Make Them Cry: Tom Polce and Kay Hanley on writing songs for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
This article contains excerpts from a longer conversation with Star Trek: Strange New Worlds songwriters for Subspace Rhapsody, Tom Polce and Kay Hanley. It has been edited for length and clarity. To listen to the entire interview, click here. Questions submitted by callers have been edited for brevity and labeled as such.
Open Pike Night: We're going to dive deep into “Subspace Rhapsody,” but we do like to go back into your history. How did you get the musical bug? When did you start thinking music might be your life?
Tom Polce: It was very, very early for me. I was taking out pots and pans at three or four and making a racket. For Christmas, around four or five, I got this little fake drum kit that had paper heads and that night I broke through all the heads! I was elated initially and then I was heartbroken within five minutes because I destroyed the drum set. So my parents got me a real drum set during that break, and I started playing drums. And then went to guitar and bass and all the rhythm instruments. So I've been playing since I was a kid. I knew this was my path really, really early on.
OPN: Was there a moment you were like, “Oh, I made it! I'm doing this as a profession now. I am a musician?”
TP: There are several moments where you may fool yourself with that sentence, but you quickly realize the hammer of life shows you that was all for naught. So I'll let you know when I feel like I've made it, but it hasn't happened yet. Generally speaking, I feel like I have plenty to learn. I've plenty to do. And I am thankful and grateful for all the things that have happened so far. But the whole "made it" business, I mean, I make a living playing music, sure. But generally speaking, no, I don't think like that.
OPN: That’s fair, you don't want to get too comfortable. What about you, Kay?
Kay Hanley: It's funny, my mom made me take piano lessons starting at about the age of six or seven because I was a pretty good reader and we had a piano in our house. But I had no interest whatsoever. I was classically trained by this very old man named Mr. Galilee and I was terrible. I had no gift for it whatsoever. And I learned how to read just sort of through a war of attrition. But that wasn't how I would learn the songs every week. How I would learn the songs every week (I came to find out later this was actually my gift) was Mr. Galilee would play the piece for me and I was supposed to be reading along with the notes. And I would memorize the melody of what he was playing. I wouldn't read a note, I had it memorized. Like I heard it once and it was in my head. I would be able to learn it just by listening and kind of feeling it out. So I wouldn't have to bother with all the reading, it just took so much effort, you know.
I always sang with my mom at mass and at one point a folk group showed up to play at the noon mass on Sundays at St. Greg's and it was like three people and a guitar and they sang “Peter, Paul and Mary.” We were all just like, “Whoa!” and my mom was obsessed. She got a 12 string guitar and she learned how to play it and I started harmonizing with her. I would say that's probably when. I didn't know that being a musician was a career, so that wasn't ever in my head, but I definitely liked harmonies and melodies and lyrics.
I thought I would go to school to be a writer. But my cousin Greg was starting a band when I was a senior in high school and he knew that I sang with my mom, so he was like, "Hey, do you want to come down and be the backup singer on my band?" And I was like, "Yeah, I want to come down and be the backup singer in your band!" So I did. And then a couple years later we showed up to rehearsal together, and Greg had a new song written he was going to show to the band. He started playing the chords and I was looking at the lyrics. And as he's playing the chords, all of a sudden I started making up a melody and I was like “What's that?” I was reading the words, singing a melody over his chord progression and I was like, "Oh my god, I think we just wrote a song!" And that was the end. I was just hooked on writing songs, so I've been doing it ever since. It took me about six years, we got our record deal for Letters to Cleo in like ‘95, so that was the last time I waited a table. But you know, I did say to my mom just last week, “So I think this is my job now. I don't think I’m gonna have to find another job.” This is 30 years later. “I don't think I'm gonna have to wait tables anymore.”
"I'm learning a lot!"
OPN: Who were some of your inspirations? Who were you listening to back then through your teens and 20s?
TP: I would say early on it was classic rock. I'm a first generation Italian American boy, so a lot of Italian songs, dinner table singing with the fam. And then, when we're in the 80s and the metal’s happening, I start getting into that for a second. Then I sort of tapped out of metal and I got really into jazz, like bebop jazz. I went to New England Conservatory and Berkeley to play jazz. Then around ‘90-’91 people my age started making music I liked again. So I got right back into it and started playing rock and roll again, playing original music for people my age in clubs. And that eventually turned into my introduction to Letters to Cleo and to Kay and to that whole family. And that's where we sort of came together and started making music in our 20s.
KH: I heard “This One's for You” by Barry Manilow on my dad's radio. I think I was seven. I was obsessed with that song, so I saved up my 15 cents a week allowance to buy “Barry Manilow Live,” the double album. That was the first record I ever bought. And then, kind of like Tom, every Saturday was the Irish hour on WROR and I just knew every single Irish song that there was to know. Then got super into disco. Really into disco.
TP: I'm learning a lot!
KH: I'm still into disco. It's like my favorite music.
TP: Hell yeah!
KH: Like 80s Disco, that's my (mwah). Then I was really into- we didn't have punk rock in my neighborhood, but we did have hip hop. So I was a breakdancer and listened to all hip hop like Run DMC, Eric B and Rakim, EPMD. I knew all the words to every rap song. Then did a brief stop off at metal for a second. But really only Ozzy.
TP: Oh, yes!
KH: Like “Diary Of A Madman-”
TP: Oh my god, every song-
KH: Every song! Ev-er-y song-
How have we not talked about this?! I can play all the chords-
KH: I don't know. That would be so fun to cover, to do that whole album.
TP: Yes please.
OPN: You heard it here, folks.
KH: And then, it was really weird because I was a big-hair cheerleader and my sister was like a science fair nerd and listened to all this cool stuff. Like she was the first person around our neighborhood to turn everybody on to U2 and The Alarm, She came home with “Meat is Murder” by The Smiths and played me “How Soon is Now.” My head exploded, I got rid of all my blue eyeliner and frosted pink lipstick and Loves Baby-Soft, bought a bunch of black clothes, and six months later I was in a band.
OPN: I love the variety we just heard there which might explain a lot about both the music in “Subspace Rhapsody” and your careers which are very long and varied. We could make multiple episodes just about each of your careers. So we're going to speed our way through there to get up to “Subspace Rhapsody.” I'm going to list some projects and credits that popped out to me and just tell me the first thing you think of, whether it's a word, a couple words, a sentence.
Letters to Cleo, of course, is huge and I'm not going to make you boil that down to a sentence. So how about just “Dangerous Type” from The Craft soundtrack.
KH: Chris Applebaum directed the video for that. That's the best video we ever made. I loved it, it was so much fun.
OPN: Nice. Tom, how about Bob Dylan, who you’ve worked with?
TP: Oh man! Describing my production with colors. That was the communication through his manager. Yeah. I've done a couple things with him and they're all wild and fun.
OPN: I like it. 10 Things I Hate About You.
KH: Ah, I sat next to Heath Ledger in hair and makeup for two days for the rooftop scene. And the day of the rooftop scene he was freaking out. So excited to be in his first major motion picture in the United States.
OPN: Wow. Sure. All right, Tom: Bowling for Soup?
TP: It was fun mixing for them. And Jared is a hoot.
OPN: I believe that. Kay: Parks and Recreation?
KH: I was so shy to be on the set with Jeff Tweedy from Wilco. I saw him at crafty at like seven in the morning and it took me until 9pm to finally make someone introduce me to him.
OPN: Tom: Stephen Colbert Presents Tuning Out the News.
TP: Yeah,I got to write a theme song for that one. That was a blast.
OPN: Kay: Doc McStuffins.
KH: That was my first real job in animation as a series composer and I have never looked back. I've been doing it ever since.
OPN: As a father of a six year old girl I have to say thank you. Many of those shows are on repeat in our house and all their songs are very catchy and enjoyable to listen to. Which is not the case for all the shows my kids watch.
KH: Thank you. We do write for the parents. I don't write children's songs.
OPN: Tom: NCIS
TP: NCIS! I have been asked to write so many different songs and create music for those guys from every genre. You're getting more than you asked for. You asked for a word, then a sentence, now we're going into paragraphs. If I recall correctly, that was one of the first shows where I started in earnest doing music for them that wasn't score. They needed special stuff and I got to write several pieces of music with the actors for their soundtrack albums. So that was sort of an on-ramp into music for television. Into this gig.
OPN: You talked a bit about this, Kay. I gotta say my favorite one, Vampirina.
KH: Oh, wow! Well, we thought we were a shoo-in for series composer on Vampirina. It was the same creator as Doc McStuffins. And this Broadway team came in and stole the job out from under us. And I could not believe that we lost that gig. It's Koomin and Dimond, this Broadway writing duo from New York, and I actually know them now and I love them, but oh my god I was crushed. But we did get to write all the songs for Vamparina’s band the Ghoul Girls..
OPN: All right, coming to the end. Tom: Jane the Virgin?
TP: Oh my god, “Don't have sex, Jane!” They had me write so many crazy songs for that one. A lot of the songs were in Spanish. I actually sang one of them in Spanish. That was a blast. That was four or five or six seasons of them throwing at me every possible thing. It was one of those shows where the characters on the show sang, so I got to write a lot of music for that show. And the asks were bonkers. Not quite as bonkers as a Star Trek musical. But bonkers nonetheless.
OPN: Good preparation. And to finish on just one of my favorites - Josie and the Pussycats. Loved that movie when it came out. Love it now. What can you tell us about that?
KH: Oh my god, do you have an hour? That job literally changed my life in every conceivable way. I co-wrote two of the songs on that, but I wasn't hired for my writing. I was hired to be a singer, which has never happened before and not happened since. I got my first good review in The Village Voice because you know, Letters to Cleo didn't get cool press or anything. We were never the cool band. So Village Voice gave me my first good review for Josie and the Pussycats. And that was kind of cool.
Caller: Have you ever or will there be a day when you get together to do a Josie concert?
KH: We did! We did a couple of years ago. We did it at the Ace Hotel in downtown LA for the 16 year anniversary in 2019. It was a screening of the movie and then a Q&A with Rachael Leigh Cook, Tara Reid, and Rosario Dawson, plus Deb and Harry, the directors. And in between that we performed five songs from Josie. And one of them was “Pretend to Be Nice,” written by Adam Schlesinger, one of my favorite songwriters in the world. Tom and he worked together on Crazy Ex Girlfriend. And I was like, “I should call Adam, he should come play with us.” But Adam was really shy and just not the kind of guy who's like, "Yeah, let's rock!" So I almost didn't call him because I thought he wouldn't want to do it. But then I was like, “No, I gotta because it's the best people. It's just the fan favorites.” So I called him and he was like, “Oh my god, definitely!” and he came down to rehearse with us and came and played the show. Then he died of COVID very early in the pandemic, and I am so glad that I thought better of not calling him because I was afraid of bothering him. It just reminds me to dare to bother people because people want to be bothered. I mean, in a certain way.
(Video from the concert can be found on youtube, here's one of the songs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opKw5MqQhbY)
OPN: Did either of you have a relationship with Star Trek before this gig?
TP: My relationship with Star Trek is from very early on with the original Star Trek. I dabbled in TNG a little bit, and that was that. But I would always go back and watch reruns of the original Star Trek. There was just something about it. It's like the Brady Bunch or Gilligan's Island or when Grease comes on. If I'm surfing channels, and it's there, alright that's it, I'm gonna watch it. It's one of those. So I knew some of that canon and it certainly helped with Strange New Worlds being a prequel.
KH: I wasn't a Trekkie when we started this gig. I am now. So my experience was limited to, when it was on channel 38 WSBK in Boston, when I was a kid. My dad loved the original Star Trek so I have very fond memories of having dad time in front of the TV watching Star Trek with him. I've seen the different iterations of the show. My husband is a Trekkie. So are my nephew and my sister. I have Trekkies in my life. But I was pretty limited in my deep knowledge. I just knew the basics.
OPN: That mirrors the story of a lot of our listeners, a lot of people start with Star Trek as a family activity. So, with that, did you start having friends come out of the woodwork as Trekkies once they found out you had this job?
TP: I certainly found out who they were! DMs happened, like, "Whoa, what's happening right now?" So a lot of them revealed themselves to me, and I had no idea that it was going to affect them in the way that it did.
KH: And we were not allowed to talk about it, we couldn't post on social media that we were working on Star Trek. So when we were writing in the early days, I definitely was calling my nephew and asking him for Cliffs Notes on certain characters, certain vernacular, and stuff like that. But when the episode came out, I was shocked by the people who were on my Instagram saying that Strange New Worlds was their favorite Trek series. It was very surprising to me, the people who are Trekkies, because I know all the Star Wars fans in my life, they don't make it a secret. It's like you can't shut them up.
TP: Trekkies keep it on the DL, yeah.
OPN: I have heard elsewhere that you leaned on your nephew a lot for help with the songwriting. Did he have to sign an NDA or anything? Did he have to promise to keep it on the DL for a year?
KH: Oh, he didn't need to be told that, he was so protective of this. My nephew, Brendan, after he got over the fact that he was vaguely horrified that they were letting Auntie Kay-Kay anywhere near Star Trek, he felt very protective of the fact that it was happening. He didn't need to sign an NDA. “He could keep a secret.”
"When we discussed the possibility of a Star Trek musical, my head exploded!"
OPN: As professional musicians, it's your job to deliver, but entering Star Trek and doing the first Star Trek musical, was there extra pressure or different pressure? Knowing or maybe not knowing about the fan base?
TP: I think both of us knew the fan base situation and knew that this was a show with deep, deep completest fans. And we took this very, very seriously. Initially when I found out that this was a potential thing, when we discussed the possibility of a Star Trek musical, my head exploded! Just like everybody's head exploded when they found that a musical was coming. It was a moment of pause. It was like: pause button. Breathe. Come back to it. So yeah, man. It's such an audacious cuckoo pants idea.
OPN: Was there any hesitation taking it on because of that? Or did you just jump right?
TP: No, no. The only hesitation was the initial acknowledgement of the cray cray, then “You need to crush this if you're going to do it.” This has to be everything, because it's going to be taken to task. My goal was going to be to convert some of these diehard Trekkies into being open to allowing a musical to happen in that world. We can go to some Reddit threads and understand that there's some people who will never be converted. And that's okay. That's expected. But the short answer is; it was an audacious thing. There was only trepidation in that I knew that it had to kill, we just had to kill this thing.
OPN: You have absolutely achieved that goal. How did the job end up coming to you?
TP: I’m a staff composer for Paramount. During COVID I was taking a Zoom call to discuss something with the showrunners. So I get to the Zoom and they mentioned, “Hey, we're thinking about doing a musical.” As mentioned earlier, head explosion, pause, back in it. “Okay.” And they wanted to know, logistically, what does that mean? How long does it take? How do we find the people? So it was January, they were shooting in May, nothing was written. We basically just talked about timeline, like, how long did I think it would take to write six songs? Of course, it turned into nine songs. How long would it take to record it and mix? As these conversations are happening, we started having some creative conversations about what the musical could be. At one point they asked me, “Hey, can you think of any songwriters that might fit the bill?” I provided them with some of my thoughts, Kay and her team were one of them. And we continued talking and at another point they asked, “Hey, would you be open to this? Could you give us some of your music?” Of course I provided it to them. And then shortly thereafter, “We'd like you to do this, would you be into it?” And I said, “Heck yes, I'd be into it!” And the Zoom call ended and I had a hot flash and started sweating, realizing how much I just took on. Six songs was making me nuts (which turned into nine) and I was to produce it, I was to mix it. I was to do all of the things, and there was just no way I could do all of those things. I quickly realized I needed some help with this thing. And that's when I called Kay. I said, “Hey, they asked me to do this thing. I'm gonna do it. I need your help. And would you do this?”
KH: And I said, “Oh my God, what?!” I instantly said yes and then “Ah, fuck, now we have to actually do it.” How do you even do that? I just happened to have some time off, the timing was perfect. I'd also gotten flooded out of my house and had to move into this Airbnb up in the hills with my dog and my cat. My husband was on the road. I was like seriously not okay. Really untethered from the earth, which was a perfect psychological place to dive into this work it turned out and I literally lost my mind by the end of it. I just lost myself in this project in a way that I’ve never come close to losing myself in a project before.
TP: Same. It was a lot. In a great way. In an overwhelming way. In a beautiful way.
KH: It was really emotional. Technically it was hard to pull off and there was a lot of research.
Caller: How much research did you all have to do on the backgrounds of all these characters and plotlines that are going on in strange new worlds? Were you handed a list of all the plot points and references you needed to hit in each song?
TP: Let me start by saying that some of the bullet points that needed to be hit with all of these songs were as follows: First, the songs couldn't be superfluous. They couldn't just be songs for the sake of songs, they needed to drive a story, they needed to further expose their personalities and character development. It was really important that it wasn't just a bunch of songs with jazz hands. It needed to be emotional. Second, the showrunners made it very clear to us, they actually said the sentence, “We want people to cry.” That was the directive, we want people to cry. Which is always a super easy thing to do. So yeah, no problem. And we want it to happen several times. So that was absolutely a thing.
From a research perspective, we had some songs that, thematically, were very universal. And then we had some songs that were super in the weeds. For instance, “Status Report.” They said, “This is going to be called ‘Status Report,’ they typically do a status report and we need a song, so go.” Okay, so I needed the nomenclature, we would need the proper vocabulary, we needed to know who did what. That would come from the writers, Dana and Bill, they would provide that for us. And that was a little more on the nose in that like, this is what you say during a status report and this is who says it. But then it gets a little deeper with the more emotional songs like Celia’s song, for instance, “Keep us Connected” where we needed to hit lots of notes about her past. Kay, talk about that because that one fell on you a lot.
KH: Yeah, we knew that one and the finale were going to be the heavy lifts, but in two different ways. The Uhura song had to cover how she became this person that she is, and how she found herself in this situation. We had to include some facts about her life but also it had to be incredibly emotional in that we wanted it to be like a barn-burning ballad kind of thing. But it couldn't be treacly. We had to tick a lot of boxes on this. And it turned out, I actually did have to go back, I got some of the facts wrong in the first draft. And the Hemmer piece, I got a little too literal with.
TP: Yeah, it wasn’t “Shards of light.” It was like, “Blowed up.”
KH: It was like, “I watched him die.” I was very literal. And so we pulled back on some of the factual stuff. And that was kind of an amazing part of the process, too, is that the writers were so generous with the information, and they knew what they wanted, but they weren't inflexible. They threw these song briefs around us like a loose garment. We were able to come up with stuff like “I'm the X.” They just wanted to know what Spock would do in this situation and they did not give us much beyond that. It allowed us to really stretch into this thing in a way that only a songwriter could, because we're helping him express something in a song that he could never ever say. It was a wonderful collaboration with the writers.
TP: And they did other wonderful things where they would put us to task after our first draft of a song. On at least two songs, “Keep Us Connected” and “Keeping Secrets” they emphasized the idea of a twist. Where she was good at keeping secrets, it saved her, and it protected her, then she ends it with “I wish I wasn't so fucking good at keeping secrets because I'm all pent up now.”
With Celia, how she is solo all the time, but that turns into her strength. These little twists at the very end, the writers guided us into those places. And then sometimes we just traipsed into magic land. I'm not gonna lie, the whole Spock thing where it became apparent to me from listening to fans talk about “I’m the X” where they would just say that's the moment he becomes the Spock we all knew, like he had both of these sides and that heartbreak just shut it down. He's like “I won't make that mistake again.” And his song is that transformation. We we did not know-
KH: We meant to do that!
OPN: This pivotal moment in TV’s most iconic character!
TP: Yeah, but I was like “Wow, we did that.” And then some things we DID mean to do like trying our best to figure out how to express Spock in a mathematical way, with “I solved for Y, I’m the X.”
OPN: We need to delve into that lyric especially. Did you start with “Oh, this is a great lyric. Let's start here.” Or was it iterations? How did you get to one of the most clever lyrics of music history?
KH: I think Tom knew from having spoken with Ethan and what Ethan's references were that he wanted it to be a dark synth pop kind of thing. So when Tom came to our session that day, we knew what it was going to be, that it was a response to Chapel’s song. So he starts playing and I just started singing, "This news really changes-" and we were like, “That's what we're doing!” So we didn’t plan it being a mirror image. I started singing and it was just like, “Oh my god, we're just gonna do the Joy Division version of ‘I'm Ready!’”
TP: Yes, that's 100% correct. And you mentioned that lyric. We were just texting back and forth near the end, trying to get that lyric right. Desperately-
KH: Because I wanted to get really into setting up the equation and Tom was like,”No, he's drowning in a sea of pain.” And I was like, “Nooo!” And we were text fighting and so we got into our first disagreement about a song.
TP: And then ultimately, we ended up being emotional with the equation. But I've got the texts going back and forth until we landed it.
KH: Well we always had “I'm the X” and we knew we wanted it to be “Searching for Y.” But it was really hard to set it up in a way that wouldn't sound like it was trying too hard, right? Even though we tried really hard.
"Baby, you can sing!"
TP: We tried really hard. I have to mention Ethan. I initially had to fly out there and meet everybody and figure out who could sing, who wanted to sing, what their skill sets were. Ethan was one of those guys that came in and the first thing out of his mouth is, “I'm not a singer.” Okay, so I'm sitting there with a guitar, we're talking about his influences, what is it he likes to listen to, and we start singing. He opens his mouth and this luscious, black velvet painting of a voice just starts going and it’s like, “Baby, you can sing!”
OPN: He was our big surprise of the episode!
TP: He was all of ours! I had met with and assessed everybody just to get the temperature of them. And I'm happy to say and I'm sure you can tell, everybody was having a blast with this thing. Whether somebody considered themselves a singer or not, everybody was one zillion percent in the entire time, there wasn't any hand wringing or any of that. It was “We're going to do this, it's going to be great, and that's that.” So, when I came back and we would start a song, we would invariably listen to my meetings with the actors to listen to their instrument. What is their range? What can they do? What do they like to listen to? And that's how we gauged what somebody could sing. Hopefully, right? And we got lucky, we didn't have to change a single key out of any of them. Total luck.
KH: The whole thing was very divine, yeah.
OPN: I do want to go back to the writing. So you both come on to the project, how long from then to having a script in your hand?
TP: When I returned from the fact finding mission and told them who could sing, who wants to sing, what their ranges are, they then came back with, “Okay, it's going to be six songs. These are the people that are going to sing them. That's that.” And the next thing was getting a very loose rough draft of what it was going to be. And that’s the point when Kay and I started meeting to write the songs, and we wrote them in order as it went. I had to start writing the first two before Kay was fully on board because contracts, business, blah, all of those things.
KH: Not for nothing, but if it weren't for me, Tom would have finished this whole thing in a week. He would have stayed up for a week straight and written the whole thing.
TP: And it would have suuuuuucked!
"I wasn't even human at that point!"
Caller: I'm wondering how long it took to write all the songs because I think they all fit in really well with the story and they all sounded really good.
KH: It took us five weeks, is that right, Tom?
TP: From beginning to having everything recorded with demo vocals and approved, yeah.
KH: So, we had a Letters to Cleo gig at the end of the writing and we were trying to finish the finale and it was killing us.
TP: It was killing us! It was the finale and we knew it had to be great and do all the things with everybody singing!
KH: It was such a bear. And this was when I really started to- like, I couldn't have conversations with people. I was just constantly putting together this puzzle in my head at all times and trying to figure it out. So we had a Letters to Cleo gig at this ski resort an hour north of Denver.
TP: Low oxygen situation.
KH: We had literal altitude sickness; two days we were on the top of this mountain. We had to play a gig in a literal blizzard at the bottom of a ski slope.
TP: It was amazing.
KH: It was amazing. And the whole time I have the pieces of what Tom has done with no vocals just trying to put together the lyrics. And I texted Tom when we got to the place, "Hey, do you want to get together? And figure this out"? And he's like, "No, I do not". Which I really respect.
TP: I was so burnt!
KH: Because boundaries, boundaries! You gotta stop sometimes. You’ve got to stop and then start again. But I couldn't stop. So I finally just put the whole thing together in my head. And when we left to drive back down the mountain, I was like, “Tom, I got it. I did it!”
TP: Yeah, she was angry and joyous all at the same time. I felt like she was gonna punch me in the mouth or something. It was amazing. It was amazing.
KH: I wasn't even human at that point. Just depleted entirely in every possible way.
So five weeks with the demo singers. Now when I do a songwriting job where someone else is going to be singing, I usually sing the demos. But in this case, especially with Celia and Christina who have these big stage voices, I was never going to be able to write the songs for them that I wanted to write if I was singing the demos, because I just don't have that instrument that they have. So we had these two incredible demo singers, Sarah Mann and Brianna Gibbs, who did our demos for the actors and it was so freeing to not have to rely on my own voice for these songs because I could never sing these melodies. And I have the voice memos to prove it.
TP: Yeah, we've got all these songs and not just voice memos. I'll give you one interesting thing as it relates to stuff that didn't make the cut. So in “We Are One,” we knew the Klingons were going to do some singing. It was “Hail the Klingons, Uhura,” which Anson crushed that line. My second favorite line that he had sung on that. My very favorite line of the whole thing was, “The Starship Enterprise feels electrified!” You couldn't possibly sell that line any better than he sold it, he crushed that.
But twice a week, we would get together to write the songs in order. We're at that moment where we have to figure out what the hell that Klingon moment is going to be. So out of my mouth is like, “Well, you know, Klingon opera's a thing. Maybe we should do Klingon opera.” And we're just sitting on the couch, staring at our Lacroixs and looking out the window. Then Kay’s just like, “Wait a second. Why don't we do a k-pop thing with them?” And nothing. It’s just dead silence and then my head explodes. “Oh, yeah, we're gonna do K-pop!” Like she mentioned, by the time we got to this song, we're nuts man, it's a lot of music to write in a short amount of time. And couple that with us being a little more comfortable in giving fewer effs, because the songs were landing, the showrunners were digging them, we were working well together. So they made us feel comfortable opening up, right? And we opened up right towards the end, so we were like “Eff it!” So she shows me some K-pop stuff and I was like, “That sounds great. You're gonna sell it to them.”
KH: Yeah, we would play them whatever was the latest thing that we had and usually Tom leads the meeting because he’s a good leader. But on this particular day, Tom's like, “Kay has something to say.” And remember they were still hedging whether the Klingons were going to be in it, trying to figure out how it would work.
TP: Right. There’s “Hail the Klingons” but TBD what that meant.
KH: It was still being bounced around. So I was like, “Listen, this may sound crazy, but Tom and I think that you definitely have to have the Klingons singing and that it should be this:” and I shared screen and played my favorite K-Pop video and we were like, “Here are your Klingons.” Silence. And then “Definitely. Definitely yeah.”
TP: Which is a testament to all of them. We couldn't have asked for a more creative, wonderful sandbox to create stuff in. With Bill and Dana, you couldn’t have better leaders guiding us with definitive direction, but not holding on too tightly, allowing us to be ourselves, but guiding it gently so that we could feel comfortable being as audacious with the music-
KH: Suggesting that the Kilngons be a K-Pop Band!
TP: Yeah, which is bonkers! So we did it, and we loved it. And then they loved it. But then a couple weeks later when everybody else heard it, they got a little scared-
KH: A little nervous. A little buyer's remorse.
TP: A bit, yeah. It was like that conversation when you tell your parents you want to go to art school, and they're like, “Well, you can do art school, but can you still get a degree in business, please?” So the degree in business was “Please do an opera version as a just-in-case.” So that was our degree in business. And our art school was “Fuck it, K-pop!” And the opera exists and is really cool. Bruce Horak, I believe is the actor, and he crushed that too. So that was a long way to get to, “I believe that exists.” And I believe that will be unearthed at some point in time.
(NOTE: The opera scene can be found as a deleted scene on the Season 2 Blu-Ray)
Caller: In this medium of non-musical television where one episode we suddenly do a musical I feel like the pressure is to not have one musical style, but to have a bunch of songs, each one of them a different style. Did that present any interesting hurdles for you? Or did that just make it more fun?
KH: It's funny, because Tom and I just wrote what we write. We never had to go rogue or anything.
TP: Except for the K-pop thing, which was completely rogue.
KH: Right, 100%. Or the Gregorian Chant on “Keep us Connected.” But for the most part Tom and I had been writing together since we were in our 20s. And we just write how we write and they come out the way they come out. For the most part, Tom would come in with a guitar part written, as Tom likes to say “a little nug.” A little melodic bit. And then we would just go.
We would get together every couple of days for like 90 minutes.
TP: It doesn’t get better after that.
KH: Three La Croixs apiece and we would invariably come up with the sketch of what the song was going to be.
TP: Every time we set to write a song, by the end of that hour and a half, we had a song. It wasn't arranged out, but we had a verse, we had a chorus, we had a bridge, we had those things, and some lyrics that then needed to be fleshed out.
As it relates to styles, we knew “Status Report” was an ensemble number, “We Are One” was an ensemble number, and so those are modern musicals, whatever that means to us. A 2000s musical, right? The only one that was the hat tip was Rebecca’s song, “Connect to Your Truth,” because she's got that Gilbert and Sullivan reference, which was such a wonderful opportunity for me to show my love for the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s musicals and really lean into that from a stylistic perspective.
KH: So Chapel’s song, Tom knew he wanted it to be like, “I can bring home the bacon, baby!” And Jess Bush, the actor, her range really lent itself to a very simple melody that she could really chew up. And she really did.
And I remember at the end of the song, when we were writing it, we were like, “You know, we could really eff Spock up here.” But we were like, “No, that's mean. Let's not do that.” So we wrote a nicer ending. But when we sent it to Bill and Dana, they were like, “Can you really eff Spock up here?” And we were like, “Oh my God. Yes! Yes, we can!”
TP: On the spot as a matter of fact, it was awesome.
Caller: Any deleted lyrics or songs that wound up on the cutting room floor?
KH: So “Keeping secrets” is a longer song on the soundtrack. They cut out the second verse on the show, which was a very good call, because we really need to get to that twist in the show. But you can hear the longer version of that on the soundtrack. Other big changes?
TP: Well, “I'm Ready” almost didn't have a dance bit. The dance bit happened as a spurious happenstance of going through the channels. I was clicking past Grease amidst the writing on a weekend and whenever I pass it, I stop and watch the whole thing, because I'm that guy. And it occurred to me “The fuck are we doing?! There's no dance number in this thing.” And I think we pitched it at our next meeting. I was like, “Look, it's already in a bar. Let's just do it.” And there was nothing rogue about that idea. Everybody was just like, “Duh, yeah! Why wouldn’t we do that?” And that’s what we did.
KH: What I love about that scene is that they don't have anybody dancing with any real choreography. They all dance kind of like nerds, it's very authentic.
Caller: Can you talk a little bit about balancing writing in the voice of a character versus furthering the plot or the story of the musical while you're creating the songs? And what did you find to be the easiest and the hardest part about this in regards to characters that have so much history and gravitas?
KH: Amazing question. As Tom said earlier, we really took this very seriously,the canon of the show is so rich and deep. And we knew how much we didn't know coming into this. We called lifelines very regularly, even my nephew, Brendan, when we had questions.
TP: Bill and Dana were amazing, as well as Henry and Akiva.
"I didn't want to say anything to Tom, but I was scared. I was intimidated."
KH: Yeah. I always come back to the Uhura song because it needed to accomplish a couple of different things, including being incredibly emotional. And that's not something you can just pull out of you. You can't just make people cry. At least I can't.
TP: You can't manufacture “inspirato,” as Jack Black would say.
KH: No, you can’t! We have all the raw material for it. Like, her voice is amazing, we know that whatever we give her, she's just gonna murder it. And we've got pieces of the backstory that they really want to make sure we get in there. So when we sat down to write this, I didn't want to say anything to Tom, but I was scared. I was intimidated.
TP: But not so intimidated that she wouldn't open up the writing session with, “Oh, by the way, we're gonna open this song up with a Gregorian chant.” So, she wasn't that friggin scared. The typical situation was: I come in, she hands me a LaCroix, I take the guitar. I've got a little soup starter to get us started on a song like a little nug to show her. But she doesn't even let me do that. Her eyes are closed and she’s just sort of bobbing her head and says “I want to start this thing with a Gregorian chant.”
And it was just another one of those moments: dead silence, head explosion, mop it up, tune back in. “What does that mean?” And instead of talking it through, she just goes and hums it. Another dead pause because I have no idea what’s going on at that point. I mean, we're one song away from “We Are One.” We are just skeletons of ourselves at this point. So, we work it out, another audacious idea from the goddess Kay Hanley.
KH: And it just happened to work. Tom had this arpeggiated harmonic guitar thing, which weirdly just worked with the Gregorian Chant bit. And then we're off to the races. And this song teed me up for dying during “We Are One.” I literally have never cried writing a song, but I was just sobbing for days writing the song. Because I was writing it for me and my sisters, it just felt so personal to me. It was a song that, without the Hemmer reference and some stuff, Tom and I would have written for ourselves.
TP: It's all universal. “We Are One” - it's a universal vibe. “Keeping Secrets” - it's a universal vibe. Feeling that I'm always solo, but I'm taking care of everybody else: universal vibe. To get back to the question, I can speak from a macro perspective; it was absolutely part of the plan to make sure that the songs were emotional, but that they exposed and enhanced what we knew about these personalities. And I feel like we really achieved that. And I'm very, very proud of that.
OPN: When you met with the actors, did they offer any suggestions for their songs or the stories being told in their songs?
KH: Some did. Christina did! Christina just jumped right in.
TP: Yeah, when I met with them, we knew nothing. We had no idea what it was going to be about. I was just trying to figure out who sings and who wants to sing and what their ranges are. But Christina was very clear to me, “I want a really sexy dance number.” That was what she wanted. Turns out that we couldn't really give that to her, because that's just not how the story arc went on. And of course, it all worked out for the best.
KH: We gave her something to chew the scenery with.
OPN: She got to be under the sheets with Jim Kirk, so can’t complain.
Caller: I have two very specific compliments and then a question for you. Very specific compliment number one is the trumpets at the end of “Keep us Connected.” I have a couple of friends who are similarly obsessed with the music of this episode. And we'll just text each other “The trumpets!” and we'll know what we're talking about. It's great. Second very specific compliment is “sensational, ovational, we're the boldly explorational crew of the Enterprise.” I have laughed so hard over this, it's just such a Broadway moment where it's this big finish and you're making up words and you just have to make it rhyme. Question is how did you approach writing for established characters and already cast actors versus getting to do a songwriting gig from more of a blank slate? Were there things that were easier, harder, just different in your approach, given that you were constrained by character voices and literal actors singing voices for what you could create? How was that?
TP: That was very sweet and I love how you got into the weeds with the specific musical moments that you dug. I'll get specific with just a quickie with the trumpet thing at the end of “Keep us Connected.” That is the Brandenburg Concertos and that is Penny Lane, that's where that idea occurred. It just seemed like a no-brainer. As far as writing for established characters as opposed to starting from scratch, Kay, you talk about that.
KH: Writing with a blank slate is… I'm done with that. I don't like it anymore
TP: It’s harder.
KH: It's so hard! Tom and I both have made our way in different lanes into television. I write for animation and he does all of his magic over at Paramount Television. And I absolutely love having a script in front of me, where it's like, “words, words, words, character, character, character, story, story story. And then right here, here's the song. Here's where the song goes. This is who's singing it. It needs to move the story from this part to this part. Go.” And that to me is the ultimate creative expression. Because I'm working in the service of somebody else's creative vision. I have no ego in it whatsoever, because it's not about me. I don't have to worry about what I'm saying about myself because I'm in character. I love writing to script. It's where I'm my best. It's where I'm my most fearless, my most expressive, my most creative.
TP: Yeah, yeah. And to echo that, it also allows us to write music and say things we would never write otherwise. When a showrunner or a writer comes to us, and they have a very clear vision with words, and they articulate what it is they want, it's our job to transform those words into music. And especially, I love it, if they can speak music. I actually love that even more when they're like, “I want these vibes and this sort of thing.” And you're challenging me to do this thing that I've never done before and to say these things I've never said before. There is a lot of freedom there.
And it's very different from scoring something which is a similar thing, but much more ethereal and much more abstract, to do it without words and do it solely with air. But it's all the same in that you end up doing stuff that you would never do, because you've got too much bullshit from your own personality when you're writing your own stuff. And that's what makes a great artist a great artist: when they can either lay into all that bullshit and throw it all out there. Or they can just throw it all aside and say, “I don't care. I'm just gonna go do the thing.”
CALLER: My favorite song is “I'm ready” because it is such a huge party in the bar. And if I wasn't already crushing on Sam Kirk, after seeing his moves during that song, I am a Dan Jeannotte stan for life. My big question, though, is how does the jargon play in to your creative process? Star Trek is known for technobabble and you chose to use it in the very first sung lines of the show, “The intermix chamber and containment field is stable.” Impulse engines, phaser banks, warp core, all of that Tech Talk is in there. And it's not what you normally hear in a song. So were you asked to include it? Or did you intend to give nerds like me something to latch on to right away?
TP: Before I get into the question, I have to echo how amazing Sam Kirk's dancing is in the bar. But he’s even better during the Klingon moment. He's in soft focus, then whatever genius decided to put him into focus and he is just bopping with that jam. It's one of my fav- I get goosies! Oh, like it's, it's one of my favorites.
KH: Yes! Oh, he is so good.
TP: You know what, let's just take a minute just to understand that by the time we got to the fourth song, we were getting a little more comfortable with “the funny,” which I'm so thankful for. Because that's one of the things that makes this iteration of Star Trek work, at least for me is they didn't lose “the funny.” I feel like a lot of sci-fi franchises, post the initial Star Wars trilogy, got very serious for quite some time and they lost all “the funny.” Then Guardians of the Galaxy happened and “the funny” was there and I think everybody clocked like, “That's what we're missing!” And then “the funny” came back in the Star Wars shows that happened. And consequently this iteration of Star Trek has “the funny” and I think that's so important. Which is a long way to say I'm happy that we had the confidence to include those moments of levity.
KH: For example, I was determined to get “Prime Directive” in there somewhere and it just didn't work anywhere. So we put it in any way, but made it a joke. So that Spock would be like, “Ehhh, no, not really.”
TP: Yeah, so we felt comfortable doing that stuff. Okay, so now back to the songs like “Status Report" and “We Are One” when we have to talk about things they're doing, not emotional things necessarily, although “We Are One” has an emotional component, we need to be saying the right things for the right character. And that's where Bill and Dana would come in. There's simply no way it could have been done without them. They would quite literally say, “This is what Spock does. This is what he's talking about,” and just go down the line. And then, putting a melody to those words, figuring out how to rhyme those crazy ass words, coming up with the refrain, which needed to be something that a scientist would say, where they're not pants-on-fire about “Oh my god, we're singing,” they're in control. They're clocking it. They're assessing it in real time. All of these things could not have happened without Bill and Dana. It would just be an impossibility.
KH: So I just wanted to say something quickly about the Klingons. Since we weren't going to learn Kllingon-
TP: We asked if they wanted us to.
KH: We did offer.
TP: Thank god they said no!
KH: Yeah, but we did have to go and research the weapons, the violent imagery, and everything to determine how to work that into this. And so finding out about the Klingons was the most fun thing because I didn't really get it. But now I do.
TP: “Make your blood scream” baby!
KH: Now I’m a Klingon stan for life.
Caller: My question is which song was the most difficult for you to compose or put together and I'm wondering if it was “Status Report” because all that tech talk and the way that you rhymed the different words, it was just wonderful.
KH: Tom, let's answer that at the same time. 3…2….1
Both: “We Are One!”
TP: No question about it. A nightmare.
Caller: If you could write songs and a musical for any other past legacy Star Trek show, what would you call the musical?
KH: I think Picard is screaming for a musical episode. Patrick Stewart probably has the most beautiful singing voice. So to write songs for a British stage actor? Oh my god.
TP: It's not one of the older iterations but I think some musical numbers for Lower Decks, just because “animation” and we get to go even crazier from a genre perspective. Go even more current and even more pop. The thing with Strange New Worlds is the beautiful score that Nami creates is this huge symphonic thing, and it was important that the songs had that width and breadth sonically so that's why we chose to sort of orchestrate and instrumentalize (again, not a word) the songs with this big orchestra. But if we did Lower Decks, man, we would just go everywhere.
KH: Oh my god, yes!