Brian Elliot is not your typical indie-rock singer. The Nashville-based artist who took home our Glassetonbury, Vol. 3 Championship a couple of weeks ago studies film just as closely as his music, and in talking to him, it’s clear that John Williams is just as strong of an influence as John Mayer. Describing his music as “cinematic indie-rock,” Elliot hopes to transport the listener to another time or place — much in the same way that an excellent film can whisk you away from reality for a while. We sat down with him to discuss his biggest inspirations as an artist, how his passion for film has influenced his product, the creation of “Blue Jean Girl,” and much more.
What first inspired you to pursue music?
There are probably a hundred big moments before the age of 10 that I could go on about, but we could be here all day. Though the first time I knew I loved Rock & Roll, I was 4 years old. One cold, dark morning, my stepdad called me out to his car. I sat up front, he put in a CD (maybe a cassette), and then all of a sudden, the first thing I hear is a loud dark ominous distorted guitar, tuning down, followed by the dark distorted words, “I AM IRON MAN!” My jaw dropped, and I had officially caught the music bug, and anything and everything after that was open for exploration.
At first it was Sabbath, Zeppelin, Priest and a lot of harder rock from my stepdad. My mom was Bowie, Queen and Elton John, and my Dad gave me my first Beatles CD. And when I was in his car with him, it was Sting, Steely Dan or Clapton. I was fortunate to be exposed to so much, so young, though nobody ever forced me to listen to music. It was always around, and I was infectiously consumed by all of it.
Who were your biggest musical influences growing up, and how did they evolve as you matured and grew as an artist?
By 10, I was starting to pay more attention to guitar-heavy music that had guitar solos. Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, Randy Rhoads, Jimmy Page. One day, I found a CD in my stepdad’s car that said, “Texas Flood” on it, and it had this character, with his hat hung low on the cover. My stepdad said, “That’s Stevie Ray Vaughan.” Boom! Forget every verbed out, delayed metal guitar tapping tone I had ever heard, now I’m in love with the rawness and energy of Stevie’s playing. It wasn’t drenched in effects, and he played with honesty and precision, but it had vengeance and grit like he was at war with the world, and I had never heard anything like that before. From there I traveled back in time; all the “Kings:” BB, Albert, Freddy, Albert Collins. Then even further back to Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Led Belly, Johnson, Son House. The music was so honest and raw, that even though I wasn’t from those times, it felt like a more fitting score to my adolescent world. And then right around the 2000’s, The Strokes and The White Stripes hit, and I finally found music that spoke to me that was of my era, yet had the characteristics of the blues and the 60’s/70’s England, New York, and Detroit sound that I also loved. There are a million other honorable mentions, like Morrison, Bowie, Floyd and Hendrix that I could write you a novel on. During those years, as much as I wanted to be like them, the steps to get from St. Charles, MO, to that, seemed unclear, and there certainly isn’t a manual in a library or school to tell you how to do it. It wasn’t until I was in high school when acoustic pop was taking the charts, and I realized I could pickup a guitar at a party; sing a shit version of a Jack Johnson or John Mayer song (never did Wonder Wall!), and if I was lucky I could snag some attention from the ladies. Nobody wanted, nor cared, to hear Eruption or some Stevie licks, but it was some confirmation that singing and playing, was an avenue to getting to the stage. However, I didn’t think of myself as much of a singer, and I found it challenging to cover other songs, so instead I started writing stuff that I felt I could sing and make my own. And I guess that’s where it all began.
How would you describe your style and genre now?
I suppose I would classify this record as cinematic indie rock. Genres are so limiting in their description these days, as I believe artists have found many ways to meld genres spanning over decades into one song. I think as a solo artist, I don’t feel confined to one specific genre. And by the time my record is fully released, you will hear that to be true. Even though my roots are in the blues, and guitar-driven music, I challenged myself with this record to not rely on those elements as much to tell the stories of the songs. And if I did, maybe it’s more in a subtle or melodic way. I would rather know you are able to hum my guitar solos versus try and impress you with the most notes.
Let’s talk about “Blue Jean Girl,” the song that made you our third Glassetonbury champion. What inspired the song, and was the writing process like? Do you have a typical songwriting routine, or is every song different?
Many a time I have structurally sat down and tried to write one, but my favorite songs just seem to hit me when I least expect it. And if I’m lucky, I finish the skeleton of the song so fast, I can hardly remember writing it. Something lyrical and melodic happens, where I just trust where everything’s going, and the music seems to find its way. It’s almost like you just have to keep yourself open 24/7 for everything and anything that could spark a thought or an idea. I have certainly scrutinized every word, and written several lyrical versions to the same progressions for many songs, and most of the time, I shelf them, and find that I’m just trying to do a version of something else I wish I could write. “Blue Jean Girl” was the first song I wrote that made it on this record, and it started at 6am when I came home from a night out. I started fingerpicking these three chords that felt moody and dark. I looped them with a pedal, poured another drink, grabbed the microphone and started singing/screaming out a story of a girl I knew, and what I felt she meant to me, as well as the rest of the world. I set my phone to voice memo it. I woke up the next afternoon, still remembering the song, so I listened to the drunken voice memo, and then began organizing it from there. The production felt like the song could be dressed in a dark disco, indie rock world, so that’s what I attempted to see through.
What does the song mean to you, lyrically?
The song is about someone I knew. And I think writing it was just a way of telling a story about someone I thought was unique in a beautiful, yet tragic, way.
How did it come together in the studio? Who was the team, and what did each of them bring to the table?
This one was a bit difficult. I really wanted the production to feel electronic, but was played by all real analog synths and instruments. I had my first group of guys demo it at Nick Paredes’s East Nashville Sound Studio. It was an exciting day, and it was sounding great as a trio, so we took it into Warner Brothers. We recorded it in a live setting, and it just wasn’t as tight and precise as I wanted the performance to come across. So I tried again with three more sessions, several new cast members, and then finally gave up on the idea that I could record this with a live group. So Nick and I took it back to his studio, and decided to build the track from the drums up. This way I could scrutinize every note, and make it as tight as I had been hearing it in my head.
What’s your fondest memory from making “Blue Jean Girl?”
The first time we demoed the song. Everyone seemed to be excited about it, and it felt new and fresh to me. And then again, much later, when I had the synth work put on, it finally felt like a production.
What was the biggest creative difference between making “Blue Jean Girl” and your latest single, “Better Than Dead?”
“Better Than Dead” wasn’t written as quickly as “Blue Jean Girl,” however I felt like it was a song that can translate as well on an acoustic guitar as it could a twelve-piece band. The arrangement felt like I could be very cinematic when it came time to producing it in the studio. I always want to tell a story, even if it is ambiguous. I thought the song laid out a platform to be more whimsical and tongue-and-cheek in a more subliminally, sarcastic way, more so than “Blue Jean Girl.” Although “Blue Jean Girl” lyrically might be more to the point, I think more people can relate to “Better Than Dead.”
Talk to us about your love of film. Where does it come from, and who are you a fan of?
My love of film is almost as extensive as my love for music. So to give what feels like an honorable response to my love, could require another interview. But to try and keep it short, I love story telling, and I love being transcended to somewhere else for a little while. The first movies to do that were Star Wars. Hands down. They took me, and many others, to “a galaxy far far away” where unearthly things existed and were possible. Later on when I was a kid, my mom’s friend used to burn VHS’s from Blockbuster, and after watching them, he would bring them in boxes to our house, and he would tell me which ones he thought I would like. I was probably a little young to be watching them, but when I saw Goodfellas, Casino, Scarface, A Clock Work Orange, Apocalypse Now, James Bond, The Shining, Cool Hand Luke, Rebel Without A Cause, The Terminator, and the list could go on forever- I was hooked. It can be done in song, theater, poetry, a sunset or a painting. But when a great film’s subject material has depth and dimension that takes me out of my world for a couple of hours, that is something I enjoy. Sadly, I have seen most every movie from all my favorite directors, so now I have to hope that the Nolan’s, Paul Thomas Anderson’s and Tarantino’s, as well as any film maker out there, keep delivering works of art that give people permission to escape for a couple of hours and enjoy. Just like a songwriter hopes his or hers material can be used for.
How has film influenced your music? Have you ever wanted to take up film scoring?
Short answer, yes! Though, I would be intimidated to pair myself with someone else’s creation that they have hopefully worked as hard as I would have; then be tasked to create the sound of this other artist’s world. I hate using this word, but it would have to be extremely organic for it to happen in the near future. However, I am not opposed to licensing music for film, TV or commercial. At least with that, someone has already agreed that your sound fits the bill.
As far as influence goes, I would like to write music that takes the listener to another place or gives them a feeling that’s relatable. If the soundscape or production of the song has cinematic elements to it, then maybe I can paint a better picture for the story to exist in.
What are your top three Tarantino films, in order?
I like them all for such different reasons, and some are very minor things. He’s made nine films so far, and I like them all. Three that have inspired me just musically may be, the Kill Bills (which I know are two), Django and Inglorious Bastards. Quentin is good at putting actual songs in his movies. We often don’t think as much about Quentin’s film scores for some of the specific songs that play in his films. However, when I first saw Pulp Fiction, I had to learn how to play that Dick Dale riff, which turned me on to surf rock. I would have to say, as much as I love all of that, I really love hearing what Hans Zimmer, Ennio Morricone or John Williams are doing in a film. I love what Johnny Greenwood has done in some of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. That’s the stuff that can take scenes to other places, so I really keep my ears open for stuff like that when I watch a movie.
How did your passion for film influence the way you’ve shot your promotional material?
The promotional material is all shot on Super 8. I love the grain and texture of film. I feel like it compresses the images and the texture helps separate the viewer from the subject. It’s not easy shooting on film. Nick Paredes and I had never made anything on Super 8 before, so it was a bit of a “fingers crossed, hope we got it” kind of thing. I felt it was exciting and nerve-racking. Unlike digital, every scene was only shot once and you have to hope in six weeks, when the film’s been processed and delivered back, that it worked! We lost a small amount of footage and over exposed some film to the sun, but I think that’s what made it feel like a cool medium to take a risk on. Like the music, I want the visuals to also take you somewhere else that maybe you haven’t been before.
Talk to us about the trip you took to New Mexico after you finished the record. What do you remember about the trip, and what’s your favorite story from the experience?
Nick and I took off in June this year, with some of his 35mm cameras and a Super 8 camera. The only plan was to drive far out into the deserts of New Mexico, detouring through Mississippi, Texas, New Mexico, and then back, and capture any image that looked cool. No real script as far as a story to tell, we just hoped to find some beautiful places in this country that we’ve never seen, always heard of, or never heard of, but were recommended at the last moment. It was a beautiful trip that is hard to sum up shortly, but I highly recommend grabbing a buddy and going on a road adventure with the only objective to find beauty and something you don’t see everyday.
What do you hope people take away from your music when they listen to you?
It would be nice for people to find something they can relate to emotionally, or tell them a story they haven’t heard before, or a story they know, but in a way it hasn’t been told yet. I think humans have more parallels with life stories, motivations and emotions then the average person thinks. Maybe that’s why so many different people can like the same song for different reasons.
What are you working on now? When can we expect something new?
In the beginning of COVID, I wrote my next album and then some. I’m very excited about the material, and to take these new tunes into the studio and dress them up. I still have five more songs on this record to release, but hopefully I can start demoing the new stuff by spring, and maybe have one out by the fall. Could be ambitious, but I want to keep the momentum going; especially after a year where everyone, in so many ways, have been forced to sit on their hands.
You can follow Brian Elliot on Instagram @brianelliotsound and stream “Blue Jean Girl” on Spotify below. Congratulations again to our third Glassetonbury champion!