Name: Tom Brislin
Occupation: Keyboardist, singer, songwriter, producer
Current Release: The Sea Within on Inside Out
Recommendations: I’ve been quite fond of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition since I was a teenager. Not only for the classic melodies, but the fact that the composer was an outsider and was prone to breaking the “rules” of composition in his day. Secondly, this may be a super-obvious choice, but I can’t stress enough how incredible Stevie Wonder’s catalog is. I favor the 1970s releases; what an amazing meeting of musical, lyrical, and topical inspiration that will withstand the test of time for years to come.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Tom Brislin, visit his website or the facebook profile of The Sea Within for more information and music.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started playing on the family piano when I was 3 years old or so. I started writing songs as soon as I started taking piano lessons from my older sisters. Their record collections were fascinating to me; ^1970s rock etc. 80’s new wave and pop were the things I gravitated to when I was discovering the radio. I’ve been hooked on music ever since.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
It’s a given when studying classical music and jazz, that you soak in the work of the masters, and as you grow, your own style will develop. I think with rock music I took a similar approach; with my childhood bands we’d tackle some familiar covers before we started writing original music. I’ve never wanted to sound like a copy of anyone, so I just kept widening the styles I listened to. Getting many perspectives on music is a great thing.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
For me, lyrics take longer to write than the music. I’ve been an instrumentalist for a longer time, so the inner lyricist takes its time. And I do care very much about the lyrics, so I don’t rush the process.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
As soon as I could connect a couple of pieces of gear through MIDI, I started building the nucleus of a home studio. We’re talking late 1980s here: One keyboard, a drum machine, a sequencer running off an old PC, and a reverb unit. Eventually I got a 4-track cassette recorder, and few basic microphones, and then … I went to university for jazz piano. I prioritized work on the instrument, and went to local studios. Years later, when the computers finally were powerful enough to handle multi-track audio reliably, I jumped back in. I would say that even though my iMac running Logic pro is the central piece of the studio now, I give just as much importance to my vintage gear, like Moog synths and the Yamaha CP-70 electric grand piano. Those old instruments still spur the most fresh ideas for me.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Humans excel at having ideas, and machines excel at capturing ideas and helping one bring their imagination to life.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
As I alluded to above, the tools (software and hardware) are great for collecting and helping me develop the ideas. For me, most of the fundamental authorship happens with just a solo voice rambling into a recorder, or just sitting down at the piano. Paper and pencil still get a workout too.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
With new projects like The Sea Within, we had participants from all over the world, so there’s going to be a fair amount of online collaboration. I’m grateful for the ability to communicate and share files remotely, but I’m also very happy that we were able to get in a room together to develop and record the album (at Livingston Studios, London)
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I dream of having a steady schedule, some definition. Maybe I’ll get there. My life is filled with different types of projects, from producing albums to touring, or playing one-off concerts. I also love to teach so I have a select few private students and I give workshops. No two days are the same for me. I believe some form of ritual or routine is good so I try to get in some consistent practice daily.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
Sometimes there are two ideas that compliment each other, but come days, months, or even years apart. I wrote a piece of music a few years back, which was originally intended for my solo album Hurry Up and Smell the Roses. The right lyrics hadn’t come to me yet, so I put it away. Years later, I was inspired to write a song inspired by a relative who is going through dementia. It fit the music I had written years before, and it became the song “They Know My Name” on The Sea Within.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I think it depends which stage of creativity we’re talking about. The initial idea stages tend to go best when the mind is most free, and usually thinking about something else. This is why so many writers have ideas right before bed or in the shower. The development stages usually demand more focus and insulation from distractions (everyday life stuff). In some ways it’s like a muscle. I try to set a timer to dedicate an interval of time to be 100% focused on the work. If I get into a regular routine with that, I can extend the amount of time I’m able to stay on task.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
I’m currently putting the live show together for the debut concert of The Sea Within (Night of the Prog in Loreley, Germany July 2018). We had a “no rules” approach in the studio, and that sometimes meant that we’d have more simultaneous keyboard parts than I have hands to play. Now it’s about arrangement, picking the most important parts, getting the right sounds, and dealing with the tech. This particular repertoire is pretty demanding on the chops, so I have to keep the fingers in shape too. One thing that the live show and the studio experience have in common is the importance of listening. I’m listening to the band, the timing, the feel, and that is so vital in both studio and live world.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I write a lot at the piano, and think about sound design later. Other times, it’s a particular sound that inspires the idea. I’m open to whatever sparks the writing. I have no rule for it. If I’m orchestrating with sounds after the piece is written, I keep an open mind for different types of sounds and I’m always thinking “what will serve the song”. We have too many types of sounds available now; it would take forever to audition every one. I have my go to staples (piano, organ, solo synth), and from there I’ll add more if the song demands it.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
I sometimes describe certain sounds as “delicious”, which gets a laugh from my friends. I can’t say I know the connections, but my aim is to convey an experience which can evoke the other senses in the listener. I actually made a point to hit on as many senses as possible in my song “Your Favorite Day” from Hurry Up and Smell the Roses. I’m describing sounds, images, tastes, touch sensations, etc. I wouldn’t want to make a video for that song in particular; I want the song to give the listener their own experiences.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Something that took me a long time to figure out, even though it was part of me all along, is that my job as a musician is to make someone feel better. Even a sad song can remind a listener that they aren’t alone. I get a lot from being a professional musician, and I always find that things are going better in my career when I’m focused on the listener.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
I think music could be so much more useful to people than they realize. In some ways, pop music has been cheapened to the point of just being a little background decoration to life for many people. I think there are untapped riches for those who could to take a little time, listen a little more closely, be a little more curious, and not just accept what’s being thrown at them constantly.