Jessie Nelson on Collaborating With Sara Bareilles & Finding Their ‘Little Voice’
The power of music takes center stage in Apple TV+’s Little Voice, a coming-of-age series that sees New Yorker Bess King (Star’s Brittany O’Grady) in a journey of self exploration as she hopes to realize her dream of becoming a successful singer-songwriter. Fulfilling career aspirations doesn’t come easy for this 20-something who juggles with insecurities, multiple gig jobs to pay the bills, family issues and finding love in unexpected places.
This heartwarming story comes from Broadway’s Waitress collaborators Jessie Nelson and Sara Bareilles, who provides the original music. Add executive producer J.J. Abrams into the mix, and chances are good you have a potential hit on your hands.
“Sara and I were looking for something to collaborate on again,” Nelson recalled. “J.J. and Sara met at a gathering. J.J. said, ‘Have you ever thought about doing a TV show loosely based on your life? Coming up as a young singer-songwriter, and concurrently I was writing a script about inspiration of a singer-songwriter. So we combined projects. Out of that came Little Voice. It happened fairly quickly. Once we got going it kind of snowballed with our relationship with Apple, and here we are.”
Before Little Voice takes its first bow on the streamer, we caught up with Nelson to talk about reuniting with the Grammy-winning and Emmy and Tony Award-nominee for a project that means so much to them.
Brittany anchors the series well. It’s a role that requires a certain amount of ability to be able to act and also to have to sing and the challenges involving both. In your eyes, what made her the perfect Bess?
Jessie Nelson: We saw literally thousands of girls for Bess. I’m not exaggerating. When we saw Brittany, which was toward the end of the casting process, we just had a feeling immediately that she would be right for the role. You can imagine as a young artist to be singing Sara’s songs in front of Sara is no easy task. Sara has such a huge range vocally, [and] the melodies are complicated and beautiful. And Brittany was just so up for the challenge. She brought so much to the table — such a soulful young woman. We were really blessed to work with her.
How was the creative process where you had to make sure there was synchronicity between the music and story?
That’s something Sara and I worked very hard on, letting the story and the song really seamlessly come together. Sometimes I would get an idea for an episode, and I would ask Sara to write a song about a particular theme or moment. A couple of times the song had existed. Sara had written it a while back and for whatever reason hadn’t made it to an album. That would inspire an episode. It’s a lot of give and take. Twenty phone conversations, one hundred emails, a lot of how about this? What about that? Slowly, we kind of find our rhythm to each episode.
Kevin Valdez is such a scene-stealer as Bess’ brother Louie. How important was it for you to include different representations whether it’s race, a character being gay or someone like Louie who is autistic and pushing it through?
It was deeply important to us. Kevin and his roommates all represent neurodiversity. It was equally important to Apple, which really meant a lot to us. Those were actually the most fun scenes to direct. This sort of misconception that it’s more challenging to work with uniquely abled actors is totally wrong. They were brilliant, prepared, ready to improvise, coming up with such wonderful ideas — supportive of each other, supportive of the cast. It really made the shoot special every time that they were with us. They are special people. That was one of the great joys, writing for Kevin.
Bess’ best friend Prisha (Shalini Bathina) is another well-defined character who grows and evolves as the season progresses. You see what she endures. It’s Bess finding her voice, but this idea extends to the other characters as well.
You hit on something that was really important to us. The show is called Little Voice because every character in the show is finding their voice, reclaiming their voice, losing their voice. Everyone is in a different moment. Louie is trying to figure out what kind of work he can do in the world that he is passionate about in the theater. Prisha is finding her authentic self and questioning what she is doing to make her parents happy and what a deeper happiness is for her. Bess’ father had a remarkable career and lost it and kind of found his way in the world and reclaiming his voice in some way. To me, the notion of finding your voice, there is no finish line. It’s something we do throughout our lives. You have to keep checking if you’re moving from your authentic voice.
The dogs are also some of my favorite stars on the show.
Me too. I have a great story about the lead dog. We were auditioning all these dogs and no one was quite right for Ella. This dog Molly came in, who happened to be a service dog that lived with a woman who was an invalid. Molly had never acted before but had all the skills a service dog had: turning off the lights, picking up a phone in your mouth and all the things a service dog can do. They told us if we hired Molly it would help pay some of the insurance bills for the woman who owned her. Immediately, we hired Molly. She learned to act in one day and really helped her own in a big way. It was a nice thing to have her on set with us.
You really capture the life of New York City, how art is all around whether it’s through movement or voice. There are a lot of talented musicians and artists who have been given a great platform from this show.
For Sara and I, the show really is a love letter to the music of New York. Sara and I both have such a passionate love of New York. When you take a walk in the city, you can literally move through five sonic experiences in one walk. We really wanted to capture that aspect of it. Then it was amazing to have a cast of newcomers and seasoned Broadway actors. We really all joined forces and were committed to telling this story as authentic a way as possible. We had such support from the community. We were able to shoot in iconic areas of New York. We were able to have phenomenal musicians like our mariachi band. It was a real coming together of the community.
When you’re writing the show, did you find yourself looking back at your own career and the times you spent trying to find your own way in this world?
That’s a really good question. Maybe [in some] of the episodes I pulled strands from my own life and own journey to tell this story. There are certain through-lines of any artist’s past that are universal, like people telling you who you should be and what you should write, what’s good and not good. You have to find that out yourself. Ultimately, all the voices that come at you and silence your own, you have to quiet them in order to find that place inside yourself that really knows what you want to say. It was also my first TV show, so I was really asking what I wanted to say. What is my voice in television? What do Sara and I want to put into the world right now? It’s a really dark world, and we wanted to bring something forward and hopeful to the world.
This series comes at a time where people are looking for hope. Music is such a healer and helps in so many ways. What does it mean to you to provide this outlet?
We’re hoping people respond to the hopeful aspect of the show. We tried not to sugarcoat it either. There is a song Bess sings “Dear Hope” where she is reaching out to hope saying, “I really need you now.” We’re hoping people respond to that part of the show. It has a very open heart, and it’s a very cynical world. So, we’ll see how those two things meet.
There is a great moment at the end where Bess is almost coming into her own. At the same time, there are parts of her life unresolved regarding family and a love triangle. What is the feeling you wanted people to have, leaving the door open for a Season 2?
We really wanted to kind of end the season with the beginning of so much. Bess is really ready to begin by the end. There is so much to explore with every character in a Season 2. Louie finding his place in the work world. Bess navigating her voice through the business and caught between these two men [Sean Teale’s Ethan and Colton Ryan’s Samuel]. Ultimately, trying to choose a healthy relationship. There is a lot to explore.
Little Voice begins streaming on Apple TV+ July 10