While other kids were out doing what kids do, multi-instrumentalist composer/songwriter Joseph Stephens began experimenting and creating music with 4-track-tape machines, delay pedals, guitars, radios, and anything else he could get his hands on. Then in college, he wrote songs and scored student films, and the payoff came, because since then he’s added his unique sonic touch to numerous films that include All The Real Girls, Undertow, and Halloween, among others. His impressive resume also includes the small screen with work that supports HBO’s Vice Principals and Eastbound and Down, the TBS series The Last O.G., as well as features, Under The Eiffel Tower, Observe and Report, Flower, The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter, and Arizona. Now he’s preparing for a resounding season 2 of the hilarious and immensely popular The Righteous Gemstones, which has spawned what is destined to be a cult classic (if it isn’t already), the song “Misbehavin’.”
BMI recently asked Stephens about the viral sensation and other projects. Here’s what he had to say.
“Misbehavin” was written for The Righteous Gemstones, but most people thought it was an older song that was revived in the show. That infers that the lyrics and music can stand apart; how did you achieve that kind of separation and have it work so well?
I think, musically, there’s a beautiful simplicity to early Johnny Cash and Carter Family recordings that certainly factors into the success of “Misbehavin’.” Those artists were able to consistently craft unique melodies time and time again, using a handful of basic song structures, progressions, instrumentation, and hooks. How many Cash songs feature that three note walkup or boom-chicka-boom technique? More than a few. Probably more than 20. The lyrics to “Luther Played the Boogie” say it all. Our song needed to live in that world and feel just as familiar. Musically, keeping things simple and embracing the past enabled us to more easily explore something different and bespoke on the lyrical side. The verses of “Misbehavin’” work in visual episodic fashion with basic sentences that can stand alone or in concert with one another; “pies in the window sill, swimming in the crick,” “kicking’ and spittin’ and cussin’ out loud,” “runnin’ through the house with a pickle in my mouth,” “I comb my hair and I brush my teeth,” etc… I feel like the entire tune can be depicted like a Dick and Jane early reader. These fun, quirky, innocent, and mischievous verses juxtaposed with the age old fire and brimstone/fear of Satan motif, help the song stand out lyrically with or without the beloved song structures made famous by Johnny Cash and the Carter Family.
What are the different impressions that you think are given by the adults singing the song as opposed to the kids’ version? What’s the takeaway from each?
While I’m blown away by the performances that Jennifer Nettles and Walton Goggins delivered, the “60s” version with the kids singing is my favorite. With the kids version, we wanted things to feel haunted and vintage. During recording sessions, I constantly referenced old Carter Family recordings and tried to emulate them as much as possible. I used a ton of vintage equipment, mics and instruments. A few early mixes of the 60s version explored various experiments including tube bells, an old chimeatron, hard panned vocal for male and female vocals, and more, but I ended up paring things back for the final mix. I have a mono mix as well but prefer the stereo. The playful whistle drenched in reverb also creates a ghostly vibe. With the kids singing, the lyrics take on a certain meaning. The lines sound so pure and blameless. They legitimately sound like two kids having a real time conversation in song.
Nettles’ vocals completely soar and take the song to another level. She and Walton both sing the song in character, so her Aimee-Leigh-vocals are loud, proud and brimming with joy and confidence. She makes it feel like a Dolly Parton classic. Walton is singing through the lungs of his character, Baby Billy, who is flailing in life and clinging to the past. Baby Billy is an opportunistic steamroller who can’t see much past his immediate future and is facing the reality that his best days (as a child star) are behind him. His vocals are less assured and you feel a tinge of desperate sadness hearing him sing lines like “runnin’ through the house with a pickle in my mouth” as an adult. They perform the song live onstage in a late-80s flashback episode, so this version is less produced and more energetic. It feels like a live band on a TV show in the 80s. When we first the hear the 60s version, it’s at the end of the same episode when the series flashes back to present day…after we’ve witnessed the live adult version and after we learn how influential Aimee-Leigh is to the Gemstone family. At the end of the episode, Baby Billy, now 70 years old, alone in his car, listens to the original kids’ version. Hearing his own voice as a child singing alongside his now deceased sister is pretty moving…especially after experiencing the live upbeat 80s performance. I think some people will gravitate more towards the adult version for a variety of reasons…primarily by the fact that Jennifer Nettles is a bonafide GRAMMY-winning performer with a large fan base. Walton, too, has a strong following as an actor that will draw listeners. Also, their onscreen performance, complete with clogging interlude, is epic. That said, the kids version holds more meaning to me personally. Special thanks to Zola Odessa and Travis Burnett for lending their voices to the 60s version.
Were you surprised by the success of “Misbehavin’” after you knew early on in the season that a song would be needed but hadn’t yet been written?
Once the completed rough demo materialized and circulated, we knew we had something special. I sent Danny McBride a recording with just myself singing and whistling with an acoustic guitar and I think I listened to that recording 20 times in the first day alone. I remember Danny saying something similar. We shared the demo with various producers, writers, friends and family and received positive feedback across the board. When the song first appeared on set, people, with no knowledge of its conception, were certain they had heard it before…they just couldn’t put their finger on where. Some cast and crew searched online, convinced it was somewhere in annals of country music history. These reactions were exactly what we wanted and once they started to happen we became more and more excited about the possibilities. Also, once we found the kid singers and recorded their performances, the song really took on a life of its own. For the kids’ vocals, we cast a wide net and gathered child singer auditions from all over the country. Listening to these demos was a humbling experience. Hearing dozens of strangers sing this song, word-for-word, further displayed its catch-ability and foreshadowed how great it was going to sound in the end. I don’t usually pay too much attention to reviews but I was certainly tuned in to reactions after this episode aired. I knew we created something special and was very proud of the end product. Once the song started to explode, I was truthfully a bit surprised by the amount of enthusiasm it received. Things got a little surreal with labels and artists reaching out to us. I didn’t really expect all the merchandise, karaoke versions, covers, and fandom but I couldn’t be more stoked. A wild ride for sure.
You had begun writing “Misbehavin’” with a different melody before you heard your co-writers’ idea on a voice memo. Then it was finished in under three hours. What was the process like to switch gears from what you were originally thinking to how it ended up? How did it come together and what skills as a songwriter did you need to fall back on to take a different approach?
The inspiration for the song was always the same, so my initial sketches were in the same vein as the final version; the same three note walk-up, boom-chicka-boom technique, same key, etc… A lot of the final lyrics were drawn from my initial approach as well. I started by listing things we, as children, are taught NOT to do; no kicking, spitting, cussing, pulling hair, no running through the house or playing in the street. The more I started listing these “no-nos” the more a cadence and rhythmic pattern began to present itself. While my first pass was coming along, things really clicked once I heard what Danny and Edi Patterson were spit balling. They created a first verse and chorus idea. I rearranged their lines slightly and composed a chord structure then started adding more verses and depth. I simply transposed some of my earlier lyrics into a new melody and things fit together perfectly. The piece needed an arc so I evolved the narrative to depict the kids being scared straight and behaviorally turning a corner. The first two verses has the kids misbehaving; during the chorus they meet Jesus and learn about Satan; there’s a quick whistle interlude; then the kids sing about how they’re now behaving and being good. No more misbehaving. As a songwriter, I knew these narrative arc elements would be pivotal to tie things up and help complete the piece.
Taking the whirlwind of the show and the song, which has become a cult classic, into account, what advice would you give songwriters starting out?
Writing songs can be a bit of a mystery. Sometimes things come together effortlessly and other times songs need to be rewritten, broken down, re-approached, even abandoned. I’ve tried and failed to say things in songs only to find a better way to say the same thing in a different arrangement. Springsteen tried the line “devil snapping at my heels” a few times. This can be true for melody as well. Sometimes it’s hard to find your way into or out of a melody and it takes walking away for a bit or changing key or instrumentation to bring it full circle. Creative juices don’t always flow, so remembering that there are just as many good, productive days as bad, frustrating days is important. When juices do flow, squeeze out as much as you can.
Would that advice be different for composers in film and TV?
Pretty much the same for film/TV. Record and write down ideas often. I have countless piano demos that I draw from frequently….just snippets of melody or chord progressions that moved me at a particular moment. I forget many of these ideas over time and enjoy re-discovering them down the line via recordings. Creative exercises can also be beneficial. When writing the score for Vice Principals, early on, I endeavored to write and record at least one piece of fully realized music a day. This led to a plethora of material for editorial when the series went into post…much of which is in the show virtually unchanged.
Getting out of your comfort zone has been crucial for me as well. I started out playing guitar and came from the rock band side of things. I relied on vocal lines to carry melodic ideas and motifs because I didn’t have access to a lot of equipment or resources. My early scores from Eastbound and Down and Observe and Report feature a lot of vocals with drums and guitars; like a band making the score. Over time, my studio grew and I acquired more and more gear. Diving into unchartered software waters has enabled me to write for any instrument from full orchestra or sections, choirs, drum line, etc. I’ve also met people along the way that help out immeasurably on the technical side of things, as well as the creative. Like most modern composers, I now have multiple computers serving sample libraries galore.
I also think it’s necessary to have thick skin in this business. Taking criticism (or notes) too personally can be a death knell. At the end of day we’re collaborators and our best work is likely going to come as a result of these collaborations. We depend on the relationships we make along the way, so while it’s certainly good to fight for what you believe in, it’s best to pick your battles. Just because you love your creations doesn’t necessarily mean the feeling is reciprocated.
You’ve scored several other series, as well as written songs for films. Tell us a bit about those…what have been the challenges and what have you learned from scoring and writing original songs that you didn’t know when you started out? How did the various projects change you as a songwriter and composer?
As cliche as it sounds, each projects brings its own set of unique challenges. I’ve had to create a Norwegian-inspired black metal score. I’ve learned how to write music for and record drum lines. I’ve tackled hip-hop, 80s nostalgia, classical piano, music for full orchestras and small ensembles, choirs, lo-fi, intense action, Bernard Herrmann, a Latin incantation, horror and romance. I wrote sweeping Wizard of Oz-type orchestral songs for a film that was planning to approach Jim Nabors to perform…sadly that film never happened. Now I’ve tackled 60s style Carter Family-inspired religious country music performed by kids. Most composers would probably agree that it’s good to be versatile. We get a lot of curve balls thrown our way. Personally, I embrace those challenges and thrive in my adaptability.
If songwriting for projects has changed me in any way, it’s probably given me more confidence to inject songs ideas back into the underscore. For The Righteous Gemstones, I drew thematic inspiration for Baby Billy’s character from the “Misbehavin’” whistle interlude. Hence his whistled theme. I also incorporated audio from his clogging into certain score pieces in lieu of traditional percussion…so his presence is felt at certain moments even without seeing him on screen. Also for Gemstones, I wrote a theme song (music and lyrics) for the family’s evangelical TV show. I reprised the main melody from this song for Eli Gemstone’s (John Goodman) theme. This kind of thing is common in musicals and Disney animated projects, but less so in non-musicals.
How has joining BMI impacted your career?
I received a BMI award last year for The Last O.G. and sitting in the same room with so many iconic composers was definitely a high point in my career; guys like Lalo Schifrin, Mark Mothersbaugh, Alan Silvestri, etc. BMI has been very supportive over the years; handling cue sheets questions, dinners at Sundance, interacting with other peers, networking. Obviously, the recoupment of royalties is huge, especially during our current conditions where so many jobs have been put on hold.
How have you been staying creative during the pandemic?
I’ve been updating studio software and hardware, familiarizing myself with new modular synths, writing material for Gemstones season 2, tending a pepper garden, reading books, listening to records. Keeping sane. I’m indoors most of the time anyway with work, so, in a way, my day-to-day hasn’t really changed much…except now there are no deadlines. I’m writing music at a more leisurely pace. That said, I miss the structure that deadlines and schedules provide. Sometimes they help with motivation. Now every day is Saturday.
What’s next for you?
I was supposed to be in the throws of Gemstones season 2 at this point but that has been pushed. I’m getting my ducks in a row for the new episodes just the same. There will be some fun surprises in store. More songs. I’ve also recently finished a couple of new series that premiered this month; Never Have I Ever, from Mindy Kaling on Netflix, and Upload, from Greg Daniels on Amazon. And I scored an upcoming dark dramatic feature called Don’t Tell a Soul that was set to premiere at Tribeca…currently postponed. I’ve got a few other irons in the fire, but for now I’ll keep washing my hands to keep away from Satan.