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'Orange is the New Black' Music Composer Gwendolyn Sanford Talks Season 3 Netflix Episodes, Characters' Stories & More [Exclusive Q&A]

by Jon Niles   Jun 23, 2015 15:16 PM EDT

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Orange is the New Black is easily one of the biggest show's on Netflix and this year's third season has already taken over the summer of 2015. Executive producer Jenji Kohan certainly knows how to bring audiences engaging television, having previously worked on the Showtime series Weeds, so we're not surprised that she brought along her longtime musical collaborators for the streaming show. Songwriter Gwendolyn Sanford teams with her husband Brandon Jay and collaborator Scott Doherty to create the music for the genre-crossing series, exploring our favorite characters' backstories and more with each passing episode. Sanford recently sat down with Music Times to discuss season three and much more!

Sanford and her husband previously had a career in children's music as Gwendolyn and the Goodtime Gang, which actually led to their new career with composing for these popular shows!

How was the transition from making music for kids to composing for Weeds and now Orange is the New Black?

It actually started in film scoring. I was an experimental folk musician who liked to write weird Avant Garde folk songs, you know back in the '90s you couldn't get arrested for that kind of thing. But I was working with some producers Smokey Hormel and Joey Waronker, we were working on this material and they were scoring the movie Chuck and Buck at the same for their friend Miguel [Arteta] and they couldn't get the rights to "Free to Be You and Me" by Marlo Thomas, a '70s children song that was quite popular. Well she wouldn't allow them to use it because Chuck and Buck, it's a little bit of a controversial story-even though I think it has a wonderful ending and it's a great film. But they couldn't get the rights to the song that they needed so they asked me, "hey do you think you could write a children's song?" I was like, "I don't know I've never tried this before. I'll give it a shot." So I took the film home and I watched it, without any music it's kind of creepy. I wrote this funny little children's song and everybody really responded to it. So a year or two later my friend said, "you know everybody really loved that children's song you wrote, why don't you write some more I'll try to get it around town" and I said "yeah okay!"

So I wrote some more and passed it around all the preschools around town, around Silverlake, and it kind of caught fire there with all the cool moms and Jenji was one of those cool moms. We put a band together, played some shows and she brought her two-year-old son at the time to our shows and started coming to the shows. She had three kids all under the age of seven and kind of grew up with our music that we were creating for children, completely on a lark. I wasn't even a fantastic babysitter when I was little [laughs]. This was just super fun. My husband and I, boyfriend at the time, we had separate bands and we did kind of cool music. We just asked the people in our band, "let's put a little band together and we'll play some children's shows, it'll be cool." And it was!

One day I got a call from Jenji and she said, "how would you like to audition for a second season replacement composer for the show Weeds that I'm doing?" I'm like, "well I've never tried that before so let's give it a shot." So we auditioned an episode and it didn't really have any connection to the children's music. It had its own thing; it was a little bit more like my folk band. It had weird pots and pans, acoustic guitar, accordion-it was just a little quirky and fun and they loved it. They thought that they hadn't heard this before and it feels like the show and we got the job. Then we kind of panicked because "oh my god we've got to learn how to do this!" So we kind of just grew up with Jenji and having the opportunity to stretch out over seven seasons of Weeds was a huge learning experience.

At the end of the run of the show she said, "hey you know I'm doing this new show Orange is the New Black for Netflix ... Send me some music that doesn't sound like Weeds." I was like, "okay." So we put together something and she says, "I love it. It doesn't sound like Weeds but it's not exactly the sound of the show either so you got the job but go back to the drawing board," and we did. We woodshedded and as the footage filtered in from the first episode it was easier to see what maybe the sound of the show might be. It was a very morphus time, creating the soundscape of the show. And it's still evolving because the stories are so complex. There are so many different layers to each story and so many different characters to fulfill their backstories and all. Then also you have the balance act of is it a comedy, is it a drama? Which is fascinating. But we were playing in the children's band with our friend Scott Doherty who was had done some work with us on Weeds and we thought, this is a bigger beast we could actually use some help here. So we invited Scott to come in and again just had a huge growth spurt as composers. Working on the first season of Orange really took us places we never expected to go. But we're very happy to be there!


What's the turnaround process of writing a song for each episode for OITNB? 

Really intense! Weeds was very different, it was a half an hour show. We had a week to do it, but it was a lot of transitional cues to theme, whereas Orange is the New Black is heavily underscored and has got a lot of different layers and it's an hour long show, with still the same amount of time [laughs]. We go in on a Thursday and we'll sit down with the producers to do what we call a spotting session and they've temped in some of our music where they think music should be and we talk about how they want to improve or change the cue a little bit to fit more. So there's about anywhere from 25 to 40 cues in an episode and we take that home and we have to be done by Tuesday night. That gives you about five days to do that much material and then you have a day of mixing and then you go back to your review and cross your fingers. Sometimes you go back with some revisions and that's totally natural, especially when you have so much that you're doing in such a short amount of time. But that's part of the challenge-part of the job.


You use a lot of different instruments in your music, which has been your favorite so far?

I loved using the tanpura; that was for more of the faith-based - there's a lot of religion in this season. You get this character, Norma who we've haven't heard her speak for two seasons, we don't know anything about this woman, what makes her the way she is and I really enjoyed flashing back to her backstory. That was fun. That's what I love about this show; you get to go places other than just prison. It takes you out of your element, it takes you flashing back years and years and years and totally different cultures, totally different backgrounds, so that was that.

And then we used the banjo in Chang's episode; that was something that we put together. That was a crazy cue. That was super interesting to see her as a young girl in China and that music that goes along with her is so funny. And the way that we used the banjo is a little off-center; it's not your traditional banjo. We like to take instruments and see what else they can do and sometimes the simplest things, the simplest little touches is just what it needs.

It's hard to differentiate if the series is more of a comedy or a drama. Do you ever find yourself leaning one way or another while working on the show? Do you like to write for more of the comedy or drama moments?

I guess I would say comedy. It's just more fun. It's not a lot of fun to create music for the situations that are scary. You have to listen to it over and over again, vibrationally it just hits you. If it's hitting you the way that it's supposed to, it's going to do the same for the viewer, except you have to probably listen to it a hundred times. Like last season when Red and Vee were going at it, no one wants to watch Red get beat up. That's hard. It's hard to watch. It's hard to listen to. And no one wants to watch Poussey get beat up in the shower, oh god that's so sad! I think as composer- the three of us, we're actually pretty sensitive people. Unfortunately, part of the job requirement, it is still interesting, even though it's hard to take it's still, "wow, what sounds can we create that are bone crushing?" But it's not a lot of fun.


Do you have any advice for those trying to get into the world of composing?

Keep showing up and be ready because you never know when your opportunity is going to happen. Just work hard at whatever you're doing and be open to what may be coming through the back door that you didn't even expect. I didn't expect to be scoring television and film back when I was in pigtails dancing around in a vintage dress for kids that are still in diapers. That was not what I was going for but I was having fun, we were working really hard. We were giving it our all and people take notice and recommend you for projects that you didn't even have in your radar. I think it's all about doing well with the work that's in front of you and I think the rest takes care of itself. This is a crazy business with no roadmap. Everybody carves their own path and if you're doing good work it's sure to get noticed. You just have to be ready and keep showing up.

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