Love & Death chronicles the true crime story of Candy Montgomery and Betty Gore. The pair lived in a seemingly quaint and placid Dallas suburb with loving husbands and beautiful families. One of the primary elements to building the atmosphere and tone of the series is the music that acts to characterize and reflect the mental and emotional state of its protagonist, Candy Montgomery.
In my conversation with Music Supervisor Robin Urdang, she details many of the music choices for the show including the resonant opening sequence set to “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Robin also discusses the collaboration between her music choices as they pair with the score of the series and how both adapt to the major narrative tone shift.
Read my full conversation with Robin Urdang below.
Hi, this is Danny Jarabek here with Awards Radar, and I am very excited to be speaking with Robin Urdang from Love & Death, currently streaming on MAX. She is the music supervisor for the series. Robin, how are you today and thank you so much for joining me.
Robin: I am good, thank you. And thank you for having me.
I am very excited to be talking about this show and specifically the music in particular because, of course, the music is a huge element of this show and understanding this character of Candy Montgomery at the forefront. So, of course, it’s taking place in the late 70s into 1980. So, what was your research process? What were some of the early visions for how you were going to develop and piece together the music from this era?
Robin: Oh, this era is simple. It’s got the best music. When I started the project, I got the script. There was music written into the script. I knew what David E. Kelley and Lesli Linka Glatter were looking for. Between the hymns and the songs, and then we had additional songs and changes and fixes, in general, the songs were chosen for Candy and for her personality and how she’s perceived in her small, little town as the perfect person. So, the songs that were fun and pop-y and known of the time were going to be the songs that she would be listening to and singing and living with.
Yeah. You mention this relates to Candy and her personality. How did you utilize the music to let her personality shine, especially in the first half of the show?
Robin: Well, the first half of the show where we have pretty much wall-to-wall music, it starts when Candy meets Allan. She puts on her music and she’s singing in the kitchen and dancing along. It was just music that would make her feel good. She was living a life of a wife and a mother and was bored, a bored housewife, in a small town, and a churchgoer. This was her comfort and her persona and her external personality. It was to make her feel good.
The setting of this is very particular too because this was based on a true story. There’s this very small town, churchgoer environment to the setting of this story. You mentioned talking about how it builds Candy’s personality, but how did you use the music to build some of the setting as well?
Robin: Well, the score mostly did the setting, I think. The score was incredibly difficult to find the right tone because you are in a small town, you want the audience to engage in this relationship with Allan and Candy. You want them to feel supportive of it, and in the meantime, you’re in this teeny town, and it’s the worst thing somebody can do, is have an affair with your best friend’s husband, going to a church together. I mean, everything was wrong about it. So, I feel like the source music just pumped along the good side of everything. The score turned it. And it was that fine line between not being haunting and too dark and too ominous but knowing that this is wrong, and at the same point, bringing everybody into the show and not repel them from it. Does that make sense? Am I explaining that properly?
Yeah, absolutely. What was that collaboration like with the composer and finding that balance for the score? How did you integrate between the music and the score here?
Robin: Our composer came on very late. We did a lot of temping to try to find the right sound. We knew what wasn’t working. We knew what we wanted to happen. So, it was a lot of Zooms between me and Lesli and David and Per Saari and our editor and our sound design person who created a lot of sound design before our composer came on, before Jeff Russo came on. And it was a lot of discussions about what we want the audience to feel in each scene. So, when we brought Jeff on, we all understood what we wanted, but said, “You need to do this and make it happen.” He got it. The fact is, he got all eight episodes at once. And this show, it really turns. There’s a big arc. So, between the beginning and the end, the fact that he was able to see the entire show I think was hugely helpful to him. The fact that he had two weeks to do it, the first episode, he had no choice but to get it done right. And he delivered! We got it and we loved it, and it was working, and there were very few notes, and HBO was really happy with it and a lot of music. All the songs were already in there except for the main title. So, he worked with the songs in there. It was probably, I guess, for a composer, it’s amazing to have all episodes at once, but not amazing to have two weeks to do it.
I can imagine. And you mentioned earlier that there was a lot of music that was scripted. Can you speak to what were some of those choices versus some of the things that were not scripted and how you went about the deciding. Because there’s so much good music, I’m sure, as you said, from this time period, but how did you balance that?
Robin: Music that was script that I knew Lesli and David wanted to keep, I think I cleared almost everything, just to get an idea of budget and where we’re at while they were shooting. We started at preproduction because a lot of music, Candy sings. So, I just went through the script and cleared everything that was in there and then decided, “Do we need this, do we want this, should we replace this,” or, “You know what, here’s this place where we want Candy to have something.” It was just, sort of, a group effort. Lesli and I worked very closely together with it. I think you asked me something else.
Yeah, I mean, basically, were there any specifics that were scripted that you think were the right choice from the get-go.
Robin: Oh god, yes. The Bee Gees. Tapestry was one that was scripted. The lyrics were scripted and then we played the song later. I was actually a little afraid that the fee would be ridiculous, and I knew it was something that was definitely part of the story. So, that was one that was huge to the storyline and important. I’m trying to think what else. The hymns that we recorded; those were scripted. We prerecorded them. I brought in a music arranger and a producer to record. It was during COVID, so we had to record all of the artists separately. The arranger that I used, that I’ve used on another project, happened to be a major churchgoer, played in the church. We had demos done for every song and lyrics changed and fixed and sent everything to David and Lesli for approvals and then came back and recorded everything, which was pretty fun and pretty hard. The actors did just a beautiful job. Just a beautiful job. They’re all singing! It’s all their voices, which I think you can tell. And the other hard part about that was when we did one of the demos, it was too perfect. David and Lesli were very much like, “This is a choir in a very small town. It’s not going to be perfect. It needs to sound like you’re in a small-town choir. We’re not this beautiful choir of voices.” So, it was interesting to try to come up with a sound that was good enough and believable but not too perfect.
Yeah, that’s actually really interesting to hear. Something I want to ask is, of course, this is a series that has a very dramatic turn about midway though. How did you manage the tone of the music in the first half versus in the second half after the murder? How the music started to maybe drastically change in the way it reflected what was going on with Candy.
Robin: We basically used a lot less source music. After the murder, we have her go into the car and turn on the radio and shut it off, and then she’s going to the school, and we have her playing “Queen of Hearts.” She’s singing along to it and she’s trying to be herself. She just murdered somebody and she’s in the car. Is she singing to that one? No, she’s bopping her head, I think. I can’t remember if she was singing to that one or not. No, because I remember giving that one in post, so she wasn’t singing to that one. Anyway, I’m trying to remember something. So, the music drastically changes as far as the amount of music we use. We use more score and more sound design. I think it’s after Episode 104 – Candy uses the music when she’s trying to escape what’s really going on. She’s trying to bring her, as I call it, external happy-go-lucky persona to calm herself. She just wants to calm herself, so she plays music, but we have way less songs towards the end than we did in the beginning. It was a conversation that we all had and that was a very deliberate thing that we did.
Mm-hmm. And in your process of choosing music, do you think lyric first in terms of what you’re trying to translate through lyrics? Or is it more about mood and atmosphere and tone that you’re delivering? I’m sure it’s maybe a balance of both, but I’d love to hear from your perspective how you might approach something like that.
Robin: You know what, I’m usually somebody that if I’m seeing somebody walking on a beach or driving a car, I don’t want to hear lyrics that go, “I’m driving in a car,” or “I’m walking on the beach,” because we see that happening. So, it’s usually music. Obviously, the tempo, what music we’re using is for mood. What music I choose is character driven. I won’t put a piece of music in something for no reason. There has to be a reason why that piece of music is chosen. It’s more often character. Lyrics have to make sense. I’m not going to put a love song when somebody’s murdering somebody.
Getting ax murdered.
Robin: Ax murdering, yeah. But I’m very conscious of lyrics, that they’re not either right on the nose or that they don’t quite make sense. There’s both parts of it. As a music supervisor, one thing that’s so important to me is to make sure that these songs that you choose are working as characters and working with the show or the film, or whatever you’re doing, and not put in just because the scene needs help. If you know what I mean. Like, there’s a reason for it. Like, “Don’t put in music there. You don’t need to.” I have worked on things where a scene’s not working and somebody says, “Oh my god, we’ve got to put music back there.” Music doesn’t fix everything. You know? It definitely could help, and it could hinder, but it doesn’t fix everything. But when you do put music in and it’s the right music, you just know it. It’s seamless. Nobody’s going to say, “Oh, that felt out of place.” I’ve watched a lot of shows with great music and I’m like, “Why do they have that there? What are they trying to tell us? What are they trying to say? I don’t understand why that piece of music is there.” So, I hope that that doesn’t happen on Love & Death.
No, not at all. But one piece of music in particular I do want to ask is the opening credits.
Robin: Main title. I knew you were going to ask!
Robin: That was my one time where lyrically I just said, “Oh shoot. This is so right on.” But it was so right on I couldn’t not send that in.
That’s why I wanted to ask the “lyric versus” question, but I personally love it. I think it works so well.
Robin: Thank you.
I would love to hear from you how that came to be.
Robin: It came to me because – this is the very last thing we did, which was kind of great because now I saw the whole tone of the show as well. One thing to read a script, it’s another thing to see it. So, you see the entire arc. And this piece of music, which is mostly known from The Animals, “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Not as many people know the Nina Simone version. I got the opening credits sequence and there was a song in there that I didn’t particularly like. I didn’t think we were going to necessarily get approval for it, the version we wanted, and it was the wrong year. So, that was all I needed to say. It’s the wrong year! So, I got the footage and put music to it. At one point, there was something I found that I thought, “Oh, this is happy go lucky, it’s feel-good,” so I gave Lesli Linka Glatter both kinds of music. There was one song that was feel-good that I loved, but in retrospect and when looking at it, it’s a little too pop-y. Now knowing the show and the underlying personality, Nina Simone just fell right into place. Lesli and I were on Zoom together with a few other people and everything was put to picture. She watched a few of them. Even ones I put in, I was like, “Let me see them to picture.” Cut in, it’s completely different than when I’m listening to it. So, I said, “No, no.” That one came along and we all kind of went, “Wow!” And Lesli’s like, “That did something to me.” So, she sent it to David and Per and everybody signed off. Then, HBO and everybody signed off on it, and it was probably one of the music finds I’m most proud of because I do think that it tells the story and not in a way that you know what’s going to happen, but it works with the visuals, and it engages you in a way that brings you right into the first scenes.
Yeah. I mean, I love that process and I love that song. When I turned on Episode 1 for the first time and I heard that intro, I was like, “Okay, I’m in. I’m ready to go.”
Robin: It’s so funny because I had no idea, and literally anybody that’s spoken to me about this show, that’s the first thing they say. “Oh my god, that main title song.” I’m like, “Thank you!” But it was really hard, don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t an easy find. We sometimes have to go through hundreds of songs to find the right one. Also, we’re talking about it could’ve been anything from 1960 to 1980 of music. I had years’ worth that I had to think about. I don’t remember how I found it, but it came up, and I was like, I know this song. I think I even listened to The Animal’s version first because of the lyrics and then found the others. The one thing Lesli Linka Glatter and David E. Kelley and Per wanted to make sure was that people didn’t skip the main credits.
Yes! Listen, I’m with you. I love intro sequences when I watch shows, and I hate the little streaming button that says “Skip Intro.” I’m like, “No! No! It’s part of the show!”
Robin: It is part of the show! It brings you right into the next episode.
Yeah. Well, thank you so much for your time, Robin. I really appreciate getting to hear a little bit more behind the scenes of the music of Love & Death. It’s a fantastic accomplishment. Congratulations on your work and I really appreciate the conversation.
Robin: Thank you. Thank you for having me!
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.