- 18 Jun 20
The award-winning composer discusses the global appeal of Normal People, how he approached writing the score, working with Lenny Abrahamson and the state of the Irish music scene.
Although it’s been two weeks since the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People departed Irish screens with its stunning finale, the impact of the series continues to reverberate around the world – and is destined to be remembered as one of the most spectacular Irish productions of recent memory.
Arriving as a much-welcomed glimmer of light during a deeply unsettled and uncertain time, the series, like the novel before it, garnered praise not only for its delicate handling of mental health and consent, but for how it articulated the often unspoken anxieties of the young Irish experience.
While the tender depiction of Connell and Marianne’s young love was largely the result of stunning performances by Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, as well as Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald’s expert direction, the score, by award-winning Irish composer and musician Stephen Rennicks, also played a major role in convincingly translating the story to the small screen. Rennicks has collaborated with Abrahamson extensively in the past – contributing to Room, Frank, What Richard Did, Garage and Adam & Paul, to name just a few.
“People were craving some new material they hadn’t binge-watched before,” Rennicks says of the series' global appeal. “The quality of it is also exceptional. What Lenny, Hettie and Element managed to deliver is the kind of material that is much more associated with independent film – but they showed that that can break through to a new audience. And it reminded ourselves that we actually produce incredibly good stuff here.
"Whether you like Normal People or not, it's inarguably beautifully made. For a lot of people, it will be one of the most memorable things they have watched for years."
Of course, Normal People was not without its controversies – with the sex scenes in particular sparking serious debate among Liveline listeners.
"Because of the whole Joe Duffy thing, I've heard people refer to it as porn," Rennicks reflects. "But I found it to be the antithesis of that. The book, and the way the TV series has been done, is in fact kind of anti-porn. It's remarkable, certainly for my kids' generation, to see sexuality, love, intimacy and friendship in this non-cynical, non-sensationalised way. So much of TV can be about exploitation – making people watch, and then filling the ad spaces."
Rennicks' score delicately, and often devastatingly, frames some of the most iconic scenes in the series.
"The process changes for every project," he explains. "But I read Normal People once, and it just resonated with me. It left me with a real sense of that world. Those people were actually very recognisable from when I was hanging around Trinity in the '80s. Places change slightly, and phones and internet change – but ultimately people are the same. So Connell, Marianne, Peggy and Jamie were already real characters in my life.
"But, with the music, I had to allow people to project their own experiences onto the characters," he continues. "I had to create an aura around these characters – but not really tell anyone who I think these characters are."
Rennicks' score also helps to articulate the unspoken moments that can sometimes get lost when a story journeys from a novel to the screen.
"In the music, there aren’t necessarily themes for each character," he notes. "The way Lenny and Hettie directed it, music is used as a way of adding another colour to a particular scene, or adding an atmosphere, or a smell. The Italian episode, for example, was so beautiful – you just want to stay out of the way of that, so the music is uncomplicated and simple.
"You also have Connell discovering all these things that exist in Europe – these artworks, and these other possibilities. In a way, the music in any part of the series has to contain all these things – that later he’s going to have some kind of breakdown, which was always there. So you have to have that in the music from the very beginning. Or, at least, the music at the very beginning can’t tell a lie about who Connell becomes in the years to come."
Normal People also attracted global attraction for its soundtrack – on which music supervisors Juliet Martin and Maggie Phillips showcased some of Ireland's most thrilling homegrown talent, including SOAK, Tebi Rex, Alex Gough, Anna Mieke and Mango X Mathman, alongside international heavy-hitters.
"Maggie, the American music supervisor, would have brought a certain sensibility to it, but I also know that Juliet is incredibly experienced, and good at what she does," Rennicks says. "She'd be giving Irish acts a really good shake at it, as would Len. But all the Irish bands that are in there, know they're in there on merit – because Lenny would not make any decision other than that. The stuff coming out of Ireland now is at such an incredibly high standard."
Indeed, the Irish music scene has undergone several dramatic transformations since Rennicks' days as a student in Dublin.
"It was a very different time," he recalls. "I played in bands in the late '70s, and the early '80s. It was quite tribal at that time – and actually releasing something seemed so distant. Now, you can write something to a very high standard, produce it, and put it out there – all from your bedroom. So there's an awful lot of music out there, but the real difficulty is in how you turn it into something you're able to live off. That model, of a sustainable career in music, is still being worked on – and it's not very good at the moment. Some of these bands have got a really good spotlight shone on them through Normal People, and it might be their best chance ever of exposing people to their stuff. But still – how do you monetise that?
"A few years ago, there was a notion that if you got a track on Grey’s Anatomy, you were made, he adds. "I know people who did – and they get a cheque every quarter now still, for a couple of grand or so. But the notion that it’s going to somehow change your life is just wrong. What will change your life is if you get a particular tune that just goes mental – that’s the only way that will happen."
While he notes that the series is primarily "an artistic endeavour", he acknowledges that, in many ways, it also serves as a "showcase".
"Irish tourism will be riding hard on the back of it," he laughs. "There’s a kind of irony – 20 years ago, when Lenny and I were trying to raise a few hundred quid to make short films from government agencies, the only thing then that existed was the Arts Council flight, to get to London – where you’d stand a much better chance of raising money. And now, Lenny is claimed as one of our own ambassadors for culture almost at this stage. Quite rightly – but it should’ve been a long time ago."
Normal People (Original Score from the Television Series) is available to stream now.