Best in Town


    In a city that’s as richly talented as Portland, it’s more than difficult to declare a person or band "the best in town"–whatever best in town means. Some people make a new list every year of who’s the best around. If the Vanguard were ever to make such a list, Bryan Free would definitely be one of the top contenders.

    Free’s music is strikingly original, crossing genres with the greatest of ease and tackling personal issues and conflicts with such honesty and insight that it’s truly a wonder he isn’t much more famous. But he will be.

    He’s toured around the country as the keyboardist for Crosstide, but he’s also a tremendous solo artist. He’s smart, funny and incredibly talented as a songwriter and singer.

     Free met me at our neighborhood dive, Thatcher’s, and we talked about his life and love of music. He’s released two CDs, 2004’s baroque, songwriterly long-player Poison I Drank From,

    and this year’s brilliant electro pop EP, Lust. He describes Poison I Drank From as a document of him learning how to write music, whereas Lust is about him learning to record music.

    ”Lust is about why I do things – Is it God? – No, it’s yen. What I thought was lust was what I used to stay away from. All the songs are about trying to figure out how to deal with myself — what’s inside — and that the way I am is ok.”

    He then wonders how he got so good at self-reflection. It might be the influence of his father, who is a choir director and a shrink, or Bryan’s education, which includes a bachelor’s degree in writing from George Fox University.

    He writes the music first, then journals a lot. When he’s stuck for lyrics, he says he’ll “write a page about what the song is about,” and try to find a way in from there. Bryan encounters melodic inspiration when listening to lectures — “at weddings, funerals, and situations where I’m an observer.”

    For live shows, he has a rotating cast of players that round out his band, including: Harvey of Portugal the Man, Graeme Enkelis of The Plants and Careen, Matt Zimmerman of The Beauty, and Brett Vogel from Crosstide (with whom Free shares a house). Being the frontman for such a talented group could be intimidating, but Free enjoys being a bandleader and teaching songs. As one of six finalists (out of 1400 applicants) in an independent songwriters showcase in LA, Free found himself in need of a backing band, so he holed up for two days with Crosstide and taught the band his set.

    Free enjoys live shows immensely. “Recording is much more self-indulgent – you’re always second-guessing.”

    For live shows, he said, it’s all about interaction with the audience. You have to “give everything and be extroverted.” This positive attitude of embracing what fears and nerves might come with performance came in handy when he landed an opening slot for Bassboosa at a sold-out show at the Crystal Ballroom.

    And it’s not only in concert that he’s involved with his audience. For the past three years, he’s been regularly making mix CDs for everyone on his e-mail list who wants one, but since that list has ballooned to 500, his production of the mixes has slowed down a bit. Mailing 500 CDs is not cheap. What he loves about it is not only sharing his favorite music with people, but also that people return the favor. “I’ve got a huge box of mix CDs people have made for me,” he said, and each one of them was made with the thoughtful consideration of someone who thought he would like them. This interconnectedness between artist and audience is important to him, and something he enjoys.

    ”Music has the potential to be so meaningful,” he said.

    Free’s influences include Boards of Canada, AFX, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, The Promise Ring, Maritime, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Bjork, Rufus Wainwright and other piano songwriters. Recently, he’s been enjoying the music of local favorite Alela Diane, whom he said “slayed me,” and the San Francisco band Transfer, who also slayed him. He also gives props to Drew Grow, his favorite songwriter in Portland.


Bryan Free


November 24