By Brian Ives
AMC’s Turn is a new drama set during the Revolutionary War that tells the story of America’s first spy ring. An exciting premise, but not one that seems to call for a whole lot of music. Particularly not from modern indie rock artists. But the show, which sticks with the music of the era, uses some of today’s most blog-worthy artists to reinterpret songs from the 1700s. We’ll be speaking with the show’s music supervisor, Thomas Golubic from SuperMusicVision, who also works on the Walking Dead, all season long about the modern twist he’s putting on centuries-old music.
This week’s episode featured two male/female unions of very different varieties: one worked spectacularly well. The other was a hot mess. OK, let’s start with the mess. Warning: Here be spoilers.
If you’ve been watching the show for the past four episodes, you know that Abraham (Jamie Bell) and his ex-Anna (Heather Lind) have never quite gotten over each other, although — of course — they’re each married. Abe has been unable to muster up much passion toward his wife Mary (Meegan Warner), who has moved, with their baby Thomas, to Abe’s dad’s house. If you haven’t watched the show, it’s not quite as salacious as it sounds: the baby’s got croup, and father-in-law’s house has heat (a luxury in the 1700s), not to mention servants.
Of course, Abe doesn’t want to accept help from his father, so, naturally, he gets drunk. And, hey! Anna has some intel that she needs to share with Abe, so she goes to his house to tell him that her recently-freed slave and lifelong friend Abigail (Idara Victor) knows about their spying. But Abe’s drunk and, well, they end up on the table tearing at each other’s clothes.
Until a Redcoat walks in. Awkward! One more reason those Brits need to go home to Mother England!
The musical pairing of Laura Marling and Jonathan Wilson, happily, was much more successful. They recorded a sparse version of a traditional Irish ballad “Bonny Portmore,” which plays during a montage showing the Redcoats realizing they’ve been tricked by the patriots, Anna comforting Abigail’s son Cicero, Abigail arriving in New York City to an uncertain but dangerous future and Abe returning to his father’s house.
Music supervisor Thomas Golubic tells Radio.com that this episode marked a musical highlight for him.
“‘Bonny Portmore’ may be my personal favorite music moment in the first season of ‘Turn,'” he says. “The song arrives at a key point in the series; our characters have made choices that will define their fates and the wheels of history are moving toward inevitable conflict. I think Laura Marling has one of the most beautiful voices in contemporary music. Although she is very young in chronological years, she is very clearly an old soul, and her performance of this wistful, sad Irish ballad about the felling of trees to make war ships captures this key moment in the telling of our Revolutionary War story. Jonathan Wilson’s thoughtful and restrained approach to the song, featuring only an organ against Laura’s stunning vocals, is pitch perfect.”
While most of the songs used on the show are produced by Tony Berg, Jonathan Wilson (a solo artist who has produced Dawes and Father John Misty, among others) helmed this track.
Marling has her own history with the song, as she told Radio.com: “I was asked to perform it at a gathering in London in honor of The People Speak, [the 2009 film] influenced by Howard Zinn’s writings about the history and power of speech and protest. And the night [singer/songwriter] John Martyn died [January 29, 2009], I was on tour in rural Scotland and the entire village came together in the pub and passed around a guitar taking turns to play his songs and sing together, full of joy. That was one of the most important musical experiences I ever had. Not least because in rural Scotland in one pub there were at least 20 people better at singing and playing guitar then me.”
She isn’t surprised that a song from centuries ago would still surface in a pub today: “That’s the point of these old songs, they speak in a common voice. And because they strike that unconscious chord within that speaks of passion, protest and longing. Good music has power to change things for the better, if only one ear at a time.”
Marling had recently moved from England to Los Angeles when she got the offer to record “Bonny Portmore,” and, while Wilson is a prolific collaborator (besides producer other artists, he has also played on records by Elvis Costello and Jenny Lewis, among others), this marked their first collaboration. “Jonathan was one of the first people I met when I moved to LA and what a good bit of luck. He comes at music from such a unique and interesting place and with a tradition that I admire. When this project came up, we finally had an excuse to get in the studio together. His talent, my british accent, jobs a good’un.”
Wilson adds, “It was very nice to finally get a chance to work with her, we have been buddies since she first moved to LA, and we have often talked about working together, this song for ‘Turn’ was the perfect chance. I am a huge fan of her work, she is absolutely one of the most amazing artists singing today, her talent is staggering, we are lucky to have her in LA these days.”
Wilson’s collection of vintage instruments is well known, and it took a minute for him to decide what to use on the song: “We went through and tried several instruments on this session, a clawhammer banjo, guitar, but in the end we settled on a vintage reed organ I had recently acquired , it gave the plaintive, subtle foundation I wanted for Laura’s vocal to compliment on this version. I played organ and Laura sang it live, we did a few takes and then mixed it shortly thereafter. There were no overdubs or edits, and yes Laura can sing it that beautifully every time.”
Both Marling and Wilson are part of Los Angeles’ singer/songwriter scene, and they were both on the “Turn” wishlist. Golubic says, “When we first started working on ‘Turn,’ one of the first calls we made was to Jonathan Wilson. He was very intrigued with our exploration of 18th century songs and mentioned wanting to work with Laura Marling. Soon after, we heard that Laura was moving to Los Angeles from England, and, as it turns out, to our neighborhood of Silver Lake/Echo Park. We met and discussed the ‘Turn’ project and a few weeks later ‘Bonny Portmore’ was the first fruit of their creative collaboration.” We can’t wait to hear what’s next.
Marling and Wilson’s ‘Bonny Portmore’ will be available on the forthcoming Turn soundtrack, which will also include, Jake Bugg’s cover of ‘Turpin Hero,’ Sarah Blasko’s rendition of ‘Spanish Ladies,’ and theme song ‘Hush’ by Joy Williams of the Civil Wars and Matt Berninger of The National. All of these songs are already available on iTunes. You can discuss the show’s music with Golubic during next week’s episode on Twitter: follow him at @SMVCrew and use the #TURNMusic hashtag.