Bryan Titus: Big Heart, Big Voice
Interview with Bryan Titus
by Laura Hemenway
Photo by Bryan Toro
Connecticut transplant Bryan Titus arrived in Santa Barbara several years ago, and hit the ground running. The gravelly voiced songwriter is one of the hardest-working musicians on the Central Coast…playing diverse venues from wineries to the world-famous Lobero Theatre. In fact, on July 18, his Trio will be opening for Paul Thorn at the Lobero! His song "Lightning" was featured in Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, which is available here. I met up with Bryan at Santa Barbara’s Handlebar Coffeehouse, where we had a great conversation about his early influences, his songwriting process, and his inspiration to keep writing.
LH: What kind of encouragement did you get, in your early life, to be a creative person? BT: It was part of our family culture. My mom was a singer, and my dad was a classical violinist. My father kind of insisted that I start playing the violin at age 4. So I was classically trained on violin. But music came to me as something that was my own when I went through adolescence, when I was 14 and I picked up a guitar, like many boys do, and started writing songs about girls. (laughing) LH: So, your parents were both classical musicians? BT: Yes. But my dad did branch out and played some bluegrass later in life. He joined a band that was all bird watchers. They would only play songs about birds. Bluegrass songs have a lot of songs with birds in the titles and the lyrics… the whippoorwill is the harbinger of doom, and the bluebird represents happiness, robins signal spring; there’s a lot of bluegrass music that has bird imagery in the lyrics. So their repertoire was all songs about birds. They’d play “Go tell Aunt Rhody, the old grey goose is dead,” and “Redwing,” “Grey Eagle Hornpipe,” “First Whipoorwill,” tons of old-timey music that had to do with birds, and they’d go around and play at different Audubon clubs, and different conservation benefits. … LH: Did you have siblings who were involved in music, as well? BT: My brother played the piano; and he’s the first dude that introduced me to the blues. Some of my favorite moments in my musical self-discovery were because of my brother, Jeff. He’s 8 years older than I am, and we have another brother who’s 8 years older than he is. So the age gap between us is wild, and for me, it’s like having a crystal ball, I can see myself aging 8 years in the future, 16 years in the future, like “Oh, that’s what I’m gonna look like when I’m 56!” (laughing) My brother Jeff graduated from college and went off to teach English in Japan for a year, and he left his drafting studio (he was an architect) set up, and that’s where I started drawing, and listening to this box of tapes that he had left behind, which was full of good stuff, like the Clash, and John Lee Hooker, and Jim Morrison and the Doors greatest hits, and Jimi Hendrix…just tape after tape after tape. That’s when I got deeply interested in what people were saying in their songs. I didn’t really think of myself as a songwriter yet, at that point, but I was starting…and learning “okay, this is the kind of voice that I love…this thick, throaty, raspy. bluesy voice…I’ve got to figure out how that’s happening”…I don’t know if that’s genetic or luck, but I somehow ended up with having that kind of a voice. LH: Tell me about your first music teacher. BT: The first music teacher that I remember was an amazing woman named Connie Satler. She was a weird bird; an old hippie kind of a lady. They lived on a farm. The farm had sheep and horses, and it was out in a really rural part of Connecticut called Moodus. Moodus is a local Indian word that means something like “Strange sounds in the hills.” Moooooodus…you could think it has something to do with cows (laughing), but, there’s a lot of limestone in Connecticut, and limestone, under the proper conditions will melt away, and that’s how you get stalactites and stalagmites. And when it melts away, you end up with these caves, or fissures in the sides of hills. And just like blowing over the mouthpiece of a flute, the wind would come over the hill in a strange way and create this kind of “wooooooooo” kind of a sound. So that’s where that came from. I used to love going there. She taught Suzuki method, so I would just listen to her play things, and then memorize it and then play it back. I didn’t really learn how to read music until I went to Berklee School of Music. She was a cool teacher. I remember being like 8 years old and having my first crème de cassis and soda, which as you know is a liqueur…I must’ve been especially annoying that day, and she needed to mellow me out or something (laughing) LH: So, it was a good experience. BT: Good and bad. I really didn’t like the rigidity of classical music, and I had tremendous amounts of social anxiety growing up, so being put in front of a room full of people at a library, next to a piano with some person playing the piano that I’d never seen before and never rehearsed with before, was pretty traumatic… LH: In a recital situation? BT: Yeah, and I basically refused to do recitals after that. I felt like my heart might actually explode out of my chest I was so nervous and so scared… LH: What about in high school? Were you involved in music then? BT: I sang in the church choir as a kid, until my voice changed. And then after it changed and kind of settled, I realized, after listening to those tapes in my brother’s room, that I could sing rock n roll. My best friend in high school, Matt Zimmitti, played guitar. And next thing you know, we were playing in a band together. We started out by learning the popular grunge rock n roll songs of the day, by Nirvana, and Red Hot Chili Peppers, seasoned in with the Classic Rock that everybody loves, at every age, like Bob Dylan, and a little Zeppelin, and maybe some Doors . And we put our band together, and I started writing some original songs at that time as well. Matt would come up with a cool guitar idea, and then I would sing a melody over it, and then put some stream of conscious lyrics to it…We wrote in his basement, in 1991…when I was 14 years old. Some of the songs actually kind of stand up a little bit. I mean I didn’t have anything TOO important to say…at this point, I look back on them and say “Yeah, you were 14. You didn’t like school, huh?” (laughing) LH: What was the name of that first song? BT: I can’t think of it exactly, right now. I think it was “Nothingness” or something like that. It was about unrequited love; typical 14–year-old themes. But the funny thing was, when I was 14 years old, I sounded like I do now. But I was 130 pounds and 5’6”. (Brian does an impersonation of himself at that age) You know, kind of like Eddie Vedder and Scott Wyland from Stone Temple Pilots, and Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers…those were the people who were popular at that time, and when I realized that I could hit those notes and had that tone, I was just like “Oh! I’m gonna DO this!” LH: So, note-reading wasn’t really essential at this point? BT: No, not until I got to Berklee College of Music. LH: What kind of songwriter do you think thrives at Berklee? BT: I think the most important thing with Berklee is, that Berklee is exactly what you make of it. If you know what you want, and you’re willing to work for it, you can make incredible progress there. I think that Berklee would be good for any songwriter, as long as they’re willing to really do the work, and be open to it. You definitely learn through classes like Song Survey, about different forms you can take; you learn how to write formulaically, there, but you also learn how to break those rules, and you’re given permission to do those things that are exciting to you. I’m really glad that I went there, and I actually fantasize about going back. Because I already did go back once. I went there when I was 18,…and then back when I was 22, and I’d like to go back now, in my 40s. LH: Speaking of education, didn’t you just get back from a songwriting retreat? What do you think is the value of a songwriting workshop or retreat? BT: I think that every opportunity that you can find, to foster your creativity, should be taken advantage of. I’m so glad I went on this retreat; it was amazing. But, it was very difficult. Songwriting, and telling personal stories can be really challenging, and scary. To be emotionally available and vulnerable in front of other people and with other people, is a very scary thing to do, One thing I’d never been super comfortable doing was co-writing, and that was a big part of this particular retreat. We co-wrote every day with new partners…strangers, that we hadn’t met before, and had to be really open with, and challenging, and polite, but not a yes-man. If you had a better idea than your partner, you had to figure out a way to tell them so. And maybe not hurt their feelings too much, hopefully. You were there for the sole purpose of writing a good song, not coddling someone, so finding that way to work with people is really challenging, but it was so rewarding. The retreat was 4 days long, and we did 3 co-writing sessions that were each 3 hours long. LH: How does your life experience inform your songwriting? What life experience most informs your songwriting? BT: I’m really grateful that my dad was a college professor, and he would teach abroad for a year at a time, and so our family lived in Cambridge, England, when I was 2 years old, and in Kyoto, Japan, when I was 6 years old. When I was 2 years old, obviously I was just a baby, so I don’t really remember much of that, but when I lived in Japan, I was in 2nd grade, and I went to a public Japanese school. I was the only white kid in the entire school, and I didn’t speak a word of Japanese on the first day of school. And it was an incredibly difficult and strange experience, but by the end of that year, I didn’t want to come home, and I had a whole group of friends there. Basically, being in that situation gave me a sense of “otherness” that made me feel different. It gave me the opportunity to see that there are a lot of different perspectives. I think that has informed my songwriting and given me that ability to kind of step out of myself and imagine what life is like in someone else’s shoes. LH: What part does “Place” play in your creative process? Or does it? BT: Physical location? LH: Yeah. BT: Right now it plays a lot, because I’m in this tiny apartment that I can’t stand, and I don’t have a designated place to write, so it’s really difficult to work in my current situation. But, that being said, I love Santa Barbara, because Santa Barbara has afforded me, for the first time in my life, the opportunity to be a musician and nothing else. I’ve always had other jobs everywhere else I’ve lived, but here In Santa Barbara I’m making enough money performing that I can pay my rent. My rent is too high. It’s crazy here! LH: But yet, there are places to perform. It’s like a double-edged sword. BT: Exactly. I love it here. The fact that I’m able to play 4 to 5 gigs a week and get paid for it, without having to drive like 5,000 miles a week is pretty amazing. We do have a tourist economy here, so we have a lot of people coming through, so that gives me the opportunity to play for new people every week, , and people keep buying our CDs! I remember even 5 years ago people were looking at me like “you want to make CDs? What are you, crazy?” We still sell the crap out of them. LH: But part of it too, is, I think, that your sound is unique, here. BT: I think it matches here. The sound I have didn’t match an urban environment, so living in LA didn’t work for me. People move to LA when they’re like 22 years old, not when they’re 30, like I did. So I was already too old for being there. My contemporaries had been there for like 10 years. They were not people I had access to, so I was playing music for people who weren’t interested in what I was doing. Here, it’s a different story. People here love songs about cowboys and the plains and the mountains , because they’re here, seeing the beauty of our physical landscape, which I love. For me, as an active individual, that’s the other thing. I need to be able to go out and hike and get into the hills and get away from people and places, to write. So that’s another reason Santa Barbara has been so great for me, is I can go drive 10 minutes away, and I’m on top of a mountain, looking out over the whole city and imagining what people are doing, and it just lets my imagination run wild. LH: What’s your favorite part of the creative process: crafting a song, performing a song, or recording a song? BT: Actually, I love recording. Because by that time, you’ve gotten the song, you’ve done all the hard work, getting the song just right, everything’s in place, you’ve done the pre-production. I love to perform in the studio, because you have this team of people around you, the engineers,that are making the perfect environment for you to do what you need to do. Does it sound just right? Is the guitar too loud? Can you hear your voice okay? Everything is focused…maybe this is a little narcissistic of me, but everybody’s paying attention to me! And giving me exactly what I want! Because I’m the one that’s about to do the thing. And then, when you put it down, and it feels good; it’s awesome. LH: Do you have a favorite venue that you’ve played? BT: I’ve got to say, it’s the Lobero Theater, here. It’s pretty much the best place I’ve played. It’s such a beautiful venue, and it’s such a historic place. I’m a sucker for places that have good vibes and juju and all that stuff, and if there’s a place in town that has it, that’s it. LH: Do you like playing to that size venue? BT: I’m not sure that the music that I write, up to this point, is “big stadium music.” The Lobero is a 600-seat venue, and we’ve played to it when we opened for Albert Lee and when we opened for White Buffalo. It was pretty full. And it’s a seated venue. I feel like people were there to really listen. It was so exciting, because that was one of my first goals, when we moved here, was “I’ve gotta figure out how to get on this stage, somehow.” And it happened. LH: Can you point to anything that sustains you on a daily basis; something that keeps you coming back to write, again and again? BT: I’m lucky that I have a partner in my life who is extremely supportive and a constant source of inspiration, my wife, Katie. She’s part of the reason that I do what I do. It’s probably annoying for her, but a bunch of my songs are written about her, and sometimes when she’s in the audience, I sing them to her. I also think that songwriting, for me, is a compulsion. It is also my identity at this point. If I lost that, it would be like having a limb cut off. If I wasn’t able to sing, or play, or be creative in that way, I would still have other outlets, but the biggest one would be missing. And I would feel really bad. So let’s hope that doesn’t happen! (Laughing) LH: What subject(s) can you give advice about, to creative people? BT: Advice to musicians in general…would just be, if you’re going to be a performing musician, treat it like a job. And understand that you are in the customer service industry. You are not a rock star. You are a waiter. You are bringing people music. So be humble. Be nice. Be good-hearted. And be willing to please people. If people don’t want to hear your songs and they want you to play a cover song, play them a cover song. We’re in the entertainment industry, not in the “bolster my own ego” industry. Now, hopefully, you’ll get to the point where your songs are the songs that are being asked for. That is the most awesome compliment, when somebody asks me to play one of my songs for them. I’m blown away, that’s awesome. I feel really lucky to have gotten to that stage. But yeah. We’re in the customer service industry. And if you don’t have happy customers, you’re not going to have a job. You’re going to be playing for yourself, by yourself. And then, find the people that make music with you well. There are certain people that you just click with, and you need to find those people. And if somebody in your band isn’t clicking, then even if they’re good friends, you’ve got to find a way to say “Hey man, it’s just not working out.” You only have a certain amount of time, so make the best of it. LH: Thanks, Bryan. BT: Thank you, this was so fun!