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Brickman Offers 'Escape' From Stress-Filled Life
Jim Brickman's 12th album, "Escape," which arrived Oct. 3 on SLG Records, is a signature project for the veteran composer/pianist, offering a musical sanctuary via relaxing, primarily instrumental triJim Brickman's 12th album, "Escape," which arrived Oct. 3 on SLG Records, is a signature project for the veteran composer/pianist, offering a musical sanctuary via relaxing, primarily instrumental triptychs that paint visual imagery into aural interludes. Billboard.com spoke with Brickman about the process of putting together his latest collection, his upcoming tour and his new business venture.
Your last couple albums have surrounded concepts -- "The Disney Songbook" in 2005 and the sacred "Grace." "Escape" represents a return to what you are best known for -- a calming respite from the daily grind. What did you aim to accomplish this time around?
I purposely took a couple years off from the process of studio writing, which allowed me to return to my roots. Writing this album came so naturally; these songs just poured out, I think, because I took a vacation musically and creatively. It felt very pure and cinematic and broad in melody, and yet it still represents the core sound of what I have always played.
There's certainly an ease throughout the project.
I felt a real confidence as I was writing and yet there's also a tenderness about it. At my concerts, so much of what people respond to is the romance and the comfort of the music. They tell me that they wake up to it in the morning instead of an alarm clock or they use it to calm the kids down at night. They're all methods that allow us to get away and daydream and de-stress. My music is a lifestyle backdrop. It was important to me to write something that, again, could be used to escape.
Tell me about the themes of the songs. You have titles such as "Waterfall," "Timeless," "Awakening," "Big Sky" and "First Light."
I wanted the songs to be descriptive about places, inspired by environments that I've seen and experienced. "Waterfalls" is meant to sound like a musical version of a picture or a place, for example. There are a couple love songs on the album, but it's not really intended to be romantic, even though I realize there is an inherently romantic quality to my music.
This may seem like an elementary question, but just how do you go about writing an instrumental song? With a lyrically driven composition, you can obviously shape the melody around the lyric. How does the process work for you?
Any great song is driven by a hook, a chorus, a verse and a melody. If I have a feeling that comes out in a simple melody, I always use that as an anchor.
Sometimes, it's raining outside -- I try to play what that feels like. I'll start with a simple melody that keeps going around in my head and then expand upon it, usually repeating the original idea. The hope is that is becomes comfortable and familiar when you hear it.
On this album, there are songs in three-quarter time and waltz time. That always evokes a sort of cinematic tone, because waltzes sound period-based, so it makes you think turn-of-the-century or Vienna or Brahms. It's like watching a motion picture. That sound is meant to take you to a place, in pictures. Nostalgia is such a big thing in peoples' lives as the world changes and you grow older.
As usual, you invited a number of vocalists to sing your compositions on "Escape." Tell us about working with Gerald Levert, Sara Evans and your new discovery, Geoff Byrd, who sings on first single "When It Snows (Hideaway)."
I have always tried to include an eclectic group of vocalists on my records, not only for my own artistic growth, but for the audience as well. I use my music as the base for the theme and feel of an album and then temper it with vocal styles that might not seem like an obvious choice, but that fit beautifully. It always feels fresh when I'm able to bring these songs to life with unusual choices.
I wanted Gerald to sing something provocative with that gravelly sound and I love the way he performed "My Angel."
I've spent a lot of time writing and recording in Nashville and have gotten to know so many artists. When singers are in between records, it's a great opportunity to do just what I'm doing -- to expand their audience through me with something that seems like a natural choice. Sara is on the same label as Martina McBride [with whom Brickman recorded his signature "Valentine" in 1997] and her style really lent itself to "Never Alone." She doesn't sound like she's trying to win a singing contest; it's just earthy and natural. She's sharing news with you instead of trying to impress you with vocal gymnastics.
I saw Geoff open for Hall & Oates, and Daryl is always raving about him. I heard his stuff and met his producer and thought he was perfect for the song. Actually, I don't think I would have included it on the album if he wasn't interested in singing it. He's James Blunt meets Aaron Neville -- tender and sweet, but also a little bluesy and R&B.
And the song you perform together, "When It Snows (Hideaway)": It describes seeing the season's first snowfall and just wanting to hide away with the one you love. Lovely.
I always wanted to write a song that describes the feeling of how sometimes a place can make you feel a certain way about someone else, and how you just want to be alone with them. The energy of every season is different and when you see snow for the first time every year, you admire how beautiful it is and how emotional and cozy it can make you feel.
AC radio has always been supportive of your music -- you've become one of few core, exclusive acts at the format. How important is that?
Very important, absolutely. I'm so fortunate to have so many friends and so much support in the AC community. At the beginning, I took a very grassroots approach. I would literally rent a car and drive around, looking around for radio towers so that I could drop off my CD. I realized that my music is personal and the only way anyone is going to become an advocate is to develop a personal relationship, so they see how passionate I am. Look, I have this wonderful triangle, between radio stations, the audience and me. When I come to town, AC radio stations own me and they can promote that to loyal listeners. It's what I owe my entire career to.
At the same time, for many years, you've also made sure that you didn't have to depend on radio to maintain your career. You have always been keen on the business aspects of being a professional entertainer.
I'm really passionate about my music and the last thing in the world I want to do is dedicate my life to people and then not be able to connect with them because I have to wait for a gatekeeper to tell them about my work or a tour. This business is changing all the time and I have to be in control of what I'm doing. Of course, the music comes first, but you need to make sure you provide a way for people to know that it's out there-in those times when radio may or may not be there.
So you've formed your own company, Brickhouse, in which you've created an online community for your fans. First, where in the world did you come up with that name?
(Pause. Laughs) I always wanted to have a proprietary relationship with my audience, so a while back I started a pretty aggressive online campaign to sell CDs and collect data for my Web site. We would send e-mails when I was coming to town and allow fans to pre-order autographed CDs, there's a media player, free downloads, street teams, merchandising ... We got to a point where 150,000 active advocates and buyers wanted to connect with us.
It was such a success that other artists started taking notice. Word of mouth started in the Christian community -- our top two clients are Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith -- and we've since added country and smooth jazz acts. Obviously, it's all adult-driven artists and now includes online services like contests, mailing lists, Web design, e-mail blasts, artist and database marketing to get the word out about a new album or any upcoming event. Our clients have included Columbia, Universal Classics, Universal South, Stars on Ice. We now have 10 full-time staffers based out of Cleveland.
I'm really proud of it, because it's become common sense that you want to know who your audience is. In the past, if you got dropped from your label, you would essentially lose everything.
So, as usual, you'll be touring throughout fourth quarter?
We'll be on the road heavily from October through March, then sporadically through the summer. That's when we do Southeast Asia -- Korea, China, Taiwan, Taipei, Bangkok. We have three performers joining us this time: David Klinkenberg, a young violinist who is very popular in the contemporary Christian community; Jake Simpson, an Oprah favorite who won "Star Search"; and then, for the first half, the wonderful Victoria Shaw and for the second tour [Brickman's stalwart touring partner] Anne Cochran.
Sounds like you're in a good place professionally -- inspired, working hard, new material and a savvy business guy.
I love what I do. And you know, there's just nothing better than being able to share it with people.