With Mac Miller's Circles, Jon Brion assembles last statement of restless artist who had much more to say
Mac Miller, an ambitious rapper with a groggy voice who evolved rapidly and sold millions of records before he died from an accidental overdose in September 2018, at 26, was an accomplished producer in his own right. But he enlisted Jon Brion for what he hoped would be a creatively expansive and experimental new phase of his career | via @nytimes
A few years ago, while visiting a friend who was trying to get sober, Jon Brion, the producer and composer known for his work with Fiona Apple, Kanye West and Paul Thomas Anderson, was introduced to a young musician who was fighting an addiction battle of his own. The younger man, whom Brion described in a recent interview as seeming nervous and a little shy, gave no indication that he wanted anything more from the interaction than stimulating conversation. But Brion said he later got wind of a larger plan at work.
“Have you ever met Mac Miller?” asked the owner of a music store he frequented in Los Angeles one day. Taken aback, Brion said that indeed he had, keeping the circumstances to himself. “Well, I just sold him a Fender Telecaster,” the store owner replied. “He said that he wanted one because he’d seen you playing it.”
As they got to know each other in the months that followed, during which Brion became Miller’s friend, co-conspirator and something of a mentor, he never told Miller this story. But the experience in the music store nudged open the door for what became an unusually intimate collaboration.
Miller, an ambitious rapper with a groggy voice who evolved rapidly and sold millions of records before he died from an accidental overdose in September 2018, at 26, was an accomplished producer in his own right. But he enlisted Brion for what he hoped would be a creatively expansive and experimental new phase of his career. He’d hinted at as much on Swimming, the jazzy, kinetic album (on which Brion co-produced several tracks) released just a month before his death. But the scope of his vision, and of his budding partnership with Brion, became clear only Friday, with the posthumous release of a new album and counterpart to Swimming, called Circles.
While Miller was alive, Brion, a sculptor of texture and mood who presides over a storied inventory of obscure analog instruments, saw him as a gifted but still developing songwriter and musician who was only beginning to recognise and articulate the full range of his talents.
In his converted office space-cum-recording-studios in Burbank, California, where Miller frequently dropped by to talk politics and record tracks for what he envisioned as a cycle of three or more albums, Brion would encourage him to stick with the melodic, bracingly confessional songs he was writing, occasionally introducing him to allies like the drummer Matt Chamberlain (Fiona Apple) and the bassist and guitarist Wendy Melvoin (Prince), who both ended up playing on “Circles.”
After Miller’s death, left with a trove of near-finished songs, an album title and the encouragement of Miller’s family, Brion set out to assemble what is possibly the last complete statement of a restless artist who believed he had much more to say.
“I’m sorry that it’s me you’re talking to,” Brion said when we spoke by phone over the weekend. “Mac was very entertaining and funny and spoke very well for himself, so there’s a basic injustice to the circumstances.”
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
When was the last time you saw Mac?
Had to be a month and a half, two months before he died. He just came by to visit when I was working on a film [score] and we just sort of caught up for an hour or so. We weren’t even working. But the whole plan was he was going to go on tour and then, when he came back, we’d go into a large room and I would bring the instrument collection. We basically had an album’s worth of complete songs we had done together. The only things that were left undone were things that we needed to do in a bigger room than I had in Burbank.
At what point did you start thinking about the music?
[At first] I wasn’t listening through stuff or doing anything in regard to it. It was about three months later when I got a call from the family asking me to finish the album. I remember, before that call came in, being on a flight and listening to music with my phone on airplane mode. It could only play certain things in the library, and at some point the working tracks for a couple of the songs came up: “Good News” and “Once a Day.” It flattened me. Because my feeling was, “Yeah, this stuff is as good as I remember.” I thought that maybe I would reach out to the family or the record company. But I didn’t reach out. I mean, I … it wasn’t something I was itching to do.
Why do you think he sought you out?
To his credit, he never put any claims on me. I think he wasn’t sure if this confessional, singing, non-beat-driven stuff that he’d been working on was good or not. And I don’t know if he came to me seeking approval or just some help with some sounds or something, but I can tell you he got a lot of approval very quickly. I just fell in love with him, honestly. Especially after we’d spent some real, private time making music. He started to play these things that were really insightful and individualistic but still felt influenced by his love of hip-hop and R&B and dance music. It’s super sad to talk about, but I just felt like: “Oh, well, here’s a big part of your future. You can do this. There are a lot of people who spend all their time trying to do that and aren’t as good.”
Circles was supposed to be a companion to Swimming. How did you understand the relationship between the two projects?
He had this whole aquatic theme that came out of something we’d talked about when he was working on Swimming. I’d noticed he mentioned water a few times in the lyrics, and then that grew into all these discussions about water and what it sounds like that became kind of a running joke. There were supposed to be three albums: the first, Swimming, was sort of the hybridisation of going between hip-hop and song form. The second, which he’d already decided would be called Circles, would be song-based. And I believe the third one would have been just a pure hip-hop record. I think he wanted to tell people, “I still love this, I still do this.”
What did you see as your role on the album? Were you solving a puzzle? Or trying to discern what Mac would do?
I mean, you can’t, really. You can’t speculate about anything. And every artist changes their mind every two weeks. So I was just trying to figure out what I could get out of the way of, instead of trying to “invent” a track or a song, or make something that wasn’t a song seem more like a song. He had talked to me a lot about what he wanted sonically. Like, “I want this to feel wider,” or “deeper.” So, for me, I felt like, “OK, these are technical jobs that I can do.”
There’s been some speculation about whether there are Ariana Grande vocals on “I Can See.”
I believe there are. Somebody just told me something about that, some kerfuffle. I mean, that was a preexisting track. There were a few songs the family gave me that he’d been working on independently that I thought fit thematically with what we had worked on. “I Can See” was one of those, also “Complicated,” “Blue World” and “Everybody.” I played some things on those tracks to make them feel like the others, but those vocals were already there. It wasn’t like an executive decision or anything.
The emotional content of the album — his struggles with depression and anxiety — would be poignant even without knowing his fate. How affected were you by the lyrics?
When I heard “Once a Day” on that plane, it was like a knife in the heart. I cried even when I was in the room with him recording it. And then, later when I was back in the room adding a guitar part or something to finish it, I would have to listen very closely to the vocal and it would just pulverise me. He was clearly trying to sort through his demons and was just being very, very honest, not trying to hide any of it. I feel like the album is a clear picture of somebody with those troubles who is funny and intelligent and was trying to look at them critically.
Reggie Ugwu/c.2020 The New York Times Company
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