The record player in Joe Pera’s apartment is a giant piece of furniture, more antique cabinet than stereo. It’s the same one his grandparents had in their living room, and Pera remembers listening to it with his family while they decorated the Christmas tree. It’s a deeply sentimental object, but at this point, its core functionality has become something of an issue. “It damages all the records that it plays,” Pera says, “and I can’t get anybody to fix it.” He avoids buying old, expensive vinyl for that reason, but notes that he’s been rolling the dice whenever he puts on the latest immersive piano record by German composer Nils Frahm.
Pera is on the phone from the Brooklyn office where he recently completed the third season of his poignant and earnest show Joe Pera Talks With You, in which he plays a Midwestern middle school choir teacher who meditates on the essentials: gardening, hiking, waiting, sitting. As he tells it, the show’s workplace culture is fittingly relaxed and kind. On Fridays, post-production supervisor Benjamin Craig would bake cookies for everyone. One day, Pera found Ryan Dann, the show’s composer, in the basement watching the 1992 dog-mischief comedy Beethoven—inspiration for an episode entitled “Joe Pera Discusses School-Appropriate Entertainment With You.”
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Dann is behind Talks With You’s calming instrumental score, and Pera says establishing the overall vibe of a given episode is a collaborative effort. “Ryan will sometimes hand us a piece before we start to edit, and I’m like, ‘Oh crap, I’ve got to make this live up to the music that he wrote.’” Another bit of Dann’s score led Pera to write one of the show’s signature voiceover monologues. “I listened to it and the words just came out,” he recalls.
Much of the music he’s been listening to while working on the show as of late came from a collaborative playlist with Dann, as he explains below.
Joe Pera: This album is all instrumental; I can’t listen to stuff with lyrics while writing. They’re just very beautiful, quiet songs. There were a few in particular that I put on and looped while writing, especially when I had to deal with some of the heavier parts of this season.
To truly write something properly, I can’t detach myself emotionally from what I want the eventual show to feel like. For the grandmother’s death last season, which was based on real life, I had to put myself in that emotional space for a long period of time. It was a lot to do. Bill Callahan’s [Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest] came out around then, and the song “Circles” was very helpful while writing that. His lyrics have been largely influential on how I write—trying to get at stuff with a small word count, doing a lot with a little.
Katie asked me to do an opening stand-up set for her one time at that metal bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Saint Vitus. It’s a fun challenge, opening for musicians. Sometimes it’s a disaster, but sometimes you can harness the energy of it. It’s nerve-racking going up at a punk show and performing, but when it’s a Yo La Tengo Hanukkah show, I feel pretty safe that nobody’s going to throw a can at me.
Around the time of Katie’s show, my grandmother had just died in real life, so I had to cancel. But we kept on talking online and through emails. We eventually met up for a beer. I really enjoy the way that the emotions sneak up on you in her music. Especially in this new album, I like how it gets big and hits you real hard all of a sudden. I find that fascinating. There’s a theatricality to it, but it also doesn’t take it too far. It’s a good balance.
For the show, we refer a lot back to early American hymns and Shaker music a lot—stuff that just feels solid and timeless and has tapped into something deep. I was looking up older early North American music, and Jean Redpath recorded a bunch of albums that are all Robert Burns poems set to music. They’re really fun. She’s just making simple music—it’s unfair to call anything “simple,” but seemingly simple.
I sang in choir for a long time myself, and there’s something about stripped-down choral arrangements that’s fascinating to me. If we get to do another season, I would like to do more about choirs in general. There’s something very special about a choir in ways that I didn’t appreciate even when I was singing in one myself.
Joe Pera Talks With You airs Sundays on Adult Swim. His new book A Bathroom Book for People Not Pooping or Peeing but Using the Bathroom as an Escape is out now.