NPR Story
3:13 am
Sun August 26, 2012

Composer Keith Kenniff Keeps The Ads Humming

Originally published on Sun August 26, 2012 9:32 am

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Keith Kenniff writes music for advertising.

KEITH KENNIFF: It was funny. When I first started doing this I, thought of commercials like jingles. Like the Roto Rooter, you know, jingle or something like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF A ROTO ROOTER AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) Call Roto Rooter, that's the name.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) And away goes trouble down the drain.

WERTHEIMER: But Kenniff's music is different

(SOUNDBITE OF AN IPHONE AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is iPhone 4S, with iCloud...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GOLDENGROVE")

WERTHEIMER: That tinkling in the background of the iPhone ad is his song "Goldengrove." He's composed music for Quaker Oats, Facebook, Google, and the public radio show Radio Lab. Kenniff used to be a session musician and played with country bands. He still writes music on his own. But over the last several years, the composer and musician has been scoring music for advertisements full-time. For him, they're distilled, powerful tiny pieces of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GOLDENGROVE")

KENNIFF: A lot of what I do is trying to tell stories in a very, very short amount of time. You know, there are only 30 seconds or whatever but I think a lot of the things I do are like mini film scores, rather than jingles.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Each of these photos was taken by someone on the first morning of their retirement.

WERTHEIMER: Now, here's the commercial which I think really is like a little movie. This is a commercial for Prudential

(SOUNDBITE OF AN MUSIC AND AN AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: As we're living longer than ever movie, Prudential's challenge is to help everyone have the retirement income they'll need.

KENNIFF: They wanted the music originally to be kind of sparse and quiet and ambient and a little experimental. I had an idea of doing something that was kind of - had unique instrumentation. And it felt very handmade like the visuals were, and so I used this piano with leaves taped to it.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: What do you mean leaves taped to it?

KENNIFF: Leaves.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Like leaves from trees?

KENNIFF: Leaves from outside, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

KENNIFF: Yeah, I put them right on the strings there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KENNIFF: You know, and each leaf has a different tone to it. And it was interesting to cleanup afterwards, but I thought it was a good result.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Here's an ad that you wrote the music for. It's for Toyota. And I understand that you worked right up to the last minute on this one. Let's listen to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KENNIFF: For this spot, they wanted it to sound like a song. You know, kind of a modern song. They wanted it to be split in two ways, where the first half was kind of like ambient and they said it should sound kind of spooky.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KENNIFF: But that they wanted the second half to be really kind of poppy and up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL IT TO YOUR HEART")

KENNIFF: And so, I had to kind of figure out to make those two things work.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD AND SONG, "TELL IT TO YOUR HEART")

HOLLY KENNIFF: (Singing) Tell it to your heart what you, you are, what you are...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Wherever life might take you, the new Toyota Yaris will keep you one step ahead. New Toyota Yaris.

WERTHEIMER: You've also recorded an album based on Civil War era music. I assume that is something that you did because you like it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: Why were you drawn to that music?

KENNIFF: I have a few monikers that I record under. And this one I recorded as Goldmund. And it's mostly just solo piano that, you know, I play on these albums. But this one I chose to do all fairly straight covers of Civil War songs, which was kind of a weird choice. But I really like the music of that era. I find it tells so much story in so few notes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KENNIFF: They're very simple melodies, often very simple chord changes that everybody can kind of pick up and play. And that was the point and function of these songs, that everybody be able to relate to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: I wonder if you ever sort of think, gosh, I wish I could just do this; just focus on music that you really like.

KENNIFF: You know, with commercial stuff, it's so varied that each one of these little projects is like putting together a huge puzzle in this short amount of time. And so, I find it's really rewarding. You know, when I'm doing personal projects I, you know, I set the time. And it's different and my goals are different, and I just feel like have to pour it out like a journal. And you know, the commercial stuff is my job. It's work. But it think, also creatively, it's a really interesting challenge to take on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: That is composer and musician Keith Kenniff. He joined us from WFDD in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Keith, thank you very much.

KENNIFF: Thanks, a pleasure to be on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.