The Music of FX’s Legion: Q&A with Music Supervisor Maggie Phillips

The highly anticipated FX version of Marvel’s Legion did not disappoint, especially on the music front. One of Tunefind’s most popular shows last month, this complex and visually stunning production had an equally exciting soundtrack, curated by music supervisor Maggie Phillips, whose credits also include Fargo, Patriot, and Moonlight. We chatted with Maggie to learn more about the inspiration behind the music.

Amanda Byers from Tunefind: Hi Maggie. I know you’re crazy busy right now with the upcoming season of Fargo and other projects, so thank you for taking some time out to talk with us about the music of Legion.

Maggie Phillips: I’m happy to! Legion is an exciting project to work on and it’s cool to see to see how much fans were connecting with the music. One of my favorite things about my job is when the viewers get excited about the music in one of my projects.

AB: That’s a great segue into how you got into this career in the first place. How did you get started in music supervision?

MP: I actually went to school for studio art, and was a painter for the first 10 years of my life after college, and had no aspirations to be in the film and music industry at all. But when I was younger, I was a huge live music fan and going to see three shows a night when I was growing up in Austin in the 90s. I met Mark Duplass one night in Austin when his band was playing and we hit it off. Our families all became really close, though crazy times all living in New York 15 years ago, then later all moving to LA.

My first exposure to how music is placed in films was Mark and Jay’s movie, The Puffy Chair. They asked me to hook them up with a friend of mine from Austin to license a song to use in the movie. After that movie really took off, Mark and Jay were starting to get bigger films, and they were extremely loyal and awesome to me, and brought me on some of their projects to help them with the music.

At some point realized I could have a career as a music supervisor and said, “I want to pursue this.” I wasn’t super prepared when I started out. I mean, I knew my music, but I didn’t know the business side of it, so I had to teach myself.

AB: Fast forward a few years and now you have a huge slate of projects including a lot of TV work, like Legion, Fargo, Amazon’s Patriot, among others. How did this shift occur?

MP:   I am very fortunate and in a great position right now, with all kinds of interesting work coming my way. You know, I was pigeonholed for a very long time as the scrappy indie girl who could work with super low budgets, which is what I did for many years, and frankly was thinking about changing careers. But then Noah [Hawley] took a chance on me for Fargo season 2, and that changed everything. Everyone just needs their break.

AB: Let’s talk about Legion. This was a breakout hit, with critics and fans alike really loving Noah Hawley’s nontraditional take on the Marvel superhero story. What was it like working on the music for this project?

MP: Noah has been thinking about this show for awhile, and he had a really strong sense of what he wanted when we started out. Our process is interesting. Way in the beginning Noah and I talk a lot about different songs, ideas and inspirations then I send him a huge batch of music. Then he adds some songs and I add some more. Then we narrow down the playlist and pull songs from that all season long.

AB: Was there a specific genre or sound you were going for when you started out?

MP: With Legion, there were no rules at all, which is why I love working with Noah so much. No specific genre, no time period… Just nothing was off the table to consider. We had some directions – like the British Invasion – but no constraints. Like with Fargo, there’s really no boundaries. If it works, it works.

AB: Noah has talked a lot about Pink Floyd’s influence in his vision of the show.

MP: Noah took me and Jeff Russo, our composer, out to dinner and told us about Legion, I think the next words out of his mouth were “Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon.” I went home that night and listened to the entire album, and fell asleep listening to it. I hadn’t listened to it for a few years. And woke up the next day, and e-mailed Noah saying, “I’m so into this. I can’t wait.”

AB: Legion doesn’t follow the traditional and simple superhero narrative, instead dealing with a much more complex and psychological journey. How did you use music to help viewers along that journey into David’s mind and his reality?

MP: I think one important thing we did was use a lot of big long chunks of songs, rather than short snippits. Like with Feist’s Undiscovered First, where we used the entire song through the whole series of fight scenes in episode 4. This show is so surreal, and trippy, and visual, and challenging to the viewer. It’s a complicated show, and I think it’s important to give the viewers some time to rest, process and reflect and then come back in.

AB: This is actually your second project with Noah, starting with Fargo last year.

MP: Right. I absolutely love working for Noah. He’s a genius. He’s also nice, respects my opinion, and asks for it. He really makes me want to do excellent work, and kind of demands excellence. And that makes me push myself harder. We’ve been working together straight through from Fargo season 2, to Legion season 1, and now Fargo season 3. That’s created a shorthand. When he asks for something, I know what he wants. (laughs) Well, to a certain extent, because no one knows what’s going on in Noah’s head, but I know the artists he likes, the sounds he likes, and so that shorthand has helped.

AB: Another person you’ve been working closely with through all of that time is composer Jeff Russo, who did the score for both shows and has been getting rave reviews for his really complex and interesting score for Legion. Fans have been loving it on Tunefind. Can you tell us about how you collaborate with Jeff?

MP: Yeah, Jeff is a fucking genius. He and I have become very close, and we talk every day.

I love him! We work together closely. He’ll send me his stuff early in the process and when Jeff sees an [early cut of an] episode and there’s a song he loves, he calls me and he’s like, “We cannot lose that song. You cannot let them take it out. We have to get that song.”

AB: Let’s talk about some of those moments, where the song is so perfect. Can you tell about a few of your favorites?

MP: There’s so many. Honestly, I loved every song we put in there. It’s so hard to pick out just a few, but I’ll try. Let me look back through my list…

Definitely Happy Jack by the Who at the beginning of episode 1. I just love that song, and I thought that entire montage was tremendous – it worked beautifully. We actually got a note from Pete Townsend. His people reached out to me and said how excited they were about the use, and then they forwarded a note from Pete Townsend about it. That was really cool.

AB: I loved that, too, with the contrast between the scenes and the music and lyrics. It just set a perfect tone for what you’re about to experience.

MP: Another favorite is Up the Beach by Jane’s Addiction also in episode one, when David unleashes his powers. We only used a little part of it, but it was perfect. I loved that we got that in there. I have a soft spot for Jane’s Addiction. I love them. I had been listening to their first two albums right before I started listening for Legion, so they were on my mind.

MP: She’s a Rainbow by The Rolling Stones is another one of my favorites, during the montage of David and Syd’s relationship developing. We did so much great work in episode 1 to set the stage and help the audience connect with these characters.

MP: Oh, yeah! Hyperactive by Thomas Dolby at the end of episode two. Noah texted me and said, “I’m bringing Thomas Dolby back.” And I was like, “Do it!”

MP: Radiohead’s The Daily Mail in episode five. We tried to replace that because of budget and we just couldn’t beat it for that scene. It was perfect.
AB: The fans agreed. That was one of the top songs for the season on Tunefind.

MP: Lisa Hannigan’s cover of Oh! You Pretty Things in episode 6 over that scene with Syd is definitely one of my favorite moments. We had her sing Danny Boy in Fargo season two and she did a stunning job, so we pulled her back in to do a cover of David Bowie’s Oh You Pretty Things for Legion.

AB: And that was the definitive top song of the season. Fans loved Lisa’s cover of Oh! You Pretty Things.

MP: And, of course, the Pink Floyd in episode eight – Breathe and On the Run from Dark Side of the Moon. For me that was just a triumphant moment, because that’s the first album Noah mentioned to me, and I’m so happy we got it in. And we saved it until the end episode. We had a lot of trouble clearing Pink Floyd for an affordable price. It was really difficult and still pricey for our show. That cleared about an hour before we mixed. It was down to the wire on that one.

MP: Last but not least, the way that Children of the Revolution by T.Rex ends the whole season is, I think, just brilliant. That was Noah, and it’s brilliant.

AB: Any amazing songs that didn’t make it into the show?

MP: Yes! There’s this great song by an Indian band called Maatibaani collaborating with an artist called Joyshanti. It’s called Tore Matware Naina and it inspired the whole dance sequence in episode one. The song is just so much fun. Once you hear it you won’t be able to get it out of your head. But it ended up being a bit too on the nose and we used Serge Gainsbourg’s Pauvre Lola for that scene instead.

AB: While we’ve got you sharing some favorite songs, what’s your jam when you want to feel inspired?

MP: My go-to song when I want to feel inspired is a song by Gang of Four called I Parade Myself, but the Alan Moulder Catwalk Club Remix, specifically. It makes me feel confident and strong, ready to take on anything.

AB: What were your early musical influences?

MP: Very early on, I would say Prince, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Once I hit 16 or 17, I started listening to everything. I really started exploring and opening up, and was discovering new genres. To try to narrow that down is impossible. But, my love for Prince, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson is still strong, and will never go away.

AB: Early love is like that.

MP: Yes, exactly!

AB: What song do you have on repeat right now?

MP: The song I’ve been recently playing nonstop is going be in Fargo season three and I can’t share it. It’s really for the viewer’s benefit, Noah and I want you to experience the music and the picture together for the first time – that’s part of the fun!

AB: No hints at all about what to expect?

MP: Nope! All I can tell you is that I might love it even more than season 2 and I don’t think anyone will be disappointed. Only a few more days to wait!

AB: Will we have more exciting covers, like in season 2?

MP: We are doing one song in Fargo season 3 that is a cover, and Jeff [Russo] helped out with that. I can’t say who did it, because that’s a surprise. Everyone will want to know about that one. You’ll just have to watch!

AB: Well, we’ll just have to be patient, but Fargo season 3 premieres on April 19th, so not too long to wait now. Thanks again, Maggie, for taking some time to talk with us.

MP: My pleasure!

Check out more music from Legion on Tunefind.

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