC – it’s the biggest hit on television, it’s an American family, it’s not about an Indian family – and he said, ‘No. Keep on doing what you’re doing.’

When you were talking about how initially you were trying to figure out what the show would sound like, how did you come up with these instruments in the first place? You’ve mentioned in past interviews about the soundtrack being very home-made. Can you elaborate a little on that?

Before I was composing for television and film, I was singing songs and writing music for my band, Goldspot. So when you’re raised in a band environment, you’re taught to make your own sounds and create your own original vibe that’s you. That’s it for me too in these scores that I do. I always try to bring a little bit of myself into it. Ultimately, you’re respecting the vision of the director, but you want to bring in a bit of yourself in because that’s what adds the originality and uniqueness to it. For me, I just looked around in my studio and saw the instruments that I had and said, ‘Alright, how do I put this together to make the sound of the show?’ I was in Vermont for a vacation with my wife and her family, I went into a thrift store and bought a $26 guitar about a year before This Is Us started. That became one of the key instruments that I use in the show. It was half broken in the back and when I got into This Is Us, I called it Jack’s guitar because it was broken like Jack was when he started to have alcoholism issues – and it ended up becoming the sound of the show. It’s the little things like that you don’t expect. This was a broken guitar with a big crack in the back of it, being held together by tape. And that was what I used to score the show.

This Is Us has allowed you to explore a lot as a musician. You’ve also co-written songs for the soundtrack. There was the incredible We Can Always Come Back To This in S1, Invisible Ink, which Mandy Moore sang, the Emmy-nominated Memorized, to name a few. Now all these songs have a very particular focus in them in terms of characterizations, situations and even time periods. How do you juggle between all this?

You’re only as good as the people around you. Music is a collaborative world. Art is a collaborative form. Whether you’re collaborating with other people to make the art or you’re collaborating with your audience to meet you half-way and connect, it’s collaborative. I always want to make the best version of anything I can. So, for instance, in We Can Always Come Back To This, the brief that I had to follow was, ‘You have to write a song that would feel like a soul hit from the early 70s that could’ve been on a Stax record.’ As I started working on the song, I came up with a melodic idea, I was playing with a couple of lyrical thoughts, but then it needed to be the ‘real deal.’ So I brought in my friend Chris Pierce, who is an incredible soul singer, to collaborate with me. I knew that he would help get the song to where it needed to get. We could ultimately write the song together and make it as authentic as possible.

I’m a stickler for authenticity. If I watch any film, see any art or listen to any music that I don’t believe is authentic, then I don’t like it. So that’s the kind of litmus test I put myself through as well. Invisible Ink needed to be a song about Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and her love for Joni Mitchell. She had a near-moment of success as a musician that she didn’t ever reach. So while making the song, I thought, ‘Who’s better to write that with me than her [Mandy’s] husband?’ Taylor Goldsmith is from the band Daws, and one of the best lyricists around. He and I then worked together to write the song.

I continued working with Taylor again in Memorized since we had a good thing going. We co-wrote the song, but it was my assistant Alan Demoss who produced it because he was much, much younger than me. We needed to write a hip song, that could be a pop song that would come out 30 years from now. So I thought that I needed to have a hip, cool producer because I’m getting old, and I wanted someone with a different musical vernacular who could help take it over. So it all goes back to finding the right people to make it all come together.

You mentioned a little bit about your association with Dan Fogelman that started when you were 17. Does the fact that you know each other since so long and share a deep friendship help in aligning your perspectives about the music that he envisions for the show?

It does. There’s this secret weapon that Dan and I have in our arsenal: trust. When you trust somebody with anything in your life, it’s a very empowering feeling to be on either side of it. As an artist, with that trust comes so much confidence to try different things. Had there been a different showrunner at the helm of this, I’m not sure I could’ve brought in the slight Indian influence in the music. It might’ve felt like, ‘Oh this is too strange for them.’ But because he knows me, he knows my family, there’s this amazing feeling that it’s ok to fail in front of this person. It gives you the ability to take risks.

You’d once said that creating music for This Is Us feels like working on one record an episode. Can you talk about that a little? What is the kind of deadline you are given between one episode and another?

This is the thing about our show that we work on such a compressed timeline. Of course, other shows and productions also have compressed timelines, but because we are airing on broadcast television week after week, we have a different schedule than streamers. It is much more intense, there’s no question about it. There were times when I was getting scenes for an episode on a Wednesday/Thursday and it was airing the following Tuesday. So that gives you an idea of what it looks like. I’m probably spending about four days per episode of solid work, which is not a lot of time. But I work fast, and now five seasons in, I can write a piece of music for this show very quickly because I know it. I have my themes; I have my ideas. The show feels like second nature to me at this point.

So do you generally go theme-by-theme, character-by-character or timeframe-by-timeframe? What’s your process like?

Because we were jumping around so much in time, I decided to find a sound for the show that was timeless, that could live. You could listen to the score and you wouldn’t know when it came out. It could’ve come out 40 years ago, it could’ve come out last year, it could be coming out 10 years from now, you wouldn’t know. I think because I’m using a combination of all these organic instrumentations, be it acoustic guitars, my voice or the piano – there would always be those instruments, forever. They aren’t time-bound. I have some interesting synths that I’m using too that are modernized in places, where it’s so subtle that you won’t know what era it’s from. So, I don’t have to worry about changing my sounds from time to time. Otherwise, it’d just be too much considering there’s so much time jumping. This also allows the score to feel cohesive so the viewer is never distracted by a sound they’re not used to hearing.

I look at every episode as its own little movie, so I try to come up with a thematic concept for that episode that weaves in and out of the scenes. And sometimes, themes carry over. Like Jack’s Theme is central – I find a way to put it in somewhere, even if it’s just for three seconds. It’s a little easter egg that I hide in every piece of the score.

A lot like Jack himself, then?

Absolutely. He’s omnipresent in their lives, right?

Going back in time, how did This Is Us happen to you? What was the brief that you were given?

Dan sent me a script which was then called 36, because they were all turning 36 in the pilot. He told me that he has already started shooting for a new show that he’s working on. It’s a pilot, it hasn’t been picked up to a series yet. He said, ‘It’s very important to me. You don’t have the job… yet.’ Because there were two directors coming on board who had worked with him on a film of his, and in the pilot process, the directors and the showrunner together have a say. Sometimes, the directors are the ones who have a final say on who they want to work with on a project, and the showrunner obliges. In this case, Dan wanted to make the show he wanted to make, but the directors were very involved and also incredibly talented. And I wanted to impress everyone. I read the script and I took a leap of faith. I was living in New Jersey back then, so I flew out to Los Angeles and spent two nights on a studio just working, working, working on a piece of music. I wrote a six-minute-long score and sent it to Dan. He and the directors loved it and hired me.

How much of your music is influenced by Indian music, in general? Do you have any particular favourite artistes, composers or singers?

Kishore Kumar is my favourite singer of all time. SD Burman, RD Burman are some of my favourite composers of all time. I grew up singing Hindi music, that’s what I did as a kid. Every Sunday, I was that kid in the mandir singing. So I would sing Mohammed Rafi’s Mann Tadpat Hari Darshan Ko in the mandir. They were all bhajans. I was like the bhajan kid. My parents would hand me the lyrics the day before. My mom would write down the words in a paper and ask me to learn the song to sing in the mandir the next day. I was honestly mortified, but I did it because I was good at it. I learnt music by listening to old Hindi singers. I would listen to Manna Dey and Hemant Kumar too.

When I started my band Goldspot, I always wanted to find a way to bring in some of that influence in the music. If you listen to the last couple of albums from Goldspot – like Aerogramme (2013) or And the Elephant Is Dancing (2009) – they all have a hint of the 60s-70s era of Hindi film music, the SD Burman type of sound. It’s almost become a part of my DNA at this point. It’s hard to take it out for certain projects. This Is Us felt to me like the right project because the show is about this larger idea, the larger connectivity of life. It’s like this idea that we make choices and decisions in our life that can have an impact for generations. That made me think of my own family, the choices that my parents made when they came to the US, the difficult choices they had as immigrants when they came here – so to bring in that touch in this show felt right to me. I don’t really bring it in for my other projects, unless it’s needed. Or maybe I do it without even realizing it.

What can we expect from you in the final season of This Is Us? How does it feel that this is coming to an end? Has it sunk in at all?

You can expect a lot of tears. I’ll probably shed a couple of tears as I’m writing the final notes – maybe while writing all the notes. It’s going to be sad for me too. It’s been the gig of a lifetime for me. I recognize how rare it is. I really, really do.

This Is Us is available on streaming in India on Disney+ Hotstar and Amazon Prime Video