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Interviews & Features: Q and A With Netflix’s ‘Hollywood’ Emmy Award-Winning Music Composer, Nathan Barr

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Nathan Barr.

You may not know his name or face, but chances are you’ve definitely heard his sound.


If you were by off-chance a fan of popular shows such as FX’s The Americans, HBO’s True Blood or most recently Netflix’s ‘Hollywood’ and Amazon’s ‘Carnival Row’, then you’ve heard his extensive and pulse-pounding tracks.

Truly one of the most gifted and sought-after music composers in Hollywood, the forty-something native of New York City worked and studied under perhaps the best sound composer in the business in Hans Zimmer while living in Tokyo.

A five-time Emmy-nominated composer, Barr has received critical acclaim for his unmatched versatility, incorporating eclectic instruments from musical cultures across the world into his scores.

Barr, who recently earned three Emmy nominations, including one for “Outstanding Music Composition For A Limited Series” for Netflix’s Hollywood. Barr also earned two Emmy nominations for “Outstanding Main Title Theme Music” for Hollywood and Amazon Studios/Legendary Television’s hit fantasy period drama Carnival Row, after being the first person to achieve this a few years ago.

In addition to those accolades, Barr had also previously earned two Emmy nominations for “Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music” in the same year for FX’s The Americans and Netflix’s Hemlock Grove.

Barr’s hallmark adaptability has led him to scoring a diverse roster of some of television’s biggest shows including Hulu’s hit comedy-drama The Great; FX’s Emmy-winning drama Fosse/Verdon; Amazon’s acclaimed con-man drama Sneaky Pete; and AMC’s multi-generational western epic The Son.

Alongside his extensive career in television, Barr has scored more than 40 films including Blumhouse Productions’ The Hunt, directed by Craig Zobel; Miramax/Amazon Studios’ upcoming film Uncle Frank, written and directed by Alan Ball; Amblin Entertainment’s The Turning, directed by Floria Sigismondi; gore-horror master Eli Roth’s early cult-classics Cabin Fever and Hostel, as well as the hit Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures family-horror film The House with a Clock in its Walls.

A man who performs many of the instruments heard in his compositions, Barr is skilled in many styles ranging from orchestral to rock. He is also known for his extensive and uniquely exotic collection and inclusion of rare and unusual instruments from around the world, such as a human bone trumpet from Tibet, dismantled pianos, a rare Glass Armonica, and gourd cellos. The gem of his extensive music collection is a 3 manual, 19 rank Wurlitzer Theater Organ with 1,366 pipes, per his official bio.

While many of us already know the music of Zimmer (Gladiator, The Dark Knight), his protégé Steve Jablonsky (Transformers, The Island, Lone Survivor), Ramin Djawadi (Iron Man, Game of Thrones, Pacific Rim), Harry Gregson-Williams (Metal Gear Solid, Spy Game, Man on Fire) and most recently Sarah Schachner (Anthem, Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed), if you didn’t know who Barr was from his extensive work on Hemlock Grove, The Americans and True Blood, you should now after his recent Emmy wins for ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Carnival Row’.

As a huge movie soundtrack collector, those who know me personally can attest to my love of movie scores since my teenage years growing up in Coventry Village in the East Side Cleveland suburb of Cleveland Heights and hanging out at ‘The Exchange’ waiting to buy the newest movie score.

Having the chance to cross paths with Barr out in Park City at Sundance was an opportunity missed due to time and circumstance, in having other commitments and hustling around to and from press lines, screenings and being engulfed in a sea of Swifties before the world premiere of “Miss Americana”.

Below is my Q and A with Nate as we talk about his two wins at the Emmys for his work in Hollywood and Carnival Row, working with Hans Zimmer, his up-coming work in Alan Ball’s “Uncle Frank”, working during the pandemic, his extensive musical collection, his upcoming work in Kate, Halston, The Devil’s Light and growing up admiring Danny Elfman.

Hey Nate! Greetings from Cleveland ~

– Congrats on your 3 Primetime Emmy nominations this year, and on your win​! Two for both ‘Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music” and one for ‘Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series” for your work in “Hollywood” and “Carnival Row.” How excited are you to be nominated and considered for such an honor?

Thanks very much! As composers we spend a lot of time working alone, and so to receive the acknowledgement of one’s peers, especially with a win, is very exciting.

– How did you get involved with scoring Hollywood and Carnival Row? Were there any unusual instruments used in these scores?

I became involved in Carnival row because two of the picture editors on the show, with whom I’d worked previously, used my music as temp score during the early stages of the show.

I ended up scoring Hollywood because Alexis Woodall, the head of Ryan Murphy’s company, loved my score to The Americans and wanted me to come on board to start working on some of their shows.

I used a Wurlitzer Theater Pipe Organ and a drone cello, which is a custom-built 19-string cello with a mechanical drone, in Carnival Row. The Hollywood score was more standard fare, rooted in the Jazz sounds of the 1940’s.

– Do you have a favorite—or signature instrument that you mainly use?

I’m a cellist and guitarist, so at various times both of those instruments factor heavily into my scores. Ever since completing the restoration of the Wurlitzer theater organ at my studio here in LA, that instrument has also made its way into a lot of my work.

– How has work been going despite the pandemic? What’s it been like doing scoring sessions under these circumstances?

I’m thankful to have been very busy throughout the pandemic – we’ve only done one recording session with orchestra so far, which was very carefully monitored and conducted with the greatest caution. I am happy to report that no one got sick and everybody was happy with the results, but having six feet in between each player does slightly change the dynamic in the room.

– You’ve had quite a busy year with scoring multiple films and series such as The Turning, The Hunt, Carnival Row, Hollywood, The Great and more. How do you manage to keep them all separate?

Most film and TV composers I know relish variety and the juggling of multiple projects at once, and I am no exception to that! Once you’ve been doing this as long as I have, the

particular musical needs of a given project are easy to understand and moving between projects is more enjoyable than challenging.

– Alan Ball’s film ‘Uncle Frank’ which premiered at Sundance back in January, is a coming-out/coming of age story set in the 70’s. How did you approach scoring this particular film?

I love working with Alan Ball, and after working with him for seven years on True Blood I was so excited to be storytelling with him again. This is a film whose writing and performances are so beautifully executed that the real challenge for me was staying out of the way and offering only the gentlest of support.

– Tell us a bit about your collaboration with Alan Ball over the years.

Alan and I have a shorthand when working together at this point. The thing I love about the way Alan communicates about music is that he doesn’t. He speaks almost exclusively about story and emotion and leaves the rest up to me. That kind of trust from a collaborator is very inspiring.

– I’m a fan and watcher of The Americans, True Blood and Hemlock Grove. Is there a particular set or piece that you’re particularly proud of?

One of my favorite True Blood cues, and one that fans also seem to like, takes place in Season 2, Episode 9. The cue is titled Goodbye Godric, and underscores an emotional scene where Godric and Eric part ways. It’s close to my heart because for whatever reason, I feel like on the day I wrote it I was really able to plug into the emotion of the scene.

In the pilot of the Americans, there is a scene where Philip goes down to his safe to remove his disguise – the soulful cello performance of his theme in this moment is another scene I am particularly proud of.

And then, of course, the main titles for both Hemlock Grove and The Americans!

– In having the chance to listen to some of your works, I would best describe it as a combination of suspenseful, dramatic, ethereal and heart-pounding. How would you describe your sound?

I guess if there were one way in which I’d like my sound to be remembered, it would be for being emotionally engaging and uniquely my own.

– What was it like working under Hans Zimmer’s tutelage when you first started out?

I was with Hans only briefly, for eight months, and it was very much like being thrown into the deep end of the pool before knowing how to swim. I had a front row seat to how one of the world’s top film composers works and lives, and so part of the challenge after leaving him was figuring out which parts of his process worked for me and which parts I needed to make my own. I eventually settled into a lifestyle and process of working that is quite different from his.

– What are your thoughts on today’s music and composing scene in Hollywood?

I think there is more beautiful and accomplished music being written on television than ever before, and that’s very exciting to see!

– Do you have any big projects coming up that you can share with us?

Yes! I’m currently working on an action film at Netflix called ​Kate​, along with Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix show ​Halston​ and the second season of Carnival Row. I’ll also be working on Lionsgate’s upcoming film ​The Devil’s Light​.

– I’m a HUGE movie soundtrack buff as my fave composers are Elia Cmiral (Ronin), Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, The Last Samurai), Steve Jablonsky (Transformers), Harry Gregson-Williams (Spy Game, Man On Fire, The Kingdom), Ramin Dwajadi (Iron Man, Pacific Rim) and I just got into Sarah Schachner (Modern Warfare, Anthem). Who are some of your favorite composers? Who would you say has had the biggest influence on you?

Danny Elfman is someone I have admired since I was a kid. Recently I have gotten to know him a bit and have loved discovering that he is as wonderful a man as he is as a composer. I had the privilege of having him at my studio to record pipe organ on his score to The Grinch​ a couple of years ago.

– Outside of music and composing, what are some of your interests?

I love food, travel, and gaming, the last of which is the only one that hasn’t suffered during the pandemic!

– Any final thoughts on music and the growing popularity of movie scores and soundtracks?

One of the exciting things happening right now is people’s interest in hearing TV and film scores performed live around the world. Obviously this is on hold during the pandemic, but whereas years ago it was difficult to get an audience to buy tickets to a performance of a score, we are now regularly seeing these performances fill venues of 12,000 people or more.

 

Special thanks to Nathan Barr, Alix Berq and Jana Davidoff over at Rhapsody PR for their help, time and assistance. 

 

 

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Robert D. Cobb
Founder, Publisher and CEO of INSCMagazine. Works have appeared and featured in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post, ESPN and NBC Sports to name a few. Follow me on Twitter at @RobCobb_INSC, email me at robert.cobb@theinscribermag.com

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