Sara Bareilles on Using TV’s ‘Little Voice’ to ‘Watch a Young Writer Metabolize Her World Through Song’

In a Variety Q&A, Bareilles tells why TV can feel tougher than Broadway, and how coming up with songs for the Apple TV Plus series differed from writing for "Waitress."

sara bareilles little voice
Phillip Caruso

It was a different blend of sugar, butter and flour that went into “Little Voice,” the Apple TV Plus series that is singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles’ first try at helping cook up a musically based narrative since the smashing success that was Broadway’s “Waitress.” The series, which debuts this weekend, reunites her with Jessie Nelson, who wrote the book for “Waitress” and serves as showrunner on “Little Voice” (and director of five of the nine episodes), again with an emphasis on a young woman’s self-discovery — but this time hitting a bit closer to home for Bareilles, since lead character Bess (Brittany O’Grady) bakes pop, not pies.

Bareilles spoke with Variety about how TV compares with Broadway (it takes a more movable village), whether the new songs she wrote for the series are similarly character-driven (no, but yes), and what to expect in the way of a soundtrack… or soundtracks.

VARIETY: This show has been in the works for at least a couple years, but maybe it seemed easier after you’d spent so many years mounting a Broadway show. Is doing TV a little easier than that long and tortuous process, at least?

BAREILLES: Oh my God. It’s so funny. When I was making “Waitress,” I was like, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” And now that I’ve done this, I’m like, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Every new thing I do, I feel like I am schooled all over again. With television, the thing I was not used to is the pace and the voracious appetite of the show as a whole. You have to have a lot of material, a lot of storyline and a lot of music, and there are so many moving parts, and the logistics are so challenging with television. Because so much of what we shot was on location (in Manhattan), too. So there was just a lot of physicality and logistical and… oh my God, everything that could’ve gone wrong went wrong. So it was just like one challenge after another. This project felt really, really big. So when we got to our last day of shooting, there was such a sense of gratification because it takes such an army to create something on this scale. And this isn’t even a particularly big show in the world of big TV shows.

Can you talk about the germination of it as an idea, and how much of the idea was Jessie Nelson’s and how much was yours, right at the outset?

I met JJ (Abrams) at an event, and he invited me to come have a meeting at Bad Robot’s production offices in Santa Monica. We sat down and he brought up the idea of working in television, which I hadn’t considered. And the first thing that popped into my head, sort of instinctually, was one of his early shows, “Felicity” — also starring Keri Russell. Apparently everything I do has to have starred Keri Russell at some point in time. (The original feature film version of “Waitress” starred the actress.) It became really organic to imagine the world of a young songwriter. And Jessie and I had just finished creating “Waitress” together, and Jessie was working on a songwriter project at that time. So it was a super no-brainer to just kind of combine these into (a story about) the life of a young songwriter, inspired loosely by the experiences in my life. But really kind of right to that time in a young person’s life where they’re finding their way for the first time as an artist and as a person. Bess is sort of tasting independence for the first time, and I love that part of a young artist’s life, because so many things can go wrong. It’s just very satisfying to watch someone have to figure it out and be scrappy and think on their feet and make it work.

For those of us who’ve read your book (2015’s “Sounds Like Me: My Life So Far in Song”), some of the spirit of that memoir feels like it is in this series — like, explicitly or just implicitly, a younger viewer might sense she’s getting some older-sisterly advice from it.

Yeah, I think it’s something that I am unabashedly passionate about, that kind of speaking to young people and young women in particular. I think it’s because I struggled so much to believe in my own intuition in my life. And I had to fight so hard to feel like my opinion mattered and that I had something to offer and my wisdom was worth listening to. So I want young women, especially, to sort of start thinking about that at a young age, to remember that they have innate wisdom, that they have good ideas, that their voice is worth listening to. So I’m happy that that kind of carries through the show.

As far as the moments in the series that specifically touch on the music business, it addresses some subtle or not-so-subtle sexism. There’s a moment during Bess’ very first recording session where there’s a minor issue of whether to have a guitar part on the intro or leave it as just her piano, with both the producer and guitar player gently pressuring her. At first she agrees; then she says, no; then they say, we can erase it later, if you don’t like it, at which point she says yes again, and then it’s back to, you know what, let’s just do it my way. Whatever input you had into the scripts, this moment feels like something that might’ve come from you.

Oh, absolutely. I remember vividly, many, many times… and continue to (deal with it)! I think about it in terms of being the delicate dance between collaboration and concession. I think especially as a young artist, it’s really easy to think that you should only listen to the ideas of the more experienced people in the room. And while I think it’s really important to learn from the people around us, it’s also really important to sort of be able to trust your gut sometimes, too. And you know, the number of times I got talked into putting weird bullshit on my (record)… [Laughs] Where I didn’t want something, but it ended up being there. I’ve over the years become less precious about that, but I do think, especially in my early days, every sound was so important to me. Every sound was a battle.

Surely Apple TV Plus wants this to be a universal story and not strictly aimed at Sara Bareilles fans. But that’s a pretty serious core audience, and there are some things in there that feel like Easter eggs. Like, there’s a scene in a clothing store where Bess tries on a man’s hat that will register with fans.

Yeah, we have some sweet Easter eggs. My uncle passed away a couple years ago, but he had Down’s syndrome and lived with my mom through the end years of his life. He was an incredible artist. In fact, I have one of his pieces up on my wall. But we filled (the character) Louie’s group home with my uncle’s art. So that’s a really meaningful Easter egg to me, to get to have his spirit kind of work through the walls of the home. Also, we put Bess in a storage unit, because that’s where I used to rehearse, at a storage unit facility in Marina Del Rey in L.A. So rolling up that metal door and having all my keyboards (visible)… her version is slightly nicer than mine was, probably. I shared mine with another band, Raining Jane, who are dear friends to this day.

The title song was something that you had, but probably most of these songs are newly written. So in writing for a character who is a songwriter, as opposed to a “Waitress” situation where everything is related to plot specifically, maybe here you have more leeway to just think, “I’m going to write a great pop song.” But of course you want it to come out of Bess’ character and outlook. Did you look for a balance between just wanting to write some great songs, and really wanting them to really reflect this character’s attitude?

Yeah. As a writer, there were a handful of songs that were preexisting that we either wrote (the script) toward from a narrative perspective, or which just happened to sort of fit into the world of the show because they were written at that time in my life. So for example, in episode two, they sing “Coming Back to You,” and that’s a song from that era in my life where I was trying to get back to the purest connection between me and the muse. And that’s kind of what that moment is for Bess as well. She’s trying to sing for herself, in a way. And then, I think we want Bess to be a character who has this really special, natural ability to write a beautiful pop song. But yeah, we had a little more leeway — or they didn’t have to be expositional songs. We didn’t have to move the plot forward. We just have to capture the theme of the moment and watch her metabolize her world through song, which is what I naturally do anyway. So I didn’t find it to be a tremendous challenge in that way. It was actually a really fun exercise to kind of get into the psychology of where she might be at that moment.

Can you talk about the journey of the song “Little Voice”? It’s such a familiar title for fans, having been the title of your first album, even though it was never released as a title track or as anything else until now, aside from being played live a few times. Why didn’t it emerge sooner? Why now?

It was a very serendipitous moment of discovery. “Little Voice” is a song I wrote back when I was in my 20s, for my first record. I submitted the song and was told that it wasn’t as strong as the rest of the songs on the record, and should be omitted so as to protect the vision of the album as a whole. I was devastated, of course, but that song was the entire inspiration to name my first record “Little Voice.” When Jessie Nelson and I were discussing the idea of a theme song, I tried to write something and just couldn’t seem to crack it. I remembered this song and sent it to her to see if there was anything that resonated about our show. And here we are.

Brittany O’Grady is such good casting. It seems like with all the casting calls for “Waitress,” you might have gotten used to the idea of casting not just for acting chops but for someone who has your vocal range and can capture the inflections of your writing without sounding too identical to you. Are there a lot of actors who could fit those criteria, or is it a needle in a haystack?

The fact that we searched for her for almost an entire year lends itself more to the “needle in a haystack” theory. [Laughs.] Brittany is very special and there was an immediacy to her that was very exciting. The more she unfolded in the process, the more we saw of Bess. I am forever grateful that she came into the life of this show and will bring the story of Bess to an audience who will undoubtedly fall in love with her like we did.

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Sara Bareilles (left) and “Little Voice” showrunner Jessie Nelson work in the recording studio with actress Brittany O’Grady Phillip Caruso

What was it like producing Brittany’s performances of your songs? Are there any mixed emotions about maybe giving your babies away for someone else to carry? 

I learned from the process of working on “Waitress” that there is actually such incredible joy in seeing my songs realized by other artists. That was one of my favorite discoveries of working on that show, that other perspectives and interpretations only bring depth and universality to the work. I learned about the songs in ways I could never imagine on my own. What a gift. Brittany was a complete team player in the studio: willing to try anything, wonderful with feedback, and so whole-hearted and honest in her delivery. She has a wonderful range and I love her tone

It worked out well for you to take some songs you wrote early in your life and career. But for the new songs, did you feel like you needed to put yourself in a young mindset, versus what you might write for yourself right now?

“Ghost Light” was written expressly for the series, and it was interesting to try and thread the needle of speaking for a young songwriter, but writing from the truth of my own perspective too. That song is about her wanting to give voice to what goes unseen — the stories that don’t get told. So she writes to darkness itself. She wonders what would be said if darkness could speak, and she imagines that darkness really just wants to be seen for what it is — like anyone does. But I think that’s one of the beauties of writing for Bess: she has an old soul. So I think we can get away with making her see things with a lot of understanding and wisdom slightly beyond her years.

Will there be a soundtrack album right away, or do you want to let people discover the songs through the show first?

Oh, we’re doing all kinds of stuff, honey. We’re doing soundtrack album, concept record, playlists. There’s going to be lots of music from the world of “Little Voice.”

A concept record, as in a collection of some of these songs sung by you, like the one you did of “Waitress” songs (before there was a cast album to be made)?

Similar, yes. There will be several companion pieces to our show. First and foremost will be the cast soundtrack album, sharing the music of the show by our wonderful cast. We spent so much time and love on the soundtrack it feels like the most important priority piece for now. Upcoming, we are finding all kinds of interesting ways to share the music of the featured artists who appear in the show, and I will indeed make a concept record, when the time is right, reimagining the music of the show as a Sara Bareilles record.