Last Updated: 5:00 AM, September 17, 2007
THANKS to YouTube, the whole world has heard Justin Timberlake's "Saturday Night Live" song "D - - k in a Box," but until last week few knew that he and Andy Samberg hadn't created it on their own. The truth came out when Katreese Barnes, the music director for the long-running comedy show, stood up with the boys at the Emmy Awards and took home a gold statuette for outstanding music and lyrics.
It's an unlikely claim to fame for someone who started out as a classical pianist, practicing up to eight hours a day while growing up in rural North Carolina. But Barnes has worn a lot of hats in the music industry. By 13, she and her brother had a deal with Epic Records; by her early 20s, she was writing songs for artists such as Diana Ross, Roberta Flack and Chaka Khan. She also worked as a producer and jingle writer before going to work at "SNL" in 2000, first as the house pianist, and then as musical director. We sat down with Barnes (who gives her age as "early 30s") to find out about her early songwriting efforts, where she keeps her Emmy, and how she spends her workdays.
So, now that you won an Emmy, where are you going to put it?
Oh, it's already on my piano in my apartment. I might switch it to my studio, but it's not going much further than that.
Did you have to give a speech?
Well, Andy gave a brilliant speech on behalf of all of us, and there's nothing like trying to follow a comedian. Once he had people laughing, I thought, oh no, it's all been said.
So, take us back a little. How did you get your start in the music business?
I started playing classical piano at age 10, and by the time I was 14 my father had some funk bands that my brother and I started playing in. My father was in the Army, but he was also a keyboard player, and he used to play in Top 40 bands to make extra money. I remember growing up surrounded by band rehearsals in our apartment. My brother and I got our first record deal not too long after that, with Epic Records, and we put out two CDs.
Is that when you got into writing?
That's when I really honed the songwriting thing. Because we had to come up with all of our own singles. Which were hilarious, by the way, because at 14 we didn't even know what we were writing about. We wrote a song called "Happy Hour" at a time when I hadn't even had a drink. It was a big hit in Germany. I don't know, maybe I started writing comedy back then and the joke was on the Germans. From there, we went on to write for other producers and singers, and then eventually for stars like Roberta Flack and Chaka Khan.
What was that like?
Working with Chaka's band, there were moments where she would sing something so awesome that we were so stupefied. We couldn't even form a sentence.
So, what's a typical day like for you now?
It varies. On Monday we usually have a pitch meeting, where the writers meet with the host and get the sketch ideas for the show. That's usually just a couple of hours, and then the rest of the day I'm cramming in my side projects. Then Tuesday evening I'll go in to "SNL" and see if people have come up with any musical ideas. If they have, I'll start writing them Tuesday night. Wednesday, I get in to work early to finish up the sketch meetings; my jobs can range from writing an original song to learning a Van Halen song because someone wants to do a spoof on it. All of it has to be done before the cast gets in around 2 p.m. on Wednesday, and then the host comes in, and then you have to teach him of the songs for his skits. That can be pretty hectic.
Do you have a favorite part of the process?
Saturday night, when the sketches come together, can be really magical. Like when Jake Gyllenhaal performed his version of the "Dreamgirls" song - that was a really rewarding moment for me. It was a Thursday night when he had the idea to sing the song, and they called me down to rehearse with him. On Friday, we brought in some backup singers, and he started gaining more confidence, and then by Saturday night he blew me away.
Do you think about what's next for you?
No, because I've learned not to put too much pressure on fate. I remember the last time I had a record deal on the table for myself, which was in 1999, and that fell apart because of bad management. I remember feeling like it was the end of the world. And then to get the audition for "SNL" opened me up to a whole other venue in which to play music. It took getting that job to realize that there were so many ways I could use my passion.