Like many artists, Roy Shakked's musical inclinations began very early, and as a child he had already begun to foster his talents by banging on a piano. His love for music led him to study at Berklee and then a strange path unfurled that had him composing music for video games, exploring electronic music and remixes, composing music for television and film (Nip/Tuck, Sex and the City, much more) and eventually donning the nom de plum Holmes, under which Shakked has released three (and one forthcoming) albums of bright pop.
His last record was a labor in love called Holmes: Covers, which saw him reinterpreting some of his favorite songs. As we learn in this interview, Shakked considers his move into singer-songwriting to be a late one, and you may be surprised at learning that writing lyrics provides one of his major challenges. All that and more, below.
Has it been non-stop composition and playing since you were six, or when did it all start for you?
Real songs with lyrics? Twenty-two, probably. Just music? I would say around sixteen or seventeen, but it was mostly just instrumentals. I'd have the melody but I wouldn’t have any lyrics.
What was the catalyst for writing songs with lyrics? Did you finally just feel confident enough to flesh your songs out with words?
Yeah, I think it's mostly about confidence. Honestly, it took me years to get my confidence up. The lyrics that I started writing at twenty-one and twenty-two were really horrible (laughs). They were really not good. It took me years to really get them on the level, and they're not something I would let anyone listen to. So the good thing was I knew that I sucked. I only started releasing real songs when I knew I was ready. It's something that I grew into, I guess.
When did you first start writing songs you were proud of?
I'd say it took a good six, seven years after starting to write lyrics, getting into my late-twenties. I feel that I'm definitely a late bloomer; I wasn't one of those guys in high school who already had good songs. My journey was pretty slow, and I was getting into different types of music. I went to music school, where I got involved in jazz and later on with electronic music, so the scope of styles was pretty different. I went through some incarnations before I got into the singer/songwriter style, or pop/rock or whatever you call it.
Did going to Berklee give you a different perspective?
You know, it helps and hurts in a way. I just heard this interview with St. Vincent, if you know who she is. She went to Berklee too, and it hit a nerve for me when she said that on many levels, she had to unlearn a lot of what she learned at Berklee because it didn't apply to what she was doing in the real world. Everything is very technical, and a lot of it is about jazz improv and your proficiency level, and playing your instrument in a very technical, traditional matter in the manner of being a player. And my desire was always about creating, not being a professional piano player or someone else's piano player. But on the other hand, it teaches you a lot about a lot of other aspects of music, and opens your mind to a bunch of stuff you wouldn't know about - not to mention it puts you in an environment with a lot of really good musicians. You can always learn stuff from different people than from being in a bubble. You're very open when you go over there, and you learn a lot of different things.
Following your career trajectory...did you start writing music for video games right after you graduated?
Yeah, I moved to New York right after, and we're talking mid-nineties, when video games were still on CD Roms, pre-XBOX. I worked for a game developer that worked with Microsoft and Paramount Interactive and yeah, I composed music for them...mostly games for young children. It was a nice experience and my first time really getting into working with computers in terms of music, meaning sequencing and MIDI. In Berklee I was focused mostly on acoustic stuff and playing the piano and learning arrangements, and I didn't really ever get into computers, which of course is the standard these days. That experience was the start of how I make music today.
Was it different writing music for video games, or is it the same process that you go through writing other kinds of music?
It's different than what I do now, the songwriting process. It's...you know, obviously lyrics are a huge part of what I do now...except that last album was a covers album, which meant I didn't have to bother with lyrics for the first time in a long time. Lyrics are a super time-consuming part for me. And it was kind of a lonely process, not being involved with other musicians. You were a self-contained band. It's about arranging, really.
You hint that you wanted to return to your roots for your 2007 album Stop Go. What prompted that change, exactly?
It was about getting back into real instruments, which at that point I hadn't done since college, really. I really missed the instruments, and the touch and feel of a real piano, or recording a real drum set, or running electric guitars through amps. And the other side of it was that lyrically, I felt that I had something to say. I was more ready.
One thing I was curious about was this: while you do your work under the name Holmes, you're also writing and scoring music for movies and television. I was curious if music you wrote ever bounced from one side to the other. Has that ever happened?
Yeah (laughs), it has happened a couple of times, and usually what happens is not complete songs, but passages end up changed, and that goes both ways. Sometimes I write something for a score and I really like a certain chord progression or a beat, and I think “Man I could really make this into a song,” and so I'll take that idea and kind of flesh it out into a real song later on. And vice-versa, sometimes I'll find myself scoring something and I'll use something from one of my songs. It will be different enough to not be recognizable, but the kernel will be from something I've done.
What brought on the covers album? What about these songs did you feel was ripe for interpretation?
First and foremost, it's just fun to do something like this. And it's interpretations of songs I just love and have loved for a long time. Most of the artists I grew up on. I started listening to '80s R&B and Motown way before I got into rock, starting with stuff like Michael Jackson and The Gap Band and Parliament Funkadelic. And then I discovered The Beatles, and got more into pop rock later on. I had probably over a couple hundred songs I made a list of that were potential cover material.
My god. I bet it was a fun process to root through those songs.
Yeah, I might make a "Covers 2" album when I find the time. The hardest part is finding time.
What's your new record going to be like?
Whereas my second album was kind of a bit of on the melancholy side I would say with personal lyrics, this one is definitely a little more fun, a little more lighthearted. It's in the process, and I'm assuming it should be done and mixed by April.