Portrait: Fred Jagueneau
Over the past twenty-five years, Michael Brook has forged his own path, fueled in equal parts by scientific curiosity, the thrill of playing guitar, technical prowess and a fervent interest in music from all over the world. His creative energies and expertise have been tapped over the years by those who recognize Michael as, variously: a record producer; a soundtrack composer; an instrument builder; an inspired collaborator and player; and a solo artist possessed of a unique sensibility.
Michael was born and raised in Toronto, Canada and studied music at York University. In the early 80s he worked as an engineer at Daniel Lanois’ studio. He reflects, “From Dan, I got the sense that many things only happen in the moment, as music is being performed or written.”
At this time, Michael also met pianist Harold Budd and musical iconoclast Brian Eno. “I used to work a lot with Eno, and I think I learnt quite a bit of my approach to the studio from him… that it’s important to stay in touch with a kind of intuitive, emotional sense of direction.”
In 1985, Michael’s first solo album Hybrid, with contributions from both Eno and Lanois, was released on EG Records to great critical acclaim. That album remains among the ground-breaking works of the mid-80s.
“In a lot of ways, what I do is more oriented around sound than music, and my work is probably simpler than initial impressions might suggest — I pay a lot of attention to atmospherics.”
His second solo album Cobalt Blue (4AD Records,1992) also featured Eno among its larger cast of musicians; Live at the Aquarium (4AD,1993) appeared shortly afterwards, recorded at London Zoo, on the occasion of Cobalt Blue’s press launch.
Between his past releases and forthcoming disc, RockPaperScissors, Brook has collaborated with a long list of international talent including Pieter Nooten, Mary Margaret O’Hara, The Pogues, Bryan Ferry, Youssou N’Dour, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Cheb Khaled, Indian electric mandolin player U. Srinivas and the Armenian duduk flute master Djivan Gasparayan.
“Every time you work with somebody else, you learn something you wish you’d known before. I really don’t like working by myself. I get cabin fever!”
Another form of collaboration for Brook is film music. In 1992, he composed and performed the acclaimed score for the Academy Award nominated documentary “The Fires of Kuwait.” As his opportunities increased, Michael moved to Los Angeles, his current residence and the site of his new studio, La Lavanderia, in the hills above Hollywood.
Following work on the soundtrack to director Michael Mann’s 1995 film “Heat”, Michael was invited to compose the music for Kevin Spacey’s Albino Alligator, and the score for Paul Schrader’s 1998 feature Affliction.
“When you are working for film you basically have a patron, which is usually the director. They are an audience of one, and sometimes it is easier to please an audience of that size… sometimes…”
As a musician, Michael’s electronically-enhanced guitar may be heard on many films, including composer Hans Zimmer’s scores for “Black Hawk Down”, “Mission Impossible 2”, and “The Pledge”.
Most recently, Michael has composed the score for the hot-button, 2006 Al Gore global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and produced the soundtrack, as well as contributed compositions, to the much lauded traveling exhibition, “Ashes and Snow” (with collaborators such as Lisa Gerrard).
On his new album, one can hear evidence of all of Michael’s experiences and skill sets.
Much of RockPaperScissors developed over time, taking in elements from his surroundings: “For me, composing is like going for a walk in an unfamiliar city. It’s an adventure: you go out the hotel, turn right and just see where each street leads you.”
“I started writing the songs for the album in 2003. The pieces all evolved in an exploratory way, in that there wasn’t really a plan. So the idea of collaborating with people just came as the music developed. I would think about adding an orchestra or having Claude Chalhoub play violin. Or, as it turned out, for the first time I thought to invite lyricists and vocalists to work on a solo record: it was liberating. And hard work!”
Michael and multi-instrumentalist/arranger Rich Evans (of Peter Gabriel’s band) even traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria on behalf of this ambitious project, where they recorded local orchestral and choral ensembles. Into the mix, Brook also introduced several singers: his former 4AD labelmate Lisa Germano; L.A. songwriter Shira Myrow; the UK’s haunting Ben Christophers; as well as the widely acclaimed Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile. There are also extraordinary, posthumous contributions from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Sir Richard Burton.
“There are a few familiar elements on the album but, hopefully, in unusual combinations. They seem to work together in quite a natural way. I was trying to evoke a sense of place, of different landscapes, of atmospheres. More than anything, RockPaperScissors is a kind of travelogue… and I hope the listener feels comfortable coming on this slightly eccentric journey with me.”