When songwriter, composer and producer Matt Mahaffey started scoring for animated projects with the game-changing Shrek, the transition was not only serendipitous, but also a kind of full-circle turn. Mahaffey was just four years old when he started writing songs and playing drums, and soon honed his craft performing at Dollywood. Later, after he’d strayed from the bluegrass and country he was raised on growing up in East Tennessee, he formed the spunky, funky alternative pop rock band sElf, and in 2000, released its fifth album, Gizmodgery, recorded almost entirely with children’s toys. So, when DreamWorks, the label to which he’d been signed, offered him work in its burgeoning film and animation divisions, Mahaffey found himself working on an adult-friendly kids’ movie about a green monster, which led to work with Disney (Henry Hugglemonster), Nickelodeon (Sanjay and Craig), and more.
As it turned out, being a kid musician and playing with kids’ instruments had been prescient training. And that wasn’t Mahaffey’s only full-circle turn. After years in Los Angeles doing commissioned music for TV shows (CSI Miami, Entourage, Weeds), working with A-listers like P!nk, Beyonce and Keith Urban, as well as touring with Beck domestically and abroad, Mahaffey returned to Tennessee – Nashville, to be exact—where he set up a studio, continues to perform and make sElf music. Of course, he’s still making more of his original scores too, like the rocking tunes on animated hits like Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Nella The Princess Knight, in addition to scores for reality and scripted fare.
BMI talked the multi-faceted phenom into talking about traversing worlds, the enduring appeal of the Ninja Turtles and what it all means.
The Ninja Turtles have been around for decades but have certainly kept up with the times. How did you meet the challenge of adapting their score to make it modern and keep it fresh?
They HAVE been around forever….35 years, in fact! So many talented composers have touched the show. I certainly want to show respect to what they’ve created while also adding my own flair. The score for Rise Of The TMNT incorporates all of my musical sensibilities—I’m basically utilizing every single tool in my creative arsenal. It’s such a fun new twist meeting the turtles when they are a little younger. The show is full of discovery so each episode is different and introduces new villains, adventures, and opportunities to get experimental!
Like the original, the story is based in New York, which is my musical church. I worship the rap and hip-hop that came from the city in the 80’s and 90’s, so I tend to write a lot of urban cues in that vein if things are going smoothly for the turtles. Nostalgic, yes…but modernized to fit with the fast pace of Andy Suriano’s wonderful designs. In Rise the city also has a magical underworld. It’s filled with all kinds of crazy villains and I try to give each of them their own theme and set of sounds.
One of your own songs famously ended up in Shrek. Tell us a bit about how that came about and about your band sElf.
My band sElf was signed to DreamWorks Records. At the time, DreamWorks consisted of three separate divisions, music, film, and animation. We were encouraged to screen films that DreamWorks had in production and to try and write applicable music. Shrek was the very first film I screened and pitched original music for. I wrote the song “Stay Home” to open the film. Although the song was moved to the end credits, the film gained worldwide popularity and won the very first Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2002. Shrek became the gift that kept on giving for me, as I was hired to score alternate endings to the subsequent sequels and many offshoot short films. The Shrek world was my first taste of scoring to picture.
You grew up playing at Dollywood. How did that experience shape the way you think about music and performance?
Ha, this is true! We were a band of little kids playing cover music and original music on a stage in the middle of the park. We smiled in our matching outfits, told our jokes right on cue, and belted out three-part harmonies all day long. It was a great training ground as proven by the fact that the rest of those kids have gone on to be very successful in the touring world of country music! I think doing a show over and over like that made me crave variety, and maybe a little less banjo…scoring music to picture has provided that and so much more.
You’ve traversed so many worlds, from indie pop to hip-hop, and done so many things from performing to producing and animation scores. How did you cultivate and maintain that sense of flexibility?
I’ve always been interested in many types of music, and with my personal work, I never wanted to be pigeonholed or genre-fied. I think that’s a big part of why I got the Turtles gig! I haven’t really had to cultivate a sense of flexibility, as my career path has provided that, but I have found that going back and forth between producer and composer makes me do each thing a little better somehow.
Why did you join BMI and how has it impacted your career?
I know many of the people that work at BMI and I am extremely grateful for the hard work they do. They are real people, great musicians, music lovers, personal friends, and at times, personal saviors.
Simply put, I would not be able to do what I do without BMI.
What’s next for you?
I have a wonderful team, Cake In Space. We’re currently scoring new seasons of animated shows Nella The Princess Knight and Transformers: Rescue Bots and reality shows Total Divas and Total Bellas, and of course, TMNT and other stuff. We love what we do, we work hard, and we are super proud of every piece of music that we make. Next? I’d like to work on another feature film—hopefully animated. Also, a new sElf record. Because, why not?