Nathan Barr is the composer of the original score of True Blood. His beautiful and inspiring music accompanies some of the most impressive scenes like Bill’s Entrance, the Hairclip scene, Graveyard sex scene and the Bill and Sookie Love Theme to mention only a few.
Nathan not only composes his own original scores, he also performs all of the instruments heard in the majority of his compositions. Skilled in writing many styles and genres ranging from orchestral to rock, Barr is known for his collection and inclusion of rare and unusual instruments from around the world, which include human bone trumpets from Tibet, dismantled pianos, a rare glass armonica, and gourd cellos, among many others.
Nathan graciously made time for me while scoring True Blood’s sophomore season to answer my questions about his work, the True Blood music and the upcoming CD with his original score from the hit show.
“The core instruments that I play are cello and guitar”, Nathan explains about his collection of rare instruments. “I have many instruments in my collection that are from the same bowed and plucked families, so therefore I can branch out and play bowed instruments that are held like a cello and plucked instruments that share similarities to guitar. This makes for exciting work as a performer/composer because I have many different textures to choose from.”
At what age did you discover your musical talent and when did you decide to pursue a career in music?
“I started playing violin when I was four while living in Japan. My mother decided it would be good to get me started early. I was very average as a player, so when I moved to New York at the age of six I decided I wanted to quit. My mother insisted my brother and I continue playing an instrument, so we both chose the cello thinking my mother would tire of picking us up after school every day because the instrument was too big to walk home with. That back fired and she was overjoyed we chose cello. Learning to play guitar was my rebellion against the cello, but ultimately I came to love playing the cello as well, and thank God I did because it’s part of what I think makes my compositions unique today. Playing in orchestras and rock bands throughout middle school and high school, I think I already knew that music was going to play a major role in my life.”
After traveling and performing all over the world you moved to Los Angeles in 1996. What made you decide to pursue a career in film music?
I think with my life-long love of music and movies that I was destined to become a film composer. I had burned out on cello performance after graduating from college and wanted to get back to in touch with my other love – movies. I got a job in the mail room at a small production/management company and that was the start of my career in the film business. After a couple of months delivering scripts all over town and really getting a feel for Los Angeles, I was promoted and became assistant to a producer at the company. While this was a great look at the business side of film, I tired of answering phones and reading bad scripts very quickly, so I quit after about a year and did some traveling, and when I returned to town, a friend turned me onto a job listing that advertise “Prominent Hollywood film composer seeking driver/assistant.” I applied not even knowing who I was going to be working for, and then found out it was Hans Zimmer, met with him, we hit it off, and I got the job.
Where do you work? What does your studio look like?
I work out of my garage structure which I converted into a writing/recording studio when I bought my home a couple of years ago.
Your extensive resume includes movies are that are extremely violent and bloody. For example the Hostel movies, Cabin Fever and Tortured. Are you a fan of the horror genre? Would you consider yourself a “horror composer”?
I would steer away from calling myself a “horror composer” because horror films are one of many genres that I love to work in. In addition to horror, I have also done my fair share of comedies, but the nature of those films is such that the score doesn’t get the attention that it does in a horror film. I do love the horror genre and see most of the horror films that are theatrically released, as disappointing as that experience often is!
Do you have a favorite musical project that you’ve worked on?
I love working on True Blood! I’m just about done with the second season now, and being able to develop themes and textures over entire seasons is very exciting for a film composer since I am used to being limited to 90 minutes to say everything I am ever going to say musically about the characters and the story. Working with Alan Ball and his creative team is another factor that makes the experience so enjoyable and memorable.
How did you get to work on the True Blood score?
My score from Hostel was being used as temp in early cuts of the pilot, and so when it came time to hire a composer, I was on the short list of composers invited to interview with Alan and the show’s producers. We met in a conference room at editorial and it was a very comfortable meeting. It was immediately clear that everyone involved was very excited about the project and that all were aware of how important the score would be to the show. I spoke generally about what my musical approach would be based on what I had seen in the pilot, and I told them that I felt my score to Hostel was not quite the right tone for the show. I think they were impressed with the fact that a composer would rally against his own work! After Alan met with several composers, he narrowed it down to me and one other composer, and then Alan went off for some much needed R&R after shooting and took along several of each of our scores. When he returned, I got the call that I was hired!
How long did it take to write the score for True Blood?
Working with a network like HBO is very different in terms of schedule from what I might experience with a network show. The schedule is basically pretty relaxed, and I never have less than a week to do an episode, and towards the beginning of each season I sometimes have up to three weeks per episode!
One hundred percent of what I write is composed to the actual picture once it has been edited. To write music for a scene without having seen it is like painting in the dark with no idea of what colors you are slopping on the canvas. Coming up with Bill and Sookie’s love theme was very relaxed and organic. I picked up my acoustic guitar and just started noodling around and suddenly there it was. I had the same experience with Bill’s theme which is played in the lower register of the cello. I picked up my cello, started noodling around, and soon enough came up with Bill’s theme. This is not to say that I didn’t compose a lot of music in the process of discovering these themes that ultimately didn’t work. The trick is to be willing and able to throw out anything and everything that doesn’t do exactly what it needs to be doing for the show and it’s characters. This is something I learned painfully when I first started scoring over ten years ago when I regularly became attached to a musical idea that I liked even though it wasn’t necessarily the right thing for the project.
A song from True Blood that is very popular with the fans is “Sancto Erico”, the old Swedish song that Eric listens to while soaking in Bill’s bathtub in Episode 8. I heard the lyrics come from a Swedish poem. What can you tell us about that song?
Many people have inquired about the availability of this track, so I’d first like to clarify that while it was originally intended for a pre-album release on itunes, it is now slated for release on the album in September. Alexander Woo, who wrote this episode, found an Old Swedish scholar who was familiar with an epic poem in Old Swedish about a warrior named Eric. Since Old Swedish is a dead language, we knew our chances of finding a pre-recorded song with old swedish lyrics was going to be next to impossible, so I was asked to write one. The dialog between Bill and Eric in this particular scene gave me some clues as to what the song should sound like. For example, Bill asks Eric “what ARE you listening to?” as if it’s really weird. And so I tried to make the song sound strange and exotic do when Bill asks this question, it makes sense to the audience. The intro to the song is me wailing with my voice in unison with a recorder which I also played. I then enlisted the amazing vocalist Lisbeth Scott to sing the verse in unison with me and our voices together had a good chemistry and added to the song’s strange atmosphere.
Another beautiful song is Take me home (The Cry Pie Remix) performed by Lisbeth Scott. This song is featured in Episode 6 when Sookie is eating Gran’s pie. Was this song specially written for the show?
I wrote this song and performed it with vocalist Lisbeth Scott who is well known for her work in films as diverse as Shrek, Munich, and The Passion Of The Christ. The song was written specifically for this scene as Sookie finally allows herself to feel the grief of her grandmother’s murder. I thought something hymn-like would be appropriate with elements that are both beautiful and tragic. Lisbeth wrote the beautiful lyrics which fit the scene so perfectly without being too on the nose. We played it for Alan and he loved it and we were overjoyed since this particular scene was such a great moment to feature music.
You are scoring the second season of True Blood – what kind of music should we expect?
Obviously a huge palette of textures and themes has been developed for Season 1 so I have very much continued down this road in Season 2. One of the challenges I have found is developing Bill and Sookie’s theme into enough variations that it doesn’t become boring and old – you will have to decide if I have succeeded on that front! There are a couple of new themes this season, most notably a theme for Loretta sung hauntingly by Lisbeth Scott, and also themes for Eric and Godric. With each new major character, I have to come up with a new theme or sound for them, and this keeps the process fresh and exciting.
Should we look for you in a cameo role in True Blood for Season 2?
Funnily enough I do have a cameo in episode 6 of Season 2. Look for the pianist in the piano bar that Loretta fixes her gaze on and you will see me!
Is there an artist/producer/studio you would like to work with that you have not yet had the opportunity to work with?
The list is so long I’m not sure I’d even know where to begin!
The score to HBO’s highly-acclaimed and record rating-breaking drama series, “True Blood”, is set to release September 8th on iTunes, Amazon.com and in-stores nationwide via Varese Sarabande Records.
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