Jon Brion: Melancholy Melodic Beatmaker
Jon Brion had recently scored the 2004 trippy rom-com Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind when he got a call from an unlikely admirer: Kanye West.
Brion had never worked with a rapper in his life. At the time, he had recorded a power-pop solo album, produced artists like Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann and scored the Paul Thomas Anderson films Hard Eight, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love. But, as Brion told Noisey in 2018, West “wanted to expand himself” at the time, finding traditional rap production boring. During their first session together, the pair tracked most of the cheeky, joyous “Gold Digger,” which later went to No. 1 and was nominated for Record of the Year at the 2006 Grammy Awards.
The songwriter and composer went on to co-produce the rest of 2005’s Late Registration, and he’s ventured further into its stylistic waters ever since. Most recently, he worked with the late Mac Miller for 2018’s Swimming and his final album, Circles, released in January. By maintaining a catholic attitude toward genre and tapping into the DNA of Miller’s songs, Brion helped bare the troubled-yet-gifted rapper’s soul.
He still scores Oscar-nominated films like 2017’s Lady Bird, and works with artists from Sky Ferreira to Bruce Springsteen. But for any rap and R&B fans unaware of Brion’s contributions to those genres, here are six major albums you may not know he was integral to.
Late Registration (2005)
During the making of Late Registration, West brought in basic song ideas and Brion decorated them with Hollywood strings and synthesizer flares.
The scorer’s fingerprints are all over Late Registration: an 18-piece orchestra on “Gone”; a 20-piece on “Celebration”; the cavalcade of sounds on “Roses,” a gospel song about West’s sick grandmother. “[Kanye takes] me — a guy who has never made a hip-hop record in his life — and gives me half the reins?” Brion told MTV News. “That is not an egomaniac.”
While listening to Can’s 1972 album Ege Bamyasi, West misheard a lyric from “Sing Swan Song” about “drunky hot bowls.” Singing over an eerie Damo Suzuki sample, he offered his own bawdy mondegreen: “Drunk and Hot Girls,” with an assist from Mos Def. Reprising his role on Late Registration, Brion returned on Graduation to bring this odd, hypnotic experiment to light.
A decade after his run-in with West, Brion worked on Queen Bey’s 2016 heartbreak masterpiece LEMONADE. Listen for the orchestral tail on “Pray You Catch Me,” the stabbing violins on “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and the gospel swells on “All Night”; those are all him. Despite the album’s voluminous credits list — including Jack White, Ezra Koenig, the Weeknd, Swae Lee, Kendrick Lamar and the Dixie Chicks — Brion’s string arrangements shine through.
Continuing in an R&B vein from LEMONADE, Brion produced, arranged and contributed keyboards and drum programming to a number of songs on Frank Ocean’s Blond.
By then, Brion was famous for embellishing songs; on Blond, he stripped them bare. “Self Control” is little more than an electric guitar and a ghostly choir of Franks; “Night.s” is underpinned by ghostly chimes; and “White Ferrari” verges on ambient music. “I don’t know what combination of [chords and melodies] is gonna make me feel how I need to feel,” Ocean told the New York Times in 2016, “[b]ut I know precisely the feeling that needs to happen.” And Brion was the perfect messenger.
Like West, Mac Miller fell in love with the Eternal Sunshine score and wanted to work with the man responsible. When the rapper approached the producer, he was nervous, telling him, “I don’t know if you’d even consider what I do as music.”
“I think he presumed, quite honestly, that I’d had some sort of musical prejudice against hip-hop or people who made beats or something,” Brion told Vulture in 2020. (He assured Miller that Webster’s dictionary defined music as “organized sound.”) The pair clicked, and Brion co-produced Swimming, Miller’s excellent, neo-soul-inflected fifth album. A month after its 2018 release, Miller died at 26 of a drug and alcohol overdose — and Brion was left to pick up his musical pieces.
Dirty Computer (2018)
Two years after Janelle Monáe made her acting debut in Moonlight, she released her breakout album Dirty Computer and a film of the same name. Brion sprinkled his “magic vintage fairy dust” (Monáe’s words) on both projects.
Featuring cross-generational guests from Brian Wilson to Grimes, Dirty Computer’s cornucopia of styles — pop, funk, hip-hop, soul — is glued together by Brion’s buzzy, synth-driven arrangements. “I’ve been a huge fan of his for some time,” Monáe told Billboard in 2018, calling Brion “an amazing composer.”
While Miller’s Swimming hewed closer to hip-hop, his posthumous album Circles is wintry and intimate, a drawn curtain into his precarious mental state. Miller died in the middle of its making; Brion assembled it from nearly finished pieces.
“I feel like the album is a clear picture of somebody with those troubles who is funny and intelligent and was trying to look at them critically,” Brion told the New York Times in 2020. (He described hearing “Once a Day,” the album’s closer, as “a knife in the heart.”) Hypnotic, confessional and unadorned, Circles gives a hint of Miller’s growing mastery and serves as a reminder of the enormity of his loss. And without Brion, we might have never heard it at all.
Morgan Enos is a songwriter, journalist, essayist and reporter. He makes music as Other Houses and writes for Fortune, JazzTimes, Billboard, Grammy.com, HuffPost, TIDAL Read, Vinyl Me, Please and more.
Image: Jon Brion in Santa Monica, California, in 2012. Credit: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty.
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