Long-time fans of Arrested Development will recognize the music of David Schwartz strumming through all its highs, lows, absurdity, and hilarity. He’s been composing in the business since the 90s, having scored numerous TV shows such as Northern Exposure, Deadwood, Rules of Engagement, The Ellen Show, and Beverley Hills 90210, among many others. We’ve had the good fortune of speaking to him about his latest project, the Netflix original series Lady Dynamite, starring Maria Bamford.
Hello David, thank you for taking the time to chat today!
So Lady Dynamite was co-created by your long-time collaborator Mitch Hurwitz (creator of Arrested Development) along with Pam Brady. I’m guessing your relationship with Mitch was key to your involvement with the show?
Mitch brought me in and introduced me to Pam Brady, who is the showrunner. Both Pam and Mitch are hysterically funny and have great taste in music and brilliant ideas.
Lady Dynamite is this sort of meta show within a show, self-aware, fourth wall breaking, employing flashbacks within flashbacks and three different timelines. It’s also a comedy that combines a bold perspective on mental illness with a lot of heart. So the way I see it … Deadpool meets Community meets Inception meets Something-that-probably-hasn’t-been-invented-yet. How do you even begin to write music for something like this?
One note at a time! It took a while to figure out how we would treat all three-time periods musically. I had a breakthrough when I decided to score all of Minnesota (the past) using only Appalachian instruments. Though, I am not sure if trombone and tuba really fit that description!
Did you end up with a specific sonic palette to continually draw from for Lady Dynamite, or did the sound of the show simply keep on evolving and expanding as you continued working on it?
Both. I came in there with the idea of a very specific sonic palette, which was accepted and used. Then as the show developed we started adding more and more to a wide and varied palette of all different kinds of music.
Maria Bamford stars in Lady Dynamite as a version of herself, and the events of the show are loosely adapted from events of her actual life. Did Maria herself affect your approach to the music?
I don’t know that you can separate one from the other. Maria and her story are amazing. Since her true story drives the narrative, it therefore affects all elements of the show, including the music.
The music of the show moves and blends between songs and instrumental score in a very interesting and unique manner. How would you decide on when to use songs vs. when to use instrumentals?
Different things could decide that. Sometimes producers would say, “it would be so good to have an original song here, could you do it?” Other times the writers would have lyrics as part of the script and send those over and we would write the song that way. Other times, we would be replacing songs that were in the temp track. As a composer, it is great to also be able to write songs. Sometimes, a certain kind of big moment really requires a song, and you can tell a different kind of story than you would if you were writing score.
It’s also very interesting to note that many of the lyrics or the song ideas were supplied directly by the show’s writers. How did you go about writing these songs, and with whom did you write them?
Well, the show’s writers are extremely talented. As I am not a great singer, I like to co-write with great songwriters who are also fabulous singers. I was very lucky to have Julian Coryell, Lucy Schwartz, and Johnny Hanson as my co-writers on this season. Each song was written, tracked, and recorded in one evening, because that is all the time we had. Sometimes I would be able to add extra instruments the next day, depending on schedule and availability.
Many people know your work from the wonderful music of Arrested Development, including the songs you co-wrote with Gabriel Mann (whom we’ve previously enjoyed interviewing). Anything you can tell us yet about the music for the upcoming fifth season?
Great question. Please get back to me when we have started the fifth season. As far as I know, there is not a script yet, but nothing could be more fun than another season of Arrested D!
You’ve also been working on two other upcoming shows: The Good Place (starring Kirsten Bell and Ted Danson) and Better Late Than Never (a reality show starring William Shatner, Henry Winkler, George Foreman, and Terry Bradshaw). Any interesting titbits you can tell us about the kind of music you worked up for them?
Well first, both shows are very, very different from each other, and both are great fun. The music of The Good Place (we’ve only done one episode so far) is more minimal and involves the oboe, mallet instruments, and occasional strings. It is more thematic than the recent shows I have been doing. I am having a blast.
You’ve been in the music business a very healthy number of years. How do you maintain a healthy balance between all the elements of your work and life?
That is an excellent question. You work so many hours that you quickly discover the necessity for balance. No matter how busy I am, I try to make time for exercise, I try to eat dinner with my family every night, and I try to take a mini break every few hours. I think the biggest issue is attitude, if you feel you are having fun, then it is going to be a lot easier than if you are just thinking about deadlines and the inevitable political pressures of the job.
I love to play “What’s in your studio?” with composers, so: What’s the most important element of your studio? What’s your favourite instrument (real or virtual) to reach for? What’s your favourite plugin? And what’s the most essential non-musical thing you have to have around you?
The most essential part of my studio is having great musicians around me. That is not always possible. I like to travel a lot when I am not working, and I try and bring an instrument back from every trip. I just travelled to Portugal and picked up a 10-string guitar called a viola campaniça. My go-to plugin as of late has been Waves’ TG12345 – it makes everything sound like The Beatles at Abbey Road. I am also a huge fan of Kontakt and of course, everything that Eric Persing and Spectrasonics makes. Once again, good people are the most essential!
Thank you very much David!
Find out more about David Schwartz on his official website.
Thanks to Ashley Moore of The Krakower Group PR for her role in making this interview happen.