Jim Brickman is best known as “America’s romantic piano sensation,” but there are more layers to the Shaker Heights native than meets the eye.
Brickman rose to fame in 1994 on the strength of his debut instrumental album No Words. But since then he’s also collaborated with a who’s-who list of vocalists (Michael Bolton, Donnie Osmond, Martina McBride, Olivia Newton-John, Kenny Rogers, etc.), staged a half-dozen acclaimed PBS television specials, written a couple books (Simple Things, Love Notes), launched an e-commerce consulting firm, issued numerous holiday, inspiration, and spiritually-themed piano albums, and notched no less than thirty singles (“Angel Eyes,” “Valentine”) on the AC charts.
Oh, and he also hosts the nationally syndicated radio show Your Weekend With Jim Brickman.
Brickman celebrated twenty years in music with Brickman Bash last July, capping the fun fan-centric affair with an outdoor show at Cain Park in Cleveland Heights. His most recent albums, Pure Romance and Pure Worship, recapture his relaxing piano magic in the context of faith, love, and religion.
Now Jim’s back with a new multimedia project that that encompasses both recorded music and the printed page. Based on Brickman’s own real-life soul-searching, Soothe: How to Find Calm Amidst Everyday Chaos (Rodale books), is the pianist’s semi-biographical journey into finding tranquility among the turmoil. Its similarly-titled CD companion Sooth (Volume 1): How to Quiet Your Mind and Soothe Your World takes listeners on an easygoing walk (or run, or bike, or swim—whatever the case may be) through self-relaxation and decompression via his gentle melodies (and lulling sound effects).
Brickman’s currently on a tour to promote both book and disc. He’ll be back in his hometown this Saturday, May 2nd, with a pair of promotional stops at the Barnes and Noble stores at Crocker Park in Westlake (12-2pm) and Eton Square in Woodmere (5-7pm). Admission to both events is free, so come listen to Cleveland’s premiere piano man, ante up for a signed copy of the book, and maybe even score a selfie with JB.
Brickman will explain the creative process behind Soothe at both appearances, but we caught up with him early to get the scoop. Speaking with us by phone between stops in Indianapolis and Columbus, Jim sounded excited to be taking yet another step on his ever-productive path. But the Zen-like Soothe reaches deeper than he’s gone before, exploring those aspects that make him the best person he can be.
Not to mention the best romantic piano sensation he can be.
Really, it’s about discovering what activities might best serve each of us as our own personal eye-in-the-storm in these maelstrom-like times.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Hello, Jim! Could you walk us through the concept behind Soothe?
JIM BRICKMAN: Well, this is a labor of love in many ways, because it was kind of a calling to realize that—for somebody who for so long was known for soothing people—I kind of hit a point myself where even I wasn’t that soothed [laughs]! And there’s so much suffering in the world, so much worry over stress, over schedules. So many people are on the edge. But yet, at the same time I would play these concerts, and after the show people would be like, “You’re so soothing! You’re so calm! Everything you do is so peaceful!” Well, of course, that’s all authentically me on the outside. But when I wasn’t playing the piano, I was pretty pushed to the limit. And I think that it was sort of a wake-up call for me to look at some of the ways I was balancing my life. I didn’t really realize how much I was…you know, how ambitious I’d become, or how driven I’d become. Because I just love to play, and I love to write and perform. So I just wanted to do it all the time. It was my hobby, and it turned into my profession. It was the thing I used to use to relax. Now it’s my profession. So I set out to help myself a little bit, and in turn share it with other people—this is the book I’m talking about. It ended up as sort of a cross somewhere between a David Sedaris and a Deepak Chopra. Kind of like a “calm your neuroses.” It was a really fascinating thing that I found out, by talking to vetted experts in fields of sleep study, nutrition, and exercise, and ecology. It’s reflected in everything—from the way that I sleep better now, and the way that I channel some of my addictive behaviors and things like that. It’s like a “life rehab”—without going to Malibu!
EXAMINER: I think some people tend to forget that even rock stars and celebrities experience stress, too—perhaps even more than the average guy. You achieve a certain amount of success, and suddenly you’re responsible for the livelihoods of everyone around you, and they’re waiting for you to deliver.
JIM BRICKMAN: Yeah! And that you for reminding me of that [laughs]!
EXAMINER: Oops! Sorry. Didn’t mean it quite like that.
JIM BRICKMAN: No, I’m teasing! But it is true. I’m a quote-unquote “aging baby boomer,” and I think what also happened was typical of aging parents and Midwest stuff, and mid-career things. All of that kind of boring stuff. But the point is, in the most relatable stuff, I found it was hard to find things that would help me. Find things that were prescriptive, that didn’t seem ethereal or out of reach, or too—not scientific—but too highbrow. I’m fascinated by things like Deepak Chopra’s books, and I really love that kind of thing, but it feels like it’s on another plane. And I wanted it to be very relatable. The book goes through the things of everyday, not things that are elitist. And I wanted to be really honest about it. Like, my friends would say, “Jim, if you just did yoga, it would change your life!” And so I’d do yoga—and it didn’t change my life! So they’d be like, “Oh, I get it. You have to do what you need to do.” So I set off to try all these different things, and kind of reported back on what I found helped me, but also things that weren’t right for me that might help others. So it’s somewhat autobiographical, and funny, too—but not a parody. It’s very lighthearted, I should say.
EXAMINER: And thus the books stops and TV appearances. What can fans expect at the Cleveland events this weekend? Reading a few excerpts, maybe play a song or two?
JIM BRICKMAN: It’s everything. I have piano, and I do a Q&A and some “Live By Request.” And I read a little bit from the book, and talk about the project. The CD that goes with it is the first time I’ve ever done anything musically that was purposely intended for relaxation. Not a natural byproduct of my other CDs. What that means is, it’s more atmospheric. It’s more…the pieces are longer. It’s the first time I’m including any sort of nature or effects that are atmospheric: Oceans, birds, things like that. I was always afraid of that on the earlier albums. When I was on Windham Hill, I thought, “I don’t want people to get the wrong idea,” because really, I’m a songwriter more than anything else. And I wanted the opportunity to write pop songs, and not be pigeonholed as just a New Age kind of guy.
EXAMINER: Before it was coming straight from the heart, and if it happened to be relaxing for people, then great! Whereas now the songs are still from the heart, but by way of the brain, and it’s relaxing by design. More deliberate?
JIM BRICKMAN: Right! Deliberate. And a lot of that came from the fact that, over time, what changed for me in my career is that…I went from a lot of hits on the radio—which were amazing—to the Target, and the way Target merchandized the albums was much more “lifestyle” and “relaxation” in nature. So people who hadn’t heard about me before started to hear me for the first time, but not know me for things like “Valentine,” or for the things I did with Lady Antebellum, or that kind of thing.
EXAMINER: Last summer marked twenty years in music for you, and we caught your wrap-up show at Cain Park. You mentioned receiving the key to the city, being honored…how’d that feel?
JIM BRICKMAN: Yeah, but it was our Fan Club event. It wasn’t like, “Hey, let’s celebrate Jim!” It was more about…that was a Fan Club event. Every year we do some sort of a Fan Club Experience. The year before was in Nashville, and the year before that was a cruise. We do the cruises, we do all kinds of events. On different years we go to different places.
EXAMINER: Singer Anne Cochran is a frequently collaborator of yours, and often turns up at shows. You attended school here together, right? And Tracy Silverman—the virtuoso electric violinist—how’d you meet him?
JIM BRICKMAN: Anne and I went to Shaker High School together, and worked together for a while after that. Tracey was also on Windham Hill. He was in a group called the Turtle Island String Quartet, which is this very cool band. Anne and I were doing early show dates, and I thought, “I don’t want a band,” because that just wasn’t my thing. That’s what everybody does. Really, my stock in trade is to do more of a theatrical thing, and I prefer to host, and to have that direct one-on-one relationship with the audience, more than I do to performing at people. I perform with the audience, in the sense that it’s a conversation, in my view. So the simplicity of it really gets lost when you have drummers doing ten-minute drum solos. I didn’t want to do that; there’s enough of that in the world. It’s unique, as well. It’s rare. I’m the only person really still doing that type of theatre / music / concert / Broadway stuff. But I wanted to add something that would enhance, but not take over. And Tracy was such a perfect complement. He’s such an incredible musician. And that’s also rare, especially for that instrument.
EXAMINER: I’ve seen you in concert a couple times, and I notice you do this neat thing where you’ll occasionally glance out at the audience—or maybe it’s over the audience. My son noticed it, too. I explained that when you’re stuck playing the piano, your body is oriented that way, and you want to make a point of staying connected with the crowd and letting them get a look at you. Is that off the mark? And you’re also very good with incorporating elements of humor into your shows.
JIM BRICKMAN: It’s funny. Certain behaviors like that…people just have these affectations. After a while, there’s a blurred kind of line between what I feel naturally and what I’m conditioned to do. But it’s also a way of…it’s not completely conscious. It’s a nod to spirituality, and to the fact that this is all coming through me. I’m not really in any fashion an ethereal person, as I said earlier. But I just feel like it’s something I’m meant to do. It’s so comfortable for me; almost too comfortable! The look might be a look for inspiration, or daydreaming, or spirituality. It’s that kind of thing. But looking directly at the audience, I take that very seriously. It’s something I’ve done from the very beginning. Because I wouldn’t want to look straight ahead. When I see people do that—I’ve seen Elton John and Billy Joel on TV, and the microphone is right in front of them at the piano, and they kind of sing straight ahead. So what you see is all profile. I feel like that kind of body language cuts you off from the relationship. It’s like, “I’m into my music; I want you watch me being into my music!” Or something. I don’t know [laughs]! But when I’m singing, “I’m amazed when I look at you” and things like that, if I’m not singing that to the audience, then who would that be? Because then you’re just singing words. The humor element is…people say, “You’re so funny!” But at home I’m not funny at all [laughs]! I’m not joke-telling so much as using it in an observational way. It’s extremely authentic. Like this conversation we’re having now, to me—it’s exactly the same tone as what I might use with the audience. Certainly that guy up on stage is a persona: He’s a very charming guy [laughs]! But he’s also under light, and sitting at a piano, doing what he does best. So of course it seems that way. I just think that when you talk, and you’re just authentic, it makes people feel so much more comfortable. Then they don’t…especially if something happens. I don’t know if anything in particular happened that night—a piano bench falling over, or whatever—but I think you have to show people that you’re appreciative of being there, that you’re grateful. But also that you belong there, and you’re confident. So even though the self-deprecating type of humor is there, it’s never about the talent, it’s only about general life things. Relatable stuff. It would never be, “Can you believe I’m up here?” It wouldn’t be like that.
EXAMINER: It’s very organic, not rehearsed. It strikes me that you’re not acting any differently in front of 5,000 people than you might act playing to just five people sitting around the living room.
JIM BRICKMAN: Yeah, and that’s a craft. Part of it comes from the experience on the radio show, and some of it comes from the fact that I didn’t start this until I was in my early 30s. And I was way…I knew way more about who I was and what life was. As much as a 35-year old could, but way more than a 10-year old. It gave me a chance. I was in business, I was in advertising. I was used to that “adult” dynamic. I was more mature. I had done something for a long time that I was good at, but I never really felt like myself. I felt like I was trying to be schmoozy and sell things. And then I thought, “Here’s a chance to be me, because the music is really coming from me.” You wouldn’t apologize for that. You would try to elevate it, and stand by it and believe in it. So then what started to happen was, there was this tone of “I believe in this,” and I really became successful, unlike in advertising—where I was successful for a 25-year old, but not so much in the bigger scheme of things. And suddenly it hit me, “Oh! You mean, when you do things that come from who you really are, that’s when people like it!” Then it became a mantra of, “You can do whatever you want.” You just have to believe in it. Because if you don’t, nobody else will. And that was very comforting.
EXAMINER: I was going to sign off with you by asking if you had any advice for young up-and-coming musicians. But that’s a good nugget of wisdom right there: Believe in yourself, be who you are.
JIM BRICKMAN: Yes, for young musicians I’d say that’s right. But not so much that you are completely self-righteous about it. I remember the record company Windham Hill saying to me—and I’ll never forget it, I was 32 and they came to my house to sign the papers, and it was all so exciting—and they said, “Your life is going to be totally different.” I was like, “Oh, c’mon now.” And they were like, “Before you sign the papers, you need to understand that you are going to be marketed. This is partly about your music, but it’s also the way you look, the tone of who you are…everything.” I didn’t completely understand that, and had I been self-righteous about it, I would’ve missed the boat. Because they said in order to become successful at this, you have to think: “What do I have that somebody else doesn’t have?” And that’s besides the music. So they proceeded to do twenty albums with me where there’s no piano with me on the album covers [laughs]! It’s just pictures of me! How do people even know what I do [laughs]? But I also don’t like the mentality that these TV shows promote, which is that if you stand in line and win an audition, tomorrow you can be a star. I don’t like that. Because it’s really, really hard work. And that hard work never changes. And I have to remind myself these days that I’m not in my VW van, because it kind of still feels like I am [laughs]! When instead I’m trying by myself in a rental car to the Barnes & Noble stores, and pulling out my electric piano to lug into the store appearances. It’s like, what happened [laughs]?
EXAMINER: The work never stops. One day you’re on TV or up on stage, playing to a couple thousand, and the next…you’re back alone in your car, talking to some guy in Cleveland on the phone, getting ready for a promo appearance. Back to the grind?
JIM BRICKMAN: Right! And if you’re full of yourself, you’ll miss all the good stuff!
JIM BRICKMAN in-store “Soothe” appearances this Saturday, May 2, 2015:
Jim Brickman at Barnes & Noble Crocker Park, Westlake, OH (Noon-2:00pm): http://www.jimbrickman.com/tabid/2581/EventID/354/default.aspx
Jim Brickman at Barnes & Noble Beachwood, Woodmere OH (5:00pm-7:00pm): http://www.jimbrickman.com/tabid/2581/EventID/355/default.aspx