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'Simple' man: Jim Brickman
by Gregg Shapiro

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All sorts of movies, television shows and CDs have been pulled from release because there are problems regarding subject matter in light of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. One album, released in late September, sounds like an antidote for the times. Jim Brickman's Simple Things ( Windham Hill/BMG ) , with piano solo tracks such as "The Promise," "Catching Twilight," "Night Rain," "Devotion," and "Serenade," act as a balm for our wounded spirits. The title track, co-written by Beth Nielsen Chapman, and sung by Rebecca Lynn Howard, could potentially become an anthem of comfort.

Gregg Shapiro: After 1994's appropriately titled No Words disc, you began to include vocalists on your albums. Can you say something about this decision?

Jim Brickman: I've always been a songwriter first. I think that a lot of people think that because I play the piano that I'm ( just a ) pianist. Of course, I am, but I've always been a songwriter who plays the piano more than a pianist who writes songs. It seems like a strange distinction, but because of my background in jingles and advertising, I was used to writing words and music and always had this secret desire to write hit songs for other people...never dreaming that the hit songs would be sung by other people on my albums.

GS: Carly Simon, Olivia Newton-John and Donny Osmond are some of the vocalists with whom you've worked. I always think of those three as 1970s icons. Do you have a special affinity for the artists of that period?

JB: Yes, yes. I really do. I think that when you grow up in an era and you want to become a musician there are always people in your world that you admire. You grow up with them as leaders in the field that you're interested in. Because of that, I always wanted to work with people that I admire. I sort of have a criteria for the collaborations that I do. Either it's people that I really admire and always have wanted to work with. Or it's newcomers that my audience may not have heard of who I think are really talented and should be heard.

GS: You have the opportunity to expose these new artists to an audience that they might not have otherwise reached.

JB: Right. And also, in many ways, I pick those people not only to expose them to the audience, but also because they're the best choice to convey the message of the song to the audience. If I think that they are, it doesn't really matter to me whether they're celebrated or not.

GS: You've been recording for Windham Hill Records for almost eight years. Why have you stayed at that label for so long?

JB: Other than the fact that I have a contract, you mean ( laughs ) ? I think I came in at a time when I was still thought of as core Windham Hill...pianists like George Winston and the quality instrumentalists. I also represented the ability to branch out a little bit from that, to go beyond the cliché thinking of new-age piano. I think they were very helpful in guiding me and still have a really wonderful vision for my career. I'm very fortunate I have them.

GS: When you think about other artists on the label, such as Tuck and Patti, who aren't traditional Windham Hill straddle both worlds with your instrumental piano work and the vocals, in the same way that they do.

JB: Yeah. A lot of times you're not sure what direction your career will take. You know what you want do, but they also have their opinions about what they think you should do. That's an interesting dynamic.

GS: Please say a few words about the companion book that goes with your CD.

JB: The book came out of the same concept as the CD. I was going through this time in my life where my whole life was chaotic. I was constantly on my cell phone, checking my e-mail. I was attached to the e-world. I know everybody is to a certain extent. But I had to start making rules for myself, ( such as ) turning off the cell phone when having lunch with someone. Nothing is that's just not. Especially when thinking about what is really important in life. So much of my music is poignant to people. They find it a comfort in certain situations or as romance. I felt like I wanted to give people a sense of what I thought, outside of my music. Because it's primarily instrumental music, how can I really share my point of view? ( The book ) was a good way for me to take my point of view and share a little bit of who I am and a little bit of my philosophy about life in sort of an irreverent, offhanded way. It's not a new-agey, tree-hugging type of form. ... I think revealing, to a certain extent.

GS: You said people were seeking comfort from your music, yet it didn't sound as if you were comfortable.

JB: ( Laughs ) Isn't that funny? That's what I mean. That's exactly what I mean, because the thinking would be that I would be exactly like my music. To a certain extent, I am, obviously, because it does come from me and it's part of me. It's not contrived or made up.

GS: Simple Things, your new album is being released at a time when people are going to be craving simpler things. Can you please tell me about how you will be responding, through your in-store and live performances, to the national tragedy?

JB: Absolutely. I have a number of different feelings about it, of course. My first is to say that I feel that music is such a healing thing. My music has always had an emotional connection with people. ... Even if it makes them think or lets them escape or whatever, it's a little part that I can do to share. ... I believe everybody has to grieve in their own way. What I'm choosing to do in my concerts is to address it, but not make the whole evening about that. ... You have to be respectful of it, you have to acknowledge it. I've played "God Bless America," primarily because in the way that I play, I don't think it comes off as self-indulgent. ... Simple Things is so apropos to this situation. It's part of what I was trying to say in the first place, which is "Let's get our priorities back together again." ... Now it does take on a different meaning when people see the book.

GS: I've been listening to Beth Nielsen Chapman for years and I got to interview her when Sand And Water came out.

JB: Oh, gosh. Speaking of a song that's right for right now.

GS: You co-wrote the title track, Simple Things, with her. What was that like?

JB: I get an incredible charge out of working with talented people. There are certain people in this world that you meet that you know are supposed to be doing what they're doing. The minute I came up with the idea for the song called "Simple Things," she was the first person I wanted to write with. I choose different collaborators based on what I'm trying to say with a different message. She had lost her husband a few years ago. She was coming out of her last day of chemotherapy, for breast cancer, when we wrote the song. She hadn't written in seven months. She said, "What a great song to write for my song after chemo, because it's saying look at the world around you. Look at what this is and what we all have." When you use a metaphor in a song like she wrote, "After all the clouds go by/The simple things remain," you want to burst out crying. It's not cliché. It's poignant and beautiful.

GS: Did you go to Nashville?

JB: Yes. I was playing in Cleveland, my hometown, on New Year's Eve. I went to Nashville. I walked in and we did the songwriter thing...hang out, talk about life. She's also very good friends with Olivia Newton-John, that's part of how I knew her. When I write a song I always talk concept first. I said, "Here's my thought Beth. It's a song called 'Simple Things,' and then I sang my version of awful lyrics ( laughs ) . ... We sat down ( to work ) and it's like torture for the first hour. ... Because you're creating something out of nothing. It doesn't exist. There's no right or wrong, good or bad. What's the barometer of whether it's good or not? I played the chorus idea that I had and then we started toiling. ...

GS: Are you aware of a gay following for your music and, if so, what do you think it is about your work that speaks to the gay community?

JB: What I love about my audience, in general, is that it's such a diverse group of people. I have gay men, I have lesbians, I have Black, white, old, young. A lot of Asian population on the West Coast. Specific to the gay community, I think the simplicity of the melody is the emotional connection. I hope to think so. Not to make a gross generalization and say that the gay audience is only interested in melodic love songs or something. That's ridiculous. I just think that people understand what I'm trying to say. There's an understanding and a communication happening there that may be subtle. That's part of the reason I play songs that I love. "The Rainbow Connection," or things like that. It's a message to everybody to look around the audience and look at who you're sitting next to and isn't it cool that two guys can come to my concert and hold hands. I think that's the coolest thing in the world. Because of my different collaborations, there is no category. That's another thing about the gay and lesbian community...there's an understanding of not being pigeonholed and typecast. There's an understanding of trying to break the rules a little bit and a freedom about that that's appreciated.

GS: Would you ever consider working with remixers on dance-club oriented versions of any of your songs?

JB: I would love to. I've never been approached by anybody. ... We talked about doing one with the Olivia ( Newton-John ) version of "Valentine." I appreciate that impetus for doing it. I think it would be really cool.

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