Nathan Barr: “True Blood Is My Dream Job”
It’s a sunny afternoon in August and I’m on a winding road in the mountains that border Los Angeles. I’m slowly making my way to the home of Nathan Barr, the man behind the score of True Blood, for a behind-the-scenes look at his next project.
Today, Barr is working on “Take Me Home,” a four-minute music video, set to release September 1. Fans will remember the song from the emotional scene in season 1 when a grieving Sookie lingers over the last few pieces of a pecan pie made by her grandmother. Evocative and moving, the song quickly became a hit for HBO on iTunes and is included on the CD coming out September 8 on iTunes, Amazon.com and in-stores nationwide via Varese Sarabande Records.
My delay-riddled plane ride and 45-minute trek from the airport is worth it. Barr’s home is stunning. The classic California ranch house is nestled high on a hill overlooking Topanga Canyon. Surrounded by lush vegetation and featuring a spectacular view, the house is secluded from the outside world. The wind ruffles the leaves on the trees, birds sing with glee, and a burbling fountain by the front door adds to nature’s symphony. It’s hard not to feel inspired after spending just a few minutes here.
Nate, as his friends call him, is full of calm, purposeful energy. He’s constantly moving, chatting, and even playing his own version of air guitar with whatever instrument he is holding, whether that’s a cello, violin or even a set of bagpipes. He makes his music in a converted garage, packed with instruments: guitars, ukeleles, mandolyns, even a stringed instrument made out of an armadillo shell. A dismantled piano leans against one wall (he hits the strings to make some of the sounds for the score), alongside a large tambura. A glass harmonica and a set of bagpipes live in harmony in a nook underneath a True Blood poster, signed by Alan Ball and a host of other people from the show.
Although Nate says he can only really play the cello, guitar and bagpipes, he admits that he can eke out some music from virtually every instrument in the studio. “I can get a sound out of a whole bunch of different instruments, but I wouldn’t call myself a ‘mandolyn player’,” says Nate. He assures me that the intimidating tambura is actually quite simple to play. “It’s literally ‘ding ding ding ding’,” he says, as he plucks imaginary strings. (I only play the radio, but I bet even I could come up with something passable from that instrument.)
Honestly, I think he’s being far too modest about his musical limitations. Nate scores every True Blood episode and plays all of the instruments, editing the tracks himself to match what he sees on the screen. “True Blood is such a blessing because it’s only about half horror and the rest is a blend of action, drama, and romance,” Nate says. “It’s a really nice blend, and it’s very melodic. Because the characters are so strong, it’s important that the melodies are as well.”
With its huge ensemble cast, Nate finds it difficult to choose his favorite character piece. But he is particularly fond of the Bill and Sookie love theme, one of the first songs he ever wrote for the show.
“It was one of those things that just happened, my fingers just did it on the guitar and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s kind of cool,’” he says.
He had some last minute doubts, wondering if Alan Ball would like it, but as we now know, Ball loved it.
Nate is also proud of the cello-driven “Bill’s Lament”. The first time we hear it is when Sookie pulls up to the Rattrays’ trailer and views the destruction caused by a “tornado,” aka Bill. “It could have been a much bigger cue, but I liked the idea of this low, solo cello as she’s witnessing the power of Bill,” Nate says.
Maryann has proven to be more of a challenge for Nate. Because he doesn’t read the scripts or see any of the episode cuts ahead of time, choosing to work off the final edit, he has been just as in the dark about her character as the audience. In an earlier episode with her, he says he wrote something that “wasn’t quite right”, so when he found out that she was going to be a major character in season 2, he reworked it to give her a stronger musical presence.
When he does collaborate with another artist, as he did on “Take Me Home”, the process is suprisingly fast. Nate and vocalist Lisbeth Scott wrote the song in about 30 minutes, then recorded it in his studio for Alan and the rest, as they say, is history. Inspired by Appalachian hymns, Nate says, “It needed to be something spiritual, something where you could envision Sookie putting her head on someone’s shoulder and crying. I love those simple Appalachian melodies, and it’s very rare that I get the opportunity to write that sort of thing.”
Alan was impressed with the results, complimenting Nate on “capturing the regional authenticity that the show calls for. I know I can always count on him to take scenes which need that extra bit of help and make them work better than I thought possible.”
For the video, Nate and Lisbeth decided they wanted a slightly different version of the song than the one on the show, so today they are re-recording it along with Quinn, another favorite to work with, on percussion.
Longtime collaborators, and former spouses, Nate and Lisbeth work so well together that they revert to a sort of shorthand as they decide how to arrange this version of the song. They have an idea of how they want it to sound, but nothing is written in stone. Instead they rehearse a few times, make some adjustments, try some improvisations, then flow right into recording. The first two or three takes have Lisbeth playing guitar and singing, Nate on the cello and Quinn on drums. Some cues are rearranged, the tempo is altered, but they still haven’t found the sound they’re seeking. Somewhere in the conversation Lisbeth decides to trade the guitar for a harmonium and it instantly takes the song to a new level, blending beautifully with Lisbeth’s Celtic inflection on vocals and Nate’s lush cello.
“The sound is very rich and multi-layered. It’s like another voice, and that’s what drew me to it. There’s a quality in my voice that I feel the harmonium picks up and answers. It’s like a conversation for me with that instrument. I just love it. I always have it in the back of my car,” laughs Lisbeth.
With the new track finalized, the attention now moves to filming the video. The crew has been setting up the shoot on Nate’s patio since before I arrived and there are still a few details to arrange. While the patio bustles with activity, Nate and I head to the backyard where we sit under a tree and talk about his house, his music, and working with Alan Ball.
“I remember how warm and down to earth Alan was from the get-go, which was really nice,” recalls Nate. “I think he wants everyone on the show to bring their best to the show, so he stays out of your way until you’ve explored everything, then he comes in and makes his recommendations. That’s a great feeling because it allows us to do our best, most creative work.”
As the late afternoon sun filters through the thick air, the director decides the time to film is now and everyone assembles on the patio. The musicians are sitting in chairs on what looks like a sheer dropoff with the hills across the canyon providing a stunning natural backdrop. It’s warm and I’ve been up since 4AM, so once playback of the song begins, I begin to wish Nate had a hammock so I could truly enjoy the relaxing atmosphere. Instead, I watch as they perform several takes, getting more comfortable with each one. The director makes a few changes, then has them go again right away to take advantage of the light. A dozen people have put in hours and hours of prep work to make this video happen, but once the film rolls and the playback begins, it’s a magical feeling.
In the end, as the sun is setting behind the hills, the day-long process of recording and filming comes to an end and the mood is tired but happy. That’s a wrap, and it’s been a rewarding day all around. “Any time you get to work with people you like and have millions of people watch and enjoy your work, that’s a great job,” says Nate. “This is my dream job.”
See the premiere of the music video for “Take Me Home” here at True-Blood.net on September 1. And don’t forget, Nathan Barr’s 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.
All photos are copyright True-Blood.net. See more photos from the making of the video in our Gallery.