From his days writing and playing piano in his childhood home in Long Island, Brett Gleason has always wanted to play rock and roll.
With inspirations found in early 90’s alternative icons like Billy Corgan and Trent Reznor, the now Downtown Brooklyn-based rock pianist has finally released his first full-length album to a growing and tech-savvy NYC fan base.
Playing from the selections of his lifelong catalog of solo work, Gleason’s support from his family and friends has landed him on a path all to his own.
I met up with Gleason near his apartment at Bien Cuit, located at 120 Smith St., in Boerum Hill, to discus his new album.
What is a “do it yourself” artist?
I play all of the instruments, I do all the production, I do all of the web presence and social media; and I play an alternative rock with piano-base singer-songwriter sensibility to it. I can either perform solo with a piano or I can perform with a full band and the songs can be translated either way.
Who do you play with on stage?
Well, it depends. When I play solo, or an acoustic show, it’s just myself. When I play live, sometimes I play with a drummer – Brandon Finnegan – who also plays on the record, and sometimes I have a cellist – Hillary Ekwall – and my best friend Jana Fischer sings backup vocals, plays an extra keyboard and trigger samples through her laptop.
As a solo artist, it’s tough to put together a full band because, essentially they’re musicians for hire. If I do a full band show, it’s usually for an occasion like the album release. Otherwise it’s just not sustainable to do that constantly; as a solo artist bankrolling everything.
Ultimately, I think that anything great that’s done creatively is usually done by one person. Very rarely do I think a collaboration, artistically, works out really well. So I have a record that is exactly what I want, for better or for worse, and I think for better.
So how did you decide to go solo? Did bands before not work out?
Not so much. I played music growing up. I had a bad speech impediment as a kid, so my parents pushed me into getting into solo-expressive activities. I played in a lot of jazz bands, I played in a lot of orchestras. I play a lot of instruments so I had a lot of opportunities, but I never for once thought that I wanted to have a band. I always liked the idea of – my heros are Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails or Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins – where it’s one overriding creative impulse and you’re just pulling the strings for everyone else. But, unlike them, I don’t pretend to be a band. So, that might have been a smarter move to pretend to be a band (laughs).
How did you decide to put together this album?
I recorded 90 percent of it in my apartment, except for the drums. We recorded the drums at a project studio called Desert Park, and I also had them mix as well. I originally had two EPs, which were essentially completely homespun versions of these songs.
So for this record, having built a fan base off of those first EPs, I crowd funded this record and did a Kickstarter campaign ($10,000). So, that’s how I was able to finish this.
Did that cover everything?
It covered all of the production costs, and that’s nothing. It was a very low fee, but that’s why I do so much of it at home. I have a degree in audio engineering from the Institute of Audio Research, and I also study at the New School, but I can pretty much record most things on my own. However, mixing takes more high-end equipment I don’t have access to. This was actually the first time I’ve ever worked with anyone else. Every other thing I’ve done has been me from beginning to end.
How has the game changed with home recording?
It leveled the playing field. Whereas before I would have made little four-track demos and sent them out and prayed that someone would pick it up and give me studio time, now I can just be completely proactive, go out and do what I want to do. It’s a little daunting at first, but I think there is more music being made than ever, I think there is more great music being made now than ever. I think in the next few years the music industry will have to change a lot to level the playing field in terms of marketing and distribution, but I think there is a lot of amazing stuff being made and that’s most important.
What is it like putting yourself out there finally with this record?
It’s amazing. Putting myself out there has never really been an issue. I’m very open online. I have a blog on the Huffington Post, I talk about very personal things, so that’s not an issue for me at all. It’s just that, this is the self that I’ve wanted to put out there all along. And maybe, 10 or 15 years ago, maybe this is the first anyone would have heard of me. But like I was saying, I was releasing things along the way to build up a fan base.
I’ve shared the whole process. People who have been following me for the last few years have been watching these songs develop and grow, whereas again, years ago, my manager might have said not to release until everything is ready.
Now it’s all about the process, it’s all about the experience, people feeling like they have the inside vantage point. That’s the big thing with the crowd funding; everyone wants to be a part of the experience. By the time the record comes out, that’s the end of it. It’s really been the journey that people have gone on to make it. It’s fun because people are getting their CDs and they’re writing me all excited, but it’s also funny because people haven’t gotten a CD in years.
Who are some of the bands your listening to right now?
I’m listening to the new Beck record a lot, the St. Vincent record a lot; I love both of those. And artists like Patrick Wolf; but always Tori Amos and the Smashing Pumpkins. They have these huge discographies. You can go through phases where you only listen to her (Amos) early 90’s stuff. The Smashing Pumpkins really made me want to be a songwriter and a singer, but Tori Amos was the one that really made me realize that I can do that on the piano.
I play the guitar and I play all these other instruments on the record, but the piano is just something that you can go anywhere and you can create anything; any emotion and play four different parts at once. It’s really a beautiful instrument.
After you recorded this album, what do you do next?
Well, right now I am sending it out to my Kickstarter backers, having everyone do a selfie campaign where they take pictures with it, so I’ve been trying to create a social media buzz that way. I’ll be doing an album release show, I have five music videos from the record -- the first one debuted last month.
I’m going to be moving on pretty quickly. I’m going to be working on a second record pretty soon. This album took many years, so I have a backlog of songs that I want to get going with.
How important has it been to have a supportive family?
They pushed me to study and learn as a kid, but I don’t think they had any idea what they would start, but they are still very supportive and often come to my shows. It’s funny, because every time I see them I’m half expecting it to become an intervention, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. I’m not married, I don’t have any kids, I live in a rent stabilized apartment and I’m going to keep doing what I’m going to do. You only have one chance.
Gleason’s self-titled debut album drops on May 6, and catch him live at Piano’s (158 Ludlow St.) on May 8.