Close this search box.

Physical Composer Isabella Summers Has Found Her Calling

The Florence and the Machine producer, songwriter, and keyboardist reflects on her recent television score ahead of the show’s final season. 

by Maggie McPhee

It’s one of those weird summer days and Isabella Summers is stuck in limbo. It’s too hot to work, but London is too bustling to relax. “I called my mom half an hour ago and was like, tell me what to do!” she laughs. “Just tell me. Here are my options. Just give me an answer, and I’ll do that one.” 

At least this 30 minutes has been decided in advance, and Summers settles into the task with ease, her blonde curls cascading into view as she leans over her iPhone. “Physical has been a freaking lifesaver for me for the last three years,” she says. 

Creator and writer Annie Weisman contacted Summers right as Covid’s first lockdowns shuttered doors worldwide. “It was kind of like this really weird, awesome, and crazy time where nobody knew what’s going on,” she says. Composing, insular by nature, grounded Summers. “I went back to my mom’s house and completely immersed myself in the art of making music to picture.” 

Weisman’s dark comedy follows Sheila Rubin, played by the immaculate Rose Byrne, a housewife trapped in domesticity, the mental confines of an eating disorder, and the suffocating sun of 1980s San Diego. She finds liberation — albeit a liberation tinged with mild psychopathy — in building an aerobics empire. Season three cranks up the stakes with a new competitor on the scene, Kelly Killmore, a breathy and buoyant Zoey Deschenel. 

Summers fell into film and television when friend Sam Levinson asked her to compose something for his 2018 film Assassination Nation. “So I gave him this piece of music and he was like, ‘Holy shit, that’s amazing. I’m going to use it as my main theme.’ I didn’t even know what that meant,” she laughs. Hooked on the art form, she then partnered with Mark Isham to build the Emmy-nominated score for Little Fires Everywhere. 

“That was my first kind of adventure into film school… I didn’t really know what at all I was getting into or doing, but I just knew that I wanted to give it everything I had,” she says. “I was like ‘hell yeah I wanna score a TV show. Hell yeah I wanna be a film composer. Hell yeah I wanna earn my stripes.’” 

In their first meeting, Summers and Wiesman bonded over Bad Brains and 70s and 80s music. “She’s got such a feminist punk spirit,” says Summers. “And she’s fucking awesome. She was the first person who banked on me to do an entire season of TV without anyone else helping me.” 

And the bet paid off. Suffused with epic synths, screechy electric guitars, and up-tempo drums, Summers took her score to the 80s and back again. Physical’s soundscape is inextricable from Wiesman’s world of gaudy colours, big hair, and Sheila’s private suffering. “Music in film and TV is everything,” says Summers. “I feel like you can’t have one without the other.” 

The musician and producer pulled from the sonic sensibilities of Marianne Faithful, Madonna, Cindy Lauper and Vangelis and applied it to the interiority of a woman on the verge. “I really wanted to make it feel like Scarface,” she says, offering a surprising yet perfect analogue for Byrne’s character. “I wanted Sheila to feel like she was on it the whole time.”

Summers attributes her success as a composer to her background in rock and roll. Having explored the gamut of emotions through songwriting, she finds it accessible to empathise and write to character. This intense curiosity extends to her creative process, where she obsesses over the infinite plugins at her disposal via ProTools. The instant she hears a new sound, she needs to know how to recreate it. Her ears are always piqued, attuned to her surroundings. It’s part of what makes her scores so effective. 

“It’s such a joy,” she says. “I get to create entire soundscapes, and each thing is its own world. I’m just so glad I found this because it feels like it’s been my calling… This is exactly what I was meant to do in my life.”

Physical Season 3 is now streaming on Apple TV+