Because he can, ladies and gentlemen, and because life is short but not entirely meaningless, Jon Brion will now attempt to do it all. And he will do it all, or most of it, anyway. Consider that he’s a Grammy-nominated producer of hit records for rock and jazz biggies like Kanye West, Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, Macy Gray, David Byrne, Marianne Faithfull, Polyphonic Spree and Brad Mehldau; and he’s a twice-Grammy-nominated composer of film scores for high-profile films (Magnolia, I ? Huckabees, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Punch-Drunk Love). He is a studio session multi-instrumentalist/sound guru who, with his battery of vintage/obscure musical instruments, has enlivened the recordings of a massive list of acts, from Elliott Smith, The Crystal Method and Jellyfish to Peter Gabriel, Perry Ferrell, Melissa Etheridge and countless others. Oh, and he’s been a member of a melodically spectacular pop-rock band called The Grays, as well as the crafter of a cruelly unrecognized solo album, a whimsical pearl called . . . Meaningless.
Sure, that’s a lot. And your inclination, as many people’s inclinations are, might be to think it’s too much. But understand that this is a trip into the heart and mind of a successful survivor in the famously skanky biz of music. So it’s a story about music itself — where it comes from, what it’s for, the people who make it and why, and how it intersects with, gets charred by and rises, phoenixlike, from the ashes of its gnarly co-dependency with the film industry. It seems that for Jon Brion, music is not just a skill or a commodity; it’s a way of life — a metaphor, as you might say.
Somewhere along the way, the black-mopped, boyish Jon Brion learned not only to do it all, but to know it all — albeit in a nice way.
Brion comes from a musical family — Dad was a band director at Yale, Mom liked singing old standards around the house — and never was he discouraged from pursuing a life in music. He began writing songs as soon as he knew how to play an instrument, which by the age of 8 meant drums, guitar and piano. By the time he was 10 years old, he’d begun to try his hand at jazz, and at 13 had a fortuitous meeting with pianist–French hornist Willie Ruff, who’d formed a jazz band of high school and college-age kids in New Haven. Brion joined the ensemble on vibraphone and drums, and got to perform with Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Sam Stewart and other giants.
Carter was an imaginatively versatile musician whose career spanned six decades’ worth of musical styles. He was a pivotal influence on Brion.
“The archetype of the rock musician,” Brion, an admitted fiend, tells me over multiple cups of joe at the Coffee Bean on Sunset on a blustery day, “is that you’re only allowed to make one or two interesting records, and then spiral into boredom or obscurity, or making terrible music for more people, and keep chasing until it starts dropping off, and then drop off the face of the planet. We have this whole notion that your career is this thing that’s rising on the graph. You work, and you get more power, and more money, and you go and go and go, and at some point it stops and that’s where you retire. In truth, for the creative person it’s just up and down, wildly, sometimes suddenly, in one direction or another. And I prefer that as an archetype.
“I don’t have some model in my head that now I must be doing things of a certain stature. No, I’ve gotta be interested in it to be involved. I’ve already spent years living on ramen noodles, determined to play music, and it’s not a problem to go back there.”
It’s just not bloody likely that he’ll have to, it should be noted, especially since the recent big boost in his rep for his work on Kanye West’s triple-Grammy-winning Late Registration. As Brion’s not exactly known for being a hip-hop aficionado, at first glance his and West’s association seemed bloody unlikely, too, come to think of it. But it was Brion whom West wanted, and it was Brion who happily accepted the job and delights in the wealth of knowledge he gained from the experience.
“He called,” says Brion. “It was that simple. And as soon as we got together, it just felt natural. He just walked into the room and played me some things, and then the next thing you know there was an instrument in my hand and we were working, and after a few hours he was headed out the door, and he just turned around and said, ‘What time tomorrow?’ ”
West, an avid music fan who shares with Brion a fascination for the subject of record making, had been familiar with Brion’s film scores, and liked what he heard. Of course, the famously opinionated West had his own strongly held beliefs about how the record ought to sound, but he wanted his assumptions challenged, if only to have those assumptions strengthened and refined.