Brett Heron

Brett Heron

Astral Jukebox is the primary creative outlet for songwriter / composer / arranger Brett Heron. He is a musician, vocalist, husband, father, activist, nature lover, and all-around lover of life with a deep-rooted passion for music (and a little mischief.)  Now a new native of Seattle, Brett is wandering about playing rock and roll for all who will listen. If you are catch the light just right, you might find him busking down at Pike Place Market or the Seattle waterfront.

Who Is Brett Heron?

Heron’s youth was steeped in music, be it 70’s roots rock, outlaw country, classic soul, gospel or jazz.  Heron was always active in music; he began playing piano at age ten and writing originals at thirteen. Brett played percussion in junior high and high school. He spent much of his early years in bands playing everything from Jimi Hendrix to the Smashing Pumpkins.   While accepted into the University of Arkansas music program on scholarship, Brett ended up pursuing a degree in financial management and putting a music career on hold for a time.  

In 2013, Heron restarted his music career with a gig at a local dueling piano bar – Willy D’s.  The bar owner was a long-time pianist with the Mel Tillis’ Orchestra. He brought on Heron as a mentee.  It was during this time that he began writing more earnestly. Heron moved to Seattle in 2015 to work for Amazon Music, developing emerging music markets around the world. He had the opportunity to travel extensively through Europe, Asia, and Latin America. This experience further cemented his love for global music and culture. 

During this time, he connected with the vibrant Seattle music scene and local artists with a like-minded vision for creativity and passion for music. Heron formed a band and was in the process of writing a record when the global pandemic hit. Like much of the world, he put everything on hold.   

Brett Heron
Brett Heron recording vocals

Throwing It All Away

Yet, reward rarely comes without risk. In 2021 Heron abandoned a career to pursue what, in hindsight, had been his personal avocation all along.  A Beautiful Catastrophe was recorded at London Bridge Studios in Seattle with producers Jonathan Plum (Candlebox), Eric Lliavois (Surfer Blood), and Geoff Ott (Tobias the Owl). The record features drummer Ben Smith and bassist Andy Stoller of the iconic Heart, and Kathy Moore (Brandi Carlisle) on guitar. Heron is holding down the fort on acoustic guitar and keys.

Thematically, A Beautiful Catastrophe is an earnest reminder that life is fleeting, and we should all strive to live and love to the fullest each day. Heron is rededicating his life to bringing people closer to the music he has loved for so long. As our guide, we will explore the sonic textures that make this world a diverse, beautiful, and exciting adventure waiting to be experienced.

Making of A Beautiful Catastrophe

Making A Beautiful Catastrophe

Less is way more.   I love the little things: little hooks, catchy phrases, and artistic flourishes.   The make the world go around for me.   Most of the time, they are simple tropes that stick with you, like that hook in Macklemore’s Thrift Shop.    These are the earworms that wrestle with you for the rest of the day or well into the night.   I love them and what’s not to love? They are catchy and often eponymous bits that help you identify the work and make it unique.  So, what is better than a good thing?  A whole lot more of a good thing, right? You can now catch a glimpse of the album here.

Working with seasoned professionals is such a great treat.   On the album, we have Ben Smith playing drums and percussion, Andy Stoller on bass, and the indominable Kathy Moore on guitar.  Ben and Andy have spent considerable time playing together. They are bandmates in Heart and on many studio sessions and side projects.   They understand each other musically in a way that is truly amazing to watch. Frankly, they are a hell of a lot of fun.  Kathy brings a kind of raw energy to the mix that is infectious to watch and listen to.   This trifecta of awesome is staggering and emotional.  Their precision does not get in the way of their presence, which is rare in modern music.  The beat is too often mixed down to millisecond monotony. They are danceable drones that lack personality and passion.

Making A Beautiful Catastrophe Beautiful

Simplicity the biggest lesson that I have taken away from our studio time at London Bridge Studios this week.   The studio time has been amazing. I have been sitting and absorbing the tracks where so many great artists have listened to their modern masterpieces unfold.   I found myself saying over and over “I love that, can we do more of that?”   The answer often was that less is more – less flair, less frivolity, and more passion.   While the trifecta could have filled up every 32nd note space with more, more, and more awesomeness, they often just let the space be space.   As a result, the tracks can breathe and have a lot more room to waft around in your brain. We are avoiding cramming it full of so many notes that you cannot think by the end of the tune.   

Amazing musicians from all genres enthrall me.   I filled my music library with everything from the art rock of the 70’s thorough modern jazz. There is nothing like hearing amazing musicians rip through a phrase that seems utterly inhuman.   However, the art of space is far more nuanced and often unnoticed.  Think of Pink Floyd’s Us and Them and Tom Waits Hold On. It’s the space that gives them life – without it, they could become something so unmusical and unlovable.   I kept hearing “let’s take that out” or “lets save that for the outro.” My hyperactive mind kept saying, “but that’s exciting!” Meanwhile, my heart threw in a more cautious “but it’s more exciting to hear it for the first time towards the end.” 

Astral Jukebox Session Players
Andy Stoller, Kathy Moore, Ben Smith, Brett Heron, and Jenny.

Work Continues

The team at London Bridge was truly awesome for our first week in the studio.  Julian Anderson is a fantastic engineer with an ear that surpasses anything I am accustomed to.    I found myself frequently asking “how in the world did you hear that?”  I thought that especially profound with so much going on.   So, while I was chomping at the bit more of Ben’s fills, Kathy’s solos, or Andy’s glissando, they held back.  The result was a beautiful punctuation of every phrase and a little kiss of magic.  Less is way more and, in the end, it is everything.  A Beautiful Catastrophe is coming along beautifully.   I know that it will be artful, tasteful, and have plenty of space to rattle around in your head. Thanks to the amazing musicianship of these artists and their willingness to paint with just the right brushstroke on every measure of the song.    

The Wall by Pink Floyd

The Wall by Pink Floyd

It was a wall between the band and itself.  One of the most iconic and talked about albums of all time certainly paid its price in the bad blood of the members of Pink Floyd.   Between the admittedly dour story lines are some of the most well-known solos, lyrics, and even screams in rock n roll.   This album has been an absolute inspiration to my music.   Most likely, it was because I listened to it from beginning to end almost every single day in 1999.  I was drawn to something in the character of “Pink”. There was something in the madness, something in the rejection of those around us that captivated me and I could not get enough.   Now, more than 40 years after the albums release, I still feel pulled in by those same lyrics today. I’m still somewhat mystified as to what has inspired me all these years.

A Concept Album

The Wall is a tour through the mind of Roger Waters with additional musical inspiration by David Gilmour.  Roger had conceived of the album during their 1977 In The Flesh tour. The tour lends its name to two rather poignant tracks.  Roger admitted that he had felt disconnected with the audience. During the tour, an ever – larger, drunker, and more distanced fan base emerged. This was a far cry from the small club sets of their heyday.   

Subsequently, he conceived of building a wall between him and the audience. Instead, he built one between himself and the rest of the band.   In the Flesh? Is an apropos beginning to both the album and the demise of Pink Floyd as asks his audience if they just came for that “space-cadet glow.”  It becomes a bit of an admission that he had be playing a character on stage, one that he was increasingly uncomfortable with.

The Wall Tracks

Most fans and non-fans alike recognize the familiar cannons from the album. The disco march of Another Brick in the Wall and the drug-induced hypnosis of Comfortably Numb come to mind.    My favorite tracks are situated in between. Some of my favorites didn’t even show up until the movie was produced a couple years later. This includes including The Tigers Broke Free.   In the aforementioned In the Flesh?, the band draws parallels with extremism and madness that still resonate today. Young Lust is quite possibly the Floyd’s most rock and roll song in their entire catalogue. It is something that you might expect from more traditional rock artists like the Stones.   

The first album concludes with Goodbye Cruel World and deep emotion that could only be understood by those who have experienced it.   The somber closing the first record is Pink’s, the albums protagonist rock star, descent into madness.  Is There Anybody Out There is a beautiful acoustic guitar melody that is both haunting and hopeful as it starts the second album. The Trial and subsequent Outside the Wall are masterful conclusions to Pink’s catastrophic fall and conclusion. Perhaps, they are reminiscent of the band itself.   

Pink Floyd – An Ending and Beginning

Widely regarded as one of the best rock operas of all time, The Wall was something more personal to me.  I was struggling with my own darkness in life. The Wall became a bit of a daily metaphor for losing it all as well as redemption. Some of the tracks on A Beautiful Catastrophe are heavily inspired by this album.  “All along or in twos, the ones who really love you walk up and down outside the wall.”  For me, the whole album with its soaring signature Gilmour licks, explosive dynamics, and downright eerie melancholy comes down to this.   Like the story of Pink Floyd fans themselves, even while The Wall ripped the band we loved apart. In the end, we to walked up and down The Wall waiting someday for an ultimate reconciliation and rebirth.   

Making A Beautiful Catastrophe

A Beautiful Catastrophe

It has become a beautiful catastrophe. What should I expect when I reached out to Dave with a handful of songs?   I had played these songs a few times around Seattle before the pandemic shut down all live music.  A few weeks later, I would be sitting with Jonathan at London Bridge Studios working through pre-production and geeking out on the very studio where some of my favorite music was recorded – Pearl Jam’s Ten, Alice and Chains’ Dirt, and Blind Melon.   I was sitting in the room and seeing the piano that Mother Love Bone used on Chloe Dancer. It was like taking a walk back through Seattle music history.   So many great artists have walked through these doors. Melissa Etheridge, Brandi Carlisle, and Dave Matthews are just a few to grace this studio.   I couldn’t quite believe that I would soon be sitting down and plugging into that same infamous Neve 8048. I would be pouring out my soul in a place where so much history has been made.

As of this writing, we are a week out from the first day of tracking. The final pre-production sketches are coming together.   We are working out a few details on We Get Together and Spectacular Monster. The tracks are coming together nicely.   We have most of the session players picked out for the record and they are fantastic. I am super excited to have a chance to play with these amazing musicians.   A Beautiful Catastrophe is all starting to come together so fast – I never expected to get to this stage. 

So, why make an album?   

So many of these ideas have been floating around in my head for years, including Cocoon and Beautiful Catastrophe.   These songs have been gnawing away at my head and asking to be let out.   Both of these songs are autobiographical and explain the reason for putting all this down on vinyl (or digital).    I have recently undergone a number of personal transformations, just like the one I describe in Cocoon.   I feel that I have locked my soul away while I pursued more “practical” careers.  These careers have provided well materially, but left me very hollow inside, much like the shell of the Cocoon itself.   When the pandemic hit, it forced a level of self-reflection that I had not experienced before. It was a bit of a rebirth.    Music is and always has been my passion, my outlet, and my source of inspiration.   

Much of the pandemic itself was also a beautiful catastrophe.   It was a tragic loss of life on a massive scale. It also forced all of us to reconcile what and even who was important in our lives.  For a brief time, we stopped elevating materialism and celebrity as the most treasured parts of our society. Instead, we started elevating the nurses, teachers, doctors, and stay at home parents – the true heroes in our society.   It was a mass awakening on an unprecedented scale.  Let’s hope some of these values remain long after the tragic loss that drove us to these new conclusions.   

Making A Beautiful Catastrophe
Making A Beautiful Catastrophe

What’s Next for Astral Jukebox?

It was against this backdrop that I decided I could no longer stay contented working in roles helping the rich get richer.   Instead, I want to use music to give back.  What are my goals for this album? First, I want to bring some of the same joy to others that I have experienced listening to music over the years.  Second, I want to use music to help raise awareness that will help make this world a better place.   So, even before I had reached out to Dave and told him about the songs, I had already decided that this album would be used to help. It would be more than just great music for people to listen to. A Beautiful Catastrophe was going to make a difference.   I am looking forward to the next steps in this journey. This is a journey towards personal change and a journey through an amazing musical experience.   

Before These Crowded Streets

Before These Crowded Streets

Maybe it was the drums.  Twenty-five years ago, Dave Matthews Band released Before These Crowded Streets.   This was to be their follow up to the wildly successful Crash, their best-selling album to date.     Streets debuted on the Billboard Top 200 at #1, edging out the Titanic soundtrack after a long run on the charts.   The album was hailed as a successful effort to channel the energy of the band’s live performances into a studio version for the masses.  More importantly for me, it was the first DMB album that I had the chance to listen to completely.  After that, I was hooked and wanted more.   

Maybe It Was the Drums

Before These Crowded Streets is a tour de force as well as a guest performance party. The album is a wild ride from the first intro of Pantala Naga Pampa, which means “There’s a snake in my pants” in Indian Tamil. The ride continues to the last bar of Spoon, a beautiful duet with Alanis Morrisette. There are soaring solos by LeRoi Moore throughout the album. Dave himself that tends to push the limits vocally. The songs are a powerful testament to the “jam-ability” of the band. Dave does not hold back with raw, belting vocals on Halloween, The Stone, and Don’t Drink the Water.

Don’t Drink the Water has become one of the album’s most long lasting singles. It was a strong case for including guest musicians Bela Fleck and Alanis Morrisette on the record.  This album was my first exposure to Bela Fleck and another reason that I fell in love with the album and the group.  After all, who in modern rock uses both a violin and banjo on the same song?  Answer, no one by the DMB.  I ended up chasing down Bela for multiple shows after hearing this album. The Flecktones are another group of musicians worthy of a mention in a future post.   Former Flecktones’ band member Jeff Coffin joined DMB for the past few tours. Its not a coincidence that great musicians tend to run in the same circles.

Carter Beauford Makes The Music Move

For all the musicality of the group and the album, it was ultimately the inexorable Carter Beauford that made me fall in love with the band.   Carter grew up playing drums in front of a mirror and set his kit so that it appeared in the mirror exactly as he saw his idols playing on stage. This meant that his kit was set up exactly backwards from how most drummers play.  The result was that Carter became completely ambidextrous and completely awesome.   To this day, when I listen to the album, I hear a new phrase from Carter that he carefully hid between bars or tucked away in an intro.   It is those little nuggets of nuance that make my ears perk up and scream.    Even watching the band live, I find myself keenly tuned into what Carter is up to and often it is a lot.   

Twenty-five years and six albums later, Carter and the gang are still making awesome music.  Every year, we make the pilgrimage to “Labor Dave Weekend” at the beautiful Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Washington.   It is a weekend full of camping, jamming, and awesome scenery as the band takes us on a tour of a catalogue worthy of the adoring throng in attendance.    With so many new musicians added to the mix, the best part of the show are the long detours through jam-land, replete with Tim Reynolds signature licks and Dave’s vocal acrobatics.   However, in between Crush and Don’t Drink the Water, its Carter Beauford’s rhythmic poetry that makes the Before These Crowded Streets great and ultimately created a lifelong fan of the band. It is my sincere hope to imitate some of the musical expression on the forthcoming album, A Beautiful Catastrophe. Until then, I’ll keep listening and loving those amazing drums.

May the Fourth Be With You?

Perfect Fourth

Why fourth am I so preoccupied?  No, this isn’t a Star Wars reference (well, maybe a little). We all have that one song (or type of song) that we return to over and over again.   For some of us, is that hard-rocking song that we used play every time we got into our first car.  For others, it’s that song that we used to dance to with our friends every Friday and cemented the bonds that last a lifetime.  Some remember the song that was playing when they first locked in embrace with that someone that was destined to be in our lives forever.  For a few, it’s the song that played right after they left.   For all of us, music is so locked in our memories that we only need to hear those first few bars to know exactly how we are going to feel for the next few minutes.   For me, it’s the perfect fourth.

What Is A Perfect Fourth?

So, what the heck is a perfect fourth?   Well, technically speaking it is two notes, five semi-tones apart, which makes little to no sense to most of us.   On a piano keyboard, the notes C (the key just south of the two black keys on a keyboard) and F (the one just below the three black keys) represent a perfect fourth.  This is just an example as you keep moving up a keyboard (or guitar) one key at a time, including those black keys, there are 12 perfect fourths on the keyboard.   Again, while all of this is correct according to music theory, this really means nothing until you hear.

Perhaps the most recognized example of a perfect fourth are the first two notes in Amazing Grace or the first two notes in the Bridal March (“Here comes the bride”).  Once a chord is wrapped around these two notes, then (for me) you have musical magic.   Some well-known examples of songs that used this musical trope include Love Me Tender, Born in the USA, Achy Breaky Heart, Only Living Boy In New York (one of my favorites), What I Got, and Hold On by the Alabama Shakes.   If you are familiar with these tunes, you may notice that the fourth can either be very pensive or make you want to immediately jump out of your seat and this is precisely what I love about this versatile little arrangement.   With just a little change in speed, you have a different mood altogether, but always very happy.   

Perfect Fourth
Perfect Fourth on piano keyboard

So, Now What? A Beautiful Catastrophe

Well, I’ve jumped in the fray with a couple selections of my own to add to the panoply which I hope you will enjoy.   For the new album, A Beautiful Catastrophe, I have intentionally used this as both a reflective backdrop in “Mercy” but also a more energetic medium in “Neon Nights”.  I honestly have to control myself as I am susceptible to overuse, but don’t be surprised if it pops up again.  For me, whenever the fourth makes its way into my ear, it makes me sit up and take notice, most often with a big smile on my face.   Happy listening.