Every musician has a unique story, their own path to success. But it’s not often that you meet a musician on the rise who has had such an extensive and eclectic background as having been an international superstar- starring in the recent #1 Japanese film- modeling for high fashion brands like Hermes, and touring in his early years with acts that include Bad Religion, Good Charlotte, and Dredg. Meet Brett Pemberton.
I first heard about Brett Pemberton through a mutual friend. In fact, his friend happened to witness me interviewing another talented musician and said, “I don’t usually do this, but I have someone you have to listen to”. He spoke so passionately about Brett’s music that I found myself agreeing to set up an interview before having listened to his work…and don’t worry, the music did not disappoint. Nor did the interview!
Perhaps the most talkative, expressive, intelligent, charismatic, and funny (at times, foul-mouthed) musician I have sat down with. It is easy to see why he has met with instant success across varied fields of entertainment. But make no mistake, music is his passion.
It was hard to believe that Brett had only been in Los Angeles three weeks at the time of this interview and has never set foot on an L.A. stage. I’m not sure this city knows what they are in for!
PPLA: You grew up in a small town and, like many, came to L.A. to pursue your career. Tell me about that journey.
BP: Long story short, I grew up in a tiny town called Port Townsend. It has probably less than ten thousand people and it is located on the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state about two and half hours North-West of Seattle. It’s gorgeous, it’s palatial, it’s this strange combination of working class folks with Microsoft billionaire retirees. It’s a very strange place. It’s Victorian era antiquity that is preserved. I’ve always felt that I have some sort of strange connection with it, and I’ve always gone back.
PPLA: When did your love of music begin?
BP: I started playing music when I was eight years old; I just started playing. My parents aren’t musicians, it was sort of just divine in a way. When I was about four years old I saw a commercial of a kid on TV who had a push button guitar. I begged my parents for it. For some reason, they got it for me. Then a few years later, I begged them for a real one and got an electric guitar with a built in speaker from Toys ‘R Us. I thought it was really cool. It was half size, made for a little guy, and I played it all the time and broke most of the strings on the first day. There were only two strings left, so I learned to play on two. Then I started delving really deeply into strange shit. I started taking apart my parents stereo equipment and rebuilding it. I actually built a multi-track recorder by age eight. I don’t know how I did, it’s just one of those things like when you have a calling, boundaries don’t matter. I started recording and writing songs and by the time I was twelve, I had put out my first CD which was recorded by the father of basically the only other 12-year old guitar player in town. It was very Mom and Pop. We sold a total of 100 units, nothing big, but it was the beginning of this endeavor.
PPLA: How did your early music career progress?
BP: Throughout my teens I played in dozens of bands. At one point, I was in three bands- just constantly absorbed in music. One was a nationally touring act that I played drums for, another was a jazz-pop-and-fusion group where everyone was in their forties except for me (I was 15 and I played drums), and then I sang in a band called Waiting for the Sun which had some marginal interest from record labels. But, as I said before, this was a very off the mark town, so we didn’t have many resources to theoretically climb the charts.
PPLA: How did your professional modeling career come about and how did it segway or impact your music?
BP: At nineteen, I got discovered as a model. My sister had been a model for several years and I had done only one photo shoot previously when I was twelve years old. It wasn’t because we had stage parents, that was not the case. It was because my sister was discovered at a Chanel shop jokingly trying on a four thousand dollar jacket and a woman saw her and thought she was gorgeous. My family all laughed because we thought she was not! Not that she wasn’t attractive, but she was a nut. She was completely covered in all this punk rock at the time. But it was underneath that, that this woman saw beauty and my sister got into modeling. A few years later a friend of a friend brought a photo in of me to her agency and they asked for me to come in to meet them. So I started at nineteen and the modeling really took off after about nine months. I quickly switched to work with one of the better agencies in Seattle and then my career really exploded. I was in Europe the next month and modeling for brands including Gucci, Armani, Hermes, Ralph Lauren, and Jill Sander. It was totally insane and not expected. I was a musician and that’s what I wanted to do with my life. Actually for one of the first modeling gigs, I ended up writing a song for the company too. I tried whatever I could to parlay the exposure I got from modeling into music which is a difficult task, but they are related fields. It’s all entertainment- people know each other. I didn’t have connections so I used what I could.
PPLA: Any crazy stories from your modeling career that helped get you where you are musically today?
BP: I once snuck backstage at a Tommy Hilfiger party in Milan. I literally tricked the security guard to get back there. There was a performer that night named Amerie (she had a gold record, was in a movie with Katie Holmes, and put out a song called “One Thing” which was super catchy). She had performed at the party and I was invited as a model. I wanted to meet her manager because I was so singularly focused at getting a manager for music. Essentially what happened backstage was that one of Amerie’s backup dancers didn’t know how to use the European toilet. I did so that was it, I was “in”. I showed her and then she brought me back stage where I waited and waited. I met Tommy Hilfiger actually, and then met Amerie’s manager who represented me for a short while in a very relaxed manner because I returned to my small town when we got back and he was in NY permanently which made things a bit difficult and discombobulated. But I was obsessed with getting representation, and I was not born into a situation of affluence or provided with inherent connections so I definitely had to make them for myself. That essentially spawned what was the closest thing to my professional career (aside from some touring and interest that had happened to my independent bands when I was younger). I was able to go stay in NY for a few months as a model but basically just as a guise to pursue music. I would use it to my advantage. If they were putting me up on the upper east side as a model, I would take that opportunity and put all my juice into music. I traveled with a portable studio! It was an amazing opportunity but it also provided this dichotomy of being sucked into an industry-modeling- that I did not want to exist within. It was a means to an end, because I had no other resources. I never wanted to be a model. I’ll still do it but I’m not interested in it and certainly would not pursue it. Nor would I pursue acting even though I ended up shooting the #1 movie in Japan this year, Beck.
PPLA: How did you accidentally became an international actor on your path to a musical career? Do you speak Japanese?
BP:It was circumstance. I speak the most embarrassing version of poor man’s Japanese ever that you can conjure up in your imagination. No I don’t speak Japanese, and when I do I speak it like a fool. I went to a casting in Japan as a model for a film there that was made by Toho studios who also made Godzilla. It was not disclosed to me but the predetermined cast at that point- I was one of the last additions as a cast member- was comprised of the hottest young stars in Japan. Like your tabloid stars here in America, it was all of those people but in Japan. The lead actor was Hiro Mizushima who is just a teen idol over there and his wife is like Mariah Carey basically. It was phenomenal, but I wasn’t told any of this in advance so I had no nerves about the situation. This could have been a B-movie or an independent film. I had no idea and I just went in there like a total jackass and it completely worked. The reason I got the role was because…well, what did they require? They required a big tall white guy with doey blue eyes who played the electric guitar. And what have I done my whole life? Play electric guitar. How many other motherf&%$ers are there like that in Japan? Not many, so my odds were pretty good. So this was just another fluke of wild luck. I auditioned and this was several auditions, maybe six or seven, before I was hired and on set. It was one of those situations where I really didn’t know what I was getting into. It was mainly luck and fate but it was one of the wilder, cooler experiences of my life, absolutely! It became the number one movie. Inception came out in the U.S. the same weekend and our film made it look like this shitty independent movie in terms of box office sales in Japan. It was through the roof.
PPLA: Would fans go crazy if they saw you on the streets in Japan?
BP: I’d say yes to that except that I was dressed like a Kurt Cobain style dude with long blonde hair and probably the ugliest beautification for an on-camera role that you could think of. I did not look good or like myself- not to sound arrogant- but I did not look like myself. Of course I have been stopped on the street and asked for autographs but that’s when someone is really paying attention, like checking me out at the grocery line for a while up close. I can see them as they think, ‘his face, what is it, are you in a movie?’ (laughs) Honestly, I don’t give a shit about acting or modeling, but I have the utmost respect for the craft. I am not even remotely close to being an actor…of course, I’d still be happy to take the role in the next Twilight (laughs) and I think I could do a great job, but I am not an actor or a model. Still I’m not going to deny a really good pay day.
PPLA: Where are you at with your music? You only arrived in LA three weeks ago? What is your plan?
BP: I’m actually about to travel to NY, I’ve got some old connections there in the song writing and production world. I won’t be doing modeling again this time, I’ll just be doing music. Just before I was about to leave, I got the opportunity to come here to L.A. and produce an amazing new hip hop artist who is affiliated with Nick Canon and his incredible label. I can’t say much more but I came here to do that first. It just so happens I’m also working with two other female artists. I’ll be honest with you, one of my favorite things to do is grab my guitar and go sit on a stool and play. I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty damn good at it too, but I’ve had so little time lately to actually develop that part of my career. I am doing so many other production related things and it stimulates my mind in a way that simply sitting on a stool and playing guitar doesn’t. I need both. So right now where that element stands in that I’m looking to build my team. I would like to have a personal manager for my music. I don’t need one for my production but for my solo music as well as to help find venues to play. I’m new; I’m still fresh blood in Los Angeles. I have not yet performed here, not even once. So tell all these fools to book me because I am going to blow them away!
PPLA: So you write songs and music for other artists?
BP: I write music for other people and I would say that pop is my area of expertise, more so than performing. I love to perform and I am good at it, and I don’t think I’m being modest, but my pop writing is certainly my most polished craft. So if there are any young singer-song writers out there or any established acts that want an incredible pop song, that’s what I do best.
PPLA: How would you describe your own sound?
BP: That’s a really good question. So if I am sitting on a stool and playing my music, I would describe it as such- generally melancholy. Not because I’m a sad person, I am incredibly optimistic.
PPLA: It is surprising to hear your music and then meet you. You have such high, upbeat energy.
BP: Right, you thought I’d be smoking cigarettes and telling you how bad my life is. (laughs). Music is definitely catharsis for me. Even the pop music I create tends to be little darker edged. Not to say that it is a downer, it’s totally up, but it’s dark brooding, and insightful. I guess you could say that I let my shadow be expressed through my music, and I’m perfectly comfortable with that. On a level of guitar playing, I have been playing since I’m eight years old so it’s not only proficient but I’ve written and played for bands like Queensryche. They are known for their guitar playing, and I actually played in a band with one of their lead guitarists (who’s about 24 and the rest of the band is in their 50’s). He’s actually from my small town too, so it’s pretty strange. I play the shit out of the guitar is what I’m trying to say. I also play the drums, a little bit of piano, and the bass.
PPLA: What inspires your songs?
BP: I would say that my emotional spectrum that inspires the music is more cumulative than specific. I do not sit down with a topic in mind to write about generally. It’s the subconscious that takes over. However, I will say that the craft is so refined after just twenty years of doing it over and over again, with a catalogue of 300-350 songs, that it becomes somewhat automatic as if your brain processes these things internally. I can’t say that I don’t write the lyrics and the melodies that come out because I do because it comes from my brain, but it is very mysterious to me. It comes to me almost completed. You know how a rapper freestyles, that’s what I do with my melody and lyrics. I hardly ever write anything down. What I usually do is make the music first which to me is completely primal, evocative, and deeply emotional, and I just let the feelings soar into the composition. Once that foundation is laid, it almost inevitably inspires the melody and a lyric because there is so much feeling and passion. That’s my process but what inspires it is simply life. There is no knife, sword, blade, bomb, or human being on this planet that could separate me and my passion for music. It’s the only way that I can associate with my actual identity is by associating with music. So the inspiration comes from an utter infatuation and euphoria and deep love of music, as well as life in a very cumulative and unconscious way…Wow that was a lot. (laughs)
PPLA: You may be new to the L.A. scene but you’ve toured with big bands like Good Charlotte and Bad Religion, what was that like?
BP: Fantastic! I got to play in one of the largest venues in Washington state called The Gorge Amphitheater when I was sixteen years old. Of course I was like on the B-stage, but we played in front of a hefty crowd as part of this punk rock band called The Hollowpoints who have now gone on to tour the world. I dropped out when I was about seventeen after playing with them since I was age twelve. It was remarkable. I will say that my particularly fond memory is opening for a band that became my favorite band, a band called Dredg. At sixteen, the band that I was singing for called Waiting for the Sun opened for Dredg. Have you ever heard of The Apex Theory? They were supposed to headline the gig but three days prior they broke up. Dredg was on a major label and had a big following, so we opened the show. It was a huge audience for us being from a small town but it was probably only about 600-700. The venue was called the Phoenix Theater. After we played we broke down our gear and I had met the singer very briefly before from Dredg and thought nothing of it because I was younger and a little cocky. I decided to sit in the back of the audience to watch him perform. It was essentially like the stage went black and a spotlight followed the singer of Dredg out to the crowd. He’s very polished and Hollywood-looking now but at the time, he looked like he just rolled off of a three-week long bong binge. He was just very relaxed and not intimidating, not pre-calculated, just very real and raw. He got out there and I didn’t know what to think but they dimmed the lights, he started their set, and it was still to this day one of the most mesmerizing performances I have ever seen. I found a special place in my heart for Dredg that I can still not describe to this day. It was a real honor to be able to open for them and I highly recommend checking out their album El Cielo which I think means ‘The Sky’ in Spanish.
PPLA: What other bands have influenced you?
BP: My favorite artist of all time is Enya actually- everybody’s mom’s favorite artist. I will amend that statement to say that I like approximately fifty percent of her material more than any material I have ever heard, including Dredg, and the other fifty percent I don’t care for. I like the dark, brooding, sad Enya music. I think it’s brilliant and I think she is one of the most incredible artists of our time. It’s just funny that she lives in Ireland in a castle next to Bono’s castle and has sold 70 million albums and is one of the most successful non-touring artists of all time. She is this huge commercial success. In fact in Japan, she was one of their number one artists for years. She sings in sixteen different languages. She doesn’t speak sixteen languages, she has a linguist that helps translate. She tends to work with the same team which I think is really cool because she’s able to keep it insular. She can deliver the same quality of records every time. She’s also done soundtrack work for some of the most incredible movies and has songs on films like Lord of the Rings. I revere her and if i could meet here, even though she’s probably like sixty, I’d f%&k the shit out of her. (laughs) So that’s my favorite artist that’s inspired me. My current favorite artist is a guy named Simon Lynge who is quite well known in Europe. He’s an amazing guy and I am lucky to actually be a friend of his, and this is not just an ass-kissing thing! He’s from Greenland and he became famous in Los Angeles but only after his work overseas. He came here and was discovered in Los Angeles by a guy who produced Michael Jackson and has put out a record on a label called LO-Max Records. He’s sort of a folk singer, and he sings sort of straight to the point music. Simple would be the wrong word to use, but he simplifies the complex and the meaningful into these cherishable, incredibly melodic, and very heart touching songs. He is incredible. The serendipity is when he is not touring, he lives in in Port Townsend, the little small ass town I grew up in. Other artists I love include Damien Rice, John Mayer, Bad Religion, and The Offspring. All these guys are seriously scientists who pose as rock stars on the side. They are super intelligent and talented.
PPLA: Do you have a favorite song?
BP: I know so little about either of the artists that collaborated on it but for some reason the song that touches my heart and soul beyond measure is called There’s Nothing I Won’t Do. It’s a Red Jerry ad JX Remix. I feel that way possibly because of the associated memory attached to it. I was with my family and high as f*&k! (laughs) I love electronic and trance music, and I’m not sure when it came out but it sounds like British early-90’s trance. It’s a long song and the first half is very strange. You almost have to suffer through the first half, then it breaks out and almost without fail,I cry to the end of it. I talk too much!
PPLA: Where can your fans follow your career or expect to see you next?
BP: I am into social media, but I’m also really into having a nice website so check out the site for updates, visit Brett Pemberton.
Before departing, Brett lamented not having brought his guitar along to play for me. I told him not to worry because I was sure there would be follow up interviews and L.A. concerts in the not-so-distant future. Perhaps, even a guitar lesson (for me, that is!) as we’d joked earlier about my purchase of a guitar at a moving sale, despite never having played. I guess I was inspired in prepping for this interview. As he turned to exit, Brett offered me a quick impression he likes to do- Donald Duck sneezing.
“I’m just going to set the scene for you. You’ve got a bag of bread, probably white bread, and you are throwing it out to the ducks and all of sudden Little Donald (pointing to himself) floats up to you. You’re about to throw me a breadcrumb and you don’t even know that I have a gluten intolerance, so you throw me some bread. I don’t know because I’m just a duck and all of sudden my allergies start kicking in and it’s like …ah, ah, chew,” said Pemberton, letting out the most hilarious impression of a Donald Duck sneeze I’ve heard. The only impression I’ve ever heard!
“My friend dared me to do that today for you,” added Pemberton. “He told me not to even preface it with a story, just do it right before I leave and not laugh. It would have been so much funnier that way but I just couldn’t do it. You should end you’re article with…and out of no where Donald mother-f&%$ing Duck Shows up in spirit and possessed this guy.”
It was perhaps the oddest end to an interview I’ve ever experienced, yet fitting for a musician who felt more like an old friend than a stranger by the end of our chat- certainly an important quality that will sure earn him flocks (pun intended) of fans at every performance.