Artist Spotlight: Jon Brion

I first became familiar with Jon Brion while watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s melodrama Magnolia somewhere around 2003. While watching what is, in my opinion, one of the best movies ever made (I felt that way while watching it that first time), I couldn’t help noticing the amazing score of the film. It was melodramatic, but not cloyingly so. Very much on the foreground, but not in an old-fashioned way. While watching the end credits I saw that the music was done by a guy named Jon Brion, who I’d never heard of. For some reason, in a film where people sing along to Aimee Mann – in addition to quite a few other songs of her – I was drawn to his work more than hers (though Mann is excellent too, don’t get me wrong on that). Aimee Mann’s song album of the film was incidentally the only soundtrack of the movie – two were released, the other was only Brion’s music – I could find anywhere around here. As buying it from the internet wasn’t an option, it took a random trip to a London record store to come across a copy of it. I think I danced out of there while holding the CD close to me.
That was my introduction to Jon Brion: singer, songwriter, film composer, record producer and multi-instrumentalist I absolutely adore. He was born on December 11, 1963, apparently did terrible in high school as he knew he wanted to become a musician anyway, has been in the bands The Bats and The Grays, before going solo, has written the score to Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, I Heart Huckabees, Step Brothers, ParaNorman and Trainwreck, to name a few and, apart from writing and performing his own music has produced records of artists like Elliott Smith, Fiona Apple, Brad Mehldau, of Montreal, and Kanye West.
So what makes him so good? First of all, that he’s so crazy talented that he can do all these things. I’m a sucker for pop artists who can record an entire album by themselves, and Brion is one of the better examples of that. He loves overdubbing – he’s a big fan of Harry Nilsson for a reason – which he also uses during his live performances. Every Friday night he has the stage at Largo in L.A., and the one place I have to go to before I die. While this clip edited down his routine, it’s a good indication of how great he is:

Secondly, he writes amazing melodies. His best work features at least a hint of melancholia that always feels genuine. This also comes across in his movie work, obviously. Sadly, he’s not too prolific in his song writing. He released a solo album in 2001, Meaningless, and what few songs he has released since then (like the one above, which is already a few years old) either have to be tracked down through YouTube, or are written especially for a movie. It’s a good thing he excels at that, though:

In my humble opinion, this is one of the best love songs ever. It manages to be both weird and sincere about love and relationships at the same time, very much in line with Punch-Drunk Love, the movie it was written for. It also showcases the melancholy melodies that Brion can write so beautifully, as well as his arrangements.

I fell in love with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind the opening theme above started playing. I also happened to (and still do) relate to Joel to quite a degree, but those first few notes on the piano made me feel as if I sat next to him on that train, or on the freezing beach at Montauk. I was convinced it was Jon Brion before I saw his name pop up in the opening credits, and I’m such a nerd that I kind of cheered at seeing his name.
Melancholy comedy music would become his niche, somewhat, but he’s so good at it that it doesn’t really matter to me for the most part.

The perfect time to listen to this music is at night, after seeing a show, and sitting in the bus on your way home. That’s when this clicked for the first time, at least. The first time I saw this movie I didn’t entirely understand it – I think I still don’t, entirely – but listening to this on headphones, while seeing dark and desolate streets pass by, made me sad but also perfectly at ease with myself. That’s quite different from Synecdoche’s main character, but one needs to be glad they’re not in any way like him, I would think. Synecdoche, New York is one of the best movies of the last ten years – and that’s not hyperbolic – and the music plays a subtle but integral part of that, as it gets Caden Cotard’s emotions across, even when the movie becomes more confusing.

Of course, Brion had already shown he could do dramatic work with his first solo-effort as composer. Him and PTA had already worked together on Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, together with Michael Penn (brother of the late Chris and Sean and married to Aimee Mann). Mann and Penn had actually recommended Brion to Paul Thomas Anderson, bringing this around. In fact, Mann and Brion had dated for a while, and Brion actually produced a few albums of hers (among which, of course, the song album of Magnolia).
Another thing I like to note is the special way Jon Brion composes music. He actually sat with Paul Thomas Anderson in his studio, where Brion would play something and PTA could give him directions while the scene was playing. Brion’s improvisational skills are so good that he could immediately interpret the director’s instructions and convert those into music. Of course he’d work out his compositions further, but still, it’s an incredible feat. One only needs to listen to this piece. It’s 11 minutes long, which is quite rare for any piece written for film, but it’s sad, pulsing with momentum and one feels the breakdown happening.
And to show off his incredible improvisational skills, here he is with the master of the mandolin, Chris Thile, while behind the scenes on recording the score for Step Brothers:

Another song, written for David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees. It’s admittedly happier than a lot of his other output (musically, at least) and it encapsulates the movie’s existential comedy nicely. If that doesn’t convince you to watch it, the clip also features Mark Wahlberg in a bear costume.

And to close off, a song from his only solo album. It’s slightly more aggressive than his other stuff, but it does make me energetic, if I ever need it.
And that’s about all I can say about the man, as I can only say that he’s a genius so many times. Check out his show at Largo if you’re ever in L.A. (and then tell me all about it), watch ParaNorman, as that has a great score of his too, or check his other collaborations. I’m going to leave you with this Paul Thomas Anderson-directed pilot of The Jon Brion Show, a variety show meant to be broadcast on VH1 that was clearly too awesome to ever be aired. His guests are Elliott Smith and Brad Mehldau.

Thank you for reading!