For Alexandra Nickson, DreamWorks Animation’s SVP of DreamWorks TV Music, you don’t dumb down things for young audiences; music transcends all age groups, and can be both sophisticated and enjoyed by children.
Before assuming the SVP of DreamWorks TV Music role, Alexandra Nickson worked, as she puts it, during the “heyday of Disney Channel.”
“I was there for Hannah Montana and Wizards of Waverly Place and was immersed in creating great pop tracks for a younger audience,” remembers Nickson. “Disney is very bright, hyper pop, very much catering to that younger audience. And they are incredible with that sound, but when I came to DreamWorks, we wanted to play with different genres and lean into the sophistication of contemporary music production - no kids music, just great music!
Nickson, who has been at DreamWorks for roughly nine years and oversees all the studio’s music for television, streaming projects, and live events, has a very simple motto: there’s no kids’ music, just great music. It’s a principle she’s applied to all the series she’s worked on, including the award-winning live-action/animated hybrid preschool series Gabby’s Dollhouse that debuted its seventh season today, March 20, on Netflix.
“Whether we're working on a preschool show, or we're working on a 6 to 11 age range show, or even an adult series, I strive to create music that transcends all age groups and is sonically sophisticated,” says Nickson. “We’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating that you don't need to dumb things down for children. You do have to be mindful, from a lyrical perspective, to make sure the music’s appropriate, and we’re always striving for that repeatable hook, especially in something like Gabby’s Dollhouse or with our TV theme songs. But we don’t put the music in a box.”
While plenty of soundtracks for DreamWorks’ animated features have been well-received, from Shrek to Abominable, Nickson says there’s a special kind of reward to be gained from creating musical content for series one knows will be watched repeatedly by younger, preschool-aged audiences.
“I love seeing my friends’ children be excited,” she says. “I was at a birthday party a few weeks ago, and there was a little girl there who had a Gabby's Dollhouse hat. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s my show!’ It’s amazing to see people out in the wild, who love the show, who know the songs, who sing the songs, and knowing that I had a small part in making that happen.”
Gabby’s Dollhouse follows Gabby (Laila Lockhart Kraner) as she unboxes a surprise before jumping into an animated world full of adorable cat characters that live inside her magical dollhouse. For a series filled with purrr-planes, googly eyes, and hug attacks, Nickson knew the music needed to be fun. But it also had to be interesting to both children and their parents for the music to be a sonic success.
“From a production perspective, I want it to sound like a top 40 radio hit,” notes Nickson. “I want it to sound like Meghan Trainor’s new track. Meanwhile, I’m also making sure that brands are aligned, everything has its own unique sound, and everything is flowing.”
She continues, “When we were coming up with the music for Gabby’s, it was a collaborative effort with our amazing showrunners and the studio executives. We didn’t want the sound to just be pop, or rock, or funk. And Teri Weiss, our EVP of Television Development, suggested, ‘What if we use kids' instruments?’ And we're like, ‘That's an amazing idea.’”
Paying special attention to the fact that the show’s extensive musical dialogue and sound effects all had to have a cohesive track, the music team paired kid instruments with contemporary pop sound for the series.
“Otherwise, it would be very limiting, to only use the kid instruments,” says Nickson. “There’s just so much music incorporated in every aspect of the show. So, we've broadened it out. And we've worked really closely with our songwriter/composer, PT Walkley, to make sure that we were getting the full sound that we were looking for.”
Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show Music Room performances of pop tracks with kid instruments also served as a big inspiration. The soundtrack of the show even includes genres not typically found in children's programs, such as disco.
Working closely with their partners at Back Lot Music, DreamWorks has released over 19 singles from Gabby’s Dollhouse, making it, according to Nickson, “the biggest seller that we've had of any of the music [DreamWorks TV] has ever released.”
“Gabby’s co-creator Traci [Paige Johnson] named the sound our ‘quirky cat bop,’” shares Nickson. “If you close your eyes, and you're in the other room, you know, just by hearing an instrumental, that it’s Gabby's Dollhouse playing. We love that it’s that distinctive, and it’s the goal we have with all our series.”
Nickson says that if she were to put together a “DreamWorks Playlist” of best shows to watch that amplify the best of the studio’s sound, she’d suggest, first and foremost, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts.
“We created original music for that series, and we also worked with an incredible music supervisor, Kier Lehman, for our licensed music on that show,” notes Nickson. “I’m completely obsessed with it and am so proud of the work we all did. The score is a very hip-hop-driven, contemporary sound. It's like nothing you've ever heard before. And it was just so exciting to create something so unique and different.”
Her other suggestions for series to watch to taste the best of DreamWorks’ music are, not surprisingly, Trolls: The Beat Goes On! and Trolls: Trollstopia.
“I had Alana Da Fonseca as our songwriter and producer, and she was able to create hit after hit of these great hooks that were relatable and on the same level as the film, which I thought was just so incredible,” says Nickson. “And Alex Geringas was our composer on the score and was able to take these pop elements and create something unique for the underscore of a show, which is so important. I think that's another thing that defines us here at DreamWorks. We really look at underscores as another main character of a series. That's why we're always looking to genre meld and create unique palettes. We're never looking for that orchestral Mickey Mouse animated score.”
Nickson was first recruited to be SVP of television music when the DreamWorks TV studio was brand new. She not only became part of building series soundtracks from development to final mix, but she also played a pivotal part in influencing how DreamWorks shows approached the whole idea their music production.
“During my time at Disney, I also moved over to ABC Family, which is now Freeform, and I oversaw all of their musical content, and I created a self-publishing group, where we worked with indie bands to create music that we owned,” explains Nickson. “I loved my job, but then I got a call from DreamWorks, and they said, ‘Would you be interested in this new position we’re creating?’ and I never close an open door.”
She continues, “I think my experience in the live-action world has really helped my work here. In 2015, we did a series called The Mr. Peabody and Sherman Show where we worked with indie bands and did little animated music videos on that project. I would tell the songwriters, forget that you're writing for a kids show. Music can be sophisticated, and children can understand it. My daughter is nine and she's listening to The Beatles and The Eagles and she's into it. So, it’s always something different with every project, and that’s what makes my job so exciting.”