Michael Penn: "Part of me thinks Hannah's really more the voice of MY generation"

"Girls" composer, aka Mr. Romeo in Black Jeans, tells Salon what it's like to get into Lena Dunham's state of mind

By Kera Bolonik
Published March 10, 2013 7:00PM (EDT)

Musician Michael Penn has the enviable, if not incredibly difficult task of scoring "Girls." OK, that didn't sound quite right. Allow me to rephrase: Penn composes the music for Lena Dunham's HBO series, which he's done from the very beginning. Of course, he's scored films before — for Paul Thomas Anderson: "Hard Eight" and "Boogie Nights," among many other films. I tried to imagine what it must be like to evoke through music the millennial female Brooklyn experience, as a 54-year-old man living in Los Angeles — and frankly, I couldn't (and I'm a huge fan of "Girls" and I live in Brooklyn!). But he gets Lena Dunham, and he fully appreciates the state of mind she's tapping into, because he says, what she's writing resonates as much with his generation as hers — he admits, in our conversation, it involves at least some degree of entitlement. Penn, who is funny and warm and smart as hell, is perhaps best known for his first single "No Myth (Mr. Romeo in Black Jeans)" and his collaborations with singer-songwriter wife Aimee Mann. He talked with me about what it's like to work with Dunham, and set the mood of Hannah's world.

You know, the first time I saw you and [wife] Aimee Mann perform, you'd hired Patton Oswalt to do your between-song banter. It was a hilarious show.

Yes, we were not fans of the talking part.

I hate to tell you, but you two were actually quite funny — as was Patton, of course. This was in January of 2001, and it was my 30th birthday, so I just want to thank you right now for getting that decade off to a good start.

Oh, it’s my pleasure.

You’ve scored Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, and I see how you can get in that mind-set as a man in his 50s. But this, I would think, is quite a challenge: to get into the mind of a Brooklyn millennial girl right now.

Well, I don’t really have a problem with it. You know, there’s that line in the first episode, where Hannah says she thinks she might be the voice of her generation. And part of me thinks that it’s really more the voice of my generation.  That entitlement and the sort of – I think that’s just perennial. I just think that’s constant. And it’s part of the American experience of the 21st century, period. And then everything else about it is just – it’s just humanity. It’s just what everybody goes through. And that’s the thing that so resonated with me when I saw "Tiny Furniture"they sent me "Tiny Furniture" before they started "Girls"and I said, “Oh, I’ll do anything that Lena Dunham wants me to do, because it was so clear that she had such a perceptive and accurate view of the way people work, and that’s what makes it so great, because all the psychological arcs of all those characters are completely genuine.

What is your relationship like with the music supervisor, with Manish Raval? 

We get together when we’re doing spotting sessions, which is basically getting together with Lena and going through an episode and saying, “You know, here’s an area that should be scored here, I was thinking of a song here.” I might get a call later saying, “You know, that song isn’t working. You want to try seeing if a score is appropriate?” With Manish, it’s really just in the spotting sessions. So in that way, I think it’s been more like working on a feature for me, because when I work on a feature I basically just get everything done and the music supervisor – the music director doesn’t really have that much to do with my stuff. I think in TV, it might be different, by and large, but not so with this.

Is this the first TV show you’ve scored?

Yes, absolutely.

How is that different from working on a film? I mean, other than working on a story that is laid out in 30-minute increments?

Well, that’s the key. It’s really just like a really slowly paced feature. It’s long, but in these little chunks. Because I’m trying to not do what a lot of TV composers do, which is kind of reuse exactly the same theme over and over again, but sort of establish a palette of textures and things, and I really like to try to put off as much until the cut is actually locked, so I can really score exactly the picture, and that doesn’t make the music editor have to do so much with my stuff, but it’s more just my anal sense of, like, I really love to score things and really feel the movement and the gait of the shot, of the characters. I think – and when it’s reedited, and it’s a musical moment that I was really attached to, it really bums me out. So I like to wait until they’re really close.

You wrote a song for the soundtrack, which we heard at the end of the first season, “On Your Way.” Was that something that you and Manish worked on together, where he said, “I want one of your original songs”?

No, that was interesting. Basically, what happened was, Lena was on the fence as to whether or not she wanted “Girls” to have a theme song. She asked me to write one, so I did. Then she decided that she really wanted it to be different every time and be really flexible that way and not have a single theme song, but she wanted – she loved what I had come up with and wanted to tailor it for the end of the season. So it was written specifically for the last episode, ultimately.

Your music lends itself so perfectly to the mind-set of these women and men that I just could imagine the entire soundtrack being you and Aimee. Lyrically and musically, you evoke a lot of their confusion, their cynicism, their worldview. 

What I think is – what I hope is true is that I’m sort of able to accurately score these internal worlds of the show, but I think in terms of the external world of the show, it really needs to have these dance hits and pop songs, because that’s the world that these girls are living in. The only product of – negatively for me, but this isn’t really exclusive for "Girls," this is across the board with movies and television and everything else – which is that a trend has sort of evolved over the last 20 years where the opportunities for composers to really kind of step out a bit more and usher the audience emotionally through a sequence has been sort of removed, and those moments now often are songs, are pop songs. And it’s just bad. Thankfully with "Girls," there have been opportunities for me to actually do that, where something in most TV shows, it might be a song – I could actually write a longer piece of music and take a bit of control over what’s going on emotionally. So I love doing that and it is odd that the show has so much force –  has pop songs in it that I am able to do that. But that’s just a trend that’s happening in movies as well, where everybody’s really anxious to sell soundtrack records with pop songs on it, so the composer doesn’t really have as many opportunities to sort of come out from underneath the film so much.

Technology has changed so since you first started writing and recording music, and scoring — and people listen to music differently too, because of mp3s. That too would be a challenge, to capture and sustain the attention span of a young person who doesn't listen to albums the way we used to, or know them as intimately.

Yeah, now the entire world is different. The thing that I got into music to do isn’t really viable anymore. It doesn’t really exist anymore. And it’s just very frustrating and maybe it’ll change, maybe it’ll find a different sort of footing. But for me – and I know this is ridiculously sentimental --  but for me, what I got in to do is these things called albums, which is a really specific form. It was basically two acts of music, so I could have sides. And you geared toward – well, what I liked to do is gear it toward that form, because it’s, like, you can find its perfect form and what its length should be, and you know when a movie is long or when a novel is long or short or whatever because there’s a medium that sort of exists that’s kind of the perfect format. And it had that, it found that, and then CDs came along with the digital revolution and everything sort of changed and blah blah blah. So we’re where we are.

There are certain albums, and I can probably even remember the year when it stopped, where I would instinctively just jump up at a certain song knowing that I had to go flip the album or the tape.

Yeah, but it speaks to the larger part of it too, which is that you’re engaged. It forces an interaction. Which makes the assumption that you’re engaged in this activity of listening. And often – for me, anyway – it was social. It was social listening. Which doesn’t really exist anymore. Movies are kind of clinging on a little bit, because 1) more bandwidth to steal it, and 2) it still holds on to being a shared experience more than music does in that way. And the hi-fi disappeared, and now it’s the telephone. So the whole thing is just so radically shifted and people’s relationship to it is different.

Is there a moment or a character you find particularly challenging to kind of get in your mind when you’re writing for them, or writing for a story?

Not thus far. I mean, I have to say, it’s been such a joy to do, and the only things that are hard for me in the scored stuff is when I’m not believing something, when I can’t figure out what the underlying feelings and emotions and motivations are. But the writing is so sharp and the direction is so sharp and the performances are great, it makes it very, very easy for me. I mean, so far.

How closely does Lena work with you on the music? Does she kind of let you do your thing and then you work with her?

She pretty much lets me do my thing. Sometimes she will have a specific idea at the outset, usually communicated in emotional terms, not so much musical terms. But then sometimes she’ll go – once I’ve done a draft of something, she’ll go, “Can we try an alt where you take it somewhat this way,” or “the end of it gets sadder,” that kind of stuff. “And then I’ll massage it and we’ll kind of go back and forth. So that happens on occasion, but usually we seem to be pretty much on the same page. So that’s fun.

Was there a particular triumph or a particular episode with music that you felt especially proud of or where you felt like you just watched this and thought, “I’m really moved by this,” or “I really got this”? This is not to toot your horn, but by all means please do ...

Yeah. Well, I hope – the reality is, there are times the music has to really step up, and in this season, there were several times where the music had to do that. And in all instances, I wouldn’t have been done, in my mind, if it didn’t achieve it. So, for example, in the first episode of the season, there’s a long section that sort of ends that episode, that goes from Jessa after her honeymoon in the cab to Marnie and Charlie, Marnie coming to Charlie’s apartment, and then to Hannah arriving at Donald Glover’s character’s apartment. It really sort of builds to this point at the end of the episode where Hannah asks if she can borrow his copy of “The Fountainhead,” and he knows that it’s a booty call, and he walks away, and she starts to go to bed. And I knew it had to feel like … OK, Hannah’s back, this is the season, and I just kind of ramped this up to this foreign melody at the end, and I felt really good about it. There’s moments – the end of Episode 5, with Patrick Wilson, and there’s a long piano piece that starts with Hannah in this empty apartment, and she takes his trash out, and walks down the street. And the cue is extended, the title credits. And I had to really sort of sum up this anomaly of an episode that is really focused solely on Hannah and her secret desire to be happy. That was a place where the music really had to come and escort the audience through what that feels like. So any time that the score is required to do something like that, I’ve never felt – I’ve never delivered something and felt like I didn’t get it, because I’ve never delivered something unless I felt like I get it.

Do you have any more songs that you written? 

No, this season ends with not a song. Actually I’m not sure. I don’t know if I’m supposed to give away these secrets [laughing].

Oh, I'll never tell. 

But no, it’s not one of my songs.

I think you're doing such a beautiful job and I just admire the fact that, here you are in L.A. evoking a Bushwick state of mind. 

[Laughing] Well, I was born in New York. Maybe it’s some genetic thing.

Kera Bolonik

Kera Bolonik, a writer, critic, and editor, is the executive editor of DAME Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Elle, Glamour, New York magazine, Salon, Slate, and the New York Times Book Review, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aimee Mann Brooklyn Girls Hannah Horvath Hbo Lena Dunham Los Angeles Michael Penn Paul Thomas Anderson Pop Music