Behind the music with ‘America’s New Romantic Piano Sensation’
If you’ve ever seen him on stage, you know that Jim Brickman is a light hearted performer. He appears genuinely happy to be there, happy to share his music with the audience, and happy to have his friends come out and sing with him as he plays. He pauses between songs often to tell anecdotal stories about his life and experiences with other performers. But when he turns his attention to the ivories, there’s not a sound to be heard in the entire auditorium except for those of his crisp, perfectly executed notes. The audience fully caught up in the music. Brickman understands how to engage with the audience; he is a masterful performer in all respects.
We caught up with Jim prior to his concert at the Bijou in December to talk about how he began this life in music and what’s ahead for this talented musician.
Cityview: What does it feel like after all these years to sit down at the piano and do the thing that you love every day?
Jim Brickman: It feels like a conversation. It feels like you’re getting together with your friends. It doesn’t feel like a car, something that you necessarily have to concentrate on or perfect to a technical standard; it comes out very emotionally. So it’s very comfortable. I don’t get nervous about it or like I’m not proficient enough for it or something like that. It feels very natural, like what I’m supposed to be doing and not like any of it is forced or because I have to.
CV: It must be such a wonderful thing to spend your life doing the thing that you love.
JB: I never thought that there was a choice. I’m sure you feel this way about your writing; it’s a calling. And if you’re artistic and creative, it tends to lead you more than you leading it.
CV: You started playing when you were young. Tell me about that early leap into music.
JB: It was very confusing for me early because I mostly play by ear and mostly what I am is a songwriter. And that doesn’t really show itself. So you’re learning a language, but people don’t think that you’re talented or proficient because technically speaking, you know, I don’t read that well and I didn’t interpret classical. I didn’t develop the style. So it takes longer for anybody to advocate, recognize that there’s something there beyond any kid that takes a piano lesson. But my desire led me to keep pursuing it. Even though technically, teachers were like, I didn’t have it. Not that anybody really ‘has it’. I don’t think any teacher, unless you’re a prodigy, thinks any real kid at that age has it. And then also, what does ‘has it’ mean? You’re gonna make them a star 10 years old? I mean, I had to grow into it.
CV: What made you keep pursuing it, even though you were getting this different reaction from people than what you were feeling within yourself?
JB: I liked sitting at the piano. I didn’t like practicing, but I liked listening to the radio and picking out melodies that I heard. I heard it inside in my head, and then I just had to figure out how to take it from my head and through the instrument.
CV: When did you decide to make a living out of your talent?
JB: I did study music in school. Again, not a very good student; I think that’s the general through-line for me being a kid. I always had my own voice, so to speak. So I had a knack in high school. I entered a contest. I had a band with a fellow student, Anne Cochran, in high school, who’s also still touring with me. We had a band 40 years ago, or so, and we’re still performing. And audiences love that because there’s such a bond and natural relationship on stage and it translates. But she and I entered a talent contest for the best band in Cleveland—I grew up in Cleveland—and we won the contest. And so it immediately propelled me, at 15 years old, into getting interviewed on the radio station and seeing the real industry—as much industry as there is in Cleveland—not just what was in my head. It opened up the idea of possibilities.
So I pursued a career as a jingle writer for advertising because I had a knack for simple, straightforward pop melodies—which is still my style. When I write, I write in a very commercial way that comes naturally, melodies that are hopefully infectious or that sound like you’ve heard them before, but they’re new. It’s just what I excel at. And so jingle writing was perfect for me because it’s like songwriting, but without the life experience, emotional connection because you’re writing about products. So it’s more of a clinical meets creative objective. And so, I did make a living at that. It was my career. I did it from 19 years old to 31-32. That was my career. I didn’t think of it as a stepping stone to something else. It was what I did.
CV: What was the turning point for you? What prompted that first album of yours in 1995?
JB: I was doing jingles in Cleveland and Chicago. And I found that there was way more schmoozing and way more selling, and it was very competitive. And it wasn’t really that fulfilling. The bigger the job, the less fulfilling it was because there are so many people involved and you’re just basically executing a creative direction and being told, ‘Make it like this. Make it like that.’ It’s not that fulfilling, but it gives you a ton of experience. And so I got a lot of experience with singers arranging things, understanding the emotional connection that commercial music makes and that sort of thing. So it was a wealth of experience, but it wasn’t—towards the end—very fulfilling.
So I moved to Los Angeles because I thought there will be some opportunity out there because there are so many choices and you’re in a place—between New York, Nashville, or LA—[that is an] entertainment center. So you have around you film and TV and songwriting and recording. And so, I didn’t know what it was going to be but I just thought it was going to be opportunity. And so I was having a struggle. I was still doing jingles because I I had to make a living and I still worked a lot. Ironically, I got more business when I moved there from the people at home than I did when I was at home, because of course, if you move to Los Angeles, you’re more talented in their eyes than if you live in Cleveland. It’s like a geography equals talent mentality. But I was also very unsure.
So for my own satisfaction and my own therapy, I went into the recording studio and I just played and recorded. I found an engineer in a studio, and I said, ‘I just want to come in and just play and improvise.’ For years, I didn’t really play [the piano]. I wrote at the piano, but I didn’t play. There’s kind of a difference. I didn’t know it was an album, but I recorded eight or nine songs just for myself. And then after the session, I listened back to it and I thought, you know, maybe this is something, that there’s a place for my style of playing that people—if they knew about it—would like and enjoy. It’s not something that is out there, all that much solo piano pop music, that’s not covers or jazz or classical. So I took it and I thought, I think there’s something here, and so I pursued that. I used the same approach as the jingle company because again I was conditioned to running a company where the product was the music. So I kind of skipped over a lot of the playing at weddings, playing at a bar piano, that kind of thing. I never did any of that; I skipped right to the recording. I had a mentality that was recording so it wasn’t as if all of a sudden, I started to learn how to record; I already had all that experience in it. So that’s how it began.
CV: What was it like to put out your first album out and make a shift in your career?
JB: What was interesting is that those demos that I had written that day are the first album. When I got signed, I said, ‘Well, when am I gonna start recording?’ They said, ‘Well you already did. Those demos you played for us is an album.’ And I said, ‘Are you sure? They were just noodling around.’ So it had an authenticity to it because I didn’t know I was doing it. I think kind of the naiveté of it is what made it good. But when I started at the record label, Advocacy, I thought it was so strange because I never had anybody, any guidance or mentorship. Even when I was in Cleveland, I was completely on my own. And so when the record label came along, and they would be like, ‘Okay, you’re going to fly to Atlanta, and the rep is going to meet you there, and she’s gonna drive you around to all record stores so you can meet all the people, sign some CDs, take pictures. And they’ll pick you up, and you’ll go to Atlanta, Birmingham, Chattanooga, Knoxville,’ you know, that kind of thing. And so I would be sitting in the car, and I would say, ‘Did you get the sales from the first week?’ And she would say, ‘I just got the sales. You sold 300 this week.’ And I was like, ‘How? Nobody knows who I am. What? I don’t understand.’ Even 300 was something I was shocked about. Like, how? Why? Who are those 300 people? I just thought it was strange. It is strange, if you think about it. I wasn’t performing live. I think at the time, they would have these little stations where you would listen to albums, or maybe there was a ‘Brand new in the Instrumental Piano Section’ or something. But I still thought it was shocking.
CV: Tell me about some standout moments in your career.
JB: I mean, like anything in life, you’re so busy doing it and striving for it and coming up with new ideas. At least in my case, I always wanted to grow, but also stay in the lane of what people expected, you know, to be a constant and not to vary who I really am. So it’s all about trying to amplify and learn while you’re serving up content to people. And one of the things that I didn’t realize was going to be such a part of the career was the songwriting with collaborations. So while performing is a highlight—playing in my hometown on the stage where I would see all people [I knew], playing with symphony orchestras, playing in Thailand and Korea—I always had that feeling every time that I had in the car with the 300 albums. It was like, ‘I’m in Thailand. How did this happen?’ even though you know how it happened. Like I know the trajectory of why the song “Valentine” became a huge hit around the world. So, you know, you can follow the path and how it did happen. But the highlights, I think a lot of them are the collaborations with people that I admired: Carly Simon, Kenny Loggins, Olivia Newton John. My first big tour after playing some small places, the co-bill with Olivia Newton John. And so when those things happened, I could tell that it was moving along. Casey Kasem and American Top 40 saying, ‘The number one song is Jim Brickman.’ You know, those were the highlights, things that I grew up admiring, or [working with] iconic people, like Donnie Osmond—as a guest on my tour, not me a guest on his tour—Kenny Rogers, Johnny Mathis.
CV: How did it feel to have those collaboration moments?
JB: What I think is interesting with an iconic artist, is at first, you have this pinch me moment, but then when the work starts, at least for me, I felt like I belonged there and I knew exactly what I wanted it to be. And it was collaborative as if they were any singer. Well, they are any singer; it’s just they’re famous. But I expected myself to be a little bit more nervous about that in a lot of those situations. Go over to Johnny Mathis’s house and teach him the song. Or write a song with Olivia Newton John at her house and hang out and have her fix me up on dates and things like that. I think the thing that I noticed the most about Olivia, Kenny Rogers, Carly Simon, Johnny Mathis, was that the bigger star and the more iconic, the nicer, the harder working, the perfection quality, was much more so than the up and comers or the medium level [musicians] with their career on the way. And I think it’s because they’ve seen it. They know the ups and downs. They understand. They’re older so they have more life experience, but they’re still so professional. And then on the other side of the glass, they’re in the studio, saying, ‘How was that Jim?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t care if we sang the phone book, I’m doing a duet with Johnny Mathis. He’s singing my song.’ Which is the other big thing about it, as opposed to doing a duet of like Silent Night or something where even though I’m playing and we’re recording together, it’s not the same as them performing my songs. The people that I admire and enjoy the most tend to be the people you would think would be untouchable or difficult or something like that. But the difficult ones are the 20- and 30-somethings.
CV: You’re in the position now where you’re the experienced collaborator. What do you bring to your sessions with younger artists?
JB: It doesn’t always work because everybody’s different, obviously, so some people want to absorb your knowledge or your experience and some people know everything and they don’t want to know what I have to say. But for the people who do, mostly what I like to share is be who you are, which is a life lesson too. It’s not just a music thing. Don’t try to be what you think you’re supposed to be, whatever that is, because it doesn’t exist. And so if you’re not successful being something fake then it’s really frustrating because you’re not even yourself. If it’s gonna not work, at least let it be who you are. At least you can try to do something with that. I just feel like a lot of performers, actors, actresses, musicians, say, ‘Well, I can play. I can do that.I can play the trumpet, too. And whatever you need me to do.’ And that’s not a thing, right? That’s just proficiency. It’s not authentic to who you are, and people respond when what you’re sharing is true and from your heart. T
he other thing is that if you’re going to decide to do this as a profession and not just for yourself, then the commitment is really to your fans and the audience to deliver them something not to just be, ‘Come look at how wonderful I am and what I’m doing in my little world. Come observe me performing my stuff.’ Like it’s hanging in a museum or something. You have to connect with the audience. When they come see you live, there’s got to be a relationship that you’re building where they get to know you. There’s a reason that they’re there: to be entertained. I never understand anybody that is in their little bubble and not thinking about that fact they can actually turn this into a business. And it is a business; it is not just going to go on the shelf for your grandkids as a ‘look at my art’. When you commit to doing it as a business, then you owe your customers, fans, the past of who you are and what you do. It’s about them, not you.
CV: Tell us about the new album.
JB: So I’ve done a ton of Christmas records. And I love playing with symphonies. First, again, it tends to be the country moments because soloing with symphonies and then having them play my songs, I mean the strings soaring and the beauty of symphony orchestras. I thought this was the year for a very celebratory uplifting, feeling in the world. It wasn’t the time for intimate bittersweet. Christmas is always emotional and I already have plenty of albums like that. So I just felt like it was a time to be triumphant and really celebratory, and I love the way my music sounds with the symphony. The other thing was, it was very challenging, which I felt like I needed. I think I was getting into this place where it just came so naturally that I wasn’t working that hard at it; it just kind of came. And so playing something like the Nutcracker is extremely challenging for somebody like me, because I didn’t write it. So you have to play to a certain extent, some of what’s written, otherwise, people don’t recognize it as the Nutcracker. And I’m doing the same thing for the live show, learning a lot of that. Many times in the past, I could just show up and it comes so naturally that could be really fun and entertaining and the playing would be great without me having to really practice because I’ve done it for so long. So I thought it was time to challenge myself not only for the live show, but also for the album.
CV: What’s ahead for the coming year?
JB: I’ve been spending a lot of time with a couple of things. One is more philanthropy for young musicians and students. I’m working with my alma mater, Cleveland Institute of Music, about developing a Business of Music program with them and more of a media training because so many students at school are in their academia bubble. And then they graduate, and they don’t know what to do, or they don’t understand how important that business is. You can be the most talented person in the world, but nobody hears it, because you have no way to feel like you’re gonna get yourself out there that. I do that, and I want to do that, because I didn’t have that and I know that it would have helped me so much to shape my career, if I had advocacy or I understood how much of a business it is.
I’m working on developing and producing more of a live stage show that maybe I’m not in and developing other artists. I love to discover young artists, though they don’t have to be young. I’m doing a lot of philanthropy with the Actors Fund, and we just did this big talent competition. But what made it unique was that you had to be over 40 to enter the competition because for obvious reasons the world skews to 20-year-olds. So I thought, gosh, it’s like a second chance and or an I always wanted to be that but life got in the way or I can’t audition for American Idol because I’m 50 years old or whatever the case may be. So I’m working on that project and a lot of little things like that. You know, of course, I’ll continue touring and trying to evolve the show, so that when I come back to Knoxville, the 20th time, people aren’t like, ‘Oh, I saw that already, bring me something that’s fresher. The pandemic gave me a lot of chance to think about the future.