Catherine Grealish, Composer
Catherine Grealish is a musician, composer, and arranger from Hobart, Tasmania. Her most recent score, for the documentary Gold Balls, won Best Documentary Soundtrack at the 2017 Garden State Film Festival.
What inspired you to go into composing?
I’d been a performing musician for basically my whole life, but I never felt like I fit properly…I was trained to be a classical singer and I also did jazz, then I went into being a rock back-up singer and I studied violin, but I just never felt like I fit anywhere. Then I went into teaching and that was a bit soul-destroying because it was so exhausting…then one day when I was writing music for my kids to play, I realized I love composing and this is when I’m happiest. I think one reason why it just never jumped out at me initially is because we really don’t have any models for women composers. Certainly every composer I studied growing up was a male composer, and it was never pitched to me in any of my music studies that this is an option, that I could write music for a living. It’s so funny to me, looking back on it now, that I never saw it as an option.
So, then I started thinking, how do you monetize writing music? And around that time I received an email about a film scoring program and I decided to check it out. When I did, the first session was on the basics of film scoring, and it was about writing music to picture, but it was also about collaborating with people and hustling for gigs…everything they were describing was the skillset I had been building my entire life. This happened when I was 33, so I was really ready to find the thing, because I had been looking for so long, and it was a relief to figure it out. I just put all my eggs in that basket. I kept teaching and finished my masters in musical education, but I just started hustling like crazy.
Was there anything specific that sparked a love for composing early on?
When I was a kid, the thing I was drawn to was music for advertising. I was fascinated by this opportunity to have thirty seconds or a minute to tell a story, and the reach that advertising had that nothing else has. People like their genres or their kind of music, but ads are something that reach everybody. I didn’t watch a lot of commercial TV, because my parents were really straight laced and conservative, and they told me recently that they were blown away by how I knew all the ads even though I never watched television. They were like, ‘how does she pick this stuff up?’ I was just kind of drawn to ways to reach people. And I was never drawn to stuff that was ahead of its time, because again, when you’re writing stuff that’s ahead of its time, you’re not reaching people now, and I’ve always wanted to connect to people. So for me, it was always fascinating to use music to connect to people right now and to be accessible and make people feel good.
Do you have a lot of female colleagues in your work as a composer?
When I first came to L.A., there was a female composer who had worked in film and then switched to concert, and I reached out to her and she became a mentor to me right away, and she hooked me up with these leading women film composers in L.A. So I made a point of getting in touch with those women. They’re all women who have broken the ceiling to some extent in film or video games. So I got in with them pretty quickly. But everyone in L.A. knows the women composers, because there are not, comparably, that many. When you go to a composer’s event, there’s never a line for the ladies room. It’s a sea of white men. There’s very little diversity of any kind.
What was the first big moment in your career?
Last year I got a call to work on an ABC pilot as an orchestrator. It wasn’t a composing gig, but it was the first studio thing, and being the lead orchestrator on that was pretty crazy.
It blew me away that I got that call. And I thought, if I’m getting calls like this, everything might be ok. I could actually see this working out.
What was it like hearing your music in a theater for the first time?
It’s crazy. It’s terrifying, because once you write the music you release it to the filmmakers, and you never know how it’s going to be mixed or anything, you have to surrender your music and understand that it might be chopped up or something. There’s a horrifying story from 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the composer was hired and he really struggled the whole time he was scoring it, and he only scored half the movie by the time the director said “we’re good, we have enough music.” And when the composer showed up to the premier with his wife and kids, none of his music was used in the film. He wasn’t given a head’s up, and that kind of stuff happens all the time, so there’s a little bit of trepidation when you’re waiting to see how it all works out.
The first one I saw in theaters was a short film we did for a competition at the Seattle International Film Festival and it was a super fun film and I was really proud of myself for the music I had done, and we ended up winning so the film was screened a few times as part of SIFF. That was crazy to me, and it ended up being super cool. I still work with all the filmmakers associate with that, that was the beginning of a relationship that has stayed with me. There were a lot of lessons in that first opportunity.
What other firsts are you looking forward to in your career?
My first film that I score as the composer, as opposed to additional music, that gets into theaters. These days, with the change in distribution models, it’s getting more and more rare for films to be in theaters. So I’m really excited to one day have a film in theaters. And I would really love to have a TV show. TV seems to be in this real awakening, and broadcast and cable are trying to keep up with streaming, so it seems like there are more opportunities there, and I’m cautiously optimistic about that.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a number of things. I’m working on three different shorts and a feature film with a fantastic filmmaker, Jessica Martin. They’re about to start shooting, and I’ll be scoring that this summer. It’s really exciting, it’s called Abby and Tabby alone in the desert, and it’s about women helping women. It’s about sisterhood and it has a fun, comedic sci-fi element, but it also covers the issue of domestic abuse, which is something I think needs to be discussed more. The more we tell these stories, the more people can find help and find a common voice.
I’m also working on a video game right now and a musical, so I have a lot of cool stuff going on.