“Joe Pera Talks With You” composer Ryan Dann talks with us about being reactive and going beyond

The New York-based musician reflects on music as a means of greater expression.
Photo: A title card from the second season of “Joe Pera Talks With You.” Four thin blue lines form a rectangular border around a watercolor of a wooden metronome. Small pineapples appear in the corners of the border. The title reads “Joe Pera Gives You Piano Lessons” in the same light sky blue as the border lines, the text appearing above the metronome but below the top line. Illustration by Mary Houlihan.

The New York-based musician reflects on music as a means of greater expression.

There’s a moment early on in Joe Pera Talks With You where the show’s titular protagonist lays a jack-o’-lantern to rest in one of the Upper Peninsula’s many waterfalls. In other shows, this moment would be treated as a ridiculous lark. Here, it’s given sincerity, gravity, depth, and a graceful reverence as Pera—an offbeat comic playing a heightened version of himself—reflects on his own mortality and what constitutes the growth of a soul.

In the post-credits stinger to this sequence, Pera prepares a cinnamon apple over a backyard fire pit, singing a song to perfect the timing of the roast: “Warm apple night. It’s a warm apple night… It’s a warm apple night. Warm apple night.” In the background, the only audible noise comes from the flickering fire tickling the tinfoil wrapped around the apple. He finishes the song, unwraps the apple, and takes a bite.

Moments of searing tenderness and unbridled warmth are Joe Pera Talks With You‘s defining characteristic. Fittingly, the show (currently available via Adult Swim and HBO Max) takes place in Marquette, Michigan, and a good portion of it is shot in Milwaukee. Evidenced by its own hallmarks, it shows a singular respect to the region; empathetic warmth is a necessary requirement in a place where the winters are unforgivingly cold and seem to be never-ending.

All of those moments—Joe and his romantic interest’s caffeine-addled foray into an all-nighter watching internet videos, hearing a new favorite song for the first time, the patient growth of a bean arch to honor his grandfather’s memory, writing a comprehensive history of his best friend’s life, navigating encroaching anxiety via impromptu CB radio conversations with Italian astronaut Paolo Nepsoli, and countless more—draw further emotional heft from the show’s calm, naturalistic score. Ryan Dann, who releases music under the moniker Holland Patent Public Library, understands how the show’s deceptively complex emotional structures lead back to deep conceptual roots.

Typically ambient and melancholic in nature, Dann’s work is integral to the world-building of the show. Dann’s score is so intrinsic to Joe Pera Talks With You that it constitutes the first discernible moment of the series: a low drone that gives way to rolling piano as Pera expands on the importance of iron and its relation to Marquette. In the first season, Dann opts for minimalism, underscoring the show’s gift for maximizing understatement. Even in its most expansive moment during that initial run, Dann rarely scores scenes with more than four instruments, staying perfectly in keeping with the show’s ethos: sometimes the little things mean the most.

The second and third seasons find Dann expanding his musical arsenal while still perfectly retaining and exemplifying the spirit of the show. A beautiful, folksy reverie, “Wires (Instrumental),” opens the second season. For that track, Dann deftly employs brass and some snaky lead electric guitar lines to create a sense of plaintive euphoria before the track erupts into a playful backyard boogie. Later on in season 2, there’s a moment that finds Pera at Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory contemplating impermanence, the people he loves, and how significant life events can irreparably alter the foundation of self. It’s the most striking television sequence I’ve ever seen simply for its breathtaking humanistic profundity, which Dann elevates further by returning to the show’s minimalistic ambient roots.

By the third season, released in fall 2021, Dann’s scores encompass a dizzying array of genres and instruments without sacrificing an iota of what makes his score so effective. There’s a rare humility present in the show—and Dann’s score—that highlights a genuine modesty, innocence, affection, and openness to wonderment. All of those facets work in harmony to achieve instances of communication and acknowledgment that surpass being merely transportive to become transcendent.

Joe Pera Talks With You‘s neighborly sensibilities have yielded unexpected returns on investment from Pera’s audience, achingly evident in a small request Dann fielded and fulfilled from a husband to create sheet music for “In The Dining Room” so it could be framed and gifted to his wife. Last week, a couple got engaged at one of Pera’s stand-up shows in Chicago. Kindness and love are pervasive in Joe Pera Talks With You‘s fabric, and that endearingly thoughtful brand of romanticism also runs through Dann’s score.

Dann’s work on the show has been something that I’ve found to be, like the show itself, astonishingly moving. More than once, I have been disorientingly gripped by the extreme and immediate familiarity of the show and its score, which have routinely unearthed my own memories of growing up in a small, suburban neighborhood. Sights I’ve seen, moments I’ve lived, and innumerable instances of cultural and environmental minutiae that remain a fundamental part of my very being are all at the heart of Joe Pera Talks With You. And with them, Dann’s score. 

Put simply, Joe Pera Talks With You isn’t just my favorite show but an unexpectedly authentic extension of my lived experience. In the show’s understanding of its identity, I have found both comfort and understanding in mine. Dann’s score isn’t singled out particularly often, but I’ve found myself repeatedly returning to it in an effort to probe deeper into the show’s character to further unlock its near-miraculous grasp on its characters, its setting, and their relation to each other.

In late April, I talked with Dann to get a better grasp of his own understanding of Joe Pera Talks With You, locational identity, being reactive, mental cinema, and his relationship with music.

Tone Madison: Can you give us an overview of your time writing music?

Ryan Dann: I picked up a guitar when I was 12. My mother told me it would sit in the corner and collect dust. I was adamant that was not going to happen. I took guitar lessons and, honestly, started writing little songs on the guitar when I was 13 or 14. I got into figuring out the song structure, learning other people’s songs. But also writing my own. I knew really early on, I didn’t want to go to music school because I liked learning on my own, so I went to film school. When I went to film school, I composed all the music for my thesis film.

I wanted to do everything for my thesis film. What’s kind of funny is that Joe went to that school with me. I think he saw that thesis and really liked it. I think that was the first time I wrote music for film or anything. I moved to New York, formed a band or whatever, which is really just me making music, but continued to work with Joe on stuff he was doing. I’ve written music for some other films but once I graduated college, music has kind of been a constant. It’s not a side thing but just one of many paths I was pursuing at the same time.

Tone Madison: It sounds like that’s how you first crossed paths with Joe and was an impetus for collaboration?

Ryan Dann: Yeah! We didn’t really know each other that well in college but when I moved to New York, he was friends with some other people I moved in with, who we also went to school with, and when he first moved to New York, he needed a place to crash so he slept on our couch for a week or two.

He had a stand-up bit when he was in college where a guy would play some music when he did the stand-up bit, so when he left college, he moved away from that guy and was like, “I need someone to play piano behind me when I do this stand-up bit,” and I was like, “Yeah, I can do that.” So I did a few early stand-up bits with him and I think that’s how we got to know each other beyond just [being] acquaintances. After that, I would go to all his comedy shows. If he had a comedy video and needed some music, I would do some music for him. 

Tone Madison: In an older interview, you talked about your use of mental cinema, which involves using music to dream up scenes that music would accompany. Now that you’re scoring projects, what do you find yourself looking to within a scene for musical emphasis?

Ryan Dann: The background of mental cinema, which is a very high-minded idea, is that I wanted to fuse doing sound design with doing music, that’s all it really was. Another track [I was pursuing] out of college was doing sound designs. I really like doing sound designs. I like doing a scene and giving a scene a feeling that’s not necessarily there in the image. I just wanted to do both at the same time. When it comes to scoring, I think about music as sound design. That’s a little weird because I think you can think of sound design as music in sort of the same way and go back and forth.

Instead of treating sound as just what is there on the screen—if you’re in a forest, you hear birds and trees or whatever—there’s a quality to the sound that will make it sound like either a very creepy forest or a busy forest or whatever it is. When I approach music, I’m trying to figure out how the music sits with the sound design, what the sound design’s going to be, how the music blends in with it, whether it will take over or be the sound design, [and] whether it’s going to be the totality of what we hear or just a part of it, along with the dialogue or whatever. It’s a case-by-case basis with the scenes.

That’s what I like about Joe’s show and other projects that I’ve worked on. Every scene has its own needs. You’re trying to advance plot idea or emotion or whatever, so I think having a film background has helped me see the totality of things. Because as a musician, you want the music to sound good. You’re not thinking, necessarily, how the music sits with everything else. That’s definitely helped me.

Tone Madison: To maybe a more abstract extent of that ideology or approach, one of the things that’s always struck me about your Joe Pera Talks With You score work is how acutely evocative it is of sense of place. Have you spent any amount of time in the upper Midwest region or have you found another way to cultivate or project what you understand to be regional trademarks?

Ryan Dann: It’s probably a cultivation of two things. First, I grew up in Syracuse, which is not the Midwest, obviously, but I grew up in an outer ring of the Midwest. It’s rural and suburban and there’s just a certain—you get a lot of snow, so your weather’s similar and there’s a certain vibe that I think is culturally similar. It’s not the same, but it’s not like I grew up in the southwest where it’s completely different. Joe grew up in Buffalo, so he’s sort of in a similar Midwest vicinity. We, I think, subconsciously connect on that upbringing.

The other half of it is that Joe puts a lot of research into that show and is very active in making it. The music’s very collaborative. He’s very active in finding samples for songs or ideas for songs and, you know, “Oh, I really like this song. I think it fits this scene. Maybe we could do something similar to that.”

If I do anything well, it’s that I pick up on what Joe wants and figure out how to get it there. What I bring to it is that I listen to a lot of different music and I try to put an emotion into the thing. I don’t know how to say this exactly, but I try to go a little above and beyond for Joe because he’s really trying to convey something outside of words sometimes. He’s not just talking about a rock, you know what I mean? He’s talking about being observational about the world. Being aware of your surroundings. That’s why the music can’t just be there. It needs to take you beyond. That’s why there’s always an emotional dimension to the music that I really push to get us [to that point]. I think it’s because Joe is so attuned to Midwestern life and culture and has spent a lot of time there. I think he has an affinity for that.

Tone Madison: Some of the score work you’ve contributed also appears to be cognizant of lineage, like the Gaelic folk inflections of the first season’s “Fall Loop.” Is historical context and regional culture something you take into consideration while composing?

Ryan Dann: We walk the line. We do worry about going a little bit too far. Early on, when Joe did the Christmas episode, we were talking about doing traditional Christmas-type music, the Charlie Brown Christmas theme song, whatever. We wanted to evoke that but not directly do it, so there are times where we maybe want something to be a bit more folksy but don’t want it to be right on the nose. What ends up happening is that we look abroad.

I think if you look at American folk music, then it starts to feel on-the-nose, but if you look at folk music from Nordic countries or Germanic countries, or Ireland, then it starts to feel a little bit more nuanced. That’s probably where you’re feeling some sort of historical connection. Because in the Midwest, you have a lot of Germanic immigration, right? So that’s probably where that feeling starts to come in. A lot of music that we end up pulling for the show, we make a lot of playlists. We’re always pulling stuff from Swedish and Norwegian musicians because it seems to fit for the show. Probably because that’s the culture of the area. There’s a lineage there. I guess it’s subconscious.

Tone Madison: When you score, do you score chronologically in sequence or piecemeal, just taking on a few scattershot scenes at a time?

Ryan Dann: It’s roughly chronological. Joe will give me scripts, even early scripts, to look at and you can sort of see “Oh, this is the montage here and we’re probably going to need music.” So I don’t get to do this as much as I want, but sometimes I’ll pre-write stuff, or sometimes I’ll just pre-write music and go, “Yeah, maybe this can go in somewhere.” And then an episode or two in, we’re like, “What about that track you recorded?” and then we drop it in, but other than that it is pretty sequential and they edit sequentially.

They’ll edit episode one, then episode two, episode three. And they overlap a little bit, so I’ll get to episode one and then start working on episode two and one and two will overlap. It’s basically sequential, which is good too, because that’s a good way to build themes throughout the season. Things that we can return to. Even in season one, Nana’s scene, I don’t think it was clear that was going to be the theme from the beginning but we got to episode three, four, and went, “Maybe we should bring that song back, maybe it makes sense there.” Themes can develop organically that way, which is good. 

Tone Madison: One thing that I noticed was that the parameters of your score work have expanded as the seasons have progressed. In the first season, there’s an emphasis on minimalism and you do a lot of solo piano scores whereas in the third, you have a few full-band productions and are reaching out to different instruments. Was evolving the score in that way something that was intentional or did it happen naturally?

Ryan Dann: It’s intentional to the degree that, when we first started, this was the first thing I’d scored on a bigger level. I was figuring some stuff out. We got to the second season and I was like, “Okay, I need to take this seriously,” and expanded the palette of instruments I could use or manipulate.

Generally we had this feeling that we wanted to outdo ourselves musically. So every season we’re just like, “How do we go a little bit more? Go a little bit further?” Maybe instead of something minimal, maybe we add a little bit more. So it is somewhat conscious. Maybe a bit more conscious on my part. I just want to continue to evolve the music. Starting from minimalism, you can only evolve past something minimal [laughs]. But we do keep a little bit of minimal piano in there, because it feels more… The solo piano stuff I think is what connects with Joe, as a character in the show, the most.

There are a lot of scenes where we’re getting other characters into town or whatever, where we can expand on that a little bit more. At the end of the day, we’re really looking for a piece of music that fits the scene. In season three, the episode with the flying drone, I had a few different pieces of music and Joe picked the one that was the most simple, just a repeating line over and over and over and over again.

Tone Madison: “Over Marquette?”

Ryan Dann: Yeah. So that one was… sometimes the simple stuff works. We’re not afraid of it.

Tone Madison: Has your experience scoring the show impacted your approach to writing your standalone material as Holland Patent Public Library?

Ryan Dann: Yeah, at this point I think it’s completely reshaped what my goals are in music. When I got to New York I wanted to do the indie rock band thing and put out albums and go on tour and write songs that would be played on the radio. The show just kind of progressed and I ended up focusing more on the show than my individual music.

At this point, I think a lot of my creative inspiration, musically, comes from being reactive to something. In Joe’s show, or whatever [I’m scoring], I’m reacting to a scene and that’s my inspiration for a piece of music. Now, if I ever do stuff for myself, I feel like I need to be reacting to something, I can’t just come out of nowhere. I’m starting to look more into “How can I create a context and then put the music into context” and fuse them together.

I’m putting out an album later this year that, to me, is meant to be played when you’re driving. There’s a lot of driving interstitials but I’ve done the drive and it does work really well. Especially if you’re by yourself, zoning out on the road listening to the music and the music is flowing past you. It makes the music make way more sense than if you were to just listen to it wherever. I think that’s influenced by the show, that putting music into a context is creatively more interesting to me at this point.

Tone Madison: Did you have an ETA for that record?

Ryan Dann: Yeah, this would be a good moment to say. Our ETA is roughly September-October, so a good time to take a fall drive.

Tone Madison: Did you have any other projects in development or are you focusing on getting that one done?

Ryan Dann: I have some other things percolating but I don’t have due dates on them yet. Another project I’m trying to get off the ground is… when I was younger, I really liked writing letters to people. That’s always stuck with me.

I wanted to try writing audio letters and try to turn that into an audio project. It kind of goes back to what I was saying in that other interview about mental cinema. When you write a letter you can do whatever you want, you can do an audio scene, you can do music, whatever. And there will be this through-line of whatever you want to write to your friends. It’ll be short. Five to 10 minutes. That’s a project I also want to figure out but I also have to balance work things, so I don’t know when that’s going to be out.

There is a theme, in my creative life, that’s starting to emerge of thinking about the context of what I do, musically. Putting music in a certain context.

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