Composer Chats: Grammy Contender Brian Byrne Takes Us Behind His Latest Album,
Golden Globe-nominated composer Brian Byrne has uplifted many projects over his professional career as a composer, conductor, songwriter, arranger and pianist. Hailing from Ireland, Brian moved to Los Angeles where he has become a go-to choice for many in the film and television worlds. He is most known for scoring Oscar-nominated film Albert Nobbs, starring Glenn Close, which earned him two World Soundtrack Awards and a Satellite Award. One of those awards was for his work writing the film's featured song in collaboration with Close, “Lay Your Head Down,” performed by Sinead O'Connor.
Brian has collaborated with such international luminaries as Katy Perry, Bono, Barbra Streisand, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Josh Groban, Lisa Stansfield, Van Morrison, Alanis Morissette, The Corrs, Alan Bergman, Ronan Tynan, Luis Miguel, Vince Gill, and Gladys Knight.
Most recently, Brian released his album, Goldenhair, which features collaborations with Glenn Close, Kurt Elling, and Keith Harkin, among others. The album has catapulted him into Grammy contention, and features beautiful compositions, many memorables piano riffs by Brian, as well as loads of beautiful vocals. Check out a preview of some of the music from Goldenhair below, then read on for my Q&A with Brian. His album is now available on iTunes and Spotify.
What was the first inspiration and motivation to create Goldenhair?
I had just finished a grueling schedule on a movie score and simply wanted to try and write songs based on old poetry. Film music is all about collaboration, and sometimes it's nice to just write freely without the constraints of all that goes with writing film music.
Originally I thought I'd set some Shakespeare sonnets, but then I stumbled across Chamber Music by James Joyce and was simply intrigued. I had never read any Joyce, but felt like I had just found gold. A book of relatively unknown old poems by one of the world's great writers who also happened to be Irish. I went down the wormhole online and researched letters Joyce had written to his wife Nora. He had hopes that one day they might be set to music. That was all I needed!
You worked with Glenn Close on Albert Nobbs — how did she get involved in the musical process of that film?
From day one on the movie, Glenn and the producers were so welcoming and wanted me to be a partner through the whole process.
I wrote all the dance music and traditional music for Albert Nobbs. Glenn and Brendan Gleeson spent two days waltzing to a little piece I wrote called “Mrs. Baker's Waltz.” Glenn called me and said she could not stop singing the tune and maybe it would make a nice song for the end credits. So when we were in post I asked her to write the lyrics and it became “Lay Your Head Down” performed by Sinead O' Connor.
How did you convince her to rejoin you for Goldenhair? What was that process like?
Glenn and I remained great friends after Albert Nobbs, so when I told her about this album concept with Joyce poems she agreed instantly!
Her performance was recorded on her only day off from Sunset Boulevard on Broadway. I had asked my good friend Fred Johansen, who also happened to be playing alongside her in the show in NY, if he would go and record her. So he drove to her house and we captured Glenn and her dog for the album. (Took me 3 hours to EQ out the dog noises!)
“Play On” also features Kurt Elling — can you describe the origin of your relationship with him, and how did he augment this particular song?
I am a huge fan of Kurt Elling and when I found the poems online he was the voice that I had in mind. I was asked to arrange and conduct a concert with him and an orchestra in Ireland and we hit it off. I sent him some of the demos and said I might revisit it someday.
About a year later he released my song “Where Love Is” on his album Passion World. I had no idea he'd been singing it live for a whole year. This validated the whole concept and gave me a push to finish it.
What styles and influences are present in Goldenhair? How did your home of Ireland factor in?
My main goal was to write a strong melody first, old style at the piano with a pencil and paper, and try to find the sense of the poems. There was something simple and nice about writing that way. The words seemed to invoke modal Irish melodies in places and that seemed to fit well for a lot of them but I wanted to arrange them like they might heard on the radio today. I heard Tom Waits, Norah Jones, Elvis Costello, Kurt Elling, Norma Winstone, and John Taylor. Jazz, blues, classical, and Irish melodies. Anything where the words lead me, but no boundaries on genre. James Joyce was Irish and so am I but I love jazz, Nelson Riddle, and big band, and bluegrass. So why not go there? I think if Joyce were alive today he'd love Kurt Elling and jazz, and probably Bluegrass too.
Can you share a fun anecdote of working on Goldenhair?
When I started writing Goldenhair I had just finished work on a movie score, and I swore I'd never work with the director again. It was so tough that I think Goldenhair was a cathartic result of finding peace after the grueling film schedule. Seven years later, I'm working with the same director again on a different film. It's no easier! I'm ready for some funky tunes!
What are some of your other favorite tracks on this album and why?
I really like “Though Love Live But a Day” by Grammy-nominated singer Kate McGarry; it's very simple and honest and just piano and vocals. Also the song “Play On” with Glenn Close and Kurt Elling – and I get to play jazz piano, which is a nice release from the grind of film scoring. Also, “Where Love Is” performed by Judith Hill. Her vocal is amazing and I like that song.
What is next for you?
I'm scoring a movie right now called Black 47 then I'm on to two other movie projects. I'm at the start of writing a funk-inspired album of songs and tunes which will be fun. I'm also about to conduct various film music shows with some orchestras in the US. But mainly, I'm hanging out with my family!