Every great lead character deserves to make an entrance to a bespoke theme song. But rarely is it played on the banjo. But as audiences of Peacock’s hit mystery series “Poker Face” know, nothing else could possibly do justice to Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie Cale, a human lie detector on the run across small-town America.
“In Act 1 of each episode, we see the murder, and then at the beginning of Act 2, Charlie appears, and that’s when we hear it,” explained composer Nathan Johnson. The creative decision strayed from the convention laid out in the crime-of-the-week shows of the ’70s and ’80s that inspired the series by not dropping under the title cards. Instead, Johnson wanted to allow the audience to “land in a completely new place every time with no preconceived ideas.”
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“With all of the classic serialized storytelling, we love the music, and the title sequence immediately drops us so strongly into that world after just a few notes,” he added. “What I love about not doing that is that it lets the world be a completely new location every time.”
Johnson, a long-time collaborator (and cousin) of “Poker Face” creator Rian Johnson, knew he wanted to create a dusty Americana score with a “desert location vibe,” That’s when the showrunner suggested leaning into the banjo. Not expecting that at all, the musician went out and bought one and started writing and exploring the instrument. “That very much became the anchor, and I constructed the entire score around it,” he added.
According to the composer, Rian loved the idea of “exploring the warmth of it and looking at banjo use outside of bluegrass stylings.”
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A guitarist, Johnson approached the score’s creation from a non-traditional perspective and brought in acclaimed banjo player Bennett Sullivan to play what he had written to see if it worked. He then put together a “dream house band,” handpicking members including drummer Jay Bellerose, David Pilcher on upright bass, Johnny Rogers on tuned wine glasses, and Judson Crane on guitar.
“I wrote the themes and scored Rian’s episodes, then Judd took the themes I had written and worked on the other episodes, creating the score for those,” Johnson revealed. “It was very much kind of like a band approach to it.”
It’s not the first time tuned glass has played a significant role in Johnson’s scoring. “It’s just such a weird, beautiful sound that has been woven into my work all the way back to ‘Brick,'” he recalled. “We used tuned wine glasses because we couldn’t afford strings and used them to create those long atmospheric string-like beds.”
The “Poker Face” band also utilized a tremolo banjo to “tip into that darker, more ominous element” and answer some key questions. He mused, “How can we create a sound that doesn’t feel upbeat and plucky? How can we create a dissonant dark underbelly sound using banjo, low drums, and upright bass?”
While the style remains consistent across all 10 episodes, Johnson used the changing locations and his own travel experiences to influence where he went with the soundscape each time.
“I knew they were filming the first episode in Nevada, and then Charlie would be on the run throughout it,” he recalled. “All of those seedy, underbelly American towns that I’ve experienced on road trips when I’ve been touring with bands was what I was thinking about.”
However, one thing that stayed largely the same throughout was Charlie Cale’s theme. “We tweaked the speed or expression. Sometimes it’s played softer, sometimes a bit more upbeat, but musically, the stuff I get really excited about is tied specifically to character,” Johnson enthused.
He described Lyonne’s character as “someone who loves people, a positive character you fall in love with and want to keep coming back and spending time with.” However, creating a theme that was a “musical parallel” to her and would also grow with her throughout the show wasn’t all plain sailing.
“It came down to me sitting alone writing and writing and writing and sending voice memos to Rian until he heard something he liked.”
Johnson wrote several incarnations he didn’t present to the show’s creator, only offering his work up once he felt he had started to “crack” the character. “I think I sent him two,” he recalled. “Out of those, it was the second one that was the one where he was like, ‘That’s it.'”
Benjamin Bratt’s Cliff Legrand, only other recurring character, also received a sonic signature. “The themes are definitely both in the same sound world, but Charlie’s is pure banjo and just one instrument,” he expounded, likening it to “somebody sitting on their back porch just playing for nobody but themselves as the sun goes down over Charlie’s trailer.”
In contrast, he envisaged Bratt’s character as “the dog nipping at her heels, so it’s obviously a lot darker. There are electric guitar ambient undercurrents, there’s still the banjo, but it leans into the ominous tremolo effect.
“When Rian suggested it, I knew it was going to be quite a challenge,” he sad. “I thought, ‘I’m a little bit too deep here, and I can’t feel the bottom.’ However, as David Bowie said, that’s where you want to be when creating new work. It’s a very fertile place when you’re out of your comfort zone.”
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