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Interview: Music Director Harvey Mason Jr. on ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’ and Working with Legends throughout His Career

ZOEY'S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST -- "I've Got The Music In Me" Episode 102 -- Pictured: (l-r) Skylar Astin as Max; Jane Levy as Zoey Clarke; John Clarence Stewart as Simon -- (Photo by: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC)

There is so much music involved in Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, and fortunately the show had Harvey Mason Jr. on board in many roles to help make it the best that it can be. Mason, who also currently heads the Recording Academy, earned two Emmy nominations this year, for music direction and for the original song Crimson Love.

Awards Radar had the chance to speak with Mason about his optimistic approach to finding great music and the wealth of experience he has had in the industry with a number of notable stars. This conversation took place before the recent news that Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist may in fact be returning in some form on Roku.

Q: Congratulations on your two Emmy nominations!

A: Oh, thank you. Crazy, right?

Q: Were you surprised when you found out you were nominated?

A: Totally surprised. You’re doing the work and you’re in the studio, and actually, I was in the studio when somebody let me know, so you’re always trying to think of what’s next, instead of what you’ve done already. So, it was definitely an honor and a huge surprise.

Q: Before we get into specifics, I want to understand what exactly was your role on the show. What did you do want to let you know day-to-day basis and for the episodes?

A: I kind of did a little bit of everything, but we were working early on some of the creative deciding what was going to go where, and who was going to sing what and what songs were happening. Then we would work with Austin, Mandy, and the director to decide the production style and what the sound of the song was going to be. Then we created the song, produced the song and produced the music, and then we would work with the cast to record the vocals, and get their vocals recorded on the song, then they would shoot the song and film the song on set, and I’d coordinate some of that. And then post-production, we would get the visuals back and look at the music and the performance and see how we could make it even better. And sometimes we would re-record vocal. Sometimes we would use vocals from on the set and sometimes we would use original pre-recorded vocals. So making those decisions and creatively working with the showrunner, Austin, and the director of whichever episode it was, we would decide how all the music in the episode sound.

Q: What comes first usually? The song choices or the script?

A: It all comes from the strange and twisted mind of Austin Winsberg. This would probably be a better question for him, but sometimes I think he has the song in mind and works it into the story, but more often than not, my sense of the process was, we always had an outline and an idea of where the script was going, what was happening with the characters, and we would try and find the song and plug it in to most of those moments.

Q: Is there a long list of songs that you wanted to include that were originally going to be there and just didn’t make the cut?

A: Yeah, and I think there are songs that I personally would love to see in an episode or would have loved to have seen, and I think there were songs that Austin had on his little shortlist mentally in reserve for, it would be great if we could work this song in. So there are probably some hidden gems that we haven’t tapped into yet.

Q: Do you have any favorite songs that did make the cut?

A: There are so many good songs, it’s hard to say. I loved the I Look to You performance that Alex gave. That song for me was maybe a little extra special because I had co-produced the original version with Whitney and then getting a chance to re-record it for the show was really cool. I also loved Toto, their song that we did was incredible. I think the grand finale song in the final episode is one of my favorites. I just think there are some great moments through the music, and it’s hard to choose a number one top favorite.

Q: Was there a distinctly different approach to that final number you mentioned, especially considering what the impact of that was going to be for the show going forward?

A: No, I think my approach, and all of our approach on the team, is really the same. Let’s make something incredible, let’s try to make an event, a show-stopping number that just blows people away and sometimes that’s a big over-the-top production, sometimes it’s really intimate and emotional, but it’s always to try and do something really special, something that really resonates with people, something that’s meaningful and has depth to it. Also, you’re trying not to be offensive to the original version. Most of these songs are just iconic, classic copyright, something that you have to be respectful of. In doing my job, I’m always trying to make it exciting and new and fun and impactful, but I’m also trying to be respectful and make sure that we maintain parts of the original that made it amazing in the first place.

Q: And as part of that process, is that a challenge to make sure you can actually use all this music? Did you encounter issues with that over the course of the show?

A: As far as licensing the music and not being able to? I think there were a couple instances, but that gets handled by different department. Jen Ross is her name, and she’s an amazing warrior for our music and for our show. She goes to bat for us every day. I think our success rate was pretty high. Jen’s pretty persuasive when she has to be. And then sometimes Austin would get involved in talking to songwriters or artists or labels or publishing companies. I think we had a pretty good batting average. I think there might have been one or two that we lost.

Q: I imagine that these songs being featured on the show also helped to bring them back after years of not being at the top of the charts and maybe that’s a nice sort of thing, especially for a different generation.

A: Yeah.

Q: In addition to music direction, you’re also nominated for Best Original Music and Lyrics for Crimson Love. What was it like to create the song, especially on a show that has so much non-original music, to do something that is so Zoey-specific?

A: It was a challenge because we wanted to make it fit in with all the other music. We wanted it to sound comparable to these great songs that you’re working with week in and week out. So that was difficult. You also wanted it to sound like it was actually being performed by the garage band that was performing it. So you’re juggling those two things. But I think the challenge was to make it really good and cool and sound relevant. But also there were lyrical moments in there that were really important to the story, important to the joke, and to the moment and super cringey. That was always the goal, to make it as uncomfortable as possible. That’s not something you’re often trying to do when you’re writing a song. So I did find it a challenge. But working with Austin on that was great. He’s such an incredible storyteller and he just knows how to tap and hit just the right emotion with his writing, as far as the scripts and the story, and I think that translated well for him into the song as well.

Q: Sadly, the show was cancelled. Would you have come back for more, and what would have been the next step in the process for a theoretical season three?

A: I definitely would have come back for more. Maybe we’ll still get a chance to do something else, you never know. But I think the next step is to continue the direction we went. We had good momentum with the music and with the story, and I found the quality of what we were doing to be in line with what I like to do, which is make cool things, be involved in cool projects that are bringing people together, making people feel something, try new things that are of a high standard and high bar of excellence and things that I can be proud of. And this is something I was very proud of. So disappointed we didn’t get a chance to do another season but you never know. We’ll see what happens.

Q: I like that attitude. On the note of cool projects, you have a movie opening this week which is Respect. What was your role on the film?

A: I developed the film and co-produced the film for MGM. I had been working with Aretha on her music for about 13 years, and through that process, we started discussing the idea making a movie. So, I originated the concept and worked with her to create the film, and then, as I said, co-produced the film and also executive music produced the film. I was involved in creating the music and working with people to sing and perform the music for the film. And then ultimately had a hand in what the music sounds like when we’re finished.

Q: You’re currently the CEO of the Recording Academy. What does that look like, and how have you talked to shape the vision and direction of the organization in that role?

A: It’s very similar to what I try and do at Zoey’s. I try and do cool stuff, try and be involved in things I’m proud of. So the Academy was something that I was involved in as a member and then as an elected leader, and then I ran for the chair of the board because I thought the Academy could do more great work. It had been around for sixty-four years and had accomplished great things, but I felt like they could do more. So I ran for chair, and then ultimately was I was put in as CEO. And as CEO, my vision is the same. Trying to look at everything we’re doing as an academy, to try and make sure we’re utilizing the power of music and the brand of the Recording Academy to make a difference and to make things better in the world. Try and make things fair for creators, and make sure that we’re advocating on behalf of our members and other music creators and arts creators in general. Making sure we’re providing a safety net for people who need help and making sure that we’re providing education for the next generation. A lot of work to do there, and I just gave you a long list of things that I’m passionate about. But at the end of the day, I want to just make sure that we use our opportunities and our platform for good and to make a difference.

Q: That sounds great. What else are you working on project-wise at the moment?

A: I’m just finishing up a film for Universal called Sing 2, which is another big musical animated show, which we just finished mixing a couple weeks ago. So very excited about that. That comes out this holiday season. Working on a TV show for Apple TV+ with the Jim Henson company called Fraggle Rock. I don’t know if you remember Fraggle Rock, but that’s exciting and a lot of fun. Great music in that. And then also with my production company, Harvey Mason Media, we’ve developed and sold a show to Netflix and some other things, a couple other places, Disney+. Lots of exciting things happening around music and film and TV. Just having a lot of fun.

Q: You’ve been involved with a number of musicians over the course of your career. Is there anyone you’re particularly fond of or are happy to have seen succeed?

A: That’s impossible. There are so many musicians that I love and I’m so lucky and honored to have worked with them. We touched on Aretha and having spent time making music with her, and Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston and Elton John, and people like that. And then kind of the next superstars, the Beyoncés, the Justin Biebers, the Justin Timberlakes. And then all the way to the new people. I started working with Chris Brown when he was fourteen, people like that that I started really early in their career and had a long relationship with. So it’s really hard to pick my favorite artists or artists that I’m really proud of, but I’m honestly very proud and honored to have experienced the kind of opportunity that I did as a songwriter and a producer and get to work with all those amazing artists. That’s a dream come true, literally. I look back and I still look at who I get a chance to work with on a daily basis. I just pinch myself because you would never imagine if you tried to write down on a piece of paper all the artists that you want to work with, you could never include all the ones that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with. So I feel very thankful, very fortunate, very honored to do the things that I got a chance to do and I continue to do.

Season two of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is available to stream on Hulu.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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