Joey Moser talks to 13 Reasons Why composer Eskmo about his first television score and about the pressure of writing for a beloved literary character.
Teen dramas always have talked-about soundtracks. If you think about successful dramas and feature films that focus on kids in high school, you will find chatter about the music that accompanies the story. The same can be said about Netflix’s smash hit 13 Reasons Why. Composer Eskmo created a collection of music that throbs with the pulse of teenage anxiety and enhances the heartbreak of growing up.
“I’ve always had the interest of doing stuff for some type of visual medium. We made The Echo Society in 2013, and each show has basically been a mixture of electronic and orchestral music. Our last show was at the Ace Theater and we had a 40 piece orchestra with electronic stuff. That got me really into the mode of wanting to do more cinematic type of work. By doing that work with the Echo Society, it influenced an album that I put out in 2015 which was the one that the show runners from Billions saw on NPR. Because of that, I got hired for Billions. It was an evolution from the Echo Society getting influenced by working with my friends there that shaped my next album. 13 Reasons Why happened because Season Kent had seen some of the Echo Society shows and she was familiar with my work. It was kind of a perfect thing, and they put my forward as one of the guys to consider.”
Wading Into a Pool of Teen Emotions
Instead of immediately diving into Jay Asher’s best-selling novel, Eskmo wanted to get a feel for how readers reacted to the story. 13 Reasons is a very emotional show, and since high school is something almost everyone goes through, he started work right away after watching the first episode. Writer Brian Yorkey is responsible for some of the best emotional musicals in the past 10 years, and the early talks between him and Eskmo set the ground work for a successful collaboration.
“I wanted to get a sense of the fan base, and I could see that people really cared deeply about the book. The creative side came out more so by just watching the pilot and seeing how they wanted to translate from the book to the show. Also meeting with show runner Brian Yorkey kind of sealed the deal. He really explained his creative vision behind it and what he was thinking musically. The communication we had going back and forth lent to the story really come out. There was a lot of back and forth. I started to create two themes based just on seeing the pilot. I started to mess with the Hannah theme and what I kept referring to “The Tapes Theme.””
Associating Music Tracks With Character Development
Hannah Baker’s actions resonate throughout 13 Reasons Why. It’s truly a story about how we affect each other–whether we realize it or not. On the soundtrack, almost all of the characters have their own track listing. Eskmo infused each theme with emotion you may not expect.
“One thing that I was really stoked about with this series is that it’s very delineated—like a character per episode. On the music side, it was really awesome because it really gave me the freedom for themes per tape and per character to really allow honing into really evolve those themes. It was great to have Hannah as a central anchor for the whole entire story. It was really fun to bring her theme into other character’s stories in different ways. Like how can I fuse that a little bit? It was a genuinely exciting process. As an example, for Justin—he’s prominent throughout the whole series. For a lack of a better word, in binary terms, he’s a bad guy. For him, I was really glad what came through for his track because it turned into this soft, emotive piece. There’s a sense of wanting to also capture that these kids aren’t all bad. They’ve been caught up in whatever their story is or whatever stuff is happening with them.”
The Most Difficult Character to Write For
While most of the characters have sections of music that can illuminate us to their personalities, Eskmo had the hardest time with scoring “Hannah’s Theme.” Through the course of the show, we see what Hannah struggles with and how everyone reacts to her suicide. Eskmo felt a responsibility to do Hannah’s personal theme justice. Her piece reminded me of a music box being opened for the first time after being closed for many years or of hearing music underwater. It’s haunting and sad.
“That was the most pressure. That’s a thing I’m learning about scoring stuff. I’ve been doing tours and albums for a while now, and you can be a lot more indulgent and take your time to a certain degree when you’re working on an album. This doesn’t allow you that freedom. You have to get out of your own way and just do what you think is the strongest for that scene or the series and the narrative. Hannah’s theme felt like it needs to be really strong. It can’t be overly busy, and it has to be something that sticks with you. For me, I wanted it to feel magical in a way. Ethereal but then also a sense of innocence but a little bit off. I wanted it to convey a handful of different things, but have it be something that actually hits you. Before going into the show, I was really intimidated in scoring a rape scene or scoring any of the darker, darker things that I knew would be happening. I’ve never done something like that, you know? I have to say that by the time those elements were starting to happen I was already so invested in the characters and in the show that it actually wasn’t as intense or uncomfortable as I thought it might be.”
How to Combat Feelings Towards Unlikable Characters
While the majority of the characters are redeemable in some way, there are a few whose actions are despicable. Eskmo was disgusted by the actions of the character of Bryce, but he was able to score music for the character that focused on other aspects of Bryce’s personality. Anyone who watches 13 Reasons Why will hate that character, and I wondered if it was difficult not to put personal feelings within the scoring of the music.
“Maybe in a sense. I was trying to figure out how to name the album. I could have gone a different route and not have anybody’s names other than Hannah and Clay and situational things. It was more about the story around the characters than the character. I felt like on paper if I were to look at this, I would think, ‘it’s going to be really tough to write Bryce’s music.’ I felt repulsed by him. It’s gross and made me pissed off and all that stuff, but I also feel that having his piece of music be very, very strong was important too. I tried to tap into each of those with each of the characters.”
Going Back to the World of High School
Everyone experiences high school in some form or another. Eskmo definitely related to the difficulties of growing up among peers. With technology being a very big part of the story, it feels that Eskmo’s electronic background is perfect to tell this story. Music played a key role in not just his professional life, but it also saved him from some dark personal experiences.
“Even from the most basic level of just experiencing high school. From a number of different marriages, I am the oldest of nine kids, so the youngest are in their teens now. I’ve watched a bunch of my brothers and sisters experience that. For myself, there was definitely some sense of wanting to convey honest, heartbreaking material through this stuff. During high school I definitely had my own crazy thoughts. There was definitely bullying, there was definitely a time of depressing to the point of wondering whether it was all worth it. I have to say that music was a huge saving grace for me. It was something that that got me through the darker times. I really don’t know where my life would be if I didn’t have music as a guide. I was trying to connect it through that for all these characters. I can’t imagine what kids are going through on their own with technology and cell phones and everything. It’s bonkers. With photos and texting, it’s crazy.”
If any of Eskmo’s score compliments a character, look no further in his music for Dylan Minnette’s Clay Jensen. We see the majority of this season through his eyes, and Eskmo’s scoring melds together with Minnette’s performance beautifully. One completely compliments the other as if Eskmo and Minnette were swapping notes with one another. The track titled “Clay” is gentle and curious, and the particular section let Eskmo know he was going in the right direction.
“If I had to send people one track from this, I would send that. I spoke to Dylan and he was very happy with that track. The scene where that comes from is a scene where he is sitting in a car finally getting a sense of what’s happening. He’s sitting in Tony’s car on a cliff with city lights behind him, and he’s sitting there for basically a minute or 45 seconds with nothing but him in complete silence. I was stoked how they shot that. They gave me a good chunk of space there to make it as striking as I could while also letting people focus on the feelings that he was feeling as opposed to getting in the way too much. Every once and while you do something that feels like you’re learning a new side of yourself and it feels good to open it up. It happened a handful of times with this series. I learned so much. The Clay track felt like one of those markers. I felt like I was grown up.”
Hear more of Eskmo’s work on his Spotify account. 13 Reasons Why currently streams on Netflix.