Shonda Rhimes Reveals Secrets of ‘Scandal’ Soundtrack

Shonda Rhines (300)

Shonda Rhimes also has many gold records hanging on her walls. (Photo: ABC)

Shonda Rhimes is quickly becoming one of the most powerful women in the music industry.

The creator of GREY’S ANATOMY and PRIVATE PRACTICE has jump-started the careers of acts like Snow Patrol (“Chasing Cars”) and The Fray (“How To Save A Life”), by using their songs as backdrops to classic scenes.

Now, Rhimes, 43, has found a very different musical voice — and is showcasing a new breed of under-the-radar talent — for her newest ABC hit, SCANDAL.

I spoke with the unlikely hit-maker last week for a story that appeared in The New York Post.

Here’s some of what she had to share…

Q: How did you find the voice for this show?  And why old school R&B?
For me, musically, it really was that when we made the pilot we filmed it and I remember going to the editing room and watching it and it had sort of regular, modern music in there.  And I said to the editor, Matt Ramsay, “Let’s strip all the music out.  I think I have a song by the Staple Singers that feels really right to me.”  And everybody kind of laughed.  But suddenly the show had an entirely different feel and tone that felt right.  There is something, you know, a little funky about the show.  I feel like there is a vintage glamour we try to have with Olivia and the way the offices look and her home looks.  It feels like a very different take on Washington.  Obviously it really came down to the fact that it felt right to me.

Q:  Was some of the consideration also that “Grey’s” was using so much current music?
It wasn’t so much that I was worried about comparisons to Grey’s — the shows are so different anyway.  It really was for me that that is what was in my head at the time.  And it probably was what I was listening to at the time, because I have a ton of ‘70s music on my computer.  And it just felt like the sound of the show.  You just have to find the sound of the show that feels right.

Q:  Obviously the music is R&B and the lead actress is black.  Did that have anything to do with it?
Nope.  Not that I know of.  I don’t think one had anything to do with the other.  It is just the music I was listening to.

Q:  Describe your process… Do you have the songs in your head when you writing?
Sometimes I have them in my head when I am writing the scenes.  Sometimes they pop into my head when I am watching the cut.  I had sort of said ‘I want to do Staples Singers.  I want to do funky… but that wasn’t until after we shot the entire pilot.  So Alex, who is incredible went back and gave us a whole new batch of songs for the show, which was great.  A lot of the songs we end up using come from my own private collection.  And Alex is like ‘You are making my life a living Hell, trying to clear this stuff.’  And some of it is stuff that Alex gives us that is just so amazing.  So we have had a really great mix of that.  Also Matt Ramsay, who is the editor, is the one who came up with…played for me the music by The Album Leaf, which is sort of the Olivia-Fitz theme.  You hear it in a couple of episodes.  I really love it and think it is a beautiful song, so we have used a lot of Album Leaf as well — which doesn’t really fall into the category of R&B or anything really.

Q:  Ever run into problems clearing songs?
We haven’t yet.  We have been really lucky.  We’ve used a lot of Stevie Wonder and a lot of the 70’s staples.  We used some interesting things.  We used Bettye Lavette singing her version of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”, which is one of my favorite music uses ever — which isn’t really 70s music at all and doesn’t fall into that category either.  But it just felt right and OK.  I feel like we used Nina Simone.  I am always trying to use Nina Simone because Nina Simone always feels right and soulful and perfect for the mood that Olivia is in a lot for me.  She has always been a favorite.  We have had trouble clearing Nina Simone because she is a big one.  But mostly, we haven’t run in to trouble at all.

Q:  You sometimes take songs that have one meaning and use them completely out of context.  Do you not take the meaning of a song literally?
I don’t take it literally at all.  I think it is important not to.  I try to take the mood of a song.  I think that is much better.  If you need your song to literally tell your story then I would suggest there is something wrong with your story.

Q:  A few weeks ago you used the theme to the movie “Car Wash?”
I love the song.  It is one of those songs that, for me, was one of those songs from when I was a really little kid.   I love that song.  There is something great about the energy of it.

Q:  Why are there some episodes with no music at all?
In episode 208, “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.”  208, 209 actually… because of the nature of the episode there was no music.  Because we were in… At the end of 207, the president is shot,  so in 208, the nature of the world we are in requires that there is no music.  There is no place for there to be music in that world.  209 sort of had that same thing.  It was moving at a pace that made it feel very different.  211 as well.  So there is much less music.  And even in 2010, we only used one song.

Q:  Do you pay attention to how other people use music in their shows?
Sometimes.  I learned a lot from doing GREY’S.  We really used music in a way that felt different.  That I hadn’t seen it being used then.  Every once in a while, I will hear music that is amazing.  I think on “Damages” every once in a while they use music in a very interesting way.   Sopranos did it incredibly well.  Sometimes I feel is great to just watch a show that just goes off score and doesn’t use music.  Silences are also interesting.  Filling every hole with music.

Q:  Car Wash?
I love the song.  It is one of those songs that, for me, was one of those songs from when I was a really little kid.   I love that song.  There is something great about the energy of it.

Q:  You are a very influential person in the music business.  Are you aware of that?
I am definitely aware of it.  I have a platinum album from The Fray in my office!   I want to say this.  They did this great promo for SCANDAL during the Oscars.  It was very James Bond inspired.  And they played this amazing song in it which was buy a completely undiscovered artist.  That is one of those instances where her song played during a 30 second promo during the Oscars and it was talked about more than anything else that happened that night.  And her life has been forever changed.

Q:  Where does your musical taste come from?

I always joke that Alex Patsavas [the show’s music supervisor] gives me taste.  She gives me songs to listen to and I pick all of my songs from Alex’s good taste.  And what is great.  I al literally just listening to stuff I like.  I am not just looking for artists I like.  I have never bothered to think of that.  It is really just about is this song right for this scene?  What is going to make this scene the most magical?

Q:  What are you listening to these days?
I very much like The Killers.  I think they are very interesting.  I am still listening to a lot of Adele.  I put her on Grey’s really early on.

Q:  What’s on your iPod?
The last five songs I played on my iPod are:

“Everything is Broken” – Bettye Levette

“Word Up” – Cameo “Its very fun to dance around the room with”

Anything by Nina Simone.  “I am constantly playing Nina Simone, which I think is a very important thing.

“Skyfall” – Adele.  “That is in heavy rotation on my computer.

“Joy” by Issac Hayes.


Sean Daly

Sean Daly

Editor-In-Chief at
Sean Daly is a veteran entertainment journalist.His work has appeared in People, Us Weekly, The Toronto Star and other top publications. He was the west coast TV reporter for The New York Post from 2008 - 2013. Sean is the author of Inside AGT: The Untold Stories of America's Got Talent and Teen Mom Confidential: Secrets and Scandals From MTV's Most Controversial Shows.
Sean Daly