Zach of All Trades: The Music Supe Behind Netflix's "Master of None"
By Rachel Perkins, Associate Director of Film, TV & Visual Media with Etan Rosenbloom, Director and Deputy Editor, Marketing & Communications • August 24, 2017
Pictured (l-r): Aziz Ansari as Dev in Master of None; music supervisor Zach Cowie
The Netflix Original Series Master of None follows the exploits of Dev Shah (Aziz Ansari), a 30-something actor finding his way through life, love and an endless series of restaurants in New York City (and sometimes Italy). The broad outlines of the show might sound familiar to romcom fanatics - the dating ups and downs, the supporting cast of quirky characters - but Master of None is anything but conventional. The show is built around a small cast of nuanced characters, and its creators are confident enough to explore all the nooks and crannies of their personalities, resulting in a deeply felt, fully-fleshed-out world. There are a million small decisions in editing, dialogue, casting and acting that all fed into one of the most compelling comedies on TV - no surprise it was nominated for eight Emmys this year.
One of those nods is for ASCAP member Zach Cowie and Kerri Drootin, nominated in the Emmys' historic first-ever Outstanding Music Supervision category, for curating the music for Master of None. Music functions differently in the show than it does for most shows, sometimes setting the mood but just as often slyly commenting on or even driving the plot. Cowie cashed in on his decades of experience as a DJ, musician, record label dude and crate-digger for Master of None's impeccable soundtrack. We asked him how he finds the music to match each scene's vibe.
Every show runner and music supervisor collaboration is different. How involved were Aziz and Alan Yang in selecting the music? Or in steering the music's story?
As you can probably tell by the sheer amount of music we use, it’s a major tool in Alan and Aziz’s storytelling process. They’re obsessed. we began our musical discussions even before their outlines turned into scripts! Those two are by far the hardest-working, most inspiring, hands-on dudes I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. They're also collaborators in the truest sense of the word, everyone on this show works that way. We were all quick to drop the egos and give up any sense of ownership over the ideas. We work together, pushing each other to find the best choices that build out this world and move these stories along. I wish I could share this nomination with the two of them as well.
Every song used in Master of None seems placed with a thoughtful, intentional purpose. How do you ensure that a song fits a scene without it being too "on the nose?"
Why, thank you! Ha! I seem to have a weird sense-memory for music, which probably comes from being a constantly mixtape-making kid followed by about 15 years of DJing and obsessive record collecting in my adulthood. When I hear something I like, I can remember how it feels. That feeling is oftentimes far more abstract than anything directly lyrical. So it makes sense to me that the music I think of when I see scripts or scenes is more often times less on the nose and slightly more nuanced and (hopefully) poetic. I’m searching my memory, not by lyrical keywords in Spotify!
All this isn’t to say that being on the nose is always a bad thing— i just prefer it for comedy, like using Aphex Twin’s terrifying "Come to Daddy" in Season 1 for a nightmare scene about being a father!
The episode you were nominated for, “Amarsi Un Po,” shares its name with one of the songs you chose for it, a 1977 Italian hit recorded by Lucio Battisti. What made that song stick with you - and what about it did you think would fit so well?
That's a song I heard a few years ago and I instantly loved it. I think my friend Andy Cabic was the first person to play it for me, but it was also on a mix from a Swiss DJ I really like called Lexx— I can’t remember exactly which came first so I’ll thank them both! When Aziz let me know the Italy plan for Season 2 it was one of the first songs that popped into my head, so I sent it over. I didn’t even know what the lyrics meant but Aziz let me know the chorus roughly translated to "To Love a Bit" which, as fate would have it, ended up being the perfect way to describe the relationship arc between Dev & Francesca throughout the whole season. Flash forward a few months and I see the untitled script to episode 9 and he’s written in the song as the closing credits. That got me very excited. Flash forward another month or so and the script shows up again with revisions and a title — "Amarsi Un Po!"
Few things have made me happier but as any supervisor knows, thinking of the right song is the easy part — licensing it is why they call this a job! Which brings me to my co-supervisor on this show, Kerri Drootin. Kerri is a clearance master and this track would not have made it to the screen without her. It turns out every request to license Lucio’s music outside of Italy had been denied during his lifetime and continued to be so after his death. Which probably has a lot to do with the fact that he’s a household name in Italy, but relatively unknown anywhere else! Through Kerri’s many months of persistence (and A LOT of Google Translate) she was able to clear the track just days before we had to mix it, making our show the first place to take his music around the world. That’s something we’re all extremely proud of and grateful for.
The Frankie Valli/Four Seasons song “You're a Song (That I Can’t Sing)” worked so beautifully with the love montage of Francesca and Dev — you see them both developing feelings for one another from a vulnerable place of not really being available. Did you immediately think of it when you heard about this scene?
Another compliment! I like this interview! Yup, if I recall correctly, that was one of the many situations where Aziz would text me “What’s the song that plays when ______ happens” while he’s writing and I’d add ideas to our shared playlist. Both of my first ideas for that arc made their way into the final script— the Walker Brothers song "I Can’t Let It Happen to You" was one my girlfriend was playing a lot at the time so it was very fresh in my head, and the Frankie Valli tune was something I remembered from a Light in the Attic compilation years ago. When I first heard it I loved his voice on the bridges and clocked the line "You’re a song (that I can’t sing)" as being such a heavy way to describe something you want and can’t have — stored into memory and recalled here.
As a vinyl collector, DJ, music supervisor — do you store songs away that you would love to license one day? Are there any of those that you've gotten to use for Master of None?
I have a writing credit from a movie I worked on called Celeste & Jesse Forever where we all wrote some lyrics for a fake pop song used in the film, but that’s it. I’m 100% unable to play any instrument, that’s why I’ve got so many records! Secondly, I wouldn’t necessarily say that I store songs away specifically for future use— it’s always the stories or the visuals that tap into the memory banks and inspire the ideas.