If Brian Wilson and David Mead adopted a baby, he’d grow up to be Brandon Schott, the L.A.-based singer/songwriter whose lush harmonies, heartfelt lyrics, and gentle, sun-baked melodies have earned him a steadily growing fanbase since he made his solo debut with Release in 2003. Now he’s back with a new album, Dandelion, which forms a sort of song cycle around the year Schott spent learning he had cancer, struggling with the disease, and finally learning he was in remission. For fans of his last album, 2007’s Golden State, the new songs won’t disappoint, but they’re also a progression — they feel deeper, rawer, and less meticulously assembled, while still glowing with the melodic beauty of Schott’s best work.
Brandon was kind enough to take some time to talk with Popdose about what went into the making of Dandelion, which arrives in all the finer digital outlets today.
Okay, let’s start at the beginning: “Seasons Turn,” Dandelion’s opening track. It’s beautiful — more of an invocation than a first song. Can you talk about how it came together?
Thanks! I definitely wanted it to feel like an opening prayer, set that kind of tone for the record. It was written a cappella in the car one afternoon — very shortly after finishing treatment and finding out I was officially in remission. The lyrics and melody all came in that one sitting — just kind of poured through me (I had to pull over a few times to keep up). The track was one of the only ones on the project that wasn’t initiated from scratch for the record during our sessions in the church — a good bit of the song was initially completed at home. When we started tracking the rest of Dandelion in the church the intention was to go in and just record the lead vocal on this one and call it. However, being that we had a pipe organ at our disposal that was aching to be part of the tune, and the harmonium and piano sounded so glorious in this space, the textures kept getting deeper and deeper — and naturally evolved into where it rests now.
You know what’s great? I hadn’t read the press release in so long that I’d forgotten it was recorded in a church. I guess that says something about how successfully you were able to get that “opening prayer” vibe across, doesn’t it?
So let’s talk about where and how Dandelion was recorded. How did you settle on this particular building? And how did recording there color your performances? I’m not a religious person, but I think if I’d been in your position, I would have spent most of my time overcome with emotion.
The past year and a half has been an extremely emotionally overwhelming time, overall. The care and consideration my family and I were shown by others showed me the very best of people, kind of reawakened a deep appreciation of all the beauty we have to offer each other — pulled the veil off. Consequently, the songs I wrote while I was ill had a very strong spiritual pull to them, as I truly felt like I was connecting with something larger than myself throughout my cancer journey. It made sense then to record the material in a space that was reflective of that.
So, we recorded basic tracks live as an ensemble (including a string section on a couple tracks), and handled 80% of all the overdubs there at St Mark’s Church in Glendale, CA over 6 sessions between November 2008 and January 2009. I wanted the music to be immediate, raw — vulnerable. Seven of the songs on the record actually have a live lead vocal. The whole experience for me was very cathartic, like I was letting go. The way the songs reflected back at us in real time — you can’t get that kind of energy from a plug in. I don’t think the weight of our surroundings were lost on any of us — it became another supporting player, another instrument on the record.
It’s interesting to me that these songs were written in a time of such turmoil, and yet they sound so peaceful. Did you ever have moments where you found yourself writing from a more reactive, aggressive perspective?
There are definitely some darker passages in there — “Fire Season” comes to mind right away. But it wasn’t an energy I wanted to perpetuate or hold onto. My writing became a place of solace, a counter balance. It was more important for me to explore the shadows from a point of light and not to immerse myself in despair or fear — “Turning Toward the Sun” definitely speaks to that. This was true not only for my own music, but also in other albums I found myself returning to for comfort — like Marc Cohn’s record, Join the Parade, or the Candy Butchers’ Hang On, Mike. All in all, it really deepened my relationship with music – brought me more than I ever thought possible before. And then maybe there was more that I could offer in return.
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Continuing with the theme of offering more in return, have you been able to find ways of using your music as an outreach tool? Have you found that your story has made it easier to get people’s attention? And do you feel like you need to walk a line between honesty and self-exploitation, or do you feel more like, “This is my story, I own it, and it deserves to be part of my public face”?
Well, I do feel that as a songwriter and as a performer I signed on for a little emotional publicity long before now – it’s kinda part of the gig, writing songs – putting yourself out there. It’s always been deeply personal for me. So by extension, since my illness was such a large part of my life and this record, it’s an honest part of the dialog. These songs were my prayers during a trying time. And I didn’t go through this alone, I may have had the disease but everyone I love was affected by it and this music is just as much a tribute to their spirit as well. I’m just a small part of a greater picture. And if Dandelion and its history somehow connect with others, maybe it can do some good along the way.
There’s definitely comfort in knowing I’m not alone, I’m not the first one to have to walk this road. Over the past year or so I’ve I’ve been working with an organization called I’m Too Young For This, a young adult cancer collective that’s doing amazing work in bringing people together, providing resources, support and perspective for young adults affected by cancer. I’m greatly inspired by their dedication to the ‘greater picture,’ and proud to play whatever small role I can.
But, all said and done, I do feel that this album has a universal language — many of the songs were written months before I was diagnosed. We’ve all got physical and emotional obstacles to overcome daily — cancer happened to be the biggest one I’ve had to deal with in the last two years of my life. In the end, I just set out to make the best, truthful record I could with my friends.You and I met when you submitted your previous album, Golden State, for review at Jefitoblog — and if I remember right, you found the site because of an announcement I posted at the CD Baby forums asking for indie albums to review. From that meeting to your Homegrown Recordings series, Twitter feed, and iPod app, you clearly devote a lot of time and energy to online promotion — more than many other artists, particularly those who are handling everything themselves. How have you seen these efforts pay off? Do you have any words of advice for other self-sufficient recording artists?
I’m not sure that I’d call myself an Internet guru of any kind, but it’s definitely the most opportunistic and convenient way for us indies to spread our wings. I mean, the amount of music ‘fan’ centers that have sprung up in the last couple years is pretty incredible (iLike, Reverb Nation, imeem, Facebook, etc.) – I’m just trying to stay ahead of the curve, looking for new ways to reach out to folks. We’re unfortunately past the golden era of popping down to the local record store and having the clerk there hip you to what’s new and exciting; now the online music blogs and podcasts have kind of taken on that spirit. And I *love* those kinds of dialogues (especially being that I’m a former record store clerk myeelf) — I’m still a music geek at heart. Many of the writers that have posted about my work have introduced me to some great artists in return, I love that give and take. You yourself actually just turned me onto the new record by the Guggenheim Grotto not too long ago, so thanks for that! It’s a very exciting time in the way we can access and share our love of music.
It’s also an interesting challenge because the market is SO rich in content — a fan of Crowded House or Josh Ritter or Mike Viola now has endless choices when it comes to hearing new artists with similar influences and tastes. I think what I’m learning is that the creative ambition *has* to somehow cross over into the marketing world as well — one’s online spirit or personality is everything, it’s the first impression. I’m also lucky that I have a great partner with my digital distributor, IODA (via Burnside Distribution) that has great promotional partnerships available for its artists. The Homegrown Series over at Too Poppy has been really fun, been really interesting to see how folks respond to various sides of my work. And that was born out of the writers there stumbling across my last record, Golden State, and posting updates of my various announcements and subsequent releases — then working together on Homegrown kind of naturally evolved out of that. It’s been a blast.
So more than anything it still comes back to making connections with people, even if it’s via e-mail or talkbacks. I’ve found that more often than not people respond to the ‘person’ before they respond to the music, so I just try to keep my online self open, humble and more than anything honest. The fact that I have the ability to make those kinds of connections around the world with my music is a pretty awesome gift — I just hope I can keep growing with all the changes and continue to have fun.
What would you like to tell our readers about the new album? Sort of a closing statement/introduction, if you will?
I’m so proud of Dandelion and for everyone’s role in its creation. Every record I’ve made has been a beautiful convergence of talent and love, and Dandelion is no exception — I’m honored to stand amongst such company. This album was a very healing journey for us, and I hope it can perhaps also shine a little light for others along its way. Thank you to everyone for listening!
Visit Brandon at his official site, and purchase his music at Amazon. (Photo credit for front-page image: Suzan Jones)