Through ‘Yellowjackets’ and ‘High School,’ Anna Waronker Is Making the ’90s Timeless

musician and composer Anna Waronker, most recently of the TV series High School, is trying not to gush too much, but she really likes the show. The TV adaptation of tegan and Sara Quin‘s memoir of the same name, which premiered last month on Amazon Freevee, tells the story of how the now famous pop duo discovered music, their queerness, and themselves in the mid-’90s. “Working on High School was one of the best experiences I’ve had as a composer,” Waronker tells Vanity Fair. “The way that Clea [DuVall, coshowrunner and executive producer] handled their coming-of-age as musicians, I just thought it was the sweetest, most honest representation of how it actually goes down,” she says. “There’s so much heart to it.”

Unsurprising for a show about nascent musicians, the soundtrack is perfection, with its expertly chosen needle drops, ranging from mainstream to indie cool—think the Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana—who were big influences on the twins, but also Helium and Lilys. (Waronker fully credits music supervisor Brienne Rose and showrunners DuVall and Laura Kittrell for this, though, naturally, there was a moment or two she says in which she piped in with a suggestion.) But it’s the incidental music that defines the mood of the show. It invites viewers to recall that particular brand of melancholy and teen angst that’s so palpable in high school, mixed with just the right amount of hopefulness and possibility. That Waronker, frontwoman of ’90s band that dog. and cocreator of the yellowjackets score, wrote it only makes sense. If you did n’t know her tracks were originals, you’d think you were listening to ’90s songs you had n’t yet heard, but wanted to keep playing.

The process of figuring out which scenes need original music, needle drops, or no music at all can sometimes be tricky, but with DuVall and Kittrell, it was a breeze. They had mapped out a pretty clear path from the beginning. “It was like, yes, of course the Breeders are right there,” Waronker says, “or it has to be score right here—it can’t be a song because it’s internal dialogue or an internal moment for one of them, and we had to define them.”

When composing, Waronker was inspired by bands like Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine, Throwing Muses, and Lush, all of them ’90s-era bands she’s a fan of herself, and groups that fit the mood she was going for. “It was fun because scoring is so specific to whatever you’re working on, and oftentimes you don’t get to dig into something that you’re super inspired by. And that’s okay too, I love that challenge,” Waronker says. “But with this, it was like, ‘Oh, my God, why don’t you go back in time and pick out your favorite music and then just get inspired by it and create a score with all of those elements in them?’ ” Which is precisely what she did.

And because Tegan and Sara are musicians, and this whole show is about their music and their journey to becoming musicians, there was an added imperative to get it right. “It was really important to have the score have its own identity from that music [Tegan and Sara’s early songs]and the music inspiring them, and the music surrounding them,” Waronker says.

As integral as music is to the bones of the show, High School notably doesn’t have a theme song. Which, given all the buzz of the yellowjackets opener Waronker wrote with composing partner Craig Wedren (also of ’90s fame; he was the lead singer of beloved indie band Shudder to Think), might have been a surprise or even a disappointment to fans. “It was a conversation the whole time,” Waronker says. They took it episode by episode—one episode has a theme song, in fact—but ultimately having the opener be different every time felt like a better fit for the show. “It’s what it needed,” Waronker says. “It didn’t need to have an identity shoved onto it.”

A second season hasn’t yet been announced for High School, but Waronker is already gearing up for the next season of Yellowjackets, deeply immersing herself in Bulgarian women’s choir records and more Cocteau Twins for inspiration. When asked if she feels pressure about working on the second season after the first was such a viral hit, she offers an emphatic no. “I don’t think we could feel any more pressure than we felt in the first season,” she says with a laugh. She attributes her current chillness to the great relationship she and Wedren developed with the show’s creators and executive producers. “By the end of the show, they wanted us to get as weird as we could. And we were so excited to do that, but didn’t trust it at first,” she says. “We just kept waiting for them to want to dumb it down and they kept saying, ‘No, make it weirder.’ And we were like, ‘Okay!…this is so fun!’”

while it was through yellowjackets that Waronker found her own personal corner in this hot spot of ’90s TV we’re in the midst of, it actually began prior, with her band that dog. Yes, with ’90s that dog., of course, but more specifically, the 2019 album the band put out, their first in over 20 years. “I was very aware of wanting to keep the band’s musical identity intact, but without it feeling like we were doing a throwback album,” Waronker says of working on it. “And I feel like whatever work I did mentally about music on that album has really helped carry me through these projects to keep them fresh and feel timeless, but also totally touching on that era.”

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