With Songland, executive producer Audrey Morrissey aimed to create a series that would take viewers deeper into the creative process involved with music, representing a new chapter for music in television.
For the four-time Emmy winner, the seeds of the songwriting competition series were planted while working on NBC’s The Voice. “My entire career has been in music and television, but once I ended up at The Voice, for the first time in my career, I had an up-close, ringside seat to massive international artists talking about material, and I realized how the material was everything,” Morrissey says. “Not to minimize vocalists, but a great song is what all artists are looking for.”
It was around this time that Morrissey met Dave Stewart—a Grammy winner known for his ’80s pop duo Eurythmics—whose appreciation of songwriters matched her own. “Being a very famous writer-producer himself, he said, ‘I really want to do a show focused on songwriting, because there was a time when songwriters were household names, and now, they no longer are,’” the EP recalls. “He said, ‘For me, it’s a legacy thing, and I really want to create a platform to highlight them.’”
Wrapping its second season last week, Stewart and Morrissey’s series centers on undiscovered songwriters, who are given the chance to create a hit. In each episode, the artists present original songs to an A-list musical guest and a panel of producer-hosts—including Shane McAnally, Ryan Tedder and Ester Dean—working then with the producers to refine their songs, based on artist feedback. Ultimately, the guest artist will choose just one song to record and release, the same night that their episode airs.
In developing Songland with Stewart, Morrissey spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what the right format for the show would be. What proved most important, in portraying the behind-the-scenes process of songwriting, was just to do so with authenticity. “It’s actually the closest thing to a documentary, yet being a format, because it just faithfully follows the process of what really goes on in the music industry, and in songwriting circles—how it happens, how co-writes work, how artists look for material,” Morrissey says. “So, that’s the thing I’m really proud of with the show, and it’s also the thing I think so many viewers are connecting to.”
Part of what the EP wanted to portray about songwriting today is that an artist rarely pens a song alone. “There are very few people that write by themselves these days. It’s often collaboration, so they will get together with trusted colleagues, or better yet, new people that they’ve never worked with, and sit around,” she says. “Someone will bring a topic, or bring an idea, or a melody, or a part of a song that they’ve been working on, and this is what happens all over the world.”
From a broader perspective, it was important to examine how each song makes its way from an original pitch, all the way to the recording studio. “Oftentimes, [songwriters] think they’ve got a song that would be great for Adele, or Katy Perry, or whomever, and they send it—and then once that artist gets it, they usually personalize it, and tinker with it to make it work for them, which is essentially what you’re seeing on Songland,” Morrissey says. “The only big difference here is that people who are submitting the songs are not in the inner circle. They’re not on the A-list circuit of writers.”
Coming onto the series, the songwriting talent for each episode had already achieved an impressive level of artistry and craft in their work. But for Morrissey, these artists weren’t hard to find. “Fortunately, we were already very close with The Voice casting team, so we used them. They already had so many contacts in the music community, with managers, universities, music schools, et cetera, so we put them on the case, and it was a welcome, exciting change for them, too,” she says. “They went into their network of contacts, and a lot of people who’ve been through The Voice. We were always keeping notes about the people who are very artistic, those who we could tell were writers. So, a lot of those people jumped at the chance.”
What Morrissey anticipated to be the bigger challenge in producing the show was getting A-list songwriters to come on board, as guests for each episode. “To be honest, in the beginning, I didn’t think the show was bookable. I didn’t know that artists would necessarily come on the show. I didn’t know that they would pull back the curtain to that process, because it hadn’t been shown thus far, and I just wasn’t really sure how that would be received,” she admits. “Thankfully, the truth is, I was very wrong. Artists not only want to come on the show, but especially the artists that are big writers themselves.
“They understand how hard it is to get recognized as a writer, and how hard these opportunities are to get,” she adds, “so they’re the ones who are holding their hands up first and saying, ‘Yes, I absolutely want to do this. I remember what it was like for me, and I want to pay it forward. I want to shine a light, and I want to use my platform to help these people.’”
Once guest artists signed on, it was critical to get their creative teams involved, in deciding on a set of songs to feature on their episode. “The artists don’t hear anything [prior to filming], but their trusted counterparts have helped us vet the material, so we’re at least in the ballpark. It would be terrible if we presented four songs that were just not creatively anywhere the artist wanted to be. I mean, that would just be a really big mess,” Morrissey says. “So, we needed to come up with a process, so that the artist has some creative safety net, if they’re going to go on a show, and basically sign up for saying, ‘Yes, I’m going to cut and release a song from the show.’”
Two seasons in, Songland and the songs that have emerged from it have been embraced, to an extent that no one could have imagined up front. Registering as the top new show of Summer 2019, according to Nielsen’s metrics, it amassed over 260 million streams in its first season, producing in its first two go-rounds 12 song ranking at #1 on the iTunes charts. “Nobody sees that [coming]. You only hope that people are as passionate and excited about it as you are. I will say, though, when we finally got to the place where we were filming our pilot episode with Charlie Puth, everybody on the set was buzzing,” Morrissey says. “I mean, it was just palpable, the magic that they were witnessing. No one had ever experienced anything like it.”
While the response to Songland has been heartening, Morrissey recently had another memorably gratifying experience, as the executive producer of One World: Together at Home. Organized by Global Citizen and the World Health Organization, the special gathered A-list comedians, musicians and actors for a spectacular show, which raised funds, in support of front line health workers combatting COVID-19.
“That was quite a project. We were already so busy with Songland and The Voice, so to add this was kind of crazy,” the EP says. “But when you get a call like that, and you’re feeling very helpless, and you want to contribute, it meant a great deal to feel useful, really.”
That said, the challenges of producing the special were many. “There was not a lot of time. I think it was barely three weeks. There were two shows, a digital show and the on-air show. Chad [Hines] and I, thankfully, were only dealing with the on-air. But it was really a throughput issue,” she shares. “Booking the show wasn’t difficult. Global Citizen was doing that, and everybody wanted to help. I think, for us, it was defining what the show was, what the tone should be, what the different building blocks of the show were, and then recognizing that no one entity could do it, so you had to sort of farm it out.”
The special came at an interesting moment, when few people had worked out the kinks in the process of remote producing. “There had been a few shows, and I was very happy that some had happened, so we could see them and learn, and not be the first one out of the gate,” Morrissey says. “But it was a crazy few weeks, I’m not going to lie. Not a lot of sleep.”
While the reality of the pandemic will assuredly feature into production on future seasons of Songland, Morrissey has a clear vision for where she’d like to take the show next. “I feel like next season, I’d like to see another sort of special episode or two. Like, this season, we had one, which was our Olympics-themed episode with Bebe Rexha. She was finding a song for the Olympics, for the promo campaign for NBC,” she says. “So, [I’m] definitely looking for things like that.
Also, we haven’t really had electronic music artists in there. I mean, we had Macklemore, but maybe [we can] delve in that direction a little more. I think it’s really important to hit all the genres—as many as we can—and also maybe have some guest mentors, or swap out a chair or two for an episode or so,” Morrissey adds. “That’s always exciting, to just mix up the dynamic and get some new, fresh faces. I think that’s a big part of the show, is for fans, they get to see their favorite artists in a new light.”