Founded in 2000, Voodoo Highway Music Group has become one of the most in-demand music composition teams in North America. At the heart of the company are award-winning composers Brian Pickett, Graeme Cornies, and James Chapple.
Experience and friendship has afforded the trio a comfort in collaboration that makes them a uniquely cohesive team, responsible for thousands of hours of original music for film, TV, video games, and advertising (the trio write over eighty songs a year for just one season of one of their series).
Fred Rogers’ “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood”, “Paw Patrol” and the “Total Drama” franchises are just a few of the multi-awarding-winning series that the composers split their time scoring. The trio of composers spoke to Awards Focus regarding their longstanding collaboration, lessons learned over the years, and the complexities of writing music for wide-ranging audiences.
Awards Focus: “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” follows in the footsteps of the great Fred Rogers, who has recently had a narrative film made starring Tom Hanks as well as a brilliant documentary. What was your relationship like with Fred Rogers and his brand of storytelling prior to working on “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood”?
GRAEME CORNIES: We grew up watching the original series, so having a chance to get involved with Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood was a dream come true. I wish we had a chance to develop a one-on-one relationship with Fred before he passed, but on the plus side, we’ve had a bunch of opportunities to re-imagine Fred’s music for a new generation, and it has been a real honor to be entrusted with that.
AF: With “Paw Patrol” you’re talking about an enormous success, reaching a global audience. What’s that been like for you, Brian, seeing so many people writing about your work online and sharing such a love for the series?
BRIAN PICKETT: “Paw Patrol” was and is the little show that could. We worked on so many series that didn’t get past season one, so we learned not to get our hopes up too much.
At the season one wrap party, however, the series producer mentioned that the ratings were off the charts. A few months later, I took my then 4-year-old son to a birthday party, and it was Paw Patrol-themed which blew my mind at the time. I felt like a rock star.
Shortly after that, I remember the first time it was mentioned on Late Night TV, and then it was spoofed on Robot Chicken, which was a sign that it was a solid part of Pop Culture. The icing on the cake was when it was featured in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC. It’s been incredible to watch and be a part of its meteoric rise.
AF: When working in family entertainment, are there certain instruments or melodic choices that you make, knowing it will be more pleasing or attention-holding for the kids?
BRIAN PICKETT: Stylistically, we try to approach every kid’s series cinematically. We don’t want to musically talk down to the young viewers, and we especially don’t want to annoy the parents. That’s all to say that we try and keep our scores mature sounding.
They do shift musical gears quicker and follow emotions a lot tighter than you would if you were scoring a film for grownups, but I think that’s because sometimes a bit more emotional and thematic guidance is needed. We have to be a bit more obvious with what the music is trying to say.
When you meet a villain, for example, there should be no doubt who that character is from the get-go. On the flip side, when we see something positive happen, we need to make sure it is very obviously scored as a happy moment.
AF: So many children are just learning to process emotions, as well as learning what should be funny and what should be scary or make them feel sad or angry. Can you talk about using music as a tool to elicit feelings in the younger viewers in conjunction with the animation?
GRAEME CORNIES: We’ve worked on a lot of shows with educational goals like literacy and numeracy, but Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is rare in that it aims to give kids an emotional education.
Every episode leaves its viewers with a bite-sized musical strategy to help parents and kids with one of the common challenges of childhood. Whether it’s a strategy about why sharing can feel good, or about how to handle angry feelings, each strategy gets distilled into a catchy, repeatable chorus that parents and kids can use with one another in the context of their own family life.
These strategies are grounded in day-to-day situations on the show and offer various ways to contextualize the emotions that go with the problems and solutions offered on screen. Every musical strategy begins with early childhood education research, and best of all, it leaves viewers with an emotional tool that stays with them long after the show has ended.
AF: What’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced on these series, and what’s the collaboration like within the Voodoo Highway Music group?
JAMES CHAPPLE: I think probably the biggest challenge for us was writing all of the original songs for “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” and implementing the singable hooks throughout each episode.
We do a lot of scoring for various shows, but songwriting is an entirely different beast that brings a unique set of challenges. There are four original songs per episode, somewhere in the neighborhood of 80+ songs per season, so this is the kind of situation where being part of a team is very handy. We also are very fortunate to have Rachael Johnstone assist us, she assigns us songs based on our individual musical strengths, keeps track of the due dates/revision cycle AND manages to record all of the actors for each song. Without her, we’d definitely be caught in a web of chaos on this show! It really is a team effort.
As far as our collaboration, it can vary from show to show. The three of us have been working together for 22 years now, so we are all musically on the same page when it comes to approaching a scene.
Because there are three of us, we are able to break down each episode into themes (the villain, the hero, the chase scene, etc), and we will each take those corresponding moments.
Lastly, we don’t often collaborate on the same score, but there are a few times a year when we will exchange tracks back and forth to create something together. These moments are always fun for me as I get the opportunity to hyper-focus on one aspect of the cue, and leave space for either Brian or Graeme to fill in the blanks. It often results in music that is higher in quality than if I wrote it solo.
AF: What’s one thing that you wish you knew going into the job, and one thing you’ve taken away from these projects that you’ll use in the future?
JAMES CHAPPLE: I think one of the best things we’ve all learned over the years is how to take constructive criticism and have a thicker skin. When we were young and starting out, I think getting notes back from clients was larger stress than it is for us today.
I had to learn how to separate my artistic instincts from what was most needed for the show, and not to take it personally if something I had worked hard on needed to be redone. We are also really fortunate to be working with some very talented creative teams on these shows, and more often than not, when they give us a note, it makes the music better! Instead of seeing these moments as stressful, or as a commentary on our skills, we’ve now reframed it into a way to better our craft.
Regarding the second part of the question: I think it is a different thing for all three of us, so I can only speak for myself here, but personally, I have become a far better songwriter because of what I’ve learned working on Daniel’s Tiger Neighborhood. The focus on having a repeatable chorus hook has become my go-to method of songwriting, regardless of genre or project. I love how a skill set for one show can influence so many other projects, and we’re very fortunate to have so many different styles of shows to learn from.
AF: With a series like “Total Dramarama” what challenges does that bring to the table, and how is that in comparison to your work on “Daniel Tiger” and “Paw Patrol”?
JAMES CHAPPLE: The “Total Drama” franchise is definitely a different beast than “Paw Patrol” and “Daniel’s Tiger Neighborhood,” most notably because the audience is much older, typically in their teens. The main challenge for us is to switch musical gears from preschool-oriented music to a more mature cinematic style.
Preschool music is often wall-to-wall, with little room for silence or subtlety. Total Drama is the opposite of that, in that it’s treated with a more cinematic touch, with many more moments of silence in the music.
Also, we have license to go “big” on this show compared with other series. For example, an “evil” cue on “Paw Patrol” might sound a little lighter and less scary than something we would concoct for Total Drama, where we could go all-out and make it sound like a horror movie soundtrack. The other challenge in this series is the many pop culture references. To break out of our typical Total Drama musical palette, and try to reference a popular movie or TV show is always an interesting challenge. It’s fun to ask ourselves, “How can I distill the music of (insert popular pop culture franchise here) down into a 30-second scene?” These moments definitely keep us on our toes musically, but in the end, we find them really fun and rewarding.