Jen Ross is the vivacious award-winning music supervisor and founder of Grand Plan Entertainment, who is best known for her contributions to beloved television series including Empire, Power, Star, Quantico, Agent Carter, Grace and Frankie, Smash, Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, and Reckless. A Los Angeles native and the daughter of a well-respected personal manager to the stars, Jen immediately gravitated towards the arts and later, found her way to an A&R position at DreamWorks Records, sharpening her skill sets on projects for the likes of Rufus Wainwright, Nelly Furtado, and Elliott Smith. There, she discovered the craft of music supervision and pivoted to a job assisting the revered Kathy Nelson right before the internet disrupted the record business. At present, Jen is regarded as one of the most inventive talents in her field, possessing high expertise in supervising music-driven series. This prowess has earned her two Guild of Music Supervisors Awards for Empire in 2016 and a Hollywood Music in Media Award for Power in 2018. In our intriguing discussion, Jen reveals the demanding logistics that underpin seamless onscreen performances and shares the soundtrack to her own life.
I understand you cultivated a deep love of soundtracks early on in life and gravitated towards the work of iconic 80’s filmmaker, John Hughes. Who were the most influential artists and creators that shaped your taste during your formative years?
Oh, wow, that's a good one. Not to date myself, but there's a magic in John Hughes films for somebody of my generation. They really spoke to me because they used wonderful, amazing music — a lot of the artists that I was into at the time. I came up when there was interesting music across the board. To be able to see how a band like New Order could speak to what a character was going through emotionally, at the age of not understanding the power of music used in film yet — that really sparked what became this eventual path I went down.
I guess my earliest recollection of being influenced by the power of specific artists’ music would be being a child discovering MTV when it first started. I may totally date myself with this, but I was obsessed with certain music videos, which lead me to getting the albums and wearing them out. Blondie‘s Rapture video lead me to the album Autoamerican, which to this day, “The Tide Is High” takes me back to my youth. The Rolling Stones’ video for “Waiting On A Friend” lead me to Tattoo You which remains one my favorite albums, but that song specifically is the equivalent to having a comfy sweater on, whenever I need a pick me up that song never fails to make me feel better.
Then there’s Prince’s Purple Rain. That entire album changed my young universe! Which then lead me to The Time, and Sheila E. Early U2 records meant the world to me too. And of course, David Bowie became my holy grail. Growing up with all of these artists made me love music in a way that I think is pretty special. The ability to work in music, to have any kind of career that allows me to touch upon that, is still insane to me. It’s the best gift of all.
What attracted you to the entertainment industry in the first place?
Good one. Well, I was born and raised in L.A., which I’m quite proud of. My father worked in the entertainment industry as a personal manager, so I got a taste of it when I was growing up. He was a manager at the end of a very specific era. He co-managed Sammy Davis Jr., and he managed Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eddie Fisher — it was pretty spectacular. I was exposed to it at a very, very young age, so it wasn’t a conscious decision, but I think it opened the door to a fascinating creative world. At a young age, I had access to great music and saw a lot of musical theater. I was very fortunate to have parents that introduced me to a lot of things in the arts and entertainment. This isn’t something I’d necessarily suggest to teenagers, but when I was in high school, I was the kid who ditched school to hang out at the record store.
I think some kids have an idea of what they want to be from a young age. Some want to be a doctor; some want to be a lawyer, et cetera, et cetera. I didn't say I wanted to be a music supervisor or that I wanted to work in entertainment. I really didn't know what I wanted to be, but I knew that I loved music. Listening to something and reading all the liner notes — that was something that inspired me and spoke to me on certain levels. During the process of growing up, I thought I maybe wanted to write, but somewhere in it all, I just stumbled into the record label side of things before I eventually found a home on the music supervision side.
Can you tell us the story of how you found your way to the craft of music supervision?
It was really a beautiful accident. I was working at a record label called DreamWorks Records, and it was a wonderful experience. We had artists like Rufus Wainwright, Nelly Furtado, Elliott Smith, Papa Roach — musicians all across the board. I loved working there and felt thankful to have been a part of so many great projects, but it was during a time when the music industry was enduring a lot of major changes. Things like Napster had just come about, and the definition of a record label was rapidly shifting. I had gone to work there because I felt intense love and kinship with artist development, but that wasn’t being prioritized anymore.
While working there, I had the opportunity to learn about music supervision. To be honest, up until that exposure, I never really thought that there was a job or role that one could have in film and TV like that. I guess it never dawned on me until this time that Chris Douridas came around — he was supervising American Beauty. Then it really struck me as an amazing career path, one that I could enjoy and offer me more stability because the record industry felt unstable at that point in time. As the label side of the entertainment landscape shifted, so did my desire.
So, I started from scratch. DreamWorks Records had sold, which frankly forced me to rethink my profession. It was honestly the best thing that could have happened to me because I found my calling. I’m a huge believer in the idea that life will take you where you’re supposed to go if you just allow it. So, after that, I decided to go into music supervision. I called everybody I knew and explained that this was what I wanted, and I’d be willing to do anything to get some experience. My first job was working as an assistant for Kathy Nelson [legendary music supervisor and President of Film Music for Universal Music Group and Universal Pictures at that time].
Power revolves around Ghost, a New York City nightclub owner and unfaithful husband, who leads a double life as a drug dealer to the glitterati. The series navigates the violent circumstances, risky business, betrayals, and relationship drama that ensues as a result of Ghost attempting to balance his two worlds and avoid hard time. Can you identify a musical moment that captured the very essence of the show last season?
Ooh, wow. I'm very fortunate. Power is a very textured show, musically speaking, which I think is a phenomenal opportunity. The music speaks on a narrative level. In this last season, there was a great sequence which featured “2” by H.E.R. It’s a montage of all these pieces unfolding, all the back door dealings, all the truths look like they are being revealed, but in fact, it’s a big, huge manipulated plan playing itself out.
It’s been incredible to have the opportunity to use songs like this on Power. It worked both as an amazing R&B song, but also played into the extremely dramatic storytelling and still had the rhythm to push through almost four minutes onscreen. It’s a lot of land to cover, so to have something that can actually speak to what’s going on while also working as score and moving at the same time; it’s a wonderful thing that doesn’t always happen. When it does, it can be pretty magical. I like to call it when the sun, the stars, and the moon align. That, to me, stands out as one of the shining moments of last season.
In a narrative like Power that is consistently tumultuous and unpredictable, how do you select music that enhances and modulates suspense?
Really after many, many hours of careful deliberation. It is a very specific environment, and I think that being true to your environment is extremely important when it comes to the use of music in film and TV. Finding things that have the ability to capture what the tension is in that room can be very, very challenging. The process is mainly throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall, and deciding what is hitting in the best way and hitting the most notes. The amazing thing about music is there is no right or wrong. Music can do different things because it’s purely subjective. Everybody tastes it and feels it differently. That’s one of the things that’s most interesting to me, and I’m sure it happens for many other music supervisors as well.
Often, there will be something you think is the perfect song, then you'll put it up to picture, and you’ll find it’s maybe not so perfect. Sometimes, things don't necessarily work out the way you would hope because you can only bend music so much to match the picture. It really does have to intertwine and marry because we're not creating — we’re taking songs that already exist, and we literally need everything to bend, especially on a show like Power where we use music in such a narrative way. It’s so much in the forefront versus the background. We try everything before it goes over to the editors. We put the picture on, really sit with it, and decide on the top candidates from what we just saw. It’s about finding what is working the best before we put it forward.
Would you say that lyrical content is equally important? In an instance where a song is prominently used for roughly four minutes, I can only assume it must have been a challenge to perfect that scene.
A hundred percent. It's a marriage if you will. It all has to be harmonious in its own way. Everything has to complement each other, especially when you're dealing with moments where the music’s not just playing in the background. The lyrics matter and it has to feel right tonally. It’s got to speak the right way.
It’s interesting because many people listen to songs without truly understanding what they are about. They can enjoy a song without grasping the lyrical content. Does this ever impact your selections?
Absolutely. Sometimes, lyrics aren’t necessarily the biggest component of the scene, but it’s important to be mindful. I’m a bit of a stickler for lyrics because if you’re not paying close attention to what’s being said, you could select something that could be saying the exact opposite of what you’re trying to achieve, even if the production fits perfectly. It’s all about knowing your audience. There’s a right place, time, and context for any song. You just have to figure it out.
Empire examines the layered dramatic intrigue of the Lyons family. Affected by the declining health of patriarch, Lucious, the three heirs, and their mother, Cookie engage in a ruthless power struggle to seize control of their hip hop and entertainment empire and contend with outside influences with less than pure intentions. Music is the very heartbeat of the series featuring an energetic fusion of rap, R&B, and pop, which contrasts with the glamorous orchestral score of Fil Eisler’s making. How would you describe the essential ingredients of Empire’s sound?
Empire is a great example of when everything works right in a top tier capacity. We’re talking about the Lyons, who are literally the kings and queens of their game. What's great about the show is that it really gives you the opportunity to look at an enormous scope of urban R&B, but also pop as well. It’s not just contemporary. It also goes into the deep history and roots of R&B as well.
It's nice to be able to play to both sides of the spectrum because there's not a lot of opportunity out there to create projects that are this well rounded — it’s phenomenal. Then I think there's something that's extremely special about Fil’s score, which is very beautiful and Godfather-like in its nature. You know, it’s very Nino Rota.
All these elements make such a great landscape and complement each other so well. It’s almost funny at times. We’ll be sitting in spotting sessions and laughing because, in one episode, we can have a Frank Sinatra song go into a French Montana track, and then go into something by John Coltrane. I think of it as a fantastic dinner party, as if you’re able to bring eclectic guests to sit at one table. This show is a bit of a rare bird because we’re able to experiment and play with so many sounds and styles. It’s a lot of fun to be a part of something that touches all these different cornerstones of music over a period of time.
What have been the most memorable musical sequences for you personally?
Oh God, there are so many. It’s tough to narrow them down. We have an original song component that, for me, is such a huge piece of what we do. It’s an amazing opportunity to see the arc of where we've gone with all of these characters and their unique original songs.
Some of my favorite moments still date back to season one but even now, we are in our fifth season, and it's incredible to see how far we've come. We're very fortunate that we've been able to keep it fresh each season. Our original music and all of our needle drop have progressed in such different ways, so it’s great that we can still find new ways to bring new music to the table. It continues to stay current.
In the first episode of season five, there is a great sequence featuring a character named Eddie Barker played by Forest Whitaker, who ultimately meets his demise. This happens to characters on this show a lot. His wife is not all that sad about his passing. She is leaving the funeral and has the car pull over so she can dispose of his ashes. You have to see it for yourself, but we used Janelle Monaé’s “I Like That.” It was the last song of the episode, and it worked out fantastic. It’s cheeky but works in the environment.
Overall, it was a great union. Janelle is such a phenomenal triple threat of a talent. When we had gotten the album, we knew we had to find a way to use it, and interestingly enough, the album had come out before we were back. We took it off the shelf and found the right opportunity. It was an unusual way to use Janelle Monaé but it really, really worked.
On the subject of original songs from Empire, we crossed paths with Jim Beanz at last year’s BMI Film, TV, & Visual Media Awards, and learned that he is one of the contributing songwriters.
Yes, we have a lot of different writers that work on Empire. There is a big pool of different people who have been a part of the process over the seasons, like Timbaland and Ne-Yo, but Jim is one of the original songwriters and producers on Empire. He's been working on it since season one. In fact, Jim wrote what has been one of my favorite moments on the show. It’s one of the bigger original songs called “You’re So Beautiful.”
What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of collaborating with Lee Daniels on both Empire and Star?
I will tell you Lee has an amazing vision. It really has been a great honor to be able to work with him and be a part of his work. He has created worlds that nobody has really created before, and he’s done it with a conviction that he stood by whether people necessarily understood it at first or not.
We’ve been very fortunate. Empire was a “phenomenon” so to speak. You never know what’s going to happen with a new show. You can’t anticipate how people are going to respond, but it was a delightful surprise to see people connect with it. It’s just continued to grow, and grow, and grow, which is a testament to Lee’s spectacular vision. I think he has the ability to connect with what people's lives are. He tells stories in fantastic, sometimes, over the top ways, but at their core, they have a huge grasp of the truth and really resonate. It’s been a blessing to be able to experience his method of filmmaking and to see how he starts from an idea and gets it to picture.
It’s a wonderful thing when musical shows like this take on lives of their own. I feel like all of us in the music community win because it’s important to see music-driven shows move the dial.
What are the unique challenges you face in supervising music focused shows like Empire, Star, and in the past, Smash, that feature consistent live performances of original music?
Everything about on-camera performance is challenging. I wish I could say that wasn't the case, but it's true. You have a very short time frame to make all of these things happen for television. It’s a lot of moving pieces within a very, very limited window of time. It’s almost like someone hands you a bomb and clicks the timer, so you’re left with thirty minutes to make sure the building doesn’t explode. It’s kind of like that, but on a weekly basis.
For those who don’t know, what can go wrong?
A lot of things can go wrong. Number one is if you're doing an original song, then you have to get that original song created, and then record it from beginning to end, so have a final product to playback on set. That takes a lot of time. You have to make sure the talent has the opportunity to get prepped accordingly. They have to have time to rehearse, so they feel comfortable enough to record it. Then after all of that, you have to manage the back side — the legal aspects and the deals have to be done. Everything has to be secured before you get in front of the camera.
It’s the same thing if you’re doing a re-record or a cover song. You have to get it cleared before you can record it, then you have to record it, then you have to get it in front of the camera. All of these things take time, and we’re working within seven to ten days to turn things over. If we're lucky, maybe upwards of fourteen, but you have to deliver top quality material on a tight schedule consistently. It’s always possible, but it’s challenging.
It’s important to know your environment and be aware of what it is your shooting, how it’s going to sound, and the logistics involved. Sometimes, there are moments when we do a pre-record, but we’ll also do live record on set, and then in post, we’ll try to figure out which one to use. Sometimes, we’ll shoot it both ways.
Wow! So, you’re recording the vocals live and in the studio, and then you can create a composite between them. It seems like there are so many variables that can affect that process — energy levels, different microphones, etc.
Exactly. We find the best way in between. Making it seamless can be difficult. It’s really a team effort. There are a lot of people involved in getting all of this together. We’re fortunate to have wonderful editors and sound mixers, and it's crazy because there are so many little pieces needed to complete the puzzle. All it takes is one piece to get lost, and you’ve got a problem. You can’t finish it without that missing piece.
As we’ve heard time and time again from your peers, hip-hop songs are notoriously difficult to clear for a host of reasons. What are the greatest hurdles you’ve overcome in order to clear a specific song?
It never ends. There are constantly hurdles. It really depends on what the challenge is at hand. I think if you're working with hip hop, you have to be a little resilient to get through the different challenges ahead of you. It’s inevitable that there will be multiple parties that you're going have to go to.
Often, there are split disputes. If you really, really want a song, you have to act as a mediator, be a bit of a detective to hunt people down and ask people to find a way to make it work. Sometimes, you can pull it off and sometimes, you can’t. You have to wear many, many hats because nine times out of ten, it’s not a simple process. Hip hop is just a very, very hard genre to clear because there are so many people involved and then there's the whole issue of sampling.
As time goes on, music supervisors are becoming increasingly responsible for dictating what’s popular in the industry at large and expanding appreciation of the artists they sync. From your perspective, what can artists do to position themselves for success in music licensing?
Number one, I think that artists need to get themselves out there, but they have to do their homework first, have all of their music sorted, and prepare their songs in a way that makes them easy to clear. It helps motivate music supervisors when they know they can go to a particular artist and the process won’t be complicated.
When we’re talking about indie artists who are looking to break into film and TV, I think the best thing they can do is study the landscape for the right opportunities. I would encourage artists to check out the shows and see what music is being used, so they can identify whether they can fit into somebody’s world and go after those projects. Studying is always the best approach.
Next up, you’ll be taking on Mixtape, which is Josh Safran’s upcoming Netflix musical drama series set in Los Angeles. What about this story do you think will resonate with viewers? Can you give us a hint as to how the soundtrack will be curated?
I can give you a few hints. I think Mixtape is really going to resonate, in the sense that it’s a show about music being the soundtrack of our lives. For the majority of people, music speaks to who and what we are. It shapes us as we go through life. On this show, each character has their own sound, their own mixtape, their own soundtrack. When these characters dream, they dream with songs. We're using a lot of music and doing musical fantasy sequences, which show different characters speaking their truth and going through various emotional aspects of their life.
I think we’ve all made our own mixtapes. We all have songs we sing along to in the car or the shower, things we listen to when we’re jumping on the bed. They speak to what we’re feeling in various moments of our life, or maybe reflect on memories. I can’t give specifics, but all I can say is that it is a very diverse soundtrack. There is no particular sound of the show. Each character has their own identity. They are diverse in age, gender, ethnicity, so there is a lot of variety. It’s a mixture of different music over different generations, and I’m super excited for people to see it.
If you could select four songs that best reflect the following phases of your life, what would they be and why? — one to represent your childhood, one for your college years, one for your present, and one for your future.
Childhood: “Baby I’m A Star” by Prince
Summer of 1984 is one of my all-time favorite childhood memories because Purple Rain came out and literally changed my everything. Suffice to say; I became obsessed with Prince, the album, the film — all of it. So, to this day, when I think back on my childhood, I fondly remember that summer, sitting in my bedroom (that yes, I made mom let me paint purple), listening and singing along to this song with all the moxie one could muster at a young age, vamping it up to the lyric, “Take a picture sweetie, I ain't got time to wait”.
College: “Friday I’m In Love” by The Cure
It’s a funny and somewhat magical thing when your life transitions and grows along with a specific artist that you have listened to through different phases of your youth. The Cure is one of those artists that has played the soundtrack of many different phases of my youth. That said, “Friday I’m In Love” warms my heart in memory as it’s a great example of a transition from the complexities of teenage youth into the sheer fun of early 20s adulthood, and not for nothing, it arguably the best “pop” song written by what most people only label as a “goth” band. In that context, their whole “don’t judge a book by its cover” context could be considered thematic score for my college years as well.
Present: “I Got The Juice” by Janelle Monaé featuring Pharrell Williams
Presently, I feel very blessed and humbled getting to work on some great projects that are culturally relevant in a time that the female voice, literally and metaphorically, is on the rise. That said, ” I Got The Juice" is a motivating jam, so to speak, for these times. Please note that I say that with a bit of a swaggery wink — only half kidding.
Future: “Heroes” by David Bowie
While I don’t know what the future brings, I can’t help but lean into a big finish with “Heroes.” David Bowie is an artist who so very much has shaped so many phases of my life, that when I think future, I go right to “Heroes” as it’s timeless and has always been, and will continue to be, a song that gives me hope and comfort.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Editing | Ruby Gartenberg, Alex Sicular
Extending gratitude to Jen Ross.