Every Day, I Try to Sing Like Jon Brion

For Morgan Enos (Other Houses), Meaningless is a power-pop masterpiece worth shamelessly emulating.

There’s a perfect album from 2001 that’s currently available pretty much nowhere, and every time I open my mouth to sing, I try to mimic it. At this point, I’ve got it down to a science: I flex my upper lip and let my natural tenor resonate in my upper jaw. But the trick is also in the cadence. If you languorously unspool the final word of a line — especially if it’s a shopworn idiom like “hook, line, and sinker” — you get an unexpected emotional payoff. My old Brooklyn roommate once wondered aloud why I was loudly listening to my own music. Alas, it wasn’t mine. I was crowing along with Meaningless by the renowned singer-songwriter, producer, and composer Jon Brion.

Now, Brion is far from my sole inspiration. I adore Guided by Voices, Neil Young, and John Lennon just as much. The difference is that I attempt to blur or obfuscate those influences; with Brion, I feel no such compunction. If I tried to do Robert Pollard, I’d be doing a fake British accent. Ditto if I did Lennon. But Brion’s voice is a mosaic of everything Anglophilic and American that I love, so why should I hide my Brion obsession when he sounds so damn cool when he sings? I love Meaningless’s lyrics and vibe, too; his prose is clever, clean, and direct, and the production nails a balance between Beatlesque sophistication and junk-shop unpredictability. But it all comes back to Brion’s voice for me — that mix of cockiness and heartbreak that defines true power-pop and shines through every facet of Meaningless.

Meaningless, which turns 20 this month, inexplicably remains Brion’s only studio album, even though he’s been busy ever since with producing, film scoring, and his neverending Largo residency. When a major-label deal fell through, he released it himself on CD Baby; the album remains unavailable on streaming services. Why hasn’t he made another one? Beats me. But these 11 perfect songs, including “Ruin My Day,” “Trouble,” and “Her Ghost,” aren’t only endlessly replayable, a perpetual fount of entertainment. By way of Brion’s voice, Meaningless provided the template for my favorite songs I’ve ever written, like “Meaning of the Band” and “Cats Know Me” from 2017’s Fortune Selector and “Nisan” from 2019’s Funny Papers.

First, let me explain how Brion came into my life. Most people I know found him through his soundtracks to I Heart Huckabees and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or his collaborations with high-profile rappers like Kanye West and the late Mac Miller. I found him through his rejected pilot to The Jon Brion Show, which Paul Thomas Anderson uploaded to YouTube and — I contend — remains the most moving thing on there. The clip, which features Brion, Elliott Smith, jazz piano titan Brad Mehldau and session drumming great Dan McCarroll, remains a Rosetta Stone for my musical taste — in my mind, those four guys could do no wrong. When he sat down with Smith to perform the diamond-sharp “Trouble,” I had to find out where it came from.

What did I immediately take away from Brion? His understated confidence and ability to hang a single syllable in the air without rushing to swat it away. That’s the energy I tried to bring to “Meaning of the Band,” which I wrote about frustratingly trying to perforate the music business while not fully grasping its mechanics. I thought of how Meaningless’s astonishing title track toggled up a key in the pre-chorus to get your blood pumping. Then I pulled that trick three times in the verse alone, and in a tendency that I can’t shake from my jaw muscles, I tried to deliver it with a Brionesque keen.

I wrote “Cats Know Me” in an attempt to capture that “unspooling” feeling I mentioned earlier, delivering every ending syllable with a flick of the tongue. As a result, I remember this song spilling out of me fully-formed, every line connecting to the rest. Although I drew from a bunch of sources in its writing, like Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Wall of Death,” the Beach Boys’ “Add Some Music to Your Day,” the essence of the tune is how Brion taught me to take a single line and sell it to the listener. (Oh, and now that I think about it, I think I stole the intro to the Grays’ “Everybody’s World,” too. Sorry, Grays. You probably took it from Badfinger’s “Day After Day,” anyway.)

Anyway, I swear I wasn’t trying to steal from Brion when I wrote “Nisan,” named after the Jewish calendar month and modeled after the flow of George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass.” But again, I can’t separate Brion from almost anything I write. While feeling out the ascending chorus, it felt correct to enunciate as he does, to throw the final word behind the beat and draw it out luxuriously. “Nisan” may be a folk song in a weird tuning with an Eastern tint, but navigating it in a Brionesque way gave it a unique flavor.

As I navigate the brave new world of producing and mixing in my home office rather than at friends’ makeshift studios, the self-recorded Meaningless continues to teach me lessons. Right now, I’m combing through a collection of loops to replicate the extreme breakbeat madness on “I Believe She’s Lying.” If you ever catch me singing in a fake British accent, please stop me. But I’ll never apologize for sounding like Jon Brion, because I still haven’t found a better template for the music I want to make. As a wildly unpopular musician, I’m free to venture in any direction I want. Still, I’ve gotta start somewhere.

Morgan Enos is a musician, essayist and music journalist specializing in classic rock. He records and performs as Other Houses and has bylines in BillboardHuffPost, the Recording Academy, Vinyl Me, Please, TIDAL and more. He is also the co-founder and editor of North of the Internet, a series of conversations with creative people. He can be found at his website.