Music can really set the scene and whether we’re aware of it or not, it’s a vital ingredient to many of the television shows we watch. From cueing up a dramatic sequence, driving home an emotional montage or adding tons of fun to an action scene, music helps to shape our viewing experiences. When it comes to Canadian television, there’s one person in particular responsible for the music on many of the shows we here at The TV Junkies know and love, and her name is Andrea Higgins.
As head of music supervision at Arpix Media, Higgins works with composers to create original music or is responsible for finding the ideal song for a particular scene. Her vast resume includes working on current Canadian TV favorites Killjoys, Wynonna Earp, Heartland, X Company and Workin’ Moms, as well as past shows like Bomb Girls, Flashpoint, Durham County and The Listener.
Since Higgins has made her mark on many of our favorite Canadian TV shows, we were happy to speak to her recently as part our Women Behind Canadian TVseries. She shared what it’s like to work on some of the industry’s most popular shows, as well as what it’s like working for many of the amazing female showrunners leading up those series. She also took us through the process of how she selects songs for each episode and why it’s vitally important to gain the trust of the showrunner right from the start.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into doing music for TV shows?
Andrea Higgins: I’ve always been a music lover, movie/TV watcher, totally obsessed with musicals/soundtracks and spent the majority of my youth in a dance studio or my high school music room. I remember one day my mom had a parent-teacher conference with my music teacher and early mentor, Mr. Ken Lamanes (may he rest in peace). I was so excited to hear how awesome he thought I was and he told my mom, “Well, she’s not the best player in the class but that girl has an ear and she should do something with it.” I didn’t know what that meant at the time but it always stuck with me, and here I am!
After high school I had these middle of the road ideas and paths that all just felt wrong. What I really wanted to be doing was working in the music industry as an A&R exec. I was always star struck by music industry people. I was obsessed with Denise Donlon’s career, she was VP at Music Music. I had newspaper articles taped to my bedroom wall as inspiration, so I decided to move to Toronto and go for it. I found a school that specialized in the music industry called Harris Institute for the Arts, where I learned about producing, engineering, publishing, management, marketing, etc. I felt at home and where I needed to be.
I had a few internships at labels, management companies and none of it felt right or fun until I interned at Sony ATV publishing for a week, where my only job was to listen to unsolicited demo CDs and keep the good/toss the bad. I thought it was the coolest job ever! Most of the CDs were bad except I’d note specific songs. Like, I wouldn’t sign this band but ‘Track 4 sounds like it should play in a teen party scene in a Sarah Michelle Gellar movie,’ or ‘This song would be great in a car commercial.’ So before I even realized music supervision was an actual job, the seed was planted. My boss suggested I should look into music supervision and to speak to the licensing department to learn about contracts and negotiations and my mind was blown. My next mission was to find a music supervisor and work for them because I had found my calling.
This led to meeting Ron Proulx [owner, Arpix Media] who was teaching a course at the school literally days later. It was that magic moment of luck, opportunity and timing. I interned at Arpix for a few weeks, then he saw potential, hired me full time and we’ve been working together for 15 years. I was thrown into things right away, learning on my feet. I handled all the admin, then assisted on shows creatively, and slowly took over to where I’m now running many of our productions as head of music supervision and licensing. It’s been a fun ride and I’m always learning.
TTVJ: Despite the best efforts of some, television still very much has a diversity problem behind the scenes. Since you’ve also worked in the music industry, does it share similar problems?
AH: I think every industry has this problem to some degree. When I started out in the music industry, especially at the labels, it felt like a boys club, but I never let it shake me. I really don’t think about it too much. I just want to work with great people and do a great job. I do love seeing more female composers on the rise and wish there were more females in “stereotypical” male roles such as mixer, sound engineer, etc. That said, the majority of the productions we work on are led by amazing badass women and it’s very inspiring.
TTVJ: It’s interesting though in looking at the employees page on the Arpix Media website because you’re the only female listed.
AH: Well, there are only 3 of us! Ron and Kyle (Merkley) are amazingly smart and talented great humans I consider family. I’ve never felt like “the only female there.”
TTVJ: A lot of the shows you work on such as Wynonna Earp, Killjoys, Heartland, Workin’ Moms, they all center around female leads. Do you think that it helps that you’re a female in charge of selecting the music for those shows?
AH: Oh definitely, as a woman it feels great and empowering to be in charge of music on these shows lead by strong female characters. I feel all their feels. That said, I’ve also placed music in shows about male serial killers and Nazis, or bros at a party. I obviously don’t identify with these types of people, but it’s entertainment and you just get in a zone to find the right song for any given moment. It’s all emotion and tone and style and feel. You’re part of the storytelling process with songs.
TTVJ: What’s the process like for you when you’re selecting music for a specific show? Do you work off scripts or are you given the filmed episode?
AH: Every production is different. Most of the productions we work on, we’re involved from the get-go. We get the scripts and have a meeting with the showrunner/producer to discuss how they would like to use music and share style and tone ideas. Then we break down the scripts to budget it all. We’ll send the picture editors a library of songs to work with while cutting. Once the episodes are locked, we have a music spotting session where the music supervisor, the composer and the showrunner/producer get together to map out where score will come in and out and where songs will go, and ensure the tone is right. A note might be ‘This song isn’t sad enough, make us cry!’ Or ‘We need something with more energy.’ Sometimes songs from the cut stay in, sometimes we replace them depending on if the tone is right or wrong. Sometimes a big song we can’t afford will temporarily be in the cut because the tone is right, but then we come in and replace it with something great within budget.
When you start working on a project the goal (for me) is to get to a place where you have your showrunner/producer’s trust! You want to feel comfortable to experiment and make mistakes. This is how we’ll find the sound of any show or film. We’ll talk with the showrunner/producer/director about their vision and build playlists based off that. Sometimes they know exactly what they want, sometimes they have no idea and it’s our job to present ideas of a sonic palette. Sometimes they have a few artists in mind and we’ll go from there. Throwing paint on the wall and having our clients react is a fun part of the job. Once you find the sound, you’re rocking!
The work is very collaborative. I don’t ultimately pick the final music, the showrunner and/or producer and/or director does. I present the best possible options for the scene within budget.
TTVJ: I can vividly remember watching Wynonna Earp for the first time, hearing that theme song and immediately knowing what the vibe of that show was going to be.
AH: I had the exact same feeling when I heard “Tell That Devil” by Jill Andrews. I hadn’t seen anything yet or had any idea what the visuals we’re going to look like. I don’t think I had even seen a cut of the show at this point. I had a conference call with seven producers saying ‘Find us an amazing song! Maybe something with the word gun or demon in it. Off you go, no pressure!’ Finding an amazing song isn’t the hard part, finding a song that seven producers and two networks can all agree upon is the real challenge.
I listened to a ton of songs. When I heard “Tell That Devil,” I knew it was going to be the winner. I just played it again and again and again in my office saying ‘This is it! This is the show!’ Everyone agreed without hesitation and we were off to the races. I live for these magic moments of synchronicity.
TTVJ: In addition to finding songs to use, how do you handle the instrumental music choices on the shows you work on?
AH: As music supervisor, my job is to help shape the overall music direction. Most of the time we come on board before a composer is hired. We often find or suggest composers to write original score. We liaise between composer and producer acting as the translator, assisting in music spotting and reviewing. Sometimes a producer won’t like a cue and it’s my job to help “forensic” the situation to figure out why the cue isn’t working, and make suggestions.
TTVJ: In addition to the upcoming seasons of Wynonna and Killjoys, is there anything else you’re working on?
AH: Heartland, X Company, Workin’ Moms, Bellevue and a feature called Someone Else’s Wedding.
TTVJ: I’m very excited to check out Bellevue.
AH: Awesome! I hope you enjoy! It’s dark and twisty and Anna Paquin is great. There’s another example of a show led by badass females. I’ve worked with Adrienne Mitchell (co-creator/exec producer) on Bomb Girls and Durham County. She has a very unique, creative mind and it’s fun working with her.
TTVJ: I do feel like the industry as a whole is getting better though as far as gender diversity.
AH: It is getting better. I just want to work with great people regardless of gender. It’s important that women are supportive of each other. Fight for what you want. Get up every day, be kind to people and do good work that you love and you’ll go far.
TTVJ: Well I feel that is a common trait about the women you’ve mentioned–Emily, Michelle, Stephanie Morgenstern, Adrienne Mitchell–they all support other women.
AH: Supporting women is important. I’ve learned something from all these women I’ve mentioned. Heather Conkie (Heartland showrunner) has been a huge mentor to me over the last 10+ years. All of these women inspire me to push harder every day and do great work. In general, when you work with great people you want to go the extra mile.
Are you a fan of the music on shows like Wynonna Earp and Killjoys? Sound off in the comments below!
Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.
Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.