Singer-songwriter Sam Phillips had never worked on scores for film or television before she was hired to compose the music for Gilmore Girls in 2000, right after the show's pilot was picked up to series by the now-defunct WB network. Over the course of Gilmore Girls’ (original) seven-season run, she developed music that became as much a part of the world of Stars Hollow as fast-paced dialogue and caffeine addictions.
Since the show ended in 2007, Phillips has also composed music for the late, great Bunheads, another show by Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, and released two albums and five EPs. But when Netflix announced it would be reviving Gilmore Girls for a special four-episode miniseries titled Gilmore Girls: A Day in the Life, she couldn't wait to return.
Vox spoke to Phillips earlier this year, just as she was preparing to pick up where she left off. Here’s what she had to say about molding the score into a character of its own, composing new music for the upcoming episodes, and which of Rory’s past boyfriends is the best.
On thinking of Gilmore Girls’ background music as one of the show’s characters:
Phillips explained that Sherman-Palladino “wanted me to use my voice to do background vocals and make it sort of another character in Lorelei and Rory's heads.” Phillips says she thinks of the show’s melodies as “a little tune that you would sing in your head as you’re walking down the street,” and they definitely operate that way — good luck getting these songs out of your head:
Phillips achieved this effect in part by keeping the production simple, without a lot of keyboards, drums, or bass guitar. "A lot of times you don't hear a certain melody, you just hear a guitar strumming over and over again," she says. "I would try to make these little mini melodies that would be connected to different characters or different emotions in the series."
She recounted an instance from early in Gilmore Girls’ run when she used a lot of strings in one scene and the result felt too dramatic. So she pared down the music to make it a better fit for the emotional moment.
"It's kind of the trial and error, trying to figure out what best supports the scene and what doesn't take away from it," she says.
On how Gilmore Girls’ score differed from the industry standard:
When Gilmore Girls was airing on the WB, Warner Bros. Records was also involved. The music label would send over a lot of its music to Sherman-Palladino and Phillips, hoping the show could help it sell records. But Sherman-Palladino would resist most of the time, Phillips says, because she wanted to use songs that meant something to her.
"We tried to make the score different from most TV music to make it kind of odd, so that it was a little bit off-kilter and smaller," Phillips explains.
She also says she appreciated the freedom she enjoyed while working on the show. Sherman-Palladino “always let me do what I thought was best, and she always pushed to do something very different musically,” Phillips says. “And I'm sure she took the heat, because I didn't hear a lot of comments; I didn't have any pressure from anyone.”
On the power of pairing music with picture:
Branching out of the corporate safe zone clearly worked. A quick skim of the comments section of any YouTube compilation of Phillips's classic "la-las" quickly reveals how much of an impact Gilmore Girls’ music has had on people's lives. For example, many commenters have mentioned playing the show’s music during their weddings:
Phillips maintains that “putting music to picture,” when done right, is “one of the more powerful mediums,” because you have writing, acting, visuals, and music all supporting each other. And the role of art, she says, is “to move us, to inspire us, and to mean something.”
Gilmore Girls hit close to home for Phillips more than once. She had a 2-year-old daughter when she started working on the show, and she became a single mom over the course of its run. Phillips says she occasionally used to feel like the show’s writers were reading her mail, because the episodes “were so current with what I was going through.”
Last year over the holidays, Phillips and her now 18-year-old daughter sat down to watch the entire series together for the first time. She says her daughter loved it, and that she’s excited to see how the new episodes are received by viewers who were too young for Gilmore Girls when it first aired but have since found an appreciation for the show.
On the music she wrote for the new episodes:
In short, keep an ear out for both familiar and new material.
“Sitting down to write, I felt like it was so easy to compose the music just because I did it for so long and really got to know the characters and the series really well, so it came about very naturally,” Phillips says, noting that the music in the new episodes will be a little different but will call back to what Gilmore Girls fans have taken to calling “the la-las.”
Phillips composed and performed the original score — complete with requisite la-las — for all four of the new episodes, providing vocals, acoustic guitar, and piano along with the rhythm section of Jay Bellerose (drums), Jennifer Condos (bass), and Eric Gorfain (guitars/keyboards).
On the great debate over which of Rory's past boyfriends is the best:
Phillips was quiet as she thought about this question for a minute, as it certainly isn’t an easy one to answer. The polarizing topic has been the subject of many an internet debate.
Here’s her carefully considered response:
"I guess I have to say Jess, because it just seemed like there was such a spark there, you know? I mean, who doesn't love Dean because he was such a good guy, and Logan's very flashy, but I think I always loved Jess because he was a rebel."
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life premieres Friday, November 25, on Netflix.