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“What I really liked about him,” says Brion, “is he is open to everyone’s ideas, but then he is a very good person for having a point of view, and at the end of the day he makes all his own decisions. The main thing I got from him was this commitment to the subject of his own music.”
Brion had a similar feeling about Fiona Apple, whose When the Pawn . . . album he produced in 1999 and whose recent Extraordinary Machine he produced, too, though his rendition of it was shelved by the record company. Producer Mike Elizondo subsequently redid the album, though a couple of Brion’s versions remain on it.
“I’m thrilled she’s happy with it and the record company was happy enough with it to put it out,” he says, politely. “I’m particularly happy that people are gonna get to go into rooms where she is playing and singing, because there aren’t enough of her to go around in this world.”
No bad blood, then?
“People make soap operas of things they don’t necessarily understand, and the world at large doesn’t understand how many records don’t come out that get made. Every record I made for Aimee Mann got shelved for a year and a half before it came out. I think Fiona was in a place where she was unsure what she wanted, and that’s an artist’s prerogative. And that’s not the sort of thing you end friendships over.”
Still, it must be frustrating to have something you slaved over and believed in rejected. Could Brion’s dustily eccentric version of the Apple album really have been so uncommercial?
“Well, it wasn’t an obvious, easy sell,” he says, “but neither was it senseless — in some ways that is the story of my life. It’s just that the climate we’re in right now, well, we’re very skittish.
“The major changeover in the past 15 to 20 years is that, if you’re working for a record company and you want to sign an artist, you have to go to the marketing department and go, ‘Uh, can you guys sell this?’ and the marketing department then sends down their edict on whether something makes sense or not.”
Which is just plain odd, given the creative ambiance that Brion’s adopted hometown offers in abundance. Los Angeles can be thought of as an isolationist paradise where one might make music and art without undue influence or the pressures of archetype, a curious fact that Brion feels has allowed him to thrive here.
“There’s not a focused scene in certain focused areas,” he observes. “It’s not like ‘Hey, here’s our manifesto, and anything outside of it is bullshit!’ Of course, everyone goes, ‘Oh, L.A., you can’t have a good conversation to save your life.’ But in truth, I’ve met the greatest people I’ve ever known since I’ve moved here; the most intelligent and the most forward-thinking and the most challenging, and people being able to survive as individuals outside of any scene whatsoever. And that’s inspiring. On planet Earth, at this time, if you’re interested in all of the creative arts, Los Angeles is the only city in the world.”
L.A.’s music- and film-industry kingmakers have welcomed the idiosyncratic Jon Brion with open arms, but then they usually do for people loaded with new ideas — only to suck ’em dry and toss ’em on the bone pile.
But Brion fights the industry with a most unusual weapon: a big-picture sensitivity that not only helps him circumvent traditional Hollywood career pressures, but gives him a grounded yet unfettered persona that sparks fearless originality in the variety of artists with whom he’s called upon to work. He’s especially fond of engaging with musicians and film directors wise enough to leave him to his devices yet sufficiently firm in their own visions to forge a truly collaborative spirit. Such was the case with Huckabees’ David O. Russell, for whom Brion will also score the upcoming There Will Be Blood.
Brion had admired Russell’s handling of Huckabees’ quietly audacious subject matter — involving a detective team that investigates questions of existence.
“Nobody wants to get caught being on the soapbox,” he says, “and everybody’s so drearily afraid of being called pretentious, but they never put themselves on the line. Fear of being seen as pretentious is the great pretension of our time. It stifles people left, right and center, and I’m sick to death of it, because everybody’s pretentious.
“Not all grandiose ideas are bad,” Brion continues, clearly warming to the subject, “but it’s equally stupid and equally pretentious to go, ‘I’ve got to be sure to be primitive.’ If there is a way to keep yourself on an edge where you don’t know what’s gonna happen, that’s where the primitivism is. Soulful is determined by somebody’s reaction to what someone else is doing, and things are good because they’re good or not, not because ‘anything that’s true artistically is refined and simple.’ Hank Williams is one kind of good. But if you say that . . . then George Gershwin isn’t good? I don’t buy it.”