Film and television composer, Adam Blau, has a passion for projects that aren’t just one thing. Some of Blau’s previous work includes the FX sitcom You’re the Worst, created by Stephen Falk. The show is a unique spin on a romantic comedy and features a modern indie-rock and electronic score. Adam’s other work includes writing the theme song for Billy Eichner’s Billy on the Street and composing for the film My Year of Dicks, an alternative, animated comedy piece created by Pamela Ribon that has won multiple awards in the festival circuit.
In his work for the third and final season of Netflix’s hit series Dead to Me, he created a musical palette that infuses the show’s offbeat mystery with genuine suspense and an emotional core to highlight the show’s many themes. Adam is valued for being able to deliver on Liz Feldman’s vision and help bring the audience into the world created by the show.
Hi Adam! Can you talk about your previous projects and how you ended up working on Dead to Me?
I’ve recently composed music for genre-bending comedies like FX’s You’re the Worst — a television show that gives a new and unique perspective on romantic comedies — and Brockmire, the Hank Azaria sports comedy that also takes on more serious topics like addiction. I love working on these projects driven by writers who have strong visions that dig into bigger topics, especially when they also happen to be incredibly funny.
Prior to working on Dead to Me, I had worked with the show’s creator Liz Feldman several times over the years; in fact, Liz was involved with one of the first professional projects I wrote music for years ago, a live comedy show that I scored and wrote songs for. And so I knew that when Liz was working on this new show for Netflix, it would not only be uproariously funny, but that it would also be dynamic and fresh, particularly given the incredible cast. I’m a longtime fan of Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, as well as James Marsden, and so when I was asked to write music for the show, I jumped at the chance.
What is it like working with a collaborator as successful as Liz Feldman? Tell us more about your working relationship and short hand with them.
Working with a talented writer like Liz is such a thrill. She brings such a strong and unique voice to her work, and I think so much of that comes through in Dead to Me. With any project, it can take a moment to figure out the nuances of the tone, but Liz had such a solid sense of the show’s feel right from the outset — combining the show’s comedy and mystery, all the while depicting this strong, developing bond between the main characters.
Once we got the basics down, Liz and I truly did develop a shorthand together. We’ve reached a point that when we watch a scene to figure out how the music will go, it’s not uncommon for her to simply say “you know what to do…” or even just give a look and a nod — it’s a credit to the clear writing and performances in the show, and also to having worked with Liz over the years — one of the benefits of working with the same people on multiple projects. I have a similar relationship with Stephen Falk on You’re the Worst — we’ve known each other for years as well, and don’t have to tiptoe around what we’re looking for — it makes the whole process go much more smoothly.
You brought a unique approach to Dead to Me. Can you take us behind one or two of your favorite cues? Tell us more about your process and how you decide the right way to approach it.
While the sly, knife-twisting, ticking clock suspense scenes are always fun to score, I relish writing music for the more heartfelt and emotional scenes in Dead to Me. The first one of these that comes to mind is in the second episode of the series, in which Jen finally enters her dead husband’s studio. Up to this point we’ve been in the thrall of the show’s offbeat mystery, but for the first time we’re allowed to fully embrace a moment of genuine emotion — a feature that will become a central hallmark of the series, and one that really makes Dead to Me unique. Up to this point we’ve been hearing music that is either a bit lighter or that plays up the show’s increasing suspense, but in this scene we let the score play into the grief and Jen’s deep feeling — a thing we revisit throughout the series to lock in the genuine emotional core buried within the mystery.
There are some bigger emotional moments like this throughout the show, and it was always exciting when Liz would react differently to a scene when the score was attached to it for the first time. I knew that if a new piece of music affected Liz in a surprising, positive way after having watched these scenes a million times, then I really felt like I earned my keep.
Did you approach composing characters in Dead to Me in a specific way at all?
It became clear early in the process of writing music for Dead to Me that I had to strike the right balance between the show’s mystery, comedy, and emotion in order to match Liz’s tonal vision for the show. With such magnetic and funny performances from Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini playing leads Jen and Judy, we quickly discovered that the show’s comedy worked best when played against the backdrop of music that took things a bit more seriously — that is, we avoided overt “comedy music” for the show, letting the actors be their funny selves while the music played the action pretty straight.
I think handling it this way also let us embrace more fully those moments in which the show does get more serious, and aids when the show rapidly switches gears between moments that are utterly absurd, deeply heartfelt, and genuinely tense. There were times in which we’d set up the music so that it would play a dangerous moment for Jen and Judy, and they’d be able to undercut it with a well-timed punchline. It’s one of the things that’s so appealing about the show — the very real experience we all have of handling troubling moments with humor.
What were some of the other challenges you encountered with Dead to Me? How did you overcome them?
During this new season, the production was affected by the same thing so many others were affected by these past couple of years: the pandemic. While there were a few starts & stops to production, thankfully the cast and crew were so on top of things that everything was manageable and handled beautifully.
One specific challenge in this regard was recording the “Holy Harmonies,” the on-screen dance choir that’s featured in the show. I’ve enjoyed arranging and producing these very silly song segments throughout the series, and they always end up being such a fun highlight each season. We knew that because of COVID restrictions, we’d have to handle things differently this year. Working with the brilliant vocalist and contractor Baraka May, as well as an insanely talented group of young performers, we were able to pull it all off more smoothly than we ever imagined.
What are some of your other favorite past projects?
You’re the Worst was such a fun show for me because in addition to the show’s main scoring, we did so many theme episodes, giving me the chance to dive into many different genres of music — from horror to Debussy to yacht rock. Plus I collaborated on so many in-show songs with the show’s creator Stephen Falk, ranging from rap songs to Eurovision spoofs and everything in between. There was so much on-screen music in that show that I also got a chance to work with the stellar cast, including Chris Geere, Kether Donohue, and Brandon Mychael Smith — plus I myself got to make on-screen cameos in one form or another each of the 5 seasons, which was incredibly fun.
I’ve really enjoyed working with Billy Eichner through the years, as well. After writing the theme song to his breakout Billy on the Street, I collaborated with him on some song projects, including arranging a Mariah Carey song he recently performed on The Late Late Show With James Corden.
One of the most personally gratifying projects for me was my work with the Fred Rogers Institute. As a Fellow there, I conceived and created a series of songs for families and caregivers of young children, in addition to scoring a number of other games and apps for them. I worked on these projects for “Mr. Rogers” shortly after my own child was born, so it felt truly rewarding.
What else is happening next in your world?
I recently scored an incredibly funny and touching alternative animation film by the amazing Pamela Ribon and Sara Gunnarsdottir called My Year of Dicks. It’s been winning award after award at festivals including the Ottawa International Animation Festival, SXSW, Brooklyn Film Festival, and the Annecy Festival in France, and it was a blast to write music for.
And at the moment, I’m most excited about the release of the new season of Dead to Me on November 17th— it’s such a great conclusion to the journey of these characters, and I can’t wait for everyone to see it!