Composer Interview 1

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JJ Barnes The Table Read

Written by JJ Barnes

I interviewed Jonathan McKinney about his life, his career, and what inspires his music. Jonathan wrote the score to my film Hollowhood, and he is my fiancé and father of my children. So I’m particularly excited to share his work with you.

Tell me a bit about who you are.

I’m a filmmaker, an author, a composer, and, interestingly, your partner in both romantic and career-related matters.

When did you first WANT to write music?

I was given a modest Casio keyboard for Christmas when I was about eight or nine. I loved it. I loved figuring out melodies from my favourite Cure songs on it. Immediately I wanted to write tunes of my own, but they were basic.

Jonathan McKinney, Hollowhood score Composer, interview on The Table Read
Jonathan McKinney

When did you take a step to start writing music?

Right away. My big bro Chris used to have me and my other bro Andy playing one of those tabletop nerd games, called Blood Bowl. My team was the “Champions of Death”, because I was a little goth. Well, using my little Casio keyboard I composed an ominous dirge of a theme, which I figured would be played at the beginning of a game, or after a victory. I can still remember part of it. It wasn’t great. But it suited the team.

What was your first piece of music released, and what inspired it?

The first piece I released was called “Lilly’s Theme”, and it was inspired by a character from one of your books, as it happens! It’s an intimate, classical instrumental track; a cello and a viola, a glock and some woodwinds, and so on.

What was your latest music released, and what inspired it?

Well, it’s called “Hollowhood (Original Motion Picture Score)”. So, for anyone who doesn’t know, you and I made a film called Hollowhood, which is now available to stream on YouTube. I composed the spooky orchestral score, which is also on YouTube.

As for what inspired it, I’m a huge fan of Danny Elfman, especially when he teams up with Tim Burton. I’ve also taken inspiration from Bernard Herrmann’s work on “Psycho” and “Marnie”, as well as Jerry Goldsmith’s “The Omen” score.

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Focusing on your latest piece of music. What were your biggest challenges with The Hollowhood Score?

The biggest challenge was definitely the environment I was working in. Speaking of Danny Elfman, I watched his Masterclass. He talked about how he needs silence. I don’t have silence. I composed the score to our movie in the same room where our kids play. During lockdown. I’ll be trying to write something quiet and gentle, set against emotionally raw performances and all I can hear is Jonathan Groff belting out “Lost in the Woods”. Quite the inclement conditions.

What are you working on right now?

Officially, nothing. I have about a dozen works-in-progress, which I’ll hop about on. But I don’t have a movie to score, so it’s very much me going at a more leisurely pace.

Jonathan McKinney, Hollowhood score Composer, interview on The Table Read

Do you keep to a theme with your music, or just go where the mood strikes?

I go where the mood strikes for the most part. With “Hollowhood”, there is a very distinct primary theme, which I returned to whenever the mood of the film called for it; likewise, some of the other themes recur as needed. But I’m a wanderer and an improvisor really.

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What is your favourite piece of music you’ve recorded, and what do you love about it?

It’s the climax of “Hollowhood”, for sure. The track’s called “Finale”. It’s twelve minutes of none stop gothic orchestra. It is not subtle. There are loads of moments within it that I love, moments that made me laugh with joy when I first heard them back.

Do you find other people’s music inspires you? Who do you listen to most?

Absolutely. As I’ve mentioned, my favourite composers are Danny Elfman and Bernard Herrmann. But I also love John Williams, Thomas Newman and Alexandre Desplat, as well as older composers like Igor Stravinsky, Sergei, Prokofiev and Gustav Holst. Whenever I’m writing fiction instead of music, I’ll listen to a playlist comprised of these chaps to get my imagination firing.

Do you record and produce your own music, or pay musicians and producers?

I record some of my own music, but for the most part I use virtual instruments: real instruments played by real musicians, recorded and digitally transformed into electronic instruments. Listen to some of my orchestral music from “Hollowhood” and tell me it doesn’t sound like a real orchestra—that’s because it is! Just… with a bit of programming work from me, and a bit of help from my computer. Long term, I’d love to have my music played live by a massive orchestra but I’m not sniffing at what technology has made possible.

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What instruments do you play?

I play the guitar and the piano. The guitar is my most natural instrument, by miles. I used to play lead guitar in a metal band, whereas I’m a fumbler with a piano, finding tunes by ear and bashing away at the keys. I’m pretty good at picking up any old instrument and figuring out how to get at least a basic tune out of it.

Do you like performing live, or does it scare you? Where can people watch you?

I’m happy to, but I’m way out of practice. I used to run an open mic night so I’m not really too nervous, as long as the setting expects a performance, if you get me. I wouldn’t feel comfortable belting out a Bob Dylan song in someone’s house, for example. But when people want to hear some live music, yeah, sure. At the moment, you can’t watch me anywhere in person.

Is your music available to the public, and where can people listen to it?

You can check out my YouTube channel here. I also have music on Spotify and Amazon Music and Apple Music, and wherever you get your tunes if you’re a weirdo who doesn’t use one of those.

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Are you able to make music full time, or do you have day job?

No, I don’t write music full time. I actually wouldn’t want to. I have written books, which I want to continue; I made a film and I want to make more. But I do want to keep producing music too, for the rest of my life.

Are your friends and family supportive of your music career?

Yes, very. I’ve never had obstacles thrown in front of me. I’ve never been told that it’s not a worthwhile endeavour or anything like that. My mum and dad have both helped me out, buying me instruments when I was a kid, a teen, and even into adulthood. I should really start throwing some money back in their direction soon…

What’s something you never expected about writing music ? What have you learned that surprised you?

What computers are capable of. That’s what has surprised me. Sitting at my desk in my noisy-as-hell living room, I’ve been able to produce film music more authentic than I’d ever dared to dream. When I was a teenager, I’d listen to music from the Nightmare Before Christmas or Batman and think… “I understand the melodies and I can play them a guitar, but I have absolutely no idea how you create that sound.” It was utterly inaccessible.

I’d love to go back in time and play some of the music I’ve been able to produce to my sixteen-year-old self. I’d also give myself every Champions League winner from then until now so I could get rich like Biff Tannen.

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Til I Lose by Blood On The Moon (written and recorded by Jonathan McKinney and JJ Barnes)

Have you had any experiences that really stand out because of your music?

At the risk or repeating myself, the answer is: scoring “Hollowhood”. A lot of the music I wrote exists solely to serve the mood being conjured by the story; but sometimes I am afforded a platform by the structure of the film. For example, when the characters Olivia and Andy drive into the titular creepy village, there was space for me to really cement the tension and I did not play it safe. I deployed pounding percussion, fierce staccato strings and a full choir bellowing my tune in Latin. A genuine source of profound joy, which, as we know, is not something that comes around every day.

Do you have any important events coming up we should know about?

Nope, I’m open to offers if there’s a filmmaker reading this who needs a tune.

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What is the first piece of advice you would give to anyone inspired to write music?

One: Back yourself, go big or go home, don’t be shy, don’t be subtle. Don’t take criticism to heart, and definitely don’t let criticism make you deny your instincts. So some dickhead doesn’t get what you’re doing. Who cares. If you don’t do what you think is best for your piece, you’ll hear another composer do something very similar and get praised for it. Fuck that. This is your voice. Critics can speak into their bins for all I care. And, for balance, my second piece of advice is: don’t be lazy. Don’t copy and paste. The job isn’t to get the piece finished; the job is to make the piece the best conceivable version of itself. Okay, that’s more than one piece of advice but it’s necessary to strike that balance, I think.

And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

Yes, I am, and yes it was. It was even worth tearing my hair out begging the noisiest human children in the world to shush-for-the-love-of-God-please-shush so I can hear my very faint first and second tremolo violins and choirs. It was well worth it. I think anyone who wants to write a book should do it; anyone who wants to make a film should do it; there’s a YouTube video explaining how to do anything these days.

Pop all your music, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:

They’re all above somewhere or other, but you can also find me here and this is my Twitter.

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