Musician Jon Brion Doesn’t Want to Sound Familiar
Jon Brion is happy if you’re happy. At least that’s the composer’s position when it comes to the vinyl release of his score for Lady Bird,Greta Gerwig’s Oscar front-runner. While Brion has been in the business for decades, a touch of fortuitous timing has turned the start of 2018 into a bit of a renaissance for his deeply felt work.
In addition to the Lady Bird score (released on limited-edition white vinyl from Fire Soundtracks and Lakeshore Records on Friday), the Austin-based label Mondo also recently pressed a three-disc version of Brion’s score for Magnolia. Ever the audiophile, Brion is quick to note his scores weren’t intended for the vinyl medium—“so that precludes me from having too much excitement.” But he does concede that the format has its appeal.
“I think the notable difference with vinyl is that you are more likely to listen to five songs in a row,” he says. “I think that is the beautiful part. I think that is a bigger part of why people have an emotional experience with it. Vinyl doesn't even require that you pay attention. Maybe you're at your apartment, and you'll do some cleaning-up and leave the record on.”
Forrmat aside, fans of movies and music have been having emotional experiences with Brion’s work since he first teamed with Paul Thomas Anderson for the director’s 1996 debut, Hard Eight. Audiences who haven’t heard of Brion have likely heard him nonetheless, possibly through his scores for films like Punch-Drunk Love and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or perhaps in his production work, which ranges from the piano ballads of Fiona Apple to the chamber pop influence he lent to Kanye West’sLate Registration. A few may even recall his tenure in the early 90s band the Grays, or via Meaningless, his lone solo record, released in 2001.
For years, he has existed as something of an open secret, playing monthly shows at Largo in Los Angeles and offering his unparalleled appreciation for the mechanisms that make music soar for those who seek his counsel. In long, thoughtful answers, he namechecks clarinetist Artie Shaw and punk rockers the Buzzcocks with equal enthusiasm. He discusses popular music with the reverence and concern of a cultural historian eager to preserve a legacy at risk of extinction, but one whose own contributions to the form have continued to ensure its survival.
These qualities inspired Greta Gerwig to reach out to Brion to score Lady Bird, a portrait of a teenager at odds with the world in early 2000s Sacramento. After watching the film, Brion mined the material on-screen to find his approach, ultimately opting to draw on memories of his father.
“My dad was a band director when I was a kid growing up,” says Brion, “and a lot of that was wind ensembles, where there wasn’t a string section. I'm sure that that played a part in my choice to only have woodwinds in the movie. I’ve always wanted to do a movie like that, especially because strings are our typical sign of movie music if there's going to be an orchestra. So I thought the woodwind feature might be both really personal but still give you a sense of something that was orchestrated.”
The result was a score that proceeded with a subtle whimsy, a playful but substantive assembly of notes in line with the grandiose ambitions of the movie’s title character. In Lady Bird, the titular character’s highs and lows are reflected in a piano scale that descends and ascends along with her mood.
“I feel like the given scenes and intention of the film are the lyrics,” he says, “but I still want to hear a song. It's not just personal taste. There's one overarching thing, and it's my gripe about film music: most of it is either soundscape or just the sounds of orchestra we associate with a movie. I feel like all of the instrumental music I like, going way back, has a sense of song. The classical music I like has beautiful, singable bits in it, while there's still all this rich texture going on—it's not just endless music tricks. I love all that stuff, but I consider it filigree to a basic sense of song, and then if there's some arranged harmony, I'm a pretty happy camper. That's the thing that actually lights me up, but on top of it, it's the thing I don't hear in general in movies. I feel like it's a void that needs to be filled.”
He says his efforts to fill this void are also the result of his desire to stay abreast of two extremes. Brion points to Neil Young, who often felt the first take was the only one worth using, and Leonard Cohen, who would write multiple sets of lyrics for songs and required a lengthy gestation period to produce new work.
“I find myself going between those poles as a musician,” Brion explains. “Those are both people whom I think have very good words as well as very good songs. If you take those two poles and put them on top of each other, that’s who I try to be as a musician. I used to joke when I was younger that I had an emo side and a Cole Porter side.”
Indeed, Porter and the Great American Songbook represent, to Brion, the apex of pop’s potential. He’s nostalgic for the time when a game show like Name That Tune was even possible—when a handful of notes could reveal the recognizable strain of a melody.
“That's not something that would be possible now, because most of our associations are with the drum and synthesizer and guitar sounds that open a record. People call it ‘the song,’ and the melody hasn't even come in yet.”
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