“Compared to everyone else, people think what I do seems very earnest,” says Little Voice’s lead character, Bess, less than five minutes into the show’s opening episode. It’s a knowing line, and one that lets viewers know the show’s intentions, right from the get-go.
The new musical drama from Apple TV+, produced by media juggernaut and lens-flare connoisseur JJ Abrams and created by Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson (both of whom powered the London West End hit Waitress) is, indeed, unapologetically earnest. The reason it works is because, much like cowboy hats and disco music, earnest is back. In the wake of a constant barrage of mental health-destroying real-world doom, audiences are more than ready to subscribe to a little well-made, well-acted schmaltz, and that is what Little Voice delivers.
“The show reflects who we are as people,” says Nelson, speaking of herself and Bareilles. “We’re both very emotional – we don’t have a thick skin, we don’t like bitchy backbiting energy around us … and we’re both very close to the women in our lives, so we weren’t really interested in creating a show about women being mean to other women. With Sara’s music, she’s always been very good and tapping into emotion … it transcends the negative associations with ‘earnest’ and becomes pure.”
“The show is about good people making mistakes,” says Bareilles. “We both believe in the goodness of humanity, even amidst the dumpster fire of the world half the time. You have to cling to that hopeful centre.”
Little Voice’s Bess is an ambitious but conflicted young woman who splits her time between recording songs in a storage unit, slinging drinks at a cool live performance bar, and walking dogs for rich white women. She swings between misguided confidence, imposter syndrome and anxiety. It’s a great role and it’s played with aplomb by 24-year-old Brittany O’Grady.
Framed by blossoming house plants, radiant even on Zoom, O’Grady is thoughtful when quizzed on the landscape for women’s roles in 2020.
“There’s still work to be done,” she says firmly. “There could be more representation of all women – trans women, women of colour – there needs to be more inclusion. It doesn’t mean just in front of the camera, it means behind the camera as well. Groups of people – women – we’re not monolithic.
“Hopefully going forward, more people’s stories will be told. Not just one type of woman that appeals to what society believes a woman should be. Also, women of different body shapes – plus-size women. I think we’re slowly growing towards a more body-positive idea of women. We often get minimised to just the way that we look, but we contribute so much more than that.”
Some of Bess’s struggles throughout the show are related to how the music industry sees women – despite the #MeToo movement, the music industry is still indelibly patriarchal, and women are not always taken seriously, particularly in mostly male-run environments such as recording studios.
“I think women still really struggle with getting respect,” says O’Grady of her own experiences. “We still all call women the B-word – you stick up for yourself and everyone thinks that you are a ‘BLANK’. There needs to be a different approach to how we treat women. There’s still that attitude that we’re objects. As I grow older, I see it more. “
We touch on Sandra Oh’s recent comments about lack of diversity behind the camera, and O’Grady nods. “I have experienced that,” she says, “in my day-to-day life outside of work, and at work. The last show that I was on [Star] was very diverse, and there was a lot of diversity behind the scenes as well, and that was really beautiful.
“As a bi-racial black woman, being around other black women behind the scenes and other people of colourwas super important. Diversity behind the scenes is so important. Because it’s the fabric of the creation of something. And we’re the representation of what is being created.”
Bareilles agrees. “We’re on the continuum. It’s going to keep evolving – as it should. Our consciousness is changing in front of our eyes right now, so it’s a really important time to be examining all of these things.”
Little Voice has sunny messages about diversity and love, but it hits harder when it comes to the concept of work, and the struggles people in their 20s face to get by, particularly in a cut-throat, pricey metropolis like New York. Far from those heady days of young, poor TV Manhattanites living in explicably beautiful apartments (we’re looking at YOU, Carrie Bradshaw), Little Voice’s fresh-faced characters inhabit bed-shares and hostels. They also juggle jobs, rushing back and forth from brain-bending recording sessions in storage units, to 3am dog-walking gigs and neon-lit kitchen shifts. As the price of Freddos skyrockets, it’s a plight with which many real-world twentysomethings can identify.
“We wanted to authentically tell the story of what it means to be a young person now in New York” says Nelson. “You’re either working five jobs to get the tiniest room, or you’re living with five people in an apartment that should house two. It’s crazy that that isn’t regulated and that young people are having to come up with these rents.”
“A lot of people in my life are working extremely hard, or struggling right now with unemployment,” says O’Grady. “It’s so difficult being young and finding security. A lot of my friends are still dealing with student debt. That’s a really hard thing to deal with. Finding jobs and finding that security and validation. Especially for artists like Bess, being able to give yourself financial security in order to follow your dreams, is really hard.”
The show makes an inadvertently timely point with Bess’s struggles to find work and find confidence as a performer. The live performance industry, particularly here in the UK, has been decimated by the government’s slow response to the pandemic. In other countries, too, the arts are receiving only minimal funding because they’re seen as one of the least essential industries. Bareilles, though, is optimistic.
“I have a tremendous amount of faith in performance and the resilience of these industries,” she says. “It looks really bleak now, but it’s a fundamental hunger of humanity to experience each other in that format. It’s why I’ve never worried about the arena of live performance being obsolete. There just is no good surrogate. Our phones and screens are such a flimsy substitute for being in a room together. And realising that amplifies what a fundamental experience it is. This will bounce back. It’s an essential part of being on this Earth.”