“Poker Face” score: Charlie’s theme is banjo-based

Peacock series composer Nathan Johnson tells IndieWire that he’s stepping out of his comfort zone to explore the banjo.

Every great main character deserves to enter a custom theme song. But it is rarely played on the banjo. But as viewers of the Peacock’s mystery series “Poker Face” know, nothing else can do justice to Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie Cale, a human lie detector on the run in small-town America.

“In Act 1 of each episode, we see the murder, and then at the beginning of Act 2, Charlie appears, and then we hear it,” composer Nathan Johnson explained. The creative decision deviated from the convention laid down in the crime shows of the ’70s and ’80s that inspired the series by not going under the headlines. Instead, Johnson wanted the audience to “land in a completely new place every time with no preconceived notions.”

Read More: Credit Where Credit Is Due: How To Use The ‘Poker Face’ Typeface To Pay Homage To ’70s Inspirations

“With all the classic serial storytelling, we love the music, and the title track immediately throws us so strongly into that world after a few notes,” he added. “What I love about not doing this is that it allows the world to be a completely new location every time.”

Johnson, a longtime collaborator (and cousin) of “Poker Face” creator Rian Johnson, knew he wanted to create a dusty Americana score with a “desert place feel.” That’s when the showrunner suggested he lean into the banjo. Not expecting this at all, the musician went out, bought one, and began to write and explore the instrument. “That really became the anchor and I built the whole score around that,” he added.

According to the composer, Rian liked the idea of ​​”exploring the warmth of it and exploring the use of the banjo outside of bluegrass styles.”


Guitarist Johnson took an unconventional approach to creating the score, enlisting acclaimed banjo player Bennett Sullivan to play what he had written to see if it would work. He then assembled a “dream house band” that included drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist David Pilcher, Johnny Rogers on tuned wine glasses, and guitarist Judson Crane.

“I wrote the themes and scored Rian’s episodes, and then Judd took the themes I wrote and worked on the other episodes, scoring them,” Johnson revealed. “It was very much like an orchestra approach.”

This isn’t the first time tuned glass has played a significant role in Johnson’s scoring. “It’s such a strange, beautiful sound that has been woven into my work all the way back to ‘Tegla’,” he recalled. “We used tugiated wine glasses because we couldn’t afford strings, and we made those long, cozy, string-like beds.”

The “Poker Face” band also used a tremolo banjo to “slip into that darker, more ominous element” and answer some key questions. He wondered, “How can we create a sound that doesn’t feel fun and bouncy? How do we create a dissonant, dark undertone with banjo, low drums, and straight bass?”

While the style remains consistent throughout the 10 episodes, Johnson used the changing locations and his own travel experiences to influence where he went with the soundscape each time.

“I knew they were shooting the first episode in Nevada, and then Charlie was going to be on the run,” he recalled. “I thought of all the lavish, underbelly American cities I’d experienced on road trips touring with bands.”

A man in a suit with a goatee stands in the foreground, an illuminated, empty stage and concert crowd in the background;  Portrait of actor Benjamin Bratt "Spider face"

Benjamin Bratt in “Poker Face”.

Sara Shatz/Peacock

One thing that has remained pretty much the same, however, is Charlie Cale’s theme. “We fixed the speed or expression. Sometimes it’s played softer, sometimes it’s a little more dynamic, but musically, the stuff I’m really excited about is specifically tied to the character,” enthused Johnson.

He described Lyonne’s character as “someone who loves people, a positive character that you fall in love with and want to come back and spend time with”. However, creating a theme that was a “musical parallel” for him and grew with him over the course of the show was no plain sailing.

“It came down to me sitting by myself and writing and writing and sending voice notes to Rian until he heard something he liked.”

Johnson wrote several incarnations that he did not present to the series creator, only offering his work when he felt he had begun to “crack” the character. “I think I sent him two,” he recalled. “The second of those was where he said, ‘This is it.’

Benjamin Bratt’s Cliff Legrand, just another returning character, also received a resounding signature. “The themes are definitely in the same vein, but Charlie’s is pure banjo and just one instrument,” he explained, likening it to “someone sitting on their back porch playing to themselves while the sun goes down over Charlie’s trailer . . . “

In contrast, he envisioned Bratt’s character as “the dog that bites his heel, so he’s obviously much darker. There are electric guitar ambient undercurrents, there is also the banjo, but it leans towards the ominous tremolo effect.

“When Rian suggested it, I knew it was going to be quite a challenge,” she said sadly. “I thought, ‘I’m in a bit too deep here and I can’t feel the bottom.’ However, as David Bowie said, this is where you want to be when creating new work. It’s a very fertile place when you step out of your comfort zone.”

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