It wasn’t an accident of event location scouting that Thursday night’s “for your consideration” program touting NBC’s “This is Us” was held in what is usually a concert venue, the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in the Hollywood hills. Although the panel discussion with the cast was the main draw for some attendees, for others it was a mini-concert featuring a half-hour of score from series composer Siddhartha Khosla — capped by Mandy Moore’s performance of “Invisible Ink,” a song cowritten by her husband, Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith, with Khosla for a key season 3 moment.
“I’m kind of a big fan of Taylor’s, so anything he has a hand in I’m going to like, probably,” Moore told Variety before the performance. “But I loved it. He asked me a couple of character-driven questions before they started working on the song. He wanted to get in the frame of mind of my character, which was a totally bizarre conversation to have with my husband. I’m like, ‘Why are you asking me character motivation?'”
“Invisible Ink” was written for a song set in the 1970s when Moore, as Rebecca, and Milo Ventimigila, as Jack, are sitting outside the office of Reprise Records, where she’s just auditioned and been informed that she’s good but only “Pittsburgh-good.” Her future husband, whom she’s barely met at that point, asks her to sing her audition song for him, which she does — with lines like “turns out all my mistakes were forgivable” prompting tears on top of a Vietnam flashback on his part.
“We recorded the song in the studio just to have the song to present to everybody, with Taylor on acoustic and Mandy singing,” said Khosla, “and the original concept was that she’ll start singing the song and then at some point the recorded version will come in over the whole montage of Jack in Vietnam. But then when we heard Mandy’s vocal just in the car, raw with nothing else, Dan (Fogelman) was like, ‘I don’t want to touch that. Let’s keep it completely grounded.'” They did add instrumentation to her a cappella vocal once the flashback kicks in, but “her (on-set) voice is still there. And you’re going to be able to tell if someone’s lip-synching. Her sitting in the car singing had all that charm.”
Khosla and Goldsmith had met once, a couple of years back at a similar, smaller Emmy consideration event for “This is Us,” so when the composer got the assignment for the lone original song that would factor into season 3, as an admirer of his work in Dawes, he called his leading lady’s husband. “I was a huge fan of the band Dawes, and I think he’s one of the best songwriters out there, period.” Says Goldsmith, who’d never written or TV or film before, “I was scared when he asked me to do it, because I knew that the stakes were going to be high. If you write a bad song for your band, you just throw it away. Whereas with this, the show is counting on it. But after only three hours together, I knew: ‘Oh, we’re home free.”
Ventimigila’s emotion in the scene wasn’t entirely practiced. “That f—ing song!” he said at the panel later Thursday, after a clip played. “That was actually the first time I heard it, when Mandy sang it in the car. The words are so relative to what Jack is experiencing in that moment, and what’s so beautiful is she is giving him permission to break. Because we never see that from Jack. That’s not Jack. We saw it once in the pilot and never since. So to earn this moment and have his wife, his love, give him that break was like, ahhhhhh… It really was the words. Jack saw things that only a soldier on a battlefield sees but they have to package up and bring home, (and) he’s overwhelmed. He can’t help but let the demons and heartbreak and emotion and loss take him over.” Even as he turns his face away from his companion in the car, “he’s still trying to hide it.” Moore added that it’s about “her being vulnerable in that moment too. I mean, she just had been rejected and was like, ‘There’s nothing to lose. I might as well sing the song for this strange man.'”
Said Moore before the event, “To me, ‘Invisible Ink’ has all of the essence of what’s happening in a young 24-year-old girl’s life, but also you can hear the undertones of Joni and all the music that she listens to and wants to emulate.” The assignment involved coming up with something period-appropriate, something Rebecca would have written, and something that felt bigger than what she could have intended. Says Goldsmith, “If it had been a really good song but it had been about like ‘I like this guy, I hope he likes me,’ then that might not really have as much of a life. We wanted to write something that felt accurate and appropriate for someone at her age and what she wanted to be doing, but also something that felt like it represented the show and had reverberations for what other people are going through.”
Khosla brought along a small ensemble, including a string quartet, to perform some of the instrumental numbers he usually comes up with in his home studio. There’s a lot to live up to, obviously, on TV’s most unabashedly emotional series.
Introducing one piece, written for a midseason finale scene, Khosla put it in context: “At this moment, Kevin and Zoe are in Vietnam, Toby and Kate find out that they’re having a baby boy, Randall and Beth are going through a rocky point in their relationship, Jack hears a boat explode, and we find out that Nicky is still alive.”
Fogelman was effusive at the event, joking at the beginning: “This is cool. They don’t do this s— for ‘Handmaid’s Tale.'” The series’ creator recalled being roommates with Khosla in a big house during college, “when Sidd was going through a breakup with his high school girlfriend,” and how another roomie came to him with some concerts. “’Can I ask you a question?’ he said. ‘That guy Sidd – is he just going to cry at the f—ing drop of a hat all the time?’ I said, ‘Yeah, for a little while.’ And now, my buddy makes America cry on a weekly basis.”
Goldsmith and Khosla said they have hopes for writing another song together for the soon-to-be-in-production season 4, “and beyond.” In the meantime, while Khosla goes back to work on that scoring, Goldsmith and Moore have musical plans of their own unrelated to “This is Us.”
Dawes has been in the studio and “we’re oing back next week, actually, to hopefully finish it up,” he said. The concert dates on their schedule won’t stand in the way that. “We’re playing shows when we can, bit weekend warrior stuff. We’re not doing any long touring, but still, I mean, we can’t stop. We try, but we can’t.”
Less routinely, perhaps, Moore is at work on her first album since 2009, and gave Variety some details. Goldsmith is not producing, as long rumored or expected, though he is cowriting songs; the producer’s chair is being taken by power pop cult hero Mike Viola. “I’m not the producer, and honestly it’s fun not being,” Goldsmith says. “It’s great to be there and let her guide me to help her achieve her vision. I wouldn’t want to be in a position where I’m suggesting things or pointing her in different directions. It’s been really inspiring to just get to watch her and know what she wants and chase after it, and with me with a guitar in my hands, to be able to help in some small way. I’m really happy that it’s finally happening. We wrote a lot together, and she wrote a lot with our pal Mike Viola, and then the three of us wrote together with others, too.”
Says Moore, “We started in the studio earlier this week and we’re gonna do a couple more songs, and then maybe take a break, since we’ve got to go back to work on the show in a couple weeks. We’ll hopefully keep recording through the summer and maybe have a song or EP out in the fall and then a (full) record early next year.” Stylistically, “anything that I do with Mike always sort of starts from the place of, can it be 1974? We’re recording live on the floor to tape. I’m like, let’s make a quintessential, unapologetic, Fleetwood Mac, California pop, sun-drenched harmonies record, which is Mike’s wheelhouse, and also my wheelhouse and what I love.”\