How Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist introduces its first original song

·8 min read

After a season and a half, NBC's Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist is throwing out the song book in favor of debuting its first original song.

In this Sunday's episode, "Zoey's Extraordinary Birthday," Zoey (Jane Levy) turns 30 and is in for a surprise when her neighbor Aiden (Felix Mallard) and his garage band — including her older brother David (Andrew Leeds) — sing her a very inappropriate song all about her... in front of all her family and friends. It's a hilarious moment full of secondhand embarrassment for the already socially-awkward birthday girl. But it's also the first time someone performs an original song on the NBC musical drama.

"That is the first song I've ever written," Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist creator Austin Winsberg tells EW about the lyrics which he penned with Lindsey Rosin. "For someone who was never that musically inclined, this was a real treat and the highlight of the season for me."

The show's executive music producer Harvey Mason Jr., who wrote the accompanying music along with Andrew Hey and Sam Ramirez, is proud that they finally found a way to introduce a new song within the confines of the story.

"I don't know how many songs we've done at this point, probably 60 songs or something, so it was a nice treat to do an original," he tells EW. "Austin was such a champion at this. He came to us with the lyrics and the idea and how he wanted it to sound. He really drove the creative vision for it. He's just a talented guy. Austin tends to make me angry because he's so good at too many things."

Below, EW got Winsberg and Mason to break down how they pulled off "Crimson Love," how the song's performance shakes things up for the birthday girl, and more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How long have you been planning to do an original song on the show?

AUSTIN WINSBERG: We've wanted to do an original song from the beginning, and it was just always trying to figure out in terms of the rules and the conceit of the show how an original song can work. In the show, she has all the songs in the world uploaded into her brain so for someone to suddenly sing an original song when she sees a heart song, we thought that might be a little bit confusing. So when we came up with this idea of Aiden being in a band next door and then the idea of the band singing at her birthday, we realized that was an opportunity for us to finally be able to do a song in the moment that could be original.

What kind of opportunities does an original song give you that you don't get from covers of popular songs?

WINSBERG: If you can write an original song, it's so much easier to tie in lyrically or tonally what's happening story-wise, what you needed to do in terms of plot or revealing things about character. In this particular case, there was a needle that needed to be threaded between it being sweet and endearing and romantic and comedic and cringey, and that's kind of a lot to ask of a pre-existing song. It enabled us to still be able to do something in the show's tone and the show's voice that also played into what needed to happen story wise at that moment.

HARVEY MASON, JR.: With pre-existing songs, the job is to try and make something that sounds exciting and interesting without being offensive to the original song. That can be even more challenging because you're worried about what it used to sound like and then you're worried about how can I make it sound better, or if not better, different. With the original, you have a little bit more flexibility. We can do whatever we want, because there's no preconception around a song that no one's heard before.

How did bringing an original song to life compare to the process of doing a cover of a known song?

MASON: It was a challenge, because up until that point, you're picking from tens of thousands of songs to express any one emotion or any story beat. Whereas this one we're literally starting from scratch and trying to create something that captures the moment, captures the scene. It was a different exercise than we've ever done on the show. We were walking the fine line of trying to be funny and say something that was witty and also somewhat uncomfortable or cringey, because the brother is hearing that this song's about his sister and it's starting to hit him for the first time. And the challenge was trying to make it sound like the scene. We're used to doing some songs really big and powerful and over-the-top production and then some are very stripped down, intimate, piano and vocal only. This had to represent a garage band. We had to make it sound cool but not too cool, good but not too good. There's a certain amount of musicality you have to put in the song and some you have to hold back.

Was "Crimson Love" the only song choice you were considering or were there different versions you were choosing between?

WINSBERG: There was a moment when I was debating whether or not to ask professional songwriters to write the song. But I just feel like the tone of the show is so specific. I have kind of a commute to work every day, and one time when I was riding in the van to work, I just thought of the lyrics and it just sort of sprung from that. "Crimson Love" was something that I had from the very first time I wrote down kind of like that song poem to the tune of a Maroon Five song in my head on the way to work one day and it mostly stayed very similar to that. [Laughs] I should just quit TV and do songwriting full time.

MASON: And after it started with a lyrical idea from Austin, it's a blank slate for the music, you just have an email with some lyrics on it and they're not even really flushed all the way out. Normally we're looking at a pre-existing song. Here's how it used to sound. Here's how we want it to sound. And then we just make it. With the original one, we have a lot more flexibility, a lot more creativity. There was a lot more to be worked out.

How does this song change things up moving forward?

WINSBERG: The person it has the biggest impact on is David, her brother, because David was really excited to join this band and suddenly he felt like he had an outlet. And then only when they are performing the song in front of Zoey does he realize that the song is actually about his sister, and he's singing a love song to his sister, which is part of what makes it so cringey. And it's kind of an inappropriate love song to his sister! I actually had even more R-rated lyrics that the network made me cut about some things that Aiden wanted to do to Zoey. For David, the impact is that he feels like he can no longer be a part of this band, especially when Aiden is in love with his sister. For Zoey, it's the third guy in the episode that she's dealing with some sort of romantic entanglements or complications with. It's certainly the clear line for her, when she's trying to turn the page into her 30s and be a bit more mature, that this young 23-year-old guy shouldn't even really be on her radar in that way.

It is so perfect that Aiden is basically singing his heart song out loud, not just for Zoey to hear but also for everyone else to hear.

WINSBERG: Yeah, he hadn't really expressed to Zoey how he's been feeling up 'til that point. For him it was an opportunity. He thought he was being romantic, he thought he was expressing his real feelings for her in the most romantic way possible. It just might not have been the most appropriate way possible.

Are you going to be doing more original songs moving forward?

WINSBERG: I'm always down for original songs and we'd love to do more on the show when we can. It's all case-by-case basis.

MASON: But there are some song [covers] coming up I'm very excited for people to see. There's some very big moments and incredible vocal performances. There's a couple of really emotional scenes that are about to happen and the music plays a really big important part in.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.

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