Sunday 25 February 2018

A music maestro: the life of Brian Byrne

Navan man Brian Byrne is quietly carving out a reputation in LA as one of the great film composers, but his latest project, he tells our reporter, is all about Irish literary icon James Joyce

Collaboration: Byrne is working with a diverse range of singers for Goldenhair, which also includes vocals from US actress Glenn Close. Photo: @ Ronan melia photography
Collaboration: Byrne is working with a diverse range of singers for Goldenhair, which also includes vocals from US actress Glenn Close. Photo: @ Ronan melia photography
John Meagher

John Meagher

Brian Byrne is a great believer in the far-reaching potential of a chance meeting. The Golden Globe-nominated film composer has become one of Hollywood's most in-demand music men and it might not have happened had he not met Tom Petty's road manager in his home town of Navan, Co Meath, 15 years ago.

"We got talking and I told him about wanting to work on film soundtracks and he put me in touch with someone he knew and told me he could help me if I moved to LA. I was in my mid-20s and I thought this was an opportunity I would really regret if I turned it down, so I sold my car and I moved here."

And "here" - sunny Los Angeles - has been home to Byrne for most of his adult life. The contact that Petty's road manager passed on proved to be as good as his word, and shortly after crossing the Atlantic, Byrne was introduced to legendary music-makers Marilyn and Alan Bergman.

"They're songwriting royalty [the couple are in their eighties and nineties now] and really took me under their wing and helped to open doors," he recalls.

The fruits of a collaboration with the Bergmans wound up on a Barbra Streisand album a few years ago, but the endorsement from the industry veterans made people sit up and take notice of the young Irishman with the shock of long, curly hair.

"One of the things I've found - and I suppose this is true of life in general - is that one thing can lead to another and you just never know when that person you met back in the day could inspire you to try something new or meet someone else."

The Bergmans knew their way around Hollywood, and Byrne found himself on the soundtrack circuit. He's still in his early forties, and his current CV would surely have enthralled the young man looking for a break in Co Meath. The Internet Movie Database listing alone makes for impressive reading, but he has done so much more, too.

He was behind the music for Albert Nobbs, the Dublin-set historical drama starring Glenn Close and with a screenplay from John Banville - and his efforts were rewarded with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Song for 'Lay Your Head Down' which was sung beautifully by Sinéad O'Connor. Co-nominees included Elton John, Chris Cornell, Thomas Newman and eventual winner Madonna. More recently, he wrote the striking song ('The Cry Inside') that Kelly Clarkson sings at the end of Jim Sheridan's poorly received film version of Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture. "That came about at the very last moment," he says. "Kelly was heavily pregnant at the time but really had a connection with the song and we were able to turn it around quickly.

And, as an arranger, he has worked with everyone from Katy Perry to Bono, and there have been some wonderfully bizarre jobs, including the time he played piano for Liza Minnelli when she was covering Beyoncé's '(Single Ladies) Put a Ring on It'.

"I'm one of these people who likes being busy," he says by FaceTime video from his Californian home. "And there's something very appealing about doing very different projects and collaborating with a wide spectrum of people."

He had announced his startling talent while still in his early 20s back in Ireland and won an IFTA for his score on John Carney's sci-fi comedy drama Zonad. His is also the jazzy interpretation of The Late Late Show theme that has been running in the eight years his friend Ryan Tubridy has been host.

Byrne's schedule is intense. His latest project is an album called Goldenhair, which was inspired by the James Joyce poem of the same name and other verse in his Chamber Music collection.

It's an inspired work, featuring collaborations with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, and singers as diverse as Jack L, Declan O'Rourke, Kristina Train, Curtis Stigers and his hero, Kurt Elling. The recording also includes vocals from Glenn Close, whom he met on the set of Albert Nobbs.

"I stumbled across Joyce," he says. "It wasn't like I was a scholar. I had been looking for something to create or write that was in the public domain, so it was a very random encounter. I found his book, Chamber Music, and the title grabbed me - it was a generic title but I read through the poems and generally if something jumps out at me from the page, I'll write something straight away and that happened to me - there's such musicality to the writing.

"You can tell that he's hearing music in his head, the metre, even the imagery. They're almost Elizabethan in the way they're set - and while he's famous for his inventive language and stream-of-conscious approach, there's something very different about these poems."

Chamber Music remains the least well known and celebrated of Joyce's work and that was a quality that appealed to Byrne. "I liked the fact that when I mentioned it to people, they hadn't heard of it. I always like to go for the road less travelled.

"The fact that he was a frustrated singer intrigued me as well - he was jealous of [famed tenor] John McCormack, for instance. It's funny how many great writers are drawn to music. I worked with Roddy Doyle on a little children's play and his knowledge of music was encyclopaedic. It's the same with Joseph O'Connor [whom Byrne has also collaborated with]."

And it was O'Connor who encouraged him to truly explore the world of Joyce.

"He said, 'If you really want to get into him, start with Dubliners, so I did - and it's great."

But Byrne is honest enough to admit that, like with many readers, he has difficulties with the author's most famous book.

"I have Ulysses in my bathroom," he says, with a chuckle, "and I try every time - trust me, I do.

"It's not an easy book but when you dip into it, you're really taken by the writing. There's something about it that almost reminds me of a jazz musician, the improvisational nature of it, the throwing ideas on their heads. Even if you can't get through it all, it's very inspiring."

Goldenhair is released on Bloomsday, June 16

Culture shot

Jackson Browne

Vicar Street, Dublin, June 12

The iconic tunesmith - a veteran of the 1970s Laurel Canyon scene, whose number included Carole King, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell - kicks off a European summer tour with four Dublin dates.

Over the course of his half-century long career, Browne has been comparatively prolific, but his most significant work dates from the early 1970s. His self-titled debut from 1972 remains a landmark singer-songwriter release and he continues to draw from it today.

The Californian's run at Vicar Street also includes June 13, 15 and 16.

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