Music is at the center of “Zoeyverse,” the world of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist where “heart songs” illustrate the emotional depth of what lies behind what a character is feeling through beat and melody. Music Supervisor Jen Ross had to follow that musical mantra from the start when it came to obtaining the best songs to match the character’s emotions in that moment.
Ross fell in love with movie music watching John Hughes films. She segued to a career in music supervision after her years working in the now mostly extinct record label music business, beginning at DreamWorks Records. Coming full circle, Ross has become the go-to music supervisor, with a wealth of experience in music-driven television series from biopics to episodic dramas such as Genius: Aretha, Empire, the Marvel series Agent Carter, and the upcoming original animated music series We The People, produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, to name a few.
For Zoey, Ross teamed up with creator Austin Winsberg to curate a diversified soundtrack of the character’s lives. In season two alone the artists ranged from Halsey, Whitney Houston, Taylor Swift, and Andra Day to Melissa Manchester, Bel Biv Devoe, Jennifer Lopez, and Chris Isaak. With every song scored there is a story about obtaining the rights and sometimes literally laying their hearts on the line to the artist for their permission to use it. Ross has developed the right relationships and fine-tuned a personal tact to get the difficult artists to say “yes.”
Ross tells Below The Line some of the stories behind scoring their heart’s desires, while other times being left heartbroken by an artist who won’t give up their song. She reveals there is a strategy involved in not only choosing the songs, but also securing them.
Below The Line: Songs are everything in this show, so not too much pressure. What is the genesis of choosing a song?
Jen Ross: I don’t sleep much. [laughs] It’s a process. Austin Winsberg has an incredible vision, and he’s very specific in what it is he wants for the show in terms of story arcs. At the end of the day, there’s a bit of a round table process, but it always starts and ends with Austin. The journey can be different every time. Most music supervisors aren’t as involved in the early stages, but the music is not only a character unto itself, it’s dialogue which changes the whole process. So I’m very, very close with Austin when he’s in the writer’s room working on story, outlines, scripts, or when we’re not on the phone we’re constantly on texts back and forth like, “What about this song? What about that song?”
BTL: Have you had your heart broken so to speak when you haven’t been able to obtain a song you wanted?
Ross: It’s very like, “That song is a great song, and it’s obtainable, so let’s go after it.” Or sometimes it’s like, “That’s a great song, but it’s a tough song,” so we strategize where I’ll go and try, but we look at other options in the meantime. In an episode “Zoey’s Extraordinary Memory” in our season two return we had Jennifer Lopez’s “Let’s Get Loud” which is a really, big group number. We started with a different song by a very well-known girl group that may have spoken to spices. Nine-tenths of the time it’s not about the show or the use. A lot of the reasons something can be challenging, and it’s understandable, is they have their own attachment to how they want it used. That’s what we were up against. It coulda, shoulda, woulda been a great number, but quite frankly everything happens for a reason.
BTL: Do you have a way of courting the artist to give you the rights?
Ross: Maybe we send them a cookie basket because the song is amazing. You never can predict how people are going to react to the request. We’re always hopeful. Some things take a little bit more work and a little bit more explanation. Sometimes, we’ll have Austin write a letter to try to persuade. It does help a little bit that we had an established track record coming out of season one, so it was easier to say, “Well if you watch this episode there is an emotional similarity or a tonal similarity with what we’re doing to your song.” We’ve got some great amazing songs, so that always helps when some people are a little apprehensive about saying “yes” to say, “Well, Bob Dylan did it.”
BTL: Do you have established relationships with artists?
Ross: Sometimes, we can pick up the phone, but we will hunt down the best option to reach an artist. It’s a strategy game. Who has the proximity with what can possibly get us over the line. If the request itself and the letter and things like that don’t work, we start to go in with who has the relationship. Who can actually get the closest, if not the artist themselves, and have that conversation. In Season One we knew people who were closely connected to Van Morrison and Paul Simon. These are artists who don’t often say yes to things like this, so that took a little extra conversation. We went a little bit extra on the Supertramp use of “Give A Little Bit” where we went above and beyond to get us over the line.
BTL: How did your experience from the music business foster this career?
Ross: I was able to take the strategy that came from working at the label side. I came from A&R [artists and repertoire], and to be able to understand the mindset of creation and also dealing with artists and how they feel about their work. It became an easy progression to move towards music supervision because working on a music show it’s much like A&R in the sense that it’s all about development and the art itself. It’s about the emotion and the tonality that comes with that art and how it moves people and what you do with it.
BTL: How has your love of music played a part in being a music supervisor?
Ross: My personality came through music in discovering who I was, and I learned a lot of that from watching films. Working at a record label, I didn’t realize a career like this could exist. In my head, music resonated with me, so I’m gonna go work at a record label. All of a sudden, my eyes popped out of my head that you can do this in film and TV. That’s a job? So the fact that I stumbled into all of those careers and I get to play with music day in and day out is an absolute blessing. There’s obviously an appetite for these types of music-driven shows, and I feel great to be part of that movement.
BTL: How much of your own musical tastes seep into the project?
Ross: There are times professionally. Growing up my mother was an interior decorator and I look at this sometimes like I’m a musical decorator if you will. It’s not about my tastes, it’s about what somebody is trying to create. My job is to understand what colors you like, what you’re comfortable with, and then make that happen musically. Occasionally somebody wants a green and yellow couch with purple pillows, but it’s my job to say, “Let’s try it.” Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Even when something is going to be complicated, we always try. The only time I ever really voiced an issue is when there’s a negative connotation about an artist, and you don’t want to be funding that. Let’s just say a particular artist has a history of being abusive towards women. I will discourage that artist from being used.
BTL: Has there ever been a time when a song you’ve chosen doesn’t work for the scene?
Ross: There’s a mystery that happens when you put songs to picture. We all do our best guess, and sometimes things work exactly like you hope, and sometimes they don’t. There’s really no rhyme or reason for it. There’s a magic that happens when the sun and the stars and the moon align.
BTL: When have the stars, the sun and the moon aligned for the music in Zoey?
Ross: The beauty of this show is because these are heart songs, we have the opportunity to touch on a level that can get very deep and very emotional. There’s something very beautiful and poetic about that. We can do it on a bright side and on a dark side, and there’s beauty in both of those. I would say “Shake It Off” in the finale by Taylor Swift is one of those moments where everything aligns. I think you would not have a pulse to not be moved by that entire performance. The song is perfect, the lyric is perfect, the movement is perfect, and it takes you on this emotional ride that is incredible. That is a joyous empowerment, and those moments make it all worthwhile.
BTL: How has music been a healing element of the show?
Ross: On the heavier side, you can look at the postpartum depression storyline. It was quite an exploration process to find the right song that can actually speak to it emotionally, and have some weight. I really feel like using songs like Demi Lovato’s “Anyone” and Halsey’s “Gasoline” are moments when it hits everything. You never know until you get there. These heart songs touch people on an emotional level and especially the last year and a half when people have been going through the hardest times. I’ve dealt with loss and dealt with grief and to be able to have things that kind of heal those wounds and be a part of storytelling that help people work through some of their wounds and empower themselves, feel better, find the light is really beautiful.
At press time, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist has not been renewed by NBC for a third season, though a campaign is underway on social media #saveZoeysplaylist to help the heartfelt series find a new home.
All photos courtesy of NBC and Lionsgate Television; photographer: Sergei Bachlakov (except where noted otherwise).