Siddhartha Khosla breaks down his classic and timeless OST for 'This Is Us', talks musical influences and the streaming era
Siddhartha Khosla has been capturing the hearts of millions across the world with his straight-to-the heart soundtrack for NBC's critically acclaimed Golden Globe-nominated family drama 'This is Us'. In a show full of edge-of-the-seat drama and gut-wrenching performances, Siddhartha's score doesn't stand out and demand your attention. Instead, it intertwines with the on-screen drama with the utmost natural flow, with a heavily organic, acoustic feel, hummed vocals and memorably, a beat that starts with a slow tapping on the table. If it were possible to capture the essence of an entire TV show in a soundtrack, this is as close as it gets.
The soundtrack's accolades prove the point. After several attempts by fans to make Spotify playlists of the OST, UMe officially released the chart-busting score of the show much to the delight of fans and also much critical acclaim. Upon release, the 'This is Us Original Score' debuted on the iTunes Top Soundtrack Chart. Siddhartha's hit song, “We Can Always Come Back To This,” ranked #12 on iTunes Top 100 songs and #1 in the Billboard Blues Charts for four consecutive weeks. The song earned Siddhartha a nomination for Best Song/Recording for Television from the Guild of Music Supervisors Award.
But Siddhartha's musical journey goes way back from his soundtracking days. The child of Indian-born parents who came to the States following a dream, Siddhartha Khosla's breakthrough came in the early 2000s, in the indie rock scene when he spearheaded the band Goldspot. Named after a popular orange soda brand from pre-liberlization 90's India (can it get any more indie?), the band carved a niche for itself as one of the fastest rising acts of the early aughties, opening for the likes of Death Cab for Cutie, Franz Ferdinand, and Bon Jovi and even scoring a spot at Glastonbury in 2007 (which was headlined by Arcade Fire and Bjork). The Sunday Times U.K. called Goldspot “the best band to come out of America in years.” In 2013, the band’s album 'Aerogramme' (co-produced by Beach Boys engineer Jeff Peters) captured #1 Album of the Year on the Los Angeles Times’ pop music best albums list.
I recently caught up with Siddhartha for a chat over the phone on a sunny Monday morning. I was overwhelmed. Growing up in India as a teenager in the 2000s myself, I'd, of course, heard of indie legends Goldspot but had never had the pleasure of seeing them live. While I was still a staunch metalhead, my older cousins and friends, with their recent exploration of indie-rock often raved about how tight the band was and how underrated the talent was, and here I was chit-chatting with frontman Siddhartha Khosla. Siddhartha had been listening to some Bob Marley off late because "the weather was really, really nice and hot and it felt like good Bob Marley weather!"
Hurriedly and a little too excitedly, I congratulated him for all the accolades he'd racked up for the 'This Is Us' OST and explained how I'd heard of his Goldspot days all in one breath. He chuckled an acknowledgment. "From your days with the band to scoring TV shows now, how's the journey been?" I asked Siddhartha.
"It's been amazing. Your career is a kinda an ever-evolving thing. And you adapt as time changes, as your interests change, as your musical journey develops, you know. So it's been great and I've had the luxury of being in a band for so long and applying kind of everything I've learned there to the work I'm doing now, and I can bring my unique brand to what I do with my scores."
'This Is Us' is not his first crack and scoring for a TV show, but it's definitely his biggest hit in the format. "I've done many other television dramas and films and comedies, but 'This Is Us' is definitely like the biggest hit, so that's been incredibly special. The show's just been an incredible experience," he reiterated.
"So how did it all start," I asked. "How did you end up working on the show?"
"You begin to develop relationships with creators and directors through your projects," Siddhartha began as I nodded along, listening keenly. "Dan Fogelman ('Tangled'; 'Crazy, Stupid, Love'; 'Pitch'), the creator of the show hired me on the first gig for a television show which was called 'The Neighbors' on ABC. It was a comedy, a sci-fi comedy and years later when he went on to create This Is Us, he called me and went 'Hey! We've worked together on a bunch of stuff and we're really good friends'. So Dan gave me a script of This Is Us before we finished the pilot episode."
"So he asked me to write something the script inspired. And I wrote something and he loved it and he just gave me the job!"
Siddhartha admits that there's a very different approach while writing music for a band versus scoring for a show, and he uses an interesting analogy of parenthood to explain the point. "With Goldspot, that's my baby you know!" he says gleefully. "It's kind of like the purest and rawest expression of my own heart."
"Exactly," I interrupt him. "It must be so different with shows, what with the massive amount of time spent in the studio and multiple episodes and a tight schedule. You must have to come up with things much more quickly, right?" I asked.
"Yeah, to answer your other question," Siddhartha said, steering us back on track and gathering his thoughts. "The difference is that Goldspot is very much about me and my journey and my own experiences. So it's not as collaborative. Obviously I've written songs with other people sometimes, but for the most part, it's MY project, you know," he said.
"When I'm working on a film or television show like 'This Is Us,' this is Dan Fogelman's baby," he added rounding up his metaphor. "So it's more collaborative."
"The other difference is, as you pointed out, with the logistics. I could take two years for a Goldspot album and nobody would be telling me when I had to turn it in. Of course, the record label would have a certain say or whatever, but for something like 'This Is Us', I have three or four days to wrap up the whole thing. So the work is highly compressed. It's a high-pressure kind of turn around environment. So it's vastly different."
For the uninitiated, 'This Is Us' is a tight family drama that jumps back and forth in time over the past 30 years to tell the story of the Pearson family: parents Jack and Rebecca, played by Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore, and their unconventional set of triplets, Randall (played by Sterling K. Brown), Kate (played by Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (played by Justin Hartley).
Fittingly, Siddhartha's OST also reflects a carefully chosen set of licensed tracks. From Cat Stevens to Sufjan Stevens and most things in between, the songs go perfectly hand in hand with the temporal shifts of the show as well as the tonal ones, so the soundtrack never loses a beat, be it sonically or temporally, always finding the perfect sweet spot for the music to unfurl. I asked Siddhartha, "How do you capture that spread across three decades for a show that keeps jumping back and forth?"
"I think the key is what the score sounds like," says Siddhartha. "You know, if you listen to it, it sounds like it's classic and timeless. Acoustic guitars, percussion with wooden instruments, cellos: it's very organic and raw. You can't hear the score and tell me when it came out. You can't pinpoint and say, 'this came out in the 1960s', or 'this came out in the 1970s'. So the idea was to create something timeless within multiple decades."
That's absolutely true. In fact, a prominent, recurring musical motif in the acoustic, organic soundtrack is a steady rising beat - what seems to be Siddhartha drumming on the table. I asked him how this sound came about. Siddhartha gave me a backstory with a few spoiler alerts.
"There was a moment in the last season. Episode 113, where Kate (Chrissy Metz) is in this exercise class for weight loss camp and they're all hitting these sticks on the mat, on the floor in unison, as part of the show. And in that moment she has a flashback to her father's funeral, and it's the first time we see her in distress at that point in her life, as part of that meditative thing that she's experiencing. That led me to look for a percussive sound - something organic - which led me to start tapping on my wooden table."
"I wanted to recreate the energy of that moment with a driving percussive sound and it's almost like I'm playing the tabla on the wooden table. And that started the whole thing, which opened up this whole idea of playing on the table. Any 'desi' can tell you there's a little bit of Indian in that score," he said as we shared a laugh.
Indeed, Siddhartha is a skilled multi-instrumentalist, playing vintage electric and acoustic guitars, rare 1950s organs, to live orchestras and instruments from the Eastern hemisphere like the harmonium and the Greek bouzouki, to Flemish harpsichords and 80s analog synthesizers. For the 'This Is Us' OST, he played almost all the instruments in the studio except the cello.
Siddhartha is keeping himself extremely busy and is also working on several other projects currently. He currently scores Hulu’s newest original series, 'Marvel’s Runaways,' and E!’s first scripted drama series, 'The Royals,' starring Elizabeth Hurley. He also composed original songs for the musical film 'Basmati Blues,' starring Academy Award-winner Brie Larson and Golden Globe Award-winner Donald Sutherland.
Siddhartha admitted that he wasn't actually a big fan of comics growing up. "I was a very unusual hire for that show," he confesses. "I was not your typical superhero composer. But what I do well is score drama. And I love scoring drama. My strength is scoring the emotional connection between characters and people. So for a superhero drama like 'The Runaways,' if I apply the same thinking but change the palette, I think it'll allow us to get really invested in these characters."
On a side note, we also spoke about the digital age and the effect of streaming on music consumption and artists' lives. In his childhood, Siddhartha was sent back from the US to Delhi, India to live with his grandparents while they tried to make a new life out west with just $8 in their pockets. During that time when international phone calls were prohibitively expensive, music became central to Khosla’s life as he listened to his mother sing to him on cassette tapes she mailed from America. Khosla’s song 'Evergreen Cassette' is about this very experience, and was featured in the first season of 'This Is Us.'
I asked Siddhartha for his take on the streaming era of today and the current landscape of the music industry, which is a far stretch from the days when audio cassettes had to be sent over snail mail. "Umm, it's helpful and harmful in certain ways," Siddhartha said.
"I think access is greater than its ever been and therefore exposure is, and that's a helpful thing for artists. However, it's hurtful because there's almost too much stuff. There used to be this time when you would basically get to listen to what mainstream big record companies would feed you. And that's kind of how you found out about music. Then you had to go out on your own and do your due diligence to find those underground acts that you really liked. So there was a lot of effort as a band that you put in too. I think that effort the bands put in made them vested in whatever it was they were searching for."
He went on to talk about how as a teenager, he actively sought out cassettes and CDs of his favorite bands and how he would buy the merchandise and attend the live gigs to support the band, but today is a different time when your favorite underground artists are just at the tip of your fingertips.
"It's so easy to hear and get anything. We don't have to make that much of an effort anymore. So as a fan, it's so much easier. But as an artist, sometimes it can be disheartening because people could listen to your music without putting effort into it. I hope at some point, there's some sort of model shift that lets giant corporations like Spotify - who make millions and millions of dollars off of artists - pay the artists what they really deserve to get. Artists are not getting paid what they deserve on streams, that's ridiculous!"
We wrapped up by discussing some of Siddhartha's musical tastes. Apart from Bob Marley, who Siddhartha was listening to over the weekend, the fast-rising composer is also into Andrew Bird, he's a big Radiohead fan and also loves the Cure. Newer artists that Siddhartha listens to include Bon Iver, Arcade Fire and Bjork. He also makes it a point to note that at least once a week, he also listens to some old Hindi music, staying firmly in touch with his roots.
'This Is Us' has been confirmed for the third season. Siddhartha says he'll be diving into the production by about August, so there's not much breathing space for the multi-instrumentalist. He's kicking off work on Marvel's 'The Runaways' in a couple of weeks meanwhile so he has very little time before "jumping back into the craziness again."