Q&A with LA musician Brian Woodbury, writes musicals, post-modern jazz, pop, country songs and music for children

"I have an idea that music is a way of collectively experiencing time. It is a subjective passage of time, but the structure of the music allows us to experience time together. Subdivisions, strong beats, weak beats, melody - they’re all a guide to telling us where we are inside a unit of time, which is a song, or a piece of music. Obviously, music is much more than that. It has its emotional journey, but the thing that hooks us is the sense of being within this larger unit of time."

Brian Woodbury: Anthems & Antithets

Brian Woodbury is a Los Angeles songwriter, composer and bandleader, who has just released his 9th solo album Rhapsody & Filigree (July 2022), the Final Volume of his Anthems & Antithets tetralogy, (Volumes 1-4, on 4 CDs, 88 songs, 5 hours of music) each volume in a distinct musical mood: comic, personal, political & arty. Brian Woodbury is also the name of a Utah-based jazz trombonist, who last year released his first solo album Dream Feeder. Except, according to the streaming platforms, they’re both the same person. When Utah Brian put out his album, LA Brian found his own music and artist profile on Spotify, YouTube, etc. conflated with Utah Brian’s. LA Brian tried to sort out the mess, and reached out to Utah Brian to enlist his help. They figured if they both contacted the streaming platforms, it would be simple to disentangle their online identities. Not so simple, in fact. Even getting through to someone at the streaming platforms was a challenge. And once they got through, the process for disentangling their identities was frustratingly difficult.                           (Photo: Brian Woodbury)

As a joke, LA Brian suggested they really confuse the algorithms by making a song together. They both thought this was a funny idea but then they actually did it. LA Brian wrote lyrics for “The Other Brian Woodbury,” the true tale of being mistaken for somebody with the same name. In the style of pre-war swing jazz, LA Brian wrote music for an Intro and a Verse and then handed it off to Utah Brian to write music for a Bridge. Together they created an extended Instrumental section, indulging their experimental sides. They arranged it together, but recorded it in separate studios, with LA Brian singing and bringing in pianist David Witham, bassist Edwin Livingston and drummer Andy Sanesi; and Utah Brian overdubbing himself on 8 trombones, creating a big band horn choir. LA Brian says, “It’s really a song for anyone about whom misinformation has been perpetuated on the internet. Which, I think, is just about everyone.” The resulting song is now out as the second track on LA Brian’s newly-released Rhapsody & Filigree album. And since the collaboration worked out so well, LA Brian invited Utah Brian to play trombone on 3 other songs that appear on the album.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Special Thanks: Brian Woodbury & Billy James (Glass Onyon PR)

How has the Jazz and Art Pop Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

My first sense of what you might call a musical counterculture was late 1960s rock - the Beatles, acid rock. I considered it very much of a piece with the political counterculture. I was only 11 or 12 at the time I became aware of it. I loved the eclecticism of the Beatles, but I was also a bit of an acoustic music purist. But by the time I was a teenager, I became more open to and aware of the musical counterculture through British prog, Frank Zappa. In college I became aware of Canterbury, Henry Cow, Beefheart, and progressive jazz, such as Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill’s Air, Art Ensemble of Chicago, and the avant garde in European concert music, Stravinsky, Ligeti, Berio, and the avant garde in general.

I was very inspired by the avant garde, the freshness of it.  But I always held onto eclecticism as my ideal. So the countercultural aspect became less crucial to me. At the time, I also studied early jazz, and early 20th Century American pop and theater music. While early jazz and bebop were a kind of counterculture, they also became very mainstream. Whether something came from within the mainstream or on a very distant tributary, I find it unimportant aesthetically.

The punk movement began as a counterculture, but quickly became a very rigid and closed-minded aesthetic, which I disliked. The post-punk art pop era starting in the late 70s was very liberating. There was a sense that anything was possible. Some of the avant garde loses my interest structurally. I am interested in form, with beginnings, middles and endings; ideas introduced and developed; lyrics that are intentional and not vague. But whether it is strictly counterculture or not, I am most excited by music that has a heightened attention to detail, musically and lyrically, and an advanced harmonic palette.

"The idea of music belonging to one culture, or one tribe is kind of appalling to me. Not to deny that there is a long history of cultural imperialism and colonization. And there is a lot of “appropriation” in the music business, or "theft” to call it by its real name. But I believe the first step in cultural understanding is swapping licks." (Photo: Brian Woodbury)

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

Sound: To describe my sound, I can’t avoid mentioning its roots in late 20th century popular music idioms. (Though I do try to listen to lots of current music, popular, and not-as-popular, and to music by younger people, to get a sense of new possibilities. And I try to incorporate those ideas into my music.) People often compare my music to Van Dyke Parks, XTC, They Might Be Giants, David Yazbek. Those are probably apt comparisons. For my instrumental music, maybe Carla Bley. My music is sophisticated, and I try to make it hold up to repeated listenings. There is a lot of theatricality to my music, whether I am writing something specifically for theater or not. I tend to have fairly active melodies, without a lot of repeated notes, and the chords often change quickly, and change keys quickly.

Music philosophy: Eclecticism is a first principle. Style is a compositional choice, just like a key signature. I don’t see a dichotomy between “authentic” and “inauthentic” music. I don’t believe any kind of music is more real than any other. In terms of songwriting: melody is primary, lyrics come second, harmony comes third, feel comes fourth. In terms of lyric writing: most of my lyrics try to make sense; I’m less interested in sound poetry that doesn’t have a literal meaning.

Rhyming: I usually use perfect rhymes. But there is a place for imperfect rhymes. I don’t usually mix perfect rhymes and imperfect rhymes in the same song.

Songbook: My songs are in a wide variety of styles. Sometimes I explore one style, sometimes I hop around from style to style.

Technique vs. Soul: They go together. One can have deep feelings and make bad music, and one can have great technique and make bad music. I would probably say I have developed my technique well enough that I have occasionally written songs that don’t have enough soul. (Such as a few of the songs I’ve written on assignment for children’s TV shows.) That said, most of the time I try to make sure that I am finding and conveying the feeling that I want to express.

"I miss the aspect of music that is less strictly quantized, and tuned, and slaved to a click track. I think there are lots of technological ways to liberate those aspects of music, and I think they will come from the world of pop music, just as a reaction to the very mechanized music of our time (much of which I love)." (Photo: Brian Woodbury)

What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far? Are there any specific memories that you would like to tell us about?!

A few highlights: In the early 1980s, my band Some Philharmonic had just put out an album. My wife Elma Mayer, who was in the band, sent the LP to Van Dyke Parks, who was our great musical hero, and biggest inspiration. He called us on the telephone to tell us he liked it. At first, I thought it somebody was pulling my leg. But it indeed was him. So we got to know him, and ended up working with him on some projects. (Including a song Van Dyke and I co-wrote “Lucy, I’m Home" on the “Antipathy & Ideology” album Volume 3 of Anthems and Antithets.)

Career-wise, I written songs for children’s TV shows, including the well-loved “Bear in the Big Blue House.” It was a unique show that really valued music and good songwriting. It was not condescending to the audience, and parents would watch it with their kids. Even though that work was done over 20 years ago, I often meet people who know my music from the show.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

So much of the music of the past is still with us, in recordings. Of course, most music is lost to time, and it would be amazing to be able to hear what it all sounded like. How did Ghanaian music help spawn American music? How did the various scales and modes spread around the world? What was the feel of a motet by Guillaume du Fay? I suppose the oral tradition has atrophied and we have lost a lot from that fact.

In the US specifically, I miss the act of group singing. In general, Americans no longer know music as a participatory activity. At sports games, we watch a soloist sing our national anthem. We can’t even sing "Happy Birthday to You” in the same key because we no longer learn the technique of giving a starting pitch, or the technique of adjusting to the key of our neighbor. It’s all part of the same problem that gave us Trump. We don’t believe we can work together, even though it’s much easier to work together than to work separately.

I miss the aspect of music that is less strictly quantized, and tuned, and slaved to a click track. I think there are lots of technological ways to liberate those aspects of music, and I think they will come from the world of pop music, just as a reaction to the very mechanized music of our time (much of which I love). My fears for the future are that music becomes even more a mood playlist instead of an artform we engage with. My hopes are inspired by the level of musicianship of young people. The abilities of young musicians are really remarkable compared to the musicians of my generation.

"Eclecticism is a first principle. Style is a compositional choice, just like a key signature. I don’t see a dichotomy between “authentic” and “inauthentic” music. I don’t believe any kind of music is more real than any other. In terms of songwriting: melody is primary, lyrics come second, harmony comes third, feel comes fourth. In terms of lyric writing: most of my lyrics try to make sense; I’m less interested in sound poetry that doesn’t have a literal meaning." (Photo: Brian Woodbury)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Regarding group singing: If I were younger and had less of a driving muse to create than I do, I would try to re-build group singing in the US. My great grandfather, Joseph Lee, advocated for and pioneered putting playgrounds in schools and communities, starting in Massachusetts and then throughout the country. It was vital to children’s development to have play as part of their lives. If I could change one thing, it would be for people to not be embarrassed to sing with each other in public.

What is the impact of music on the racial and socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

I can only speak with any authority about the US. American music is steeped in racial politics. The source of most of our musical language, and far-and-away the most innovation, is the African-American community. And yet, there is still a great musical apartheid in our listening habits, or our understanding of our listening habits. Musicians are hybridizers. We search for novelty and put things together that didn’t belong together before. Musicians are usually the ones most open to these influences. Musicians are hip. I think the musicians exist in a more multi-ethnic polyglot world than others do.

The consumers and the marketers are less wise and open to it. It’s like the scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” where he tells the crowd they are all individuals who should think for themselves, and the crowd just mindlessly repeats it. The musicians preach inclusivity, but not everyone gets it.

The idea of music belonging to one culture, or one tribe is kind of appalling to me. Not to deny that there is a long history of cultural imperialism and colonization. And there is a lot of “appropriation” in the music business, or "theft” to call it by its real name. But I believe the first step in cultural understanding is swapping licks.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?                              (Brian Woodbury / Photo by Karina Iohan)

All rather mundane: practice, practice, practice.

Don’t be scared to revise. It’s okay to change your mind.

There is an endless font of music ready to come out, you just need to turn the spigot.

"My hopes are inspired by the level of musicianship of young people. The abilities of young musicians are really remarkable compared to the musicians of my generation."

John Coltrane said "My music is the spiritual expression of what I am...". How do you understand the spirit, music, and the meaning of life?

I certainly see there is a spiritual aspect of music making. It feels like the music comes to you, not so much that it comes from you. I’m less interested in expressing me, than in expressing an idea, or in channeling some music that comes to me.

I have an idea that music is a way of collectively experiencing time. It is a subjective passage of time, but the structure of the music allows us to experience time together. Subdivisions, strong beats, weak beats, melody - they’re all a guide to telling us where we are inside a unit of time, which is a song, or a piece of music. Obviously, music is much more than that. It has its emotional journey, but the thing that hooks us is the sense of being within this larger unit of time.

Brian Woodbury - Home

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