Outlander Cast Chats w/Outlander Composer: Bear McCreary - Episode 15

Transcribed by Denise Stewart
February 9, 2015
photo credit  bearmccreary.com

Hosts Mary and Blake discuss all things music with the composer of Outlander, Bear McCreary.  Bear was extremely kind in carving out 20 minutes of his extraordinarily busy schedule to talk about his role on our favorite show.  So, in this very special episode, you will learn all about, how Bear researched the show, why "The Skye Boat Song" is used as the main title, the one thing Bear couldn't live without as composer on Outlander, what show Bear waited his entire life to compose, his awesome personal blog, the surprising character Bear wants to stand out musically, Bear's favorite Outlander theme, and a whole lot more!  You'll also learn about why Blake's in a giving mood and why Mary is like an 80 year old woman.

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Outlander Cast:  Joining us now is Bear McCreary, an Emmy Award winning composer whose works include, but are not limited to, Battlestar Galactica, Terminator, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Agents of Shield, Black Sails, The Walking Dead, Da Vinci’s Demons and Constantine.  But WE all know him as the composer of our favorite show, Outlander.  Bear, thank you so much for joining us today.

Bear McCreary:  Of course! This is gonna be fun!

OC:  IT IS.  IT IS.  Our first question for you is how did you get started on Outlander and what research did you do for the music on this?

BM:  I started working on Outlander because I had worked with the showrunner, Ron Moore, on his previous series Battlestar Galactica.  So Ron and I had worked together successfully on that show for years. And I found out he was doing Outlander, and we started chatting because...I probably started my research when I was about..12?  I grew up LOVING Scottish folk music and went to the Highland games every year.  And then in high school I started researching music of the Jacobite Uprising. That kinda was my jam for about five years.  So I was chatting with Ron, and we started talking about it,  and he says he’s developing the series Outlander, which the first season takes place in Scotland in 1743.  And immediately my eyebrow raises and I’m like, “hey, that’s something I happen to know A LOT about.”  And, so it’s been great having this opportunity to, as an adult, dive in and really understand on a more fundamental and musical level what was happening, musically, at the time. And it’s been incredibly rewarding to go back and to my childhood passion.  

OC:  Our next question is did you write the themes before knowing the characters, or did you watch the tape and then write them?  What’s kind of your composing process like for the show?

BM:  This show is a little different than others.  I generally always wait until I’ve seen the show and I see the characters and I’m able to really live with the material for a while, and then the themes start coming to me.  Outlander is a bit of an exception to that because Ron Moore and I had  decided on what the main title theme was gonna be before they’d even shot the show.  So I had been, as I had mentioned, I was talking with Ron about how much I loved Scottish folk music, and I think in my recording I had done-in college I think-on the accordion playing one of my favorite Scottish folk tunes which is “The Skye Boat Song.”  And before I was even hired on the show, Ron heard that, and then he wrote me back, and he goes, “That’s beautiful. I think it should be the main title of Outlander.”  And I thought, OK, looks like I’ll be working on Outlander then.

OC: That is really cool. And I’ve gotta tell you everyone says they get goosebumps when they start to hear that song.  So I’m so happy that you guys picked that song as the opening number.

BM: It was one of the easiest decisions that has ever been made in TV in my experience.  And it really was like that.  Ron heard me playing it on the accordion, and immediately he recognized something in it. And only after that point we dug into the lyrics and started discussing the idea of having a vocalist sing it.  And I brought in Raya Yarbrough, who’s my wife, who sang on Battlestar Galactica, and Ron knew her voice very well. And we started to experiment with actually having a singer.  That was never the intention.  We all always assumed it would be an instrumental beginning, but we realized that the lyrics were very powerful and oddly appropriate.  So it was a happy discovery, a happy accident.

OC: Well speaking of that do you play the accordion or any other instruments on the soundtrack at all?

BM:  Oh yeah.  I play accordion, and I played a little bit of hurdy gurdy on it.  Predominantly the accordion just because I am an accordion player primarily, and believe it or not, it’s hard to find projects that necessitate an accordion. So whenever I find one, I dive in.

OC: Do you have complete control over the music, or is it something that you have to run by Ron Moore as well?

BM: No composer ever has, or should have, complete control. It is a collaborative media.  It is the job of the composer is to find the producer’s vision and help them guide it to the screen. With that said, I find that Ron and I are on the same page creatively to the degree that he does place a lot of faith in me.  And while he does have the last word on everything-he’s the showrunner-he and I are in complete agreement virtually all of the time. So sitting down and looking at episodes with him and going over queues and playing demos, it’s just really a fun experience because we’re just on the same wavelength. And he's able to help me understand the show, and I think in return, I am able to deliver a score that really helps him find his vision.

OC:  Do you meet with the musicians? Or are you there during the recording process if there are things you want to tweak or different types of emotions that you want them to convey?

BM:  The recording process is the most fun for me. That’s what it’s all about. It's getting in a room with other people and getting to conduct them.  Outlander is no exception. I find that with a show that’s intimate you really can’t mock it up on a synthesizer and have it communicate the same thing.  So getting together with the musicians is where I’m able to really find the intimate details, to really get those exact character moments to work.  So I’m very blessed that we have the resources that we have to be able to have all of these live players.  And actually let me even also amend that having live players playing a specialty instruments is an absolute necessity. So having somebody playing the bagpipes, playing the bodhrán, the folk guitars, Scottish fiddle, the penny whistle, these are things that are absolutely iconic to the soul of the score, to the soul of the show; and you couldn’t replicate them with samples.

OC: Yea I was going to ask you that. How did you find these musicians? Are they all here in the US around you in LA, or did any of them actually come from Scotland?

BM: I knew pretty much all the people that I needed, because I love writing this style of music.  I’ve actually used bagpipes in Battlestar Galactica.  I’ve tried to use bagpipes in other shows and the showrunners look at me and say, “Get those bagpipes out of there.  What do you think this is?”  So for a lot of us, this is the show we’ve been waiting for. This was the show I’ve been waiting my whole life to write. And I knew exactly all my friends that I would want to bring in and say hey play that Scottish fiddle, play that bodhrán, play the bagpipes.  Normally we have to kind of sneak in there.  Now we don’t have to sneak in, and this is what the show actually needs.  So it’s been a dream come true.  

OC: That is so cool.  Well, Bear, we actually have a question from one of our listeners, Lonnie Shaw Fraser, she actually knows that you have a lot of different shows going at once that you are composing for.  And she wanted to know how do you get into your mind set. Because she swears she heard an Outlander influence on the last episode of The Walking Dead. So do you get in a different mind set for each show? Or is that something that, does it leak through?

BM: Well, I would normally say that it doesn’t leak through, but if she heard something on Walking Dead maybe she heard something that did leak through.  (OC: It was a Scottish zombie!) Yeah, exactly. The zombie was wearing a kilt. What other choice did I have?  I find actually that I thrive on multitasking, and I find that the variety of projects that I get to work on helps keep me inspired.  I think if I was working on seven different police procedurals, the answer to that question might be a little different.  But for me it’s really wonderful to be able to live in the world of Outlander and tell this intimate romance in the middle of a bigger, more epic story. And then being able to switch gears and work on The Walking Dead or work on Agents of Shield.  I have totally different instruments. I have totally different orchestras. And the shows are so totally diverse, that it kind of helps me stay fresh.  I think I come back to Outlander with a fresh perspective after I’ve had a few days working on something else. Because television . . . it's not like scoring a film, it’s an endurance run.  You are working in the same world with the same themes for years.  I mean I already mentioned Battlestar Galactica with Ron.  But I did close to 80 hours of narrative of Battle Star, and fingers crossed that we go that distance on Outlander. And so for me it’s very exciting to be able to go play around in another universe and then come back.

OC:  I really enjoy reading your blogs that you have up and especially the one about Outlander.  One of my favorite things that you wrote was how you said that not many composers can boast that they scored a steamy sex scene with bagpipes.  (BM: YES!) So I love that you get to have fun in your blog, and I found that you actually make YouTube videos, and I didn't know if you're going to make YouTube behind the scenes videos in regards to Outlander.

BM: I’m definitely hoping to, because I think it’s something that the fans really want to see.  One of the reasons I haven’t yet is the amount of detail that I think Outlander fans want is more than I can put into a YouTube video.  The YouTube stuff is fun-and I highly recommend checking it out. especially my Agent's of Shield ones are pretty fun-but with Outlander the number of scenes that I use, and the way I use Scottish folk tunes, it’s so detailed.  I’m really taking a much more almost collegiate approach, and I’m going into detail about every episode. I walk you through every scene, and talk about the scenes, the decisions, the instruments. I think, if I recall, my first Outlander blog entry, I had four or five paragraphs just about the bagpipes as instruments,  and what it’s like writing for them.  I think I even put a disclaimer that was like “Be warned! There’s a bunch of nerdy bagpipes stuff coming up.”  So I found, for YouTube, it actually is better on the written page. It’s better to dive in. But I’m definitely planning on doing some more multimedia stuff in the future.

OC: I want to see pictures of these three different bagpipes that you write for.  You had a little screenshot up there of one of the bagpipes and I was like, “Aw man, I want to see a video of all three.  All the different ones he uses”

BM: Yea they are very cool.

OC:  And in addition when I was reading, I saw that you said that you like to use the clarinet to signify Frank and kind of using the English folk tunes for him. So I didn’t know if there were any other characters that you have a particular instrument for.

BM:  Frank is unique in that he actually has an instrument that is totally linked to him.  For certain other characters, there are instruments that I like to use.  For example, Claire I like to use the penny whistle. It has a breathy, feminine quality that is very evocative of her.  As you will hear in the next episode to air, in the first episode back, it’s from Jamie’s perspective.  And so you're gonna hear their theme in the viola da gamba which is a Baroque instrument that has a very tenor rich baritone timbre to it.  So is more of a masculine sound.  But with that said it’s always playing their theme, and their theme is not exclusive to those instruments. It is a theme that I like to put in those instruments, but it’s not a rule by any means. But with Frank, I really wanted him to stand out.  He is a character that still lives in 1945. He’s stuck there.  He’s separated from Claire, and a very big chunk of the first season is spent with Claire trying to get back to him. So I wanted something that was evocative of England. And I chose the clarinet because it was used in a lot of wind band and orchestra music by composers like Holst and Vaughan Williams and other English composers who used English folk music a lot.  But more importantly, if I only used the clarinet for Frank, it would always stand out when you hear it.  It would always take you back to 1945, and most importantly, the clarinet is a foreign sound to our Scottish characters.  I don’t think Jamie has ever seen or heard a clarinet.  So by preserving it and using it only for the Frank scenes, it makes it alien in a way and it keeps it out of that 1743 world and keeps us in 1945.  So I don’t know if that all translates.  That’s what my process was.  I don’t know if you’re watching the show thinking “Wow, that clarinet belongs to 1945.” But these are the kinds  of things I enjoy putting into the score, and I do think on a subconscious level viewers become aware of these kinds of techniques over time.

OC:  Bear, we’re coming down to the last minute with you, so we’re going to do a quick lightning round of questions.

BM: Two second answers, you got it.

OC: Are you Scottish?
BM: I am partially Scottish, yes.  I am part Scottish and part Armenian.

OC: Have you worn a kilt and do you enjoy it.?
BM:  I have always dreamed of wearing a kilt. I have yet to do it, actually.

OC: Have you read any of the Outlander books?
BM: I’ve read the first one.

OC: Have you ever been to Scotland?
BM: I have been to Scotland twice.  They were both when I was young.  I am hoping to go back in the near future.

OC: What’s your particular favorite theme in Outlander?
BM:  I am partial to the “Claire and Jamie Theme” because I wrote it. But also because it . . . it really is the most important theme in the body of the show itself.  The “Skye Boat Song” is the main title and has it’s uses in the score, but it really is a sort of a separate piece.  I would have to say the “Claire and Jamie Theme.”

OC:  Who’s your favorite composer?
BM:  I’m probably gonna say Jerry Goldsmith.  

OC: What show has the best score other than yours, past or present?
BM: Wow!  That’s an easy one.  Batman the Animated Series, which was scored by and supervised by Shirley Walker.  That is the bar that I have yet to reach.

OC: And do you have any more projects coming up?
BM:  Uhm, No, I’m totally doing nothing...no, I’m joking.  I’ve got a lot of stuff cooking. I’ve got some film projects and game projects, some TV stuff coming up, Walking Dead is coming back Agents of Shield is coming back.  Black Sails is airing now, and Da Vinci's Demons Season 3 is coming back.  There’s [sic] a lot of chances to hear my music in the near future.

OC: Excellent. And I just have say, personally, my favorite piece of yours, oddly enough, is the
“Governor’s Pulse” in The Walking Dead.  I think that is the coolest track ever. It’s just so awesome.
BM: Thanks, man. That’s a personal favorite from Walking Dead.  That’s definitely one of those moments from as a composer when you stumble on something, and you realize you struck gold.

OC(Blake): Well, that just about does it for us here.  Mary do you have any other questions?
OC(Mary):  No that’s it. We just wanted to know, Bear, if people wanted to know more about you, where would you like them to go, whether it’s your website or social media places.

BM: Definitely go to my website bearmccreary.com that’s where you can find my  Outlander blog and “the answers in the back of the book,” if you’re wondering anything about the music of Outlander.  Check me out on YouTube. I have a YouTube channel that’s also my name and that's got a lot of fun stuff.  And follow me on Twitter and Facebook for current updates.  (OC: Well, thank you so much Bear for taking time to talk to us…) Oh, and one other thing, the Outlander soundtrack is coming out real soon so definitely check that out.

OC: Oh we are pumped. We are pre-ordered. We are ready to go! (BM: Awesome!)
       Thank you so much, Bear.  This was an absolute joy having you on to talk with us.

BM: Thanks you guys.  Good Luck with the podcast!

OC:  Thank you! Take Care.

What are some of your favorite musical moments from Outlander?


  1. I am late in reading this, I guess. When I want to unwind, read or chill, my go to music is the Outlander music Bear has chosen to include in his three CD's. It calms me, I travel the lakes and streams of the Scottish Highlands, amazing because although I am Scottish, I have never been. E heads my bucket list but as time goes by I am satisfied to be there vicariously through others. Growing q my brother and I would play pipes on our victrola, to taunt our mother, who hates the sound. She never dampened our enthusiasm for the sound! Both of us are getting up in age and have both requested pipes at out passing. I want Scotland Forever, while big brother is a fan of Amazing Grace. I loved reading your interview with Bear, and I so appreciate his talent. Recently spent time recalling a time when I had been close with Tommy Makem and his family, and also Liam Clancy. I worked a PBS special that was hosted by then and included singers like, Noel Harrison, local talent The Shaw Brothers, and others, some from eastern Canada. It was such fun, and it created a lifelong friendship with both Tommy and Liam. I never got too far from my Celtic roots musically. I so love Outlander, the power of love and amazing writing! A longer Drought means more ways to stay in the groove. So grateful for everyone involved in the show. Thank you for your blog.

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