Imagine someone who’s worked with Kanye West (co-producing Late Registration) and Beyonce (Lemonade) but never really brags about it and has a name you’ll have never seen on a scroll through HiphopDX’s now-defunct message boards. Who comes to mind? A 15-year-old girl from a Maryland suburb who’s secretly a major producer? A previously unpublished alias used by JAY-Z? Try again. American multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion may not be a household name but his work has been heard in millions of them, whether in the films he soundtracks or when he contributed to Bey’s Lemonade.
He’s a prolific collaborator, producer and film score composer whose music you’ll have heard if you’ve watched, say, Magnolia, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I Heart Huckabees, Synecdoche, New York or Trainwreck. Now, he’s scored the original music for Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut and Oscar nominated film, Lady Bird. Over 23 vignette-like tracks that merge the role of score and original soundtrack, Brion creates a soothing and immersive world. The gliding strings, flowing woodwind, piano tinkles and acoustic strums marry perfectly with Gerwig’s coming-of-age exploration of identity, adulthood and the particular intimacy of mother-daughter relationships. But hey, this is a music website so we were also just a little curious to hear about Brion’s work with everyone from Best Coast to Fiona Apple, Frank Ocean and Sky Ferreira. Here, Brion talks about working on the film, the frustration married to composing in modern Hollywood and memories of his late friend Elliott Smith.
Noisey: After Greta Gerwig asked you to score her film and you agreed, what can you tell us about your initial conversations?
Jon Brion: I normally watch a film I’m working on twice a day for a week and then watch it once a day for a week and begin to concentrate on a few key scenes – maybe I’ll put my hands on a piano or guitar. Then after two weeks, I feel like I know the film as well as the director or the editor and I know it better than any audience member will. That way I can approach it with confidence. Although for this film, I left the first screening with an idea in my head for what the main theme should feel like. I then wrote the bulk of it the next day. So by the time we spoke on the phone for the first time, just a few days after the screening, I picked up my guitar and played it down the phone. To me the theme has this tumbling quality to it; like that moment in life the film captures when you're reaching for stuff but you don't know what it is yet. So I played that and I could hear her reaction on the phone, there was an immediate audible gasp of air and an, 'oh, that's great.'
I imagine an audible gasp from a director is the dream response. How often do you get that?
Oh, absolutely it is. As opposed to, 'yeah, it's good but…' and then they stumble for words for 15 minutes. It's very rare to get that response. If someone hires you then it's usually because they've heard something they liked, and then when you work together and make something specifically new for them you often soon learn pretty quickly if actually all they want is for you to make copies of things you've done in the past. You can tell from someone's reaction. Greta's was very direct and visceral but normally you work with everything from indifference to somebody trying to make excuses for not liking something. A great deal of this job is spent like that. So, Greta's was a refreshing response and I think she's a refreshing person in general – she's a good one.
It sounds like a very particular type of temperament, patience and skill is required to do this job and create the vision directors have for their world.
You are 100 percent right. It requires patience because it is frustrating. Those two words are key elements to doing the job. When somebody doesn't like something and you've worked on it privately for some time – and writing something is an extremely personal act – it's a gut punch. If I were producing a record and somebody brought in a new song and I went, 'I don't know, nah,' that would be considered the height of insensitivity. But a director can listen to five pieces of music that weeks have been spent on and go, 'I don't know, play me something different.' You have to, by job description, eat it.
There are a lot of people with creative input in the filmmaking process. Are there ever instances where you're happy with the music, the director and you both love the music but then in the finished film it's used or changed in a way that makes you unhappy?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Going to premieres is a very difficult thing as a composer these days. Everything is on the computer and is in little moveable chunks, so any person with access to the mixing process and has doubts about a piece of music can alter it. The entire thing can be thrown out on the last day, or mixed behind sound effects right up to the last hour and you will never know that until you see the film. I've literally gone to films and the melody that is supposed to be there is gone. Not like, 'oh, they've turned down the oboe, I’m so hurt' but entire pieces are gone or put in different places. There's a litany of stories about this and composers’ nervous systems combusting. So going to premieres is not a jolly experience. I am not a person with much anxiety but my lord, sitting in a chair at a premiere? It's really looked at as a job that is only slightly above craft service [catering] in the hierarchy of a film production.
Outside of film, you've worked with a huge number of people. How much does any one quality you look for in a collaborator connect them?
If there's a line I can draw through it, it's that somebody is doing something interesting or that the combination of them and myself will add up to something interesting. The people I work with are an eclectic bunch and I think the lines that other people draw are really stupid, as is the notion of art versus popular entertainment. I’m always interested in when those lines are blurred or they don't even exist – when it isn't even a question. We have these idiotic artistic archetypes that have been sold to us. Greatness has nothing to do with how many people notice it. To me, when something is good that is self-evident. The through line, I guess, is just that it's something that I hope has the chance to be good. That's the hope every time.
Who is more difficult to please, your average film director or Kanye West?
It depends on the day [laughs]. I think every filmmaker has a bit of Kanye in them. I've never met one that doesn't and I’m sure if Kanye were one, he would tell you he was the greatest director of all time.
How was he to work with?
What was interesting was that he wanted to expand himself. I felt that he was truly trying to make something that would communicate with lots of people but also have qualities in it that weren't happening in other people's records at the time. You'll find this hilarious but one of the things I talked to him about at the time was that boasting had already been overplayed in hip-hop and how tired it was.
The ideas about art and popularity you mention are most perfectly exemplified by a record like Lemonade by Beyoncé, which is both a stunning piece of work and hugely successful. How was working on that?
She did a great job of straddling those worlds. It was really fun to hear as she was working on it, and fun to do arrangements on. When you hear somebody have real purpose, like brilliant directors who have an absolutely clear vision and inner visualisation, then you're on for the ride. That's a great thing to be around. There are some people who are aware they have the world's ear and make really interesting use of it. I was very impressed that through all of her work and all of her ambitions, she had gotten herself to a position where it would be world news just by releasing a record. And when she did that it was not merely just a collection of songs. There are real ideas in them, there are points she feels important to make or to be reiterated to the world at large. When somebody takes that cultural moment that has people's attention and harnesses it for something other than just a song, you just ride the wave of that wonderful momentum.
I know Elliott Smith was both a friend and collaborator. As someone who has worked with countless talented people, how special an artist was he?
What a damn fine writer. His loss is the worst one, it really is, and I mean that in every way. I personally feel that he was our finest writer and his loss is incalculable, which makes everything all that much more heartbreaking. I have some very personal memories of sweetness. Before he took out his own mind, because he spent a few years without himself, he was a creature of immense sweetness. He was not without his grinding angers inside like the rest of us but his day-to-day interaction had a lot more shyness and sweetness in his heyday. The memories I have of him are so big to me that I’ll never be able to adequately communicate it. The nature of his music might suggest an endless dourness but he was really the opposite to that when he was in good shape.
Lady Bird (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) is out on physical release this Friday 23 February via Fire Records – and Greta Gerwig's film lands in UK cinemas on the same day.
You can find Daniel on Twitter.