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‘This Is Us’ Composer Siddhartha Khosla & the Art of Authenticity

Have you ever noticed that despite the show’s ability to pull considerably on your heartstrings, the music of This Is Us never trades in cheap tricks to make you laugh, cry (oh, especially cry), and fall in love? This is because score composer Siddhartha Khosla goes out of his way to ensure that he complements the story in an authentic way.

“That’s the overarching principle for my score for the show: Make sure it always reads as honest and earned,” Khosla said in a Skype call with Vehlinggo recently. “I don’t ever want to force the audience to feel something they’re not already feeling.”

In its third season, Dan Fogelman’s This Is Us has garnered critical and fan appreciation for its multi-tiered and nuanced story about the Pearson family’s multi-generational, multi-decade struggles and triumphs. Led by an ensemble cast that includes Mandy Moore, Milo Ventimiglia, Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz, Justin Hartley, Susan Kelechi Watson, and Chris Sullivan, the show has become a cultural tour de force.

Khosla — also known for his band Goldspot — is the musical heart of the show, crafting a tasteful and effective acoustic and electronic score that rests comfortably alongside licensed pop songs and pop songs he’s written specifically for the show.

In this interview, he discusses his inspirations and methods for scoring the show, in addition to how his work on This Is Us, Marvel’s Runaways, sitcom The Kids Are Alright and films all influence each other. Of course, we cover even more territory than that, such as his work with Mandy Moore on original songs for This Is Us, how Sufjan Stevens set the template for that show, and Khosla’s dynamic upbringing. Here we go.

Vehlinggo: What is the process like for scoring This Is Us? Do you work closely with Dan Fogelman, the show’s creator?

Khosla: [Dan’s] a master at getting the best out of people that work for him and with him. He has a hands-off approach in some ways and very hands-on in others. Hands-off in that he wants you to go off and explore and find what’s going to make what you give him special and unique and interesting… which is really really cool. There are no rules — no “you can’t use this instrument or that instrument.” 

It’s very clear: I know what he wants and likes. It’s a wonderful way to collaborate with somebody, when you know that they’re very clear about what they want and don’t want. At the same time, you also feel like the world is your oyster.

Composer Siddhartha Khosla and Actor Sterling K. Brown
Composer Siddhartha Khosla and Actor Sterling K. Brown, who plays Randall on ‘This Is Us.’ Photo by Impact24 PR.

I noticed that throughout your cues you’ll have what one would think would fit a show about a family growing up in Pittsburgh — such as acoustic guitars and your tapping into your rock background — but then I hear ambient synthesizer pads that remind me of Brian Eno paired up with an acoustic guitar and Indian instrumentation. How do you determine which instruments to use and when?

First of all, I think you’ve got incredible ears. The Brian Eno comparison — I take it as a compliment. I feel like if he were to score this show, he might do his own interesting, beautiful thing. The general idea might be similar. I love [Eno’s] [Ambient 1:] Music for Airports. It’s a very lovely ambient record.

It’s true there is synth mixed in with acoustic instrumentation. That to me puts it slightly into left field — left of center — because I don’t think that you would normally do that. It’s not a natural thought to say “I’m going to put a synth bass under a finger-picking acoustic” — that’s what you’re hearing is the synth bass.

So, for me, I feel like my approach to This Is Us, as any project is really, I want to feel like I’m making a record. And to feel that way I like making my own sounds and doing stuff that feels like a signature to me, and doing stuff I’m artistically proud of. It doesn’t feel cookie-cutter and that’s what I like about it.

Exactly. There’s a scene in episode 5 of this season. A younger Kate and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) are at the piano, playing a heartwarming tune, and you introduce some kind of counter-atmospheric dissonance. It seems to say, “Hey, this is a sweet moment between mother and daughter, but something bad is on the horizon.” (And of course, we know there is.)

That was extremely dissonant. There was an on-set production track of them playing the piano. I thought it would be interesting if we went with something that was in a totally different key — not compatible with what they were doing on set. It made the situation slightly less comfortable.

“I like the score living under the skin a little bit.”

That scene highlights one big interesting thing about the show. It’s very heartwarming to see them at their best, but there’s this foreboding. You’re time-traveling with your storytelling, giving us the luxury or inconvenience of knowing what’s going to happen.

The other thing I try to do in the score on the show is not overplay my hand. I like the score living under the skin a little bit. Sometimes you’re feeling it more than hearing it and other times you’re really hearing it. In a show where the writing is this strong and the performances are this strong, and the cinematography is this beautiful, it could have easily been an orchestral, over-the-top score that could have been overwrought emotionally. So it’s making sure that it’s emotionally honest in whatever situation it’s in.

Composer Siddhartha Khosla and Actor Mandy Moore
Composer Siddhartha Khosla and actor Mandy Moore, who plays Rebecca Pearson on ‘This Is Us.’ Photo by Impact24 PR.

When you consider how complex the show’s storytelling is — multiple timelines and character-specific storylines — how do you balance making those feel distinct with having a score that is also unifying for the show?

When I initially conceived of the idea for the sound of the score and what it was, I had early conversations with Dan and I knew he was using Sufjan Stevens in the pilot. (Editor’s Note: The song is “Death with Dignity” from Carrie & Lowell.) When you’re using Sufjan Stevens in the pilot, it doesn’t necessarily mean the score needs to feel like that — oftentimes it doesn’t, because the song is it’s own thing — but it gives you the idea of the headspace emotionally where people are at.

“I wanted to compose something that felt timeless.”

What Sufjan is able to do is convey things beautifully without hitting you over the head with it. His voice is almost like a stringed instrument. It’s very legato. There’s a focus on melody, on being understated on some level. Knowing we were going to use a Sufjan Stevens song gave me that insight. I wanted to compose something that felt timeless — there’s no time stamp.

I think that’s what’s successful about the show: We’re able to sell this idea of jumping back and forth in time without confusing people too much. Fans are into the story enough that we can jump to timelines now without any music taking us back and forth, either. It can be dry. You can just have a flashback 30 years earlier and everyone goes, “Oh, that’s young Randall. I got it.”

… We’ve trusted our audience to step up and meet us somewhere. Good art is this marriage between having something beautiful and worth watching and looking at, and something that fans can participate in as well. When you have a scene that jumps 30 years in the past and 30 years in the future and you’re not holding their hand, that’s when the creators and the audience meet.

I have the same sounding score in a 1950s scene as I do in a future scene or present scene. The palette doesn’t necessarily change. I’m glad, because it would be potentially a nightmare to score. (laughs)

The score is built on the karmic principle of the show: The interconnectedness of people across multiple generations and this idea that your grandfather could have made a decision and that could have massive ramifications on you and your offspring. There’s this larger connectivity of life.

The score has a little Indian music — I grew up in India — but it’s not world music. It’s not so much Indian instrumentation; it’s the soul. I’m not using sitars or a tabla, but I am playing my wooden table with my hands as if it were a tabla. So there’s my own set of interpretation of stuff — my Western interpretation of a tabla. It prevents it from going into fusion territory. It’s a more handcrafted, deeper space to be in.

Composer Siddhartha Khosla and actor Milo Ventimiglia, who plays Jack Pearson. Photo by Impact24 PR.
Composer Siddhartha Khosla and actor Milo Ventimiglia, who plays Jack Pearson. Photo by Impact24 PR.

I was reading about your upbringing. Your Indian-born parents sent you from the US to live in India with your grandparents while they worked night jobs and attended graduate school. Also, you’re a father. I’m curious if any of these family experiences have had any impact on how you write for the show or, ultimately, how you respond to its narrative?

As a dad, I appreciate whatever my family did for me and the sacrifices they had to make on my behalf, and I find myself sometimes making lots of sacrifices for my kids as well — sacrificing spending time with them so I can work on these shows and movies and focus on my career in a different way. I constantly am reminded of what my parents did for me and those sacrifices.

“[My] work ethic is the only way I’m able to do four shows and a movie at the same time.”

As far as informing my work on the show, something nudging me as I work on the show is that every action has its consequences and its impact. I wouldn’t be the musician I am today had my parents not sent me to live in India as a kid. So there’s ways of seeing the positive and the good of being separated from your parents — it’s given me a different sense of self. Being a child of immigrants, I have a work ethic that’s in line with their work ethic. That work ethic is the only way I’m able to do four shows and a movie at the same time.

I think you learn all these lessons and you don’t realize where you learned them from. All those experiences contribute to the whole of the person I am. Whether those influences are overtly musical or not can be debated. Certainly they have had massive impacts on my personality. My personality comes through in my music in some ways, so there has to be some kind of relationship.

Composer Siddhartha Khosla and Actor Justin Hartley
Composer Siddhartha Khosla and actor Justin Hartley, who plays Kevin Pearson. Photo by Impact24 PR.

You’ve scored several different types of shows  — including action/fantasy fare like Marvel’s Runawayssitcoms like The Kids Are Alright, and dramas like This Is Us. You’ve also scored films. What are some things you’ve learned over the years working on these different types of stories and platforms for telling stories?

This Is Us taught me to find a more larger connective idea for an episode. For example, every episode of This Is Us is like a little film and sometimes you’ll hear the same theme repurposed and rearranged in different forms throughout the episode. That speaks to the larger connectivity of the stories being told. I’ve definitely applied that to everything I work on now. To me it’s a more filmic approach.

The Kids Are Alright — it’s a comedy. Oftentimes in a comedy you’ll hear 20, 30, 40 unrelated disparate kind of cues, [but in this show] there’s a theme and I return to it continually through an episode. It helps stories track in an interesting way.

“’This Is Us’ taught me to find a more larger connective idea for an episode.”

There’s never been a showrunner I worked with or director I’ve worked with who hasn’t liked that idea. Everyone thinks it’s the right way to have some sort of theme or consistent thing that’s happening.

Marvel’s Runaways definitely expanded my analog synth knowledge, although I was already using synths on This Is Us prior to Runaways. It definitely pushes me to think a little more outside the box when I’m in the position to do it on This Is Us — just knowing that there’s lots of other instruments besides the ones you’re used to using. The knowledge of knowing how to manipulate that instrumentation if I need to is helpful. All of the projects feed into each other in their own interesting way.

So there’s a lot you can learn from the different projects. What I’ve learned the most is how you engage with people and those relationships. Every show’s got different showrunners, different people in charge — everyone’s got their own approach. You need to be able to work with all different types of people — people who don’t know anything about music at all to people who know a lot about music.

In the early 2000s you started a band called Goldspot. I’ve interviewed a few film and TV composers this year who have rock/band backgrounds and I find it fascinating what impact that can have on their work. How does Goldspot inform your compositions?

Songwriting is one thing. Inevitably on every project I’ve worked on I’ve been asked to write an original song, especially This Is Us. (Editor’s Note: One example is his work with Mandy Moore and her husband, musician Taylor Goldsmith. They wrote “Invisible Ink,” which Moore’s character Rebecca performs on the show. Check out the video below for the documentary on the song.)

Writing songs was my first foray into music composition. So that to me comes very naturally, as naturally as scoring something does. The other piece you learn being in a band is technology . My guitar player taught me how to use ProTools. I learned how to engineer my own work. I worked with an incredible engineer named Jeff Peters, who taught me everything I need to know about miking things and getting great sound.

That has been an incredibly useful thing for me in my process. I’m not one of those composers that watches something and then opens up a music comp book and then starts charting out stuff for someone else to play. I play everything on my own most of the time.

I play everything on my own most of the time.”

So on This Is Us I play every element of that score, with the exception of cello. I don’t chart it out for other people to play. It’s very rare. For me I need to record as I’m writing and to do that I need to have the skills to use ProTools to engineer stuff myself — my wooden desk, chair, mic next to me plugged into all sorts of different pre-amps. And I have all my effects stuff around me that I need to use. I’m creating as I go, as I write.

All the band stuff is useful. I spent years in the studio making records.

When making records, we focused a lot on making our own sounds. I never used MIDI once on my records. Ever. Not one virtual instrument is on a Goldspot record. It’s always something created from scratch or an organic instrument. That taught me a lot about crafting something that is uniquely you and preventing yourself from falling into the trap of doing something everyone else can do or sound like. And so that’s the most important thing I bring to my scores. Whether you like it or not, there’s a voice in there, an original concept in there that I take pride in.

That’s why I love the work of so many composers I respect: their work feels homemade, it feels like them; feels original. I respect Nate Barr’s work because of that.

I model myself a bit after Nate — though he may not know it — in the idea that I see what he does and that’s what I try to do, too. I try to make stuff from scratch and I think you can feel that homemade score on This Is Us: from percussion that is my hands on a table to analog synths to half-broken guitars I’m using to score the show. There’s an authenticity to it. I’m bringing something authentic to every project I can.

(Editor’s Note: This interviewed was condensed and edited for clarity and house style.)

The This is Us Original Score was released earlier this year and debuted on the iTunes Top Soundtrack Chart. Khosla composed the hit song, “We Can Always Come Back To This,” which ranked No. 12 on iTunes Top 100 songs and No. 1 in the Billboard Blues Charts for four consecutive weeks.

Following the season two finale, the This is Us (Music from the Series) Season 2 soundtrack was released.


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