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Interview: ‘Heels’ Composer Jeff Cardoni Talks Sports Drama, Working on TV Comedies, and his solo album Nuovo Futuro

A still from 'Heels' - Credit: Starz

After working on a string of comedy television shows such as The Kominsky Method, Young Sheldon and Silicon Valley, composer Jeff Cardoni turns his attention to one of his favored genres – Sports Drama. A show based on a small wrestling promotion and the relationships between the show’s booker and leading star, Heels is the type of project that Cardoni has wanted to work on for a while.  

Below you can read my full interview with the brilliant composer, who also talks about some of his inspirations in the music world, as well as his solo album Nuovo Futuro which debuted last year, and his upcoming slate of projects.

Bradley Weir: Thanks for joining me Jeff. I want to talk about Heels first of all, how did you get on board with the project and what attracted you to the show?

Jeff Cardoni: I got on board through a music supervisor – Jon Leahy. I had a chance to read the script and then I wrote a demo based on reading the script. That pretty much got me the job. The theme ended up being used throughout the show, so that’s pretty cool. That almost never happens. What attracted me was that the writing is just so good. I’ve been saying for years that I’ve wanted to do a Sports drama, so when I read the script I was like “oh my god, this is literally my dream project.”

BW: It’s interesting that you wrote the music based solely on the script. Would you normally have footage from the show or film first before writing the music?

JC: Sometimes they’ll send you a picture and ask for a demo. It’s rare that you just get to read the script, but sometimes when it’s so early in these projects nothing is shot yet, especially when they are looking for someone to do music. I used the script to figure out what this show should sound like.

BW: I love the opening theme of the show titled Love in War, tell me how that came about.

JC: That happened late. We were pretty far down on the episodes. I said to somebody else, when you’re working on the episodes you have a rough cut of the picture, but there was always a 90 second slug that said “main titles to come.” I heard that the network really liked the show and wanted to get behind it and that there was going to be a big artist doing the main titles. I wasn’t privy to those conversations, but in the meantime, I figured that the main title music should tie in with the music in the show, so I just wrote something and started sending it back. Somebody liked the music that I wrote, and the music supervisor pitched the idea of having me collaborate with a singer. So he brought in Bed Bridwell from Band of Horses. We started talking on zoom, chatted about it, and we just got lucky. He got what we were trying to do, and his vocals took the theme to the next level. When I heard the completed music, I just thought “Wow!”.

BW: I listened to the main titles for the first time last week and thought this is going to be a theme song that everybody remembers and recognises from Heels.

JC: I really hope so. I agree with you, I think it’s such a great 90 second journey. It’s uplifting and not cheesy. But we shall see.

BW: What are the biggest differences between doing a show like this and doing shows like The Kominksy Method or Silicon Valley?

JC: Well, the main thing is this isn’t comedic at all. I never intended to do comedy, and it’s not really my thing. Somehow, I got this string of things that ended up being comedy. What I love about The Kominsky Method is that it’s very much a dramedy, and so personally as a composer I like to go after the emotion and drama of a story. Some people are good with action and my thing is going for the emotion in a non melodramatic way. I read a Heels review yesterday which called it Friday Night Lights with wrestling, which to me as a person, that’s something I want to be involved with. I’ve watched that show a hundred times. I’ve played guitar my whole life, but for a lot of projects I haven’t been able to do a pure guitar score, so this is something that I get to do. It felt so natural.

BW: So, is that how the music in Heels started out, working some tunes out on the guitar?

JC: Yeah. What happened was, because of COVID, there was a long time from me getting involved to production actually starting. There was a 4 month period where I was just writing music. By the time shooting started, I had written 2 hours of music based on theme in my head, and I just loaded up the editors with this pile of music. It was a huge relief when they started cutting it together that the music worked. It’s hard with music, because everybody always has an opinion on it. But on this, there was nothing. They had the premiere recently, and I ran into Michael Waldron and the writer. They said this is the only thing that they didn’t have a problem with on the show.

BW: It doesn’t get better than that for praise.

JC: I cannot tell you what a rare occurrence that is. There are points in this, where you can get half an episode in and there isn’t a single note on anything. It never usually happens that way. I’m lucky that what I thought would work ended up working. And I got to work in a bubble. Every piece of music for the show was made by me sitting here, thinking about it. It wasn’t influenced by picture or worrying about the action. It was all based on internal things like emotion and thought. It was a cool way to do it. When you see the show, you’ll notice that this isn’t a network TV show where there’s 40 minutes of music in a 40-minute show. The music is used scarcely but used well, to hit those emotional beats. There’s always a reason for the music to come in. It’s an effective way to do it.

BW: I was going to ask you about the impact COVID had on creating this music. So, you preferred having your own bubble without someone over your shoulder telling you what to do differently?

JC: Oh yeah, absolutely. First of all, since you don’t have a picture you’re writing to, there has to be some musical integrity to every piece. You don’t want to send a boring piece of music. So, I feel like every cue I did had some musical interest, which made it better. Something else that helped was the amount of time we had. On a film, we will have people over and telling you to playback what you’ve written, and they will tell you what’s wrong with it and what they thought can be improved. That’s not the best way to do it. Sometimes when you hear a piece of music, you need to listen to it again and again and see if it sticks in your head and see if it’s working. On this, people had weeks to get used to the music I was writing, and so any comments I received were well thought and not just a kneejerk reaction. I don’t envy these producers who have to give notes on things in a short amount of time, so this was great as we had so much time and a chance to get music in their heads. It just worked.

BW: I listened to your album from last year – Nuovo Futuro – which I thought was tremendous. It’s the kind of music I like listening to, where you can get lost in it and feel so many kinds of emotion. I wanted to know the inspiration behind that album and the differences between writing a solo album and writing a score for television or film?

JC: That’s interesting, that album came out right before I started working on Heels. And honestly, that album helped me get the job. It was similar to the music I wanted for Heels, where it’s clean guitar. As far as the difference, I had never done a solo album. On television and film, you’re always writing music for other people. So I feel like writing your own album you can write whatever you want. I wanted to write the best representation of me. I love Max Richter and Jóhann Jóhannsson and I like music that makes you feel. And also I’m a guitar player, and a lot of those people use piano. So I thought, why not take an electric guitar and try to use that. And from there, it was a case of figuring out what emotions I wanted to explore.

BW: Do you plan to do any more solo albums in the future?

JC: Yeah I do! I feel like it changed the trajectory of my career and I don’t think I would have got the job for Heels without this album. So I’m hoping so. I’d love to figure out a way to have it performed somewhere.

BW: You’ve mentioned your work on comedies, and I often think of the incredible score you made for the finale of Silicon Valley, which shows through your passion for emotional music. How do you approach writing music for a comedy in comparison to a drama?

JC: It’s interesting, I try to never have the music be funny. The Kominsky Method tows the line, but a lot of times it’s very melancholy. Chuck Lorre didn’t really know what he wanted as it was his first time doing a single cam, so it was tricky figuring it out. I didn’t want to make the music funny. The acting and writing is funny, so the music didn’t need to be. It could have been easy to make something more comedic, but I wanted to go as dark as we could get away with. In some of the more emotional moments, Chuck didn’t think we’d need music, but I said let’s try it. It was cool to get Chuck on board with that.

BW: I’ve always thought besides the acting, the music is the strongest point of The Kominsky Method.

JC: Thank you, it was a joy to work on that show. Especially to see all of these big movie stars from my childhood, even the last season when Morgan Freeman showed up. It’s funny because Chuck was talking about a remake of Quincy, which is a CSI-type show. He said “I don’t know what we’re going to do with this” and I said “Chuck I worked on CSI Miami like 10 years ago, I know how to do this!”

BW: Was CSI Miami the first major television show that you did?

JC: Yeah, without a doubt that was my big break. Chuck didn’t even know that I had worked on that.

BW: Did you always know early on that you wanted to be a composer or was it something that you fell into?

JC: I always wanted to be a famous guitar player. I spent my early 20’s driving around in vans trying to get signed as a guitar player. I had always been into classical music and I had played piano for 12 years. It was always in my head but I think if you don’t grow up in Hollywood, you don’t think of it as a viable option. I didn’t know how to consider it a possible way of life. And my band failing ended up being the impetus to get me to LA and help get my career started. I was always the mad scientist of my band. I remember when I was getting ready to move out here. It’s every parents nightmare to have a kid that wants to be a musician and I Said “All I want to do is figure out a way to make a living making music in my studio”. When the band fell apart I often wondered what I would do with my life, and I think In my heart I knew if I could figure that out I’d be content in my life. That’s how I knew to get into scoring. It allowed me to blend everything I wanted to do and be away from the politics of being in a band.

BW: So, what film or television show did you work on that it finally hit you that “Wow, I can now be a composer for a living?”

JC: It would surely be CSI Miami. I was kicking around for 5-6 years before that doing student films and indie shorts, but that was the first time. But before that happened, I was close to giving up the dream and leaving town. It’s a tough town to stick around in without success. When we finished the second season of CSI Miami, I thought I can do this, I have a knack for this, and I think people appreciate what I’m doing. So it’s that, and a movie I did soon after called Just Friends. I got to use a full orchestra and I thought “Wow I made this while being a nobody, I can do this.” But with, it’s not like you can plateau. It’s a whole roller coaster, even today and now.

BW: So what would be a big ambitious project for you, if you could work on absolutely anything?

JC: I think my dream project would be a Sports movie like Seabiscuit or Field of Dreams. Where you can make people feel and work on an orchestra. One of my biggest inspirations is James Horner, and I tend to associate him with the sound of heart and the magic of movies. I’m always attracted to things like that. So it would be that or – on the opposite side – I’m a huge Jon Brion fan. So, I’d love to do a cool hip indie movie with a quirky feel to it, and to be able to still use an orchestra but in a different way. That would be interesting to me, and I always look out for unique things like that.

BW: You’ve done Horror work as well right? You did a horror movie called Malicious?

JC: Yes, that’s right, I did Malicious. It was great, but I approached it more as a 90s thriller than as a horror movie. I don’t know necessarily if I’m the guy that would be good as doing something modern like Saw. It’s hard to work on horror as you’re looking at gory pictures all day. Some of the guys that do it are so great at it, it’s really genius, well written music. It was fun to do it. I had done stuff in the past with the director of Malicious Michael Winnick, but when I turned up the first thing the producer said was “Are you going to give us a comedy score?” I was like “Really, you had to say that? No!” You do get pigeonholed into whatever project you did last, and people can be like “Oh you did that, so you can’t do this.” That’s why Heels is great for me, it pushes the needle back toward what I want to do. Hopefully this sports drama will lead to other sports drama’s and I can get recognized for them.

BW: So, when you first started out as a composer, was there a particular score that you heard when you were younger that inspired you to want that as a job?

JC: Obviously for anybody in this generation, the obvious pick is John Williams. Jaws, Star Wars etc. Jerry Goldsmith work in Planet of the Apes is a mind-blowing piece of music too. It’s a weird movie, but Thomas Newman did a film called Less Than Zero, based on a book from an author I’ve read a lot of. For me, living in a crappy town in Pennsylvania, that was the Hollywood dream. That universe in his novels is not what we’re used to. So I saw that film, and Newman’s score was so emotional and it showed me the different sounds, more modern sounds, that you can have in movies. It doesn’t have to be full John Williams orchestras. For some reason that movie really stuck with me, even though it wasn’t a big movie.

BW: Did you ever get the chance to talk to any of the composers that inspired you when you were first breaking into the industry?

JC: Not really. I briefly met Alan Silvestri at a photo thing, but I didn’t get to have a long chat with him. I was like “We used your song at our wedding.” I spoke to Jon Brion for a bit, but I never know what to say to these people. You feel like they get the same questions all the time. Half the time I play it so nonchalant that it’s too much. We went to see a screening of Suspiria a couple of years ago, which Thom Yorke scored. It was a genius score, and I’m a Radiohead fan too. We ended up in an elevator with Paul Thomas Anderson who was moderating, and Thom Yorke. It was weird, what do you talk to these people about? So I started talking to them about The Valley. I don’t know how to do those situations; I don’t want to be a weird fanboy.

BW: It’s all about having a conversation that’s completely unique so they’ll remember it.

JC: Exactly. And behind me, I have Jon Brion’s bass drum. I bought it in a music store, so that was a great conversation starter for him.

BW: So, going back to your work on CSI Miami. How did you get that big break and was there an audition process?

JC: So, I knew the music supervisor working on the show. I had rented a music studio near his office. I had done a short film for the Assistant Director – just a thriller, but the music was in the same vein as CSI. They were looking to make a change with music, and the EP saw what I had worked on with the short film. They came over on a Friday night and asked if I could make a demo for them to check out. I’m like “What’s the point, there’s no way they’re going to go for me, I’m a nobody.” I got a VHS tape of the whole episode and I just did my thing. They watched the VHS tapes returned with no names on them, so they didn’t know which composer did what piece initially. This never happens now. But they went for my piece.

BW: How long had you been working on short films and student films before then?

JC: I got here in 1998, and CSI Miami came about in 2003, so a good 5 to 6 years. But yeah, I was close to being out.

BW: I think it’s important for anyone out that’s working on shorts and student films to stick with it, something might come along.

JC: You never know when the luck will happen. My mentality is you can’t make the luck happen. Just work on your music, that’s the only thing you have control over. As long as you have that ready, you’re in a good position. If I got the call from CSI Miami and they came over on the Friday night and I had nothing prepared to show them, my life would be totally different today. I’d be out selling shoes somewhere. You must be ready for that fluky thing to come along. That’s what I always advise people.

BW: So, I’m interested in what projects that you have upcoming, and what’s in the works?

JC: There’s a show called Ghosts that CBS are making, it’s a remake of the BBC series. I just worked on the pilot and it was a blast! It’s very Tim Burton-esque and very Beetlejuice. It’s very dramatic music. I’ve also got American Auto for NBC which I’ll be working on, and in indie film called The Royal which is about a baseball player that’s convicted of drug possession and looks at the injustice system. It’s really good, but I don’t know when that is out. I also did a movie called Ride the Eagle which just released, which is a dramedy with Susan Sarandon and JK Simmons. We just put the album up and that was a lot of fun to do. I’ve got Season 4 of a show called A.P. Bio for NBC too, and I think that’s it. Oh – and Young Sheldon, of course! That show is great, and they can put in any songs that they want. These songs are expensive, and sometimes I think “how the hell have they afforded to put this song in?”

BW: The main thing is, you’re being kept busy.

JC: Absolutely, I’m lucky to still be working and it’s going good.

BW: It’s been an absolute pleasure to have some of your time today. Thank you for talking.

JC: Thank you so much.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity)

Heels can be watched on Starz every Sunday at 9pm E.T.

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Written by Bradley Weir

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