Whatever it takes - Media Composer Grant Kirkhope
Media composer Grant Kirkhope has spent the past 20 years not just making video games music, but making a name for himself.
The games he's worked on from Golden Eye in the '90s to Mario + Rabbids Kingdom in 2017, have sold over 30 million copies. Crikey.
From the lessons and habits learned as an in-house composer, to breaking out as a freelancer in a new country: looking for opportunities, an agent and a day off.
It may seem like a series of ‘happy accidents’ but it’s a tale of persistence, creativity and professionalism. Doing whatever it takes to get the job.
More from Grant
Who the hell is Steve Folland?
Steve's a freelancer helping businesses use and make video & audio content in much better ways. Find out more at stevefolland.com, track him down on Twitter @sfolland or lay a trail of cake and he'll eventually catch you up.
Check out Steve's Being Freelance Vlog that documents his weekly wanderings and wonderings as a freelancer.
Transcript Being Freelance Podcast interview - Grant Kirkhope
Steve Folland: Hey, I'm Steve Folland and thanks for listening. This time, let's find out what it's like Being Freelance for composer, Grant Kirkhope.
Grant Kirkhope: When I first moved over here, I was keen enough to do movies I realised I needed an agent. And I kind of thought, "That's going to be easy. I'll just call an agent and it'll be great. They'll have heard of me, it would be no trouble at all." And of course it was like, nothing like that. It just didn't happen. Everyone went, "Who?" "Sorry."
Grant Kirkhope: Every freelancer I know has that problem of like, how do you balance it with work and life, and I think you just can't. There is no happy medium. You have to be prepared to do whatever it takes to get the job you want.
Steve Folland: Yeah, so there's Grant. And he has created the soundtracks to video games that have sold over 30 million copies, right? You don't even have to be a gamer to have heard of the ones he's been behind, I'm not. If you want to find links to what Grant is doing check out BeingFreelance.com. You'll also find links through to him on Twitter so you can reach out to him.
Steve Folland: Of course, at the website, there's also over a hundred freelancers sharing their stories. In fact, man, that's what I love about this Podcast. We go from last week with Nisha who is in her early 20's just starting her career, to Grant this week who was working hard when Nisha wasn't even born. Not to depress Grant, but it's true, isn't it? And I love that about it, from someone just starting out to someone much further down the track, and yet with so much in common and so much great stuff to share.
Steve Folland: Check out the website at BeingFreelance.com. Articles, my vlog documenting my freelance week, the newsletter to sign up for. And if you enjoy the Podcast please do hit subscribe. And I haven't asked this for awhile, but if you really enjoy it please do think about leaving a review wherever you get your Podcasts, because it does make a difference.
Steve Folland: I'll tell you what can make even more of a difference, simply recommending the Podcast, be it on Twitter or in person, at a meet up, sharing it with other Freelancers, does us a huge favor and does them a favor, too, of course. Right, enough wittering let's crack on and chat to freelance media composer Grant Kirkhope. Hey Grant!
Grant Kirkhope: Hello, how are you doing?
Steve Folland: Yeah, I'm good. Whereabouts in the U.K. were you from?
Grant Kirkhope: Born in Edinburgh but I lived most of my life in North Yorkshire in Knaresborough, which is close to Harrogate, which is close to Leeds.
Steve Folland: Alright, but right now you are in sunny L.A.
Grant Kirkhope: I am indeed. Yes, sunny southern California. It's lovely, very nice today.
Steve Folland: Right. Well, in that case, let's find out how you've got to where you are today. Both career-wise and geographically, I guess. Which are most likely tied together. So, yeah, how did you get started being freelance?
Grant Kirkhope: So, I was a staff composer for a long time. I started at a company called Rare in the U.K. in 1995 as a video games composer for that company. I spent 12 years there, working on lots of their kind of, well, quite a lot of their popular games. I was very lucky to get a lot of the big ones. Like, GoldenEye and Banjo-Kazooie and Perfect Dark and Donkey Kong and things like that. And then I shifted over to America in 2008 to work at Big Huge Games in Baltimore and I did a game there called Kingdoms of Amalur Reckoning. And then spent four years there, and then 2012 I was more or less sort of freelancing from that point onwards.
Steve Folland: Okay, so, what year did you say you started as a staff?
Grant Kirkhope: I started in 1995 as a staff composer. Company called Rare in the U.K., in the midlands.
Steve Folland: I mean, how would you have got that? Is that like a case of sending in demos and things?
Grant Kirkhope: It was a massive fluke. I played trumpet all the way through school. I was a classically trained trumpet player, and I ended up going to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester to do a degree for four years, but prior to that, when I was only about 11 or 12 I started to play guitar, so I was kind of a self-taught metal rock guitar player. And that's what I kind of wanted to do. So when I left university at 22, I had no interest in playing trumpet whatsoever. I just wanted to be in a metal band.
Grant Kirkhope: So, I played for quite a lot of different kind of bands over the next 11 years really. I played in some metal bands, I played a trumpet in some rock bands and some kind of soul bands and funk bands, etc. Some of the bands did quite well. Like, Little Angels, who were quite a big U.K. rock band at the time, I played for them for quite a lot of years. Ended up touring with Bon Jovi, and Van Halen, and people like that and doing those kind of big arena tours in Europe. I was also playing guitar in my own metal bands that didn't do so well. I played in pubs and stuff. And I guess I was on and off unemployment benefit for like at least 11 years, like 22 to 33 I would have said. Something like that. And then one of the guys I played in local bands with called Robin Beanland got a job at Rare writing music video games and I was like, "Oh, that's exciting." No one I knew got a job right? We all just kept on the dole for years and years.
Grant Kirkhope: About a year and a half went by, sort of said, "You know Greg, you've been on the dole for like 11 years probably. Don't you think it's time you got a job." I was like, "What can I do?" He said, "Why don't you try to do what I'm doing. Like writing music for video games." I thought, "Maybe." Like when I was at college, I was terrible at harmony, I failed the harmony exam. You have to pass it in the four years you were there I failed it three years out of four. I was terrible at harmony and can't understand it in composing. Not for one minute did I think I could ever compose ever. I mean, I wrote songs for the metal bands I was in, but never ever thought of me being composer so I said, "Well, I'll have a go."
Grant Kirkhope: So he advised me to get a copy of CuBase which are like a sequencing program synthesizer, an Atari ST with a meg of ram. And I sat about writing tunes that I thought would be right for video games. I mean, I'd played a lot of games at the time so I kind of knew what they sounded like. But I had no idea what I was doing really. And I sent five cassette tapes to Rare over the course of a year and got no reply. Out of the blue I got a letter saying, "Please come for an interview." And it was like, "Oh." So I went down and surprise, surprise, to me especially, I got the bloody job. So, that was it. I started there in 1995 as a composer with ... not really knowing what I was doing. Complete fluke.
Steve Folland: So when you were sending those tapes off were they the only company you were sending them to?
Grant Kirkhope: More or less. I sent a tape to maybe one of the people, perhaps, I can't remember who they were. But Rare, because I had a friend there and because Rare was really big ... they were super big news at the time, they'd just got Nintendo, they just bought half the company, which was like unheard of for Nintendo to venture outside of Japan. So, they were big news for them, and I just wanted to be there because I had a friend there, that was basically it.
Steve Folland: So, you find yourself working at that company, presumably there were other people to learn that craft from. Clearly, you were a musician, but composing for computer games, you hadn't done before.
Grant Kirkhope: No, certainly not. The first gig I got there was working on the original big gray Game Boy. That was my first job to get somebody else's tunes to work on the Game Boy. So, that's nothing like I was used to. I was used to looking at computers and midi files and all that kind of thing, and this was like just learning Hex, which is like four numbers on a black screen. And I was like, "Oh my God. I can't do it. This is far too hard." So, I kind of stumbled through that, but then at the time, Rare was working on a game called GoldenEye. It was to go with the movie. And the guy that was doing it at the time there was busy with another game and said, "Grant, do you mind taking over Goldeneye?" And I was like, "Are you joking? I'd love to do that."
Grant Kirkhope: So, to get to work on GoldenEye as my first game really was like incredible. I mean that game went on to sell 10 million copies, so, it was pretty spectacular. The first thing that I touched, not really knowing what I was doing, sold like a gazillion copies, so it was just amazing. The whole thing was a ... Rare was a super, super fantastic company. It was family run, it was just the best place to be. I guess it was like being in Disneyland, it was fantastic.
Steve Folland: Wow. What an opportunity. So was it 2008, you said, that you then moved to the States?
Grant Kirkhope: Yes. I went to Baltimore then. Because Rare had sold themselves to Microsoft, and I just didn't quite like the way it was going. Sometimes when that kind of creative thing gets sold into a corporate environment it doesn't work. So I decided it was time for me to leave.
Steve Folland: So where did you head to when you went to Baltimore?
Grant Kirkhope: It was a company called Big Huge Games, who were, I guess not well-known at the time. And I did a few interviews with other companies, and me and the wife used to always like to sort of go on holiday in the states, it was our favourite place to go to. So we always thought, "Wouldn't it be great to live and work there at some point?" You never think you would manage it, you know? So, I applied for a job and got an interview. I went for an interview and I liked the company a lot, I liked the people, I liked the whole environment, it felt really like those kind of mad passionate gamers that I had kind of dealt with at Rare in its golden years. So, I thought, I need to be here. So I just accepted the job and moved across with the wife and kids, and lived in Baltimore for four years working on that game, Kingdoms of Amalur Reckoning. Which was quite a big seller when it came out eventually.
Steve Folland: So you would work on one game for four years?
Grant Kirkhope: Sometimes. It depends right? I guess it depends on, sometimes games go a bit wrong and you have to restart them. It can be a bit like that. But usually it's awhile. And I was actually the audio director at that company, so I had a bit of staff to look after. So I kind of audio directed the game as well as writing the score. It all went quite well, most of the time, but we were part of this huge, not huge, but a company called 38 Studios, who owned Big Huge Games, and they were run by a baseball player here called Curt Schilling, who's a very famous baseball player. He was a very big gamer, but obviously didn't know a lot about managing games, but knew all about playing them.
Grant Kirkhope: So he put all of his money into the company, and it went well, but after our game came out, he'd just run out of money. And even though our game sold well, the big company, 38 Studios, tanked. And so we all just got shut down. So it was like literally the game came out, did well, company shut, and I was like, "Oh dear. What am I going to do now? I'm in America, what am I going to do?" So that was a bit of a disaster at that moment in time.
Steve Folland: So what did you do?
Grant Kirkhope: Well, I was super keen to be in movies, right? I really wanted to write for movies. So, I knew that L.A, I had to be here, really, to do that. We kind of picked ourselves up and did a little bit of work for Zynga in the meantime, did a Facebook game for them. Because some of their guys, the bosses that ran Big Huge Games formed Zynga East. And so I worked for them remotely. And that kinda kicked off my freelancing, really. So I'm working for them, shifted across to L.A, and crossed my fingers. Tried to get the freelance thing going.
Steve Folland: Wow. Basically, being made redundant that made you become a freelancer.
Grant Kirkhope: Yeah.
Steve Folland: The content ... So, Zynga, who were ... I mean, Zynga were huge! Maybe they still are, forgive me. But, like, making things like FarmVille and stuff at the time, right?
Grant Kirkhope: Yeah, they were huge at the time, yeah. Tons of money. Big success story.
Steve Folland: So, again ... A great notch on a freelancer's CV. You've notched up a lot, here. But I mean, that must have ... Maybe it was a bit ... Was that a big change? From, you know, having been in a company in the U.K. for many years, and then another four in the States? Suddenly, you're not in a company, you're no in your home country. That's quite a change.
Grant Kirkhope: Yeah. It's pretty scary, I think at the time. Sometimes I don't know how we did it, really. Like, I look back at it and go, "How did we do that?" But I think that ... I guess I'm pretty well-known as a video games composer. I've been doing it for like 22 years. And so, it just seemed to all fall into place by ... My life seems to be one big, huge, happy accident. Everything just sorta fell into place. Like, I did the Zynga thing. And then I had a friend who was working in Sega in Australia, who said, "You know, Grant, you're out of work now, but we've got a game here. You could do this, if you like." They were doing Mickey Mouse, Castle of Illusion. And they said, you know, "We need a composer, why don't you do this?" I was like, "Great!" So that kinda got me a bit more work to kind of get myself sort of jollying along as it was.
Grant Kirkhope: And then, it just sort of snowballed really. I don't know whether ... Because I was quite well-known as a composer, people couldn't get to me because I was part of a company. The minute I was outside the company, maybe I got ... people thought, "We can get hold of Grant now." I'm not sure I'm that famous at all, by any means. I just think, you know ... Just from being around for all those years, I keep getting called "Grant Kirkhope, veteran composer," which I'd think means I'm old and I've been around a long time, basically. So, it just kinda fell into place.
Grant Kirkhope: And my wife, who was a teacher in the U.K, she taught A-level in the U.K. When we moved over here, she didn't work, because we were on a visa at the start. Then we got a green card pretty quick, meant she could work. So when our kids got a bit older, like, she said, "I wouldn't mind doing a bit of teaching, because I'm a bit bored." So, started doing a little bit of supply teaching, where they'd call up and she'd go in on a day-to-day basis. And then she found she missed it, said, "I'd really like to go back full-time." So I said, you know, fair enough, so we kinda switched roles. I was at home doing the groceries and getting the kids from school, and she was back full-time. So, it kind of ... We just switched roles overnight. It was literally, it was completely perfect. I don't know why. I kinda feel that I've had a fortunate set of disasters that have kinda got me to where I am.
Steve Folland: I love the fact that it went from a happy accident to a fortunate set of disasters.
Grant Kirkhope: Well, yes, it's a bit like that.
Steve Folland: It's a good name for a film. Somebody needs to make a note. So when you made that transition, you were working in a company. Were you going into an office and working there, creating music in an office environment?
Grant Kirkhope: Yeah. And that's ... Yeah. 9 to 5. And I do ... When I was at Rare, back in the U.K, it was a great regime to get into, because a lot of times, people are composers or writers, often think, "I've got to wait for inspiration. Sit in a darkened room, wait for the hand of the Lord to hand you a song," type of thing. I've never been like that. Because I was a staff composer. I got used to, start at 9:00, and then I started writing music at 9:00 in the morning and I finished at 5:00 at night. I just kept ... That's the way it was for 12 years for me. Well, more than that. So, I think that it's a great habit to get into. And that's what I did, that's how it worked. You just sat there and, you're a composer as anybody else was a programmer or an artist or whatever. You started at 9 and you finished at 5.
Steve Folland: Yeah. So, now that you're freelance, do you go into places, or are you working remotely, as you said, like looking after the kids and then sitting down with your routine.
Grant Kirkhope: Yeah, I'm just at home. Like, I just do ... We get up early, kids start school early in America, like 8:00. So, yeah, we get up at 6:30, get the kids to school, and then I start writing I guess about quarter to nine, nine o'clock. And I'll probably write 'til about 2:00 in the afternoon. And then I'm not really good in the afternoon. I kinda have a bit of a gap, and then I can start again maybe later on, like, 6:00 or 7:00, if I have to, if I'm busy. So, yeah, I mean, I really prefer ... You know, the whole freelance thing, for me, it's been way better for my mental health, probably. It's different inasmuch as you probably work on multiple projects at any one time, so you might be doing two or three things at once, which can be stressful. But then you might have a gap where you do nothing, so it's that ... You have that, "Oh my god it's all gonna go wrong!" and then it's like, "I'm bored." It's no happy medium where you sit on a game for a while and just chip away at it, it's not like that anymore.
Steve Folland: Yeah. It's interesting, when you said, "I'm not very good in the afternoon." That sort of like ... Coming to realise that. That's something I realised with myself, it's like, you know, 2pm, "Oh, man, I can't do this anymore."
Grant Kirkhope: Yeah.
Steve Folland: Did you fight that for a while? As somebody who had been going ... doing a 9 to 5, or ...? I'm intrigued about that self-realisation, I guess.
Grant Kirkhope: Yeah, I just ... I got to the point where I realised that I just wasn't very good at it at that point in the afternoon, so like, it was hard work. And sometimes, when I was at Rare, because in the early days, audio guys like me, you were given an entire game to do. So you did all the sound effects and all the music. That was the way it worked back then. So I could work in the morning on the music, because it was like something I had to really think about or feel inspired to do. In the afternoon, I could do sound effects, which is quite a bit more workman-like. You can find a sample, find, you know, a dog barking, get the sample sounding good, put it in the game, etc. You could do it all like that. So it was different for me back then.
Grant Kirkhope: Put as a pure, just composer, like I've been that for quite a lot of years. That's the time when I kinda thought, "Yeah, in the afternoon, just not very easy for me." So ... And also, you kinda feel guilty that you're not working. 'Cause I'm still in that phase of thinking ... 'Cause I've still been working as a staff composer longer than I did as a freelancer. You still feel bad about not doing something in the afternoon. But I've realised it's ... I'm wasting my time, really. I should just not do it and do something else. And usually, I go and do the shopping, get the kids, come back, and then I can do it, I start again.
Steve Folland: From a business point of view, when you were working in the companies, I'm presuming somebody else was taking charge of that kind of thing, and the contracts and deadlines and so on and so forth. How have you adjusted to that, as a freelancer?
Grant Kirkhope: Well, in the company, I was no different to anybody else. I did 9 to 5, pays you a monthly wage, like everybody else in the U.K, it was just like that. Rare did pay royalties back then, so that was quite special. So the team would get a royalty on ... a percentage royalty on money the game made, so that could be quite a lot of money at some points.
Grant Kirkhope: So, switching to freelance, when I first moved over here, and I was keying up to do movies, I realised I needed an agent. So ... And I kinda thought, "Oh, that's gonna be easy. I'll just call an agent and it'll be great! They'll have heard of me, and it'll be no trouble at all." And of course, it was like, nothing like that. It just didn't happen. Everyone went, "Who? Sorry." No one even talked to me, really, for the first, I don't know, year probably. I emailed people a million times. You know, I'd finally gone down the list to the lowest of the lowest of the lowest agent, and even they turned me down. I was like, "Oh my god, who's gonna ... Who am I gonna get to be my agent?"
Grant Kirkhope: There's a company called Gorfaine/Schwartz, who are a really prestigious Hollywood composer boutique agency. And they represent like John Williams and Michael Giacchino and Brian Tyler and all the big, Hollywood triple A-list guys are on Gorfaine/Schwartz, and I was like, "Yeah, I'm gonna be on Gorfaine/Schwartz!" With no idea at all it was probably not gonna happen. So, I kinda mailed ... There's an agent there called Cheryl Tiano, and Kevin Korn, and I kinda mailed Cheryl Tiano ump-teen times without a reply.
Grant Kirkhope: And during my course of like, going down most of the agents, I finally met someone that was gonna take me. It was literally my last-ditch attempt to get an agent. And this guy said, "Yeah, I'll represent you, don't worry at all." And I'm like, I'll at least have a coffee meeting with him. And I got home, and when I got home, I got an email. And it just said on it, Korn Office, K-o-r-n Office. And I was like, "What's this?" I nearly deleted it, thinking it was some kind of spam thing. And I noticed the Gorfaine/Schwartz thing at the bottom. I was like, "Hang on a minute, what's this?" So, Kevin Korn who is a young guy, he's one of the young agents at Gorfaine/Schwartz ... I think Cheryl Tiano must have read one of my emails, at last after sending like 150 million emails to her, and she said, "Kevin, you should look at this guy."
Grant Kirkhope: And so I got a meeting with Kevin, and lo and behold, they took me on! No one was more surprised than me. So, having Gorfaine/Schwartz as my agent is fantastic, 'cause they're like super high-powered. And they take care of all that kind of billing, fighting over contracts nonsense that I don't have to do. So they do all that for me, then I give them like 10% of what I make. So that's how it works.
Grant Kirkhope: So, yeah, I never really ... I only really did maybe one contract on my own prior to getting ... to going with Gorfaine/Schwartz.
Steve Folland: Wow. Will they, like, go out and find you work, or do they step in at the point where somebody's asked you to do something?
Grant Kirkhope: Bit of both, really. So, they do send me things to pitch for regularly. So, I mean I've done a lot of these pictures and gotten none of them. I guess that's not their fault, that's mine, for not being good enough. So, I've learned here ... You learn in L.A, it's a very hard thing ... There's 150 million composers here that are all great. You just have to keep trying and trying and trying to get on the bandwagon kinda thing. But also, most of the work I do comes direct to me, then I get them to sort the contract out, and they'll fight over the details and what I'm gonna get paid, etc, etc, and the kind of the legal issues of it all. 'Cause they're super experienced, they've done it for ump-teen years. And, you know, they deal with John Williams' contracts for Star Wars, for god's sakes, I'm sure mine's pretty simple compared to that, you know. So, that's how it works with them, yeah.
Steve Folland: And when you say pitching for work, would that include creating samples for free, like ...?
Grant Kirkhope: Oh, yeah, it's all for free, yes. So like, for instance, I must've done like ten Disney pitches maybe this year, for different cartoons and bits and pieces. So, Disney'll usually send you three or four little animations if it's a cartoon, like of little scenes. And they're often hand-drawn and just like animated, so it's very early stages. And you, I guess, with lots of other composers, you score the scene, send it in, and hope for the best. I've also done some Dreamworks bits and pieces, some Nickelodeon bits and pieces. I haven't got any of them yet. I'm still trying.
Grant Kirkhope: So that's the way it works. It can be ... I mean, one of the Disney things I got sent was five minutes long. I spent an entire weekend working on this five-minute piece of music, which is quite a lot to write in a weekend. To pitch for this thing that you don't get paid for. It's just the way it works. And I don't mind doing it. I think, you know, if you ... You've gotta be in it to win it, right? So, you have to be prepared to do whatever it takes to get the job you want.
Steve Folland: Yeah. And how do you deal with those gaps? You mentioned, you know, like, sometimes there's just gaps. How do you cope with that?
Grant Kirkhope: I've not had a lot of gaps, actually, I must admit. Since I started, I've been super busy. And last year was like ridiculous. When I used to work at Rare, I kind of thought I was infallible, and I used to just ... nothing ever taxed me, I could always get on with it and not have a problem. But last year, I did a game called Ukulele, a game called Drop Zone, a Ghostbusters game. I did this big game called Super Mario, Mario Rabbids Kingdom Battle, it was a gigantic thing. And I did a movie, too, last year.
Grant Kirkhope: So I had five projects on the go last year. And I kind of had it all scheduled out in the year so it would all just kinda nicely fit together. But, like, as usual, things get put back, and so everything got crunched toward the back of the year, I was like, "Oh my god, I'm not gonna make it." It was the first time I kind of thought, actually, I might be fallible. Just like everybody else, I'm normal. So, that was slightly panicky.
Grant Kirkhope: But, I literally, on the Mario game, which, you know, I mean, for a Western ... I think I'm the first Western composer to ever get to work with Mario. Like, it's always been an in-house Nintendo thing. So for me to get to work on Mario was a huge honor, and, you know, I was so lucky to get that project. I literally worked on that game, probably every day for two years. No exaggeration. I wrote music for that every day for two years, and talked to the dev team, as well as do my other games that I was doing at the time and the movie thing. So like, last year, I think from February, maybe January 2016 until June this year, I worked every day, seven days a week, there was no let-up for that entire period of time. So it was super, super busy.
Grant Kirkhope: But I've been off this year from ... Not off, but I've been less busy from June until now. But I'm about to start again, actually, on some projects. So the little gap I've had has been really welcome, and I haven't sort of panicked about not having any work, because I think you can do that, but not ... I've felt alright about this so far, so it's been alright.
Steve Folland: How long was that period, did you just say, that you were working seven days a week?
Grant Kirkhope: From about January 2016 until June this year, 2017. I didn't stop, I was seven days a week. My wife was like, she just never saw me.
Steve Folland: I was gonna ... How ... I mean, how do you cope with that? Both yourself, but also as ... 'cause you mentioned kids as well, and your wife, as a family?
Grant Kirkhope: I don't know, really. And I sometimes wonder how I write the music. 'Cause it's a huge amount of music. Like, I did two-and-a-half hours of music for the Mario game, an hour for Drop Zone, maybe 45 minutes for Ghostbusters, maybe an hour for Ukulele, maybe 45 minutes for the movie thing. You know, that's a lot of music in a year. You know, when you're used to being a staff composer, you might be on a game for a few years, you might not write that much for ... you might write an hour for the game in a couple of years. I'm doing it in a few months, now. You have to be able to write quickly, and to a high quality, as a media composer. There's no room for that "let's wait for inspiration to drop through the roof." You can't work like that, you have to sit down and get on with it. And I guess that's why that training of being a staff composer was so valuable to me last year, because I could ... I can just sit down and get on with it.
Grant Kirkhope: So it's, you know, I think that, as a freelancer, every freelancer that I know has that problem of like, how do you balance it with work and life, and I think you just ... You can't. There is no happy medium. As a freelancer, you take on as much work as you think you can possibly get through, 'cause you wanna ... You're worried about the next project not turning up right. So, you're always gonna be in that boat where someone offers you something, and you just say you're gonna do it because you don't know what's gonna happen the year after or the year after that. So, I don't know, I don't think that is balance-able. I think it is a thing where you just do the work that's there and hope for the best that some more turns up when you finish it.
Steve Folland: Have there been projects that come along where you've said no, like, where you think, "I simply can't do that," or because Mario could be around the corner, who knows? What if you took on something else? So I'm just wondering how you manage the yes and the no's?
Grant Kirkhope: I haven't done any no's yet. Funny enough, I've actually ... It's all worked out alright so far. But, I guess, because last year sort of taught me a little lesson, I might be doing some no's again I guess soonish. I don't know, in the future. I think I've learned, now, that I'm not that machine that can just continually write ... I mean, I can do it, but it's very taxing. So, maybe in the future, as I'm getting a bit older, I'm gonna start to say, "Yeah, you know what? I just don't think I can do that."
Grant Kirkhope: But, you know, it's just ... Freelancing's hard, right, it's a hard thing to do, because you've always gotta balance that thing about thinking about, "Am I gonna get any more work?" You never know. I think composers can be in vogue and out of vogue very quickly. I'm lucky that the projects that I've worked on over the years have all been pretty successful. So, I do tend to have something to kinda fall back on, and people know who I am in the kinda games industry. So that helps. But there's thousands of great composers out there, way better than I am. I think just by virtue of the fact I've been around a long time, people might ask me 'cause they've heard of me. Or they liked a game I did when they were ten years old, or something like that.
Grant Kirkhope: Yeah, I don't know how you balance that stuff. I just think that maybe after last year's thing, I might think twice about taking on too much. But last year, I didn't think I took on too much, right? I thought I had it all balanced out. But because people's deadlines got put back, they all got put back to the same time more or less, the end of the year, which made it hard for me. And also, I had to go and fit in a recording session with an orchestra for Mario in Prague, literally this time last year. So I had to get to Prague, record the orchestra, and get back. That just wastes time. It's a great experience, but it wastes those few days. I felt like I couldn't afford any time to waste. I couldn't afford half an hour off, I felt like that last year. I felt like I had to do ... every available minute I could stay awake was a minute I should be working. So, yeah. That was tough. But, you know, it's paid off, and I've had a great year of it, and it's been good for me, but it was hard.
Steve Folland: When you're working like that, are you still following that schedule, though, of like ... with the kids in the morning and the evening, taking a break in the afternoon?
Grant Kirkhope: Yeah, I think so. I probably get to about 2:00 and I'll stop, I'll have something to eat, and by that point the kids'll be out of school. Get them back, and it's dinner time, and then I'll ... I can work 'til, I can probably do 7:00 'til 10:00 or 11:00 at night, after that.
Steve Folland: Yeah. It's great, though. Because just imagine if you didn't have those kids. You'd feel like you had no reason to stop, right?
Grant Kirkhope: I know! But my trouble is, I think that ... I call it the kind of curse of aspiration. That I really aspire to be this super-human thing, composer thing, and I just can't kick it. Sometimes it makes your life miserable, because, you know, you just cannot stop the aspirational ... I cannot stop that motivation. I'm completely driven, right. And I think that anyone that I know that gets anywhere has to be completely driven. And I kinda feel I'm not as driven as a lot of people I know, who have no commitments, who just absolutely drive themselves to get that big thing. And I kinda feel that's how it works. That's ... The people that get to those exalted positions of being the big movie composers are the guys that just will not take no for an answer and just go at it like a bull at a gate. T
Grant Kirkhope: here's no way around it. I think anything worth having is worth working for, and it's ... I don't know. I can't see a way around that. I think you have to absolutely devote your existence to it at some point to get to where you wanna be. And I think some people may not be as driven or motivated maybe as I am, or maybe some people have driven more, just in ... Kind of where I am with that, is that thing where I feel like I have to drive myself to try to get to where I wanna be.
Steve Folland: Do you have any sort of, I don't know, friends or mentors or communities that you're a part of where you, I don't know, talk about these things or ...?
Grant Kirkhope: Yeah, a little bit. Like, in L.A, there's this thing called the Society of Composers and Lyricists. So you do tend to end up in a room with lots of composers who moan about the same things lots of times, you hear that a lot. I'm a BAFTA member, 'cause I got ... One of the scores that I did in the U.K. called Viva Pinata, got nominated for a BAFTA in like 2007, so I joined BAFTA, and I'm in BAFTA L.A. over here, so they do have things where you kinda get together. But I tend to be in a minority in BAFTA, 'cause it's a lot of actors, producers, all the kind of movie people, I'm like a composer, so usually there's not that many people there that are music writers.
Grant Kirkhope: And I have other friends that write music, for games especially. And I know a few media guys, too. So, we all have that same thing where, you know, the people you're working for don't wanna pay the money you're asking for, and your agent's fighting with them, and all that stuff that everybody goes through. And the director's hard to deal with, and all that stuff, so, yeah. I guess you have that.
Grant Kirkhope: I don't think I really have a mentor. Obviously I look up to people. I mean, John Williams is my complete hero, so I look up to him and kind of his Harry Potter scores and all these other scores are like my textbooks that I kind of listen to every day and try to understand what he's doing so I can be better at what I do. But I don't think I've really got a mentor that I know, it's more like people that I aspire to be like, I guess.
Steve Folland: Man. We've talked a little about a lot of different sort of networking events that you can go to, but I imagine a BAFTA one is ... kinda levelled up there in the networking event stakes.
Grant Kirkhope: I guess. But I think, you know, I think living in L.A. especially, you learn that networking is usually half the battle. Like, having the talent's only 50%. The other 50% is definitely the networking thing. Like it's so crucial. And I think I didn't realise that until I got here. It just is the ... In some respects, maybe it's more important. You have to do that thing where you have to get out there and meet people, and when you're really busy, you don't go anywhere, right? So you don't meet anybody. So, I'm fortunate that I've been around the games industry for a long time that people do know who I am, but it's still hard.
Grant Kirkhope: To get into movies, you really need to meet the director. Like, it's almost like nobody else in that regime is important apart from the director or maybe a producer, high-up producer. They're the guys that make the decisions. Getting to a director is like ... I don't know. I don't know how you do it. It's next to impossible. Unless you bump into him in like Tesco or whatever, the Ralph's over here or Vaughn's, and by mistake. You know, it's that thing where ... Or you know someone that knows someone.
Grant Kirkhope: I guess, the good thing about being in L.A. is like, I live in Agoura Hills, which is I guess 20 miles out of L.A. to the west. You know, having kids in school, a fifth of the population here works in the entertainment industry. So there's a good chance you're gonna bump into ... one of your kid's mate's dads is gonna be ... That's the way where you meet that person in that no-pressure situation, where you're not trying to sell yourself. You meet them at someone's party or some school gathering, you get chatting, and you get along. That could be way more important than you trying to cold-call a director or something like that, which you can't even get to. That's the good thing about being ... That's why I think that, to be serious about movies, you have to be in L.A, really. I think, right, once you're established, you could be in Timbuktu. But I think, to get into it, you have to be here to take that meeting in ten minutes' time at Starbucks down the road if they're available, you know. That's that thing you have to be able to do. So, it's that ... Being here is super important if you wanna do that thing. I think as a games guy, you could probably be anywhere. But as I said, for a movie guy, or a no one like me, you have to be here, really.
Steve Folland: That is such a fascinating story. And it kinda feels like, despite how far you've come, that it's just kicking off. That your freelance stage of this is just getting started.
Grant Kirkhope: Yeah, I think it is. It's gone from strength to strength, I guess, in the last sort of four or five years, which is bizarre, really. I don't know how I've managed it. I've been super lucky so far.
Steve Folland: By the way, that Mario game is on our Christmas list.
Grant Kirkhope: Yeah, I love that. That is an awesome game, and the team that I worked with on that are super fantastic guys. It's the Ubisoft in Milan, Ubisoft in Paris. They were the two teams that did it. And like, the creative director, Davide Soliani, we are super great friends now. Like, you know, you speak to these guys every day for two years, so you just become best mates. I mean, so, he's really, really passionate about making games. It's the first time Nintendo have let anybody really touch Mario outside of their own company, really. So it was all ... We were all like, scared to break it. I was super scared to break the music, he was scared to break Mario. So, it's a real kind of passionate gamers' game that we've kinda put our hearts into it, so I hope you like it. It's got great reviews, it's done really well, so we're super happy with it.
Steve Folland: That's an interesting thing, though, that whole ... You're working there, in your studio, in your house, but you are part of a team.
Grant Kirkhope: Yeah. I guess that's part of it. And you have to get along right. I meet a lot of composers who are very kind of adamant, they're not gonna do this, they're not gonna do that, they're the composer and they call the shots. And I'm like, that isn't what it's like. You are a service industry. You are someone that serves somebody else. They hire you to do a job, and you better do what they want or they're gonna find somebody else to do it. And there'll be a guy stood right behind you right now who will do it, what they want. You can't afford to fight about these things. It's a stupid way to be.
Grant Kirkhope: If you wanna write your own music, go and write a symphony, go and write a pop song that's all yours and you can do what you like and it's up to you then. But the minute you hire yourself out to somebody else, you have to understand that you have to do what they want, or they're just gonna find somebody else that does.
Grant Kirkhope: I mean, for god's sake, to get to touch Mario, as a video games guy, he's the best ... he's the biggest video games character in the world, right? I still can't believe it. My son would walk past my room and say ... looking at me doing like cinematic sequences and he said, "Dad, can you believe you're looking at Mario, writing music for him?" I said, "I can't believe it." A lot of the times I'd be in tears. Like, going, "I can't," but then I started going, writing a tune for bloody Mario for god's sake. How did that happen? I don't know how it happened.
Steve Folland: Yeah. How old are your kids?
Grant Kirkhope: My son's 15, my daughter's 11.
Steve Folland: Wow. So, dad's got a cool job.
Grant Kirkhope: Well, I must admit, I think I have given him a bit of street cred over the years. I mean, how often can your kids say dad gets you street cred at school? That doesn't happen normally, right.
Steve Folland: Now, I always do this thing, where I ask for three facts about yourself. Make two true, one a lie, and let me figure out the lie. So, what have you got for me?
Grant Kirkhope: I had a lot of trouble thinking about this. So, I was once trapped under the curtain at a T'Pau concert.
Steve Folland: Okay.
Grant Kirkhope: I was once in a band that was the opening act for the Care Bears. And I once was trapped in a lift with the lead singer of Saxon, Biff Byford.
Steve Folland: Okay. You opened for the Care Bears, you were trapped in a lift with who was it?
Grant Kirkhope: The lead singer of Saxon, the metal band, called Biff Byford is his name.
Steve Folland: Biff Byford. And you were trapped under a curtain ...
Grant Kirkhope: At a T'Pau concert.
Steve Folland: At a T'Pau concert. And was that because you were a musician at the T'Pau concert?
Grant Kirkhope: Loosely speaking.
Steve Folland: Or were you a Carol Decker stalker?
Grant Kirkhope: Well, I can't tell you the details, you have to guess.
Steve Folland: D'you know, first of all, thank you for bringing the word T'Pau into it, because there's ... I'm gonna have to go and listen to T'Pau now, there's something I've not heard for a long time.
Steve Folland: I like to think that I guy who wanted to be in a metal band opened for the Care Bears. I'd like to think that's true. Trapped in a lift, trapped under a curtain? Trapped under a lift, trapped ... I want you to ... I want T'Pau to be true, so I'm gonna say Biff Byford one is the lie.
Grant Kirkhope: That's right! Well done, I can't believe you got that.
Steve Folland: Yes! Do you know, part of me was thinking, "That's gotta be true, because I've never heard of Biff Byford."
Grant Kirkhope: Right.
Steve Folland: And so that's probably true. But I so wanted T'Pau to be true. Why were you trapped under a curtain at T'Pau?
Grant Kirkhope: I was in a band at the time called Zoot and the Roots, who were like a soul-funk band based in York, and I played trumpet for them. I'd been with them for quite a lot of years, we did like some big stuff, like Saturday Night Live, TV shows and stuff like that. So, you know, they're a well-known band at the time.
Grant Kirkhope: And we got ... Some band pulled out, we were asked to support T'Pau at Whitley Bay Ice Rink. And, so we did our support set, and I was ... I really fancied Carol Decker over the years, back then I thought she was gorgeous. So I was ... And I never saw her for the entirety. I thought, "I've gotta get a glimpse of her before she goes onstage." So I stood at the back, at the ramp, to kind of catch her as she goes up the ramp, right? And this guy says, "Alright, everybody onstage, come on, get the curtain." I was like, "Uh..." He said, "No, son, come on, off you go." I said, "I'm not part of the crew." He said, "No, don't give me that. Off you go." So he pushed me onstage, right.
Grant Kirkhope: So, there's this massive curtain right across the front of the stage, must be like 30 feet tall. Massive, black, thick thing. And all the guys stood in a line across the front of the stage, like maybe six of us. When they started, you'd run with the curtain to the far ... to the opposite side, and the curtain falls off, right? And they're revealed, right? And that's how you do it. So I was like, "What am I doing onstage? I'm not even part of the bloody road crew, I'm part of the bloody band that played ... the support band." I thought, "Anyways, I can't complain now, lot of good that could do."
Grant Kirkhope: So, anyways, he said, "When I say 'run,' run." So he's behind me. So I was last ... No, I was the first person at the far end. So I had to run not very far. So I heard them shout "Run!" and I ran, with the curtain in my hand, this massive big thick thing. And I ran straight into the side fill, which is the speakers at the side. Kinda had a bit of a moment. Fell off the edge of the stage. And all the curtain that the lads behind were pushing, it all came down on top of me.
Grant Kirkhope: So, this curtain was like ... It's massive, you know, it's like, I don't know how wide it is. It's really heavy, it's like 30 feet tall, and I was just underneath it! It took me like 20 minutes to get out from underneath it. I just couldn't ... I started to get slightly claustrophobic, because it was like pitch black, I could hear T'Pau playing, and I just couldn't find the edge of it. I was like on my hands and knees, trying to get out from under the edge of the bloody curtain. So it took me ages ... I was getting quite panicky by the end of it. I finally got out and I was like, you know, hyperventilating. So, yeah. So that's how it happened. And I had to leave, we had to leave really early, so I missed Carol Decker completely, never saw her. Apart from a distance. And that was it, I had to go. Bye. That was my one, my T'Pau experience.
Steve Folland: Amazing. Amazing. What a story.
Steve Folland: Now, if you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?
Grant Kirkhope: Always say yes. Always. You know, if people ask you to write a kind of music you have no idea how to write it, you say, "Yeah, that's my favourite kind of music, I write it every day, I love it to death," go home and Google it and find out about it. 'Cause people, like in L.A, you don't wanna have any degree of like, "maybe," they don't wanna hear that. They don't wanna hear, "I'm not sure." If they hear that, they'll just get somebody else to do it. Just go, "Yeah. That's what I do all the time. I'm in. Fantastic. Can't wait." Just say yes.
Steve Folland: Grant, thank you so much. Go to BeingFreelance.com, and there will be links through to everything that Grant is up to. And while you're there, check out, of course, all of the other guests. Hit subscribe wherever you get your Podcasts, and also check out the vlog that I'm doing on YouTube as well. But, yeah, Grant, thank you so much! And I can't wait to hear and see what you do next. Can't wait to play that game. And all the best, being freelance.
Grant Kirkhope: Well, thank you very much for asking me to come on the show. I'm honoured. Thank you very much.