Emmy nominated songwriters Doug Rockwell and Tova Litvin are a Los Angeles based songwriting and production team with a long list of notable credits that include Disney’s “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” Netflix’s “Julie & the Phantoms,” Disney+’s live action musical Sneakerella, and writing the breakout song from Zombies 2, “Flesh and Bone.”
“Flesh and Bone” amassed an impressive 150 million streams in less than six months, making it a viral phenomenon. The duo’s work on Kenny Ortega’s “Julie and the Phantoms” became a Netflix Top 10, with its music hitting number four on the Billboard charts, as well number one on the iTunes main and soundtrack charts in the USA.
Rockwell and Litvin’s song “The Other Side of Hollywood” was nominated for Outstanding Original Song in the 48th Daytime Emmy Awards. Collectively, they have written for Dove Cameron, Cheyenne Jackson, Sofia Wylie, Olivia Sanabia, Asher Angel, Haley & Michaels, Laidback Luke, and New Hope Club.
Rockwell and Litvin spoke to Awards Focus about their more than arduous path to success, their joy in joining the “High School Musical” (HSM) family, and writing for story in collaboration with screenwriters.
Awards Focus: Can you tell us about your journey into the world of songwriting and music production? How did you end up working on the fan-favorite “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”?
Doug Rockwell: I started playing in bands when I was very young on the east coast. As soon as I finished high school, I started touring the country and within a few years I realized that that lifestyle wasn’t for me.
I got interested in writing for other artists, asking around if anyone knew someone that could help me get a foot in the door. I was taken under the wing of an incredible writer named Bill Grainer, who is one of my closest friends now… dubbed as my adopted brother.
Bill taught me so much about writing, specifically writing from different perspectives than your own. After a few years of grinding away, I got really into the production side of things and I obsessively taught myself how to produce.
It took a painstaking amount of time starting from scratch, especially because we didn’t have all the tools that we do now to make it go much quicker. As time went on and I got a few credits underneath my belt, I got the attention of a really big producer out here in LA. He moved me out to LA to work for him, and that’s when my entire world changed.
After moving my entire life out here, I was working seven days a week and these were fourteen hour days. It was crazy and not the best to be honest… I didn’t have a place to live because I had no money and I was sleeping on a couch.
Three weeks in, I asked for one day off so I could start figuring out my living situation, and he fired me. I didn’t even have enough money in my bank account to get back home and I was at a loss for words.
But I knew there was more to my story, so I kept pushing forward and worked my butt off meeting the right people, going on countless amounts of writing sessions, and pushing myself to keep my head up. Eventually after almost a year of being out here working as hard as I could, I signed my first major publishing deal with Disney Music Publishing.
It was a good confirmation to myself that I wasn’t crazy for sticking around. Through Disney, we had some great access to pitch for different projects, artists, movies, and shows. “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” was one of them.
When we got the brief for it, we couldn’t believe they were revamping it, it was so exciting since it’s such a legendary franchise. We didn’t know anyone on the team, so it was basically a blind submission and our song “Born To Be Brave” just so happened to win that spot in season one.
From that point on, we became part of the H.S.M. family and we’ve gotten to be a part of every season which has been such a privilege. That’s the very, very short, condensed version.
Tova Litvin: Like a lot of songwriters, I started as an artist writing my own songs and playing with my band. Somewhere along the way, I “accidentally” started writing songs for other artists. Sometimes I’d pop in on someone else’s session, and sometimes I’d get hired to write stuff.
One day I got a phone call from someone that I had never met or written for… it was a manager of a girl band who said that they loved the songs I had written for their album, and could they have more?
Well, that was interesting, since I’d never heard of them or worked with them. So I started googling mid phone call and realized that a producer had given them a couple of songs that I had worked on. This was without asking me or letting me know because the music industry is a cartoon jungle ruled by lawless cats. Not only had the songs been released, but my songs had charted in fourteen countries. I was stunned.
So after that surprise, I started doing more with other artists and I realized I really liked it. When you start doing the songwriting circuit in LA, you end up in extremely random situations and in rooms you never expect to be in. So one day, it’s a pop artist, the next it’s a rapper, the next one you might be writing lyrics for a Japanese animatronic penguin singing in Hebrew… I’m not making this up.
So I was basically writing with and for anyone who would have me, doing as many sessions a week as possible. It took me to a lot of amazing places, like Tokyo and Seoul, and after a few years of writing everything I could, I realized that I was doing a lot of the same song over and and I needed to get reinspired.
This coincided with a call from Doug and he said, “Hey do you want to work on this brief for Marvel with me?” I was like, “Yeah, OK.” We ended up getting that cut, then several others with the same team. It was such a different experience getting to work with story and screenwriters… to be involved with telling an entire experience instead of just one song. It also let us experiment with completely different styles of music, and it was an amazing experience overall.
Since then, Doug and I have gotten to work on so many amazing TV projects with incredible people. HMS was a big one for us, because as soon as I heard that the franchise was resurrecting, I was like, “We have to do this.”
And it was every bit as cool as I thought it would be. It also showed us that the sky really is the limit, and we’ve gone on to pursue other dreams of ours, like developing our own film project and working on a live stage show. It’s really been a wild ride.
Awards Focus: That is an incredibly wild ride, but an amazing one at that. You’ve worked with a variety of artists and I’m curious about your approach when tailoring songs for different voices and styles. Can you talk about that?
Litvin: We like to familiarize ourselves with the artist first, so we’ll listen to what they’ve already done to get a sense of vocal style, production elements, and overall vibe. We never try to mimic what they’ve already done though. It’s always about finding what they haven’t done yet, but still sounding like something that fits their personality.
Awards Focus: Can you share your thoughts on the importance of music in storytelling? Specifically, how did the song “Finally Free” fit into the story in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series?
Rockwell: It’s so important! It can really elevate a moment in ways that dialog alone sometimes can’t. Music can set the mood dark, light, and anything in between with just a few chords alone.
Litvin: I agree. If you were to watch the same scene with and without music, you would have completely different emotional experiences.
For “Finally Free” specifically, because it was in Ricky’s “background,” it was there to literally show us his frame of mind. Which I really liked, because it reminded me of all the times right after I got my drivers license, and my friends and I would just go driving with no destination in mind, just to blast music and feel things. Those were some of my favorite nights.
Awards Focus: What do you think sets your songwriting and production style apart from others in the industry? Without putting you on the spot (laughs).
Rockwell: That’s a tough question! There are so many talented writers and producers out there. I will say we have a lot of different influences, and one thing we’ve always been able to pride ourselves on is our range of genres.
We’ve been able to do everything from pop, to urban, to world music, to theatrical, to full orchestral pieces, to a combination of all of them combined, and do it successfully. It’s taken a lot of work to get to that point, but it’s always been very important to us that we never say “we can’t do that.” Instead, if we’ve never done something before, we figure out how to make it happen.
Litvin: And I think we’ve surprised people with that. Sometimes they expect us to only sound one way, and when they hear our reel, they’re like “Oh wait, you really can do a lot of things.” There are songs of ours that haven’t been released yet that I think show off a very different side of us, and I’m really excited for people to hear them.
I also think we are meticulous with lyrics and making sure that every word is there for a reason, to move either the story or the emotional experience along. It’s really important for us that every song hits hard emotionally. Even when it seems like it’s for something simple, it should still hit you emotionally.
Awards Focus: How has the industry evolved since you began your career, and how have you adapted to these changes?
Rockwell: Since I started, social media has continuously made the spotlight more and more accessible to everyone. This is a great thing, and a not so great thing at the same time. Although it’s easier than ever to get noticed, it’s also much easier to be forgotten about because the next big trend comes along so much quicker now. It’s much harder to stay relevant than it used to be on certain platforms. We’ve adapted over the years by shifting our focus towards the film/tv world, and being more “behind the scenes” instead of being artists ourselves. And it organically just happened that way which is fantastic. We are absolutely in love with what we do and count our blessings every single day that we get to write music for a living.
Litvin: Yeah, social media is super different now. I think it’s great in a lot of ways, but also, I do worry that less and less artists are in positions to become legendary artists because they aren’t given the same level of support. I think it’s easier to have millions of people hear a song, but harder to get millions of people to stay interested in that artist. Like Doug says, it doesn’t impact songwriters the same way. Songwriters are dealing with their own issues, like trying to get fairly paid from streaming services, which is a big thing that needs to happen. One of the ways we’ve adapted is by starting to create our
own projects, and actually being involved in the story from the ground up, which is a really exciting new chapter for us.
Awards Focus: Are there any artists or musicians who have had a significant influence on your own musical style?
Rockwell: So many to list, I grew up listening to everything from punk rock to musical theater. Some specific influences that had an impact on me growing up would be Jonathan Larson, Less Than Jake, Green Day, Queen, Seal, it’s so hard to narrow it down so I’ll just stop there! When it comes to writing for the commercial stuff we do though, a lot of the influence comes from the story itself and what we want the listener to feel. And overall, just good music!
Litvin: I have been obsessed with the 1960’s since I was a child. My mom gave me her record player and vinyl collection when I was 5, and I was this little weirdo casually putting on these huge vinyl records of Elvis and The Beatles…. Lesley Gore and Dion, positioning the needle on the song I wanted.
My friends had no idea what was happening, but I got them super into the artists. I was a songwriting geek even back then and I could tell you who wrote what and why. I still love the 60’s deeply and when I randomly release one-off songs, they always have a piece of that in there. I was always very into lyrics and there is a very long list of amazing lyricists and poets who have influenced me and challenged me to be as good.
Awards Focus: Can you offer a sneak peek into any upcoming projects or collaborations that fans can look forward to?
Rockwell: The things we are most excited about right now are the projects that we’ve been developing on our own. Somewhere along the way, we realized we want to create our own stories, and have been really fortunate to have some huge people support us and be a part of our team in doing that. We’re currently working on an original film musical as well as a live show. They’re both in fairly early stages so we can’t give actual details, but I definitely think some of these songs are the best thing we’ve done so far. We think it will surprise people to hear a side of us they haven’t gotten to hear yet.