Brian Byrne comes from a very musical family. His father was a musician who played in local bands and spent time as a musical director in theatre. His mother wrote lyrics and his brothers all play instruments too, so he wasn’t a stranger to hearing people practicing in the house.
It would seem only too fitting then that Brian Byrne would find himself becoming a Golden Globe nominated composer. I spoke to the man himself about life growing up in Ireland, his seven year passion project, ‘Goldenhair’, and anxiety in the industry.
FROM A CREATIVE AND MUSICAL PERSPECTIVE, WHAT WAS IT LIKE GROWING UP IN IRELAND? DID YOUR SURROUNDINGS HAVE AN IMPACT ON YOU?
Absolutely! I grew up in small town 30 miles north of Dublin called Navan, in County Meath. Apart from football and the odd musical society show, there was little to no push for arts in the town. My father always swore that if he had kids interested in music, he would do all he could to develop those talents. And that he did!
He drove us all to the The Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin; It was 30 mile round trip where we went twice a week from ages seven to 16. Dublin, then, was like a metropolis for a small kid, and I just loved it. I loved the idea of going there, somehow seeing a different life from other kids in my school at home.
One great thing I did get to do was play in my father’s local wedding band at 13. I was exposed to performing live and having to learn to entertain. From classical to musical theatre to Bon Jovi, the singer or the song didn’t matter. It was all just music and fun. My dad turned me onto Oscar Peterson when I was 16 too. I was listening to some bad blues guy and my dad said, “If you want to play that music then check this guy out”. It blew my mind! I had a hunger to learn that art form.
IN 2003, YOU MOVED TO LOS ANGELES. WHY WAS THAT THE RIGHT TIME TO MAKE THE MOVE?
I had moved back to Ireland from the UK between 1998-2003, and was doing really well as an orchestrator, arranger, and piano player. But there weren’t enough movies to get a shot at composing for film.
Tom Petty’s road manager was living in my home town and sought me out to arrange some strings for a girl he was producing an album for. They didn’t have a budget, so we swapped favors. He asked me how he could help and I told him I’d love to be a composer in the US, and if he knew of any openings to keep me in mind. A few months later he called me from New York. He had just met with Michel Legrand’s manager, told him about me and set up a meeting in NY for us. When we met, we hit it off. He said that if I moved to LA he would represent me, but he couldn’t help if I stayed in Ireland. So I packed my bags, sold the car and that was it! I moved to LA knowing just him.
WHAT HAD IRELAND STOPPED GIVING YOU THAT YOU HOPED TO FIND IN LOS ANGELES?
It wasn’t about what Ireland had stopped giving me, it was more that I needed to be in the centre of the film industry where there were more movies being made and more competition. And strangely, as soon as people in Ireland and the UK found out I had relocated to LA, I got more and better work offers from them than before. Including calls from Van Morrison to be his musical director, which I turned down as I had just signed a year lease in Santa Monica.
LET’S TALK ABOUT GOLDENHAIR, AND I’LL BE BLUNT WHEN I ASK, WHY DID IT TAKE YOU 7 YEARS TO COMPLETE?
It took seven years because it was a passion project. And I had to find funding myself. So, to keep the rent in toe I had to keep working on films and other projects to survive. Goldenhair was really my little project that I could mess with without any pressure. I also didn’t know if people would take to it. I mentioned James Joyce poems to people and sometimes they thought it might be too academic. One of my goals for the project was to make it accessible. James Joyce is known for Ulysses, one of the most groundbreaking pieces of literature in the 20th century, often seen as unreadable. Goldenhair, or Chamber Music as Joyce wrote it, was the opposite. Love poems by an unpublished young writer in despair and searching for love… that’s fodder for any composer.
WHY WAS JAMES JOYCE THE BASE FOR THE ALBUM?
Initially, I just wanted to write some classical songs based on Shakespeare or Wordsworth with soprano voice in mind; just for something to do that I could write without the pressure of film directors or producers. I scoured the internet for public domain poems. Lots of Irish stuff came up, but most of it was already done, and I wanted something less travelled. Then I found Chamber Music by James Joyce. I had never read any Joyce and after scanning the first poem “Strings in the Earth and Air”, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was full to the brim with musical imagery.
So I sat at the piano with a pencil and paper, and what came out was not for Classical soprano, but I instantly heard Kurt Elling’s voice. Maybe it was the mood I was in, but I wrote “Strings in the Earth and Air” and the track “Goldenhair” in the same sitting. Both had Irish folk melody influences, but “Goldenhair” in particular screamed a jazzier setting for me. I asked my friend Bill Cantos, who is a great piano player and singer in his own right, to demo them for me, and said I was hearing Kurt Elling. Bill did two amazing demos for me. At that time I had never met or worked with Kurt Elling; I was simply a fan.
After I demoed those two pieces, a movie called Albert Nobbs dropped on my lap and sent me off on a different path for a year! But I believe the accolades from it helped me get Goldenhair into the ether and opened many doors for me in the music business.
WHAT CHALLENGES, IF ANY, DID YOU FACE IN THE 7 YEARS IT TOOK TO CREATE GOLDENHAIR?
A lot of times, it was trying to get artists to record or commit. Or convince people that this was not just an academic project, but something that anyone could listen to and like. Yet still keep the artistic bar high with the arrangements and jazz elements. And, I think over those seven years I was building my reputation a little more through every film or project, so maybe it was a blessing in disguise.
I finally got to work with Kurt Elling on a Symphony concert in Dublin. I was conducting for him and arranged one piece. We hit it off and I told him about the project. One year later, his manager called me up and asked if it would be okay if they release “Where Love Is” on his new album Passion World. He also said Kurt had been performing the track and “Strings in the Earth and Air” for a year on his live gigs. I couldn’t believe it and this totally validated the whole idea and project. This was my shot in the arm to finish the album and set a deadline.
CAN YOU TALK US THROUGH THE PROCESS OF CREATING THE ALBUM?
I would simply scan through the poems to try and see if there were any that I could relate to or latch onto musically. I always heard folk melody in the writing, but would then imagine a singer and go from there. Some of the poems are very short, so it was a challenge at times to make a complete song. I combined some of the shorter poems that had similar sounds or threads and would try and dig out a verse and chorus and find a hook. “Why Have You Left Me Alone” is an example of that.
I READ IN ANOTHER INTERVIEW THAT YOU SAID “MOST COMPOSERS GET ANXIOUS THAT THEY’LL NEVER WORK AGAIN”…
I think it’s a healthy dose of realism that you are not infallible. You have to keep your reputation and work to the highest standard. Working in film is not an instant gratification. In fact, sometimes you finish a film and it’s like finishing a marathon both physically and mentally. There are a lot of challenges and deadlines that always occur on every film. And it could be a year before you get any real feedback or find out if the movie will even see the light of day. I think it’s good to have these moments though, because it makes you try harder each time to do a great job. This is why I love performing live though. The audience is right there and it’s an instant fix.
DO YOU HAVE A PARTICULAR WAY OF GETTING INTO THE RIGHT HEADSPACE TO CREATE?
Coffee is a big part. I love to compose songs for myself when I’m meant to be doing something else. It’s like I’m stealing time from the universe to do something I love, when I really should be doing a chore or something less interesting. And I like to write really quickly. I have to write everything down or I will forget it. I got this tip from my dad who did the same thing!
IN PURSUING THIS CAREER, HAVE YOU RECEIVED ANY ADVICE THAT YOU’VE KEPT CLOSE TO YOUR HEART?
Try not to burn any bridges, but don’t be afraid to speak your mind. I think it’s important not to be a yes man and have a voice and a personality. But also be a solid collaborator and know when to step up or step back. And be yourself as much as you can. Grab the opportunities as they come regardless of budget. Do a great job and it will come back to you in spades.
AND WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE, KNOWING EVERYTHING YOU DO NOW, TO YOUR YOUNGER SELF OR ANYONE LOOKING TO FOLLOW A SIMILAR PATH?
It’s an amazing career filled with highs, but equally filled with lows. So it’s definitely not for the faint hearted. I’m lucky that I have an amazing wife and family that’s my hub and protective space. Family is always more important, and I think if you are happy at home it will spill into everything you touch. Keep listening and keep your ears open.