Barb Morrison Discusses Her Work On The PBS Film “Sugar” And What Inspires Her To Push The Envelope With Her Music

Photo credit: Kris Kaczor

Photo credit: Kris Kaczor

Barb Morrison is a Brooklyn based recording artist, Top 5 Billboard dance chart songwriter, and Gold record producer. She is best known as the producer for numerous artists such as Blondie, Rufus Wainwright, Franz Ferdinand (band), LP, as an ASCAP-featured film score composer and formerly, as one half of the production duo Super Buddha. Barb recently did the score for a mini series called “Sugar” on PBS, for which we have reviewed and will be posting very soon. For this exclusive interview, we asked Barb about this mini series and how she became involved in it, as well as what inspires her as a writer and who she'd like to collaborate with. 

You have a modern hip-hop/dark cinematic sound to your music, you use different tones and even different thematic directions, really taking the listener on a journey with your music. What would you say your sound was born out of? 

I was raised by my older brothers. It was the 1970s so there was a rock vs disco war going on. One of my brothers was rock and one was disco. I was their lab rat. Out of those genres, two other revolutions were born - Punk and Hip Hop. So I soaked every note of that stuff in. I memorized “rappers delight” when I was 12. You look back on it now and it seems funny but at the time it was really cutting edge. By the time the 1990s rolled around I was in a band that was signed to mercury records. We were billed as a punk band but our A&R person had only signed R&B acts like Vanessa Williams and Brian McKnight and some other Hip Hop artists. Because of her we did shows with Black Sheep, Tribe Called Quest and NWA. At the same time we were opening for The Ramones as well so I couldn’t help but mix it all up. When I was little kid I wanted to be an alto jazz saxophone player so throw that into the recipe and you were getting some dark, complicated stuff. When I got my first film scoring job, a friend of mine said “this is the perfect job for you because now you can combine every weird thing you listen to and it’ll work!"

Can you tell us about the PBS short film “Sugar”, and how did you become involved in that? I would assume something about that story resonated with you.

Sugar was the fourth movie I’ve scored for director / producer Rose Troche. I think she chose me because she truly wanted a fuse of dark, modern Hip Hop and a moody, heavy film score. It was interesting to work on Sugar because it was created in the "exquisite corpse" concept. So there’s a pensive feel in general to the whole thing. I was able to get inside the main characters story line because I’m 26 years clean and sober so I know the challenge of being in a bad place and trying to make a better life for yourself. I tried to make sure I took that specific journey with the lead character, as far as emotion and feel. You can read more about the process and the studio creations for “Sugar” here:

You have a few film credits under your belt. How do you decide what sound should accompany a certain film? Do you make intentional decisions to progress with your music or do you find this comes naturally? 

I begin with big blocks and broad colors. I’ll watch the way the director uses lighting, cinematography, camera angles and the way the actors use dialogue and tone. Usually I assign a theme to a main character but not always. When I scored the movie “Concussion” the director Stacie Passon actually sang a 4 note riff to me over the phone. I ended up building the entire score around that. Most people don’t even notice film score and sometimes that’s good because it means you’ve taken the viewer on an emotional trip without them even realizing it! I’ll be watching a random movie with friends and i’ll say “wow this is a great score! Do you guys notice the score?” and they’ll go “um NO” because a good score contributes to the movie, it doesn’t step all over it. Most of the time your average everyday civilian is just sitting there being fed a mood and they didn’t even know it was happening. There’s definitely a lot of responsibility on the composer because of this fact.

Photo credit: Rick Campanella

Photo credit: Rick Campanella

What inspires you to write?

I’m a big fan of collaboration. Bouncing ideas off each other is what really gets me feeling creative. When I produce records or score movies, I like to sit down with the artist / director before I even agree to the project and find out exactly what story they’re trying to tell. Everyone has a story. I think it’s our responsibility to tell it and tell it well. Once I have the emotion and back story (and if it’s something I believe in) then there’s no problem finding the inspiration. It’s just tapping into the map of where the vibrations need to take you.

You have worked with artist such as Rufus Wainwright, Blondie, and Franz Ferdinand. Can you name a few other artists that you would love to collaborate with someday?

Because they’ve always broke boundaries: Rickie Lee Jones, Kendrick Lamar, Questlove, Joni Mitchell, Dean & Robert Deleo, Herbie Hancock, Annie Lennox, Mykki Blanco, and Chris Cornell.
Because I just wanna hear more from them all the time: Eve, Cindy Wilson, Jill Scott, Paramore, Musiq Soul Child, and Sharon Jones.

Directors who I would love to score for: Charlie Kaufman, P.T Anderson, David Cronenberg, Jill Soloway, and Alan Ball. All of them have a way of truly getting inside the characters and giving them heart, sadness and color.

New artists that have caught my ear: The Big Moon, Estrons, Thornes, Billie Marten, and Young M.A.

What do you hope to accomplish with your music?

Mostly I just try to take my ego out of it and help the artist tell their story. I don’t need anyone to say “that sounds like a Barb Morrison record (or score)”. I want the artist to sound like the artist but BETTER.

Are there any causes/other hobbies that you are involved with outside of the music industry?

During NFL season I mostly have a one track mind. But other than that I’m really into the culinary arts, cigars, high quality coffee and when possible going to the gym. As far as causes - I’m always up for a good protest for justice.

What does the future hold for you? Should we be on the lookout for any new music?

Lots of cool projects coming up! There’s a remix of “Take My Shoulder” that I produced with Jonathan Jetter getting ready to drop. I recorded the original tracks in a cathedral in Minnesota. The lead vocals are by Venus Demars and Laura Jane Grace. I’m also starting a new EP next week for Gina Volpe from the legendary punk band “The Lunachicks”. I’m super psyched for that one because she’s really branching out with her sound. She’s going to be pushing some boundaries for sure. There’s another EP about to pop off by a brand new artist named Danielle Barbers. She can do everything, sing, rap, write and raise hell all at the same time so look out for that one. It’s got dance, R&B, and Hip Hop, something for everyone on that record. I’m always keeping it well rounded so I make sure there are plenty of different styles going on within the month in the studio. If you’re not having fun you’re doing it wrong!

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