Natural instincts: Get to know ‘Mahalia’ composer Matthew Head
Matthew Head wants to connect with people’s hearts. He started playing piano at age 5 and writing songs at age 12, and he’s maintained this natural ability all throughout his adult life. After a brief career as an elementary school teacher, Head was hired as the music producer for the OWN Network show Greenleaf. The show was a massive success, and Head used the exposure to launch a successful scoring career on the stage and the big screen.
Head curated music for star-studded productions of Holler If Ya Hear Me and Our Town, and composed the scores for documentaries like Wilmington of Fire and Doctors & Sex Abuse. His most recent project, Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia, takes a look at the life of legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Mahalia is set to premiere April 3rd on the Lifetime Network.
Film Daily had the privilege of talking with Matthew Head about his creative process, his collaborators, and his favorite film scores of all time. Here’s what he had to say:
Tell us about your history in music. How did you start your journey?
I started playing music at the age of five when my parents put me in piano lessons. Like most kids, I wasn’t thrilled about playing the piano at that age. It later grew into a hobby that I enjoyed. After taking eight years of lessons, I started to write my own music. Once I transitioned to college, I continued the habit of creating my own songs which led me to work with independent singers and songwriters.
After a few opportunities in the music world, I landed an opportunity of scoring an indie comedy film called The Kissing Bandit directed by the Horne Brothers. That score won a few awards in festivals and opened up the doors for several opportunities to write music for film and television.
You started writing songs at the age of 12. Who were the artists that inspired you to pursue music from such a young age?
My all time favorite artist was and still is Michael Jackson. I fell in love with his music at a young age. Once I realized that I would never be able to dance or sing like him, I started to look into who was the man behind his music and it was Quincy Jones.
I started to research Quincy’s music and history and was intrigued by his musical process and journey. Again, music was a hobby for me, so I never saw myself writing music for film and television on this level, but following Quincy’s history kept my dreams tangible.
In 2017 you curated music for a star-studded production of Our Town. What was it like working with icons like Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo?
It was an unforgettable experience. After working with Broadway director, Kenny Leon on the musical Holler If Ya Hear Me, Kenny asked me to compose the music for the production of a charity reading of Our Town with the stars of Avengers: Endgame. I only had a few rehearsals to get familiar with the music and it was an amazing experience to share the stage with so much talent.
You’ve said before that you don’t have a traditional musical background. How does your background help you stand out from other composers?
I started my professional musical journey by producing music for artists and songwriters. I would create tracks for rappers and singers in the Atlanta area. Most of my tracks were filled with heavy instrumentation and emotion. Writing music for film was a natural fit for me and my music.
I never went to school or had any training in film composition, I had to rely on my natural instincts and trust myself when I work on film projects. With my background, I can connect with film from a different emotion and add my natural emotion to the film.
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to work with any mentors in the composing world, but I do have a few directors and producers that I call on for advice and guidance. I look to them for input on what direction they see the music in film is going. I am also close to fellow composers in the film industry.
We definitely lean on each other for support. Without the mentorship of composers, I would also read on the composers I admire. Quincy Jones had a huge impact on me, I read his biography, studied his music, and his journey within the industry. He is my mentor without him knowing it.
You collaborated with legendary producer Timbaland on season 2 of Step Up: High Water. Did you learn anything from Timbaland that you’ve been able to apply to your solo career?
Working with Timbaland was incredible. He was and still is one of my favorite music producers. One thing I learned while working with him on Step Up: Highwater was to trust my gut and never second guess myself. Timbaland is an innovator with his music and he made it real clear to always trust myself.
I definitely use this mentality when I compose for film and television. It is important for me to trust myself so I can build trust with the producers and directors. It has definitely come in handy and helped me along the way.
You served as the composer and music producer of the new film Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia. What initially drew you to the project?
I have built a strong relationship with Kenny Leon. We were both looking for a project that we will be able to work on together again. He approached me about the film and asked me to join the team. With my background in gospel, it was a natural fit for me to produce the songs and compose the score.
Mahalia tells the story of influential gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. How much did Jackson’s real-life music influence the score?
Mahalia Jackson’s music has a heavy influence on my life. Mahalia is one of my mother’s favorite gospel singers. I would hear Mahalia each weekend and my childhood was filled with her music. It was an honor and privilege to work on this project.
Do you find that it’s easier to compose music for stories that you can connect with on a personal level?
Definitely! Working on projects that I can connect with makes it so much easier to write music for. Creating music is personal for me, so if I am connected emotionally the music will flow much easier. I always try to find a personal touch on each project.
What’s your mission as a composer? Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your projects.
I really don’t have a mission as a composer, I just want to be involved in amazing storytelling. I love the language of music put to picture. I want the music I create to be recognized for its intriguing detail and emotional input in a film or story.
Mahalia is directed by Kenny Leon. How closely do you normally work with directors on the soundtrack?
On most projects, I try my best to work closely with the director. It is extremely important for me to gain the trust as well as creatively connect with the director. It is hard on television projects due to schedule and tight deadlines, but for feature films and documentaries, I make it an effort to be involved with the director’s daily activities during the pre-production, filming, and post-production.
Do you like screening a film before you compose the score or do you prefer to compose the music first?
It really depends on the project. I love to read the scripts first. That allows me to create imagery in my head of what I am reading. As I am reading the script, I take notes by writing questions and jotting down ideas for the creative team.
Once I receive an edit, I like to watch from a consumer’s point of view to connect with the visuals as well as the story. Though each project has its own process, I try to equip myself with as much of the story as possible before I dive into writing.
Some actors don’t like to watch themselves on the big screen. Do you enjoy listening to your past soundtracks?
I do like listening to my music. Though I can be critical of myself/music, it is good to listen with consumer ears. I don’t listen to all my project soundtracks, but when I do it’s cool to listen to the final project.
How does composing for the screen differ from composing for the stage?
It’s completely different. Writing music for the stage is stressful but so rewarding. It’s a rollercoaster ride. We only have so many rehearsals and the schedule is hectic to get the music exactly where it needs to be. Also, we are playing the music live and anything can happen on stage. It is very rewarding at the end of it all.
Writing music for film has its stressful moments, but it is more controlled. I get the time to speak with the director and write music for moments at a time. Though the schedule can be hectic, it feels more natural to me.
What has been your greatest success as a musician?
Wow… That’s a tough one. Of course, winning an Emmy for my work on Melissa’s Story (a documentary I scored in 2015) is one of my top moments. Receiving that award jump-started my career and changed my life. But, one of the most rewarding moments for me is to see my two children excited about my music.
Every time they watch television, they ask if I made the music for whatever particular show they are watching. They actually look for my name in the credits. All the accolades I’ve received can not match the feeling I get when I see their excitement.
What about your biggest failure? What did you learn?
I don’t really consider it a failure, but I do have an experience that I learned from. I was working on a television series and wasn’t called back for a second season. While working on the series, I second-guessed myself and was insecure about the music I was making. I didn’t communicate very well and didn’t gain the trust of the production.
I wasn’t called back for a second season and I know it was because I wasn’t confident in myself. I strive to be a good communicator and a team player. I had to learn to speak up for myself and gain the trust of the directors, showrunners, and producers on projects I work on. I learned a very valuable lesson from that experience.
Does your musical approach to a film change depending on the genre?
Yes, each genre requires its own process. I like to live and experience the genre and then dive in with my style, tones, and emotion. I’ve worked on projects based around gospel and then projects based around trap and hip/hop music. I try my best to give each project its own space so I can create the exact style that is needed.
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
There are a few projects that I am excited about. Of course the premier of Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia is really exciting. I am also excited about the third season Step Up: High Water. I serve as the Supervising Music Producer of the series. I am really proud of the music. There are a couple more projects I can’t speak on right now, but I assure you they are incredible.
What advice do you have for aspiring songwriters and composers?
Understand why you are making music. For me, music was a hobby, it was fun, and I never thought I’ll be on the stage I am on today. It took me to understand that music is my gift and once I understood the gift, it opened doors for me.
So if you are making music for the right reasons, good things will happen. Trust the process and enjoy the ride. Continue to work on projects bigger than you… Those projects will lead you to success.
Finally, what is your favorite film score of all time?
I have several, so I’ll pick two…
I love the score for The Color Purple by Quincy Jones. I am also a huge fan of Danny Elfman and his score for Edward Scissorhands was incredible.