Musician and composer Aaron Beaumont, a graduate of Andrews University, has collaborated with a wide variety of musicians on music projects of all kinds, and toured and performed around the world. On September 12, he will give a concert at the Spectrum UltraViolet Arts Festival. In this interview, he tells us about some of his projects, including the musical Behind Closed Doors, and his philosophy of music.
Question: You are a musician who writes songs, film and theater scores and more. What do you like most about being a musician?
Answer: I would probably say just that: the variety. It can be exactly what you want it to be and/or what you make it. I have enough different plates spinning at any given time that it's gotten to the point where if I get up and don't feel like writing lyrics (which would be nine days out of 10!), I work on arrangement, composition, sound design, or production.
You certainly have specialists and auteurs working in music, but I feel like it’s far more common for the modern musician to have many “slashes” in his job title and have his fingers in many pots. Which is not to say that you only work on something if and when you feel inspired — it's a job like anything else, and you get up and go to work… and the work never really ends. But it's a bonus that it can also accommodate every point in your creatorly tides.
Are you able to make a living as a musician?
It's always cyclical, but right now I do not have another "job," be it teaching, tutoring, or the other usual suspects by which many musicians pay rent. I do feel that it's probably always been difficult making a living as an artist, historically (even Mozart taught piano his entire life) and musicians have always depended on the generosity (or wealth) of their communities.
I think the recent pop/mass media/recorded music phenomena of the past century or so have sort of redefined our conception of the professional musician, but I'm constantly surprised by the terrifically good living that many musicians you've never heard of have carved out for themselves — and conversely the fact that many musicians I assumed would be exceedingly comfortable are actually struggling. The arts market can work counterintuitively, and — insofar as we view art as a product — definitely favors the entrepreneurial.
You wrote the music and lyrics to the musical Behind Closed Doors, which played to sold-out crowds when it premiered in 2011, and won several awards. Was this musical your idea? What was it like to write a musical?
I was brought into the project by a filmmaker/playwright who had worked with my co-writer/bandmate Emma on a previous project. He had the initial concept, which looked nothing like the end result. My role mushroomed from a relatively manageable, more curatorial job into this big unwieldy undertaking, but in a fortuitous way, and it’s by no means “done” (nor have we abandoned it, as the old saying goes).
I feel like we've really written three different musicals over the course of the development process — I hear theater veterans say the germination period for most projects from inception to Broadway is 10 years, and countless rewrites. Some days, that feels about right. Ha!
But mostly, it’s super exhilarating; that kind of writing was a huge revelation to me, thinking both in terms of a broader narrative with deeper thematic material to mine and also a more limited scope for each song in some ways. Which is to say, you have parameters, the palette is limited, you know exactly the dramatic “job” that each song needs to accomplish in those three minutes — to me, this is far less daunting than sitting down at the piano with a blank piece of paper trying to think up something new to say about love.
On top of this, and even more strikingly for me, you have a shared artistic vision on such a large scale between so many collaborators and specialists. It’s a really incredible dynamic to be a part of.
Behind Closed Doors addresses LGBT rights and social justice issues. Its website says: "The message at the heart of Behind Closed Doors is that silence in the face of injustice means complicity with the status quo." How did you come up with this concept? Why is this issue important to you?
Peter initially conceived of the show in the aftermath of Prop 8 in California. That ballot initiative [passed in the November 2008 elections, saying that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California”] directly affected many of those closest to us, and we hoped to produce something that could provoke and inspire allies, and also simply express some of what we felt — how it affected us personally.
Had we grown up in the 1960s, we would have written about the particular social justice topic we were handed. However, the specific issue in this case, LGBT rights, became more a vehicle by which to explore classism in general. A piece about discrimination, prejudice, and the absurdity of life as a second-class citizen can transcend the specific circumstances from which it originates, because the kind of institutions and ideologies behind these things don't seem to disappear easily — they just move along to other prey (which probably makes me sound more cynical than I am!).
I really do feel like humans are learning and getting better at living with each other, especially given that we’re now helplessly interconnected and the collisions are more inevitable.
Over the course of creating and recreating the show, it evolved from something bordering on polemical into something that hopefully starts an honest, broader conversation. This, I think, is the real key to overcoming our natural suspicion and understandable primal fear of the unknown or the Other.
Social justice is still at the heart of show, but it is at least as interested in the dynamics of an increasingly polarized society and our capacity to ask questions and accommodate uncertainty in an era of sound bites and binary thinking. And its primary interest is simply telling a good story!
You have started a new project called SongLab, with Nick Zork and Jason Manns. What is it all about?
SongLab provides musicians of any level of experience a space for guided exploration and creative community, in which to play freely with a toolbox of fresh writing concepts and practices alongside creative peers. That’s the elevator pitch at least! Ha.
The real story is that Nick, Jason, and I all love teaching music, and we’ve all done a lot of it. However, the life of a professional musician is not given to the fixed schedules and locations typically required by the traditional learning environment. So SongLab was simply our way to create an environment in which to continue studying music with fellow musical explorers and creating music together as part of a community. It allows us to literally tune in simultaneously from Los Angeles, Germany, and Australia for a live webcast with other musicians all over the world — each week we do a quick creative warm-up, observe and dissect great music, propose theories, draw out creative strategies, then apply them via weekly targeted experiments, which everyone who wants to can then share for feedback and analysis. It’s been super fruitful and inspiring so far!
You have toured around the world playing classical piano, trumpet in a jazz quartet, and bassist in a rock band, I understand. When did you do all this? What were some of your favorite touring moments?
Yes, those are all things I've done at various times — my trumpet abilities were never especially impressive though, and are certainly nonexistent at the moment. . . although recently I've been in need of them for the first time in years, so maybe I’ll dust it off again.
Another bit of trivia would be that my first paid gig as a “session player” in L.A. was actually recording tambourine for a Latin pop act. Never a dull moment.
It's really hard to choose a favorite show or touring moment. . . they’ve ranged from a few thousand people to a just a handful (and usually closer to the latter!), and on that spectrum, the “special” ones always seem to be the intimate ones, like house shows. I would say what I like most about touring in general is that you get to form relationships with so many different people in so many places over a long period of time. I also love the rhythm of life on the road — it really clarifies everything, because you have one objective: get to the next town and put on a great show. So it affords a lot of mental space, and frees one from the everyday distractions, while simultaneously inspiring me with a lot of the things I love most: food, coffee, music.
So, I guess my favorite things are the people and the clarity. If you pressed me for a least favorite, or biggest regret, it would probably be that time at a hotel in Salt Lake City when I shaved a nice full tour beard into a truly unfortunate mustache which I elected to keep for the rest of the tour. I looked vaguely like Luigi from Super Mario Bros.
How did you get started with music? Piano lessons as a kid? What is your back story?
Both my parents were educators in the public schools. There were a lot of musicians on my mom's side (including a real jazz trumpet player and a rock 'n roll pioneer). My mom studied music at University of Illinois, and taught piano until I started grade school, when she started teaching in the school system.
So while she was never officially my teacher, I guess I grew up around it, and started classical piano at an early age, which I continued through college. I performed the third movement of the Grieg A minor piano concerto with the Andrews University orchestra my junior year in high school as a finalist in the Young Artist competition there, which is where I met Nick Zork, and we've done a lot of music together since then.
I didn't get my degree in music, but started writing my own material during my last semester at Andrews, and after graduation, my friend Aaron Roche invited me down to Nashville for a month while his roommate was away. I wound up recording my solo album with his roommate later that year, and a small label in L.A. contacted me about releasing the album, which is part of what led me to L.A. after the year in Nashville. I was still planning to go to grad school in economics at the time, but deferred for a year, after which I decided to continue doing music full time. That's the bullet-point version at least!
So what was your degree at Andrews, if not music?
I finished with degrees in just about everything but music (Economics/English Literature/Spanish), though I also studied music and performed throughout. I actually graduated from Andrews University in 2006, although I went abroad to Newbold and Sagunto, Spain during my program.
You play with a band called Mots Nouveaux. Your sound has been compared to the Beatles or even music from the 1920s. How would you describe your sound? Who are your influences? What music did you listen to growing up?
The Mots Nouveaux started as a throwback pop/swing project and gradually has evolved to incorporate 1960s pop, funk, R & B, and a lot of other influences.
What we’re currently recording is a massive departure from anything we’ve done previously, though still pop in its melodic sensibilities. I think a weird breadth of influences is sort of inevitable for any fan of music who also makes music — there's so much incredible music being made now, and I listen to everything I can get my hands on. I was definitely immersed in the great American songbook growing up, and the popular music of the 1950s and 1960s, along with a lot of classical. I'm super grateful for my exposure to all of these, because they really form the basis of my melodic and harmonic inclinations now. Recently, however, I've gotten way more consumed by electronic music-making, production, and sound design — creating textures and timbres themselves — which is of course an entire universe unto itself.
I write with a lot of different people for a lot of different projects though, so my “influences” would depend entirely on the context. Lately, for instance, I’ve been co-writing a dramatic song cycle with a French soprano for a one-woman cabaret, and listening to a lot of Scott Walker, Jacques Brel, and Kurt Weill as a result.
My actual “recently played” on my phone consists of The Meters, Four Tet, Madvillain, Sondheim, Nao, Serge Gainsbourg, and the Theme from I Love Lucy (don’t ask). So. . . I guess, “curious” would be the best way to describe my tastes? Desert island stuff would include Bowie, Sondheim, Beach Boys, Supremes, Harry Nilsson, P-Funk, Talking Heads, Dr. John, E.L.O., Beatles, Stones. . . wait, how many suitcases can I bring to this island?
You have performed at many Adventist universities and colleges, including La Sierra, Loma Linda, Walla Walla and PUC. What is your message when you play to an Adventist student crowd? Is it different than at a non-Adventist venue?
Hmm, that's an interesting question. I guess you always want to tailor the content to the context if you're going to communicate effectively (David Byrne talks about this in his fantastic book, How Music Works), and that applies right down to the venue. Which is to say, even from a strictly acoustic standpoint, I would play different songs in a church than I would in, say, a small rock club on the Strip, simply because the spaces themselves are suited to certain kinds of sonic “messages” I suppose.
But more broadly, whenever I play, it will automatically reflect wherever I happen to be in my life and the kinds of things I’m working on. This means the songs I choose to play and how I choose to play them. It’s true that the beauty of being a writer and performer is it allows you to be a chameleon of sorts and inhabit various characters or personas (see Bowie), and listeners tend to interpret things autobiographically perhaps more than they should. But I won’t play a song or deliver a “message” that doesn’t represent me — whether it’s the silly me or serious me depends on the day!
With respect to specific content or topics, I don’t really embrace the distinction between “Christian” and “non-Christian” art, just as I think the phrase “spiritual life” is redundant — life itself is a spiritual reality, so whether something is explicitly, topically “religious” has no bearing on its ability to represent any point on the broad spectrum of emotional, spiritual, numinous dispositions.
How does spirituality or religion fit into your music?
I've never written explicitly religious music or anything topically theological, but nevertheless, music would probably be my best option for communicating, commenting on, and generally exploring my own spiritual life, which tends to be otherwise very personal and internal in nature. Much of the actual work I produce now is collaborative or commissioned, and therefore there is more a sense of detachment and craft, I guess — which is not to say that it’s not personally meaningful, but rather that the content is more pre-assigned.
But as far as my own creative “faucet” goes, the things that come out on their own are inevitably from that place of spiritual exploration or wonder or what have you. And many of these things later form the basis of the “assigned” work — melodies, hooks, song concepts. To turn this in a different direction, I also feel like the very act or possibility of creating something from nothing — literally calling something into existence, whether it’s a song or a book or a piece of technology or civilization as a whole — is existentially soothing in the sense that it helps reaffirm and continue our heritage of creation and recreation. Maybe it makes our appearance on the scene here and the narrative of anything being called into existence from nothing, or from a delicate idea, a bit more plausible.
What is your dream project?
Such a tricky question. I’ve had three musical mistresses the last few years: pop/band, theater, and film, so I really have dream projects in all three areas, and a long list of actors, directors, and players I’d love to work with.
How has technology changed the business of being a musician?
Well, the “business” part is certainly up for debate — everyone has their own analysis and prediction in that department, but I would say as much as it has “apparently” precipitated a reduction in revenue (in the movement away from physical products), it has increased opportunity and productivity, and anyone who’s willing to put the work in and has some ingenuity can be the beneficiary of that.
When I recorded my solo album, I could never have made anything that didn’t sound like a demo by myself, while this year, I’m able to essentially own the entire process.
And the technology itself can be really exciting and inspiring from a musical standpoint; your options for timbre, tone, sound quality, and texture are literally infinite and at your finger tips. If there’s a drawback, it’s probably that technology can make the process of music-making more isolating and maybe less “physical,” and that’s a large part of what makes music fun — sharing it and creating it with others.
Is there a song you are especially proud of that we can listen to? Please give us the link!
The answer to that is invariably “the last thing that I wrote or recorded!” And right now, I’m in the middle of four new musicals and a song cycle, all of which exist exclusively in demo form on a few laptops in a few different cities and aren’t yet available online.
So I guess the “latest” thing I’ve actually made available anywhere (albeit semi-secretly) would be cues for a recent film score I did. . . which are not “songs” per se, and it doesn’t sound much like anything else I’ve done, but it’s still the kind of thing I love making!
What can attendees at the Ultraviolet Arts Festival September 12/13 expect to hear from you?
Musically, I’m actually planning to dig into my solo back catalogue for the first time in a while, which I’m really excited about, in a sort of self-indulgent way. I’ve written a lot of music for other people the last few years, but also have piles of my own songs sitting around bored and unrecorded, so it’s an opportunity for me to revisit and showcase some of that.
I’m also planning to talk a little about my own experience and creative practices and some of the things I’ve learned from creative heroes, which is a little obsession of mine as a big music fan-boy — the actual “practice” of creativity, as a discipline you can consciously develop and grow in, just as you would exercise any other muscle.
What are your favorite sorts of venues to play?
Solo piano/vocal: definitely someplace cavernous and washy and medieval.
I really enjoyed putting up Behind Closed Doors at an off-Broadway proscenium theater here in NYC last summer — that particular size and space can feel grand and intimate at the same time somehow.
For the band, just about anyplace you can fit eight people on stage and get really loud! Sometimes an awkward, uncomfortable space can actually be an unlikely boon - we played a huge boomy warehouse in downtown L.A. for Brokechella last year, and the sound was just terrible on stage — couldn’t hear a thing — but in the ensuing, aural equivalent of deer-in-the-headlights this inspired, the set actually wound up being a blast, albeit a terrifying one.
Aaron Beaumont grew up in Rockford, Illinois, and currently lives in Brooklyn, where he moved from Los Angeles last summer. He will be appearing in concert on September 12 at the Spectrum UltraViolet Arts Festival.
Find more information and register for the festival here.
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