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Those familiar with Showtime’s dysfunctional family drama Shameless appreciate that its storyline is far-from-average. Following Chicago working-class family the Gallaghers — led by the drunken single-father-of-six, Frank (William H. Macy) — the characters struggle with matters of poverty, drugs and sexuality in unconventional ways, doing whatever it takes (namely, stealing, lying, cheating) in order stay together.
Viewers listening closely may also notice that the show’s soundtrack is by no means traditional — rather, it plays more like a killer mixtape. In a single episode (for instance, the 2011 series premiere) the show runs through songs by Spoon, Ra Ra Riot, Cream and Superchunk with seeming effortlessness segues that not only engage music fans, but further already compelling plotlines. Anyone looking to discover new music may want to fire up the Shazam and Spotify simultaneously — or at least watch with pen and paper in hand.
Such eccentric playlists are the product of music director Ann Kline, along with the show’s producers and editors. Through music, Kline says she is able to expand on its characters — and seeing as the Gallaghers are not a mainstream family, the music isn’t either.
“I grew up loving music and watching John Hughes movies,” says Kline, a Los Angeles-native who worked as a music attorney before getting into music supervision. “So I became a music nut consciously realizing how it serves playing as a soundtrack.” The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Kline about her work Shameless must be more fun than any other project she’s taken on to date.
The Hollywood Reporter: There seem to be more synchs on Shameless than the average TV drama. Is that the case?
Ann Kline: Definitely. Because for the majority of the episodes, we don’t use a composer, so all the music you hear is licensed music. And when we do use a composer, the scores always manage to sound like songs almost — kind of rock and roll and rebellious. Some episodes have up to thirty songs and I would guess a normal hour-long drama might have five.
THR: Why use so many synchs?
Kline: Initially we were thinking, this is what these kids would listen to — none of them are really mainstream, they all have their own style. Once we got into post-production, I realized they’re always doing things. It’s rare that they’re home in any kind of situation where they’re just listening to music. So we started integrating songs throughout the whole show and now it’s almost like the music’s in their heads or it’s the music of their neighborhood. We wanted this whole show to feel kind of messy and rebellious and different, and this was one way to help push that along.
THR: Many shows have taken to indie artists, but with Shameless it’s almost an extreme. From the theme song, by Michigan trio The High Strung, to tunes by bands like The Marys, Earlimart and Rosebuds, why lean so far under-the-radar?
Kline: Because none of these kids would go to a big stadium show; they’re just not those kids.
THR: Where are you discovering these bands?
Kline: There are so many indie bands out there that are accessible through the Internet and so many licensing companies that gather them and help you weed through what’s appropriate for your show. I have a lot of great contacts but we definitely go out to independent companies almost exclusively. It’s rare that we use any stuff from a major label. So we find it all over. Even when we were first gathering music for the show, I would call clubs in Chicago and ask for some of their favorite indie bands to kind of get that vibe.
THR: What kind of budget do you work with for music on the show?
Kline: I can’t give you specific numbers… but I can tell you it’s small. Really small. But also for a lot of these bands, they will actually see the money whereas if you’re signed to a major label and you’re not completely recouped, maybe you won’t ever get it. So I kind of feel like it all goes around.
THR: What is your process? Do you work one episode at a time or are you looking ahead?
Kline: What I do is constantly listen to music and find stuff that I know we can afford. Then, I give it to the editors, who are amazing on this show. I’ll send them probably thousands of songs and they’ll listen, cut [an episode] with the music, and then you can see how it works. Then, in the bigger scenes or montages or more difficult scenes, we’ll sit together and I’ll try to find prompts for those specifically. Now, it’s easier for me to hear a song and go, “That is so Shameless.” Also, this season we used a lot more funk and soul for the barbershop scenes that we then started working in some other scenes, like in the old people’s home. The show’s always full of surprises.
THR: You’ve worked on E.R., West Wing and Pan Am, among other more mainstream hour-long dramas. How much more fun is a cable series?
Kline: It’s so much fun I can’t even tell you… And it’s also so rewarding. Bands will call and say, “I can’t believe it. It’s my favorite show and I got to have my song on it!”
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