I have long said that the music of Supernatural has had a significant impact on the show – making it memorable and especially giving it the emotional resonance that it had for all fifteen seasons. That’s not something that every genre “horror show” can say, and I’m not sure any can say it with as much pride as Supernatural. The music added so much to the emotional impact of the series finale, so I was excited to talk to composer Jay Gruska about scoring that episode and the emotional episode ‘Despair’, as well as his fifteen years working on my favorite show.
As with many of the people working on SPN (and another thing that made it so unique and wonderful), the same two composers worked on the show for its entire run – Christopher Lennertz (now working with Eric Kripke on ‘The Boys’) and Jay Gruska. I’ve talked to Jay several times over the course of the show – he contributed to ‘Supernatural Psychology’ for the chapter on music in the show – so I know how insightful he is about how music is used on the show. Chris and Jay tend to alternate episodes, so Jay scored all the even numbered episodes of Season 15, including the final episode, ‘Carry On’, and episode 15.18, Castiel’s goodbye episode, ‘Despair’.
The week before we spoke, I had done a Supernatural music panel at the Southwest Popular Culture Association conference with two friends and colleagues devoted to the most recognizable musical theme in the show, ‘Americana’, which Jay composed. We had invited him to do the panel with us, but he was unable to make it due to a family party. Luckily he and I were able to coordinate our schedules for a phone chat afterwards though.
Jay: That’s amazing about the panel, and kinda flattering and sweet. I’m so bummed that I missed it, I would have loved to share my experience from my end.
Lynn: I don’t think that many composers get an entire panel devoted to one single piece of music at an academic conference – but that’s how important ‘Americana’ is to Supernatural fans.
The Emotional Rollercoaster of ‘Carry On’
Lynn: I know you read my review of the series finale so you know that I loved the barn scene even though it was incredibly painful to watch, but it was such a masterful scene. I was talking to Jensen about it recently and said that he and Jared killed it, and also that the music makes it so much more emotional. That whole piece, the piano then the strings, and then the most familiar part of Americana in the middle…
Jay: Right. As you know more than anyone, I try my best to not use Americana just at the drop of a hat. I try to really respond to when a scene is asking for it. I’ve probably made a misstep or two along the way as far as some fans are concerned – I used it once with Jack, but boy, I heard from people right away like hey, he’s not family! And I was like well yes he is to me! But don’t mess with the Supernatural fandom.
Lynn: So true. We’re passionate, that’s for sure. And some people would definitely agree with that and some wouldn’t.
Jay: But let’s start with those performances (Jensen and Jared). Because I’m gonna be crude right now and say that without performances like that, which don’t come along often, if there’s a scene where someone is not pulling it off? You’re basically polishing a turd with the music.
Jay: My job and particularly that scene, which I count as in the top two or three if not the most emotional, well acted, just hearts-on-their-sleeves as actors and as humans moments in the whole run of the show…
Lynn: I agree!
Jay: So I wasn’t walking on eggshells, but I knew that boy, I’ve just gotta be a part of the system here and not crush anything that’s going on here. You may not know this, but there is some music in the first part of it, and I don’t have it in front of me…
At this point Jay was kind enough to pull up the music on his website so he could listen to it in sequence as we talked and tell me what his thinking was at the time and give me some inside tidbits. Like just everyone else I’ve met who made Supernatural the special thing it was, every time we talked Jay went the extra mile to give me everything he could. No wonder the show was so amazing for so long!
Lynn: Thank you! I love doing it this way. I just rewatched it myself so I’ll know exactly what you’re talking about too.
Jay: When the cue starts, it’s new music I’ve never done before, just trying to ease into this. Then that little segment repeats in another key. It’s escalating a little bit in terms of the realization of what’s really happening here.
Lynn: Ohgod, yes…
Jay: I won’t do this with every cue but this one is important enough.
Lynn: You won’t get any argument from me if you do!
Jay: (laughing) So this theme (he plays it over the phone) – this theme happens two times, so it’s a string orchestra playing and then with piano. I re-used something that had, for some reason, a connection to me. I forget the scene, but there’s a scene opener of the episode where Dean is doing a toast to his mom, who has just died for real.
Lynn: After she came back and died for real when Jack accidentally killed her.
Jay: Correct. So I wrote a little piece of music for that scene that in my mind, even though it had nothing to do with Americana or the family theme, there was a little connection to that even if it was just for me [from using it before connected to Mary]. It felt like musically it could support it there. So that’s my own little private thinking, it doesn’t have any deeper meaning than that, it wasn’t like oh I was trying to connect Dean’s death to his mom’s death. It really wasn’t that but there was this sense of loss and pain and yet a soulfulness – I don’t wanna get too flowery with it, but the whole time that Dean was saying goodbye I felt his appreciation for his life and what he had gone through, regrets and all.
Lynn: Yes, exactly.
Jay: I felt it so deeply from him, it wasn’t a woe is me death.
Jay: So I do use Americana because at that point, Sam is crying while hugging his brother and that’s just the epitome of the use of that theme, and that’s why I waited for it, because I also knew that we would use it that way. But the music leading up to that, that most fans probably wouldn’t make a connection to, had already been in the show once, in a slightly different way.
Lynn: I love that because for you, the composer, that does connect with those same themes of family and loss.
Jay: Exactly. And I figure — and hopefully it doesn’t shatter some bubbles by me revealing that– but at this point in time, I’ll take a scene like that and I’ll watch it a half a dozen times before I write a note of music just to absorb the tempo of where they’re going and the areas where I wanna be careful to not overstep a musical boundary etc. So that’s the one little tidbit. But I poured myself into that scene, in the top 3 or 4 of the whole 15 year run. I took a few days to write that one, even with thematic material that already existed, I still took a couple of days to do it. Normally that’s 6 hours of work, but it was more than double that because of just wanting to treat it right.
Lynn: I can’t imagine a more important scene, and I think that’s where Supernatural always excels, just the care taken by everyone who crafts the show. I feel like it worked so well, the combination. In the first part where Dean is reminiscing about the past when he first went to get Sam at school and that piano part in there is like tender and nostalgic and there’s joy in it even, like you said, because that’s how Dean was feeling when he remembered that, despite the situation he was in now.
Jay: Exactly and that is the part that’s also the Dean eulogy for his mom scene.
Lynn: Oh that’s it? Wow.
Jay: Yeah, if you listen to it again, the strings before are doing the same thing but it’s a clearer statement of it when the piano comes in. You summed it up exactly, which is that I didn’t want to make it sort of maudlin and dripping with sadness. It needed to have some kind of light in it.
Lynn: You reflected his emotions. It felt like there was such a synchronicity with the music and what was happening in the scene with the characters’ emotions, and I guess with me too as an invested viewer, what was happening with me too at the same time.
Jay: There’s no higher praise could I get than that.
Lynn: (laughing) I liked too that when the familiar part of Americana did come in, it was when he really was saying goodbye and he said ‘I love you so much, my baby brother.’. I’d almost been waiting for that family theme to start playing and when it did, it was like that released all my emotions I’d been trying to hold back – it became real in that moment when we heard that, and I knew.
Jay: I have to tell you, I had a lump in my throat while I was playing it to the scene, when Americana came in. And it’s been around for a decade (laughing) and I tried to use it appropriately, but rarely did I choke up when I was using it and I did in that moment. Just because those guys touched a place in any of us that have gone through the loss of a parent or a spouse, a friend, a kid God forbid, anyone that’s had that and been in that level of touch with that grief, I don’t know how you don’t sob. Even in the process of doing it, those two days were… but it felt good to feel that. I don’t know if that makes sense to hear.
Lynn: It makes perfect sense. It’s cathartic, validating.
Jay: Yeah. Yeah.
Lynn: I was teaching a graduate course on grief and loss this semester and used so much Supernatural, including that scene. My students were so moved by the scene and blown away by how much those actors went there.
Jay: They did. I just remembered that’s your profession – it’s so obvious in your analyses of the show.
Lynn: I can’t help it! I also loved the very last scene on the bridge. It was such a gift to have the brothers in Heaven with this hopeful ending. I liked the way Americana was used in that scene too, especially as the camera pulls out for the final time.
Jay: (laughing) I’ve been raring to do that for a decade.
Lynn: How so?
Jay: Because it never made sense to do Americana with a rippin’ guitar and a band groove. It never made sense for a scene and it finally did and I was just jumping around the room, I was so happy I could do it!
Lynn: Actually I remember when we last talked – which I think was a few years ago – you said you’d like to do Americana someday with an electric guitar. I remembered that when I watched the finale, I thought oh yay for Jay getting to do that finally!
Jay (laughing): That was a really fun moment. It was great, because you have to think differently, it wasn’t hear-a-pin-drop sensitive. So suddenly I’m taking this same thing that is now showing the flip side of the family – strength and the core value of love and – and balls!
Lynn: Hell yeah!
Jay: So it was also a little homage to the rock element which has been half the musical identification of the show, the classic rock element.
Lynn: Yes, absolutely, that classic rock has been such a defining part of the show. It was perfect and I was so happy to hear it again in that context. It was almost, it was healing, to hear it mean something different, and hopeful. There’s also a little piece of music that plays after we fade to black and then in the end Jared and Jensen address the fans.
Jay Oh, that’s the beginning of the orchestral part of Americana. it’s literally – the first time I did it was the last episode of Season 5.
Lynn: Oh, Swan Song!
Jay: Exactly. That was the first appearance of that music though not the first appearance of the actual piano Americana theme. Americana has those 2 elements, the orchestral thematic element and then the part that everyone has really grown into, the actual Americana theme and the one that I used most often, the piano melody. At the end I felt like I just wanted to have some bits of things we’ve heard before in the series used, so that was the perfect place for it because it was just another aspect of a Supernatural scene that – and I knew it wouldn’t be heard that clearly because it was more important to hear what Jared and Jensen were saying, but there it is and – if you listen to the Americana suite on the soundtrack release that’s now ten years old, it’s literally the first part of that.
Lynn: A full circle moment – such a brilliant meta moment, including the fans in the actual ending of the show, so that when Bob Singer says “Annnnd cut” we were all a part of that.
Jay: It was. It was touching and without being too over the top emotional, it had a lot of dignity in the way we went out.
Castiel’s Emotional Goodbye in ‘Despair’
Lynn: I felt that too. I wanted to ask you also about the scene in ‘Despair’ when Castiel dies, also one of the most emotional scenes of the series, and a controversial one. I thought again the music worked really well in that episode, from the beginning of that last confrontation with Billie, with the dark sort of foreboding scenes with her pounding on the door. And then there’s a shift – a similar sort of emotional shift – as Castiel starts to tell Dean how he feels. And he also is joyous even though he knows he’s about to die, and the music again reflected that. And then ending with the family part of Americana, when he says goodbye for real.
Jay: Yes, when it’s Dean’s pov of the goodbye, because who’s more family that wasn’t blood than Cas? No one. So that was another obvious pull for me. I think other than the high level of intimate emotion of Dean’s death, this one was right next door to that. It was a little trickier to maneuver because through most of it you have that big pounding sound. I knew that was gonna be there so I had to be careful and really – trying to retrace my steps because it’s been a minute now…
Lynn: Sorry, I know!
Jay: I think his death was momentous, him being gone.
Jay: You’ll know better than me, what season did Cas show up?
Lynn: The beginning of Season 4.
Jay: Wow, so he was there for alot of the time. I did that episode with that epic shot of his wings unfolding.
Lynn: Yes, Lazarus Rising. Amazing entrance.
Jay: Exactly. Wow, your memory artillery is firing on all cylinders!
Lynn: (laughing) My memory is not really that reliable. If you ask me about the episodes in between, I’m not gonna know the names of them.
Jay: (laughing) Okay, I believe that. I don’t know how much more I can illuminate other than it was pretty much almost as emotional to me as Dean’s goodbye and of course had to end in the family theme because there was Dean, losing another brother.
Lynn: That episode too got very sad at the end, but again, I like the way the music mirrored all those emotions. There was a lot of emotional complexity in that scene, Dean’s despair about losing his friend and Castiel’s moment of joy but also his tearful goodbye. And much like the last scene with Jared and Jensen, it was Misha’s last episode so it also felt like the actors saying goodbye to these characters.
Jay: That is a very very good point.
Lynn: And that’s amazing that you scored the very first episode with Misha Collins, Castiel’s introduction, and also the last, Castiel’s goodbye. Full circle. It did make it extra emotional knowing how emotional the actors were about the endings too.
Jay: I haven’t talked to or emailed with Jared or Jensen, they both live in Austin, right?
Lynn: Yes, though Jensen spent a couple of months in Colorado in the mountains for some family time, but Jared is filming in Austin.
There followed some current events talk about the unprecedented storms and cold that Austin had, and how the Padaleckis had taken in some crew from Walker and helped out with making sure people had water and shelter.
Jay: That’s pretty great. People don’t generally know this, but Gen did a series called Wildfire years ago, she was the star, and I scored the first season.
Lynn: I didn’t know that!
Jay: I forget how long it went but I only did the first season because I was too busy with other things to continue, but I remember thinking not only is she gorgeous but she’s such a great actress. So it was great to see her a few years later on Supernatural, and I think the link on that was Phil Sgriccia. He directed the pilot of Wildfire and then of course was a major force on Supernatural.
Lynn: And now on The Boys, where Jensen is next. Small world!
Jay: Chris is doing an amazing job on The Boys, but what I wouldn’t do to work with Kripke again! But Kripke and Chris were college buddies and roommates, so nothing is ever gonna break that up (laughing). I have the utmost respect for them both.
Lynn: Me too. That’s the case for just about everyone I’ve gotten to know a little from this show though.
Jay: Well, I’ll tell you what’s not surprising to me about hearing you say that. How many shows go this long with mostly the same personnel, which is living proof that people aren’t wanting to kill each other?
Richard Speight Appreciation
Lynn: True, a show isn’t gonna go 15 years if that’s not the case. Oh, another question. You had said in our earlier chat how much you enjoyed working with Richard Speight, Jr., and you hoped you’d get to work with him again. You did, on Despair.
Jay: I think I did three Richard episodes in his run of directing, because he ended up doing like six or seven. I did about half of them and loved it each time. One of the super fun ones was – I forget the title – but I got to do this Quentin Tarantino-esque score. The one where Rich was two characters and fought himself… I forget the name…
Lynn: (laughing) So do I! See, I’m not as good as you think.
Jay: Anyway, that was a blast. And the first one was that sort of fairy tale one.
Lynn: Just My Imagination!
Jay: There you go, my dear! You’re proving yourself. And then of course I’ve met Richard several times and we hung out once. He invited me to one of the cons in LA, which I had never been to, and we hung out there and he’s just the greatest. At the 300th episode party that a lot of us went to, I got to hang with him and we flew back on the same flight. He’s a great actor. And of course I scored all the episodes of Kings of Con too.
Lynn: I forgot that – I loved that show, it was so therapeutic.
Jay: I laughed my way through scoring that! I love him, I’m a huge fan of his. And he can go wherever he needs to go as an actor and as a director. He can be funny and he can be serious, he’s great.
Lynn: I talked to Richard a little while ago after ‘Despair’ had aired and he said that one of the things that was hard for him is that he ended his work on that episode and went home thinking he’d be back to do editing and he’d see everyone at the wrap party – and then of course that never happened. And he said that was really hard for him because he didn’t have that closure on something so important.
Jay: I felt the same way. I did episode 12 or 14 back in that first week of March last year and then everything went down. And when we came back sometime in late August, I did 16 and 18 and 20, and it was really painful because it had been 15 years of going in at least every couple weeks and seeing everybody. We’d go in and we’d do a music spotting session, all of us sitting in a room, and we’d catch up a little bit. I recall on the other two shows I did of Richard’s, he was in the spotting session and it was great. This time he wasn’t there, it was Bob Singer and John Showalter on a zoom like we’ve all been doing for a year. Nobody was near each other. Same when the show goes to the mixer to get mixed in a final sense – music, dialogue, sound effects, picture, everything gets mixed. It’s called the dubbing session, and I’d go for a playback and there would be a group discussion with producers, sometimes the director or the writer or music editors. It would be ten or twelve people sitting there. Producers always have the final say, but it was an open field to say hey, maybe that piece of music should end earlier or blah blah blah. There was none of that. I never saw anyone in person from Supernatural after March 2020.
Lynn: That’s so hard, to have it end like that after so many years. And then the show itself didn’t actually end until November.
Jay: It was weird. After that last episode, I got a few calls and emails of music appreciation, from Bob Singer and Showalter, but nothing in person. It’s so bittersweet. I can relate to what Rich felt.
Lynn: The fans kinda feel that way too. I was supposed to be in Lawrence, Kansas, with a bunch of fans who rented out a theater to watch the finale, and instead I was at home and yelling at everyone to not make any noise and on a zoom call with my friends who were also watching.
Jay: Yeah. Listen, let’s just hope we’re just about at the beginning of normalcy.
Looking Back on the Supernatural Experience
Lynn: I think so. Last question. When you look back at the whole experience now, what made your experience on Supernatural unique and special? Is there a favorite memory?
Jay: Maybe a couple. I remember Phil Sgriccia telling me, maybe seven or eight years ago, why don’t you come up to the set and meet the guys, Jared and Jensen, and just hang out for an hour or two. And I said, because I was in the middle of the score, I’d be happy to do that and then I’d have to fly back the next morning. That stood out because I was able to go. Those guys were up there the whole run, rarely down here. That was only one of three times I met the boys and went to the set and hung out the whole day, at various locations, and that was special because it was tactile for me. I went oh, this is where they are, this is where they work… man they’re tall!
Lynn: (laughing) Oh yes they are.
Jay: So that was great. Also as an overall feeling — and I’ve done a lot of TV in 30 years — I’ve never felt as good and as comfortable literally the entire run, from the first five years of the Kripke era and then from then on with everyone who was in post production. From Bob Singer on down. Bob and Eric created that atmosphere. All that stuff always comes from the top. If the top is up tight or micro managing or there’s any kind of bullying or who knows what, like some of these power maniacs become – there was none of that. It was always let people do the job that we hired them to do and it was collaborative, though there was probably some BS along the way with some people. Even for Chris and I, we only did a couple of episodes together – meaning we were in a spotting session together – and then we divvied up the show. We never wrote anything together, it was okay I’ll take this part, you do this one, I’ll do that one. Like for “Time after Time” and the musical episode…
Lynn: Fan Fiction, I love the music in that!
Jay: And of course Scoobynatural. But just the idea that for this long running of a show, right out of the gate for Chris and I there was a simpatico and a mutual respect, so I hold that in high regard. We each set a pretty good standard for each other. I’m sure there are fans somewhere that have us on a dartboard because that’s always the case, but for the most part, I hold that in high regard.
Lynn: I think the show being as collaborative as it was, in so many ways, made all the difference.
Jay: Overall, the musical opportunity, if I just look at it through the lens of my own work as opposed to the humanistic side and the collaboration, Supernatural was a thrilling show to do because of the never ending stylistic opportunity changes. I was in a rural country feeling one week and a big orchestra the next and then rock and roll the next and then Quentin Tarantino-esque the next! It was a constantly wonderful moving musical landscape that was just so natural. And the icing on that cake was getting to write some songs, because I started out as a songwriter in my life, and suddenly I’m writing songs for the show. “Together”, the little sitcom theme…
Lynn: I love that! They used to play that when Jensen and Jared came onstage at conventions.
Jay: I just poured myself entirely into that. Other than Jeremy Carver writing the lyrics, I worked very closely with Kripke, who was very specific about what it needed to be and he had some really cogent notes about my first demo. He said oh let’s have less of this and more of that, and it was just great. I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun on a series in terms of being fun and funny. And the whole Fan Fiction experience. Aside from writing those songs and the hystericalness of that episode, that was the second time I went up to Vancouver because I produced all the women singers up there. I did all my tracks here and Chris gave me his track, Single Man Tear, and I took that up with me and produced all the vocals up there. So that whole experience was really satisfying and fulfilling. Sorry to drone on like that (laughing).
Lynn: Don’t be!
Jay: And of course the finale and the beautiful aspect of that, Chris did the pilot so brilliantly and I got to do the finale.
Jay: Honestly I don’t have any negative thoughts about the whole experience, and there will be several series I’ve done that will remain unnamed that I can tell you is the opposite!
Lynn: It’s pretty rare, I think, to have 15 seasons to work on and say that.
Jay: All good memories honestly. I loved everyone that we worked with. I remember Phil Sgriccia calling Chris and I up and saying, I want you guys to do this Time After Time episode together, it’s gonna be Elliott Ness but here’s the catch – I have this little band I really like and I want you guys to consider using them. They’re not professional, they play locally. So I went and heard them and they were super fun, but that was a little different because they weren’t studio musicians that you can put anything down in front of them and it sounds like music within 15 seconds. It took a little more work but it was super fun.
Lynn: Who was the band?
Jay: The California Feet Warmers.
Jay: Chris and I each ended up hiring a couple of ringers, but the band did the basics on all the stuff. There was one piece – I’m gonna play it for you over the phone – it took a little doing, but we got a great take.
(old timey music)
Lynn: That’s awesome! An earworm song too.
Jay: How much more fun can you have than doing that?
(You can hear it at Jay’s website linked below on the Supernatural tab – it’s called The Barber of SePhil!)
Lynn: What have you been up to since the show ended?
Jay: I did an Academy short film that they’re trying to raise money for about a somber subject, child abuse, but handled very responsibly. It was a short film, 10 or 20 minutes long to play at festivals, but the idea is to raise funds to do the full feature. I’ve also been doing some song writing. I wrote and produced some songs for Joseph Williams recently, who happens to be lead singer of Toto.
Lynn: (does not break into singing Africa but it’s a close thing)
Instead I ended our thoroughly enjoyable conversation by thanking Jay for all the work and passion he put into the music of Supernatural for the past fifteen years, which made the show so much more powerful. And for caring so much, just like everyone I’ve met who worked on this show. When Supernatural returns for a feature film or an HBO special or whatever (because it had better!), I hope Jay and Chris will be there to make sure the show sounds distinctively Supernatural.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my conversations with Jay Gruska, a throwback to our first in depth chat about the music of Supernatural!
You can check out Jay’s website at jaygruska.com
You can read lots more behind the scenes
insights from Supernatural’s actors, writers and
fans in Family Don’t End With Blood and
There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done –
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