Music supervisor Jen Ross spoke with Awards Daily TV about her unique job and how excited she is for the new Emmy® category.
Earlier this year, the Television Academy of Television Arts & Sciences unveiled a new category for the upcoming Emmys: Outstanding Music Supervision. You cannot honor modern TV music without at least acknowledging the work of music supervisor Jen Ross. Ross currently works as the music supervisor for two major shows set in the world of the recording industry: Empire and Star. She also worked on cult favorite Smash. On top of juggling the world of Lee Daniels, Ross works as the music supervisor for shows across a diverse range of networks networks including Starz’s Power, ABC’s Quantico, and Netflix’s Grace and Frankie.
In her conversation with Awards Daily TV, Jen Ross goes into detail about the workings of a music supervisor, especially within the world of Lee Daniels. In the simplest of terms she described her job as ensuring that the music remains as authentic to the story as possible.
What does a job like music supervisor for a show entail, especially for shows like Empire and Star?
It’s extremely thrilling to have the opportunity to be recognized for all shows I work on but especially for musical beasts like Empire and Star where music is so essential to their narratives. It’s an intensive job, and it’s as challenging as it is exciting.
We are constantly working on 2-3 episodes at any given time, so when we are shooting one episode, we are prepping and pre-recording on another so it is a rather intensive juggle within a TV timeline to keep everything on track. In all of that what a music supervisor’s role is to work closely with the creative team to ensure that the musical landscape is within the vision that they are looking for and we help them execute and facilitate bringing that to life.
It takes a village to do something like this. There is a very large creative team involved in this and everyone has different roles. We have different songwriters that work on the music. Then they submit the materials based on whatever creative direction we are giving them whether it’s episodically the narrative or tonally what the song needs to be. We are all collectively working towards the final product.
What originally convinced you to work with Lee Daniels on Empire? What made you want to keep working with him on Star?
First of all, he is undeniably brilliant, so that alone speaks for itself. On top of that, experiences like this really are a blessing. There aren’t a lot of shows that allow you the ability to play not only with this much music but also have such an expansive playground to play on. We really do a lot of different things between the two shows. The pilots for Empire and Star were incredible scripts, and the opportunity to tell those stories through song was a little intimidating at first. It’s a little like jumping off of a tall bridge, but it’s an amazing opportunity. So in the end they were both those kinds of scripts that after reading I immediately raised my hand and said please absolutely sign me up!
Empire is very clearly rooted in hip-hop, but the musical influences of Star are much broader and include a hodge podge of genres. What was the decision choice for that?
It’s about being very authentic to that environment. These girls are trying to come up in Atlanta, and it actually has a very big music scene. We’re talking about these three girls who are trying to find their path not only as their dreams of success but who and what they are as musical artists. They are discovering who they are in the process and in that are inspired by many different things. In that they are connected to Queen Latifah’s character who is a matriarch, but you take her history and she was once an artist who was also inspired by things with a much more classic R&B sound. When you start opening up these other doors and windows, it just starts layering the opportunity of other musical voices to come into the picture.
How does the changing music landscape of our real world influence the role of a supervisor as the show progresses?
With both of these shows, we are always very conscious of being in the now. Because both shows are so culturally relevant there is a responsibility to constantly engage with what is happening in the real world. It requires constant creative conversations about where we want the music to go and how to anticipate where it will be headed in the future.
What was a favorite moments of yours from Empire and Star this season?
In the premiere, I loved how we came back from Jamal being shot in last year’s finale to him returning with a number like “Free Freedia” in which he is speaking on gun violence. I thought that whole sequence was very spectacular.
On the flip side of that I think my favorite moment from Star is a sequence in the finale with their climb to finally making it on the Honda stage. Their two songs are just incredible and encapsulate their journey throughout the season and it was really satisfying to see it come full circle.
My favorite moment from the first season of Star is from the second episode. There’s a fantasy moment in the salon with Deee-Lite’s Groove Is In The Heart that incorporates voguing and is clearly inspired by ballroom culture. How did this moment come about and what was the creative process like?
I’m going to tell you 100 percent that was the brilliance of Lee Daniels. Again when you asked me before what inspires me it is moments like that. This was something Lee was very inspired by. There was that flashback where you see Alexandra as a child so motivated by this song. When it comes to remembering what she likes so much, she remembers as a child loving this song and to have her as an artist attaching herself to this moment was great. On top of that, to bring it culturally into the now was just phenomenal.
Moments like these are what is so fun about these shows. In other projects you don’t get to be creatively involved in stuff like that very often. If you had told me back in the day when the song was predominantly in our lives and on the radio that there would be a point later that used the song in this way I would have absolutely peed myself with excitement.
Empire has worked with a lot of legendary performers. What was it like creating those moments with big artists?
It comes with a bit of pressure because you want those moments to be the best they can possibly be, not only for the artists but also for the audience. It is a little challenging because we are often trying to create these different original moments. We have been fortunate enough to be successful with that in Empire. We have had the pleasure to work with some of my personal heroes, and I would say it has all been extremely fascinating.
Certain things have been pretty outside of the box like what we did in Season 1 with Courtney Love and also what we did this season with Rumer Willis. Those have been pretty incredible because both of them as artists were somewhat outside their comfort zones in unexpected ways. They both absolutely killed it. Rumer has an incredible voice. It was one of those things that was pretty incredible to find out she has those kinds of pipes. To be able to do things with an interesting twist is all the more rewarding.
Star especially has some incredible younger talent. Did you guys change the direction of the music as these performers evolved as artists?
It does affect the story and where we ultimately take it because in the end it’s about being authentic. As the characters evolve their musical style evolves too. How they grow as human beings affects who they are as artists. It’s a very organic process. It’s a very organic true-to-life process watching these artists figure out their strengths and weaknesses as well as what they are motivated and inspired by.
Is there a specific moment from either show where you’ve looked back and noticed how much a performer has grown throughout the process?
This sounds terribly cheesy but it happens almost every episode, and it’s incredible to see the difference. I look at the pilots and by the time we hit the finales the performers really blow me away. Take Star for example. They were really early in all of this and to see where they grew in one season is incredible. It’s a huge leap for all three characters to grow as characters and artists.
With a show like Empire which is just wrapping up its third season a huge part of your role is to ensure that the sound of the show stays consistent while also giving it room to naturally evolve. How do you approach managing that?
I would say a lot of prayers. It’s not easy. There is a large creative team with a lot of discussions. I cannot stress enough the amount of intensity and amount of work in each episode with anywhere between two to four business meetings focused on the music. Those meetings we discuss where the music is going and what it entails. What has been done and what needs to be done. That is a huge part of it, being conscious of what the sound is and you want to keep it constantly growing and evolving it. Several seasons in, Jamal and Hakeem have evolved, but at their core they are still Empire. What is nice is that with both shows we do introduce different artists along the way, and it brings in different sounds and helps shape the landscape in a different direction.
What is it like when you get down to the 11th hour in a project and you feel the music in that moment isn’t working? How do you set the reset?
It is so contingent on so many different aspects. For an original song, it might be as simple as changing some of the instrumentation or bringing other elements to the forefront. In these projects we always have the opportunity to say stop and try something in a totally different direction. You’d be surprised on how that sometimes works.
The beauty and one of the more interesting parts of being a music supervisor is how much it surprises you what you think may not be the thing that works for the picture because music is so subjective, you don’t really know until you place it into the picture. Sometimes things work magically, and it is the sun, the star, and the moon and it aligns. Sometimes you think something will be wonderful but you sit there and go “Oh God, square peg round hole doesn’t work.” You have to hit it all over again.
I know you were inspired very early on by the way John Hughes used music in his films especially a film like The Breakfast Club. How did that influence your career and did it have any influence on how you work on Empire and Star?
Music is a very special thing because it is so subjective and it impacts people so differently. What I may see as red you may see as blue, but it excites and moves both of us. It took me quite some time to figure out that this was a career path and that I wanted to be a part of it. I do very much so remember coming up on his films. When I was coming up you found your identity through music moments. Watching film and TV even to this day touches you in ways and makes you connect with characters and experiences in so many wonderful ways.
To be able to have this opportunity to help find those moments, that Groove in the Heart is a perfect example, the fact that you walked away from that, and it touched you enough to remember it and want to speak about it later specifically is a wonderful beautiful thing. It reminds me of when I grew up and began to notice those songs. I loved those John Hughes films so much because that was the music that really spoke to me when I was at that age. To be able to be a part of something like that now is absolutely incredible.
We’ve talked a lot about your role as a music supervisor for music focused shows like Empire and Star. What is your role like as a supervisor for shows that aren’t as musically driven?
In the end, it’s about being able to help the creative team execute the musical landscape. The difference with my other shows is that they are more focused in post-production with a different type of focus on the character narrative and helping the audience understand those characters. Each show has its own unique style. Take Quantico for example and how each episode utilizes a specific artist to bookend the arc.
Musically is there something you would like to see happen on either show?
That is a tricky question because I can’t give away anything that is coming. I’m just going to leave it at how I continue to be surprised by different things. When you are playing in the world of Lee Daniels there will always be some special out of the box thing that will happen.
Where can we see your work next on TV?
I just wrapped up the new season of Power which starts next month on Starz. I have a new show on ABC, The Gospel of Kevin, which just got picked up and will be on in the fall.