Shawn Patterson is the man behind what is arguably one of 2014’s biggest film-related musical successes, having written the hugely popular Everything is Awesome for The Lego Movie, for which he has been nominated for several awards this year, including an Oscar and a Grammy. He has worked on many animated and comedy projects over the years, providing a truly diverse array of music with a deep and wide musical sensibility. These projects include The Ren and Stimpy Show, Titan Maximum, Robot Chicken, and El Tirgre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera. His music can currently be heard in the Netflix original series, The Adventures of Puss in Boots.
Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us, Shawn. First off, congratulations on all the award nominations you’ve received for The LEGO Movie’s Everything is Awesome, including a Grammy nomination for “Best Song Written for Visual Media” and an Oscar nomination for “Best Original Song”. Adults and children alike all over the globe have come to know and love this song (no matter how crazy it may drive parents from hearing their kids sing it all day, every day!). What’s it like for you to have this creation of yours make such a massive impact throughout the world?
It’s very unexpected and amazing to see people reacting the way they have. I’m constantly writing new music and in a way, it feels like I suddenly looked up from the piano after many years and a million people are standing there smiling and singing something I created. It’s a beautiful feeling and something that means a great deal to me. To see kids at singing and dancing around to my song … that’s a feeling that is near impossible to beat.
With the amount of collaboration necessary for a project like The LEGO Movie, and with the musical involvement of Tegan and Sara, The Lonely Island, and Sammy Allen (the latter in the hilariously awesome tongue-in-cheek unplugged version), is “everything cool when you’re part of a team”?
That’s a great question with a long answer. Everything IS cool and team work and collaboration can be a fun, inspiring thing. In my world, there is sometimes a degree of true collaboration in terms of production, but rarely in terms of writing. On Robot Chicken or Puss in Boots, often times one of the scriptwriters will write complete lyrics for a song and they are handed off to me and other times, I am asked to write the lyrics completely on my own – rarely has there been a back and forth of swapping ideas. In terms of song production, I’m typically given some creative suggestions and off I go; either singing the song myself, hiring the necessary vocalists (or they would bring in a vocalist); I almost always play all the instruments, mix and engineer it all myself. This has often just been the case of necessity – not always choice. I do love working with great musicians and vocalists that inspire me and bring their unique voice and approach to the table. In the case of Everything Is Awesome, from my perspective, the writing and creation of the song felt like a very typical solo endeavour for me. I got the call from Chris McKay asking me if I’d be interested in writing a song for The Lego Movie. Initially, the tune was going to be played over a pretty long montage in the middle of the film so, I needed to write and produce a complete song (music and lyric) with verse, chorus and a bridge – which I did. I had hired a vocalist I work with a lot to sing all the main vocal parts (Sammy Allen), rapped the bridge myself, played all the instruments and produced a complete song and delivered it.
After Sammy Allen sang the full pop version at my studio, I soon adapted and produced the “Unplugged” acoustic version directly from my pop version – in which we also both sang and ended up in both the film and on the soundtrack. On the pop version I wrote and produced, Sammy’s vocal performance was something that resonated with and convinced everyone; which laid the groundwork for everything to follow. Everyone on the crew heard the song and for many weeks; kept hearing it cut in to various rough cuts of the film. I was getting a fun blend of both annoyance and praise.
From there, I had no involvement in any of the song production that happened next – which was many weeks later. In terms of the additional lyrics, The Lonely Island eventually varied some of my existing rap lyrics and added some of their own to the rap section based off my full pop version (as did JoLi to the verse section.) In these sorts of songs written for film, various artists are often brought in because someone on the project knows them and/or enjoys their work; pretty standard. Teagan and Sara, The Lonely Island, JoLi and Mark Mothersbough were all brought in for various degrees of production or singing/rapping on the pop version and all did a fine job. I have my own team of musicians and vocalists that I love to work with and honestly had never even met any of them prior.
Understandably, Phil Lord, Chris Miller and Warner Brothers didn’t really know me well prior to me writing this for them. So, it only makes sense that they would bring their own people to lend a hand. At the end of the day, as long as they felt good about the song and were happy, then I am happy. It’s seriously a thrill and an honor for me to be creatively involved with the guys and this movie.
What were your favourite, most interesting things about creating Everything is Awesome?
I guess I had a few favorite moments: when I finished rapping the bridge of Everything Is Awesome, I was imagining Snoop Dogg or Ice T doing the rap and my lyrics were pretty specific to a very vanilla world Emmet would appreciate: riding scooters, playing tunes on a kazoo, BF bracelets, skipping stones, etc. It was hard not to laugh at my own performance, but I felt strongly that it was both a solid and critical part of the song. Not to long ago, RZA and 50 Cent had both recorded vocals on two different songs I wrote so I could have likely gotten either of them to rap the bridge. It could have been pretty funny having either of those guys laying down the rap about, “capri pants, sweater vests, pictures of my cat – the best!” Obviously, I’m a big fan of contrasting elements.
My second favorite moment was when Sammy started singing her vocal parts on the Unplugged version… damn… it was like Band Aid or We Are The World… but it was ALL coming from her. It was a strange thing because it was done very tongue-in-cheek but she was just crushing it. I can’t hear that track and not smile knowing how great it all came together. Any time Sammy sings my songs, she brings something special and magical to the session. In fact, her vocal performance on the original pop version was so great you can easily hear the influence in Teagan and Sara’s cool vocal performance on the final pop version. Sammy sang this beautiful lower harmony that just killed the track; her initial vocal performance was something that resonated with and convinced everyone.
You are currently writing the score for Netflix’s original series, The Adventures of Puss in Boots. What can you tell us about your work on the show, and your approach to the music? Does it share any musical DNA with the Shrek franchise, where this iteration of the character originated, or with Henry Jackman’s score for the 2011 eponymous stand-alone film?
I fell in love with flamenco music when I was in Spain as a teenager. I never lost my passion for it. So, landing this job is wonderful. The character itself is the same swashbuckling cat from Shrek, but this takes place at another point in his life. My theme and underscore is all original; it doesn’t share any specific musical DNA with anyone else’s work from Puss in Boots or any other cat in boots, for that matter. I paid some attention to the way they musically treated Puss in Shrek 2 and then already knew and loved other scores that were very beautiful and compelling: The Mask of Zorro by James Horner and Don Juan by Max Steiner. I am a serious film score fanatic. I hired a phenomenal flamenco guitarist named Jason “El Rubio” McGuire from the bay area to play guitar parts from my scores on this, so it’s a real thrill for me creatively. He is a true master of the genre and I am so fortunate to work with him. I have the biggest smile in the world when his parts are finished. Astounding. His command of the guitar is a constant reminder … that you can never, ever, ever practice enough.
Your impressive work on Robot Chicken with Chris McKay helped you land The LEGO Movie project. While evident throughout your career, your sheer musical knowledge and stylistic diversity particularly shine in Robot Chicken, executed at a maximum level of quality and skill. Did mastering all of these styles and approaches come out of your own interest, or did that become a necessity of your working life as a composer?
Thank you, that’s very kind. I’ve always had an extremely high standard set for myself, musically speaking. Everywhere I have ever gone; jam sessions, befriending musicians, orchestrators, and teachers – I always looked for the best and surrounded myself with the best. And believe me when I say, I have had my ass kicked musically my entire life. However, I am sure in some ways, I gained something from it. I have studied music for years and have an absolute passion for being a part of telling the story through score and/or song. I think writing for so much animation over the years and in so many types of styles (not to mention my passion for styles I have yet to even compose for in various media), just helped expand my musical voice while pushing myself to be the best I can be. I do this for my own standard.
Being both composer and songwriter for Robot Chicken you’ve understandably written a lot of musical and stylistic parodies (such as drawing from John Williams’ Superman score for a Superman vs. Santa sketch), and some hilarious comedic lyrics for the show. How do you manage the fine line between feeble comedy and being genuinely funny?
I try to just understand the psychology of the joke, or intent. You know … if something has to be believable to be funny, then the quality and realness of the music and lyric has to be absolute and unquestionable. I wrote and produced a song that Ke$ha sang and the music itself had to be produced solid enough that it sounded like it was off her own CD – otherwise, its not believable. It’s a balance, really. Just understanding how it needs to roll out. Or … trying to understand it.
From your early days working as music editor on The Ren and Stimpy Show, your credits span a plethora of cartoon and animation titles. Was that by design, or a trajectory of related opportunities and open doors? Or a bit of both?
I never, ever set out to write music in animation. I was a Bugs Bunny nut and loved Carl Stallings blur of song and score as a kid, but, I started working in animation as a way to pay the bills since my early jobs of selling music were infrequent and didn’t pay enough. As The Ren & Stimpy Show wrapped up, all those directors fanned out into the world and they began quickly hiring me. I have been fortunate in that I seem to get hired to do more grand orchestral work than the Carl Stalling style of writing for physical movement/comedy in animation; I am not wild about writing like that, it’s painful! Hats off to any composers out there that pull it off though. It is not an easy thing to do well.
Time to geek out a little bit. What’s your studio setup like? Any stand-out pieces of hardware and software? Your favourite instruments (real or virtual)?
My studio is a wreck and in need of a major overhaul. For my composing software, I have been using Digital Performer since before it was digital. In other words … since the stone age. It works well and I probably should upgrade to Pro Tools at some point … but … I’m not a huge software nut. I have some guitars in my studio that are always nearby and like family to me. I have a handmade archtop jazz guitar, a Roger Borys B120 that I had made for me when I was a college student. I have a Tom Anderson guitar that is a workhorse. I like Cinesamples and Project SAM a lot for orchestral samples. But, truthfully when it comes to orchestral writing and production, I blend things from multiple sample library sources to keep it interesting. I do intend to treat myself this year. I want to get into some National Slide guitar acoustic stuff and I intend to go up to Seattle and visit this shop that specializes in Django Reinhardt gypsy-style guitars. AND … I want to get some killer guitar amplifiers and new microphones. I love Reinhold Bogner’s guitar amp designs; they breathe and sing like magic.
What does your daily routine look like?
It’s been brutal. Puss in Boots is a heavy music project requiring a lot of my focus. I get up super early, write and produce to picture – all day long. Songs are an ongoing part of the series as well. Every couple of weeks, I meet up with the PIB crew and we spot and review the underscore from the episodes. It’s a great thrill creatively to be on this series. Then when I get my kids, I pull double duty, writing and trying to be a good father. I work through weekends when I don’t have them to make up for it. Probably why I look like the walking dead most of the time.
Do you have a dream project?
I do! I have a ton of them actually. I intend to get my musical off the ground this year. I am not a Broadway guy, but I want to venture into musical theater more. I love the live ‘could crash at any moment’ feeling of their world. I have sketched out two Operas that I would love to be able to finish and get on stage: one is a dramatic ocean tale of a sea captain and the other is a French comedy set in the mid 1800’s. I want to score feature film but not just any style; I want to do more serious period stuff and smaller ensemble styles. I would love to score a film with a full jazz score. Also, I want to write more songs for film and television. I’d love to be a part of writing and developing song and score for stage and then take my music from stage and be a part of adapting it to fit in feature film. I also have several songs finished that I want to get placed in feature films too.
Lots of music to write and most certainly… not enough time.