Start a conversation with Todd Rundgren about his sudden wealth of needle drops within the last 10 months — including the multiple interpretations of his 1973 hit “Hello It’s Me” as performed throughout the first season of HBO Max’s “And Just Like That…,” or the use of “I Saw the Light” in “Ozark” — and before the question is out, Rundgren is laughing.
“I find it as unusual as everyone else does,” says Rundgren from Denver, before another night of playing with friend Daryl Hall during that latter’s current solo tour. “I can’t figure out what’s going on, as to why there’s sudden interest in my music, and that era in particular.”
The era of which Rundgren speaks is his early 1970s output. That’s when the one-time psychedelic pop songwriter-guitarist from the Nazz went solo and achieved cosmopolitan, blue-eyed soul heights with 1970’s “We Gotta Get You a Woman” and 1972’s double-album magnum opus, “Something/Anything?” — featuring hits in “I Saw the Light” and “Hello It’s Me” — before moving into sophisticated, influential synth-pop with 1973’s “A Wizard, A True Star.”
It’s not as if Rundgren’s music hasn’t been used in the past, as he penned the score to 1994’s “Dumb & Dumber,” and has found his tracks in projects from Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” and “Vanilla Sky” to a 2005 episode of “The Office” to the 2015 “Grand Theft Auto V” video game.
But, since last year, that “particular era” of Rundgren’s contagious pop prowess had found its way into director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza,” CNBC’s daytime newscast, “Morning Joe,” and Netflix’s current No. 1 drama, “Ozark,” all of which used “I Saw the Light” — “Ozark” to particularly chilling effect in its last season, through an anxiety-laden family drive.
It’s not exclusively that period that music supervisors and directors have latched onto. CBS’ recently canceled “Magnum P.I.” reboot used Rundgren’s biggest 1980s hit, “Bang on the Drum All Day.” For the Oscar-nominated “The Worst Person in the World,” Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier dipped into a less obvious corner of Rundgren’s 1980s catalog, making prominent use of “Healing Pt. 1” in one sequence to fulfill his dreamy American soft-rock quota.
But it’s his best-known classic, “Hello It’s Me” (written in 1967 for the Nazz, but not a hit until he recorded it solo five years later), that was picked up for repeat usage by the showrunners of “And Just Like That…,” the sequel to “Sex and the City.” Along with using Rundgren’s version from “Something/Anything?,” the controversial dramedy translated that track into a syrupy instrumental, as well as providing its Mr. Big character (as played by Chris Noth) with something to sing before shuffling off this mortal coil by way of a Peloton and a heart attack.
“I’m happy they used those songs from that time,” says Rundgren, adding: “It would be great if they widened the scope a little bit, because there is lots of music that I have written that wasn’t on ‘Something/Anything?’”
Rundgren has the same manager now as he’s had for decades (Eric Gardener at Panacea), so there’s no fresh-faced rush to get him into film and television. And he’s never been one to go above and beyond in pushing what he does: “I’m not a celebrity seeker; my name isn’t in your Apple news feed. I’m just about the music.“ He does cite recent occurrences in his life as possibilities for why his music is getting called up more.
“It could be the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing, which means more to other people than it does to me,” he said of an honor he neither wanted nor whose 2021 ceremony he attended. “Maybe that raised my visibility to the point where industry people go, ‘Hmmm, I remember him.'”
He got additional amounts of press for publishing an offbeat memoir a few years back, although he’s not sure whether that’s a factor. “The autobiography I put out before the pandemic (“The Individualist: Digressions, Dreams and Dissertations”) wasn’t an earthshaking event. We sold a few copies, but it wasn’t on the New York Times Bestseller list or anything.”
Not only hasn’t Rundgren spoken with anyone directly involved in any of the productions who have used his music, he says he usually learns of the usage after the fact, as he doesn’t own the rights to that early work from his Bearsville label years.
And sometimes he can only speculate, like anyone else, why his songs were picked. “(It’s called) ‘Worst Person in the World,’ and the filmmaker thought of me,” he laughs.
“The producers and showrunners don’t want anyone to know what songs it is they are using or are going to use. It’s always supposed to be this surprise… They don’t even tell the license owner that they’re going to use it because they’re afraid that fact will get leaked. They’re even willing to pay the penalty for not telling. Normally they’d come to us, asking permission first, with a statutory rate, or one you’d negotiate. In the case of ‘And Just Like That…’ and ‘Ozark,’ we didn’t know about it. It just happened, and we find out about it later. They don’t want their surprises spoiled.”
One Rundgren song use that he did get a call about in advance was when Coldplay’s Chris Martin asked about sampling “Healing, Pt. 1” after watching “Worst Person in the World”.
“We never met or spoke previously, but Chris called and asked to sample that, and would It be OK,” notes Rundgren. “I didn’t even know my song was in that film.
“I guess I don’t have that close an association with my copyright owners. That’s not a weird thing. I normally don’t get involved with the business side of this, and leave it to people who do know. And I’m not the sort of artist who gripes about why am I not getting more money for something. I just take whatever work I can find and don’t meddle. So it’s not surprising that I didn’t hear from anyone, but it is surprising that even my management never heard a thing about any of this activity. But that’s the new world we’re in.”
Rundgren makes it clear that neither he or his management are discouraging the use of his songs, as the songwriter-producer enjoys having his music in constant rotation as part of the film-television-stream world.
Along with mentioning a surprise fan in Chris Martin, Rundgren states that Donald Glover contacted him. While not specific as to the future purpose of his call, Rundgren was amazed by Glover’s fandom, and thought “someone of top of the musical world such as Glover, he must be yanking my chain. It’s flattering and dumbfounding.”
Has Rundgren watched any of the productions in which his music was used?
“Only after the fact,” he says. “I don’t watch much episodic television, particularly if it’s based on people’s weird relationships or entertainment (based on) watching people fight or have issues. I wind up yelling at the screen. And I miss exploring much of that culture even when people in my household are completely devoted to them. ‘Game of Thrones’ — I’ve never sat through an entire episode.”
Can Rundgren speak to how his music was utilized in any of these shows or films? As a “narcissistic musician… trying to get sounds and ideas out of my head,” he knows that his songs will have different meanings to everyone who listens — like signaling joy before someone dies of an exercise-bike heart attack.
“People will make their own connections with my music unique and special to them. For me, ‘Hello It’s Me’ was the first song that I ever wrote… I got the music from an improvised (jazz organist) Jimmy Smith intro, copied the chords and wrote about the girl who broke my heart in high school, just like everybody else writes. I finished it and moved onto another song. Objectifying vague thoughts that you have in your head and putting them down in sound is a way of finding out how full of crap you are… ‘I Saw the Light’ is the dumbest song I’ve ever written. I did it in 20 minutes flat. The lyrics are ‘moon, June, spoon’ stuff all the way, so if you can find depth in that, all power to you. I wrote these songs and however they’re interpreted, that’s fine with me.”
Rundgren is willing to again compose for film if it “required a thoughtful approach” after his debut with “Dumb & Dumber.” He mentions liking the stuff that composer Carter Burwell does along with several other composers who don’t always write for big orchestras. He is not interested in making music for episodic television (“it’s nerve-racking and you’re at the bottom of the pole”), but would love being involved in something “that keeps me off the road for a while.”
Other than that, Rundgren is gathering steam in 2022 on “Space Force,” his full-LP follow-up to 2017’s “White Knight.”
“We’re looking at Thanksgiving now, is what they, the Cleopatra label, is telling me, so I’ll just keep my powder dry until then.”