Jesse Novak is the composer of the critically acclaimed Netflix animated comedy Bojack Horseman as well as The Mindy Project and the upcoming Netflix show The Babysitters Club. He stands at the intersection of classic and modern technique. Described as “the mind behind some of the best original songs on TV” (Esquire) and “genius” (Lisa Hanawalt, Vulture), Novak fluidly navigates a wide range of music genres, from the softest sonata to the hardest club beats-always seeking to elevate the story first. He talked to us about his process, what inspires him and why he enjoys doing music for television.
Awards Daily: What got you interested in music and in particular music for television?
Jesse Novak: Well, I don’t remember a time I wasn’t interested in music. I did take piano lessons when I was a kid but I liked to explore things outside the lessons, I didn’t want to follow the lessons and I eventually quit because I found it stressful. But I was writing songs and playing with my parents’ keyboard and getting into the weirder settings of it and saying, “Listen to this, listen to this,” just playing around. As a teenager I started recording stuff on a 4-track, and I wanted to be in a band, but then I wanted to be all the parts in a band too.
From there I started using my dad’s laptop to record stuff and that got me more into digital and, at that point when I started recording digitally, I was in college and I started having friends who were working on video projects because they wanted to be a filmmaker or just doing something for a class. And people who knew me, knew that I liked to make music, and I liked to make different kinds of things, often just to make my friends laugh. So probably in college is when people first started asking me “Hey would you make something for this,” “Would you make something for that,” and that was the beginning of me writing something that was intended to be a score or in the background for something. So it was favors for people and moving into it as a career was a natural evolution of that, realizing it was a good niche to be in and more stable than some music careers and I like collaborating with people. So I don’t know if that made any sense.
AD: It made complete sense. I could see some of my own reasons for doing the work i do in what you were saying.
JN: Yeah, I found when I was younger when I was writing personal work that began when I was a teenager, there is a different process putting work out there as an artist with a capital “A.” Putting songs out there and saying this is me, this is my work, what do you think of it? Sometimes that can make things shy or really uncomfortable, in the meantime being part of a team, being part of a collaboration working on stuff that serves a narrative keeps me in a place where I realized I am actually more comfortable, putting more and more of myself in here. And I feel less self-conscious in how people are receiving the music.
AD: I was looking over your IMDB page and saw that some of your first original music was for CollegeHumor videos and curious how you started working with them?
JN: It’s funny because at the time I was living in New York, and I felt like everybody I knew had some kind of connection to somebody there or something there. I got my first CollegeHumor composition job on Craigslist, answering an ad. I was searching for the word composer every day, and I found somebody looking for a composer for a series that was based on Street Fighter II, the video game. They wanted a demo that was an orchestral version of one of the character’s themes, and I replied and I sent in a demo. I haven’t gotten too many jobs off of Craigslist but it has happened.
I didn’t end up being a regular composer for the web series, even though they liked my original demo, something shifted. But then I started getting gigs from them, a lot of song parodies, a little bit of background music, so I would work with the singers, where they would give me the lyrics and I would basically do a replica of a song. I did one for Taylor Swift and one for Beyoncé. But Craigslist is how I got in at CollegeHumor.
AD: I will admit that I am a huge fan of Bojack Horseman. So, what was it like working on that show, and the process for making music for them?
JN: Well, I am a fan of it too, so thank you. It was really fun, very emotional at times. I laughed, I cried, I tried to feel things that the characters were feeling in order to feel the right tone for the moment. There is a little bit of strategy you do in what’s working and what’s not: how does this show flow, how does this feel, things you learn as a composer. So much of the work that I did for that show was just about trying to feel it and trying to do what came naturally.
For me I really enjoyed all the range of everything and I don’t even know what was more meaningful for me. I have these songs that I wrote that make me crack up when I remember them, and that I’ve got jams that I remember scoring that were just harrowing that made me uncomfortable for days. When I would feel the most uncomfortable or most emotional that was when I knew I nailed something. I would say it was a really great experience as wide of the range of tones that that show can have.
AD: Sounds like the experience of watching the show. Great humorous moments and then depths of depression. You should be very proud of that.
JN: Thank you, I do feel like I connect with the show similar to how a fan would. There is not much of a barrier between the two experiences in a way.
AD: That makes sense. It is something you get to be involved in and, us as an audience, we get to see that experience put back on us.
JN: Well, it is an honor to get to reflect the emotions of that because it is a very deep show.
AD: So on a potentially lighter side, what can we expect for your music for the Babysitters Club TV show?
JN: I would say it is more of a family show, it is my take on stuff that will appeal to classicists. Because Babysitters Club is a beloved franchise, so you are going to hear me trying to keep my feet rooted in classic technique, but at the same time trying to reflect something that uses a little bit more modern stylistically without turning the whole series upside down either. There was a lot of discussion about the tone with the producers of the show about what we were trying to do and what we were not.
I would say it was a balancing act, essentially I’m wanting to tell the stories, give the audience something to ground them emotionally in what is going on that does lean into really traditional orchestral techniques as opposed to modern pop, but then there’s some modern stuff coming in. So it is really a hybrid. And it is really a new type of show for me.
AD: In what way? Just what kind of show it is?
JN: Yeah, it is my first time doing something that could be categorized as kids/family. So there might be slightly different buttons I might be pushing or trying not to push depending on how I am feeling about the tone going on in the story.
AD: I am guessing it is a bit different than Bojack Horseman or even The Mindy Project.
JN: Yeah, it is different though it is a dramedy, so there are dramatic aspects to it. There are lighter comedic aspects to it. My challenge is trying to find both points and highlight them both because I do think people respond to things going in both directions. That is what life is like, right?
AD: Is there a process for you when you are composing music? It sounds like it might be different depending on the project.
JN: Well, I like to play and watch at the same time. I am keyboard driven for the most part, though I play a little guitar and drums. But my process essentially is watching the scene while playing the keyboard and trying to score it like I am doing it live. And I really like to capture my initial ideas and then go in, add layers, tweak and refine it to sound nice. It does begin with me just playing along and reacting, usually I am reacting to the dialogue. Thinking about the tone of what is being said or the rhythm of who’s talking to try and create something that blends with it and feels like a natural accompaniment. I can’t not hear the dialogue and I like to use the dialogue, and it influences everything I do because a lot of the under score is under the dialogue. If I am doing a montage or scoring something that is more silent that is not under the dialogue, it is influenced by the stuff I have been establishing tonally from underneath the dialogue.
AD: That makes sense because we usually get montages after a big dialogue moment.
JN: Right, and those are the moments that might have more going on instrumentally, often get turned up louder in the mix, because the dialogue tends to be the highest priority. If there is a scene with no dialogue then the music ends up being more prominent.
AD: That just made me think of the episode of Bojack Horseman when there was just music and no dialogue.
JN: (Laughing) I thought of that too!
AD: So, was that a harder episode to do?
JN: It wasn’t hard, it took a long time, I cared a lot and I wanted it to feel perfect. It was a different process but it was quite natural. Maybe it was because I felt like I really knew the character at that point. And there were a lot of great tonal references early on when we talked about what it might sound like or feel like. A few good references or influences can help guide the basic idea of something. So I got off the bat that it was going to be dreamy, it’s going to be whimsical, it’s going to be a little but alienating but it needs to have a comforting quality at the same time to keep you compelled and do that dance. I spent a lot of time on it but it wasn’t hard because from the moment when I saw the images and learned the story the ideas just started flowing. It was just an inspired episode, and it made me feel inspired
AD: As I recall, it got quite the acclaim as well so it worked out for everybody.
JN: I am so proud of that episode and the fact that I got to do so much music in it. I did enjoy reading all the acclaim that came out and I like the fact that I can show it to my nephews who cannot understand the show but understand that episode. They might not understand that I scored it but they can understand that my name is on it.
AD: How old are they?
JN: The ones I am thinking of are six and nine.
AD: Well, you can show them the end credits since your name is there in every episode and they can hear that great Group Love song.
JN: I love that song, but I am not ready to show those kids other episodes of Bojack Horseman yet.
AD: I understand.
Jesse Novak: (Laughter)
AD: Is there anything that inspires you in making music?
JN: I have always been somebody who has an ear for things and wants to do something that is inspired by or reminds me of something I heard once. I like to try and do everything myself. That’s why I always was recording like a one man band when I was in high school and stuff like that. I guess in the last few years I have become visual in terms of what inspires me, I understand that there is a relationship between patterns that we can see or something that we can see in nature and a reason why the music might sound pleasant. It might not be totally easy to articulate and maybe that is even why music is so mysterious.
I guess when I think about what I am really doing and what the deeper meaning of it is I think about just looking at a leaf really closely, and seeing what it is made of, and thinking about the patterns and the interesting and beautiful things that are all around us everyday, and how sound waves sometimes remind me of the ocean waves and maybe these are broad abstract comparisons but they definitely inspire me in an indirect way. When I think about what is this all about, and why does music make us feel a way, and what is my challenge as a composer to reach people with music and what is the purpose of it.
AD: Is there any dream project that you want to work on?
JN: I don’t think I have a specific answer to that, I just hope that I get to keep working on interesting shows. I am always wanting to learn new things, wanting to try different styles, wanting to go deeper into everything that I already dipped my toes into. Just cause I feel like you can go infinitely deep. I do think having a dream project is having a dream team and dream material. I think I could be happy writing any kind of music for anything I felt connected to.
AD: That sounds like a great hope, and as a consumer of media you always hope that what you see will speak to you.
JN: Again that is like the composer being on some level a fan. Just watching the story and feeling a connection to it and wanting to express that connection back in the form of music. When I feel connected to something it is more pleasurable to write the music. So my dream project is probably things that resonate with me, and that can be a wide range.