Best known as Radiohead’s innovative jack-of-all-trades — a multi-instrumentalist equally comfortable playing guitar, xylophone, sampler, or keyboards — Jonny Greenwood also pursued a solo career as a composer while helping his band push the boundaries of their music into unusual and decidedly non-rock directions. After collecting multiple Grammy Awards for Best Alternative Music Album with Radiohead (1998′s OK Computer, 2001′s Kid A, 2009′s In Rainbows) and penning celebrated scores for films such as There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012), Greenwood became an Oscar nominee with his rich, elegant orchestral music for 2017′s Phantom Thread, his fourth feature-length collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson. Soon after, he made his debut on the Billboard Classical Albums chart with 2019′s Industry Water, his split LP with composer Michael Gordon. In 2021 alone, Greenwood delivered very different chamber music scores for the Princess Diana study Spencer and the ranch-hand drama The Power of the Dog, as well as contributing to the soundtrack of Anderson’s coming-of-age film Licorice Pizza.
Jonathan Richard Guy Greenwood was born on November 5, 1971, in Oxford, England. Along with his brother Colin, Greenwood attended Abingdon School near Oxford; it was here that the older Colin first came into contact with schoolmate Thom Yorke. Before long, the two were playing music together in a project dubbed TNT. Guitarist Ed O'Brien and drummer Phil Selway were soon admitted into the fold, and the new band adopted the moniker On a Friday (in reference to the day of the week they would routinely get together and practice). Jonny Greenwood, who was a couple of years younger than the other four, repeatedly asked to play with the group; he was finally invited to play harmonica with On a Friday at a 1987 gig at the Jericho Tavern in Oxford. This proved to be his initiation into the band, and he later took over keyboard duties for the group before finally switching into the role of lead guitarist.
However, On a Friday were placed on an extended hiatus when the four older members went off to college in the fall of 1987. A couple of years later, Greenwood himself went on to study music at Oxford. By the summer of 1991, though, his bandmates had graduated from college and reunited the group, prompting him to leave school (after only a year) so that he could commit to On a Friday on a full-time basis.
The re-formed quintet quickly got to work, recording and releasing a series of demo tapes and gigging steadily in the area. It wasn’t long before the major labels came knocking, and On a Friday soon had a record deal with EMI. Their new label quickly pointed out (not unjustly) that the band’s name was somewhat unwieldy; the group concurred, and Radiohead was selected as the new name, taken from the title of a Talking Heads song.
In late 1992, Radiohead exploded in America with their single “Creep.” Featuring Greenwood’s jarringly percussive, muted guitar bursts (which strangely provided the song’s hook), “Creep” was widely embraced by MTV and alternative radio, which put the song into heavy rotation. Although follow-up singles from their album Pablo Honey were released, Radiohead could not escape the one-hit wonder stigma until the release of The Bends in 1995. An amazing artistic leap over their first album, The Bends contained plenty of Jonny Greenwood guitar pyrotechnics (“Just,” “My Iron Lung”), but also revealed an assured, mature side of the group that was previously unknown (“Street Spirit,” “Fake Plastic Trees”).
Around this time, Greenwood’s physically aggressive style of playing guitar began to take a toll on his right wrist. To relieve the pain and deter the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome, he was fitted with a wrist brace to provide support to the joint. The brace soon became a trademark of sorts for Greenwood, and he continued to wear it out of routine long after the immediate threat of injury was gone.
After The Bends, Greenwood began to show signs that he was growing uninspired with using the guitar as his primary means of expression. Said the guitarist, “There’s only 12 power chords, and I think we’ve had about 20 years of them, so maybe it’s time to move on.” Greenwood took this sentiment so far as to (half-jokingly) issue a prompt to online Radiohead fans, asking them to send him any interesting chord progressions that they could devise.
Nevertheless, when Radiohead released the massively successful OK Computer in 1997, the guitar work was taken to new heights. Beginning immediately with the opening atonal “Airbag” riff, Greenwood redefined what a guitar could sound like, whether it was the distant, chiming gull cries of “Subterranean Homesick Alien” (which succeeds admirably in its attempt to re-create Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew trumpet tone) or the digital meltdown near the end of “Paranoid Android.”
On the ensuing North American tour, however, Greenwood’s dissatisfaction with playing strictly guitar-oriented music reached its zenith — a feeling that was carried over into the recording studio following the tour’s completion. The release of Kid A in 2000 and its counterpart, Amnesiac, the following year clearly reflected this; Radiohead’s trademark guitars had vanished from all but a handful of their songs, replaced instead with layers of synthesizers, keyboards, and samplers. And although Radiohead’s 2003 release, Hail to the Thief, featured more guitars than either of the group’s previous two albums, Jonny Greenwood’s debut solo album, Bodysong (released later that year), was a mostly guitarless affair, proving once again that Greenwood need not be shackled to the confines of the electric guitar to compose original, evocative music.
He was hired by the BBC as composer in residence the following year, resulting in the publication of a handful of pieces, including “smear,” “Piano for Children,” and “Popcorn Superhet Receiver.” Jonny Greenwood Is the Controller, a compilation of reggae and dub tracks from the vaults of Trojan Records, was released in 2007, as was his critically acclaimed soundtrack for director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Academy Award-winning oil tycoon drama There Will Be Blood, which featured excerpts of “Popcorn Superhet Receiver”; because it included pre-existing music, it was deemed ineligible for an Academy Award nomination.
Greenwood’s work in film continued in 2010 with the soundtrack for Tran Anh Hung’s big-screen adaptation of Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. The following year, his score for We Need to Talk About Kevin, a film adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel, arrived; in 2012, he reunited with Anderson for the score to The Master. That year, Greenwood also worked with one of his biggest inspirations, Krzysztof Penderecki. Their collaboration, which included Greenwood’s homage to the composer, “48 Responses to Polymorphia,” arrived that March. The Australian Chamber Orchestra commissioned Greenwood to compose the piece Water, which premiered in 2014 during a three-month residency in Sydney. Late that year, his score to Anderson’s adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel Inherent Vice hit theaters and Nonesuch Records.
In 2015, Greenwood traveled to the Mehrangarh Fort in the state of Rajasthan, India, and collaborated with Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur, Indian ensemble the Rajasthan Express, and producer Nigel Godrich. The recording session was documented by Anderson and released as a film titled Junun, and an album of the same name was released by Nonesuch that November. After working on string orchestrations for Frank Ocean’s Endless and Blond, in 2017 Greenwood scored Anderson’s mid-’50s fashion drama Phantom Thread, which incorporated a 60-piece orchestra and drew inspiration from Glenn Gould’s Bach recordings and Ben Webster’s string arrangements. That year, he scored the noir-styled Lynne Ramsay film You Were Never Really Here. Phantom Thread also landed Greenwood his first nomination for Best Original Score at the 90th Academy Awards in 2018. The following year, he started his own classical music label, Octatonic Records, and Radiohead were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Industry Water, an LP consisting of Greenwood’s Three Miniatures from Water on one side and composer Michael Gordon’s Industry on the other, arrived later in 2019 and landed in the Top Ten of the Billboard Classical Albums chart. He had a hand in the music for a trio of acclaimed films in 2021: the Princess Diana study Spencer, Jane Campion’s adaption of the Thomas Savage novel The Power of the Dog, and the Anderson comedy-drama Licorice Pizza. The latter’s mostly song-populated soundtrack featured an instrumental track by Greenwood. ~ Steve Bekkala & Marcy Donelson