Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company  
The New York Times

August 17, 2003, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section 6; Page 24; Column 1; Magazine Desk

LENGTH: 2984 words

HEADLINE: Lost in the Music

BYLINE:  By Stephen Rodrick; Stephen Rodrick is a frequent contributor to the magazine. He last wrote about Dennis Rodman.

A few moments before his regular Friday-night show at Largo, a club in Los Angeles, Jon Brion tries to conjure a catchy name for the music he loves. As a producer, Brion has collaborated with Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann and Rufus Wainwright, constructing eccentric albums that evoke the Beatles, Aaron Copland and a pawnshop band. "If it had a label, it could help," Brion says. He is almost 40, mop-toppish and currently without a permanent address. "Look what 'alt-country' did for Lucinda Williams and Wilco." Sipping a Guinness, Brion comes up with one. "How about 'unpopular pop'?" he asks. He takes another sip of his beer and turns glum. "God, that's too depressing."

Unpopular pop is a new name but not a new genre. Even when Motown and the Beatles ruled the charts, perfect pop songs -- defined by liner-note-reading geeks as intricate rhymed verse accompanied by a melody that emotionally underscores the words -- often didn't match the sales of, say, "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy." The Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" took 34 years to go platinum. Big Star, the most influential unpopular pop band in America, couldn't get its records distributed. Except for the novelty hits "Short People" and "I Love L.A.," Randy Newman, lauded as one of the country's treasured songwriters, released a half-dozen "pop" albums in the 60's and 70's that barely earned back their advances.

Like Newman, Brion comes from a family of musicians who share a reverential appreciation for Americana music. His songs evoke images of a bygone era: a carnival organ on one track, a melancholy woodwind section on another. And like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Brion has a savantlike ability to process melodies and turn them inside out. Sam Jones, who directed the Wilco documentary "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," and is raising money for a Brion film, plays a musical game with Brion. He leaves a stretch of music by Glenn Gould on Brion's answering machine. Brion calls right back playing the piece note for note. It is talent like this that has helped make Brion a Phil Spector of unpopular pop.

Occasionally, like Newman, Wilson or Big Star's Alex Chilton, Brion has managed to make popular pop. Using a screwdriver instead of a slide, Brion created the distorted guitar lead on the Wallflowers' "One Headlight," a single that propelled the band to multiplatinum success in 1997. The session lasted less than an hour, and Brion nailed it on the first take. Normally, he declines lengthier commercial commitments. His manager fields calls from industry heavyweights like Clive Davis requesting Brion to produce his latest ingenue. Brion always says no.

"If the songs aren't great, I can't do it," Brion explains. "I live with these songs. They're moving through my head constantly, even when I don't want them to. If they're bad, I'm throwing myself out a window after 48 hours."

Recording studios are dreary places: bunkers filled with wires, smudged glass partitions and ashtrays. The Paramour, where Brion is at work, is not like that. Nestled in the Los Angeles hills, the grounds resemble Norma Desmond's spread. There is an ominous iron gate, an ancient lap pool illuminated by torches at night and a garishly decorated ballroom.

Down one dark hallway, music can be heard. There are red walls, a fireplace, a Scrabble board and left-over Cuban pastries gnawed by Charlie, the Paramour's half-wolf, half-German shepherd. A Hawaiian guitar rests against some Chinese gongs. In front of a Beatles-era E.M.I. console, an Apple computer displays a screen saver of David Bowie, Brian Eno and Robert Fripp at Bowie's "Low" sessions.

It's 1 p.m., and Jon Brion is still in his pajamas and slippers. For the past three months, Brion, Tom Biller, an engineer, and the singer Fiona Apple have been living at the Paramour. Right now, Brion is noodling at a Casio keyboard, playing along to a mix of Apple's "Oh Well." "I cried the first time I heard her play this," Brion says. "We were at Ocean Way, Sinatra's old studio, and I just put my head down on the table and cried."

As "Oh Well" plays repeatedly, Brion tries to conceive an arrangement that won't disturb the power of Apple's vocals. He says he thinks her delivery on the current version might be too slow for the anger of the words. To help, Brion has written out the lyrics in color-coded fashion on two giant pieces of white paper. Blue represents sad passages, red anger and green the resignation of Apple's whispering "Oh, well" in the last line.

"There's a space between this line and that line, and it's this continual sort of push and pull," Brion says. "If she's not singing, I offer something to carry the listener through to the next moment where she returns."

Apple's first release, fueled by her ethereal vocals and a video with her in her underwear, sold three million copies. Brion played on it, and they became close friends. After a rambling acceptance speech at the MTV awards, Apple absorbed a media assault. In 1999, she recorded the follow-up, "When the Pawn . . . " -- the full title stretches to 90 words -- which Brion produced and played most of the instruments on. It featured a hybrid of hip-hop beats and Brion's skewed instrumentation. Like most Brion-produced projects, it was hailed by critics. And like most Brion-produced projects, it was a commercial disappointment, selling fewer than a million copies.

Apple contemplated never recording another album. Then, in the spring of 2002, Brion and Apple met for their weekly lunch. Brion had recently been ejected from a five-year relationship with the comedian Mary Lynn Rajskub. Making matters worse, the breakup occurred while he was scoring Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love." Rajskub had a large role in the film, and Brion spent hours watching his ex on celluloid. Now finished with the score, he was at loose ends.

"Please, please make another album," Brion begged Apple. "I need work that can save me."

Apple agreed, and Brion went to Apple's label, Sony Music, with strict stipulations. There would be no deadline. If a Sony rep wanted to check on progress, he would have to fly to Los Angeles. Brion requested renting a wing of the Paramour rather than recording at a conventional studio. The label agreed.

In an era of industry bloodletting, Sony's acquiescence to Brion's demands demonstrates how highly respected Brion is in the industry. In addition to his production work, Brion scored Anderson's last two films, "Magnolia" (for which he also produced some of Aimee Mann's career-making tracks) and "Punch-Drunk Love." For the latter, he helped the filmmaker in unusual ways. In an early scene, Anderson was having difficulty communicating the emotion he wanted Adam Sandler to bring to his role. He asked Brion to come down to the set. The next morning, Brion returned with a 10-minute percussion track that captured the manic anger of Barry Egan, Sandler's character. Anderson had his star listen to the track repeatedly through headphones. Sandler got it, and filming resumed.

At the Paramour, the days effortlessly merge like the unchanging Southern California weather. Nine months after Apple played the first five songs for Brion, the album is maybe half-done. In the morning, Brion draws or works on his own songs. In the afternoon, he fiddles with backing tracks. Maybe around midnight, Apple will appear in sweats and bunny-rabbit slippers and record vocals for an hour.

"Jon's put in hundreds of more hours," Apple said one sunny afternoon on the lawn. "If I could, I'd release this as a Jon Brion-Fiona Apple record. I keep borrowing his socks. He thinks it's because I don't have my own socks. It's because I want to be Jon Brion."

Brion is contemplating the abandonment of all his ancillary projects so he can concentrate on his own material. Which is either brave or quixotic. Brion's only solo record was rejected by an Atlantic Records subsidiary and sold just a few thousand copies. Still, songs he has written with Mann, Evan Dando and Eels are the equal to anything they've done on their own. Every Friday night, Brion plays a sold-out show at Largo, whose guests vary from Rickie Lee Jones to Pink. He mixes Kinks and Costello songs with his own compositions. Regular attendees argue that Brion's songs compare favorably.

"Jon has at least 10 albums' worth of material," says Mann, a longtime collaborator and a former girlfriend. "He blends the mood of the melody and the mood of the words in a way that no one else can do." She sighs. "And he writes them so quickly."

And yet Brion has released only one new song in the past four years, a track called "Here We Go," a wedding song for a second marriage, on the "Punch-Drunk Love" soundtrack. If the song hadn't been dropped from the film, it might have earned an Academy Award nomination. "Why finish a song when you can start a new one?" Brion says with a laugh. "I picked the hardest art form with the least amount of respect. The economy of language you need to get emotion across is so hard. You have to find rhymed verse, then match it with a melody. And then it's dismissed just as 'a pop song.' It is so sad."

Brion can't let go of his songs. Or the songs of his disciples. For more than a week, Brion toyed with Apple's "Oh Well." He spent one night moving equipment to his study at the Paramour to record a guitar part. "The acoustics will pick up the reverb differently," he explains. The next day, Brion discarded the guitar. Then he laid down another basic track with himself on drums. He wasn't happy with the result. "It sounded like a metal ballad," Brion says. "I fired myself." A call was placed to the legendary session drummer Jim Keltner.

"The song is missing 'it,"' Brion says. "Right now, I don't know what 'it' is. When you find it, everyone's physiology in the room changes. 'It' is a real, ephemeral thing."

It's not uncommon to hear "it" on a Jon Brion-produced song many years after buying the album. More than a decade has passed since I first listened to Aimee Mann's "I've Had It," from her 1993 album, "Whatever," Brion's first major production. The subject of the song, as is often the case with Mann, is the music industry. The troops gather for a pointless New York gig as Mann muses that her chance at the brass ring may have passed. On perhaps the 400th listen, I pick up a ticking clock that moves from left to right in your headphones and underscores the fatalism of the lyrics. When Mann sings "And Dan came in from Jersey," Brion plays the opening bars to Springsteen's "Born to Run" on a glockenspiel.

When he was 5, Brion wrote "I am Jon Brion. I am a musician" on a piece of paper. A few years later, his mother, LaRue, a club singer while in college, bought him his first Fats Waller record. Brion's father, Keith, was director of Yale University's concert and marching bands, and his parents introduced their son at age 13 to the jazz musicians Willie Ruff and Dwike Mitchell, who were known equally for their playing and for their jazz evangelism tours to China and Russia.

As he grew older, Brion refused to do any schoolwork other than music. The school district placed him in special-education classes with mildly retarded and emotionally disturbed teenagers. "I was in with a kid who had seen both her parents killed in front of her," Brion recalls. On Brion's 17th birthday, his father signed the release papers, and Brion dropped out of high school.

At a recent Largo show, Brion began by laying down a drum track and looping it. He did the same with a jaunty piano part. He then picked up an electric guitar. He closed his eyes and resembled the kid from "Tommy" as he played a crunchy guitar part. Finally, he performed "I Was Happy With You," a new song, picking through a melody that captures the post-anger wistful stage of heartbreak.

The next day, Brion told me that he has written a dozen new songs about his breakup. "I'm trying to approach them from a realistic point of view," he said. "I want songs that suggest, O.K., maybe it was 60 percent your fault, but I was there, too. Those songs aren't being written."

Another day, I heard "Citgo Sign," which was recorded in 1991 and would not be out of place in a musical. "That may be my best album's worth of material," Brion said. He also has notions of turning a batch of songs written since 1995 into "an Internet-only EP." When I mentioned this to Mark Flanagan, his manager, he laughed: "You realize, that's not going to happen."

Brion's inability to release his own songs is a hushed subject of conversation among his friends and musicians. When I asked Mann, she began: "I think he has a hard time saying anything is finished whether he's producing or doing his own songs. Jon's a perfectionist." She hesitated and stopped. "I'm not going to say any more."

Part of Brion's procrastination is an inability to say no. "Whenever I get a message from another musician, I know it's because they want something," Brion says. "They want me to play on a track or produce. It's never just to say hi."

His point was made when Grant Lee Phillips stopped by the Paramour for advice on his next album. They talked for an hour, and Brion grew increasingly animated. "You must have a great drummer -- he captures the mood of the song," Brion advised. "You have a bad drummer, you're going to be spending days trying to find that mood." Then, Phillips sheepishly asked, "Hey, do you want to captain this ship?" Brion said yes (though Phillips later proceeded without him).

"There's a thing called a heat sink," Brion says. "It's a piece of metal attached to a machine. It draws heat away and keeps it from blowing up. That's what I do as a producer. It's up to me to let the artist know things are O.K. I'm the one who has to go home with the stomachache."

Brion plays the role well. Last year, while he was producing an album for an alt-country songwriter named Rhett Miller, a real-estate agent showed up at the studio. He needed a signature finalizing the sale of the house Brion and Rajskub jointly owned. Brion excused himself, went to the bathroom and cried. Five minutes later, he was singing backing vocals on one of Miller's love songs.

Sessions with Rufus Wainwright, a talented and flamboyant piano pop singer, were turbulent. It was only the pleading of DreamWorks Records' co-chairman Lenny Waronker that kept Brion from leaving. "Rufus had all these beautiful songs, but every time the vocals would kick in, he'd write some complicated keyboard part so you couldn't hear them," Brion says. "He wasn't interested in listening to ideas about simplifying the arrangement."

In 2000, Brion collaborated with David Byrne. Those who heard the Brion-produced songs said they were the best Byrne had done since the Talking Heads. Byrne rejected them by fax.

I ask Brion if he has considered hiring a producer for his own work. He answers in a sad voice. "I don't have a heat sink for myself," he says. "I don't have anyone who can tell me, 'This is good, this is a great song, let it go.' With my songs, I go home with the stomachache."

A month later, I met up with Brion at Abbey Road Studios in London, where he was recording orchestration for Apple. He was exhausted from testing every microphone in its storied collection, cataloguing each of their shortcomings. "If I reach a point where I want a voice to sound a little fuzzy, I'll know which microphone to use," Brion said.

In Studio 2, Brion sat behind an old piano and doodled a section from "Here We Go," which was recorded there. "I just had the major chords, and I knew I wanted to write a song that said, Even though my heart had just been broken, I'm not going to be cynical about love," Brion said. I remarked that the piano sounded like the one from "Fool on the Hill." His eyes lighted up. "Because it is!" he said.

The next day, a full orchestra arrived, with "Oh Well" first up. Brion had Apple do another vocal take on which she almost growled the lyrics. He asked the violinist, Eric Gorfain, to add an arrangement. After listening to a rough mix, he offered only a little criticism. "Don't place too much activity around her voice," Brion said. "There's nice tension in the second verse, but tension is activity that draws away from her voice, so we have to lose it."

The next day, Brion led the orchestra through "Oh Well" for two hours. Midway through, Apple arrived. Painfully shy, she sat on the floor, covering her eyes and peeking through fingers as Brion conducted. Eyes closed, he entered a blissful state. When the music stopped, he flashed a beatific grin. "I don't think I have ever seen a human being look happier," Apple said.

Later that night, Brion, trying to relax with a beer, was still frustrated with the song. "I can't figure it out," he said. "It just isn't all there. Every album has a problem child. Maybe I want it to be a lawyer, when it wants to be a painter."

Eventually, Apple's release date was pushed back from September to February. If that date holds, it will be 20 months from the time Apple played the first songs for Brion, or roughly 60 days per song. A month after the Abbey Road session, Brion told me he was done producing for the foreseeable future and will concentrate on his own songs. He even bought a powder blue van for touring. Of course, this means that songs will have to be released. For three months, Brion promised to send me demos of his new songs. They never arrived. In a final effort, I made an impromptu trip to Los Angeles. At Largo, Brion handed me a CD of seven demos. He looked miserable. The next day, I told him how much I liked them. He still seemed morose. "When the album comes out, these songs are going to be ruined for you," Brion said. "You're not going to be able to really hear the final versions." He grinned. "If there ever are final versions."

GRAPHIC: Photos: Jon Brion (Photo by Catherine Ledner); Working on Fiona Apple's second album. (Photo by Mr. Bonzai)

LOAD-DATE: August 17, 2003