You probably don’t know Jon Brion’s name, but you have almost definitely heard his work. He co-produced Late Registration alongside Kanye West; he contributed to Beyoncé’s Lemonade; he’s scored movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I Heart Huckabees, Trainwreck, and even this year’s Oscar-nominated Lady Bird. He’s worked with an eclectic bunch of artists, from Best Coast to Fiona Apple, Frank Ocean, and Sky Ferreira.
In a recent interview with Noisey, Brion revealed a little about his process and reflected on what it was like collaborating with some of the music industry’s biggest stars.
As a film composer, Brion admits that the job is hard. Now that music can be manipulated and edited on a computer, “any person with access to the mixing process and has doubts about a piece of music can alter it,” he said. His work is deeply personal and takes a lot of effort and hard work, so going to movie premieres is an anxiety-ridden process for him. “The entire thing can be thrown out on the last day, or mixed behind sound effects right up to the last hour and you will never know that until you see the film,” he explained. As a job, film composing is “really looked at as… only slightly above craft service [catering] in the hierarchy of a film production.” But even then, he doesn’t know who’s harder to please: a film director or Kanye West.
“I think every filmmaker has a bit of Kanye in them,” Brion said. “I’ve never met one that doesn't and I’m sure if Kanye were one, he would tell you he was the greatest director of all time.” Speaking of the process of working alongside Kanye on Late Registration, Brion noted that “what was interesting was that [Kanye] wanted to expand himself.” Brion continued: “I felt that he was truly trying to make something that would communicate with lots of people but also have qualities in it that weren't happening in other people's records at the time.”
“You'll find this hilarious but one of the things I talked to him about at the time was that boasting had already been overplayed in hip-hop and how tired it was,” Brion adds.
Brion also had fascinating things to say about his work with Beyoncé. He said it was “fun” to hear her and work with her on arrangements because she has “real purpose.” Brion compared Bey to “brilliant directors who have an absolutely clear vision and inner visualization,” which is a “great thing to be around.” Brion also praised Beyoncés ability to identify a “cultural moment that has people's attention and [harness] it for something other than just a song.”
“There are some people who are aware they have the world's ear and make really interesting use of it,” Brion said of Beyoncé. “I was very impressed that through all of her work and all of her ambitions, she had gotten herself to a position where it would be world news just by releasing a record.”
And what a record at that. “[Lemonade] was not merely just a collection of songs,” Brion added. “There are real ideas in them, there are points she feels important to make or to be reiterated to the world at large.”
Brion’s list of collaborators is long and sometimes seemingly contradictory: what would the score of Magnolia and Frank Ocean have in common? But he doesn’t work within pre-defined constraints. “I think the lines that other people draw are really stupid, as is the notion of art versus popular entertainment,” he said. “I’m always interested in when those lines are blurred or they don't even exist—when it isn't even a question.”
“We have these idiotic artistic archetypes that have been sold to us. Greatness has nothing to do with how many people notice it,” Brion added. “To me, when something is good that is self-evident.”