Patrick Warren is the composer for Showtime’s Peabody Award-nominated series, The Chi. While this is Warren’s first gig as the head composer on a television or film project, his work in the medium goes back over twenty years, beginning with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight and Boogie Nights. Warren also has a long career working with notable popular musicians like John Legend, Tom Waits, and Aimee Mann. In a wide-ranging discussion that begins with Selma and ends with us learning we both were unknowingly in the same room in Chicago in the late 90s, we cover his life in music.
How did you come to The Chi?
I came to the show as a collaboration with Common, which started when I did orchestration for the song Glory (from Selma) which won the Oscar for John Legend and Common. I had done some work for John Legend over the years and he sent me a cryptic email in the middle of the night – 3 in the morning – saying, “Hey, can you orchestrate this song?”
That’s a call you take.
Yes! (Laughs). So, I orchestrated it and sent it back and he said “That’s good.” Then we got an orchestra, recorded it and the rest is history. Then Common did this beautiful record called Black America Again, and he called me to write some string arrangements for it. He gave me complete freedom to do anything I wanted. I took a really unusual approach to the orchestration against the beats and music Karriem Riggins created. It was really something different. I remember Common had been working on a script and was part of this whole thing with The Chi, and he told me he’d love for me to write for it. Of course, I was thrilled. I still had to go through the audition process to make sure that I knew what I was doing (laughs). I think some of the energy from that record (Black America Again) – the way we were treating orchestra against the beats – was moving the DNA for how I approached the music in The Chi. That’s how the whole thing came about. Through Common.
Before getting into creating music for film, you had a busy career in pop music. Was it a difficult transition going from a verse-chorus-verse song structure into writing music for film and television?
It was pretty smooth, actually. Way back in the early 90s when I was working with Michael Penn, I played an instrument called the chamberlain, which is like the Cadillac version of a mellotron. I was always fascinated by trying to get orchestral sounds out of the keyboard. I wasn’t interested in organ sounds or synth sounds. I was interested in “how can this box sound like an orchestra?” Like with violins and cellos and instruments like that. I’ve always sort of approached my craft with that viewpoint. Eventually, pop artists started asking me if I could write for real strings. So, I got comfortable with orchestras over the years. I think through the way I approached pop music, it was kind of an easy transition. Ever since I was a kid, the idea of writing to pictures fascinated me. It was something I was obsessed with – the way any piece of film can have multiple answers to that riddle of “what’s the right music?” It all depends on whose head am I in? Am I seeing this through the murderer’s eyes? Am I seeing it through the victim’s eyes? Am I seeing it through the mother’s eyes? Where are we in this picture? It all creates different music depending on how you want to see a shot. That’s always fascinated me.
I always feel like there are two kinds of music in film, the kind that draws attention to itself and the kind that doesn’t. Both can be equally effective. The danger with the first is that it can take you out of the movie if it’s too pervasive. The second could sell the scene short. What is your approach?
If it’s a very subtle scene when there’s not much dialogue, you don’t want the music to say too much, you just want to quietly be in someone’s head – what the music might sound like inside (of them). If you do it right, you don’t call attention to it at all. But, sometimes, I use this as an example frequently because I’m fascinated by it, the science-fiction film that came out a couple of years back – Arrival. The movie starts with a string quartet – a little piece written by Max Richter, called On The Nature of Daylight – and it’s the last thing you’d expect at the top of a science-fiction movie. It tells you right away we aren’t seeing an ordinary movie here. We are seeing something different. It’s making a big statement. You can’t look away from the movie after that. That’s when the music is more forward and really saying something.
I often think of this more in terms of singers, but sometimes there’s a difference between the best singing and the most singing. I suspect it’s like that somewhat when scoring a show.
(Laughs). Exactly! The last thing you want is to be overly showy. Sometimes I’ll write it and I’ll miss it by a mile. In the first season, I was writing for a funeral scene. It was a very sad scene, of course. So, I wrote a gentle gospel progression and I thought I nailed it. I thought it was perfect. It wasn’t too sappy, it wasn’t too cloying, and everybody seemed to like it. I played it for the showrunner, who said, “that’s great, but we kinda want to see this scene from the point of view of Ronnie, the guy who just killed the kid. That’s a different head-space! He’s the one who did it! A perfectly valid way to look at the scene, so I rewrote it. It’s just an example of perspective and how it impacts the score.
That also points to the nature of collaboration.
It’s a big part of it. You have to be willing as a composer to throw everything out and start all over again. You can’t get attached to anything you are writing, because the more you get attached to it the more likely it is it will be the first thing they change (laughs).
A lot of the songs used on The Chi are urban-based R&B and hip-hop, whereas your score leans towards a more classical sound. Is it challenging segueing from that genre of music into your score?
I think that was the reason Common approached me in the first place. We have a lot of hip-hop music – much of it from Chicago, and he wanted a different approach for the score. It is a challenge to come out of a heavy hip-hop song and right into something that’s the opposite of that. There are subtle things you can do to help that along. You can match the key sometimes, or if it’s a jarring transition you can put a little bit of a pulse in it. It is something that I’m hyper-aware of – to keep the flow going and keep us in the story. Otherwise, it can really pull you out of a scene. Sometimes a simple sound – a swelling, kind of a droning thing – the exact, right timbre makes a difference.
The Chi is your first time being the composer on a project as opposed to a musician. I imagine the shift in responsibility was deeply felt.
I felt a huge responsibility for every aspect of the show. It’s quite a learning curve when you are in the driver’s seat. You see what other (composers) had to go through. On a related note: Barry Cole, our music supervisor, his job is ridiculously hard. Chasing down 10 writers of a hip-hop song to get a clearance to use it in the show – I had no idea. I just have to write the one piece of music for the scene! (Laughs).
You also wrote music for True Detective. One of the things I’ve noticed about that show is the score is very insistent and repeats pieces of music consistently to create mood. What was that experience like?
I was mainly on the first season. I worked quite a bit on that with Keefus Ciancia. I worked some on the second season, and on the third season, Keefus did the whole thing, but my understanding is they are using a lot of the cues from season one and season two, so some of my cues are in season three. The approach working with T-Bone (Burnett) was interesting – kind of saving it all for the end. You don’t really hear any orchestration on season one until you get to the very end in that creepy Carcosa place, and suddenly there are strings and there’s melody as the shit hits the fan. One of the things I took from T-Bone was the willingness to be that simple. Even when he makes records, I’ve seen him record 24 instruments and then push up two faders – a banjo and a vocal, and say, “that’s your record, right there.” He’s completely fearless and not afraid of air in-between the notes. The beautiful parts of music to me is the spaces in-between.
You have to have a lot of confidence to record that way. To keep things so sparse.
Yes! We had some interesting accidents on there. Where Keefus and I would be writing for the same scene, not knowing that we had accidentally crossed over. We had this amazing music editor, Jason Wormer, who would take the two cues and mash them up! Put them in the same key and come up with something cooler than what either one of us had thought of.
I’m sure you are hopeful for a season three of The Chi, but what else do you have coming up?
We are hoping for season three. Lena (Waithe) has some ideas for where she wants to go with it. Everyone seems pretty hopeful – of course, I would love to do that. I don’t know what’s in store for me for the rest of the year. I still work on a lot of pop records – I love to do that. I finished two records recently. One was the new Sarah Bareilles record with T-Bone. I wrote some strings for it. It’s a lovely record – she’s a great writer. The other is a really unusual record I did with (jazz artist) Larry Klein – a tribute record for the Belgian composer Jacques Brel. We recorded the music here in America and it’s all sung in French. We recorded the singers in Paris. I got to write some orchestrations and play keys on it. It’s a unique and beautiful record.
There’s nothing like a good songwriter.
I’ve had the good fortune to work with many over the years. Aimee Mann, Michael Penn, Joe Henry, and Tom Waits. All of those songwriters are in another league.
Years ago Aimee and Michael toured together – in the late 90s, I believe – I saw them in Chicago. It was one of the most enjoyable nights of live music I’ve ever been to. What I didn’t know, of course, at the time is that you had worked with both of them on their most recent records.
I actually did that show!
Yeah! We called it The Acoustic Vaudeville Tour!
I was on that tour!
So, we sort of met! How great is that?
There you go! (Laughs).
The world is a very small place sometimes.
That was a great tour. I’ve played with them both separately, but having them together on stage was really special.
You have a credit on Boogie Nights as well. I assume that came from your relationship with Michael who composed the music for that film.
It definitely did. I had written a 30-second piece called Disney’s A Snowcone – an introduction to one of Michael’s songs – and they wanted to use it for the movie, and Michael took the melody and turned it upside-down and wrote it backwards. I became good friends with Paul Thomas Anderson and then he stuck me in Magnolia as an actor. I’m one of the game show contestants against the kid.
Are you really?
I can’t watch it. It’s fucking frightening (laughs). I had no business being in that movie, but he was just determined to have me in it. Aimee was working on her album, Bachelor #2, and Paul had come around and was just fascinated, and Paul was kind of writing the movie around what was going on with that record. Aimee’s such a huge part of that score.
One of my favorite uses of a song in any movie is the Wise Up section of the film using Aimee’s song. I love the way he brought all the characters together in a sense through a piece of music. Which is what you do too, through your score?
As best I can! (Laughs).