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Biography

One of the many endearing things about Bruno Major is that he doesn’t seem to have any idea – really, not a single clue – what a powerful and emotionally searing singer he is. Ask Bruno about his guitar-playing and, sheepish grin out of the way, he’ll wax lyrical about an instrument he first picked up at the age of seven, and which has seen him through good times and bad, triumphs and false starts, ever since. It comes as no surprise whatsoever to learn that Bruno studied and mastered jazz guitar (studies that saw him earning a living as a session guitarist from the young age of 16, a journey that would eventually see him up on stage performing alongside artists such as Erykah Badu and Lalah Hathaway). The “extra chord” that is such a hallmark of the jazz greats – and eludes so many guitarists unversed in the musical language of the genre – is a constant in Bruno’s writing, and a quality what sets him far apart from his peers. You can hear it in the opening bars of The First Thing You See, the lead track on the live EP that Bruno has released: just as the melody on the verse seems set to resolve itself, a fresh detour occurs as he is ensnared by the beauty of another unorthodox chord.

What does come as a surprise is that Bruno seems genuinely to not think of himself as a singer – despite the compelling evidence to the contrary provided by that EP. “It’s true,” he says, “I don’t. I scarcely ever sang until I moved to London three years ago. But I had these songs, and I needed someone to sing them. People would ask me, when I sent them my demos, ‘Who’s the guy singing?’ And I’d have to go: ‘Well, it’s me.’ I still get excited hearing my voice, because it still seems so new to me.” He doesn’t mean by that, he adds, that he rates himself as a singer; in any case, he asks, what does the term “a good singer” mean? “My favourite singers are Randy Newman, Bob Dylan and Louis Armstrong, none of whom have any semblance of a traditional singing voice. It’s about a capacity to communicate emotion. It’s not about saying that, because Donny Hathaway can sing like he does, he’s any better or worse than Randy Newman; it’s about their both having an ability to translate their emotions through their voices, and that’s the only thing that matters. Everything else is irrelevant.”

If singing on his own demos required the summoning of courage, doing so on stage was on a whole other level, Bruno says. He admits that the first time he did so he found the experience “absolutely terrifying. It was like standing there with no clothes on, yet at the same time it was the most thrilling thing I’ve ever done. I can’t rehearse – if I’m just in a room singing my songs, it just feels like I’m talking to myself. They’re stories, and who wants to tell a story to a cushion? And that’s how a song really comes to life; not when you’ve written it, but when you can stand on a stage and perform it, and feel how the audience is reacting.”

A late-starter on the singing front, Bruno wasn’t exactly first out of the traps as a songwriter, either – another surprise, when you consider how fully-formed and natural his writing sounds. “I think a combination of a lot of different things had stopped me writing before. The main thing was needing to understand that I had the ability to write; I had no idea. I’d never sung before, I wrote poetry, and I wrote music in my head. It takes a certain amount of courage to put your personal thoughts into a musical format and put them out into the world. Writing my first song felt like an epiphany, and the floodgates opened and that was that.”

Bruno finds it hard now, he says, to imagine a time when he didn’t write. “I’d been a guitarist for so many years, and I knew that music was the thing that was most important to me, but I didn’t know quite what it was within music that I needed to do. I’d been a session player, I’d studied jazz and done classical music, it was all there, but I hadn’t worked out was missing. And then I wrote a song, and thought: ‘If there is a reason why I’m on planet Earth, this is it’. It was suddenly so obvious; a real on-off switch moment. I felt like a much more complete person, more at peace, about everything.” He doesn’t regret the time it took him to get those songs out, though. “I admire people who can write amazing songs at the age of 18, but I don’t know what I would have written about. I hadn’t had my heart broken, I hadn’t discovered anything about the world. It took a few years of doing that, of living life, before I could begin to process that and spit it out.”

Sharing a flat in Camden Town with his brother Dot, one third of the acclaimed minimalist-pop three-piece London Grammar, Bruno learnt some valuable lessons as he witnessed their debut album, If You Wait, taking shape. Having signed a publishing deal in late 2012 on the strength of just four songs, Bruno resolved to hunker down and write the material for his album in conditions of complete freedom, road testing them live before playing the results to record labels. In the end, it would be a US label, Virgin Records America, that would seal the deal with an artist they recognised as a true independent spirit. “They basically said,” recalls Bruno, “‘We love your music; now, please go and make a record’. It was so refreshing and encouraging.” The renowned producer Ethan Johns (Paul McCartney, Kings of Leon, Ray LaMontagne, Laura Marling, Paolo Nutini) had much the same response. “We drew up a dream, winning-the-Euromillions list,” Bruno laughs, “and his was the first name on it. I couldn’t believe it when he said yes.”

Ethan is a kindred spirit for Bruno, and the two of them are currently ensconced in the studio, along with two musicians at the very top of their game, the bass-player Pino Palladino and the drummer Jeremy Stacey. “Having grown up as a session-player,” says Bruno, “my super-heroes are probably different to other people’s; it’s the guys in the background I looked up to. So to have them involved is incredibly exciting.” One of the things Bruno most admires about Ethan, he says, is “his determination to let the emotional impact of the music dictate the direction of the recording”. Nothing is calculated or by-the-book; everything is spontaneous – which pretty much describes those early lessons Bruno learnt as a passionate convert to jazz. “I didn’t really understand music until I discovered jazz,” he says now. “That was the game-changer for me. I still approach music very much from a jazz perspective, its sense of harmony, how chords work. I used to spend about six hours a day playing, and there is so much to learn, to absorb. That said, I remember reading this brilliant interview with the pianist Bill Evans, in which he argued that if you’re constantly involved with the mechanics of music, you become blinded to the original naivety that everyone has. If you play a chord and it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard, and then play it 10,000 times, you become numb to it. That’s why it’s important to be able to step back. It means you can fall in love with it every day, like it’s the first time.”

Another notable feature of Bruno’s writing is the way that his (extraordinary) guitar-playing is constantly battling with his vocals for primacy – a detail that reminds you how reduced the role of the guitar is in so much contemporary pop. It’s appropriate, too, for the music that Bruno writes, whose atmospherics are hazy and bucolic, but whose lyrics are direct, and unashamedly romantic. “Creating tension between the guitar and the voice is, for me, the greatest goal,” Bruno says. “I lived in fear of my guitar for a while because I’ve always felt that instrumental musicianship and songwriting are totally different concepts; that they have no relation to one another whatsoever. When I first started writing, I didn’t want the guitar to get in the way, so I buried it, I made sure it was simple and in the background. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to bring it back into my songwriting. That feels much more natural now.”

The long years before the songs and the singing came pouring out were, Bruno says, “pretty difficult at times. There were periods where being a musician, being musical, felt like a curse. I’d be playing a bar gig for 50 quid, and I’d see all my friends becoming doctors or something like that, and think, ‘Why couldn’t I have been born with, say, a maths brain?’. But I can’t do anything else, and I wouldn’t be happy if I could, if that makes sense. I need to play the guitar, it’s as simple as that. Anything on top of that is ... well, it’s a bonus. At least I didn’t have to make a choice about what I was going to do when I was older; it was like, there’s the path, how far down it can you go?”

Right now, he says, the challenge is to make the best album he can – and try to stay away from vintage-guitar shops. “My manager’s main job isn’t to manage me,” Bruno says, “it’s to stop me buying guitars.” Brilliant guitarist he may be, but the day this supremely talented singer, with his raw, visceral, emotion-shredding voice, goes shopping for a vintage microphone will be the day we know that progress has been made. Until that day, long may the battle between the two natural gifts Bruno Major possesses continue. Because tension has rarely sounded this sweet.




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