In between mouthfuls of something resembling chicken, sonic everyman Jon Brion apologizes for his appearance.
“I didn’t sleep last night,” he says backstage at the Largo, a few hours before his regular gig: a weekly solo performance that has become a Los Angeles institution. “I was up till 5 a.m. recording songs for a movie. It was a wonderful session.”
It’s that very obsessive dedication and guaranteed quality that has made Brion somewhat of an industry legend. His tight-pinched hooks and broad lush strokes, his mastery of countless kooky instruments and his jaw-dropping creativity have racked an impressive resume. He has helped shape and define the careers of Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple and produced countless others, including Rhett Miller, the Eels and Rufus Wainright. Critically acclaimed movie director Paul Thomas Anderson also recruited Brion to oversee the soundtracks for his movies Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love.
Most recently, Brion teamed up with Michel Gondry for his new film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Brion was the obvious pick, especially given musical Gondry’s background making videos for the White Stripes.
“I wasn’t in the mood to take on another movie,” Brion says of Eternal. “Outside of Paul Anderson’s stuff, the people who were making movies weren’t making something different enough to do it.”
It seems that Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation) and Gondry’s script about a guy (Jim Carrey) who attempts to erase his memory of a past girlfriend met Brion’s quirky sensibilities.
Those same sensibilities resonate on the soundtrack. Brion’s piano-driven songs are sweet and romantic but also jerky and wacky. He weaves creepy fuzz and silly noises into grandiose strings and tinkering keyboards — happenstance arrangements that somehow work.
But, despite the odd instrumentation, there’s a poppiness running throughout his compositions — a poppiness that situates his songs neatly alongside tunes from the Polyphonic Spree, Don Nelson and Anaheim rockers the Willowz. In fact, the Brion-produced Beck-sung cover of Korgis’ “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” is easily the album highlight.
The song combines much of what makes Brion great: moody, untraditional music, stitched together with harmonies, dramatic strings and playful clinks. As he often does, Brion plays all the instruments on the track, but somehow still captures the emotion within the song and within the singer.
Eternal is just the first in a string of Brion projects set for the coming months. Since January, he has been commuting to Seattle to record a follow-up to his self-released 2001 solo debut Meaningless (tentatively slated for late spring) as well as an experimental improvisational record with Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg and session drummer Matt Chamberlain (set for early summer, Brion hopes).
“Controlled improvisation,” as Brion describes it, is at the core of everything he touches. As a producer, he’ll regularly record bizarre takes on a whim, and while on stage, he’ll meander between a host of instruments waiting for inspiration (Brion performs without a set list, an approach that lures repeat crowds week after week).
“I think it’s irresponsible not to leave some things up to chance,” he says. “I think you’re shortchanging the people you’re working with and you’re shortchanging the night’s shot at that magic song.”
Sony has yet to find the magic song on Brion’s latest production, Apple’s new record. The album has been finished for months but sits on the shelves at the label as, Brion says, execs search for a single.
“It’s a done record,” he says. “They’ll take whatever amount of time they’ll take deciding how to promote it. And who knows? Those things are a black hole.”
As for how he sums up his diverse body of work: “I’m this freak who has a career of doing things I like, that is neither underground nor overground,” he says. “In some ways that’s a little bit lonely. It would be nice if there was a specific scene. But, I’m too polished for the underground and too completely cockamamie and harebrained for everyone else, and I delight in that.”