Jon Brion has worked with some of the most respected artists in pop music and film: from the late Elliott Smith to Kanye West and Fiona Apple. He’s also regularly tapped by filmmakers to score their movies, including Judd Apatow, Miranda July and Paul Thomas Anderson.
While he’s worked extensively in music and film, Brion has never really ventured into the TV world. Well, except for the obscure pilot he made for VH1 in 2000 called “The Jon Brion Show.” The Frame's John Horn spoke with Brion about his TV show, working with Elliott Smith and Paul Thomas Anderson, and how his emotions play a part in his style of music.
How did "The Jon Brion Show" come together?
Paul Thomas Anderson and I were thinking about doing a TV show. The idea was loosely based on some footage of Oscar Levant having a local Hollywood TV show [where] he just invited friends by. And there's an episode that survives of him with Fred Astaire. Paul and I were both into what would be considered some arcane '50s TV. If you're of a certain age, you probably know who that is.
What was Elliot Smith's involvement?
He just came by and played on one of the episodes we shot. We shot two or three in one afternoon at a studio in Hollywood.
I want to hear more about your relationship, musically, with Elliot Smith, and what he meant to you as an artist.
Oh, I just adored him. He's one of my favorite songwriters of the last 20 years. I had heard his very first solo record — nobody knows what to call it, it just has the blue cover on it — and flipped out about one verse into the first song. A mutual friend thought we'd get on with each other. It was basically like a blind date.
He was playing at Spaceland and my friend said, "Oh, I called him! He'd like to meet you, just go down and play!" Which I thought was very odd, but I brought a couple of instruments and introduced myself. I said, "Hey, somebody told me to come down here, but I don't have to play. I'd probably find that weird if somebody just showed up at a gig of mine." He's like, "Oh no, it's fine."
And we played in soundcheck and he discovered I actually knew the changes to most of his stuff. And we played together most of the night and got on like a house on fire. Whenever he was in town, we tended to hang out and play music together, or talk about music or life.
Is that often the case with musicians with whom you end up working, that you become instantly simpatico? You know each other, you get along, to use the blind date analogy. Or is it often the case that you might not quite have common ground, but you figure out it's a good working relationship?
If we're going to use the romantic relationship analogy, you usually know pretty fast. You meet people where at first things seem simpatico. And given time, whether that's actually a lasting feeling, is borne out. So there are lots of people that put on courtship behavior.
And then they reveal their true selves.
Yeah. And most people I've met that I like are by nature reticent people.
You went on to score Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love." The piece "Punch-Drunk Melody," starts off pretty melodic. And then it becomes a little disorienting, whimsical.
It's like a house guest that brings up politics at dinner or something.
You're a Bernie Sanders fan and they want to talk Donald Trump.
That describes my cab ride over here.
But it also describes what you're doing musically. I want to ask you more about your musical style, especially as it relates to film composing. It's distinct, obviously. It's a little whimsical. It feels a little sad. Does that kind of describe you a bit? Where does that come from?
I think that's been my central personality since I came out [to California]. I've talked to a lot of people I know that I've worked with, [asking] How much different do you feel than when you were a kid? Given time, and taking away certain circumstantial things, most people eventually say, Well, I've always sort of felt this way about being alive. So, that's inherent in me and it comes out.
You were that way as a kid?
I think so. You know, I had some chord changes and there you go. [Laughter.]
You're not an L.A. native, though we'll talk about your L.A. music. You're from New Jersey. What brought you out here?
Oh, the usual. I just thought it would be an interesting place where I might be able to do a variety of musical jobs. I've been out here 25 years at this point. Twenty-five years ago, if you looked at this country as a musician who wanted to do lots of different things, New York was always the obvious choice. But the people I knew who had moved to New York were doing many non-musical jobs to afford the shoebox they were living in. And L.A. seemed more interesting in terms of diversity for a musician. You could work on a session. There were movies out here. I just took a chance.
I knew since I was a kid that I loved being in recording studios. And there were more recording studios in L.A. So, just by the numbers, it seemed like a wiser choice. Because in New York, people have to claw for four hours of studio time, pay a great deal of money, and you get kicked out.
It almost feels at this point that your music is inextricably linked to Los Angeles, given the people with whom you've collaborated.
I don't mind that at all.
If L.A. had a soundtrack, I think you'd be one of its composers. But how does the city shape you creatively? How does it affect the kinds of melodies, the kinds of songs that you find yourself writing?
I don't know that I could honestly answer that. To be honest with you, my interests always seemed a little out of place wherever I was. So I don't know if there's a geographical center to it as much as a feeling center.
But feeling a little bit out of sorts is probably a good way of describing Los Angeles.
[Laughter.] Our sprawling suburb! One thing I have felt about Los Angeles, and found myself being a great defender of it for many years, was the misnomer that there's no culture here. Whereas the truth of the matter is most of the things that are being made for the world to consume, in much of the arts, are being done here. And if we were just to take the influence of film and television, which predominantly, this has been a cultural center for the globe for the better part of a century.
There was a time about 10 years ago when you had some tendonitis and for a while you couldn't play. I can't imagine what that's like. Was there ever a moment where you thought you were going to have to leave music behind? Or did you know that was a temporary ailment?
No, leaving music behind was never even a thought. Now, not getting to play again in the same way? That was a thought, and was as awful as you'd think. For someone who's spent most of their life communicating that way, [it was] truly horrifying. But immediately, I already knew that half of what I did was thought-based.
So if I had to just sing only, and play piano with my left hand, I was going to do that. And in fact, I did that for a while. I kept working and simplified the parts I'd play. Eventually, things came back and were fine. So, giving up a lifetime of investing in that was horrifying. But stopping the creative process and no longer making stuff? Definitely did not occur to me. There wasn't going to be a choice in that matter.
A live score of "Punch-Drunk Love" will be performed at The Ace Hotel on March 5.