Katreese Barnes may not be a household name—yet—but her work speaks for itself. She started her musical journey as a classical pianist at the age of 10 in North Carolina. Mastering her craft has led to singing, touring and arranging for some of the world’s greatest musical acts ranging from Chaka Khan, Mariah Carey, Sting and Elton John to Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder, The O’Jays and Diana Ross, among others.
In 2000 Barnes was hired as a house pianist for Saturday Night Live. Three years later she was promoted to the associate music director, before eventually landing the musical director title of the popular sketch comedy show. Eleven years later, Barnes, an accomplished songwriter, has two Emmy Awards to show for her effort—the first came in 2007 for the Justin Timberlake viral hit she co-wrote “D*ck in a Box” and the second came last month for Timberlake’s season finale monologue, “I’m Not Going to Sing Tonight.”
Going out on a high note, Barnes recently vacated her post at SNL to embark on new endeavors as the musical director for The Rosie Show, which premiere’s tonight (10/10) on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network. As the accomplished musician prepares to enter the next phase of career, BlackEnterprise.com caught up with Barnes to chat about her new position, the lessons learned at Saturday Night Live and beating breast cancer—twice.
How did it feel to win your second Emmy for Justin Timberlake’s “I’m Not Going to Sing Tonight?”
Katreese Barnes: The second time I was definitely shocked because I thought Lonely Island was going to win. I said to [SNL writer] John Mulaney on stage, “I can’t believe we beat them.” I didn’t prepare anything to say. I was up there looking kind of dumbfounded. Once that settled down it was awesome and thrilling.
Coincidentally, both of your Emmy’s involved songs performed by Justin Timberlake. What was it like songwriting for him?
Honestly, we have a synergy that he actually mentions. He gives me an idea of what he wants then I write it, and it usually works out. I remember the first time I wrote for him for the Kid’s Choice Awards. He didn’t listen to the final song until the night before. And I was like, “Boy, that’s a lot of trust there.”
How did you get into songwriting?
I wrote my first song at 10. It’s funny how you do things as a kid without knowing they will lead to a career. Through the years by collaborating with great writers it helped me hone my skills.
How did your childhood musical background lead into an actual career in the music business?
My father put a band together [called J.U.I.C.Y.] and he managed us. I think that’s what really started it off. If I hadn’t been playing in the bands while I was in high school I probably would have gone on to do the classical world full-time. It’s funny the way things happen; it’s almost murky. You meet one person one way and then you meet another person another way and there’s no real thread. I was touring and producing for various artists after coming to New York, but my big break in comedy came from winning the audition to be in the Saturday Night Live band. My music directorship there evolved over a 10-year span.
Why did you go the musical director path as opposed to becoming a solo artist?
All my solo record projects flopped. Every single one. Between management fighting and record companies folding, sometimes you know things just weren’t meant to be when things keep happening. I just ended up taking gigs to pay bills. When I ended up on Saturday Night Live I started off as a piano player. It wasn’t like I was thinking I’m going to be a comedy writer or a music director for the show. It just evolved that way.
What did you learn from SNL that you will always remember?
The lessons are so numerous I couldn’t even count them. It would probably [take] a lifetime counting. On that show you have to be on your feet and you have to deal with so many brilliant comedic talents and musical styles. I think mostly I learned to not be afraid. You have to take the fear out of everything or it won’t work.