Catching Up With Heather McIntosh

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Music fans probably know Heather McIntosh best as the “house cellist” for Athens’ legendary Elephant 6 Collective, which spawned such obsession-worthy acts as Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal, Elf Power, Beulah and countless others. But she’s equally lauded in the film world as one of the most exciting young composers on the scene. We caught up with Heather at this year’s SXSW to hear about the three films she had at the festival.

Paste We’re here with Heather McIntosh, an amazing composer whose work you might have most recently heard in Craig Zobel’s masterpiece Compliance. You’re here with more projects at SXSW this year, correct?
Heather McIntosh: I’m here, actually, with three films. Faults, directed by Riley Stearns, and I’m here with a Midnighter film called Honeymoon, directed by Leigh Janiak, and then I’m also here with a documentary I co-composed with T. Griffin, called Vessel, which is a documentary about ladies on the high seas offering abortions to people where you can’t quite have them. That’s my three.

Paste: Well let’s hit Vessel and Honeymoon quickly, because we’ll probably append this to the podcast that talks about Faults. I guess a good first question would be, tell me about three different films, three different approaches, what’s it like for you to have to wear some different hats as far as what the score is doing in the film?
McIntosh: With Honeymoon, with Leigh’s film, it starts off very gentle, almost like romance. “We’re on our honeymoon!” And it’s all this very sweet, waltzy loveliness. Then it sort of degenerates into…not the best time. It definitely goes down that avant-garde, like, lots of dripping strings and the classical scary movie kind of category.

Paste: A Hitchcockian kind of thing?
McIntosh: Maybe even like, you know, it’s a little bit like your Ligeti and Penderecki, so your real sort of shiny, drippy stuff. Real…you can’t get this hand gesture, can you?

Paste: No, it’s great radio.
McIntosh: That does not work well; this I realize is a failure on my part. But, Leigh also really knew what she wanted. She was very specific in her intention, and we were really able to hit some notes right off the bat. Then, it was just finessing the beats of it. With Vessel, it was interesting because Todd asked for me to come on board for the score, and they had a lot of cello music in the initial score before we got a hold of it. So what better to have a cello-playing composer working with you? So I did like a super blast-out weekend, an extended weekend with Todd, and we just recorded tons of little interworking cells, where you have all these different layers sort of in a minimalistic way, where you could have it all going at once or have these little bits. He’s also really great at sampling, reusing and shifting, so he did a bunch of that, and I would add to it, and we would go back and forth. I think it worked out pretty well.

Paste: Before we move on to Faults, is the process for you as a composer different for a documentary as opposed to a narrative, or is it similar?
McIntosh: It’s interesting, I kind of feel like you’re always dealing with a story. Aside from the fact that sometimes in documentary work there is a bit more score, that works as a bed throughout the whole thing, not all the time but that can happen. Overall, you’re still just supporting the story of the film, so in that way it’s not really any different at all, I’d say. I do feel that sometimes there will be a wash of score that can exist that will get us from the boat to the this to this. I do really think it’s how do you carry the story on. With Vessel, you know they’re kind of on the high seas. It’s very sort of Greenpeace pirate thing they’re doing. It’s kind of action-y; you wanna get that momentum going so it’s fun to see that fall into place when they’re doing all their…shaking things up, we’ll say.

Paste: And then Faults. Tell me about, sort of what I was said before, different things with different films and what each film needs. What did Faults need?
McIntosh: With this one, it’s funny because I saw his short play about a year ago. And his short has no music in it—The Cub has absolutely no music in it. But I went up to him right after the screening and was like “if you ever do anything, if you ever do a feature…” And it is a great short. You can find it on the internet. I was so excited about that, and he said at the time “I am working on a feature, but I don’t see any score in the film.” Then, right before this festival adventure, I got an email from him and we hopped on board.

So I knew it was coming from a place where he expected there to be no music at all, but I got to really play around in that sound design space. Which is so fun for me, because I come from an electronic music composition background, sort of an artsy-fartsy kind of place. To get to pitch-shift down cellos to the point where they just sound like room tone, to get to have that kind of fun and have it be so easy where it’s just like “Yes!” I just think there was also a matching of the minds immediately. It didn’t take much to get to the right place.

But he also really knew what he wanted, so it wasn’t ever a question. We could have the talk, “Oh I think you should take out this one voicing,” and I’m so flexible when it comes to stuff like that. I’m not precious with my music. I don’t want to be heavy-handed with a score. If it doesn’t need to be that kind of character in the film, it should be pulled back. There is absolutely no reason for me to hear more notes if they’re not necessary. I feel like it’s really effective. There is a lot of framing, there are some through-composed parts of the score where it’s like, this is music, it feels like music, and you’re not questioning whether or not it’s sound design. It’s a good mix to be able to put on both of those hats, the scoring composer hat and then to just be a weirdo. It’s a happy, happy place for me, to be a little bit of a weirdo. So, it was great, it was exactly the right thing to get involved in and at the right time. It just felt so easy and fresh, and it’s a really great film too.

Paste: Have you seen the finished film?
McIntosh: Yes, yes. I saw it just last night. I went for the mix, which was great too, but there were still some last steps that needed to be made at that point. So, to see the finished film with all of its color correction and everything was really fun.

Paste: How was the audience reaction?
McIntosh: I think they liked it. They responded really well, and it was crowded, which is great. It had the right feeling and I think everyone was really on board. You know it’s funny, but it’s dark. It gets pretty dark, but it’s pretty funny too. His timing is just great, and it’s all very intentional. Everything is on purpose, and I think that everything that is on purpose works.

Paste: Is Riley [Stearns] excited?
McIntosh: I think he’s excited, yeah. His whole family was in town for the screening. I guess they live sort of slightly outside of Austin, which is cool. I think it was successful. I feel really good about it.

Paste: So, tell me what you have next on the docket. What are you working on next?
McIntosh: Well, I’m about to start working on a feature. I don’t know if I should talk about it yet…

Paste: A mystery feature.
McIntosh: I’m working on a mystery feature that I am traveling across the country to record. I’ve been working a whole bunch, so I’m going across the country and I’m recording all these tracker organs, old-timey pipe organs, and recording some choral music and about ready to get up some cool stuff. I’ll tell you about it really soon.

Paste: So, where can Paste readers track down what you’re doing and follow you?
McIntosh: I have a website that is my name, it’s just, that’s me! Easy-peasy.

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