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Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist creator tunes into empathy, kindness through music

For our new I'm So Obsessed podcast, show creator Austin Winsberg talks about helping his lead character, a computer coder at a tech startup, tap into her -- and our -- humanity through song and dance.

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Austin Winsberg says he can't sing, but his musical experience is deep.

Chris Haston/NBC/Getty Images
This story is part of I'm So Obsessed (subscribe here), our podcast featuring interviews with actors, artists, celebrities and creative types about their work, career and current obsessions.

Austin Winsberg hums a few bars from a Disney short he's been watching with his kids -- "I lava you"--  and it's pretty obvious he's not kidding when he says he can't sing.

But there's no questioning his musical theater credentials. Winsberg, who wrote the book for the Broadway musical comedy First Date and wrote the adaptation for NBC's 2013 The Sound of Music Live!, knows his way around show tunes. 

So it's not a big surprise that when he sat down to plot out a new NBC TV series, he wanted to make it a musical project. The result is Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, which premiered in January. After an earthquake hits while she's getting an MRI, the show's lead character gets an unusual superpower when the playlists from all the digital music services get downloaded to her brain.

"The concept of the show is it is about a female coder in San Francisco, who suddenly gets the ability to hear people's innermost thoughts and feelings as big musical numbers," Winsberg tells me in an interview for our I'm So Obsessed Podcast. "When she hears -- they're what we call 'heartsongs' on the show -- suddenly, she's able to understand them better, to gain compassion. She has to use what she learns about them from the songs to help them in some way and, by helping them, she ends up helping herself as well."

If it sounds silly and fun, it is -- in part. Walking down the street, she hears a stranger reveal loneliness through the 1975 hit "All By Myself." A cocky co-worker blasts out DJ Khaled's "All I Do is Win." And she learns her friend and co-worker Max has romantic feelings for her when he breaks out "I Think I Love You" by The Partridge Family.

It's also fun that Zoey doesn't know a lot of the songs and has to Google them -- including Van Morrison's Moondance. 

But Zoey also gets the ability to hear heartsongs from her dad, who suffers from progressive supranuclear palsy, a degenerative disease that leaves him with a limited ability to communicate. It's a rare disease that Winsberg is very familiar with -- his father also suffered from PSP. 

"For the last six months that he was alive, he couldn't speak, he could barely move. He was pretty much just resigned to sitting in a chair all day and he had almost a blank look on his face," Winsburg says. "It was very hard to know how much he was processing during that time, if he was processing. We so badly wanted to know what was going on in his head and to communicate with him, and I just knew that at some point I wanted to write about that time in our lives, becoming a father while losing my father — the pain of it, the experience that my family went through."

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, which was renewed for a second season in June, isn't a downer, though Season 1 does end on a very emotional note. Winsberg and his team have fun mixing up the series' playlist, with songs that Winsberg either knows or has heard. It's an eclectic list and includes a pick from Winsberg's favorite artist, Billy Joel. (You can pitch him song ideas via his Twitter feed.)

In a wide-ranging interview Winsberg talked about selecting the songs, writing about the unique challenges faced by a woman working at a tech startup, about PSP and about his obsessions — watching YouTube to listen to song parodies by Randy Rainbow and learn trick shots from the five guys of Dude Perfect

Listen to my entire conversation with Winsberg on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or in the player embedded above, and subscribe to I'm So Obsessed on your favorite podcast app. In each episode, my series co-host Patrick Holland and I catch up with an artist, actor or creator to learn about their work, their career and their current obsession.