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Emerging Film Composer Heather McIntosh is a Musical Badass

Heather McIntosh is a badass.  She may or may not corroborate this estimation of her character, but how else can you describe someone with her resume?  Ms. McIntosh is a cellist with a penchant for electronic music and a passion to share her creative spirit with the world. Heather scored three, yes three movies at SXSW 2014, as well as Compliance, one of the most talked about indie films of 2012.  She has played with some of the most righteous musicians of today, including but not limited to Faust, Animal Collective, Cat Power, Superchunk, M Ward, and Bright Eyes.  Did I mention Gnarls Barkley and Lil Wayne?

I recently sat down with the musical genius at SXSW in Austin, Texas and had the opportunity to learn more about the films she worked with and what she is working on for the future. Though I couldn’t get a peep out of her on a top-secret project in the works, I enjoyed learning more about the behind the scenes of a genius at work.

SI: How did you get involved with the films you are involved with at SXSW 2014? (Honeymoon, Faults, Vessel)

HM: With Honeymoon, Leigh (Janiak) approached my agent and said they wanted to work with me.  She loved the score to Compliance and she found me.  It was exciting to be approached for the score to the film.  So I became involved with that in a pretty direct way.

For Vessel, the documentary, there is also another composer working on that film, T. Griffin.  The film felt very cello/heavy, so he thought who better to get on board than a cello playing composer?  He is based out of New York and we did  a serious recording session where we did all the little cells of music, where they all exist as one piece and you could pull a little bit out of each one.  You could use the drone-y elements or the clicky-clacky percussive sounds to build a bunch of different pallets for the film.  

Image from Faults, Dir: Riley Stearns
Image from Faults, Dir: Riley Stearns

The final film, Faults is directed by Riley Stearns.  I had seen a short film that played at Sundance and after that it played at a kind of mom and popl theater, Film Society, a small theater in East L.A. and I saw the film and I LOVED the short film.  There is absolutely no music in the film, but I went to him and said, if you ever do anything with music, let me know.  He said, ‘I am working on a feature, but I don’t foresee any music in it at all.”  So I said, ‘nice to meet you, if you change your mind….’, and within the year he reached out to me and said, ‘do you want to work on this?  I think it needs music after all.’  

We dug in quickly, but aesthetically it was a good place to work from. There are through composed moments in the film, but it’s not like Compliance where the score is a character in the film.  There is a lot more sound design, which was a really fun place to hang out.  I got to play with all these different sounds and I’m an electronic music person.  The score doesn’t have to hit you over the head.  Sometimes the score can be best served by being this subtle presence that can nudge you around a little bit.

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SI: Several of the films you have worked on have a dark element to them.  Do you prefer to work with a darker element when it comes to your film composition?  

HM: Even at the top of the film Honeymoon, it seriously starts out as a romance.  It starts out as this very sweet sort of chamber music; lots of piano and harp and cello and violin and then degenerates and gets pretty creepy.  It was great to get to hang out in that space; to make really pretty music, which I love to do.  I think it’s very easy for me to make dark music, but it’s fun to get to stretch out in all these various directions.

SI: What were your first gigs as a musician?

HM: I played weddings in high school.  Then I had a punk rock band called Year Zero that I played in.  I went on to play cello through the Elephant 6 Collective, who are my found family.  I picked up playing with Circulatory System and many more bands.  I was playing at the 40 Watt Club every night in Athens (Georgia).

SI: What was your first really big, “OH MY GOD” moment playing with a band/artist?

HM: I’ve had a bunch of them.  They’re all on these various scales, like the first time you go to Europe.  One of those indie bands opened for Belle and Sebastian back in the day, which was big.  I played with Gnarls Barkley and Lil Wayne which was bonkers.  The first gig I really played aside from a small private party with Gnarls Barkley was Saturday Night Live.  I was like ‘Help, all the powers that be, help me get through this.”, but that was like the kick-off and it was super cool.  

I toured with them (Gnarls Barkley) on the second record.  Danger Mouse is from Athens, Georgia and that’s where I met him.  He gave me a call when I was living in New York.  He had seen a band that I was playing with called Elf Power and I was playing tambourine, keyboards, bass, cello, running around playing all these different instruments in the band and that’s how he wanted to build out his band.  He wanted to have everyone do everything.  

Heather went on to tell me about SXSW past when she got to fill in as bass player for John C. Reilly’s band and hang out with Compliance director Craig Zobel.  She also spoke to how she has grown through the years, working with directors and scoring different films.  As a musician who holds her work precious it was difficult to give up that control and find a place where she could be comfortable changing her work for someone else.  Ms. McIntosh has found freedom in allowing someone else, in particular the director or other composer she might be working with, to make suggestions to fit their work and vision in a way that keeps the integrity of her own efforts.  Collaboration has become paramount in her work with film.

Currently Heather is currently completing a documentary, Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey.  The film is directed by Scott Teems, whom she describes as awesome, and is about Hal Holbrook who has done a Mark Twain one man show since 1954.  She is also working on Gasp, directed by Annika Kurnick, the intriguing trailer is below.

Lastly, she is on a road trip to record sounds for something she can’t talk about yet, but will be able to divulge soon.  The road trip takes Heather from Los Angeles to Austin and on to New Orleans, then to Athens, Georgia where she hails from, finally landing in New York to take part in the editing of this “soon to be named project”.  No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get more from her than this.

Keep an eye on Heather McIntosh, she’s just getting started and has so much more to share.


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Cat Edison

Cat Edison

Cat is an Austinite once removed with an affinity for film, TV, comics, graphic novels, and really anything she can read or watch. She gets emotionally invested in movie, television and literary characters, to an unhealthy degree. Cat has always had a passion for writing and there is little she loves more. Hopeful cynic and funny lady.