Michael O'Neill is a musician and composer who has more than three decades experience at the top levels of the music entertainment industry. He has released five CDs and composed music for many Movies and television shows. Michael is also a producer who has worked with a number of talented artists. As a guitarist himself, Michael has paired up with dozens of talented instrumentalists such as Rickie Lee Jones, George Benson, and Al Jarreau.

Michael’s production work has been nominated for Grammy’s and he has traveled all over the world sharing his talents.

His travels have opened his eyes--and ears--to various kinds of ethnic music which inspires his own style even more. Yet Michael truly has a passion for making music for films. At the 2016 Hollywood International Moving Picture Film Festival he was awarded the prize for “Best Music Score” for the work he had done on a film titled “No More Chances.” Now, Michael is working on the musical score for a new film titled “The Nightmare Gallery.”

Michael O’Neill discussed his career as a musician and composer for the movie industry via an exclusive interview on August 29, 2018.

Music, movies,TV shows, and Grammy Awards

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love of music and when did you start to create your own songs?

Michael O’Neill (MO): I'm of Mexican / Irish descent and on the Mexican side of my family, my grandmother's brother, who is my Godfather, was a famous musician in Mexico. He along with two partners formed the first ever Trio Folklorico named "Trio Calaveras" which was copied and popularized consisting of two regular Spanish guitars and one smaller high tuned Spanish guitar called a Requinto (lead and solo guitar).

The three also sang and the look has been seen in many places (Sombreros and Serapes). Trio Calaveras recorded over 50 albums and would travel to L.A. annually to perform downtown at the Million Dollar Theatre. There would be extended parties with them at my grandparents’ house over a week's time. This started when I was 3 years old.

This was the first musical experience to penetrate my being but it wasn't till many years later I would start creating my own music.

MM: You play the guitar, so what is it about that instrument that so appeals to you?

MO: The guitar much like the piano can be a self-contained symphony with harmony, melody and rhythm all present at the same time. Also, the variety of guitar types such as acoustic-electric and more; it has a widely varied palette and is very portable.

MM: How did you find your way into a career as a composer?

MO: About seven years ago after having spent three decades as a guitarist in the studio and backing artists on tour, I began to pay more attention to the way music was woven into the story in films, the emotions that it could so powerfully evoke fascinated me and I thought I might like to try my hand at it.

I then took a distance course on composing for all forms of media and started going to networking events to meet young and energetic film directors and went from there.

MM: You do a lot of work for the entertainment industry, mostly making music for movies and TV shows, so how did that come about?

MO: I had a friend I'd not seen for many years who made a career as a TV composer and I had a meeting with him and he listened to some of my work and called me a couple of months later and asked if I'd be interested in composing some cues for some of his shows. Fast forward to now I have music on nearly 40 TV shows. Also, at one of the film networking events I met Gene Blalock, director of " The Nightmare Gallery " and composed music on 1/2 dozen short films for his company Seraph Films.

We built a great working relationship which led to us doing this first feature film together.

MM: You also work with other artists as a producer, so when did you take on that duty?

MO: Producing my own projects led to others coming to me for help in producing their music. Over the last decade it's grown more and more. While on tour in summer of 2017 in Europe with longtime artist friend George Benson I co-produced his guitar and vocals and also sang backing vocals for a compilation, "Jazz Loves Disney 2" on the Phil Collins song "You'll Be in My Heart". I'm currently producing two Filipino / American vocalists and a Bass player.

MM: The music you produced has been nominated for Grammy awards, so how awesome was that and did you actually attend the event?

MO: I had the honor to serve as Associate Producer on George Benson's cd 'Songs and Stories" which was nominated in the Best Surround Sound category. I wasn't able to attend the awards show as I was out on tour. The production work I did on the project was in Sao Paulo, Brazil with some of their finest musicians so it was an experience of a lifetime.

Film festivals, performing, hopes and dreams

MM: You’ve won awards at film festivals, so what is that like?

MO: I've won two awards for my scores. The first was for a short film called "No More Chances" in the 2016 Hollywood International Moving Pictures Film Festival. I did the score for Pablo Moline and La Traviata Productions. The other was for Best Musical Score in the Smoky Mountain Film Festival 2017 for a short film "The Betwixt Killer" that I scored for Gene Blalock and Seraph Films.

It's great to have these small victories as I grow as a film composer. It sort of tells me that I'm headed in the right direction.

MM: You’re currently working on the music for a film titled “Nightmare Gallery.” So how did you land that gig and how did the movie’s plot influence the score?

MO: As I mentioned here earlier the relationship that developed between director Gene Blalock and myself over six short films led to our first feature film effort together "The Nightmare Gallery". It's important to mention that the relationship between composer and director and in this case also one of the writer/producers Jhan Harp is vitally important to ensure that the music is married to the story as well as possible.

In the case of The Nightmare Gallery I met and worked closely with both Gene and Jhan from before they even shot one frame until the very end. As a composer I really appreciate as much input and direction from these individuals as I can get, especially when like in this case they have good ideas and instincts. At the end of the day you become partners in a large endeavor, so knowing how to communicate with said partners leads to better results. The plot clearly influenced my work along with the characters. Because it's a highly female cast Gene and I decided to use a fair amount of female voice mixed into some of the cues to evoke the kinds of emotions we were looking to convey.

MM: You travel a lot to perform your own music so how much does travel—and learning about other culture—impact you creatively?

MO: Performing all over the world is a big asset when it comes to scoring films. For one thing to interface with musicians from different cultures in their backyards provides a deeper understanding of what different types of music mean to the given cultures. I've been inspired many a time in the midst of a foreign setting and composed music while there. Invaluable stuff.

MM: Which of your musical scores is your favorite and why? Also, how different is it to create music for TV shows and films versus making music from random inspirations?

MO: My favorite score of my own so far is “The Nightmare Gallery” because it's the culmination of several years of scoring shorts and working out lots of the kinks in my approach to things.

I enjoyed the variety that I got to employ scoring this film and am proud of the results. In working with Gene Blalock these past few years I've discovered who I am as a composer as he's both inspired me with ideas and gave me space and openness to explore my own insights. The big difference is composing for film and TV versus more free composing is that you must always keep in mind what the role of the music is at any given point. Sometimes it needs next to nothing, something singular, at other times the music takes center stage particularly when there's no dialogue going on. After having composed several scores I now find that when merely songwriting there's a newfound enhanced depth and an ability to sort of make the songs come to life almost in a visual sense.

MM: What are your biggest hopes and dreams for the future of your career as a composer and musician and what are you working on right now?

MO: I hope to continue marrying my music to more and varied stories in this thing we call filmmaking. Hopefully, someday I'll work with an orchestra where applicable I'm currently working as a producer with three artists and also looking to play some select shows with one of the projects I produced with one of my writing partners. With the guitar being my first instrument and having worked for over three decades with one of the best jazz guitarists of all time, George Benson, one of the areas I play well is jazz improvisation and even though there are fewer opportunities to play that I continue my quest of discovery because I find it's an asset at time in my composing coming up with instant ideas.

I'm also about to start a Creative Writing course on Memoirs as I intend to write a book about my career in music. In closing I'd like to say that I'm excited about continuing to dance to my own beat when it comes to creating. I find that if I really like what I do chances are so will others. Real music created organically still finds its way into people's hearts.