Imagine answering the phone and hearing the familiar voice of Ira Glass, host and producer of NPR's This American Life, on the other end.
"It was surreal," says musician Daniel Hart, who's a big-time fan of the radio show. "Turns out, he's the sweetest, most down-to-earth, easy-to-talk-to guy."
But on a day last December, Glass didn't call to simply chitchat with Hart; the producer received his contact information through a mutual friend and wanted to hire him to compose music for S-Town, a new podcast series following John B. McLemore of Woodstock, Ala., that would be downloaded 16 million times in its first week available, according to The New York Times.
Hart, a longtime staple of Dallas-Fort Worth's music community, jumped at the opportunity to audition for the gig. He'd been composing music for television and film for years, but never for a podcast. Glass gave Hart a synopsis of S-Town, which proved to be all the musician needed.
The track he initially wrote for the producers not only landed him the job, but also became the hauntingly beautiful theme song for the show, aptly named "Bibb County."
Hart has contributed to high-profile projects before — Disney's Pete's Dragon and A Ghost Story starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, among them — but his experience with S-Town was full of firsts. It was his first time doing a podcast, which he says afforded him creative freedom because it wasn't attached to visual elements like movies are.
Hart didn't have much beyond plot points and a couple of audio clips to get a feel for the story, but he used them to "create a musical world that would work in tandem with the world they had created," he says.
"Bibb County" was also the first track he put together that ultimately set the tone for the production.
But S-Town was also something of a bookend — it was the last project Hart completed before relocating from Dallas to Los Angeles, where his band Dark Rooms is now based.
In all, Hart composed 19 pieces to accompany the podcast. They feature a variety of instruments, from violin and cello to banjo, guitar and piano. Interestingly, he bolstered the percussion with a cadence of hand claps and knee slaps. Hart used the Bulgarian tamboura, an instrument he describes as a cousin to the mandolin, to convey the "aesthetic" of S-Town's story.
Something "really important to me was to have music that didn't talk down in any way — that didn't deal in stereotypes, that would echo the complexity of the story and not fall back on cliches of what music for a story set in rural Alabama could be like," Hart says.
"Having spent the better part of my time in the South, when I go other places I run into a lot of people who have preconceived notions about what that would mean," he says. "S-Town did a great job challenging or questioning or refuting those preconceived notions people have. I wanted the music to do the same thing."
Fans of the podcast can attest, Hart's work is effective. The crooning of strings and gradual layering of sounds build a sense of mystery, wonder and foreboding — much like when host and journalist Brian Reed describes a collection of books McLemore gives him to read.
Hart hasn't listened to the podcast in its entirety yet, but nonetheless describes it as "beautiful."
"I just love everything that [producers for This American Life] do," he says. "It's some of the most captivating storytelling I've ever heard."