Michael Brunnock possesses an extraordinary voice, and his song writing profound. So it’s no surprise that David Byrne (Talking Head’s) cast him to sing the role of an Irish musician on the brink of success whose voice guides Sean Penn through an emotional journey of self-discovery in the film ‘This Must Be the Place’ (2012). The score by Byrne with lyrics by Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy) called for a distinctive vocalist, which Brunnock is and the song ‘If it falls, it falls’ won a David di Donatello award, equivalent to the Italian Oscars!
Luke: I watched ‘This Must Be the Place’, the movie you pulled in an Italian Oscar for, and loved it. I recommend it to everyone reading this. How did casting for ‘This Must Be the Place’ go down? Was it an audition, and what was that like?
Michael: To be honest it wasn’t anything orchestrated or something I strove for. It was being in the right place and time. I’ve talked to artist friends of mine who have had ‘breaks’ in their career or significant life changing things like meeting someone who changes your life course. And these things tend to happen to you. The thing is to do your best at what you love to do. I believe that you do what you do and then events happen because of this.
I’m Irish and live in NY. I’m a singer songwriter and I play regularly and I take my work seriously. Patrick Dillett contacted me and asked if I would be interested in doing a demo of “Lay and Love” by Bonnie Prince Billy for a potential movie soundtrack.
I checked out Pats credentials online and saw he was a multi Grammy winning producer. If I did a good job, there were more songs and Hollywood A listers involved and he would fill me in on the details. They weren’t concerned about how I produced the track, but encouraged me to focus on the voice and just sing in my own unaffected accent. So I did.
Later, he called me back and told me David Byrne would be calling me in a few minutes and that Sean Penn was in the main role. David was writing the soundtrack and they wanted me to sing all the songs. I was driving with my family. So I pulled over. I got in the back seat and waited for the call.
David told me there were 6 songs I was to sing and Bonnie Prince Billy was contracted to write the lyrics. Paolo Sorrentino (who btw just last week won best foreign movie in the Academy Awards 2014) was directing and had already approved my involvement.
It was all kind of surreal. I actually found out afterward that David and his manager found my music on MySpace of all things, and that started a conversation. Over the next few months I completed the soundtrack with David and Patrick.
Luke: I recently read How Music Works by David Byrne and really enjoyed his insight on careers in music. Have you read it by chance? Did you meet Byrne, is he as down to earth as his book makes him out?
You know I haven’t read How Music Works yet. However, I did read The Bicycle Diaries. And I watched Byrne’s Ted Talk, How architecture helped music evolve.
In the company of David and Patrick, it was obvious they have a long history and a great working relationship. David was very gracious and open to ideas and curious about what harmonies I might naturally gravitate toward. You can imagine that there were times when I felt I wasn’t getting something vocally, maybe timing or phrasing and one could easily feel intimidated. But both of them were patient and funny and always tried to make me feel comfortable. I feel they got the best out of me under the circumstances. It was really fun, and I really enjoyed the experience. I learned a lot observing how they work.
My impression is that David is a very focused individual, and is 100% invested in what he is doing in the moment. That alone was a big lesson for me. You can see he showing no signs of slowing down. He’s a true artist. Still does art for arts sake. He consistently is successful.
We had a conversation about how he is aware that his past fame with Talking Heads puts him in a position where he has an audience, and he can maintain it depending on what he does. He doesn’t take that for granted and exudes a sense of gratitude. In today’s world, for most, it’s difficult to get above the noise and be heard.
Luke: The soundtrack for ‘This Must Be the Place’ is immense and beautiful, and it sews the whole movie together. My understanding is that the score is by David Byrne, the lyrics by Bonnie Prince Billy, and the vocals were done by you. How did that process work?
David sent me the tracks early on. There were some rough guide vocal line but no lyrics. I also had the script and I immersed myself in that for some weeks . The lyrics weren’t finished for a while. I also wrote some lyrics during this time and I shared them with David. I was a little worried about coming across presumptuous but David liked what I did, and explored the possibilities. He could not use them at that point for contractual reasons. Later as the lyrics came from Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy), David sent me newer versions of the songs with him singing guides.>David’s stem tracks were well prepared when I went into the studio. Each day, when I got the main vocals down, most of the work was in layering harmonies.
Luke: Let’s talk guitar for a little bit. Tell us about the different tunings/capo positions you use. When I saw you play live, I really liked the sound you got from capoing some strings and leaving others open.
I like different turnings. They give a different color to the same chords and I come up with melodies that I would not have, had I kept it straight. Sometimes, I use a special Schubb capo C3 that clamps three of the six strings and combine this with a dropped D on the bass string.
You can combine this with a normal capo up the neck also… say on the 5th and 7th frets. I like DADGAD turnings a lot especially for more folky songs. Lately though, I have been using open G, DGDGBD. And there a a couple other variations.
Luke: What type of Stonebridge guitar/s do you have? What is it about Stonebridge that makes you want to play one?
I love my Stonebridge guitars. I have a D22CM and an OM33SR. I love both, but probably more so the smaller OM33SR. I own an old Martin D40 as well, which I love but it got damaged on the road. I also have a Lowden O32 I got under endorsement when I lived in Ireland.
Stonebridge are really high end guitars and compare easily in quality and craftsmanship to the Martin and Lowden. They are a little less expensive and the artist deal offer from Roger helped me make the decision to buy my first one, a D22CM. I got another last year when I visited the showroom, a different shape and body, and I really feel attached to this one. I feel having the right guitar is like a loving relationship. It just feels and sounds right. It makes you want to pick it up and you find that you create on that instrument and communicate with it in a way you wouldn’t with any other. It’s alive and has a personality.
That might seem over the top but I really feel people should take time to see which one speaks to them. It was worth my visit to the showroom in Kitchener last summer.
Luke: What’s in the works for you in the next year or two? More movie soundtracks? You don’t seem to be afraid of trying new things and taking different paths to making music. Talk about where you’re at now and how you look at your music career.
I’m performing in Rome next week at the premier of NOI 4 opening March 20th 2014. It’s a new movie by Francesco Bruni. Winning the Italian Oscar ( Di Donatello) for the performance on the sound track to This Must Be The Place opened a few doors. I started working with an Italian production team I met at the award ceremony last year – The Ceasars. We wrote and released ‘Red Line’… A single, a cross between Rhianna and Radiohead, even if I do say so myself, haha. Watch it below:
We also have a song which features very prominently in NOI 4, and we are excited to see where this might lead. It’s called ‘Peaches and Cream’, and has a Wilco vibe to it, maybe.
I released The Orchard last year, mixed by Patrick Dillett. I’m quite proud of that record. It features Glen Hansard, Julia Stone, Joe Sumner, and Ari Hest on vocals on various tracks. It was a while in the making and available on iTunes but also available on my website with three extra tracks: http://www.michaelbrunnock.com/?page_id=219
Also right now I’m excited to be working on a musical about the life of Sir Roger Casement, who was a many layered complex human being, an Irish Patriot, a humanitarian and a hero of mine. Check him out on Wikipedia: Sir Roger Casement.
I am working on an album of this material and I expect it come to life on the stage in the next year in collaboration with actor John Duddy. I imagine it to be a soundtrack to a movie yet to be made. It’s very earthy, and passionate, mostly acoustic stuff.
In all these projects I explore different styles and genres, but it begins with the expression the voice and the acoustic guitar that accompanies it.