Frank Palazzolo is a poised commander and a multi-faceted savant of the music supervision game. Nearly eight years deep into his decorated collaboration with Liza Richardson, Frank has defined the musical statements of television phenomenons, such as The Leftovers, The Path, Hemlock Grove, The Following, Hand of God, and more. In our eclectic conversation, Frank opened up about how a Jersey boy became an Alabama college student, then turned into a New York based sound designer and composer and finally, ended up as a Los Angeles livin' Guild of Music Supervisors Award nominee.
I read that the first soundtrack you personally acquired was Cocktail. What was the significance of that purchase at that time?
Cocktail was a musical awakening for me. Starship was on there. I remember hearing Wild Again and it blew my mind. Kokomo, as well. Hearing that soundtrack gave me a different experience of music in film and TV. At that time, you'd mostly hear score. Cocktail didn’t make me feel that way. It was the first time I had that much fun watching a movie because of the music. I don’t know what about it impacted me so much, but I just went out, bought it, and played it over and over again. My whole neighborhood knew that I had the Cocktail soundtrack up.
You attended University of Alabama. What events led to your pursuit of music supervision as a career in Los Angeles?
It was a long road! I started off as a musician because it was the cool thing to do. I went to Alabama because it was the only big school that accepted me. I originally wanted to go to Penn State, but I went down there, the only Jersey boy to be that brave. When I arrived, I met a few other people from the East Coast and the Northeast, but also a bunch of country guys that opened my eyes to country music. By the end of my college career, I was singing Garth Brooks and Merle Haggard. I even went as far to ask my parents to help me find a truck.
When I was down there, I got into performing at open mic nights and started a band with some guys from Atlanta that didn’t really go anywhere. At our first gig, we’re all ready to go, the drums got going, and I went to begin the opening song. The first note I played was wrong. The audience literally jumped back. That was the moment I realized I’d never be a famous performing musician. We disbanded a couple weeks later and I moved back to New York to work in post-production as an assistant sound engineer at Creative Group. I worked in the mailroom during the day and at night, they’d allow me to work on sound design. The more I worked on editing, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to pursue composing.
I started writing music to the promos, ESPN and On Demand. One of the guys in the facility took notice and suggested I start creating these short pieces for money. I was about to start my career as a sound designer and become an official temp composer on staff, but then I got an invitation to audition to be a contestant on the reality show, Survivor. My good friends at Creative Group signed me up as a joke, but you needed to make a video to complete the application.
I used to work from six ‘o clock at night until four or five in the morning. Working in New York City in the middle of Times Square, I had multimillion-dollar edit bays at my leisure, so I made a professional video with sound design at night when nobody was there. After that, I started being interviewed for Survivor and I began preparing for the opportunity. I bought flexible glasses, started eating sushi to adjust to strange foods, and moved to California for no other reason. When I got to Los Angeles, I ended up not getting cast, so I stuck around to pursue composing.
I landed my first job at Music Collective, where I was taught about the role of a staff composer and library music supervisor. I pitched for projects but also got inspired to write music for the library as well. I scored two little indie films but quickly learned that I didn’t want to be a composer. It was really hard to write a piece of music and then have a non-musician tell you what is wrong with it. I understand the job is to do what they say, but when it comes to art, it’s hard to paint a picture and then have someone tell you to go back and change everything you like about it. I’d listen and alter things, but then they’d want to suggest alternate instrumentation, like “what if we add a synth under this?”. Now, they’re trying to produce my tracks and it just became pretty frustrating. So, I thought to myself…"what else can I do in music?”.
When I was a kid, I used to mute video games and movies, playing my own CDs over the scenes. I thought I was scoring them because there was no official “music supervisor” title back in 1993. After thinking more and more, I realized that I was really skilled at putting music to picture and realized that music supervision was, in fact, an actual job. My first exposure to the field of music supervision was Madonna Wade-Reed’s work on Smallville. I kept looking and discovered Alex Patasavas on Grey’s Anatomy, then Liza Richardson on Friday Night Lights. I was like “Oh my god, this is a job!”.
I had an extensive music library, I loved it, I wanted to learn, and I didn’t want to be a composer, so I felt like this was what I needed to do to come into my own.
I immediately started looking around for positions and couldn’t find a job anywhere. People told me to get a job at a music library or intern, but I had bills to pay and I used all my saving to move to Los Angeles from New York. I thought I was going to have to go back home and become a stockbroker. My dad invited me to come work for him in the mailroom, but he asked me “Be honest with yourself. Did you do everything you possibly could to get the job?”. When I said “no”, he told me to give it another month.
I didn’t renew my lease, so that pressure led to me getting a contact list of all the music supervisors and editors in the area. I sent every single one of them a personalized e-mail. I researched them and told them exactly why I admired them and wanted to work with them. Out of nowhere, Bob Badami, the music editor and supervisor, and collaborator of Hans Zimmer, contacted me a week later. He is a real O.G. He invited me to meet him at Hans’ studio at Disney. He didn’t have a job for me, but he said he’d do anything he could to help me out because he liked what I had to say.
By then, the clock was ticking. I had three weeks left and no leads. Finally, I saw an opening at Universal Pictures, so I contacted Bob and luckily, he was friends with Kathy Nelson, the president of film music at the time, so he made a phone call. Soon after, I get a call from Trevon Kezios, Kathy’s senior director. I interviewed with them and got the job. It took a month of pure hustle and I became the film music coordinator for Universal Pictures.
How did you first begin your collaboration with Liza Richardson? What are the core differences between you and Liza in terms of your musical taste and working styles?
After three years at Universal Pictures, I wanted something new, so I went to work for Liza, starting as her second assistant. Liza is the founder of Mad Doll Music and the head supervisor. I am a staff supervisor, along with Marc Mondello. I co-supervise on a few shows and sometimes, I am an uncredited consultant on films and ads. We basically just go back and forth until the job is done.
Liza and I are both very, very similar when it comes to recognizing the feeling you get when you know you’ve found the right song for a scene. It’s not just a good song that works, but there is a certain cohesiveness that occurs when you feel the BPM of the song match the BPM of the scene in a way that makes perfect sense. We both understand that sensation, so let’s say I’m pitching someone and select 10 songs, but one of them I’m not quite sure of. Well, Liza sees the discrepancy too. She’ll come back and be like “I’m not sure track 8 is working”. I’m like “Damn it, I knew you were gonna see that one”.
In my opinion, Liza is more of an expert on the vintage, off the beaten path material. That’s a part of her knowledge that I can’t really match. Sometimes, somebody will come in and say “hey, we’re looking for a psychedelic song from 1961 that was a huge hit on the underground scene, but nobody mainstream has ever heard of, with Cuban influence. Liza will go “I’ve got a few records in mind”. My main strengths lie in finding old-school hip-hop, old school metal… I also have a deep knowledge of 80’s and 90’s hits.
One day, Liza asked me to make a big list of 90’s songs I’d love to use one day, so I made a list of 100 songs and we went through them one by one. She would go “I’m not sure if I know this one”, so I had to sing it to her. We were crying laughing. By the end, I had probably sung 40 songs for her.
In the first two months of working together, we were kind of unsure, but then five months in, we knew we wanted to make this last. Now, it’s been seven and a half years. She impresses me all the time and I’d like to think I impress her. She encourages me to get weird with it and see what happens. It’s an awesome feeling when I finish a pull and she’s like “Damn! Well done.”.
The music on The Leftovers is magnificent all around, seamlessly weaving in a bit of everything from The Beach Boys to Wu-Tang Clan. Thematically, it is a revolving door of loss, grief, and faith. What is the working dynamic like with Liza and the composer, Max Richter?
Well, Max Richter had created an album and everybody was already impressed with it. The show runners especially just loved the sound he had. We even licensed a lot of his cues, in addition to the composition he provided. As you know, the theme recurs a lot.
Our working dynamic was pretty much the way it’s structured with any composer. The show runners of The Leftovers are incredibly music driven and were passionate about licensing music. Max would come in and set the overall thematic feeling of each episode. Our job was to drop moments of unique clarity into those situations and bring a literal lyrical description to scenes where Max’s music wasn’t present. For example, in episode 301, when she goes on to the roof during the rapture and then it starts raining, that song was legitimately written by people who believed the rapture was coming. It was sung at churches.
The sound of the show came from Max’s music. I believe it was an advantage for him because it was already something he knew in his mind and put into practice. It was even more genuine. Liza and I really just left him alone to do what he needed to do.
Music supervisors are notoriously hard to get in contact with. What is the most dramatic or memorable way someone has tried to pitch you their music?
I’ve had people show up at my office unannounced with gifts and a thumb drive. People have literally hit the buzzer being like “Hello! We have a delivery for you. Can we come up?” and then tried to pitch me their music. People have written me very personalized letters, framing it like I know them personally.
Independent artists have a lot to gain from having their music featured in film and television. For example, you placed "An Honest Man" by rising Oakland artist and first-time Grammy recipient, Fantastic Negrito as the theme song for Amazon's "Hand of God". How important do you think sync licensing has become for the purposes of exposure and how do you think this will evolve over time?
Sync licensing has become a huge part of the music industry, maybe more so in films, ads, and trailers than in television. In TV, most of the higher synch fees go to established artists. I know it’s a struggle for indie artists because they make the least amount of money and are forced to take the least amount of money to get placed and benefit from the exposure. It’s kind of a Catch-22.
It’s a challenge. If you write high-quality music and have the proper representation, a lot of it is just putting it out there and seeing what happens. Exposure pays off. I’ve talked to Fantastic Negrito and looked at his YouTube page. It’s done wonders for him. Of course, not everyone can land a theme song, which is like the holy grail, but placements keep a lot of artists afloat.
Unfortunately, with more and more artists recognizing this, they are changing their writing style to make their songs more synch able, which leads to music that is a little less genuine than they really want to be making. What we’re left with is ad music. Most of our favorite artists sound like commercials now. They are manufacturing their songs and you can feel it. You hear so many lyrical taglines. Some people make a living out of writing directly for licensing. Music wasn’t like that 25 years ago.
Thankfully, there are still take it or leave it artists. Licensing can offer people who might not necessarily succeed as independent musicians to go on and enjoy better careers. I’d like to think we help a lot of bands break and follow the dream that inspires the rest of them.
What are some of the skills you have cultivated in other areas of your life that have served your career in music supervision?
I used to think that you could do this job on your own and you can’t. This job is all about relationships. The stronger my relationships become with the community, the better I tend to be at my job. It’s about licensing, deals, pitchers, and file delivery. If one of those aspects isn’t working properly, your job starts to pay the price. Just because I license the song and do everything on time, when it comes time to mix, if I have trouble reaching a person because they don’t like me, how am I supposed to get the files to mix them? If they won’t sign my request form, how am I supposed to get the song approved? These factors are completely based on person to person relations. I’ve learned to appreciate the work that every single person involved does to get this job done because, without them, the train breaks down.
I want everybody that I work with to enjoy working with me. I love sharing the love. I make sure that credit is where credit is due. I try to stay positive and hopefully, it pays off.
Of all the characters on the shows you are currently working on, who do you find to be the most personally relatable and why?
Eddie Lane on The Path would be the character I most relate to. I feel like he is a representation of most people who experience an internal conflict about what their true purpose actually is, despite what people around tell them to believe. For me, there was always something inside of me that questioned what my destiny was. Eddie battles with himself about whether he is or isn’t a Meyerist, whether he should be with Sarah or shouldn’t be with her. The core of who he is remains genuine. His love for his children and his family is real. He wants to get back to them, but that internal struggle persists. His character is the perfect example of life. You never really have the answer. You’re always going to have conflict within yourself about what you are.
What is your go-to breakfast?
It’s so embarrassing, man. I eat Chobani yogurt every single morning with granola. I buy all the different flavors of KIND Bar granola and put some right in. I have that and two cups of coffee. The only time I deviate from that is when I go out and get a classic combo breakfast from any diner. You know, eggs, pancakes, bacon, and sausage. I’m a pretty simple dude. I’m a pizza, steak, and burgers kind of person.
I pretend to be healthy. I want to be healthy, but every time I make the effort, it kind of bums me out. If I go out and order a spinach omelet, I’ll eat it, but I don’t enjoy my breakfast. So, I’ll just order what I really want, but with a side of avocado, so I feel better about it. I really have to trick myself.
I do protein shakes as well, but recently, I started juicing celery with lemon, ginger, and cayenne. Wow. It is disgusting, but it’s really good for you. I like to drink in the morning as well. When I do, I feel fantastic and when I don’t, I notice it’s missing. I throw all those ingredients into the Vitamix and then strain it through cheesecloth to remove the fiber to kick-start your digestion.
I stole the idea of getting a Vitamix from Marc Mondello. We were at the office and he was talking about how badly he wanted one and that he was saving up for it. I remember the look on his face when I told him I had gone out and bought one over the weekend. He looked betrayed!
You are fairly outspoken on Twitter about political issues. What are some of the changes you wish to see in our world and what do you think people in our community can do to make a difference?
I’m not upset about politics as much as I am disturbed by the human response to things these days. I feel like the world needs to slow down and understand what they’re becoming enraged about before they become enraged. What’s happening right now is that so many adopt such an explosive mentality. Resolution will never come from people yelling from the left and yelling from the right. We live in headline reading society and often, those headlines don’t tell the full story. It is only the hook to gauge interest. As long as money is being made by publications, there will be inflammatory headlines. My wish for the future is for more people to be open to understanding the true story before they go to battle.
You have a lot of great tattoos! Would you be willing to share the story behind a particularly meaningful one?
On my left arm, I have lyrics that spiral down from my bicep to my wrist. Those are lyrics from A Satisfied Mind, which is an old gospel song written by Joe “Red” Hayes and Jack Rhodes. At the time, I had the idea to get a guitar cable tattooed around my arm, but a friend of mine, who was the lead singer of the band, Marvelous Toy was like “Why would you get a cable? Why don’t you just have lyrics instead?”. So, I thought about what lyrics I’d want on my body. Something by a memorable artist that I could appreciate having for the rest of my life. A Satisfied Mind has been covered by all the greats. Think Jeff Buckley, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Ben Harper.
The lyrics go “One thing’s for certain. When it comes my time, I’ll leave this old world with a satisfied mind.” I think of it as a reminder to live. I believe the song was played at Jeff Buckley’s funeral. Once I found out the history of it and the message behind it, there was no way I wasn’t going to put it on my body. Now, I wear it pride and I read it to myself from time to time. Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. Keep pushing.
What do you think about the tragic downfall of so many of the artists who have been idolized in the music industry?
I was sitting down the other day, talking to a friend and it hit me that a vast majority of the artists I would want to see in concert are gone. I can’t see Alice in Chains or Stone Temple Pilots. I can no longer go see Soundgarden. BLind MeLoN is my all-time favorite band and Shannon Hoon died of an overdose before they even had the chance to take off.
I have a theory that your brain has to function differently for you to become a great artist. When your brain is operating to the extent that you are creating such beauty in music or in art, it is malfunctioning at the same time. I think beauty comes from the mind processing differently and unfortunately, those brains aren’t really comfortable in modern day society. Whether it’s anger, misery, sadness, or destruction, great art comes with a cost. It’s almost as if our musical heroes were sent here with pain inside their heart that transforms into magic. We get to experience their stories without having to become the tortured artist.
As long as we continue to find these people and honor them, that is the trade. Everyone knows that the guy who just lost the love of his life is going to write a better song than the guy who just moved into a new mansion.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Frank Palazzolo.