Interview: Composer Gabriel Mann Discusses Crafting the Music of ‘A Million Little Things’

"...The goal is to make it feel as real as possible and be as emotionally satisfying as possible," says composer Gabriel Mann of the task of writing score for ABC's "A Million Little Things."

Composer Gabriel Mann

Gabriel Mann has been composing original score for television for a number of years. He has lent his musical talents to shows like “Modern Family,” “Rosewood,” and the short-lived, “The Mayor.”

In 2018, Mann worked on the series, “A Million Little Things,” which follows a group of friends struggling to improve their lives after an unexpected death. The series was renewed by ABC and will return for a second season in the fall.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Mann about his work on “A Million Little Things,” and how he crafts music that fits naturally into a series about loss, recovery, and hope.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: Thank you so much for taking some time to talk with me today. How did you first get involved in “A Million Little Things?”

Gabriel Mann: I got involved because I had worked with James Griffiths, also known as Griff – he’s the director of the pilot – on a show called “The Mayor” last season. And we hit it off. I had a great time with him on that show. He mentioned he was working on this pilot and would I be interested in working on this? I had met D.J. Nash, the showrunner, in some other capacity at some other time. It wasn’t the first time I had met him, so when I went to meet with the two of them together about the show, it was not foreign territory. But basically Griff brought me in to talk with D.J., and we talked about it, and I played them some music and that was it. They were like, “You want to do this?” and I was like, “Yeah!”

Even in that first meeting, we had talked about a lot of stuff. We talked about the sort of organic nature of the score, and I brought in with me some examples of things I had done that I felt like worked in that world. We also thought that there was going to be a significant amount of guitar, so I brought a lot of guitar music with me and played them a few things, and we were off to the races.

KP: Did you see a script first or did you know the main ideas of the show?

GM: I had read it, so I had an idea of what was going on in the pilot and what the show was about. And I brought examples of my own music that I felt like were relevant to different scenes in the pilot. Not that I had seen any of it, but I had read it, so I knew what was going on and what kind of stuff I imagined would be in there.

KP: Where do you start with a show like this?

GM: Oh, my god. (laughs) That really was where we started. I read it. It was clear there was a guitar player in the show, so, not to be too on the nose, but when there’s a guitar player there are practical needs for having a guitarist. But I also felt like the show, overall, the things we talked about in that first meeting are things that have really carried through the whole first season. We just wanted it to feel very organic and rooted in reality and not like a sort of sensationalized version of itself. There is mystery that happens, and there is suspense and tension and all that kind of stuff, but we wanted it all to be rooted in very real sounding things.

A lot of the instrumentation is familiar, organic sound. Pianos, things with strings, guitars, basses, vintage keyboards that are mechanical as opposed to digital. And I use a lot of hand percussion, I slap my chest, break things, and there’s just a lot of air in the score and the sounds that we associate with an organic – I hate to keep using that word, but they’re like earthy, foundational sounds. Real sounds for real people, as opposed to heightening things with synthetic sounds.

KP: I’ve seen shows that have similar character dynamics, and the music really decides if it’s going to feel like melodrama or something a little deeper.

GM: Exactly. In that first conversation, we talked about that exact thing. That it shouldn’t be sensationalized. That it should be more reactive than proactive. Rather than telling us what to do, it’s sort of there to help support what’s there and support the emotions that these characters are pouring through and the things they’re going through in a very real and not over the top kind of way. And that’s challenging. It’s challenging musically because it requires subtlety. It requires real attention to detail. Just one note out of place can really change how something feels. And the kinds of sounds that are used can change how things feel, so it’s definitely something we think about and are very conscious about. Music can have such a big impact on a show and so I feel like I’m the guardian of that final layer of reality, even though it’s not real to have music playing under a scene where people are crying. That doesn’t happen in real life. But the goal is to make it feel as real as possible and be as emotionally satisfying as possible without being rude to the audience.

KP: That makes sense. It’s not invasive, which is why it’s so effective.

GM: Yeah. I’m trying not to be annoying.

KP: Last night I rewatched the pilot to prepare for this conversation, and there were a lot of moments where I realized there wasn’t even any music, and I thought, wait! What are we supposed to talk about?

GM: Yeah, we try to be careful. There are some episodes where I feel we are more successful than others, but you try to let the show play out the way that life plays out as opposed to covering everything with music to tell people how they’re supposed to feel. We try to let them feel what they’re supposed to feel. And when there’s times when we want to really push it, then we can push it. There are other times when the music is reacting to stuff that’s happening that you want to just meditate on that feeling for a second, so the music helps with that.

KP: That was one thing I noticed while specifically looking for the music was that it feels very complementary to what’s happening and not emotionally manipulative.

GM: Yeah, I think that’s a great way to put it. That’s exactly right. We’re trying not to manipulate emotionally. That’s excellent.

KP: Just to back up to something you were talking about a bit ago, with all the different instruments and sounds that you incorporate, do you do most of the actual music yourself? Or do you have a team of musicians?

GM: I have a guitar player, who’s been my go-to guitar player forever. His name is Steve Mazur. He’s in a band called Our Lady Peace. Sometimes he’s not around, which is a bummer. When he’s not around, there are two other guys I use frequently, whose names are Adam Zimmon – he plays with Ziggy Marley so he’s sometimes not around also – and hopefully they don’t overlap. And another guy named Adam Tressler and he’s also a touring guitar player. So these guys that I use are not typical studio players.

It wasn’t my plan to not use studio players. First of all, they all do great in a studio. It’s not like they’ve never been in a studio. But they’re touring rockers. And that is something that I’ve always been attracted to as a musician. Generally, I like the way that those kinds of guitar players play their instruments. I’m more attracted to that. They bring a different sound. You can play acoustic guitar a thousand different ways and these guys, I just appreciate how they do it. I’m not a guitar player, but I happen to work on a lot of projects that are guitar-based and I love guitar. It’s such a powerful and useful and versatile instrument. So I’ve become pretty decent at writing for guitar. I basically write the show and write in the guitar parts and there will be a lot of things we’ll do after the fact that are more effect-y things you can do, like layering various sounds that are acoustic or electric or whatever. When you hear fingers strumming an instrument or scraping something, that sound can’t really be duplicated synthetically. So it’s something that I love getting. And it always sounds different when you have a person in the room doing it.

And usually the guitar player will play bass also. Sometimes. It’s not required. And then all the keyboards are me. The percussion is me. So between the two of us making the sounds, that’s pretty much it. And then I sing every once in awhile in the score, and I’ve had my daughter sing in the score occasionally. There’s a cellist that appears in one particular moment in the past season and I have a feeling she will be back next season because it was a particularly effective cue. This was in one of the episodes that centers around Gina. When we discover something terrible that happened to her when she was very young, we wanted to do something different with the score to point out this was a very important scene and we wanted to make it stand out. So we brought in a different instrument altogether. Something we hadn’t used in the show yet. It’s something that will be interesting for next season, to see how we can expand on what we have. We want it to feel like the same show but we also want it to evolve. That’ll be fun to figure out.

KP: I know you work closely with the showrunner, D.J. Nash, but how do things change for you from week to week when there’s a different director?

GM: Honestly, the director is mainly working on the production side; where they shoot the show, directing the actors. Once it gets to post, which is where music and editing and all that stuff lives, it really becomes more about D.J.’s overall vision. He’s very involved in post and is more involved than the directors.

That said, there have been times where the director will say, “Hey, I need a thing for this particular scene.” That happened maybe five or six times where a director would say, “I have an idea and it could be this.” Whether that’s song related or score related. Sometimes they’ll be like, “I really want to have a piece of music that does a particular thing in a particular scene before we send it to whoever needs to review the episode.” Often I will write that particular piece of music in advance, before I even see picture. I’ll write them a piece of music for that moment as it’s being described to me and as it appears in the script, and they will use that before I’ve even seen it. They’ll drop it in and hopefully it works.

That can be very helpful in some ways, because if it’s working, I don’t have to write that cue later. There’s also one of the scenes in that same episode with Gina, she’s in the restaurant and we do sort of a cover version of the song, “Downtown,” that was an idea from David Marshall Grant, who is one of the writer/producers. That was a similar kind of situation where he knew in advance that this scene should have this song and that we were going to hear the real version of the song previously in a car and we should hear our own sort of down version of it. Then we talked about having a young girl sing it to reflect Gina’s younger self that she sees in the episode. I was like, “Well, I happen to know a great young singer who happens to be my daughter.” And that worked out great. It was a beautiful scene, it was a great idea. When those things happen in advance, and someone has a musical idea for the show, it can often sort of define a whole section. It can even define a whole act. There are other times when we’ll use a song to cover all of act six.

We did the episode with Maggie when she has these nightmares with her brother and there’s this whole plane thing that happens. We did a really long and elaborate version of “Love Song” by The Cure. It involves some score into the song and in and out of lyrics. Those things, because they’re so elaborate, we have to plan them pretty far in advance. So sometimes I’ll be working on that song significantly before I have a locked version of the episode. And then we sort of massage it to make it work with the edit as it evolves.

KP: What are you doing with your time off while “A Million Little Things” is on hiatus?

GM: I have other stuff to work on. I’m going to do this show called “High School Musical: the Musical: the Series.” Which is for the new Disney streaming service. It’s totally meta. It’s a high school theater department that’s going to put on “High School Musical.” And it’s going to be really fun. I’m about to start working on it. I did a song for it the other day with my friend who’s a great songwriter. It’s crazy. It’s a very different kind of project. It’ll be nice to work on something that’s completely different and will have renewed energy.

“A Million Little Things” is a lot of work. It’s more work than a typical show. For me, it’s almost like a double job plus a little bit because making the soundtrack was like a whole other thing I was dealing with. But it’s a double job because the songs can add a whole day or two to the process for the episode. So if there’s a song in every other episode then that’s another thing that has to be made. The score is one thing and the songs are another and they have to interact. The good thing about it is they are related sonically. It’s not like I’m making something that sounds totally different from the show. The whole point is that they’re organic, so that’s helpful. But it is a lot of work, and so it’ll be nice to work on something different for a little bit.

KP: Sounds like it! Something that’s not as sad thematically too.

GM: Not as sad and just different. But also, I love leaning into that drama and stuff. The other thing is I’m hoping it’s not too sad and I hope we’re finding the silver lining in everything, so the music is also trying to show us that positive.

KP: Yeah, it always sounds at least a little hopeful.

GM: Yes.

KP: You’re doing lovely work. Congratulations on that show.

GM: Thank you!

Awards Circuit would like to thank Gabriel Mann for taking time to talk about his work.

Catch up on “A Million Little Things” with ABC OnDemand. The series will return this September.