CHICAGO — Katreese Barnes sat at the piano on the set of the "Rosie O’Donnell Show" late last week, playing for a group of producers trying to work out the kinks in the show’s opening musical number.
As she played and sang bits of the song, to be sung by O’Donnell during the show's premiere tonight on the OWN network (the lyrics included something about Oprah Winfery offering a show and O'Donnell packing the kids in a box and moving to Chicago, and then male dancers appear at some point), the group nodded and bobbed their heads approvingly.
"I have a dream job," said Barnes, who last month was named the show's musical director after spending 10 years at "Saturday Night Live," the last five as musical director. "Of all the jobs in the world, mine is to play music for a comedy show."
Barnes grew up in the music business, first as half of the brother-sister group Juicy, of "Sugar Free" fame, and later as a backup singer for Sting and Mariah Carey. She's also written songs for Chaka Khan, Diddy and Alicia Keys. As the musical director of "Saturday Night Live," the first African American in that position, Barnes won two Emmy Awards. The first was in 2007 for the wildly popular and viral smash "Dick in a Box” with Justin Timberlake, and another in 2011 for another Timberlake performance as a host of SNL.
"'Dick in a Box' was such a viral hit, sort of the thing for the day," Barnes said. "I felt a bit cocky (pun intended) because it made such a strong wave in the musical comedy world."
Now she's made the jump to Winfrey's network and to a fresh new show with O'Donnell, whom she described simply as a comedic "genius." The moment has been a lifetime in the making for Barnes, but it is also one that was nearly derailed twice in the past decade. In 2000, not long after joining "SNL" as a piano player as part of the show's legendary house band, Barnes was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had surgery to remove the cancerous lump on a Tuesday and was back at work the following Saturday. She played in pain, the nerves in her arms and hands temporarily damaged by the invasive surgery.
"I didn't tell anyone at work. I just kept it to myself," Barnes said. "But I think actually having a job and having humor around me was helpful."
Around two years later, the little monster returned.
The first time around, Barnes said she tried an array of alternative treatments, including using light energy, positive thinking and a number of salves. She met a bunch of "quacks" along the way, she said, before having the lump surgically removed. When the lump returned a second time, though still committed to avoiding radiation or chemo, Barnes heeded her doctors' advice and took a more aggressive approach, using pancreatic enzyme therapy, in which enzymes from her pancreas were removed and pumped back into the body to kill cancerous cells.
She has been in remission since 2007 and has not taken any of the ride for granted.
"I've been blessed," she said with a big smile. "I feel very blessed. It's very seldom in one's life to get two television shows, two major shows with talented people involved in both of them.”
For a woman and a black woman, the feat is even less likely. Barnes said that in her career, she couldn't recall another black female musical director.
"I wish I could be so progressive to think that" race and gender didn't somehow impact work and working relationships in this industry, she said. "Sometimes it's just a feeling. You're feeling something and you don't know what it is, and there's nobody to talk to. It's not like you can just pick up a phone and say, 'Hey, other black female musical director, what happened when you did this or that?' There was no frame of reference."
She said she managed to work through difficulties by "not taking things personally” and focusing on doing the best work she could. "Whatever people's '-isms' were, or whatever they are thinking about you, it's like, as long as you're not holding onto it, it doesn't really mean anything," she said.
While her work went on to acclaim, she often succeeded quietly. While "SNL" was a great opportunity, she said she remained mostly in the background, composing and arranging the music behind some of the show's most memorable skits. (When "SNL" did a special on the 2000s, and "Dick in a Box" was highlighted, there wasn't even a mention of Barnes, who wrote the music for the song.) Her new role with the "Rosie Show" promises more visibility, as she'll be less hampered by the legacy of an established show like "SNL."
She said she relished the opportunity to work with such strong women as O'Donnell and Oprah Winfrey.
Surviving bouts with cancer has given Barnes a sense of faith, fate and ownership over her life and career.
"This step here, it was like, 'I'm not afraid of what tomorrow will bring,'" she said of leaving "SNL" for the "Rosie Show." "That's what surviving cancer does to you. You definitely learn or feel closer to that mortality and also the desire to make sure your life counts, and your days count and feel meaningful and joyful."
"Can I write a song with that?" she asked, laughing and smiling a big smile. "Joyful, joyful, joyful."
"The Rosie Show" premieres tonight on OWN at 7 p.m. eastern time.