“No Return,” the theme song for Showtime’s Yellowjackets, is ominous and heavy, with distorted vocals echoing the song’s titular threat over industrial production and a nightmarish melody. Playing over the glitchy opening credits sequence, it’s become a defining element of the show about a high school girls soccer team stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash in the 1990s, and the fallout in the years after for its survivors. But it’s also easy to imagine a rock band launching into “No Return” on stage in a gritty club (in fact, Alanis Morissette covered it for a couple episodes of Yellowjackets’ second season).
That’s no coincidence: Anna Waronker, who composes the Yellowjackets score with Craig Wedren, is the former singer and guitarist of alt-rock band That Dog (Wedren is an alum of the band Shudder To Think). And while plenty of male rock stars have successfully made the career transition from stage to behind-the-screen (see: Trent Reznor, Jonny Greenwood, Mark Mothersbaugh), Waronker is one of an increasingly present cohort of female artists now composing for film and prestige TV after first playing in rock outfits. This year, PJ Harvey was nominated for an Ivor Novello Award for her work on the theme for Apple TV+’s dark comedy series Bad Sisters, while Waxahatchee composed the music for the 2022 Apple TV+ animated series El Deafo.
Often burnt out from life on the road and looking for a new creative outlet, many of these women dove into scoring with no official training, but with the talent and tenacity to land marquee projects and Emmy nominations.
“You’re looking at decades of women who have fought to have space in a world where something like 0.3% of composers were women at the time I started,” says Morgan Kibby, who wrote, sang and played with French outfit M83 along with other groups and solo projects before shifting to composing nearly ten years ago. While Kibby had clocked career highs like a 2013 headlining set with M83 at the Hollywood Bowl, by 2015 she knew the B-market touring she was doing with her solo project, White Sea, wasn’t “the right usage of my brainpower.”
Wanting a new creative challenge and realizing that being an artist alone “wasn’t working for me financially,” she decided to try composing. Her first gig was the score of Bang Gang: A Modern Love Story, a 2015 French film directed by her friend Eva Husson. Kibby’s work won best original score at Les Arcs European Film Festival, and the project opened doors. She established herself by saying yes to every project she was offered, working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for years. Most recently, she’s composed for Hulu’s British comedy series Am I Being Unreasonable, the Netflix mystery thriller series The Watcher and U.K. sci-fi drama series The Power, which streams on Amazon Prime Video. The income from these projects is, she says, “a hell of a lot more reliable, because it’s a job. I’m an employee.
“Musicians’ streams of income have just disappeared,” Kibby continues. “I get phone calls all the time from artists who are like, ‘How did you get started in doing what you’re doing?’”
Waronker always knew the rock lifestyle wasn’t for her. “I’m not a huge traveler,” she says, “so being on tour was an extra challenge for me.” When That Dog went on hiatus in the late ‘90s, she was approached by a friend to score their TV show. While she had no formal training, she “jumped into the deep end” — and loved it. “I was like, ‘Oh, this feels like something that’s more fitting for me,” she recalls. After shifting between songwriting, scoring and intermittently playing with That Dog for years, Waronker’s work schedule ramped up significantly amid the pandemic as she composed for shows including the three seasons of Hulu’s Shrill, CW drama The Republic Of Sarah, comedy series Call Me Kat and Yellowjackets.
Like Kibby, Waronker says the fast-paced demands of television production mean “I just work around the clock.” (She emphasizes that she’s still currently available to take on new projects.) She’s got two workspaces in her home: a full studio and a second satellite space where she can compose while being around her husband and 14-year-old son. While she inserts pieces of herself into projects, she’s not the center of attention, as she was in her band days — which she likes. “I can’t make it all about me,” she says. “[Doing that] grosses me out.”
As a member of “The Machine” in Florence + The Machine, Isabella Summers was used to the attention, crowds, stage costumes and “rolling deep in a pack” rhythms of life in a high-profile touring band. But since moving into composing five years ago, Summers has found she now prefers the autonomy of being a hired gun. “It’s been a nice thing to just feel like an adult who has responsibilities in a different way,” she says. “Having to deliver with a team is really nice in that it sparks your imagination.”
Summers got into composing largely by accident, after making a piece of music for Assassination Nation, the 2018 film directed by her friend Sam Levinson (Euphoria, The Idol). Her song was used as the film’s main theme, which led to a music supervisor hooking Summers up with a TV scoring gig. “She said, ‘This is going to be your film school,’” Summers recalls.
The show was Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere, for which Summers earned a 2020 Emmy nomination for outstanding music composition for a series (original dramatic score). (Reznor and Atticus Ross won for their theme to HBO’s Watchmen.) Summers has since composed for the Rose Byrne-starring comedy series Physical (her work has been submitted for Emmy consideration this year), Netflix’s 2022 take on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and is currently working on the upcoming Apple TV+ animated series Strange Planet, created by cartoonist Dan Pyle and Rick & Morty’s Dan Harmon.
Summers, Waronker and Kibby say they’ve all worked on projects where the entire production team was female. In fact, Kibby notes that over the last eight years, she’s only worked on three projects where the team wasn’t entirely women. Working with women, she says, fosters “a lot of compassion, a lot of space, and [an environment where] I don’t feel I need to prove myself, other than with the music.”
In the past five years, only four women have received Emmy nominations in the original dramatic score category (all have classical training, though one, Cindy O’Connor, spent years touring with Pat Benatar as a singer and keyboardist). But those numbers could soon start to increase — and represent the increasing cohort of women coming to composing from the rock world.
And while women are still historically underrepresented in scoring generally, veterans including Laura Karpman (whose work has garnered five Primetime Emmy nominations and one win) and Irish composer Amie Doherty remain active and helming A-list projects. And the women just now entering the field from the rock world are happy to be in their company.
“Having lived that [touring] life and seen those places in the world many people will never see is such a blessing,” says Summers. “But I love my desk job.”