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Tuned In Tuesday: Emmy-Nominated Composer Nate Barr [The Americans, Hemlock Grove and True Blood]

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Composer Nate Barr recently made Emmy history. He is the first composer ever to have a double nomination in the Main Title category in the same year. He received those nominations for FX’s The Americans and Netflix’s Hemlock Grove. Nate has also scored all six season’s of HBO’s True Blood. We spoke exclusively to Nate about how he got into the business, the process of finding the sound of each show, and what projects he’s got coming up.

TV GOODNESS: Congratulations on your double Emmy nomination. How does it feel to make history?

Nate Barr: [Laughs]. “It feels really good. It feels good to be recognized. I’m proud I work on both those shows. They’re so completely different from True Blood in terms of what I’m doing so it’s nice to receive some recognition for some music that’s kind of taking me away from what I’ve been known for up until now.”

TV GOODNESS: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you know you wanted to do this and how did you break into the industry?

Nate: “My two great loves growing up from a very early age were movies and music together and separate. I studied cello when I was really young and then guitar. I moved out to Hollywood after college and in one of those life one-eighties, I was driving packages around town on a Monday not sure of what was next and then by Friday I was an assistant to Hans Zimmer. It feels like it’s been in the cards and I’ve had a really singular focus about it for quite some time. I’ve always loved film music in particular and it’s my way to contribute to film and to be involved with film and music.”

TV GOODNESS: You have quite a bit of experience in movies. What made you decide to jump into TV? Was there some project that was of interest to you?

Nate: “I really think it was all about True Blood and Alan Ball. Alan Ball was obviously best known for Six Feet Under, but also for winning an Oscar for American Beauty, which he wrote. I think seeing the way he went from movies to television and with such great success  – and really elevated the level of content of what was going on on television – that was really inspiring to me. When he hired me to come on board for True Blood I had a tremendous amount of respect for him, both in movies and TV and that’s why I transitioned over to that as well. TV is really experiencing a renaissance right now. By far and away the more interesting, daring, engaging programs are on TV and not in theaters these days.”

TV GOODNESS: I agree. There’s a lot of good television on right now.

Nate: “Oh my gosh, right? There’s so many like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones to Boardwalk Empire and True Blood. Any one episode of these things is better than most of what I see in the theaters these days.”

TV GOODNESS: It’s so true. So let’s talk about True Blood, The Americans and Hemlock Grove. Tell me about how you found the sound for each show.

Nate: “It started with True Blood. Alan Ball is a genius to me on many levels and one of the things that he’s a genius about was casting. He tends to cast exactly the right people for whatever role it is whether they’re picture editors or writers or actors or composers and I think he chose wisely in choosing me. In so doing he gave me the creative freedom to really branch out and take what I enjoy most and turn it into a sound that works for the show. I’m a cellist, so it’s a very cello-heavy score. It’s got guitar and piano and those are the three instruments I have come to really enjoy composing for and playing for these scores. So True Blood found itself that way, with me just improvising on those instruments and knowing it wasn’t going to be an orchestral score, that it was more intimate than that. I went to those same instruments to create the sound for The Americans but I obviously couldn’t do exactly what I did in True Blood. I sort of found my way – the writing and the performances are so strong they suggest to anyone involved with the process what the right thing to do is or what the best thing to do is. That was certainly the case for The Americans. I do think The Americans and True Blood have very different sounds and even Hemlock Grove, though I’m using a very similar palette of instruments.”

TV GOODNESS: You always get involved with a show at the beginning, right? So you read a script first? Do you have a talk with the director or the creator first? How does that work?

Nate: “In the case of True Blood, I saw a rough cut of the pilot and just thought it was amazing and went in to meet on it. I pitched them what my approach would be and then got the job based on that and a stack of CDs that Alan Ball had taken to listen to. With The Americans the showrunner was someone I had worked with years ago and he was really interested in bringing me on board. Joe Weisberg and Adam Arkin  – one is the creator and one is a producer – they obviously had their say as well so I agreed to write a demo for them on spec. I wrote about seven minutes of music over the course of a weekend and they just totally loved what I did so I got the job that way. That was based just on a script at that point. No, that’s not true. It was based on a pilot as well. It was a rough cut of the pilot. And then Hemlock Grove, Eli Roth is one of the executive producers. He directed pilot and he wanted me to come on board. I sat down and met with him and they just loved what my ideas were for the show.”

TV GOODNESS: In terns of working on a project like a True Blood or a Hemlock Grove that doesn’t have commercial breaks, is that easier or harder or the same as working on something like The Americans that does have commercial breaks?

Nate: “That’s a really good question. In terms of the process the only real difference for me is that if there are commercial breaks there are requirements in terms of the end of an act and what the music is supposed to do at the end of an act and ramp up whereas at the end of an act in a show that has no commercial breaks, maybe the requirements are a little bit different. Other than that I would say it’s less about a difference between those shows with or without commercial breaks than it is those shows like Hemlock Grove which are binge-watched. That presents an interesting potential difficulty in the sense that if people are watching three or four episodes in one sitting it’s important to keep the music as fresh as possible so they don’t feel like they’re hearing the same thing over and over again.”

TV GOODNESS: Do you ever get blocked and what do you do to pull yourself out of that?

Nate: “That’s a great question too. Early on I chained myself to my studio. I would just sit there whether the creating was happening easily or not. I would sit there and spin my tires and drive myself crazy. What I’ve come to embrace is a lot of procrastination when needed. I do spend a lot of time away from a show. There’s obviously a due date and for me some of my best work is done in the final run up to the delivery date. That’s just how I work. I think the time away from it is as important and maybe more important than the time at it.”

TV GOODNESS: That’s interesting. What’s your favorite type of project to work on and what is your dream project?

Nate: “Any shows that are well-written and put together, well-directed, well-acted and establish some sort of emotional connection for me are always the ones that I look for whether that’s in film or TV. In terms of a dream project I just saw a beautiful- did you see Top of the Lake?”

TV GOODNESS: I did, yeah.

Nate: “I just loved that. It was so enormously complex and beautifully done. Shows like that that really aspire to be something different and do it on such a high level, those are the sort of dream projects for me.”

TV GOODNESS: I know you’re working on season two for both Hemlock Grove and The Americans. Do you have anything else on the horizon as far as TV work goes? 

Nate: “I do. True Blood season 7 starts up next year and then I have a stop-motion animated show on Amazon.com called TumbleLeaf. I’m getting started on that. I’m co-composing that with a collaborator I’ve worked with many times named Lisbeth Scott. That’s gonna be an exciting project. Then there are always some potential movies coming down the pipeline, though nothing confirmed yet but four TV shows in a year is already a tremendous amount of work.”

TV GOODNESS: Absolutely. You seem like a very busy guy, which is a great compliment.

Nate: “Definitely. Basically since True Blood started, that was a real game-changer for me. I got my music out there to a larger audience than I’d ever had before and I was able to do so with my own creative voice.”

TV GOODNESS: Any final thoughts?

Nate: “I think there was a stigma to some extent back in the day around being a TV composer –  back in the 80s and 90s versus movies. There was a snobby-ness about that, not necessarily justified but I’m just happy to be a part of the renaissance that’s going on on TV right now.”

Season 2 of The Americans premieres in 2014 on FX. Season 2 of Hemlock Grove premieres in 2014 on Netflix. Season 7 of True Blood premieres in 2014 on HBO.

Edited for space and content.

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