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Tuned In: Music Composer Jesse Novak on Bojack Horseman and The Mindy Project

Here at TV Goodness, we LOVE talking to music composers. After all, they’re responsible for creating the sound of our favorite shows.

Take Jesse Novak. We recently hit him up via email to ask him about a couple of his most prominent projects.

Novak’s been involved with two shows that are both comedies and are animated for very different reasons.

Photo Credit: Netflix

He’s currently the music man for Netflix’s most popular animated series, BoJack Horseman, which stars Will Arnett and Alison Brie. In addition to the cues Novak contributes, he’s also been known to lend his vocal talents on some of his original creations.

He’s also the go-to-guy over at The Mindy Project, which stars the very animated Mindy Kaling. In fact, he wrote the theme song for the show in addition to the various cues that helped spice up the action, the drama, and the humor.

In this Q&A with Novak, he talks about how discovering Nirvana helped change his life, his brotherly connection that led him to The Mindy Project, what to expect from the new BoJack Horseman soundtrack, and which TV shows he feels are the best marriage of story and music.

TV Goodness: How old were you when you composed/wrote your first song and what do you remember about the song?

Jesse Novak: I used to write funny lyrics to pre-existing songs, but in terms of original music, I think of a riff I used to play on a Casio keyboard when I was maybe eight or nine. You could put the keyboard in a certain mode and play the black notes in a particular way to trigger this interesting, eerie chord progression. I liked how it sounded and that I was the only one who knew how to play it.

TV Goodness: When did you know music was the way you wanted to express yourself creatively for the rest of your life? When did you know it was going to become your career?

Novak: I enjoyed music but didn’t have that awakening with it until I heard Nirvana for the first time. I fell in love with the single on the B side of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cassette.

I started learning guitar and writing these very mopey and despondent songs that helped me get through puberty and it became a big creative outlet. Then I became a big recording and production nerd. I started getting hints that a music career was in my future when I felt like I was doing favors for all my friends — helping them record, contributing to their songs, playing in their bands, scoring their short films, giving mixing advice, whatever — once I started feeling like that was my identity, the idea of getting paid for it didn’t seem like a huge leap.

TV Goodness: You’ve worked with artists like Diplo, M.I.A., Vampire Weekend and Snoop Dogg. But you eventually made your way into the world of television composing. How did that transition happen?

Novak: Producing and working with artists was never something I was fully in the driver’s seat of – assisting this, engineering that, playing on this, helping with that – as fun as that can be, the first time I started writing for TV it felt so much more purposeful. There’s also this classic thing where it feels good to get dependable, regular work, which doesn’t always happen in TV, but has happened to me.

TV Goodness: How did The Mindy Project come into your life?

Novak: As some people know, Mindy and my brother [B.J. Novak] met working on The Office in the early 2000s, and I first met her around then. By the time The Mindy Project pilot came around I had enough of a resume that I was able to get a meeting as a potential composer. It wasn’t clear at first if I was the right person for the job, and I was definitely a bit inexperienced in the TV world, but over the course of a few weeks, things started clicking into place.

TV Goodness: What was the most satisfying part of creating music for The Mindy Project? What was the most challenging part?

Photo Credit: Jordin Althaus/Hulu

Novak: I like scoring hook-ups and break-ups, and Mindy/Danny moments, but the most satisfying part for me has been evolving the sound over the years. The beginning of the series was hard. I was finding the sound, the tone, and the style, and the producers were finding it too. Now I’ve written something like 27 hours of music for that show, over 100+ episodes. I’m still riffing on some of the ideas from Season 1 but with a lot more finesse.

TV Goodness: You wrote the theme songs for The Mindy Project and Superstore. What are the challenges in creating the main title theme of a show?

Novak: And TruTV’s Adam Ruins Everything! The biggest challenge of that is probably the fact that it’s hard to choose a theme — for the show runners and for me. I started a total of 45 rough ideas for the Mindy theme, and liked about a third of them enough to polish and send as demos. Only one of those got any traction among the group and that’s the one that turned into the final theme. There are so many different kinds of music in the world and you can only choose one theme, unless your show is called BoJack Horseman. They have two.

TV Goodness: The Mindy Project is currently in its final season. What does being a part of that show mean to you?

Photo Credit: Jordin Althaus/Hulu

Novak: I still have a framed copy of the pilot script cover on the wall in my studio. It has a pen mark from when I scribbled on it at my first meeting to make sure I had ink for the notes I was taking. I was so nervous and excited that day. Being part of that show changed my life forever and I really can’t overstate the impact it’s had on me both personally and professionally.

TV Goodness: Let’s talk about BoJack Horseman. Everything I’ve read about your work on the show is so positive. How does working on the show satisfy you creatively?

Photo Credit: Netflix

Novak: They let me be funny. In the episode “Zoës and Zeldas”, they show a clip of “Mr. Peanutbutter’s House” and I thought it would be funny to end a clip with the theme song, so I wrote one and presented it as a surprise. They extended the scene by a few seconds so the song could play through. Later, that song became Mr. Peanutbutter’s ringtone, and by Season 3 they were requesting a full-length version. Now it’s one of my favorite cues. It’s hard to imagine more support than that.

TV Goodness: You even got to work on an episode that had no dialogue, which means it’s pretty much all music. What kind of challenges does this provide?

Novak: I like to joke that my biggest challenge was seeing it constantly referred to as “silent” — the truth is that episode did take some extra time but was not a huge challenge to me beyond that. For whatever reason, I felt very locked into the vibe and the tone from the first day I saw the rough animation, and the music came out of me very naturally.

One big challenge is trying to be consistent with the way I separate the comedy from the seriousness — there’s two kinds of happy music, two kinds of sad music, two styles of everything I could do. And within that you have to decide how sappy to make something, how dramatic, how energetic — how far should we take this idea? What’s too subtle, what’s not subtle enough. Sometimes the question is whether or not the scene works better with no music at all.

TV Goodness: How does working on streaming shows like BoJack and The Mindy Project (which started out on Fox but eventually went to Hulu) differ from other types of projects?

Novak: I’ve only been in the TV business for 5-6 years, but I get the impression that the culture of streaming companies is a little different than network culture, and cable is a little different than that. It’s subtle. TV in general seems more organized than the music business, maybe a bit more buttoned up.

TV Goodness: What kind of feedback do you get from fans on your music? What original songs do you get the most feedback for?

Novak: People usually ask “how can I find this?” I haven’t released or made a lot of stuff public, but there’s a small faction of extra special fans who will go into the shows and find clips and put it on YouTube, which I am grateful for. Those who have seen the “Fish Out Of Water” episode of BoJack have been really appreciative of the music. The Generic ’80s/’90s/2007 songs get a lot of love, too. It’s also very common for people to tell me they love the theme music, which is great, but I didn’t actually write it. That credit goes to [The Black Keys’] Patrick Carney and [his uncle] Ralph.

TV Goodness: Talk about the soundtrack that was recently released. What can fans expect from BoJack Horseman: Music From the Netflix Original Series?

Novak: You can expect the same sensitivity, quirkiness, and attention to detail that you get from the rest of the show. Some really cool artists have been featured on the show that I am humbled to share the release with. They tend to have the moodier songs on the A side and my songs are the funny ones. The B Side is basically the entire “Fish Out Of Water” soundtrack from Season 3. I always conceived that as one cohesive work, more than a collection of cues, so it’s really gratifying to see it presented in that way. And the way the Oberhofer song comes in to conclude the episode always felt so perfect to me.

TV Goodness: BoJack Horseman was renewed for a fifth season. Have you already started work on the next season? Where does the whole process start for you once you get the word a new season is happening?

Novak: There are multiple phases in the process of of making an animated show. I have a lifelong interest in animation so it’s all fascinating to me. I do most of my music once a rough cut has been assembled, which has this really distinctive look because there’s no color and the animation is crude. But there’s a handful of music needs that need to be addressed before the actors record, such as the piano duet from S4E2. I address these as they come up and I have already begun work on Season 5.

TV Goodness: What TV shows do you feel work really well on a music level? (This can be current or all time.)

Novak: I was a huge fan of Lost on ABC and I thought Michael Giacchino’s score was fantastic. Twin Peaks has an incredibly effective soundtrack too. As far as comedy I think Portlandia uses music really well, and so do Broad City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, 30 Rock. I could go on. There’s really great score all over.

You can listen to Novak’s work on Hulu’s The Mindy Project, which is currently in its final season, and seasons 1 – 4 of BoJack Horseman on Netflix. And Season 5 is on its way. Watch the announcement here:

BIG NEWS, GUYS

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