Tracy McKnight is the eminent music supervisor, creative executive, record producer, and label co-founder, who is regarded as a consummate master of her craft. Having contributed to more than 150 eclectic projects, Tracy has exhibited versatility across genres and her innate gift for storytelling through music on studio films and independent darlings alike. In various roles, Tracy has lent her talents to A Wrinkle In Time, Selma, Adventureland, Friends With Money, The Babysitter, When We First Met, Wildling, Raising Victor Vargas, Coffee and Cigarettes, and many more. During her post as Head of Film Music at Lionsgate, Tracy presided over numerous high profile soundtracks for The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Warrior, Abduction, The Expendables, Now You See Me, and The Next Three Days. Most recently, Tracy has turned her focus to various compelling documentaries including 2018 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A, National Geographic’s record breaking Free Solo, Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, and Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland. In our insightful conversation, Tracy reveals how a healthy balance of business acumen and creative vision has been the guiding force behind her enviable long term career.
I understand you attended The Fashion Institute of Technology and worked as a flight attendant before finding your way into the music business. Can you elaborate on how you ended up working for Arista Records?
That's all true. I went to the Fashion Institute (FIT) in NYC, and I have an Associate’s Degree in cosmetic marketing, which, at the time, was the only school in the country that had that specific program. I continued there, earning my Bachelor’s degree in Marketing Communications. While at school, I needed to make extra income and there was a wall for students, loaded with index cards, advertising available jobs. I saw a listing for a night manager/receptionist at a recording studio, Planet Sound on 30th and 8th. I got the position, and that was my entry point into the music business.
For three years, I worked at that studio, mainly at night. I was introduced to the process of how records were made, how sessions were put together, the role of a producer, how tracking works, and how a band records together. So many people recorded there — Band of Susans, Anita Baker, Donny Osmond, and a lot of indie East Village punk rock bands. This served as my ah-ha moment of, "Oh, this is where my path is. This is what I want to do.” It was a nice launchpad for me. Even though I’ll never be behind the soundboard, I have a working knowledge of it, which is helpful.
As graduation approached, I knew I wanted to work in the music business. I started to research record labels and began sending out resumes. I applied to Warner Brothers, Arista, and others. Arista Records responded, and I got an interview and the job! I was over the moon. Mark Rizzio and Mary Taten in Radio & Video Promotion took a chance on me and that launched my career.
Can you tell us about your entrance into the field of music supervision? What music and films dominated your taste during this time in your life?
A short version of the story, but after about a year and a half at Arista, I went to work for a record producer named Bill Laswell. He was incredibly influential in the arc of where I landed because he was a prolific producer and the person to expose me to a lot of different art. He worked with Parliament Funkadelic, Herbie Hancock, Ornette Coleman, The Jungle Brothers, Fine Young Cannibals, The Master Musicians of Jajouka, and Pharaoh Sanders, to name a few. He had a label through Island called Axiom, one with Rykodisc and a few indie labels.
I went from a pop label experience at Arista, which focused on “big” releases, radio promotion and MTV video like Whitney Houston, to sitting with jazz legends and these indigenous musicians from Australia, Morocco, Senegal, and Gambia. A new world opened up for me about art and musicians. I worked for Bill for four years and ran his production company, Material Inc, negotiating deals, handling publishing, organizing recording sessions, and overseeing financing. While there, I met a music supervisor, G. Marq Roswell and he introduced me to this field. He invited Bill’s team to a screening in New York of The Commitments. Afterward, he took the time to explain what music supervision entailed — and I fell in love.
Immediately I knew, “That's what I want to do," and I moved to Los Angeles like any good aspiring music supervisor. I landed an internship at Women and Film to meet people. I also interned and worked as an assistant to Sharill Churchill, who was a supervisor. I was also pounding the pavement and met a film producer named Mark Lipson — he wanted to license some of Bill Laswell’s music. He was aware that I wanted to be a music supervisor, and he put in a good word for me with Ted Hope at Good Machine. At that time, Ted was producing a movie for Ed Burns called She’s The One. Glen Basner, who now runs Film Nation, left me a message on my answering machine, saying, “It’s Glen from Ted’s office, and he’d like to meet with you about music supervising a film.” We met and I was hired on my first film, Love God. That’s how it all started.
Ted Hope and James Schamus ran an indie film production company in NYC called Good Machine. Ted now runs production at Amazon, and James Schamus was the CEO of Focus Features, and I was thrilled to be there. I worked on many projects with other team members there including Anthony Bregman, Mary Jane Skalski, and Ross Katz. It was like getting my master’s degree in film production. I was surrounded by massively talented people who believed in art, believed in storytelling, believed in the vision of a director, and they believed in me. Independent filmmaking, to this day, is my passion and my heart. I start every project knowing I have to balance the budget while attaining its creative goals — it’s my responsibility to put that puzzle together. Indie films come with limited budgets, and it's taught me how to navigate the cause. Sometimes, art isn’t always about money, so how do you rally people around that? I obviously believe everyone should be paid for their work. On the other hand, when you watch a filmmaker who it took ten years to get their script made for two million dollars, I will always try and do what I can to make their dreams come true. Never underestimate art — it wins most of the time. Knowing how to mix the business with the creative is the key part of music supervision. You’ve got to know both.
You worked on Matangi/Maya/M.I.A, the upcoming documentary following the life story of progressive Sri Lankan artist, M.I.A, which debuted at Sundance this year. How did you become involved with the film? Do you have any personal anecdotes from the experience that you'd like to share?
I was brought into the project by Paul Mezey and Andrew Goldman at Cinereach. As soon as they called me about it, I said, "No matter what, yes." M.I.A. is a groundbreaking, opinionated, smart, and talented woman — a pioneer who creates amazing music. A song like Paper Planes was released over ten years ago and is still relevant in highlighting different cultures while pushing back against anti-immigrant sentiment. Her backstory is deeply moving; a refugee from Sri Lanka to international pop star — what are the odds? She went to film school in London and had to work hard to get to where she is. She hustled, pounded the pavement and knocked down doors — it’s inspiring. She made things happen for herself through determination, talent, and will. It was an honor to be on the project. There was a ton of music and many moving parts, so when we got to the finish line for release, it was an epic achievement on everyone's part.
The soundtrack for Ava Duvernay’s A Wrinkle in Time was incredibly star-studded featuring original music from the likes of Sade, Demi Lovato, Sia, and many others. Can you tell us about your teamwork with Ava to curate this dynamic lineup?
For this particular movie, I was a consultant. I had previously worked on the score of Selma. Ava is a phenomenal, creative force with a strong artistic vision. For A Wrinkle in Time, the song I oversaw was Kehlani’s Let Me Live. Ava wanted an original song for the high school scene, and I was instrumental in finding the songwriters, NOVA WAV and also working with Kehlani’s team to help bring that song to life. It was nice to be a consultant on this film. It’s a beautiful film based on an incredible book about a girl who is changing the world. I was a small part of a big picture, but I was very happy to be there.
Selma was an incredibly moving film, which examined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s quest for equal voting rights back in 1965. The soundtrack featured Common and John Legend's Oscar-winning song, Glory. Can you describe your dynamic with composer, Jason Moran and the nuances of your role as executive score producer?
I was brought on board by Jason Moran’s team to help him organize and support his creative plan for the score. We had colleagues and friends in common, and they thought we would be a match with my background, as I know how to pull sessions together, hire a music editor, and supervise important aspects of the scoring process. Jason is a spectacular talent. We had a blast going through that journey together, and I am very proud of the finished product.
We are intrigued by the upcoming documentary, Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. Can you tell us about the musical selections for this project? What themes within this complex narrative were most vital for you to highlight with music?
Talk about a dream-come-true project! Our fearless director, Dana Adam Shapiro, whom I worked with previously on a documentary called Murder Ball, asked me to join the team. We hadn't seen each other in years since our New York days. We both live in Venice, CA now and have mutual friends, and we randomly reconnected at my holiday party no less — he was invited by another friend of ours. He let me know he was working on a documentary about the amazing story of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and their leader, Susan Mitchell. She was the brain trust that led to the tremendous success of the squad and their rise to international fame. I think people are going to be fascinated by the story and how it progressed.
Creatively, we needed to capture the spirit of the time period while also incorporating themes of women’s liberation. I’m excited how the soundtrack turned out because we have bold choices that represent the era and are a lot of fun. We also have Joan Jett singing Oh Bondage, Up Yours!. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were a phenomenon, a lightning in a bottle and we had such a blast telling their story. The film premiered at South By Southwest, and twenty five of the original cheerleaders were present — they're a sisterhood.
As the head of film music at Lionsgate, you worked in a different capacity on The Hunger Games franchise, Warrior, What To Expect When You're Expecting, and many other high profile films. What were your primary duties and what were your personal highlights from this time in your career?
As Head of Film Music, I was responsible for overseeing all music for the LG [Lionsgate] slate of feature films. That included meeting all the creative needs of the studio and filmmakers from script to screen — hiring supervisors and composers, managing budgets, delivering soundtrack albums and single releases, and everything in-between. Added to that was the task of meeting all corporate deadlines and expectations, which is a big part of any high-level executive position.
It was an incredible run of projects during my five years there, yet working on The Hunger Games is a career highlight for me. Seeing the passion of the fans for the book, in all the projects I had supervised, I had never seen anything quite like that — it was lightning in a bottle. I had a ton of fun putting the music together and working alongside the album’s producer, T-Bone Burnett. The soundtrack album process was something a bit different. When we approached the artists, we sent them the book. It was fantastic to see artists and writers connect with a written word and then create songs from that viewpoint. Being a part of making that concept album was magical – that’s really what I would call it. I think, from the beginning, we knew that we wanted to make an album that would be representative of the world in the book. The album, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart, comprised a stunning collective of artists — Taylor Swift, Arcade Fire, Birdy. With a story like The Hunger Games, people already knew about it and were excited to be a part of it. It was also wonderful to work with composer James Newton Howard, a master at what he does. All in all, I am very proud of the cultural impact that both the films, as well as the soundtracks, were able to make.
In your opinion, what are the most crucial skills for a music supervisor to possess?
Key skills for a music supervisor are a musical creative vision, business and deal-making savvy, passion for storytelling, and a sense of community — these things are the thread that holds it all together. Creative and business move in sync, and it’s a tricky line to navigate, but your brain has to move in both avenues. You can have great music ideas, but at the end of the day, a music supervisor will have to be able to execute them. We’re always thinking on our feet, and there is this aspect of constant learning, which I love. Whether it’s 1930’s ballroom or curating a list of artists from Ghana — it’s always an adventure. No two projects are the same. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, a unique challenge comes your way, and a new music puzzle is presented to solve. I adore everything about my job and wouldn’t change a thing.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Tracy McKnight.