Songwriter and composer Glen Ballard boasts a one of a kind career, working alongside industry legends from Michael Jackson to Alan Silvestri. His many accolades include producing and co-writing 1995’s Grammy winning album of the year by Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill, and penning the Grammy winning song “Believe” for The Polar Express. His recent ventures are as ambitious as ever, with involvement in adapting the classic film Back to the Future to the musical stage. More notably, of course, writing an excess of sixty original jazz songs upon which the newly-released limited series The Eddy was based.
Netflix’s The Eddy is an ambitious, swirling music-infused story that winds its way through the streets of Paris. It is a focused yet methodical character study that depicts the ideas of musical enlightenment within talented, every-day protagonists. With directors such as Damien Chazelle (La La Land), Alan Poul (The Newsroom), Houda Benyamina (Divines), and Laïla Marrakchi (Rock the Casbah) attached to the show – it makes for original streaming content that cannot be missed. More than anything, it is an ode to jazz musicians and the lives they lead.
We were lucky enough to have Glen Ballard for an exclusive interview. We talk about his experience in bringing “live” performances to viewer’s homes and the process of developing an emotional narrative through jazz music. The concept behind this show has been in the making for over a decade. So naturally, Ballard takes us on a welcome dive deep into his unique history within music and film.
GB: Well thank you for taking your time to talk to us about The Eddy.
DF: Definitely! It’s exciting. So to start off our discussion on your participation on the show, as a musician, what was your experience like working on The Eddy having a much larger role in production as executive producer and composer?
GB: It was actually a dream come true because I started this idea in 2007, when I wrote the first song in service of this whole concept called The Eddy – which is this sort of like a dream club for jazz musicians past, present, and future. We have a sanctuary in which you can play your music if you’re good enough to do it, improvise, and use your soul to express what you want to say. In every way, this is like a fulfillment of every great and aspiring musician’s dream. Just trying to place where you can express yourself at your best. Having a small, intimate audience who understands and helps you get there. That’s the whole concept of The Eddy. It’s a metaphorical and real place where you play music that’s at the highest level, but it’s also intimate and one time only. It’s like live music.
DF: The show features all these songs written and composed by yourself, but they were written before the show was even in the process of production.
GB: They were the foundation of the show. They are the subtext of every scene in every episode.
DF: So where they written knowing that you wanted to adapt them into a show or were they written just as songs?
GB: From the very downbeat, it was always about creating a mythical and also hopeful real place. A club in Paris where people could sort of hide and also express themselves without fear of contradiction. I think that’s the essence of a jazz musician, and they have a small audience who understands what they’re trying to do. The Eddy is a concept but it’s also a reality because I’ve always loved Paris. I’m sort of a part-time Parisian living there since the 90’s.
When I first came at 17, I knew this was a place that embraced jazz. So I was always trying to find an opportunity to create a club, real or mythical, that was still about people in Paris playing jazz – who have a small but appreciative audience of what they’re trying to accomplish. In every way, that’s what The Eddy is. I’ve had all these partners who’ve completely realized the vision that I had like 13 years ago, about what this could be.
DF: Did you always imagine them taking the form of like a show or did you see them sometimes as live performances in front of audiences?
GB: No, I thought the show would set up live performances. I mean I grew up in Mississippi, Louisiana, and New Orleans. Jazz was always part of my background. I knew what it meant to be in a live club, close to somebody who was really gifted, and to see them perform – it’s a transcendent experience. And most people in the digital world don’t understand what that is now. So I always knew in order to write a bunch of new jazz songs, I would need a context. I would need a club to put that in.
That was always for me ‘The Eddy’, which is one of the first songs that I wrote for this show. It was about a literal and metaphorical place where people who are highly creative can perform at their best and have a few people in the audience who really get it. Then it becomes this transcendent moment and it will never happen again. It’s like this whole sort of butterfly moment in trying to capture that. That’s really the whole essence of it all. Not to mention that I wrote 75 new jazz songs in the service of this idea.
DF: Right. You talked a little bit about your history with jazz growing up in Mississippi. You have such a vast discography, did you have past experience with jazz and how did you take that going into The Eddy?
GB: Well, the first significant songwriter cut that I ever had was with a great jazz artist. It was produced by Quincy Jones in 1980, it was George Benson who was the artist. So my first quote “pop hit” was done by a crossover jazz artist named George Benson. So since 1980 or even before that, I’ve always had this affinity for the jazz genre. I’ve quietly written my songs in that genre, but trying to find an outlet for that right now was difficult. For the last 12-13 years I have just been writing these songs in service of this idea of a jazz club in Paris, where I’ve lived most of my adult life off and on. I’ve been a part time Parisian and Paris to me has always embraced the idea of rebels and that’s certainly what jazz is right now.
There are still about at least 13 jazz clubs in Paris where you can actually go, just sit down and listen to music. It’s people playing jazz and it doesn’t matter who it is, it’s just the idea of it you know? Just trying to find people who were the right partners for this – Damien Chazelle obviously is like the perfect, perfect partner because I could reference someone like Miles Davis and Damien has this vocabulary down 100%. For me, the idea that jazz in the fifties in Paris was a dangerous enterprise. That was our idea. But we have to sort of put it in the fringes of Paris of today.
So we have this sort of mythical club called ‘The Eddy’ on the edge of Paris where people are still striving. They still feel like they have a sanctuary to make the music they want to make. It’s improvisational, it’s a new kind of jazz. We had this huge international jazz band who came together to make this with us. It’s really truly a portrait of these musicians and what it’s like to try to make this music in a world that is driven by machines. It’s driven by computers. We have this group of musicians that actually feed off each other as human beings and as gifted artists. That’s what jazz can be. It can be whatever you want to it be, but it starts with people. Take that away from it and it becomes a fundamentally different experience.
Then you add that I had Damien Chazelle. I had a great writer like Jack Thorne, who actually owns a jazz club. He totally gets it. He’s like one of the great stage writers, TV writers, he’s incredible. They created this whole narrative around about 50 jazz songs that we had written in advance. When you talk about music driven shows, this is a music driven show. It was driven by the songs, by the lyrical nature. All the songs referenced Paris from start to finish. There’s one song about Malibu, but it’s written from the perspective that you’re in Paris looking at it. In every way, it’s a celebration of what Paris brings to the creative moment. Even in this time where we’re all locked up, on May 8th there’s a live jazz club opening in Paris, but it’s only on Netflix.
DF: What was the experience like with bringing your songs to life alongside team members like Damien Chazelle?
GB: It was the best of all times. First of all, Damien shot the first two episodes on 16mm film, an unprecedented idea in television of any kind in the modern era. Super saturated, he uses a lot of one shots. It’s a French sixties new wave kind of approach.
DF: Right, cinéma vérité and what not.
GB: I mean the opening shot is a six minute one shot and the band is live. So here’s the difference, there’s no canned music in the show, there’s no score, it’s just the band playing music. They were really playing live. We created this club in not a very well known part of Paris called ‘The Eddy’, which has incredible sidelines. It’s not glamorous, but it’s great for the music. Then we created a recording studio behind it and everything that we shot during the nine months live in that set up, is this the music from The Eddy. We had this incredible live band from all over the world. They’re acting in the show and Damien Chazelle knows how to shoot a live band and he makes you feel part of it. You kind of understand the closeup magic that is a real jazz ensemble.
We had this incredible movie star Joanna Kulig, who’s our lead singer on the show. So with his cinematography, this incredible live band, and Joanna – it becomes a magical experience. My hope is that it will draw people into this whole experience who may have felt like they were allergic to jazz. For a lot of people it just becomes a boring experience, but this is about an incredibly talented band and they’re performing a lot of songs in the show. You get the singer performing to you and you kind of understand what the whole concept is. Working with Damien Chazelle – I mean, he’s the best. He understands how to use the camera, he understands what music is, he understands what the musicians are bringing to it. He’s like poetry in motion. He’s like the greatest genius that I’ve ever been blessed to work with. Believe me, he is just off the chart.
DF: Definitely. Do you have a favorite number or moment from the show?
GB: At the end of episode one, Joanna actually sings the song called ‘The Eddy’, which you’ve seen being written all throughout the first episode. Because of a series of events, which I can’t reveal, when she sings ‘The Eddy’ at the end of that episode and are we track on Amandla Stenberg and André Holland – it’s an incredibly cinematic and powerful moment where song, intention, story, and character all come together. It’s my favorite moment ever that I’ve had anything to do with. And then the song continues over the end titles, yeah this would be my favorite moment.
DF: Without a doubt a powerful moment. If there was one thing you could tell audiences before they sit down and watch the show, what would that be?
GB: My message to every audience member is that, although you are at home right now, the idea of going to a place like The Eddy is to your advantage because it’s still an intimate experience that I’ve tried to create. Please come see us at The Eddy and understand what it’s like to be a big part of helping elevate the greatest artists who do it for the love of the art and not for money, to be part of that experience. I invite you to all be part of that starting May 8.
DF: Are there any upcoming projects that you would like to promote or make our audience aware of?
GB: Yes, definitely. I was in Manchester, England until March 14th but on March 11th, we opened up a really big musical theater piece called Back to the Future: The Musical and it opened so beautifully. I’m so proud of it and I am so grateful to our great cast, crew, and all our producers for making the show happen. It was unfortunately closed by the government on March 14th. But I think anybody who was in the Manchester Opera House between February 20th [for preview performances] and March 14th saw something magical. We have booked to go into a London theater sometime in 2021. I don’t know what the date is, but I would just invite everyone to come see Back to the Future: The Musical because if you were lucky enough to see it before the virus quarantine took effect, it was very special time and it was a very wonderful show.
DF: Definitely something on my bucket list, my favorite movie! Anything else you would like to say before we close it up?
GB: Thank you for everything and I can’t wait for you to see the entire series. I’m really so proud of it. All the music in it is absolutely live. It’s never been done ever on television, not since the fifties at least!