Inside the Music with award-winning songwriting duo Pasek & Paul

Interview with Pasek and Paul

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are an Oscar, Grammy, Tony, and Golden Globe Award-winning songwriting duo best-known for their work on La La Land, Dear Evan Hansen, and The Greatest Showman. We were lucky enough to catch up with the dynamic duo recently to find about their musical upbringings, how they began writing together at college, their advice for aspiring songwriters, and more.

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Interview with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

Sheet Music Direct ("S"): Firstly, what were your first experiences with music as children?

Justin ("J"): For me, I grew up in a family of musicians who played by ear. I come from a long line of a church family, so my childhood was always around music and church. It was always very joyful and vivacious and a bit of a ruckus, which was lots of fun. My parents were like putting me up on stage to sing things when I was like two years old, which I'm sure some form of child abuse, haha! And as kids we were very much of the Disney animation Renaissance era. Our childhood upbringing was The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin and all those things. I'm sure Benj will mention the same thing that we grew up on that music and those movies as the sort of primary form of entertainment for us as three, four, five, six year olds.

Benj ("B"): Well my mom is a developmental psychologist, but she moonlit as a children's music writer, so she would dutifully notice all these things that were happening in my life and in my brothers' lives and she would turn them into children's songs. And then she developed, with a collaborator, a pretty big and robust following in the children's music world where she was like friends with folks in the late 80s and early 90s, like Raffi and Sharon, Lois & Bram and so I kind of knew all of these kids artists. And she recorded five albums of children's music, based on things like us taking our first steps or us jumping in puddles or whatever. And so I think, from a very early age, I watched my literal mother translating life experiences into song moments. And as Justin was saying, the first movie I ever saw in a theater was The Little Mermaid. Your first CD was Aladdin, right, Justin?

J: Yes, my first was Aladdin. On the Magnavox boombox!

B: So I think the combination, you know, is it nature or nurture? But I think we definitely had parents who just both loved music and loved letting us dive into songs and really seeing examples of how life experiences, whether it be through animated characters or through our own lives, could be turned into musical moments.

S: For sure, and did you both play musical instruments in school?

J: Yeah, I definitely gravitated toward the music program at my school and kept myself busy as student and growing up with anything I could get my hands on, really. So, I was spread far too thin, but I always loved performing in musical theater and all that. But also as I got older in school doing jazz band and a cappella choir. We had a thing in our high school called the Four Building. I went to a rather artsy school, or artsier than many at least. So it wasn't total like nerd territory, but it was kind of like, "oh, it's a Four Building kid." That was sort of code for a more artsy kind of kid. I was definitely a Four Building kid because it was all music. It was band, it was choir, it was theater, it was the art students. So I was growing up and studying in an environment where there was flourishing arts and music, which was amazing.

B: I would say I loved just sitting at the piano and writing pop songs from when I was like 11 years old. I wrote very dramatic songs about heartbreaks that hadn't really happened to me yet as an 11 year old, with my little chunky chords and singing my heart out crying over my imaginary future lovers. And then when I met Justin, who's such an amazing piano player, any attempt that I had at being good at piano just atrophied.

S: Haha! And then going forward a little bit, I believe you two met at the University of Michigan where you wrote Edges. Was that your first foray into musical theater writing or did anything come before that?

B: That was our first foray. We were there studying to be actors. We were terrible actors. And we actually became friends because we were the two worst people in our ballet class. So we bonded over that absolute trauma.

J: We trauma-bonded in our ballet class.

B: Total bonding. So that was our freshman year, and we started just getting in a practice room together and just, like, making up songs. And come our sophomore year, when we were cast as two terrible roles in our school musicals, City of Angels, I was cast as the man with camera, which meant that I came on stage and took a photo and then left in a 2.5 hour show, and Justin was cast as a coroner / backup dancer. So we were like "We started writing songs together in our freshman year. What if in our sophomore year, we put them together and use what we're learning in acting class and write songs from a theatrical point of view?" And because we had no sense of how to write anything with any kind of narrative at all, we were like, "Let's create a song cycle!" because then we don't even have to worry about the narrative.

J: Baby-stepping our way into writing musicals!

B: Every song was theatrical in nature and had a want, you know. Characters facing obstacles and employing different tactics. But essentially we just sort of threw them all together under the theme of "what is it like to be a 19 year old figuring out the world?"

S: Very interesting. I'm sure it's changed over the years, but can you talk us through your songwriting process?

J: So, we talk about this a lot, and I would say we spend the bulk of our time as songwriters not actually writing the song, in that we spend a lot of the time talking about the song, the character, the moment before, and the moment after. Most of what we write is two things within the context of a story and within the context of a character, and also in collaboration with others. So what we do is spend a lot of time thinking about that story and that character and what place they're in before the song, after the song, what story it's telling, what emotional journey it's going on. And then also talking with our collaborators, be it a screenwriter or a librettist, book writer, director, and depending on the medium, what does this moment want to accomplish? What might it look like on screen or on stage? We really kind of talk the thing to death. We talk about it until the only thing left to do now is write it because we are so inside it and we understand what it wants to be.

   We spend the bulk of our time as songwriters not actually writing the song, in that we spend a lot of the time talking about the song, the character, the moment before, and the moment after."

Then we'll go away, the two of us, and then it's just a question of anything from who has an idea, whether that’s a lyric idea or a musical gesture. What is the energy of this? What is this song going to feel like? We'll try to arrive maybe on a title or a hook phrase or something that we know we want to anchor the song around and center it around. And then it gets into the nuts and bolts of how the two of us write it. So, you know, it could be me coming to an idea around the piano and I'll send it to Benj, or he might come to a lyric idea and send that to me. Then we just trade back and forth and put it together at some point. But so much of our writing process exists on the front end and then the last 30% is like, "Okay, let's write the actual song."

S: Cool. And we have a little bit of trivia for you. Obviously your music translates very well to sheet music and is always among our best sellers. Can you guess which is your best-selling arrangement on Sheet Music Direct?

J: I know my guess. You want to say it at the same time, Benj, and see if we say the same thing?

B: Okay, on three?

J: "A Million Dreams"

B: "Rewrite the Stars"

S: Nope

J: "Waving Through a Window"?

B: "You Will Be Found"?

S: I'm afraid it's neither, but you're getting warmer

B: A song from Dear Evan Hansen that's not "Waving Through a Window" or "You Will Be Found"? No way!

J: "Requiem"??

S: Yeah!

J: Woah! That's so interesting. I mean, if we had each done our top three and they had been different top threes, we would not have included "Requiem"!

B: That's so interesting

J: Are we now supposed to guess our lowest selling song now?

B: I think I have an idea!

S: We couldn't possibly ask that, but you're gonna have to tell us now!

B: I think it's probably also from Dear Evan Hansen and I think it's "To Break in a Glove."

J: That's what I guess, too.

S: Haha, we'll have to check that out later! So you've obviously been involved in a lot of very successful projects. Putting commercial success to one side, is there one particular project that you're most proud of?

J: Well, you're asking the verboten question, which is like, pick your favorite child. And like children, they each have their own truly special thing. And there are reasons that we love or are proud of each of the projects. I think when it comes down to it, we often land on Dear Evan Hansen, not because we're most proud of it or it's our favorite or anything, but I think it honestly comes back to other collaborators and producers and people that believed in us and gave us the chance to develop and stage it. I think for us it was an original idea, something that was sort of based on something in Benj's life and based on experiences in both of our lives. And then our collaborators, even everyone that came to the show sort of brought something that they contributed from their own life and their own experiences to it. I think that will always hold a special place for us just because someone was willing to take a chance on us and on that idea, which is miraculous to us still. That's something that we cared a lot about and were passionate about. Our writing found resonance with other people around the country and around the world, and that's a thrilling thing when you get the chance to connect with people in that sort of mystical way.

   I think Dear Evan Hansen will always hold a special place for us just because someone was willing to take a chance on us and on that idea, which is miraculous to us still. "

S: Fantastic. So you've obviously adapted several movies for stage like James and the Giant Peach and Christmas Story. If you could choose a dream project and pick any movie to turn into a stage musical, what would that be?

B: I think we're lucky that we're getting to tinker with two projects that we worked on as movies which are hopefully coming to the stage with La La Land and we're hoping The Greatest Showman will follow suit.

J: Did you just say your dream projects were your own projects?!

B: I'm saying I'm excited to see them on stage because they're part of our past and we essentially developed them in rehearsal rooms. So it's really cool to have them sort of return to folks who come from the world of theater, singing them live. I think we're really excited about getting to use the medium of musical theater to try to create original stories, and get to work with really great collaborators, whether that be playwrights or directors, to use the medium to invent something new. So that's probably where we're the most excited. But I'm sure there's a bunch of movies that we'd jump at the chance if somebody said, "would you like to adapt this thing?"

J: I don't think there's that one thing that we've wanted to do. I will say what's funny to me, which I think is really cool even though we're not part of it - a number of years ago we reached out to our lawyer and were like, "Could you look into the rights to Water for Elephants? That could be an interesting musical." And then we started working on The Greatest Showman, and we were like, "Ah, we're not going to do two circus musicals, so never mind." And now that's becoming a musical! It made me happy to see that, because I think that could be a lovely musical, and I think it's cool that it's happening with amazing artists, some of whom we know and love, and have worked with before.

S: Well, you were obviously on to something there! And is there any music by other artists or composers that you're enjoying listening to or indeed playing at the moment?

B: I thought you were going to ask is there anyone whose music we think should be a musical?

S: Well you can answer that as well, if you like!

B: There are so many people. We dig a lot of the musical theater-tinged singer-songwriters like Lizzy McAlpine who's amazing. And everybody's waiting for the attempt at a Ben Folds musical.

J: I don't know that I want there to be a Stevie Wonder musical, because I'm afraid that it might not be incredible, but…there could be. And also Stevie Wonder and that catalog is just incredible. You know, historically, Sting, Ben Folds, Donny Hathaway. Oh, and Carole King, although that's already been a musical of course.

B: We really like the band Lawrence too. I think they're really cool. And we'd love for them to do a musical. Then a Broadway girlie who's blowing up right now - ReneƩ Rapp. We're waiting for her to create her Broadway thing. I also think Jon Batiste would be really cool to create something.

S: All good ones! And can you tell us what you're working on next that we can look forward to?

B: Honestly, what we're trying to do is collaborate with really great playwrights and interesting people and come up with new ideas. And we're planting a lot of seeds right now. There's a couple of writers whose work we love that we've been meeting to say, "Hey, would you want to do a stage musical together?" And just trying to find the right idea and the right collaborators to make a couple interesting things happen. So we're just at the beginning stages right now, but hopefully it'll bear fruit.

J: So we have La La Land coming to stage, possibly The Greatest Showman too, we worked on a Snow White movie which is coming out too, though we don't know when it's coming out honestly! We have another movie that's shooting apparently this summer.

B: We'll see. We don't know. We don't know what we should say or not say, but, hopefully the world will be full of music!

S: And then last question - do you have any advice for aspiring songwriters in the world of stage and screen?

B: A lot! I mean, we could be here all day. I know we've said this before in interviews, but there's this great Ira Glass quote which he talks about the difference between people who make things and don't get to make things and, and like people who have a lot of fear in their own sense of their artistic selves. And he says that there's a chasm, a really big chasm between your taste level and your ability level. And so a lot of people look at what they make as their initial draft and their taste is really high, but their ability level is really low because they haven't done anything yet. They haven't produced enough work yet. And because they have really good taste, they look at their ability level and they go, "Ah, I'm terrible." And then they quit. But really it's about getting past that gap and realizing that if you hate what you're doing at an initial stage, that's probably a really great sign because it means that maybe your taste is more developed than your ability level. And the more that you create and the more drafts that you do and the more songs that you write, that chasm begins to close. So if you're finding yourself frustrated or you feel like, "Why am I doing this?" or "I hate what I make," it's probably a good sign to keep going and to push through it. And eventually that gap will begin to close. It should be a thing to inspire you as opposed to make you feel like you're not meant to be an artist. Because I think inherently, everyone can be and everyone has a creative energy to them. It's really just about overcoming fear to get to the other side of that.

S: That's excellent. I love that. And yourself, Justin. Anything to add?

J: Your question made me think about this Rick Rubin that's been going round where he's like "The audience comes last," and I've been thinking about what I think about this quote. His philosophy is that you can't create something based on whether someone will like this or whatever. It has to be something that comes from you and something that you love, and you're making it for you. And what does it matter if someone else likes it or not? You're making it for yourself. And then if somebody else connects to it and whatever, great. And what I would say is that I agree with a version of that, but I would tweak it to a degree and say I think that you can't write something because you think it's what somebody wants. You can't write something because you think it's what an audience wants. The times that I feel like I or we have started to write something and I'm like, "Okay, what are people going to like?" It at some point loses its identity and loses its kind of soul or magic that you're imbuing into it.

   I think you can't write something if you don't connect to it or if it's not something that you want to hear...but I do also think that we're entertainers - our job is to entertain people, and the things that we write can be a gift to audiences."

So I think you can't write something if you don't connect to it or if it's not something that you want to hear, which I agree with. But I do also think that we're entertainers - our job is to entertain people, and the things that we write can be a gift to audiences. And so I think you can't think about it in those binaries. I don't think you can take the approach that the audience doesn't matter. And I don't think you can approach it like "This is for an audience." I want to entertain them, I want them to laugh, and I want them to like this song and get stuck in their head, or be hooky or sticky or whatever. I think you have to have a balance of both, which is if it's not connected to you on some soul level or artistic level, don't do it. It's not worth it. Or don't make that change or that compromise in the song, or change the melody just because you think it's what people will want. But I do think you can have the audience in your head a little bit. So I think it's holding both of those ideas, not that I'm trying to edit Rick Rubin, the master here, but I think it's a little bit of both of those ideas.

B: The way I think about it is that if you're writing something that delights you, usually we're not on an island, you know what I mean? We're really all connected to ideas and sort of essential things that make us feel alive and human. So if you write something that's for yourself, I think that generally it will resonate with an audience if it resonates with you, because we're not outliers. We're all part of humankind.

S: Great advice, thanks for that, and thank you for taking the time to chat with us!

B: Our pleasure, thanks for featuring our music and being a mechanism for people to be able to play our songs around the world. We really appreciate it.

S: We remain huge fans, and we can't wait to see what's next. So thank you both.

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