An interview with Bay Area singer/songwriter Gentry Bronson
Singer/songwriter Gentry Bronson (http://www.gentrybronson.com) is almost famous in Europe. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Bronson is based in San Francisco, where more than a decade’s worth of gigging has enabled him to corral a small following but nothing compared to what he can pull in overseas. It’s the sadly familiar tale of the artist who is more popular beyond the confines of home, giving new context to Gang of Four’s observation, “At he feels like a tourist.”
The odd thing is that there’s nothing particularly European about Bronson’s music. In fact, Bronson’s recent self-titled EP drew comparisons to John Mellencamp, Don McLean, and Simon & Garfunkel. Not exactly Echo & the Bunnymen territory, right? Bronson’s last two releases – the aforementioned EP and the full-length No War from 2006 – are heartfelt, filler-free roots-rock efforts characterized by engaging narratives, hummable melodies, and eclectic stylistic detours. He isn’t an easy artist to categorize, which makes him refreshing to jaded, discriminating ears but probably confusing to record-label suits.
Unlike many other male solo acts, Bronson isn’t afraid to express his sense of humor as well. “Wild Women” is Bronson’s cheeky homage to liberated girls. On the surface, the song is witty and lighthearted, but there is a definite feminist perspective behind it all. The video (embedded below) is quite wonderful, too.
An admirer of his work and disappointed that not many people are aware of him – at least stateside – I decided to make Bronson the subject of an interview. Hopefully, those of you reading this will take the time to check out this man’s work.
What was the biggest contributing factor in you becoming a musician?
Originally I had no intention of becoming a musician. I started playing the piano when I was five-years-old because I liked making up stories on my grandparents’ piano. Those were my little soundtracks, where the good characters were white keys and the bad characters black keys. Later, when I was taking lessons and competing in piano competitions, people would say things like, “When you grow up and you’re a pianist, where do you want to play?” and I’d think, ‘I don’t want to play anywhere, I want to be a professional soccer player.” But I got the bug when I was 15, and I was over at some friends’ house and they were all playing Replacements covers, and they started this punk-rock improv and handed me the microphone, and I started singing. The song was called “The Big Green Beast From Below.” I think it’s a hit in Yakutsk.
How old were you when you decided to enter the musical field?
I was really always trying to pry my way into the music world from the age of 15 onward, but I didn’t understand the concept of being a music professional and making it a career until I was in my late 20s. I suddenly said to myself, I want to be a musician, and that meant more than creating art or getting girls or partying or poetry or whatever it was I had in my head previously. But I never lost sight of wanting to do something original and outside the norm. Following trends to make a living was never my plan.
How have your views on music changed at this stage in your life now compared to when you were just starting out?
There’s a difference between enjoying music as a listener and making music your career. I see a music career as a marathon and not as a flash of supernatural light. There are only so many Tom Wait, Bruce Springsteens, and Lady Gagas out there. That is such a small percentage of what you can do. But it takes patience and continuous drive, not a huge push of fierce energy where you’ll do anything to get what you want. It seems cliché, but really it’s all about just enjoying the ride.
Performing in front of a crowd, your debut: Butterflies or bold self-confidence?
My performing debut was at my piano teacher’s house in Saint Joseph, Minnesota for a piano recital. I don’t remember caring one way or another. But when I really remember getting butterflies was the first time I played at Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis when I was about 10-years-old. I was backstage and all I wanted to do was go to the bathroom because I was so nervous. I don’t even remember playing; I just remember needing to pee.
Are you creating the kind of music that you’ve always loved or is it a simple matter of your voice being the most suitable for this style?
Every album I do is usually of a different style than the last. This schizophrenia is why I’m so big in Yakutsk. If I were able to sing opera, would I do what I do? I don’t know, maybe. Lately, I’ve been really into instrumental music, and I’d like to do more of that. But everything I release is a reflection of where I am internally.
Describe your songwriting process. Lyrics or music first?
Oh man! There’s no formula. Sometimes I sit at the piano and everything comes out at once. I come up with chord progressions all the time and then just forget them. I came up with one at midnight last night, and I’m not even sure if I remember it now. A lot of my songs from the early Night Watchmen days came from notebooks and when we jammed as a band; I would sing lyrics from the notebooks to see what fit. These days, I don’t jam with a band. I bring songs already written and worked out – at least the core skeleton of the song – and then the musicians add their parts using their own styles. I think I want to sit in a cave somewhere and just write lyrics for awhile though. Call the album Anasazi Idiot or something.
You’ve done shows in Europe. How did that come about? How were you able to acquire a following overseas?
I used to be a DJ in Prague, and through the DJ world I met my European representative and booking agent, Sacco Koster. Sacco makes it all happen. I couldn’t do what I do in Europe without him. And I’ve developed a following there in the same way that an artist does in the U.S. I love touring in Europe. I love the people, the food, the drink, the coffee, the beauty. And I love how they treat artists. The U.S. needs to figure out how to treat artists better. European artists can get grants to tour and make albums. And those grants don’t go to just children’s choirs and symphonies. They go to artists of all styles. And also to venues.