Sara Bareilles shelved a song to please execs. 15 years later, it became a TV show

Sara Bareilles.
Sara Bareilles’ Apple TV+ series “Little Voice” offers a different perspective on the music industry.
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Apple TV+'s “Little Voice” is named after a song that came to Sara Bareilles in a dream. She woke up and wrote down the lyrics in her journal, with an urgency and purpose she’d never felt before.

“It felt like my mission statement to myself about my first record: ‘I am here to listen to this little voice,’” said the Grammy winner. But the music executives overseeing her debut album thought otherwise and persuaded her not to include it.

For the record:

8:35 a.m. July 14, 2020An earlier version of this article stated that Sara Bareilles has won multiple Grammys. She has won one.

“I was devastated at the time, but I love the poetic justice that 15 years later, it’s the theme song for a TV show all about a young artist finding her way. It’s perfect,” she said.

Bareilles created “Little Voice” with Jessie Nelson, with whom she wrote the 2016 Broadway hit and Tony-nominated musical “Waitress.” But unlike many TV shows about the music industry — which villainize greedy executives or disapproving parents — this series zooms in on Bess (Brittany O’Grady) and her most insurmountable antagonist: her self-doubt.


Bareilles and Nelson spoke with The Times about finding their lead actress, working with Apple and cultivating creativity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson, who cocreated the Broadway hit “Waitress,” team for an Apple TV+ show about an aspiring Sara Bareilles type.

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Apple TV+’s “Little Voice”

What’s the biggest difficulty making a show about songwriting?

Bareilles: Well, the act of writing is a very internal process. It’s not particularly interesting to watch someone make a song. It’s repetitive. But Jessie has such a gift for teasing out those internal ideas and emotions into something you can visualize and shoot.

Nelson: While writing “Waitress,” I loved working with Sara and seeing how a germ of an idea could evolve over the course of a day and turn into this full-length song. It was so fascinating.

We tried to pay tribute to this very subtle but wonderful craft by following this young woman who is stuck playing covers. She’s struggling with such paralyzing self-loathing that she can’t even perform her own music and get to the point where she says, “I love this, I want to do it no matter what.” That’s so important, and that’s not about anything beyond your relationship to yourself.

So many moments put Bess at odds with her own self-doubt. Why?

Nelson: If you’re a creative person, oftentimes, you are your own internal antagonist. I had that experience: I wrote my first movie, “Corrina, Corrina,” and then put it in a drawer for three years. I was just so self-critical that I couldn’t let anybody read it. The littlest rejection becomes so big in your mind.

Bareilles: That has been my nemesis my entire life. There’s nothing any critical person has ever said to me that I haven’t already said to myself. I have been so much meaner to myself than anybody could possibly be.

Nelson: People think you have to get rid of all your fear to become an artist, but that’s not true. Fear never goes away, because different fears and doubts creep up for different reasons. You have to make friends with your fear; you have to let fear be your tailwind, not your headwind. I’m someone who’s never vanquished her fears. I’ve just learned to make peace with the fact that that voice is there and try to differentiate between the two.

That’s what makes the show universal. It’s not just about a singer-songwriter, it’s about anybody who has grappled with self-doubt, who has allowed that voice in your head to make you doubt your own voice.

Bareilles: Even now, making this show. Jessie and I are grown women, and constantly throughout this entire process, we had to remind each other: “Let’s use our little voices here, let’s trust our instincts that you make so quiet over the years because you start to give more value to outside perspectives than your own intuition.”

Sara Bareilles has spent the last five years of her life working almost exclusively on the musical “Waitress.”

Sara Bareilles, Brittany O'Grady and Jessie Nelson behind the scenes of "Little Voice."
(Phillip Caruso)

For those who have followed Sara’s career, many lines seem lifted straight from her life.

Bareilles: This show was an interesting exercise in reflection. I got to relive some very formative moments with all this distance in perspective, but the truth of the moment stays intact: the vulnerability of sharing who you are or who you believe yourself to be, and getting feedback for the first time in any capacity. It’s scary.

We tried to cherry pick from my experiences. When someone says, “You’re just the voice,” or conversely, “You’re just the writer, you don’t have a voice for this kind of business,” or that man who says, “I’m a huge fan, but I would have no idea what to do with you,” that’s directly taken from my life.

Nelson: And this is Sara playing songs like “Gravity” that later became some of her biggest hits.

We also talked a lot about the difference between concession and collaboration, especially early in your career. Sometimes you take a note because you honestly think it’s making the piece better, and sometimes you know that note isn’t making it better, but you take it because you just want it to get made. Sara has felt that way in the studio, and I have while making films.

We wanted to explore that delicate space that, as you begin collaboration and you let people intimately into your work, sometimes they really do improve it. But you also have to learn to stand up for yourself and your ideas.

Sara, how did stepping into the lead role of “Waitress” influence the series?

Bareilles: I never thought about it in those terms. Looking back, it probably gave me a shortcut back to how it feels to be a beginner in a new medium, to have those wobbly legs and feel all the insecurities that come with not really knowing how to do something yet. Even though I’m someone who’s very comfortable onstage as an artist at my concerts, doing so as a character in a show is completely different. It reminded me how much you rely on your community for validation and encouragement.

What made Brittany O’Grady best for Bess?

Nelson: She was doing a movie in New Zealand, so she was going to read some scenes and sing over Skype from her tiny hotel room. And the Skype call kept going down, as Skype does, and we had to keep getting it back up again. But she didn’t let it get her down. She kept her sense of humor about the whole thing, even when she was getting more and more discombobulated. It was so endearing. Like, there she was: Bess.

With a nearly fatal finale, Apple’s murder mystery tried to put viewers in the shoes of Jacob’s parents, played by Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery.

Brittany O'Grady stars in "Little Voice."
Brittany O’Grady stars in “Little Voice.”
(Apple TV+)

Bareilles: Brittany has a beautiful singing voice as well as this bright, inquisitive spirit about her that we felt immediately. I also found her to be so deeply kind. That was the thing that felt important, because that’s Bess’ downfall as well; she’s so careful about taking care of everybody that she often falls down on the bottom of her priority list. That’s part of what she has to grapple with in order to take steps forward on her own behalf. The fact that that lives really brightly inside of Brittany made a lot of sense.

The show’s funniest moments are thanks to Louie, played by Kevin Valdez.

Nelson: Having someone from the neuro-diverse community in Bess’ life was important to us because we both have that in our background. When Sara and I went to see “Angels in America” on Broadway together, we were sitting there at intermission, debating who this character is. Then this young man in front of us turned around and said, “Have you seen ‘Rent?’ I’ve seen it 232 times.” And he proceeded to do a monologue about the beauty of “Rent.” And it was like, “There’s Louie. Of course he loves Broadway.”

It was very meaningful to me that both Apple and Bad Robot were so supportive of casting someone who was autistic in the role. And when Kevin read for us, he just nailed it. He improvised, he read the scenes brilliantly, he sang for us. He was incredible. He’s really one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with.

Bareilles: We both have such a tremendous amount of gratitude for how welcoming and supportive the theater community has been to us. I’ve said this ad nauseam, but when I finally started working in theater on “Waitress,” I had this feeling of, “I’ve been at the wrong party my whole life. I’ve found my people.” I really can’t stress enough how transformative the experience has been.

It felt very organic to us that we would have a character who embodied that admiration we have. And it’s an opportunity to showcase those fans, the ones who stand outside the stage door to meet you, who know every detail about the show. They are so devoted, and it’s such an act of love for a performer.

It wasn’t that Sara Bareilles hadn’t been onstage in a few years — far from it, in fact.

Brittany O'Grady and Kevin Valdez.
Kevin Valdez play’s Bess’ (Brittany O’Grady) brother.
(Apple TV+)

“The Morning Show” got some grief about Apple product placement. How did “Little Voice” handle that?

Nelson: We were never under any pressure from Apple to show more Apple products. What was important to Apple was, if we did use their product, we had to use it authentically.

We were just trying to authentically tell the story of a singer-songwriter creating music, which is working on the computer, dealing with GarageBand, composing on your phone. If a member of your family is disabled, you’re staying in close contact with them through the phone all the time. It was just honest storytelling.

Bareilles: But it’s true. Everyone I know uses their iPhone voice recordings while writing. And I use GarageBand all the time.

As writers yourselves, how have you been taking care of your creative side amid the COVID-19 closures of performing arts industries?

Nelson: It’s not just the pandemic, it’s the stillness that it’s created, which is allowing us to look at all of the hate in the world in such an honest way. But I think people’s demons are really at an all time high. For me, this has been a time of quieting certain voices in my brain. The biggest way I can quiet self-doubt is to just get into the work and focus on the projects in front of me, even if I can only move them incrementally forward just a tiny bit each day.

Bareilles: Time is a great clarifier. We’re seeing things that we have been blind to culturally, socially, politically, within our relationships or families. I don’t know anybody who is not in some form of crisis right now.

Artists are going to metabolize this differently. Some people are very quickly turning this into something, which I think is miraculous. I have been very slow. I’m still in an observation phase. I have not been writing as much — a little bit here and there, but not yet.

What words can you share with other creators who are struggling with self-doubt, maybe more so than ever before?

Nelson: I think the most important thing is to be authentic to whatever you’re feeling. If you’re feeling like you can’t create right now, that’s totally fine. Release any judgment of how you’re getting through this period.

Bareilles: It is so big, what we are being asked to put on hold right now, this profound part of the human experience. If you’re not ready to turn this into your next great work, I wouldn’t be critical of that. This is a time for us to be really gentle with ourselves and get to the root of it all. Dig in and be patient.