Two-time Emmy winner and cancer survivor Katreese Barnes serves as musical director for The Rosie Show
by Benè Viera October 10, 2011
Katreese Barnes may not be a household name—yet—but her work speaks for itself. She started her musical journey as a classical pianist at the age of 10 in North Carolina. Mastering her craft has led to singing, touring and arranging for some of the world’s greatest musical acts ranging from Chaka Khan, Mariah Carey, Sting and Elton John to Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder, The O’Jays and Diana Ross, among others.
In 2000 Barnes was hired as a house pianist for Saturday Night Live. Three years later she was promoted to the associate music director, before eventually landing the musical director title of the popular sketch comedy show. Eleven years later, Barnes, an accomplished songwriter, has two Emmy Awards to show for her effort—the first came in 2007 for the Justin Timberlake viral hit she co-wrote “D*ck in a Box” and the second came last month for Timberlake’s season finale monologue, “I’m Not Going to Sing Tonight.”
Going out on a high note, Barnes recently vacated her post at SNL to embark on new endeavors as the musical director for The Rosie Show, which premiere’s tonight (10/10) on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network. As the accomplished musician prepares to enter the next phase of career, BlackEnterprise.com caught up with Barnes to chat about her new position, the lessons learned at Saturday Night Live and beating breast cancer—twice.
How did it feel to win your second Emmy for Justin Timberlake’s “I’m Not Going to Sing Tonight?”
Katreese Barnes: The second time I was definitely shocked because I thought Lonely Island was going to win. I said to [SNL writer] John Mulaney on stage, “I can’t believe we beat them.” I didn’t prepare anything to say. I was up there looking kind of dumbfounded. Once that settled down it was awesome and thrilling.
Coincidentally, both of your Emmy’s involved songs performed by Justin Timberlake. What was it like songwriting for him?
Honestly, we have a synergy that he actually mentions. He gives me an idea of what he wants then I write it, and it usually works out. I remember the first time I wrote for him for the Kid’s Choice Awards. He didn’t listen to the final song until the night before. And I was like, “Boy, that’s a lot of trust there.”
How did you get into songwriting?
I wrote my first song at 10. It’s funny how you do things as a kid without knowing they will lead to a career. Through the years by collaborating with great writers it helped me hone my skills.
How did your childhood musical background lead into an actual career in the music business?
My father put a band together [called J.U.I.C.Y.] and he managed us. I think that’s what really started it off. If I hadn’t been playing in the bands while I was in high school I probably would have gone on to do the classical world full-time. It’s funny the way things happen; it’s almost murky. You meet one person one way and then you meet another person another way and there’s no real thread. I was touring and producing for various artists after coming to New York, but my big break in comedy came from winning the audition to be in the Saturday Night Live band. My music directorship there evolved over a 10-year span.
Why did you go the musical director path as opposed to becoming a solo artist?
All my solo record projects flopped. Every single one. Between management fighting and record companies folding, sometimes you know things just weren’t meant to be when things keep happening. I just ended up taking gigs to pay bills. When I ended up on Saturday Night Live I started off as a piano player. It wasn’t like I was thinking I’m going to be a comedy writer or a music director for the show. It just evolved that way.
What did you learn from SNL that you will always remember?
The lessons are so numerous I couldn’t even count them. It would probably [take] a lifetime counting. On that show you have to be on your feet and you have to deal with so many brilliant comedic talents and musical styles. I think mostly I learned to not be afraid. You have to take the fear out of everything or it won’t work.
You’re now working over at Oprah’s OWN network as the musical director of The Rosie Show. What’s a typical day like for you?
Since it’s a new show the hours are pretty long because we are setting everything up. But right now it could go from rehearsing with Javier Colon to working on the opening musical number or game shows. I’m having to write a lot of the music because they just added a band recently. So we’re going to be playing in and out of commercial and they haven’t got a theme. A lot of music has to be written. But viewers can expect a lot of funky beats.
Have there been any hurdles you’ve faced as a woman or African-American in your field?
I definitely think there are hurdles as a woman, but it’s nothing I don’t think I can handle. The images for Black women have been so bad for the past 10 to 12 years in entertainment. No one is going to think when you walk in the door, “Oh, yes, she can write our concerto.” There have been moments where I definitely had to prove I can do the job. There have been elements of doubt I’ve experienced. Then I do the job and it’s erased. I definitely feel I’ve had to work harder—that’s a good thing. I like working. I like things being right.
While your career was progressing you also dealt with personal tragedy in the form of breast cancer. How were you able to deal with that not once but twice?
When I first got the news at the doctor’s office in 2000, because I was such a health nut, I had jelly legs. I couldn’t even walk home. I was in such shock that it could happen to me, somebody who was pretty much on top of her health. I was in shock for a couple months. I went into the mode of studying and researching. Sometimes I would spend up to four hours a day finding a way to beat it without the harshness of chemotherapy and radiation.
Ultimately, why did you opt out of chemotherapy and radiation?
I did alternative therapy. All I can say is that intuitively if I did it [chemotherapy] at that time in 2000, I would have not survived it. It was just an intuitive thing. Everybody has to be sure of their own personal decisions. In my head there was nothing else but not to do that. When it returned in 2002 I chose a different form of therapy.
How do you feel as a survivor, knowing you beat this thing twice?
I think breast cancer was a bigger challenge than being a musical director. But after I beat it I can definitely say there’s a part of me that says, “Everything is pretty much easy now. Survival definitely consists of taking care of yourself in ways I probably didn’t do when I was working hard. Like proper rest, diet, supplements… I even find in the past month starting at this show I’ve been neglecting a lot of my supplements. After the premiere I’m getting back on it. But it’s easy to forget that stuff when you’re working hard.
Do you have any tips for women and/or men of color who would like to follow in your footsteps?
I would definitely say if you’re a musician learn to read music, learn all different styles beyond just soul music, R&B and hip-hop. Learn anything you can from cacao to classical to rock. Just keep learning because you never know what gem is going pop up as a gig. For example, as a kid I used to play a lot of Scott Joplin. When I was on SNL there popped up this sketch where Maya Rudolph played Scott Joplin in the sketch. I would have never thought years later I’d be using those chops for that moment. You just never know.
Follow what you love, follow the music you love and learn as much as you can. Sometimes it’s not enjoyable to learn things even if it’s an hour to learn to read and notate and arrange. Whatever it is just do it. No one’s going to make apologies for you in the big league moments. They’re going to say, “Oh, no, she or he can’t do that.”