Film & TV Music

The Power of Pop Songs on ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’

When composer Bo Boddie started working on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, there was one big question he andcreator Austin Winsberg needed to answer. With the show being all about the titular character’s ability to hear the thoughts of those around her — through the medium of hit pop songs — how much should the score support these big numbers? Lean into the musical theater concept and pay homage to each one featured? Or more subtly, in a way that helps the narrative tick along, even when there isn’t a song-and-dance driving the story?

“Austin had a clear vision about how the score should function and it maintains a consistent stylistic presence in each episode,” Boddie tells American Songwriter. “To that effect, the job was to support the narrative and try not to let the score imply too much more than what was evident in the script and performances.” With that aim, Boddie created a clear style point, using acoustic drums and percussion for the action, comedy and transitional moments, and pads, keys, pianos and strings for the more emotional scenes of the popular show, which kicks off its second season on January 5th.

Over the course of the first season’s 12 episodes, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist won over fans with its endearing lead character, played by Jane Levy, and the “heart songs” she would see and hear, each accompanied by dancing from the Emmy-winning choreographer Mandy Moore, who is also an executive producer of the show. As Zoey prepared to say goodbye to her sick father, Mitch (played by Peter Gallagher), her work life brought its own stresses and surprises. 

The new season picks up Zoey’s story not long after the end of the first, with its heart-reaching finale where the cast performed “American Pie” in one long shot, and said goodbye to Mitch. How Zoey and her family’s process Mitch’s death, what happens to her relationships with Mo, Max, and Simon, and how she handles her her new work situation are all threads still to be explored. “Zoey’s unique ability to gain insight into the emotions of people in her orbit is still very much in effect, so that makes for plenty of what we loved about season one,” says Boddie. 

“One of the great pleasures of season two is how well we know each character at this point, and how we get to see them each follow their unique paths,” he says. “This provides a richer experience, and from a musical standpoint, allows the use of certain themes in new ways, calling back the past to provide insight into new moments and situations.”

Boddie, who began studying classical music when he was 5, came to Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist after working on shows like GLOW and Fresh Off the Boat. “Every project has it’s unique wrinkles, and certainly one of the initial things that must happen is figuring out what those wrinkles are,” he says. The LA-based composer, with an MA in music from NYU, starts his process by working out what do the creators or showrunners envision when they think about the music that helps tell the story and what makes it all tick.

“This first phase is definitely a lot of fun because a lot of experimentation and exploration can happen,” he says. “In the case of GLOW, [composer] Craig [Wedren] and I worked with a third composer (like an 80’s band!), so that added a different element, and the score on that show was much more overtly suggestive of the 1980’s, so a bit flashier and found its roots in a specific time period.” In much the same way, Fresh off the Boat, explored the 1990s through its score. 

“Process-wise, there is a similarity that happens, mainly because of scheduling,” says Boddie. There’s only so much time to write one episode and go through a review process, so that dictates the day-to-day pace and how much time can be spent on each moment, which of course is where the established sound and style of the music becomes your friend!”

Through the tracks the show features, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist speaks to the power of a really great pop song — from Kiki Dee to Destiny’s Child to Enrique Iglesias. “To me, a great pop song has the ability to distill a common emotion or experience into a simple and concise framework that virtually anyone can empathize with and be moved by,” says Boddie. “Of course, the magic exists in the way it’s done: The right melody or phrase, the right chords and rhythm, unique sounds and instruments and arrangement…all of that coupled with a performance powered by pure intent will bring you into the right realm.” 

As Boddie sees it, the details may be up for debate, but you know a good one when you hear it. “In the case of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, the songs are used to give a character a pure voice, one which allows the often blatant emotion they feel fly free and uninhibited. This can be funny, uncomfortable, intense, you-name-it, but it gives the story a chance to take advantage of a deliberate statement about a character’s hidden (or not so hidden) emotion.”

Working on the show, writing music is what makes Boddie happy. Previously, he’d been an engineer and mixer for a variety of artists from Santana to Joss Stone and Nile Rogers. “The more I worked with other artists as an engineer/mixer/producer/whatever, the more I realized there was no reason for me not to be composing.” He loves that his studio is at home. “I can walk across my backyard and work on creating unique music that helps support the vision of great storytellers like Austin. I love the feeling you get when a scene just clicks into place with the right piece of music to support it.”