Scoring podcasts and movies with Wonderly

Ash Tuesday,” “Baguette Swagger,” “Sasquatch Pie Thief,” “Bomb Shelter” — the track listing for Wonderly’s latest trio of albums are as distinct as the tracks themselves sound. That’s because the albums are actually soundtracks.

“You know those opening chords of ‘Hey Jude,’ where the feel is immediately apparent? We had all of these short pieces that were potent, mood-wise, and we wanted to put them into cohesive collections,” Wonderly wrote in an e-mail. “We think it’s an interesting listening experience.”

The band consists of two musicians: Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk. The two first met when they worked on a benefit record for the Lone Fir Cemetery, a historic cemetery in Portland, with Jim producing and Ben arranging the music. They were later approached with an opportunity to score a theme for “The Finish Line,” a podcast created by Boston’s NPR news station, WBUR.

“We had to turn it around overnight,” they said. “It was nerve wracking, but we came up with something that really resonated and we became addicted to long experimental, emotional composing in the basement.”

Since then, the duo has worked with notable artists like Smokey Robinson, Kristin Hersh, and Mark Orton. They’ve composed music for films, records, and other podcasts, and have compiled 49 of their soundtracks over three anthologies. One of their more famous works is the theme song they created for “The Daily,” the New York Times’ daily news podcast.

They’ve also released their own album as a band, lyrics and all.

“We both love pepper jelly,” they said on their work dynamic (and friendship). “But other than that, we never fight over food or credit because we share everything.”
The covers of Wonderly’s soundtrack albums.

When tackling a new project, Wonderly starts by asking the project’s creators to send them music that they’re drawn to, and the pair will then send music back that “fits the feeling of what they’re looking for.” After reaching a common ground, they’ll start composing.

“We’re trying to amplify the emotional impact of the project, but words are often imprecise when describing music,” they said. “So, we prefer to start from a baseline of musical communication.”

Depending on the project’s mood, the duo might pick up a “wee tiny guitar” for happy songs or a giant violin for sad songs (“we find this delivers sufficient gravitas”). There are recognizable tropes in scores, like dissonance to indicate tension and minor tones to express sadness, but Wonderly tends to avoid them.

Jim and Ben might also approach a new project depending on the aspect of music they start with. If they hear a melodic motive first, they might pick up a viola or guitar. If it’s a rhythym track, they might go for drums, bass, or sequencing. They’ll tinker with ideas on the piano because of its versatility, but they’re also open to experimentation.

“Sometimes we pull out instruments that we don’t play very ‘well’ because the limitations there lead to unexpected voicings, melodies, and chordal movements.”

Wonderly is currently scoring “At the Video Store,” a documentary about the demise of the brick-and-mortar video store that’s directed by James Westby and features Gus Van Sant, Bill Hader, and John Waters, among others.

“Because the film has a wide range of moods, we had fun imagining ourselves as lascivious Frenchmen, early-vintage Rockford Files extras, and video store denizens.”

Hey, whatever works to soundtrack a mood.

Here are Wonderly’s 12 songs, in no particular order.

“I Dream a Highway” by Gillian Welch

One of the most nuanced, incredible duo performances ever recorded, Gillian and David Rawlings hold the space of this song for nearly 15 minutes, and it slows into a dream, creating a drug-like trance. Impossibly heartbreaking and patient, there is no fat — only core emotional brilliance and presence.

“Wailing Wall” by Todd Rundgren

Succinct, straight for the jugular emotional minimalism tied in with social/political overtones, empathy, and worldly understanding from such an offbeat young songwriter with an unmatched voice of innocence.

“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye

Ben: I was obsessed with James Jamerson’s playing on that record for years. The whole record is a duet between vocal and bass.

Jim: Somebody gave me a bootleg of the multitrack of this and I listened to Marvin’s vocal soloed up (and every other track) a thousand times, amazed at how much raw soul and talent went into that session.

“Nobody Knows What You Do” by John Hartford

This song is funky, filthy, sly, and pretty much makes it okay to be any weird thing your inner nerd needs to be. Embraces the dorkiest side of any person with loving care and unmatched musical prowess.

“I’m Only Sleeping” by Beatles

Our favorite Beatles song. The bridge catapults the song into new territory. It’s tender, yet removed, standoffish but sympathetic, and observant of the world blazing “by my window”.

“Blackbird” by Beatles

We’ll never know if Paul accidentally struck a deep emotional vein in tribute to MLK (as Paul has hinted) or if he was just thinking about a pretty girl on the corner (as he has confessed), but it doesn’t matter. It’s a unique quitar masterpiece. Based on Bach’s Bourret in Em, surprisingly — he and George had learned the piece to show off their guitar playing. Every player thereafter learned Blackbird for the same reason.

A rehearsal take recorded by Paul McCartney.

“Goodbye Porkpie Hat” by Charles Mingus

Ben: One of the weirdest and most expressive 12 bar blues melodies ever composed, and one of the first things I learned how to play on the bass. One of the most moving tributes to a fellow musician (written for Lester Young).

“Skeletons” by Rickie Lee Jones

Jim: Vulnerability, character, and tragedy (never more relevant than today). I can’t even think about the song without my heart swelling for humanity.

“Justorum Animae” by William Byrd

Ben: One of the most soulful pieces of polyphony ever written, from the early 17th century. “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God”…the setting of the final two words of the text — “in pace” are exemplary of the finest word painting Byrd ever did.

“Around the Dial” by Kinks

A pivotal rock anthem that is as smart as any song ever written, and as musical as well. The second bridge falls into place as the narrator wonders about devoting himself to, or ditching entirely, terrestrial airwaves that brought him into adulthood and truth. Drums and guitar that must have been recorded in a warehouse. Insane melody.

“You’ve Got A Friend” by Donny Hathaway

The dude is so musical that he brings a revelation into a room that is absolutely lit up with music — the audience is the choir. This track is the sound of joy, especially the end.

“Real Emotional Girl” by Randy Newman

The ultimate puzzler gives us another untrustworthy narrator to weigh and judge. We end up sympathizing with the pathetic object, not the singer, but the emotions are as raw and real as if the song were written about the listener’s daughter. Painful.

Listen to Wonderly’s curated 12 songs playlist below.

Written and edited by Tiffany Wong. Artwork by Olivia Reaney.