Guitarist Nili Brosh | Transcript
I interviewed guitarist Nili Brosh. We discussed:
Her two new singles "Song For Hope" and "Lavender Mountains"
The challenge of playing emotively
Writing songs by vocalizing the guitar parts
Her custom Ibanez that she designed
Working with Danny Elfman
Playing a guitar that shoots fire
Nili Brosh's website: https://www.nilibrosh.com/
Cris Cohen: I want to talk about the two new singles that you have, “Song For Hope” and “Lavender Mountains.” The press materials mentioned that you're supposed to play them in a particular order and that they are connected. Are these going to be part of an album, or is the feeling that these really need to just stand on their own?
Nili Brosh: Well, both. They will be part of a bigger story and still meant to be played in sequence, with “Song For Hope” being first. Once the two are out, I think it will be a little bit clearer as to how they're a pretty clear build from one to the next.
Cris Cohen: It is interesting being able to listen to them back-to-back and hear how they emotionally start very cautious. Cautious optimism, I guess I would say. And then it builds from there. With “Song For Hope” in particular, part of the style and part of the tone reminded me a lot of Eddie Van Halen's "316." I'm curious if that or his particular style was an influence.
Nili Brosh: It's interesting bringing that into the conversation as it pertains to these songs, because obviously Eddie is such a huge influence on my playing. But this is not one of those instances – at least not in a conscious way.
I feel like some of the stuff that I've written leading up to this, not that I would necessarily use the word “cinematic,” but some of the more worldly things on my last album, “Spectrum,” have this romantic vibe to them. And so that was kind of the next thing in that journey to me. And it became clear that it needed to be kind of a reverby, solo-guitar tune, washy, all that.
But actually, some of the style of that kind of tone came from Devin Townsend and his “Casualties of Cool” stuff. If I'm drawing a more direct, sonic influence. Obviously it's a completely different body of work.
Cris Cohen: The other aspect is that both you and Eddie Van Halen obviously have the chops and play some very intense material. And yet “Song For Hope” is so… tender. It's sweet. And so to me, it's fascinating when someone, who can go 90 miles an hour, specifically pulls back. There's still that intention and emotion to it, but it's at a much slower pace. How long does it take to really learn how to do that?
Nili Brosh: What's really interesting about that, at least in my development or however you want to call it, is that it's easier for me to compose these, but harder to play in a lot of ways. Because to really emote the way that I hear it in my head, or the way that I think it should be played, is a much more challenging thing to do on the guitar than to shred. Or at least to me.
And it's not necessarily playing slowly, although that can be challenging too. But just learning how to pace, especially a solo guitar tune. You have to really be clear about the composition for it to convey, because you don't have anything else to go on. There are no transitions anywhere else. You don't have a drum fill to indicate that the next section is coming. You have to really be the storyteller on that. So just producing it and playing it emotively is the thing that I think actually takes me the longest.
Cris Cohen: And speaking of creation, I read that you sometimes, as part of your songwriting process, sing these raw versions into your voice memo app. And I've heard of other songwriters doing that, but primarily with lyrics. What's the biggest challenge in bringing that to life, bringing those voice memos to life on the guitar?
Nili Brosh: That's a really good question. A lot of times, doing it in the voice memo sense is just a way of jotting it down. And I already have an idea for what I think the instrumentation should be. And that's regardless of whether it is going to end up being played on the guitar. Although many times it is. Let's be honest. But it doesn't have to be.
And some of the voice memos are not voice. For example, I just happened to come across the first voice memo that I did for “Song For Hope.” It was just a very early version, played on guitar, unplugged.
Again, it's just a means of taking notes. So it's not always like that. But I find that it's a very good preliminary test of how singable – for lack of a better word – your stuff's going to be. So it's actually a really good thing, I think, for a guitarist to write away from the instrument as much as possible. Because if you can sing it, that's already a really good start.
Cris Cohen: I totally get that. And I've referred to this before, but I once saw a piece where it was Brad Paisley and John Mayer talking. They were talking about guitarist influences that they have in common, one of which was Eric Clapton. I think it was Brad Paisley who said, “Because you could sing his guitar parts.” And even non-guitar players end up singing them.
Nili Brosh: Exactly.
Cris Cohen: And especially with “Lavender Mountains,” it's one of those songs where it's like, “I swear there are lyrics here.” I feel like I can almost hear them. And again, that chorus especially is as catchy as any lyric combination.
Nili Brosh: Oh, thank you so much. That's the biggest, the kindest thing you could say to me, so thank you.
Cris Cohen: Sure. And it plays in your head. And actually a while back... Do you know of Jake Shimabukuru?
Nili Brosh: Rings a bell
Cris Cohen: Ukulele player. Basically, if Jimi Hendrix played the ukulele, he would be Jake.
Nili Brosh: Cool
Cris Cohen: Yeah. The two of you would be fantastic together.
And he writes instrumentals, but he always has lyrics going in his mind. He said no one will ever hear them. He said, “Because I can't sing.”
And I'm wondering if that's the case with you. Do you have lyrics that go through your mind with your instrumentals?
Nili Brosh: Sometimes. Not every time. I have had moments where I've considered actually working that into the track in some ways.
I haven't really tried to do that on purpose for any reason. It's more like you really do have to think like a singer. But I've been glad that I have never been forced to write lyrics. Because I never felt like that's where my strong suit would be.
So, it's kind of my way of saying, "Okay, I'm glad I'm not forced to do that, but I can still hopefully convey it with the music."
Cris Cohen: Oh, definitely.
There's a great video out there – I believe it's even on your YouTube channel – of you trading licks with Steve Vai.
It's like a duet, the two of you singing back and forth, even though there are no words being spoken.
I also read an interview, where you were talking about “Lavender Mountains,” and you said, this is “my aural representation of the mountains that surround you in the Las Vegas area."
So basically, it's like you're painting with notes. And I'm wondering, at what point do you feel you developed the musical vocabulary vast enough to do something like that?
Nili Brosh: Well, I guess in that particular instance – and this is what I hope for every time – but that melody really came to my head. I wrote it in my head. I heard it.
And the reason that I strive for that is because I feel like it's the most honest thought. It's like, chances are, if that's where it came from, that's really what you thought of. I wasn't distracted by the instrument or by hand shapes. It's just… you really have to think with your ears.
But I feel like it took years to get to the point where what I hear in my head is clear enough to put down and to actually paint.
It's developing that skill of, “I'm hearing something and I'm reaching for it.” And in the beginning, in the early stages, it would just be really foggy. I would be able to grab onto just maybe a couple of notes and then have to fish my way through the rest of it for a long time. Trial and error on the instrument until the rest of it figured its way out and made sense. And then you'd have to test. “Is that really what I meant?”
So it was a lot of working on that until the picture just started becoming a little bit clearer every time. And now when I hear something in my head, I usually hear a lot more of the entire picture, or at the very least, just the entire melody or something to grab onto with the suggestion of what the chords should be… enough to go by. I think that's the biggest thing.
But it feels like a skill of its own. It's like it had to be polished and worked on specifically to make it mentally easier to see what's going on.
Cris Cohen: Have you ever had a lot of trouble trying to find where that specific note would be on the guitar?
Nili Brosh: Not if I could hear it clearly enough. Because that's the thing I'd probably worked on more than anything in my life: Listening to something and figuring out how to play it on the guitar. So if it's a strong enough sense of what I'm listening for, that part is not the issue.
It's more, can I hear what I really want? That's the part that drives me crazy, when you're thinking it's the decision you want, and then you play it back and you're just like, “I'm not really sure that's what I'm reaching for.” That kind of fogginess is a lot more of a struggle than just finding the right notes.
Cris Cohen: I came across this other interview you did where you mentioned a term I've never heard before, along the lines of songwriting and painting these pictures. "Implied harmony." And it sounds fantastic, but I don't know what you mean by that.
Nili Brosh: What that means is, if I hear a melody, obviously if you were to sing what you heard, you can only sing one note at a time. So you can hear what the chords are kind of "supposed to be." And I use air quotes because there are all kinds of ways to mess with that and make it something fancier or whatever.
But there's usually a suggested set of chords that's going to go with whatever melody you're hearing. It's just that you can't sing that back with one voice. Whether or not you're hearing that, it's pretty much there. So when you go to whatever instrument, then you can, kind of by ear, just figure it out. “With this melody that I'm hearing, here are the chords that go along with it.”
Or you grab a guitar. You've seen singers kind of strum along to find the chords that go along to the melody that they were singing or writing. That's what the suggested harmony is. It's just the set of chords that's kind of meant to go along with that melody.
Cris Cohen: And along the lines of finding your sound or your ideal sound, you now play a custom Ibanez that you designed. What aspects did you put into that that you were not finding elsewhere in other guitars?
Nili Brosh: Only a few of the specs were things that I wasn't really finding. The biggest thing was the pickup configuration of what's called a Fat Strat. So having the Humbucker single-single is something that… I mean, there have been Ibanez RGs that had that in the past. But it's not something that's been around in the last few years at least. That was, to me, the thing that was missing from my yellow 550 that I felt was more versatile to me than people would've thought.
It worked in a lot of situations and it felt like I could make it happen for a lot of different things that I needed. And so, a lot of the specs in my custom guitar are kind of built on that, but with a few of those changes. So the pickup configuration was a big one for sure.
Cris Cohen: And watching videos of you, there's a dichotomy... well, there's a dichotomy to everyone... but there's a dichotomy to you in that, here, now, talking, you're this mellow, calm person. But then the minute you start to play, you get very expressive in your face and you can see all the emotion.
Does expressing that emotion help you convey what you want on the guitar better? Or is that more you are being affected by the music?
Nili Brosh: I think it's the latter. I guess it's hard to say what's the chicken and what's the egg. But I will say that I don't notice that I'm doing all the rest of it.
It's funny. You're not the only person that's said it in that kind of way before.
I just really think, when I'm playing, every note counts. I really feel like every second has everything is invested into it. So I guess it is as a result.
But it does take up a lot of energy, which is why maybe I'm kind of slugging around in the rest of my life. <laughs>
Cris Cohen: In some ways it makes more sense than the people I've seen who are very stoic, even though their hands are going a mile a minute and such. I feel like it becomes part of – for lack of a better term – the show.
In a very different style, BB King, when he played, there was so much in his face that was happening and expressing. It just helped convey… “Okay, I believe that this person feels what they're playing.” Bad term, but it sells it more to me…
Nili Brosh: No, nothing wrong with that. I mean, I was actually going to use the exact same term. And I think you're right.
And maybe part of what helps – I would hope – is that I'm not really trying to sell you anything. It's so involuntary. I wouldn't be able to stop it if I wanted. Or I would have to try really hard. I would just have to really concentrate on "Do not move your face while you're playing guitar." Nobody wants that. I'd rather just have it completely uncontrolled and you're going to get what you're going to get. But if it sells it, then great. I'm not trying to convince you of that. I guess it really is just like, I love music, man.
Cris Cohen: And I think that's the cool part, when it seems like the musician might be even more into this than you are. There's something fun about that.
Nili Brosh: Yeah, I agree. It's like, the people that are most fun to watch live are the ones where you feel like, man, they love music so much. And just the joy.
Cris Cohen: Yeah. And it doesn't come across as fake or performative. It's like, “She would be this way, even if none of us were here in this room.” It makes it a little extra special and there's a genuineness about it.
Nili Brosh: Well, thank you. You are probably, right. I'm sure it does look like that. When no one's watching it, it's exactly the same.
Cris Cohen: Switching gears a little bit… I currently live in North Carolina, but I grew up in the Los Angeles area in the 80s. As a result, when I was growing up, Oingo Boingo was one of the biggest bands that there was. And I was shocked to find out that they were not as big in the rest of the world as they were in California. In fact, when your publicist sent me your information, I was like, "Oh my God. The night before I was just introducing them to some friends who had never heard of Oingo Boingo.”
Nili Brosh: Oh, wow.
Cris Cohen: The husband of the couple is from England, and I guess they never really made it over there. I'm like, "No, trust me. This is one of the best bands to come out of Los Angeles." And so, the fact that you've been playing with Danny Elfman, I'm curious, how has that influenced you as a musician?
Nili Brosh: I think a lot of it is yet to be... Because it's really over the last year that we've gotten to play all the music that we were working on and take it to the stage.
But I think one big thing that I've noticed from the beginning of working with him and working on the album, "Big Mess," that had a lot of guitar parts played by a lot of different people, is just the way that he arranges guitar parts is very him. It's not the same way that your average rock guitar player would arrange a song or a part.
And for me, who always grew up trying to play as many things as one person at one time as possible, just the idea of splitting apart a certain way, not because you can't all play it at once, but just because he sees it as two different things, is just something that I would not have ever thought of. But it's very him. It's all the little things that make him him. And all those Elfmanisms that you hear in all the rest of his music. It's just the way that he would think about it with a guitar in his hands. And again, it's so different than any other guitar player that I probably ever worked with.
So just thinking differently, I'm sure is just going to have… I bet it already has, but I can't pinpoint it.
I'm trying to learn and soak up as much as I can whenever I'm around him.
Cris Cohen: It's also fascinating because your own solo work, as you've said, has become more cinematic in some of its aspects. And so, do you have a shorthand way of communicating with someone like that, who actually creates these massive film soundtracks?
Nili Brosh: What's always been amazing to me is that, as luck would have it, because he comes from the rock and roll world way of doing things, he doesn't want to be reading. His preferred way of working is doing everything by ear. And that's the same for me.
I think maybe that is a big part of why we work well together, because we'd both rather be like, "Oh, do you mean this? (plays something on the guitar) Cool." We communicate so much just like two guitar players. So that makes it easy and comfortable and not an intimidating situation.
Cris Cohen: And then speaking of theatrical, you've done a lot of work with Cirque du Soleil and their Michael Jackson show in particular. Watching clips of that, I just have to wonder, what was it like the first time you had to play a guitar that had fire shooting out of it at the same time? Because that's got to be a little intense.
Nili Brosh: Well, it is intense. But luckily, they train you for it. The first few times you have the pyro training, as we call it – one of the coolest terms there ever will be probably – you don't play the stuff first.
Honestly, by the time you let the pyro go, you're at the end of the solo, so you're only playing the trill buildup lick at the end, the ascending lick. And by then, you're standing in one place. A lot of it is the positioning and the aiming. And then once it's going, it's not that close to you. You're aiming somewhere and everybody's trained to be out of the way. If it fires, it's because everything is working.
You have a team of people that are watching over you and making sure that it doesn't fire if absolutely anything is just slightly wrong. And actually, that's what makes me more nervous is if it didn't fire. You know something happened, and then you are kind of walking around with a loaded weapon.
That's the part that makes me nervous. Before I fire it, I have to perform with the guitar pointing up as much as possible. Just out of safety. It's not going to go off, but don't point it at the audience. There are certain things that are very obvious.
It's so seldom that it doesn't fire. And we have contingency plans for everything. But when they train you for it, you're not really playing at the same time. You get used to the whole thing. You choreograph the entire move. I mean, it becomes automatic like everything else.
I mean, it should be a sobering thing, right? It's still a 30 foot arc of fire. But there's so much safety built around it.
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