When I first discovered Lyle Brewer it came from a random video that plopped in from front of me via the Boston Globe. It was a version of “Stay a While” from his 2015 release Juno but played on his (beautiful) Gretsch Country Gentlemen. At that time, I was just wrapping up my second semester at Berklee College of Music and was absolutely addicted to this video. The composition, space and pure clarity of the song is everything I’ve come to love about solo guitar, but I had no idea where I could find more music from this guy.
A couple weeks later at my guitar evaluation, I look up and am starring right at Brewer himself. Unbeknownst to me, he had recently been hired by Berklee. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity to take one of his classes and started tracking his album releases.
Brewer’s 2018 full length album, Graphics, is in the same vein as his previous projects, but with a few particular changes…
Fretboard Journal: Side by side, how did these two albums differ in the writing/recording process?
Lyle Brewer: The writing process for Juno and Graphics were completely different. Juno was actually recorded three times!
I tracked the whole record on a hollowbody electric first. I wasn’t happy with it and decided to get a nylon string strictly for that project. At the time I was an exclusively an electric player and now I mostly play nylon string. I re-tracked it on nylon, then re-tracked it once more. I agonized over all the song choices, the order, and the keys of pieces. I put a ton of thought and energy into the conception of Juno and had known for a long time what I wanted. I had really specific expectations and it took a while to meet them. The writing was also way different. Juno was written within the structure of most vocal pieces: Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus… only as instrumentals. I was trying to get the emotional effect of my favorite writers like Elliott Smith and Joni Mitchell but attain it without words. I feel that if you’re going to use diatonic harmony and standard song structure as an instrumentalist, your melodic content needs to be really strong. It was a way of putting myself to the test as a songwriter.
Graphics was the very different. I began writing these songs earlier this year. I’ve been studying classical guitar since 2016 and was recently working through some etudes by Heitor Villa Lobos and Fernando Sor. Many of these studies are short and use one simple concept such as an arpeggio, specific harmony, a melodic shape or rhythm as the mechanism for the piece. I wrote a few simple studies, one based on the interval of the fifth, where ninety percent of the piece is harmonized in fifths. Another one is based on a Ted Greene harmonic idea of modulation.
Before long, I had assembled fifteen of them and made plans to record. I decided to just do one day of tracking. To generate money for the session I sold four-CD packs of my existing material. In the past, I’ve done crowdsourcing campaigns but this time I wanted to do it all myself. When we tracked I found the recording itself to be very stress-free. The pieces are all between ninety seconds and two minutes long and are not nearly as physically demanding as other records I’ve done. I think I was also more patient with pre-production. This is my seventh solo record and I have a better understanding of how I want my music to sound and how to attain it.
FJ: Tell me about your recent dive into the classical world. How did you make that jump in 2016?
LB: I got into the classical guitar after Juno came out. I learned the 4th Lute Suite by Bach off of a John Williams album. I decided to learn it by ear and then figure out the technique later. In retrospect I could’ve been more methodical in how I went about it, but it seemed like a good idea at the time [laughs]. I then learned the G Major Cello Suite also by ear and played that with a flat pick. All of the work came about from loving the music. I became obsessed with all the great classical players like Julian Bream and Segovia and I took classical lessons as part of a Berklee Faculty Grant. I recorded the two Bach suites last year. It was an eye opening experience and completely changed how I view technique and musicality overall. I’ve been working on learning the standard repertoire, just for my own enjoyment. I’m not sure I’ll end up playing the pieces live but I love learning them.
FB: What gear did you end up using for this album?
LB: I used my Kohno 15 classical guitar. It’s from 1977 and is an incredible instrument. It projects well and has a variety of tones I can access, Jason Vieaux describes his Kohno as flexible, meaning that whatever you ask the instrument to do, it can do. That’s exactly how I feel about mine. I also don’t play very hard and the extra volume and sustain prevents me from having to fight the guitar for sound. We used a Neumann U67 with some reverb and that’s about it. There are a couple of moments on the record when you can hear reverse guitar, a fade in/out or the odd sound effect. Those edits all came from engineer Pat DiCenso on the fly.
FB: What made you decide to flow this album through one continuous track?
LB: The decision to string the pieces together was one I thought about for a while. I really wanted to make an album and not a collection of studies. It has been done on an extremely high level by Villa Lobos, Sor, Carcassi, Leo Brouwer, not to mention the countless pieces by Bach, Bartok and Paganini for other classical instruments. I think one of my strengths is understanding the pacing of an album and how to make the record feel like an experience for the listener. I’ve put a lot of time and energy into making my previous albums cohesive pieces of music. I thought I would get closer to that experience by sequencing the pieces into one large piece. Over the years, I’ve also learned to trust my instincts. I want a big piece of music that people will listen to all the way through. I’d like them to shut out the world for 26 minutes and spend the time immersed in music. I think that’s becoming harder and harder to do these days and I feel it for sure. It’s not easy to disengage from technology for that long to read or listen to music but I think the longer track will encourage it. Ideally I’d want the listener to be lost in the record the same way I am while I’m playing. I’ve wanted to do something like this for a while now and I feel that the time is right.
FB: Currently you’re only offering this on USB drives, what made you take that leap?
LB: I’m psyched about the USB drives, I think it makes a lot of sense for me. It gets harder each year to sell CDs and as a single parent/unsigned-musician I can’t afford the $3500 vinyl price tag. So, I’m ordering drives that will include a vinyl sized print of album artwork to go with it. Everybody streams but everyone also likes some kind of physical copy. This is generating enthusiasm among my fanbase and it’s also something that I can afford. That being said, I will put the album on Spotify. I want people to hear what I do and to be able to support it if they choose to. I’m in a unique position because from start to finish this record was made for under a grand and funded by older album sales. Since I don’t have thousands of dollars of overhead or other band members to support I’m able to make it work. I’m really fortunate to have such a supportive group of fans and peers and I feel that this is one of my strongest albums to date. As long as I can keep writing and recording I’ll be happy.
FB: Are you still teaching at Berklee? Any advice for a student wanting to go down the path of the solo musician?
LB: I’m still at Berklee, entering my fourth year. I think being a solo musician is a good test of your musicianship. There’s nowhere to hide when you play solo, you can’t blend into a group or take a back seat for a few songs. It’s demanding and difficult and can be pretty lonely. But it’s also freeing and more financially viable for touring and recording. My advice for a solo artist would be to try to have a clear idea of what you want artistically and work towards that. Play the music that you love and that moves you. That’s the most important thing to me.
FB: What has made the solo guitar scene so appealing to you?
LB: The short answer is that I’m not really in the solo guitar scene. There are a few different solo guitar camps – fingerstyle, jazz and classical – and I don’t belong to one specifically. Most of my shows are in the folk music scene, they are very welcoming and appreciate that I’m a songwriter just like other artists, I just don’t use lyrics. I think my preference for this particular audience comes from trying not to be a “guitaristic” player, rather a writer who happens to play guitar. However I do feel that I belong to a group of musicians who I attended New England Conservatory with, they mostly live in New York. Bands like Cuddle Magic, Lake Street Dive and the Superpowers have been my friends for over ten years and I’m really close with all of them. My favorite instrumentalists, and in my opinion the two best guitarists and writers in the country are Ryan Dugre and Will Graefe. Both of the them are true artists, they’re the ones who set the bar high artistically and whose opinions I trust. I feel most connected with my peers and the artists who I’ve grown up with and I get a lot of inspiration from their music and friendship.
FB: Anybody who follows you on social media can see you’re constantly creating. Any upcoming projects?
LB: Yes. I am in the middle of a record with Kristin Slipp, a great vocalist based in New York. She has a few bands, Mmeadows and Cuddle Magic. She’s also in The Dirty Projectors on vocals and playing keyboards. Kristin is taking ten new songs of mine and turning them into vocal pieces. She arranges my instrumental songs for multiple voices and records each one individually out of her home studio. It basically ends up sounding like a Kristin Slipp choir, which is unbelievably badass. What I like most about this project is that I can give Kristin a piece of music and then leave her alone to record it. She does all of the production, arranging and engineering. Being able to trust someone like that with your music is very liberating, the album will be out by early next year.
I’m always writing new songs and concocting ideas. Over the last few weeks, I’ve written a handful of melodies that are more chromatic than anything I’ve ever done. I’m not sure what that means but I’ve learned to not overthink projects. I just do my best to stay engaged and inspired. My friend Peter Mulvey said recently “if you want to be interesting you have to be interested” and that’s how I think about my music.
Graphics is available now on Spotify but you can also catch Lyle all around the Northeast, in the classroom, through Patreon, or doing small strings of shows. He is having two album release shows in early August 2018 at Club Passim in Boston and Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn.