Tuned in Tuesday: Composer James Levine [Glee, American Horror Story, Rizzoli & Isles, Major Crimes, Royal Pains]
For this Tuned in Tuesday I had the pleasure of speaking with composer with James Levine. If you watch any of Ryan Murphy‘s shows, you’ve definitely heard his work. In fact, if you watch any TV at all you’ve probably heard his work. James spoke to us EXCLUSIVELY about breaking into the business, finding a different sound for his projects and how working on Glee has been such a rewarding experience.
TV GOODNESS: I was looking at your bio and was wondering if you went to Tufts University for music.
James Levine: â€œI did not. I started out as a pre-med student and then wound up playing tons and tons of music there and then switched and became a Sociology major and graduated with a degree in American Studies and Sociology and Musicology. I had a teacher a Boston who I studied with, who was a mentor.â€
TV GOODNESS: When did you start studying with Craig Najjar and when did you realize music was becoming more and more important to you?
James: â€œI started studying with him when I was 13 and it was just one of those things where it was something I was really committed to. I think I knew very early on that it was gonna be a huge thing for me, even going into college, even though I wasnâ€™t going to school for music specifically. It was always in my mind that this was what I was gonna do. Because I had him I didnâ€™t feel like I needed to go and get a degree in music.â€
TV GOODNESS: Were you worried about turning your love of music into a career or was it more important to continue pursuing something you loved? Did you think youâ€™d become a composer down the line?
James: â€œI thought I would make a career out of making music. His point as a teacher and as a mentor was that you donâ€™t need â€“ like if you were going to go to college, which was very important to me in terms of my growth as a human being â€“ a degree in it in order to make a living at it. Itâ€™s not like becoming a lawyer or a doctor where you have this pathway. Thereâ€™s no one pathway to becoming an artist.â€
TV GOODNESS: I know you started your career in advertising. When did you know you wanted to shift into TV and movies?
James: â€œI think I always wanted to, but then I went to LA on this fact-finding mission and wound up visiting a friend of my sister’s, who was working in television with Mike Post and then I went and spent a day in this guyâ€™s studio and that was it. I was hooked and I moved here 3 months later.â€
TV GOODNESS: How did you get into the business? Who gave you your first break?
James: â€œI got an internship at Remote Control Productions, which was then Media Ventures, which is Hans Zimmerâ€™s company. I worked as an intern and then was hired as an assistant by Jeff Brona, whoâ€™s another DB and film composer and I worked as his assistant. Through that you write music here and there and people get to know who you are. My first big break was PJ Bloom, who is a music supervisor, was doing a new show called Nip/Tuck. He had heard some music I wrote and they were looking for a composer. He was like, â€˜I think this guy Jimmy Levine has a sound or something that would be good for the show,â€™ and he played it for Ryan Murphy and he hired me to do Nip/Tuck.â€
TV GOODNESS: Youâ€™ve had a great relationship with Ryan Murphy. Youâ€™ve done Nip/Tuck, Glee and American Horror Story with him. Whatâ€™s it been to work with him for so long?
James: â€œFantastic. We have a bit of a shorthand so I think itâ€™s been very rewarding. He doesnâ€™t want ordinary and doesnâ€™t want something that been heard before necessarily, so I think thereâ€™s an expectation from him that whoever works with him would bring something unique and deliver something thatâ€™s special to each project. So itâ€™s been great.â€
TV GOODNESS: Since those projects are so different how do you go about finding the sound for each series?
James: â€œThatâ€™s the trick. Thereâ€™s no one specific way. Weâ€™ll discuss it. Weâ€™ll talk about the story, weâ€™ll talk about the tone once you see how itâ€™s shot. Heâ€™ll talk about some influences and some ideas. For Glee we struggled a little bit at the beginning to find out what the score was gonna be. Then it just became something- whatâ€™s something thatâ€™s very real and pure and honest? Letâ€™s do a glee club, an a capella singing group that you wouldâ€™ve had in high school and how you would extrapolate that into score. We added a marching band for Sue Sylvester, so we had this marching band percussion. For the emotional beats I always imagined my own self in high school. I did a lot of theater in high school and I played for all the choirs and all the choruses. There were always these moments in between whatever youâ€™re working on, Iâ€™d sit and play and people would hang out. Weâ€™d make up songs. So I imagined that the more sentimental, emotional beats were piano, a kid sitting in a choir room just playing piano and that wound up becoming the score for Glee. For American Horror, it was, â€˜We donâ€™t want to do horror the way that itâ€™s been done before. We donâ€™t want to do traditional horror. We want it to be modern yet we want to inform it with some Bernard Herrmann or some older influences,â€™ so we wanted to create our own sound. Each season is a little bit different and we start over again.â€
TV GOODNESS: Youâ€™ve worked on a lot of great stuff. For projects like Rizzoli & Isles, Major Crimes and The Closer, which are procedurals, do you approach those sounds any differently or is it all about the story and talking to the producers about what they want?
James: â€œItâ€™s always about the story and itâ€™s always about a collaboration, certainly in television, with the producers. I always try to serve the story and usually when I have questions about the music itâ€™s directly related to the story. I try to speak in a language thatâ€™s more of a storytelling language than a musical one. Theyâ€™re procedural, but theyâ€™re really long-arcing character driven dramas.â€
TV GOODNESS: For something like Royal Pains, how did you hear about that and what made you want to become involved?
James: â€œRoyal Pains was one of those shows- Iâ€™m trying to think about it. I think I had a relationship with one of the associate producers at the time. I think he brought me in and got me involved. I just wrote some music and they loved it, which is one of the ways you get a job. A lot of my shows are on during the year, some are on during the summer. So it was a fun summer show and it was totally different than what I had been doing and it was just a good opportunity to go and play in a different sandbox.â€
TV GOODNESS: Do you prefer working in TV or in film and do you have a different process for finding the sound for a film?
James: â€œI really have no preference. Itâ€™s just great to be working on multiple, different projects.â€
TV GOODNESS: Youâ€™ve done film projects like Pearl Harbor and Madagascar and Somethingâ€™s Gotta Give. Do you have a preference for genre? I would imagine working on an animated film is different from working on a live action film.
James: â€œYeah, itâ€™s very different. I wouldnâ€™t say I had a preference. One of the fun things about our job is working in many different ways and using that as an opportunity to challenge yourself. Those projects were fun because those were collaborations with Hans and a bunch of guys over here [at Remote Control Productions]. Those are just really fun projects to be involved in. Thereâ€™s a camaraderie about how we create the score.â€
TV GOODNESS: Have you had a favorite project to date and if you have, why was it your favorite?
James: â€œOh gosh. I think there are some standouts. Itâ€™s hard to say a favorite. The Closer, Nip/Tuck, Glee â€“ theyâ€™re all really fantastic projects. I really canâ€™t say I have a favorite favorite. I just feel like Iâ€™ve been lucky to work on some great stuff. Like Damages, which is a whole different thing, was a great show and something Iâ€™m really proud of. Is that better or more of a favorite than another show? Not at all.â€
TV GOODNESS: What are you working on now or what do you have coming up that youâ€™re allowed to talk about?
James: â€œRight now Iâ€™m working on finishing this season of Glee and starting Major Crimes, Rizzoli and Royal Pains for the summer and looking forward to developing the sound for American Horror Story.â€
TV GOODNESS: You are so busy. How do you have time for everything?
James: â€œItâ€™s just fun to work with so many different people.â€
TV GOODNESS: Do you ever hit any creative roadblocks and how do you work through them?
James: â€œWhen you hit a creative roadblock you- I typically just keep working. I think that rather than get spun up in hitting dead-ends sometimes you have to keep going, keep going, keep going and make a lot of mistakes along the way because oftentimes the best ideas are born out of missteps. You donâ€™t even realize, you just stumble upon a solution haphazardly when you feel like youâ€™re stuck. And staying open to failure along the way.â€
TV GOODNESS: You mentioned Damages and I know youâ€™ve also done some music for The Blacklist, Ironside and Do No Harm. How do you contribute to something when youâ€™re not the composer? How does that work?
James: â€œWell, Damages I was the composer. Ironside I did with a colleague here. Sometimes what happens is Iâ€™ll help develop a sound for a show or do the pilot and then because of my schedule I canâ€™t keep going on certain things. Blacklist was just going to be too demanding with everything else that was going on. American Horror is my fall priority usually.â€
TV GOODNESS: Do you have a dream project?
James: â€œHmm. Thatâ€™s a good one. I just have so many different things. I feel like I want to score a movie with songs I can produce which then goes on a live tour which then goes on Broadway.â€
TV GOODNESS: Have you ever scored for Broadway and is that something youâ€™d like to pursue?
James: â€œI havenâ€™t. I think it would be a lot of fun. I did a lot of theater when I was growing up in high school and in college and so thatâ€™s one of the reasons why doing Glee was so much fun. When we were working on the pilot it felt like we were doing a college production yet it was with all these people who were so good. It was like your college all-star musical doing that pilot. I was so done with some of the drama in college so I stopped doing theater and started playing in bands and doing commercials and pursuing TV and film, but now I think it would be a blast to go back and do that.â€
TV GOODNESS: One thing Iâ€™ve loved about Glee is being introduced to so many musical artists I donâ€™t think I wouldâ€™ve known otherwise. I really appreciate that about the show.
James: â€œIt does that in a very cool, multigenerational way where thereâ€™s people that are twenty years older than me that are watching it with their grandkids and people that are ten years older than me who are watching it with their kids, people of different genders and orientation who are able to approach issues with their children in a very mature way. Itâ€™s done a lot for a lot of people in a way that none of us could have anticipated. So itâ€™s really beautiful.â€
Glee airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on Fox. Season 6 of Royal Pains premieres in June on USA Network. Season 4 ofÂ Rizzoli & Isles returns in June on TNT. Season 2 of Major Crimes premieres in June on TNT. American Horror Story returns this Fall on FX. Nip/Tuck and Damages are available on iTunes and Amazon.
Edited for space and content.
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