Michelle Johnson is the adventurous and wise music supervisor behind an array of hilarious and heartwarming television shows including Grace and Frankie, Love, and Nobodies. Coming from a diverse musical background, performing in bands and DJing around New York City, Michelle found her way to Los Angeles and garnered a position as a music coordinator at Thomas Golubić's SuperMusicVision. Learning the ropes quickly, she developed rich expertise working on the likes of Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Ray Donovan, and Halt and Catch Fire. Presently, she has taken a prominent role at the company, running point on various high profile projects. In our inspiring discussion, Michelle shares the strange coincidence that led her pursuit of music supervision and the soundtrack to her life.
I read that you come from a family of farmers originating from Southeast Texas and are a musician in your own right. Can you tell us about your introduction to the world of music and what events led to your relocation to New York and later, Los Angeles?
I always loved music as a kid. I was constantly listening to the radio and buying records and 8 tracks. Some of my earliest memories have been surrounding music. I also always wanted to be a musician. I wanted to be a drummer when I was young. My mom said “too loud”! When I was in 5th grade, the band director from middle school came to give all the fifth graders an introduction to music. He was a trumpet player, so he played for us so enthralled. I went home and announced, "I want to play trumpet!." So my mother couldn’t object to that, so I started playing the trumpet.
I have to say that being in the band in school is one of the greatest things that any kid can experience. It goes so far beyond playing music. It teaches you teamwork. It teaches you leadership skills. It teaches you how to work with others and the true value of camaraderie. It was really a great experience for me. I ended up playing trumpet all through middle school and high school. I was the drum major in my senior year, which was pretty fun.
Somewhere along the way, when I was about 13 or so, I started playing guitar. I bought a cheap guitar at Sears and I figured out by ear how to play "Jessie's Girl" by Rick Springfield. I played that over and over and over until my mother said, "Let's get you some lessons, so you can learn another song." I started taking lessons and I went on to play in a high school band with friends. After high school, I just felt like I wanted to be somewhere besides Texas. I wanted to see the world and play in bands. I didn't really know how to do that and didn't have the financial means, so I just figured I'd move to New York to study audio engineering and be a musician.
I studied audio engineering at the Institute of Audio Research in the Village. I don't even know if it's still there anymore. I never ended up working seriously in audio engineering. I worked in a couple of studios, but I was playing in bands at the same time and also working side jobs in retail. I did that pretty much through the 90’s and never really had much success as a musician. At a certain point, I didn’t really want to live this life of touring, being on the road, and the struggle, so I started working in real estate. Big change!
What was your motivation behind becoming a DJ?
In the 90’s after I stopped playing in bands in New York, I was also coming out as a gay woman and I started going to the clubs and becoming a part of that scene. I was hearing house music that was new and exciting, learning about electronic music I had never heard before, and discovering all these underground disco tracks. I felt like I had just added a new dimension to my musical knowledge. It was inspiring.
I had a couple DJ friends that suggested I get a couple Technics and then pushed me to start buying vinyl and learn how to mix. I sort of learned like that and it was fun because I had always made mixtapes as a kid and as a teenager so it was a natural progression to want to DJ and create set lists to play for an audience.
How did you begin cultivate your vast knowledge of music?
I think it comes from a deep interest from within for as long as I can remember. I’ve always loved so many kinds of music from an early age. I loved Barry Manilow and also loved Led Zeppelin. I could get into Cajun Zydeco music and also love Vivaldi. I do have to admit that I hated country music growing up because it was all around me, growing up in Texas, but the moment I moved away from Texas and heard country music on a radio station, I realized how much I did actually love it. And now through working as a music supervisor, it’s been incredibly fun and challenging to learn about so many musical genres from 1700's traditional ballads to jazz fusion. There’s truly not a music genre now that I don’t enjoy in some way.
How about opera? Are you interested in that?
Yes, but I’m saving opera to get really get into later in life. I’ve still yet to have one of those moments where I turn on a classical station and there’s an opera piece that makes me start weeping. I’m not there yet. I’ve decided that I'm saving opera love and devotion for after 60. It’s important in life to have things to look forward to.
Can you share a story of one of your most unusual or memorable live performances to date?
One gig immediately popped into my head. It was in the early 90’s. I was playing in this band in New York called Day For Night and we were playing a benefit at The Wet Lands, which was very a very hot club at the time. It was a very progressive, socially conscious place. They did a lot of fundraisers for social justice causes and things like that. We would play there from time to time. Our band randomly got asked to play at a democracy for China benefit there one night. It seemed an odd fit - us scraggly rockers that sort of played alt rock-country hybrid songs, but a gig is a gig and it was for a good cause. So, here we are on stage playing for a very sedate gathering of activists and diplomats and politicians all dressed in suits and quite polite and conservative seeming. No one is really paying attention to us at all. Then suddenly we look up mid-set and realize that a large number of the guests, like 40 people, were all dancing to bunny hop through The Wet Lands to our music. We all looked at each other and just smiled and how surreal and amazing it all was. I wish someone had filmed it.
What was your entrance to the field of music supervision? Can you tell us about your path to becoming a team member of Super Music Vision?
When I moved to L.A. in 2004, I knew I wanted to work in the entertainment industry. I did not know how or in what capacity, but I had some friends out here who were working in films, either on a crew, acting, or directing in mostly indie projects. I started crewing on films and trying to figure out what I was good at and truly interested in. At the same time, I was DJing out here at a few clubs and some of my friends who were in the film community said, “You should really get into music supervision. You know a lot about music.” Back then, I didn’t really know what music supervision really was, but I bought some books and tried to learn as much as possible. I worked on a couple student films. Creatively, it was great but logistically, it was impossible because you can't reach anyone to license music if you don't have connections in the industry. Also, none of the filmmakers had any sort of budget for licensing. So, that made things even more difficult. I started getting creative and figuring out how to source music from local bands or royalty-free libraries - anything to find creative options my films could afford.
At the time, my friend, Kara Stephens, who’s a producer, knew Thomas Golubić. She was at my house one day and she said, “You know, my friend lives right next to you. Do you know him?” She made an introduction and we got together and realized we had indeed seen each other in passing over the years. He didn’t really have any openings and I was working in production at the time as well. I was also doing some editing and he happened to have a project that needed some help with. He hired me to do a small editing project and we worked together well. He liked my organizational skills, my taste, and my initiative. Shortly after that, he had someone leaving and offered me a spot on the team. He was working on Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and The Killing at that time. Pretty soon more jobs started coming our way. And here we are today!
What were your primary duties and most meaningful lessons learned from your time serving as a music coordinator on hit shows, such as Breaking Bad, Ray Donovan, and Halt and Catch Fire?
I was incredibly lucky to have Breaking Bad as my first true professional learning experience. It’s pretty crazy, looking back on it. I came onboard to SuperMusicVision in the fourth season, so it was really great to learn the system that Thomas had in place of how we do searches, how we manage the budget, and how we review creative options. At the time, when I just starting, I was just sort of covering any loose ends that needed covering, paying attention and learning as much as I could. Though early on, I wanted to start pitching ideas and he was totally supportive of it.
It was the best way to really learn. Having someone like Thomas that was open to collaboration and having everyone pitch in their ideas was great. He, Yvette Metoyer, and I would all gather to review together. At the time, it was just the three of us. We’d put all our pitches onto one playlist. We'd play them all against the picture, talk about the pros and cons of each, and it went on to the next stage, or it was kicked out for something else.
That was really the most invaluable way to learn how to creatively approach music to picture. Working together is always really inspiring because everybody gets to look objectively at each song choice and collectively pull the strongest ideas. We still get to do that occasionally, but not as often with multiple projects and deadlines on any given day. It is always a great way to check in and monitor your creative instincts, bouncing them off of other people's ideas. Even though we’re all so busy, when a big moment or closing song comes up, I still reach out to Thomas, Yvette, or Garrett and say, “Let’s just hear the song options. Let’s just talk about them”. You need that feedback because music supervision can be a very lonely, insular experience. Just you and your headphones and too many possibilities.
Nobodies follows the hilariously painful journey of three actors/comedians hustling to make it in Hollywood while all their friends go on to achieve dreams of fame and fortune. What were the initial conversations to determine the musical energy of the show?
Nobodies is a really fun show to work on because it's so incredibly funny. It's very Los Angeles, and yes, Hollywood, but it doesn't feel like a pretentious sort of show at all. We try to place mostly indie artists or developing artists on major labels. That's largely due to budgetary restrictions, but I actually find that can be one of the most rewarding opportunities of all. You get to make new discoveries of artists all the time and I love that.
There were a lot of initial conversations about the music in the show somehow “feeling Los Angeles” but still feeling really grounded in these struggling characters worlds. The right songs to me generally have a little quirk to them, but not a lot. The right song will be warm and can possibly have a slight sense of playfulness about it, but not be comedic. Sometimes, it will just be a warm emotional song, which can work really nicely in our characters stories. We've used artists like First Aid Kit on the show. We've used a lot of new and developing artists that are more acoustic-based and certainly not loud and rock. We’ve featured The Teskey Brothers in an episode which works really well. Another favorite of mine this season is Ten Fe’s “Single, No Return”.
Judd Apatow produced, Love focuses on the dysfunctional yet charming relationship dynamic between wild child, Mickey and a peculiar nice guy, Gus. This past season featured everything from The Grateful Dead to TLC to Chance The Rapper. In this show specifically, the music drives the viewer's experience and often indicates how particular situations should be interpreted. In your opinion, can you explain the intended impact of Love's soundtrack? What are your criteria for selecting songs that fit into the youthful and emotionally demanding landscape of Love?
That's a great question. Anything can work in Love in a certain kind of way! At the beginning of all our shows seasons, we send the producers and editors mixtapes, with big collections songs that we feel could possibly work in the show. From there, it sort of springboards from what happens in the storyline. Love mixtapes are always one of the most diverse mixes of music we ever put together. Our inspiration is very much driven by Judd and his love of music. Paul Rust, the star who plays the character of Gus and is also a producer of the show also is a big inspiration for us. He is a musician and is also passionate about music as well. We get a lot of input about the music from our producers during the entire post-production. The musical landscape is very open to us on Love and that’s really fun to explore.
It's really cool because we might put some Grateful Dead in there, then Judd comes up with ideas like Loudon Wainwright. Then we have a ton of general ideas and the majority of those never end up in there. For the second season, we were able to throw out Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” track “What Makes You Think You’re The One”. Judd also loves Paul McCartney, so we pulled out a lot of his old gems. This season we got to use McCartney’s cover of “Love Is Strange” from his 1971 Wild Life album. The Beatles were my first musical love for sure and they’re still number one, so that was a real treat for me.
Grace and Frankie examines the beautiful and kooky friendship that blossoms between two polar opposite senior citizen women after their husbands come out as homosexuals after decades of marriage. The show has mass appeal for viewers of all ages. Does this influence the musical choices made for the show? What have been some of your personal favorite moments from the series so far?
One of my personal favorite moments from last season was being able to find a home for Kozmic Blues by Janis Joplin. It’s a well-known song but it's not one of the most obvious ones. I’m a huge Janis Joplin fan and it was cool to get to use a song by a childhood musical hero.
We also opened up season three with a little known Aretha Franklin song, “Ain't Nobody (Gonna Turn Me Around)”, which was written by her sister. That was pretty cool. Closing season three with Fairport Convention’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” was amazing. Getting to feature Valerie June’s “Pushin’ Against A Stone” was another favorite. And of course, for me being such a Paul McCartney fan, we used his sweet acoustic song from Flaming Pie “Calico Skies”. That was a favorite as well.
What can you share with us about your work on the upcoming film, Good Girls Get High, which is slated for release this year?
Oh, it's going to be fun, silly and lovable. It's a very small budget movie and that certainly extends to the music budget, which again has opened up some really fun opportunities. It's directed by an incredibly talented director and writer named Laura Terruso. It's a story of two nerdy girls that are co-valedictorians and best friends who don’t see themselves as nerdy girls. They decide to sort of break out of their good girl mold. I won’t give away the plot but everyone will love it I think.
We’ve used a lot of great indie hip-hop throughout the film. We've got a lot of indie rock as well, and we feature this crazy Korean dance song by Hitchhiker called “Eleven” that is such an earworm you can’t get it out of your head.
What are your tried and true strategies to nail a music search? Are there any particular relationships or resources that consistently come through for you across the board? Is there anything unconventional about your approach to supervision?
Lately, if my go-to starting point for searches as been Spotify. For just out of the box brainstorming, it’s the best. I have several Spotify playlists that I have encountered or created from other searches that I keep saved in a “cool stuff for inspiration” folder. Those never fail to spark a direction I wouldn’t have considered.
For each project I work on, I have a general playlist with songs I’ve either heard on the radio or been pitched from colleagues that just ‘feel’ like a particular show. I’ll add them to my iTunes playlist of general ideas for a particular show and also refer to them at the start of any specific music search. When I have to reach out to colleagues for a music search, I’ll always try and pull a few song ideas as guidelines for what I’m looking for and then have folks refer to my reference songs as springboards or general guides. I like to give a pretty detailed creative description of what I’m looking for and as well as much of a scene description as I’m able to give.
We are lucky to have such a great group of people that pitch to us from publishers and labels and third party resources it’s a constant source of great ideas as well.
Who are some of the emerging artists that you are currently most excited about?
Gosh, there so many great artists out there. Let’s see…I’m really into Sinkane. He puts out just beautiful and cool work. I love the latest Aldous Harding record as well as the new Phoebe Bridgers. Beautiful songs. I’ve also been really loving the Majid Jordan album too. I love Maggie Rogers too.
Are there any trends in the field of music supervision that you think have been exhausted and would like to hear less of?
Well… the trend of slow and moody trailerized versions of classic songs really needs to stop now!
If you were to supervise a documentary about your own life, what would be the top five songs you would license and why?
Ooh, wow. I always loved Ringo Starr’s “Photograph”, so that would be one for sure. Simon and Garfunkel's “My Little Town”. I always think of that song when I go back home. For my fond Texas memories, I always hear that song from the Urban Cowboy soundtrack “Hello, Texas” by Jimmy Buffett of all people. I would need some Heart in there too. Probably “Barracuda”. That was a big song when I was a kid. I’d also have to throw in some Paul McCartney. Maybe “Goodnight Tonight”. It’s not my favorite McCartney song, but it has a soft spot in my heart.
What has been your greatest achievement to date as an LGBT activist?
I think number one is just being visible and out is one of the greatest activists things every gay person can do. Just living your life in the open is really powerful and important. I’m also really proud to be one of the founding organizers for a free day in the park we do here on the East Side of Los Angeles every Pride Saturday. The event is called Dyke Day LA and it’s my favorite pride event every year. It’s such a simple concept - provide a free location in a park, provide music and just a few activities and everyone invites their friends and family. Allies are welcome too! It ends up feeling like the best picnic hang in the park you could ever have. The organization just became a non-profit this year and I’m so looking forward to seeing how we can expand into helping the community in the years to come. It's going to take place on the second Saturday in June, this year on the 9th during Pride Weekend in Elysian Park.