Inquiring Minds

Inquiring Minds: AC Pianist Jim Brickman, More Than Just "Jingle Bells"

Rocks Off spoke with songwriter/pianist Jim Brickman recently. True, the AC piano king isn't the type of musician we usually focus on, but talent is talent and oh, yeah, a Grammy Award nomination for Best New Age Album for his CD Faith doesn't hurt.


Rocks Off: First, congratulations on your recent Grammy Award nomination.

Jim Brickman: Thanks, it's really exciting to get nominated.

RO: Let's talk about the show you're bringing to Houston. It's a holiday show?

JB: In December, it's gotta be a holiday show. It's not "Jingle Bells" from beginning to end, though. My holiday shows are never exclusively Christmas music because I feel like people come to hear their favorite song; if I'm lucky enough to have hits then I should play them in the concert, is my attitude.

RO: What's the label that you're most comfortable with for your music?

JB: I think of it as pop music, sort of cinematic, pop, solo piano. It's contemporary instrumental pop music. I think of myself mostly as a songwriter, so they're songs without words, is really what it is.

RO: You wrote many of the songs on Faith and arranged most of the others. I love performing more than anything. Which is easiest for you - performing, arranging, or writing?


See Jim Brickman's answer after the jump ...

JB: To me, performing is my strongest suit. Of course, that grows out of songwriting and everything else that I do. But having a talent as an entertainer is a very different kind of talent than songwriting.

Arranging is not nearly the top priority. It comes naturally to me to convey the music the way that I think it should be conveyed, but of the things I do, it's not my favorite. Performing is.

RO: It seems that arranging must be the most technical. I would think writing and performing rely much more on emotion, while arranging has actual rules. You have to think what instrumentation you want to use, which form, and all that.

JB: That's true. But, on the practical side of arranging, I'm not literally writing notes on a page. Mostly, it's, 'I think the cello should go here. And this should go there.' Really, I'm drawn more by the emotional connection, so a lot of times I will hand that to someone else and say, 'I hear this here, I hear this there.' But I'm not physically writing the notes down myself.

RO: Even though you're known as an instrumentalist, you've done lots of work with vocalists.

JB: I have 26 charted radio hits with vocal collaborations, more vocal hits on adult contemporary radio than any other male artist and every one has a different vocalist singing. Everyone from Martina McBride to Michael W. Smith to Carly Simon to Kenny Loggins, so really my success started out as an instrumental career but blossomed when I began writing songs that featured vocalists on my own albums.

RO: How do you decide which song needs words and which doesn't? It seems those are two very different ways to tell a story.

JB: At the core, I'm a songwriter not a pianist. So, really, it's just a matter of ... like right now, I have the number one song of all Christmas songs playing on the radio called "Beautiful World." It's number one on the USA Today chart, it's number one on the Billboard chart. It is a vocal collaboration. I wanted to vocally tell a story of what a beautiful world meant to me.

Sometimes you can't convey exactly what you want to convey in instrumental music. Each song, they lend themselves to different things.

I write in a very high-concept vision. I don't sit around and say, 'Oh, this is a pretty melody, maybe I'll write words to it.' It's more like, 'This song is called "Simple Things," and it's about how the things in life that we take for granted, sometimes they're right in front of our nose.' That's the message and sometimes you can't convey it in an instrumental song.

RO: Is there something that makes one singer more attractive to you than another? How do you choose the vocalists you work with?

JB: On one song, the tone and the style might suit a singer who has a beautiful, simple, pretty voice. Another song might need to be sung by a guy who sounds more like Nickelback and less like James Taylor. When you're writing, I hear it in my head. I hear a category of singer; I think, ' A beautiful female singer who can really sing needs to sing this song because it's rangey, because it's this or that.' Some other songs depend on the personality of the singer and not how great their technique or range is.

RO: Is there someone you haven't worked with yet that you'd like to?

JB: (Laughs) I have a list going, but I don't believe in picking duet partners from a casting list; I believe in organically finding them. It was that way with Lady Antebellum. Before they got signed, I was friends with them. I said, 'Hey, you should do this song with me. And if it's successful, maybe people will hear it and you'll get signed.' That's what happened. I had a relationship with them first.

I always think a collaboration should grow out of a relationship, not just, 'Oh, that's a good singer. Maybe they should sing my song.' I want it to have an authentic quality to it, so that it feels like it's supposed to be that way and not like it was manufactured to be that way.

RO: Faith is sold only in Target stores. How has that marketing decision affected the way you sell your music?

JB: Wow. It single handedly changed my entire retail relationship. They positioned this product in a lifestyle oriented way, not in the music department. It's in a kiosk that is in the candles and cards section, a completely different area than music. It's interactive, you get to listen to it in the store. It's just a much better way of sharing my music with my audience because it finds my audience where it shops, and my audience shops at Target.

Jim Brickman is performing his Beautiful World Christmas show at the Wortham Theatre Center today at 8 p.m. For information, call 713-6290-3700 or visit $35 to $50.

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Olivia Flores Alvarez