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Joel Haines: Composing behind the scenes

Composer, Joel Haines
Composer Joel Haines tells us how he approached a career in writing music for some of New Zealand's favourite TV shows.


Joel Haines has played music since he was five, joined the family band when he was eight, and toured with his Dad, Kevin Haines, and brother, Nathan Haines, during his teenage years. Being a musician was never in question for Joel, but it was a big leap of faith that lead to solely focussing on composing music for TV and film. I spoke with Joel Haines and his partner, Charmaine Batt, about how they have successfully established themselves in the business of composing the soundtracks for some of New Zealand’s most popular TV shows, including Mercy Peak and Outrageous Fortune.

“I always knew I was going to be a musician and composer. Dad, (and Mum) gave us a real appreciation for music from day one, as Dad would really buzz out on an album he’d just bought, and go into great detail as to why those chords or that melody really blew him away. So I guess the fire was ignited as soon as I could understand what he was talking about.”

There was one gig in particular that pushed Joel into quitting playing live music. He was playing with his Dad in a big hotel in Auckland and the manager refused to allow them access to the regular elevator in order to pack in their gear to set up for their performance. They were told that they had to use the service elevator which was “a huge distance away to be carting guitars, amps, and acoustic bass … so we snuck down the front elevator, and he was waiting there for us when the door opened, screaming and having an absolute meltdown, shouting ‘you’ll never work in this town again!!!’” This was the final straw for Joel after years of being frustrated about “people treating you like a servant” in the context of performing live. It was the push he needed to really throw himself into focussing solely on composing music for soundtracks.

Joel, along with his partner, Charmaine, established their own company, Joel Haines Music with Charmaine as the producer and client liaison and Joel composing, recording and mastering the music. At the beginning they just worked really hard, contacting as many different production companies as they could find until they got their first break. “I think the biggest challenge was convincing people to hire you when you had only worked on a few projects. That was scary.” The breaks did come, slowly but surely. Joel wrote his first TV commercial a little over 20 years ago and a couple of years later scored his first documentary.

It was persistence that got them through, and in 2000 Joel received the job that really set his career in motion when he was selected to compose the theme song and all incidental music for the TV show, Mercy Peak. They had to come up with a demo theme song and submit that against some tough and well-established competition, and they won the job. “I was chosen partly because of a CD I had recorded of guitar music that was very filmic in nature. I had been playing guitar on loads of TV commercials and films for some big established composers, and really loved working to picture, and that sound came out in my own music.” This was the beginning of a 17-year relationship with South Pacific Pictures.

Working in TV is a completely different experience for a composer than writing in pursuit of your own inspiration. For Joel, this has been incredibly stimulating. “I really dug the collaborative nature of being part of a big machine. I think it’s fascinating to work closely with editors, directors, producers, and others involved toward an amazing product together. I witnessed a lot of this whilst playing guitar for the legendary Murray Grindlay and Murray Mcnabb. My interest was piqued, and so here I am today.”

And it has also been one of the challenging parts of the job. “The other big challenge is to forget anything is about you. A film & TV composer is part of a big machine working towards a much bigger picture than your music. Forgetting everything you think you know, and taking direction from a multitude of sources, and turning it into music that is not your signature sound, or even remotely resembling any music you have made before is a challenge, but a greatly rewarding one also.”

As the composer for a TV series, Joel is responsible for writing and developing all aspects of the music. It can be easy to underestimate the amount of work that goes into creating the perfect aural experience to fit the mood for each individual scene.  He has had to learn how to make music that speaks to an incredibly wide variety of audiences, and often audiences that he himself does not understand. Joel explains, “I see and hear music from 38 years of making it” which means that when making music for other people “you need to greatly up-skill yourself in understanding why they like a certain tone or melody, or why they might love that song that has become your pet hate. What is it that they hear that you can’t?”

It is this seeking to understand audiences and create soundtracks that really speak to people that drives Joel. He has committed to making music that will bring the most value to the viewer's experience watching a show. “I believe I have been put here to make the most incredible soundtracks that I possibly can. So I should not waste my given talents on average dribble, but do my utmost to fulfil the brief, or heighten the scene, or tweak that emotion, or make those viewers weep, always as best as I can muster.”

Joel believes that he is “unbelievably fortunate” to have a successful career as a composer. His advice to others is to “always, hopefully do the most groundbreaking unbelievable, incredible and amazing job every single time you do anything! And do it because you love it and believe it to be your reason for being on earth.” He says that it is important when writing for others to not get too caught up on “thinking the client wants safe sounding music to sell safe products, or the producer doesn’t want to challenge the viewer too much as it may result in less bums on seats/ or ratings.” While it is not possible or relevant with every job, Joel says the risk is worth it when you can because it “at least shows you are willing and capable of pushing sonic boundaries [and] makes life more interesting.”

Written by

Hannah Mackintosh

22 May 2017

Hannah is a Wellington-based writer, community organiser and lover of stories.