The Chi is an award-winning and recently Peabody-nominated Showtime series about the lives of strangers brought together by tragedy, and Patrick Warren is the composer responsible for bringing out the feels.

Created by Emmy-winner Lena WaitheThe Chi stars Jason Mitchell, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Jacob Latimore, and Alex Hibbert who are four disparate souls who are united when their small community on the Southside of Chicago is rocked by a fateful turn of events. As their lives intersect and they deal with the aftereffects, friendships are forged and lost. The Chi began its second season in April of 2019.

PopAxiom spoke with Patrick Warren about his career in making music, working on The Chi, and being a globally known expert in playing the Chamberlin.

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Thanks, Mom

The road to making music started when Patrick’s mother, a nurse, had her son learn an instrument “As a child, I was forced to take piano lessons. Somewhere around my teenage years … my mother said ‘You are old enough to make your own decisions, you can quit if you’d like.”

Patrick had never seriously considered quitting by that point, but did ponder it for a moment “I decided to keep going with it and shortly after discovered rock and roll. I’ve been obsessed with music ever since.”

Patrick studied music, eventually falling in love with composition and continuing his studies at UCLA “They would give us a little piece of video and tells us ‘you have four cellists, four violins… and a french horn. Make it go to this picture.”

However, Patrick’s musical career “… started out as a rock musician with many different bands and touring.” The young man has toured or worked with the likes of Fiona Apple, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Lana Del Rey.

Patrick’s career grew and evolved “I started making arrangements for string orchestras, and I think that sort of gradually started me towards film scoring.”

The Chamberlin

Out in the world, there are some weird instruments. One of them is the Chamberlin, created in 1949, which typically looks like a piano but is something entirely its own “The most well-known use of the instrument is the beginning of Strawberry Fields by The Beatles.”

The idea behind the Chamberlin was trying to put an “orchestra in a box,” and Patrick admits “I became obsessed with the idea … I took an approach to make that instrument sound as much like an orchestra as I could in the sounds and the way I would play it.”

The Chamberlin is a marvelous machine, but it’s also a unique instrument “It’s a real mechanical beast. It has motorcycle bushings and flywheels. The motors … came from a refrigerator. It was quite a contraption.” Patrick would have a full set of tools while on the road, working as a part-time mechanic to keep the machine working.

About The Chi

Patrick continued to work with musicians while expanding his skillset as a composer “I met Common when I worked on a song he wrote with John Legend for the movie Selma, the song Glory.” That song won an Oscar in 2015.

From Glory, Patrick worked with Common again on “… this amazing record called Black America Again. Common also offered something special to Patrick, creative freedom “Common said ‘do whatever you want.’”

Did Patrick listen? “I really went nuts.”

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Patrick Warren with Jason Mitchell (Left) and Barton Fitzpatrick (Right). Photos by Eric Charbonneau.

Common is an executive producer of The Chi and invited Patrick to be the show’s composer “A little bit of what we did on the record became a bit of something we did on the show. It was a starting point.”

As The Chi got underway “… we weren’t really sure what we wanted musically, so there was a lot of temp music. The editors, of course, hear it all the time and start to like it. Season two was different in that they used my music as the temp.”

As for Patrick’s approach to projects like The Chi “When I write music I have the dialogue up and almost approach it as the lyrics to a song.”

Making Music

Over 20 years, Patrick’s worked with musician T Bone Burnett “… a brilliant producer who asked Patrick to work on the gritty HBO show True Detective.” The show won an Emmy for Outstanding Music Composition in 2014.

Writing music for TV and film presents interesting challenges “I’ll write a beautiful piece of music for say a funeral scene, and I think I’ve nailed it. It’s not too sappy. I’ll play it for friends who love it. Then you play for it Producers, and they say ‘I like it, but I want to be in a murderous headspace. So you have to approach it in a new way. But that’s part of what scoring is all about.”

Patrick is a fan of experiment instruments and sounds, and as a science fiction fan, he admires stories that take that kind of out-of-left-field approach too “The movie Arrival starts with a string quartet, and it’s not what you expect from a science fiction film. But it lets you know that it’s not just another shoot-em-up type of movie.”

Creative work often has to be compressed down for specific effects. For instance, a screenwriter has to boil the entire story into one or two sentences known as a logline. In music, snippets of songs, usually relegated to theme songs, fill the role of setting the mood for an entire show. We talk about the simplicity of the Game of Thrones theme for a moment then Patrick, like many creators before him, declares “Writing simple melodies is deceptively hard.”

Wrapping Up

Who is in Patrick’s musical DNA? “I have to say, Tom Waits is in my DNA a lot. I’ve been a huge fan of his forever, and I got to tour with him. Such a fan of the way he writes. I love older jazz. A lot of classical.”

At night, Patrick puts headphones on with some music “… and falls asleep.”

If The Chi isn’t enough of Patrick’s music for fans to enjoy, the musician and composer worked on several upcoming albums including “A Sara Bareilles record that came out recently (Amidst the Chaos) which T Bone had me write a bunch of strings for.”

Patrick isn’t forced to play piano anymore. In fact, there’s a hint of joy as he talks about making music “It’s an absolute blast.”

Thanks to Patrick Warren and Impact24 PR for making this interview possible.

Ruben Diaz
Writer, film-fanatic, geek, gamer, info junkie & consummate Devil's advocate who has been fascinated by Earth since 1976. Classically trained in the ways of the future.