Photo: Jon Brion "Lady Stardust" (still from YouTube)

Entering the Unknown with Film Composer Jon Brion

Acclaimed record producer and film composer Jon Brion is having a boon of a year after composing the music for Lady Bird, but still has so much more to say.

Lady Bird (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Jon Brion

“Even when I don’t like something initially these days, I usually let it sit with me for awhile, ‘cos, ya know, film is by its very nature a multimedia event, meaning you’re taking in a lot of stuff,” muses composer Jon Brion. “There’s a lot of things that can throw you. You can not like the style of the thing. You can not like the manner that somebody has — the director or the writer or a particular performer.

“Or a movie can even be mixed in a way where it’s assaultive,” he continues. “Like the horror movie thing: certain sounds are way too loud in a way that hurts your ears a little bit ‘cos they think that’s shocking the audience. I think any one of these things can set one’s nervous system into a place where you’re sitting and you’re not enjoying yourself. All sorts of things mess with us in a multimedia event, including our expectations.”

For Brion — a man whose credentials include producing albums by Fiona Apple and Kanye West to recording the iconic scores to Magnolia, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and I Heart Huckabees — there is still something thrilling about seeing a film and entering the realm of the unknown. The last time that happened for him? “I remember seeing Being John Malkovich when it came out, and consciously, not only thinking ‘Oh my god, I really like this,’ but also thinking — and it’s not something I normally ever thing during a movie — ‘I really don’t know where this is going [laughs] and I’m psyched about it!'”

These days, Brion has plenty to be psyched about. When not playing on albums like Frank Ocean’s Blonde, he’s still working on film scores and has landed a major boon in the form of actress Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird. The movie charts the difficult decisions that the too-confident title character makes as she navigates being in a Catholic high school and dealing with a mom who has just as strong a personality as her. This leads to multiple clashes, high drama, and several funny and even heartwarming moments.

It’s a period piece set in 2002, which means that Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me” basically becomes a plot point in and of itself, while songs like Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s “That Crossroads” help decorate the film’s soundscape and set the cultural tone. For his part, Brion creates a score that features his trademark blend of whimsy and melancholy, created with an array of instrumentation that’s not too far removed from what you’d hear from a high school band. Of course, unlike a rag-tag high school band, Brion’s technique and execution are never in question, his cues tight and memorable, giving Lady Bird‘s recurring theme a slightly descending piano line that serves as the score’s melodic backbone. It uplifts the audience — but not too much.

Near the end of the film, a college boy whom Lady Bird may or may not be interested in is flipping through her booklet of CDs and says her taste sucks, as it’s nothing but greatest hits compilations. She then counters his argument by pointing out that, in fact, they’re the greatest hits. He immediately kisses her.

So what does Jon Brion think of “Crash Into Me”, arguably Dave Matthews Band’s greatest hit?

“I think the use in this movie is brilliant,” laughs a jovial Brion during his long conversation with PopMatters. “Like, I really really do. I was never somebody who listened to them. He seems nice enough. Where I fall on them, is … I find [it] very interesting the people who at that moment built a career out of playing live. This gigantic audience and they went out there and people were 1000% there for it at a moment where other bands weren’t sounding like that? That’s the part of it I quite liked. I also like the way it was used in this movie in what it represents in that moment in time. Somebody’s biggest hit and what the represents to a teenager. It seems like he’s OK! But I’ve never been somebody who’s been an aficionado. I don’t own any of the records.”

When asked about the inclusion of them specifically in the film, it pointed to a very precise time when the power of a radio hit carried a great deal of cultural weight with it. “There’s this thing,” Brion starts, “especially in that moment when [‘Crash’] did connect: it was at the height of the last phase of the music industry being a large player in the entertainment industry. If something became a hit, it was truly inescapable. We’ve very rarely have had hits anymore in the last ten years. We’ve had the rare songs — as I describe a hit — where you can’t pass a store and not be aware that a certain song is everywhere. Like, Taylor Swift ‘Shake It Off’ or something. Or Lady Gaga’s ‘Poker Face’. And that was sort of the beginning of the demise of the record industry at that moment. You know, a car would drive by and you hear it blasting. There used to be lots of things like that, and now there aren’t.”

Despite producing some truly iconic albums over the years — some of which have generated their own inescapable hits — one hallmark of a Jon Brion score has always been his inclusion of an original song: you can hear it in Punch Drunk Love (the languishing “Here We Go”), you can hear it in Synecdoche, New York (the quiet “Little Person”, which was memorably covered by jazz pianist Brad Mehldau in 2016), and you can hear a whole bunch of them in I Heart Huckabees. Yet as of recent, Brion has been shying away from putting a song of his own into his scores, and when pressed as to why, he notes that on a project-to-project basis, the process varies.

“Let me put it this way,” he starts, “it’s never happened officially. If it happens, it happens. Sometimes, also, it’s happened and people haven’t had any interest. Songs are things that are records you pay for that people know. Or an artist that’s well known or normally not in movies — and that’s sort of a feather in the cap to the producers or movie makers. But I often am writing lyrics that aren’t getting used, even if they’re not complete. Even if they’re just for sections because I’m living in the movie while I’m working on it. So it’s kind of inevitable and it’s part of my writing. It’s kind of inevitable but to some extent — that happens.

“When I look through my notebook when I’m working on a movie, there’s usually a lyric that goes along with different themes in there. Or something that’s almost a song. Almost a song’s worth of stuff. The finished ones are either ones that got finished or someone heard the fragment and went ‘Oh my god, yeah. Like I’d pump that.’ So there’s a reason to write a third verse … but I often do it ‘cos it also helps me remember to have a feeling of song. Is the melody good enough that when we hear singing [of] specific lyrics that are about the subject matter at hand, do they ring sympathy with each other? I often find myself sitting around playing songs that have to do with that feeling I’m having at that moment. The lyrics of what that song is about are resonating in me. But I don’t necessarily sit there and sing them: I just sit there and play the melody and chords on the piano and stew in whatever feeling I’m in.

“And a lot of the musicians I like, when they solo, you still hear the lyric or you hear their awareness of where the melody is,” he continues. “Chet Baker famously had this: he played a solo and you heard the lyrics going on, and that’s because he was thinking about them. And so I’d often write words while I’m writing [music]. Sometimes I’ll sing these things to myself when I’m writing. I just don’t go — I’ll be honest with you. It’s this simple. I don’t go around thinking ‘Hey, how do I get a song into the movie?’ ‘cos you know a lot of people who do that and we’ve all seen a lot of people who do that, and being that kind of person is not only uninteresting to me, it’s almost abhorrent. So it’s not anything I push. If I feel there’s something appropriate, I’ll present it to people and if they’re enthusiastic about the idea, I’ll continue. If not, it’s dropped as quickly as it’s brought up.”

The more time you spend talking with Brion, the more he is ready to spin some yarns of his many years working in the film industry, and — most importantly — expand upon the lessons he’s learned. Key to all of them has been communication, which is different from, say, taking outright direction. For Lady Bird, the personal friendship and rapport he built up with Gerwig was more important than anything resembling a specific cue line or studio note.

“Greta was much better than most people at knowing that any amount of uniqueness was in her favor,” he notes. “She also got, very early on, when I said to her ‘Hey, don’t bother about what you think music terminology is — it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t help. I don’t need you to know that stuff.’ I just told her ‘You need to tell me what you want it to feel like. And then when we’re working on it, we need to check in with each other to make sure it’s doing that job. And if it’s not you need to be unafraid to tell me that. I’ll take care of the internal mechanics — that’s OK, that’s easy for me to do. Let’s confine ourselves to talking about the feeling or analogies.’ ‘cos analogies are the real work of doing creative stuff anyway. I mean, it’s all analogies: if you’re writing, it’s analogy If you’re making music, it’s analogy.

“And Greta was great, ‘cos she responded to that, and I think took a while to realize I wasn’t kidding,” Brion says with a laugh. “Honestly! Once we hung out for awhile, we’d usually spend every sessions just talking about different stuff for a few hours which is generally how I always work. Guys I work with: they come in and you have coffee and someone starts and it goes for three hours and then at some point somebody says ‘Oh, maybe we should do something tonight.’ ‘Oh, yeah! That’s right!’ And once Greta was in the swing of that, then we were fine, ‘cos even a given night’s work was informed by the conversation[s].

“The more we knew about each other from talking for a few hours, we could both make more assumptions on the other’s behalf in a good way. Not presumptuousness, but actually having some knowledge of her cadence. I can tell you from the professional sense, which my job is, the more I know the cadence of the person who’s making something, I can be an agent on their behalf. I can look at a piece of work they’re making and say ‘This could use a little more of them in it.’ That may sound like a really silly thing to say, but for anybody who makes stuff, there’s sometimes parts of yourself you leave out ‘cos you think they might be boring to someone else or, ya know, ‘I want this to have its own sort of life!’ so you try to be good and creative but that bit of insider knowledge of watching how a person operates — it can tell me extra things to include in the feeling of the piece at hand.”

Throughout our long conversation, Brion’s attitude was upbeat, often filled with witticisms. It never came off as a shtick because deep down, it’s clear that he has a passion for the music he makes. Even when he’s griping about the difficulty of working with a “temp score” (i.e. the temporary music used by editors to help get a good rhythm from the film — that most filmmakers then can’t fully divorce themselves from), it’s clear he’s managed to navigate this issue without anyone’s ego being bruised. When he talked about getting the call to work on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he had only seen Being John Malkovich and an early reel of Michel Gondry music videos that he and his friends constantly revisited over the years for inspiration. Even when describing John C. Reilly performing songs as Dewey Cox from the cult comedy classic Walk Hard at Judd Apatow’s birthday party, it comes from less of a place of exclusive privilege and more from a perspective of “I wish you were able to see this.”

So what does Brion view as the thing that separates him from other film composers? “Oddly enough, the thing that distinguishes me at the moment as a film composer has nothing to do with instrumentation or the given films or even style. I think the only thing that distinguishes me from everybody else I’m hearing when I go see movies is that I consider myself a songwriter, but I consider myself a songwriter in a very, extremely old-fashioned sense. Just the melody and chord changes have to evoke a sense of song, even if lyrics aren’t there. Bacharach stuff always had that: you could hear X amount of notes over the chord changes and there’s no question what song it is. I think that has to be the standard. People often mistake orchestration, which is a presentation thing, a stylistic thing, with what I call more ‘song-like’ content. The reason why all those pieces from the Nutcracker Suite are ‘all time hits’ that we all know that we see getting used in permutations and Bugs Bunny cartoons and you name it: it is because as pure pieces of melody and chord change played at a particular tempo, it got all of the information across to you. It’s condensed information.”

And as history is already bearing out, Jon Brion scores are slowly turning into “all time hits” themselves: pieces that are referenced by audiences and pop literati and by which composers will be trying to live up to for years to come.