From the halls of Weldon Middle School to the concert stages of New York City and beyond, Katreese Barnes has followed her musical instincts to the pinnacle of her professional career and well beyond the dreams of the gifted young prodigy who once called Halifax County home.
Growing up as an Army brat moving from state to state, Barnes and her family settled in Weldon in 1976. At the age of 10, she began taking classical music lessons, a move her mother, Esther, recognized as inevitable. “She was just a very talented child,” she said during a recent interview. “The teacher gave her the sheet music and she went through it just like that. They had to start writing out charts for her after that. She won all kinds of competitions.”
After attending Weldon City Schools for several years, Barnes was awarded a music scholarship to the N.C. School of Arts in Winston Salem. Thriving in the creative atmosphere of her new environment, she played with the Wilmington Symphony as a featured soloist during their performance of Bach’s “Concerto in D Minor,” a coveted slot that brought her recognition outside of regional music circles.
Drawing inspiration from her father, an avid musician who played in Top 40 bands in his spare time, Barnes joined her equally talented brother, Jerry, to form the early 80’s R&B group Juicy, and was quickly signed to a recording contract with Arista Records. The group released their debut album in 1982 and went on to record the theme for the seminal 1984 movie “Beat Street,” one of the first motion pictures to explore the world of break dancing and hip-hop. Moving on to Atlantic and CBS records later in the decade, Juicy released a number of singles and two more full-length albums before disbanding in 1987.
Several years later, in the early nineties, Barnes made the decision to move to New York, a decision that would ultimately catapult her career into an entirely different direction.
Following the move, Barnes, now in her early-twenties, quickly established herself as a backup singer after being tapped by legendary R&B artist Roberta Flack to work on her 1994 album “Roberta.” She would go on to work with some of the biggest names in the music industry, such as Sting, Carly Simon, P. Diddy and Billy Joel, stretching her wings into the fields of writing and arranging in the process.
Speaking to the Daily Herald from her home in New York Tuesday, Barnes recalled this formative period of her career fondly. “It was funny how I acclimated so fast working with people I idolized. I felt that was where I was supposed to be. I believe you are just destined to be who you are going to be. When you meet people who are like-minded, it really opens your eyes.”
In 1999, a band mate informed Barnes about an opening for a pianist with the house band of the famed late-night comedy show Saturday Night Live. Though somewhat skeptical of her chances at first, Barnes auditioned for the spot. Much to her surprise, she got the job.
Slowly but surely, Barnes worked her way up the ranks, writing, arranging and learning the ropes of working in live television. Eventually, Barnes would be promoted to musical director, the first African-American female to hold that title in the show’s history.
“In this industry there’s a lot of pressure to have your own band and constantly tour and make records,” Barnes said of the career change, “but very few people can sustain that. With SNL, it’s a different challenge. You’re always doing something different. It’s worked out for me and I believe I found the thing that’s right for my soul.”
Though she was thrilled to get the job, Barnes said the change of pace took some getting used to. “Working at SNL is completely different from the work I did before. I can’t even explain the madness of that show from week to week. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere. It’s amazing working with this brilliant cast of comedians and musicians.”
One of the high points of Barnes’ tenure on SNL thus far was winning the 2007 Emmy for Best Original Music and Lyrics for her work on “D..k in a Box,” a classic comedy sketch starring Justin Timberlake. “That will never leave my piano,” Barnes said of the award. “A lot of people think I wrote the lyrics but I didn’t. I just wrote the music. They came to me and said they wanted a spoof of the nineties R&B stuff, like R. Kelly and Color Me Badd. I came up with the music on Tuesday and they recorded the vocals Thursday night. You’ve got to be on top of your game to do this because a lot of it is last minute.”
Addressing the risqué nature of the song, Barnes said she was told it was a “stretch for some of the older Emmy nominating committee members. But comedy is so different now than it was 30 years ago, and I think people are smart and will recognize that.”
With her career in full swing, Barnes was recently picked as musical director for this year’s National Hockey League Awards show, a task that Barnes obviously relishes. “I was flattered,” she stated. “When people recognize your work outside of the show, it’s an accomplishment.”
Barnes said although her work on the awards ceremony is similar to her day job, it does offer some distinct advantages. “It’s not as high pressured as SNL. It’s less stress because you have more time to put things together. I’ve been working on it for two months, brainstorming, getting things finalized.”
Outside of the television industry, Barnes has kept one foot in the performing world, staging a one woman show, what she refers to as a “dark comedy” called “Rocket Man.” Barnes said the show features funked-up arrangements of songs by Elton John, who she formerly worked for as a backup singer.
With a career that’s branched off into soundtrack work, classical composition and low brow comedy, Barnes seems content to let the music take the lead, following the sounds wherever they choose to take her.
“I only really knew I was going to be able to do this full-time eight years ago,” she stated, sounding grateful and surprised. “It wasn’t one of those things where I thought ‘Wow, I’m automatically going to be able to do this for a living.’”
I can’t say what the future holds, but I’ll always be involved in composing and arranging, whether it’s for artists, TV or Broadway musicals. I think that’s what I was born to do.”