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Date

June 16, 2020

Jasper Bernbaum Bruno Major Takes the Bob Ross Approach to Songwriting

Bruno Major is a songwriter’s songwriter. The British guitarist knows where pop music comes from and sees where it can go. His deep study of melodic structure from classic Great American Songbook jazz standards and modern production methods of hip-hop and R&B results in songs that feel both timeless and timely.

Chatting with the Northhampton native, his methodical nature is quite apparent. After all, his debut, A Song For Every Moon, was written over a year’s time to correspond with the lunar phases. Also clear is the energy he receives from the creative process and collaboration with other artists.

His latest album, To Let A Good Thing Die, follows almost two years of touring and writing on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s an album that sounds perfect for this moment as most of the world continues to stay close to home: intimate, cozy, and introspective.



Discogs: To Let A Good Thing Die is your second record. In following up a pretty successful debut, what did you try to do differently?

Bruno Major: In a weird way, I was trying, as hard as possible, to not do anything different. For my first album, A Song For Every Moon, I really didn’t have anything. I didn’t have a fan base, and I didn’t have another job. I was just making music for myself as a personal catharsis and didn’t really think anyone else would listen to it. This time around I have a fan base and they’re waiting for it.

In addition, I was touring around the world the whole time that I was making this new record. In order to be a touring artist, you have to be a soldier. You have to be a little numb to get up every night and make sure you’re healthy and happy. It’s a survival thing. When you’re creating, it’s more like you are a delicate butterfly with your heart in your hands. So, it’s the balance of the soldier and the butterfly, but I think I got there. I’m extremely proud of this album, and I don’t think I could have done any better.

D: The production on this new record has a vintage texture. It’s reverent of the past in a very loving way. Where did that inspiration come from?

BM: A lot of my influences are older music and a lot of jazz. As a songwriter, I’m inspired by great American songwriters of the 1930s and 1940s — Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday. These are my great heroes, and I probably take more inspiration from that era than I do from the music that’s being made now. But on a production level, I take a lot of influence from contemporary music — James Blake, Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar, J Dilla. I guess my whole aesthetic as an artist is bringing music from the past and presenting it in a modern way.

D: The record feels as if an older musician was utilizing the tools of today. In fact, the song “Regent’s Park” reminds me of 1950s and 1960s musicals.

BM: Have you ever watched 101 Dalmatians? There’s a scene when the dog Pongo is looking out a window to find a girlfriend for his owner, Roger. In the background, Roger is playing the piano because his character is a songwriter. The piece of music playing in that scene is “A Beautiful Spring Day” by George Bruns, who wrote a lot of the Disney music at that time. So I took the piano from that scene and wrote my own lyrics to it. It’s kind of a more realistic ending to that love story where he gets taken to a park and dumped. I guess it’s like a bad ending to 101 Dalmatians.

D: Another favorite is “The Most Beautiful Thing.” That track has a Laurel Canyon sound to it. 

BM: That’s funny you say that because that’s not far away from where I wrote it. I was living in Laurel Canyon at the time and wrote it with Finneas, who is one of the best songwriters there is out there at the moment. We’ve written a few songs together, but that’s one of my favorites.

It’s one of the only songs I’ve ever recorded strumming the guitar, which is a new sound for me. I’m not a strummer. I normally pick with my fingers, so it’s quite nice to have done that one live. It’s a little break from my mind. But that folky acoustic guitar lent itself to that style of drums, which then lent itself to slide guitar. It all just rolled out of the original demo. I’m very enamored with that song.

D: Why have you found yourself more attracted to the picking method? 

BM: It’s just more intricate. The style of guitar that I play is very much influenced by jazz guitar players like Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery. They rarely strum in that universe and that’s where I came from. But that said, it’s a great art and actually way harder than it looks. You’d think it’s the easiest way of playing. You go down for a jam night at a bar and everyone’s strumming away, but I’ve just never really done it before. It’s really difficult. [laughs]

D: It seems like a lot of people learn the opposite way — strum and then pick, so that’s a funny way of looking at it! On that note though, I really like the track “Figment of My Mind.” It has a Nick Drake quality to it.

BM: Yeah, he’s the reason! I was doing a residency playing in Poland, and I was ill in bed for a couple days. Somebody had sent me Nick Drake’s Pink Moon and I listened through that album like four times in a row. It was so magical. I immediately thought, ‘I have to see this guy play live, he’s so good’, so I was shocked to find that he had been dead for 30 years.

That’s a testament to that album’s timelessness because it’s just vocals and guitar really. But he remains a very big influence on me. “Figment of My Mind” is certainly leaning towards that aesthetic more than any of the other songs on the album.

D: Diving back into your jazz roots, what’s the music that pushed you into that world?

BM: My parents were very supportive of music from an early age, but nobody listened to jazz in my house. My dad actually doesn’t really like it … When I was sixteen, I started dating a jazz singer. She showed me some basic jazz harmonies and it kinda blew my mind. I wanted to be a journalist and I was going to study English, but I needed to explore how jazz worked. I wasn’t writing songs or singing at the time, but I was learning all of the jazz standards — “My Funny Valentine,” “Stella By Starlight,” “There Will Never Be Another You.” Those are, ultimately, the greatest songs that have ever been written and I was learning them inside out — how they worked, the structure, the melody, the complex harmonies.

When I moved to London, I got into songwriting. I realized, ‘Holy shit, I’ve been learning the best songs in the world this whole time … I’m just gonna write music like that.’ So, a lot of people get into songwriting through pop music or people like Bob Dylan or Billy Joel, but I’m glad that I took the route that I did because it led me to the style I have now.

D: What do you take from your collaborations with other musicians into your own music? Is there a learning experience, or can you test material with other people to bring into your own music?

BM: I learn a lot from writing with other people. Sometimes it’s quite difficult to write when you’re on your own. I think the best songs I’ve written are the ones I’ve written by myself. Not in an egotistical way, but you don’t have to constantly communicate. It all remains in your head and you can follow a purer path. When you collaborate, it very much becomes a conversation and some of it gets lost in translation. But, at the same time, you can take the message that people really use.

On this album, I’ve worked with Finneas O’Connell on ‘The Most Beautiful Thing,” Emily Elbert on “I’ll Sleep When I’m Older,” and Dan McDougall, who helped write a couple of tracks on this record and the last as well. Just a select group of songwriters that I really respect and learn a lot from, every time I work with them.

D: Relating to the songwriting process, there’s a really beautiful minimalism to your music. In the songwriting and production process, do you start small or add until it’s too much?

BM: I very much approach the recording and production process as decorating something that’s already there. What’s there is the song at the center of everything. I always start with lyrics and then build the music around the lyrics to supplement and complement when it comes to recording everything. Have you ever seen Bob Ross on The Joy of Painting? For me, it’s exactly the same as music. He always starts with the background. He paints the sea and the sky. Those bits are like the distant music you hear in the background. Then you have the big bold tree at the front. That’s my voice. Then you have the stuff in between — the guitar and other instrumentation. You really paint the song.

D: Are there any other specific records that have inspired this new record? 

BM: Chet Baker’s Embraceable You. I’m hugely influenced by that record on a sonic level. I’d go as far to say if you put some lo-fi hip-hop beats underneath it, you wouldn’t be a million miles from where I am with this sound. I always come back to D’Angelo’s Voodoo as a reference. The way he arranges his background vocals, the music just breathes so naturally out of the speakers. It’s like it falls out of D’Angelo and into the record in a totally natural way. I’m trying to achieve that kind of feel. I’ve picked some influence from Kendrick through a lot of his beats, and there’s the J. Cole album KOD, which I was obsessed with. The beats on that album are just completely unbelievable.

I know it sounds a bit silly to say, but I really try my hardest not to be directly influenced by specific albums. That’s really attractive for people to work like that. The way that I approach things is writing a song and then, once I get the vocals and basic parts down, I really just think, ‘What does this song need?’ It’s more likely to lead you to create something that is unique and of its own trajectory.

D: Do you have a record collection yourself?

BM: I wish I could say that I have 5,000 records on vinyl, but the few I have are my key iconic albums like D’Angelo or Chet Baker. I  listen to those in the way they were meant to be listened to.

There’s also a bit of a fallacy with vinyl. People always say it sounds so much better, but the reality is this: I you make an album on a laptop with USB plug-ins, and then you mix and master it digitally and press it on a vinyl, it’s not going to sound any better, really. It’s probably going to sound exactly the same, but a bit more muddy. But, if you get an album like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue that was recorded analog onto tape, mixed on an analog desk with beautiful preamps, mastered with beautiful analog compressors, and directly pressed to a vinyl … then it’s an amazing, visceral experience. It’s totally different. Not to say that people shouldn’t go buy vinyl. I’ve done a lot of this record analog, so maybe it will be one of the modern albums that would sound quite different.

D: With physical formats, I believe there is more attachment to music, as opposed to audio files. It’s a reaction to digital listening and really trying to have a tangible connection to music. It is an interesting symptom of our times.

BM: It really is! Obviously, I listened to this record a thousand times while making it, but I never sat down and listened to it from start to finish. I sat down with my dad and we listened to it on vinyl on his early-’80s hi-fi system and it sounded absolutely amazing. It’s a much different experience even when you know you have the A and B side. You have to stop halfway, and that influences which songs you put where. On an artistic level, Rob Shuttleworth, who does all my artwork, designs the artwork, first and foremost, based on what its gonna look like on the vinyl. Everything else is a derivative of that.

To Let a Good Thing Die is out now on AWAL.

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The post Bruno Major Takes the Bob Ross Approach to Songwriting appeared first on Discogs Blog.

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Alex Ross First dispatch from the mystic abyss

Giuseppe Becce as Wagner, 1913.
In three months, Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish my third book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. I thought I’d write a few blog posts describing the genesis of the project and its circuitous voyage toward the appearance of reality. Over the summer, I’ll add various auxiliary features to my trusty old website: a general guide to Wagner’s works, with recommendations of recordings; a bibliographical essay, touching on topics and sources that fell by the wayside; and an index to Wagner on film. If I get my act together, I will also present an online chapbook of Bad Wagner Poetry. Whether in-person appearances will be possible in the fall remains to be seen, but we have a string of virtual events scheduled. FSG has an advance excerpt on its Work in Progress blog.

Why Wagner? Why Wagnerism? The two are not the same. When I tell people about the project, they tend to assume that this will be another book about the composer, his life, his work, or some combination thereof. Rather, it is a book about his effect, his impact, his shadow — on literature, the arts, film, popular culture, intellectual life, politics. I make almost no mention of his influence on other composers; in this sense it is not actually a book about music at all. Wagner is present on every page, but often in modified, distorted, sometimes unrecognizable form. It is Wagner as seen and heard through the eyes and ears of an absurdly large and multivarious cast of characters, from Baudelaire to Buñuel, from Willa Cather to Rosa Luxemburg, from W. E. B. Du Bois to J. R. R. Tolkien, from Herzl to Hitler. It is a book around Wagner, after Wagner, under Wagner. It begins with an oblique jest: the man is briefly alive and then falls dead in the fifth paragraph.
As I write in the epilogue — which, in an admittedly contrarian narrative choice, swerves into a personal register otherwise absent from the book — I came late to a full engagement with Wagner. In childhood, I found his music baffling and vaguely revolting. In college, as I studied the intellectual history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he interested me as a problem, as a crisis. Only in my twenties did I begin to give serious attention to the music itself. And only in my thirties did I begin to understand it, as far as I understood it. The idea for a book emerged from The Rest Is Noise, which I wrote between 2000 and 2007. I found myself frequently backtracking toward Wagner in order to explain what was happening at the beginning of the twentieth century. When I addressed music in Nazi Germany, the vexed Wagner-Hitler question distracted me at every turn. This nagging intrusion of the old sorcerer of Bayreuth seemed a sign that I should turn toward him next. So I offered up Wagnerism as a topic to my publisher in 2008. First I put together my essay collection, Listen to This. I also went through a phase of listening to all of Wagner’s works with scores and reading his all-too-voluminous prose writings. I began writing in August 2010; I submitted the final draft last September; I sent in final changes last week.
The journey took so long because the territory is so huge. Wagner was all but unavoidable for artists working at the turn of the last century, and few evaded his inky shadow. The phenomenon of Wagnerism — defined here as the composer’s influence on the arts — has elicited an extensive and rich literature. There are books about Wagner and Mallarmé, Wagner and Joyce, Wagner and the British novel, Wagner and the visual arts, Wagner and modernism, and so on. Dozens of books have studied his relationship with antisemitism and Nazi Germany. What struck me, as I surveyed my shelves, was that no one had really attempted to pull all of these diverse Wagnerian phenomena into a single volume. There was, to be sure, Timothée Picard’s 2500-page Dictionnaire encyclopédique Wagner, which I acquired a year or so into my researches, and which added at least a year to the process, as I discovered a mesmerizing and sometimes alarming subculture of lesser-known French writers who had spelunked the Wagner caves. Marcel Batilliat’s incomparably creepy novel Chair mystique, which ends with a scene of what can only be described as amatory decomposition, made a not entirely welcome entrance into my life. Could the sort of omnivorous overview undertaken by Picard and his team of authors be accomplished in a narrative of under a thousand pages? I thought it was worth a try. I now understand why it had not been done: it is impossible. Wagnerism, as long as it is, is far from being comprehensive. Big swaths of material go untouched, not least because of limitations of language; I can read only French and German. I caught passing glimpses of Italian Wagnerism, Polish Wagnerism, Portuguese Wagnerism, Latin American Wagnerism, but could not stop and explore.
The project also took a long time because I enjoyed the research phase so deeply. It has been, as I say in the introduction, the great education of my life. I read and re-read hundreds of books, some directly related to the work, some more tangential. I took the opportunity to read everything by Willa Cather, everything by Virginia Woolf. I watched at least a hundred films; I stopped at museums as I traveled; I delved into the archives of lesser-known figures like Sidney Lanier and Owen Wister; I followed Wagner’s footsteps in Italy. Alongside myriad discoveries, I brought to bear longtime obsessions, going back to university or even high-school days. Not even a single sentence of my senior thesis on James Joyce proved to be reusable, but I consulted some yellowed notes on Joyce’s relationship with the work of Otto Weininger, unhappiest of Wagnerites. (Sign of aging: when papers from one’s past become parchment.) What excited my attention were unexpected links between artists in far-flung places: how Philip K. Dick recapitulates themes from Joséphin Péladan, how both Marcel Proust and Francis Coppola associate aerial combat with “The Ride of the Valkyries.”
The book is structured so that the grimmer side of Wagner’s influence comes to the fore in the middle sections. In the first third, the reader may have the sensation of entering a kind of delirious theme park of fin-de-siècle decadence; but in the chapters on Wilhelmine Germany and on Wagnerian antisemitism, the shadow grows cold. Hitler enters in the tenth chapter, as a young man who flounders as an artist and then finds purpose in war. Nazi Germany occupies the thirteenth chapter, in counterpoint to the later work of Thomas Mann. I hope to replicate for the reader a sense of harrowing descent. The disaster is not absolute; new varieties of Wagnerism surface in the final chapters, in Dick, Ingeborg Bachmann, Terrence Malick. I resist any blunt equation of Wagner and Hitler; the former was a kind of monarchical anarchist, the fascist state foreign to his hazy political vision. Nonetheless, the Nazification of Wagner was not some sort of unfortunate accident that befell a “great artist.” I end the book by proposing that the monstrous complexity of that connection is what makes Wagner a perennially relevant case. Working through the problems he has created is a labor we must always undertake when art collides with reality, as it inevitably does. The fundamental error is in assuming that art and reality are separate to begin with.
There, then, is the general lay of the land. In future posts I’ll say more about the researching and the writing. I’ll close this first post-mortem dispatch by expressing desperate gratitude to my editor, Eric Chinski. He presided over the cutting of around a hundred thousand words from the initial draft — not as catastrophic as the Rest Is Noise situation, but bad enough — and provided crucial guidance in getting the remainder under a semblance of control. I have always been lucky in my editors; I would be nowhere without them.

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