Interview with Liza Richardson, Music Supervisor for The Kids Are All Right

FilmInFocus' Scott Macaulay talks to Liza Richardson, the KCRW DJ who has transitioned into a career in the film industry.

There are many roads to a career in music supervision. Collaborating with a film’s director on its music choices and then overseeing song licensing, music supervisors often hail from the record business, or sometimes the editing suite. Or, they might begin as assistants to other music supervisors and work their way up. In the case of Liza Richardson, who music supervised Lisa Cholodenko’s upcoming Focus Features release, The Kids Are All Right, her career started at the most elemental level — at the fusion of music with storytelling.

Long before she was known as the supervisor to such films and television shows as Y Tu Mama Tambien, Lords of Dogtown, and Friday Night Lights, Richardson pondered the linkages between words and sounds on an innovative radio program featuring storytellers and spoken word artists whose tales were backed by her canny, informed and creative music choices.

Richardson explains, “I’ve been a DJ since 1991 at KCRW in Santa Monica, 89.9 [FM]. I was doing a show called “Man on the Moon,” which featured spoken word and poetry that I would layer with instrumental music. I would collect old records of readings, Allen Ginsberg poetry, Martin Luther King and John Kennedy speeches, and also plays, slam poetry, and recordings of all sorts of little sound bites. I would bring in actors to read their favorite stuff. I had Viggo Mortensen reading his own poetry and Björk reading from Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye.”

As the program grew in popularity, Richardson began to think about not just the conceptual power of her mashups but also the subtleties of their sounds. “I would use totally eclectic pieces of instrumental music — hip hop, rock, guitar, a flute solo,” she explains. “I became obsessed with not only what [the speakers] were saying and how I could fashion [their words] into three-minute song type things, but also the way [their words] were recorded. Certain EQ techniques on someone’s voice could make it work with different pieces of music. A loud rock instrumental would fight the words, but not if I EQ’d things in a certain way.”

Richardson’s deep immersion into words and music led to her first film gig with director Mark Pellington on his PBS series, United States of Poetry. She was hired as a music consultant, and when the job was over, Pellington suggested she seriously explore a career in supervision. “Mark is the one who told me that people do this for a living,” she laughs. “I didn’t know it was career at the time.”

Richardson went on to supervise two of Pellington’s features — Arlington Road and The Mothman Prophecies — as well as films like First Daughter, Wicker Park, and Push, and also TV series like Lie to Me and Melrose Place. Along the way, she’s continued to do radio and has become more thoughtful about the differences between her two gigs. “I’m realizing more and more that they are two different worlds,” she says. “When I do music supervision, I’m creating a world that is very specific through music. My radio show is much broader and more eclectic. I’m trying to turn myself and my listeners on to something fresh, whether it’s brand new or something that we’ve all forgotten about. I’m trying to create something new every Saturday night.”

All of this is not to say, though, that the two jobs aren’t connected. As Richardson notes, creating something fresh every Saturday night involves doing a lot of research — study that proves invaluable when she interviews with directors. “When I go up for a job interview, usually I have some experience in the area [of music the film wants to use],” she says. “But I still like to try and take jobs that cover music I’ve never explored and that I have to investigate.”

Richardson had a chance to review her collaboration on The Kids are All Right when she invited Cholodenko to guest DJ one day at KCRW. On air they discussed their working process. Says Richardson, “Lisa said that making a movie allows her to dig in and get up to speed on new music.” For Kids, that meant understanding not just about what music was popular during different eras but what music would be remembered later as generations grow. "[Lisa] and I talked a lot about the characters in the film, the older generation versus the younger generation, and the correct musical vibe for each," Richardson says. "We brainstormed about what would be cool for the moms to listen to. We wound up with Leon Russell for one scene and then Nic, who is Annette Bening’s character, has this whole Joni Mitchell thing. We were looking for cool music from an older generation that’s still cool. There’s plenty of music from an older generation that’s not!”

Defining character, in fact, may be the principal role that songs play in The Kids Are All Right. In addition to the specific choices for the mothers, Richardson looked for music, old and new, that would define Ruffalo’s biological father character as well as their two children. “David Bowie represents Mark Ruffalo’s character,” says Richardson. “I made a package deal for three Bowie songs — “Win,” “Panic in Detroit,” and “Black Country Rock.” Mia Wasikowska’s Joni character “has really cool taste,” says Richardson — “Deerhoof and Fever Ray.”

In considering the Kids soundtrack, with its mixture of the classic and the new, Richardson cites another difference between film and television music supervision: “I would say that, in general, music in television is a little more of the moment while music for film is more timeless. But we have used some very current music in Kids that mark our year as 2010.”

Indeed, after 21 years in radio, playlisting across decades is a skill that comes easily to Richardson. As she told LAist in a 2007 interview, “I love to play extremely popular music when its really great, as it often is.” But her show, which is broadcast Saturday evenings from 8:00PM to 10:00PM, more often reveals her passion for musical discovery with its focus on globetrotting eclecticism. (Her latest episode features "cosmic rock, scenic techno soul, dub disco punk, and extra classic party explosives from around the world.") Richardson's bio page on the KCRW website quotes her discussing her love of underground music and limited vinyl releases —“ephemeral music that I find on the Internet. If I don’t do my research for two weeks, I’m going to miss some records that I may never be able to get again.”

The Kids Are All Right is released this July by Focus Features. Richardson’s music supervision work can also be heard the television series Parenthood and Friday Night Lights as well as the pilot episode of CBS’s upcoming Hawaii Five-O. She was also music consultant for this summer’s Julia Roberts-starring Eat Pray Love. Liza Richardson airs on Saturdays at 8pm on KCRW.