“I grew up playing music from a young age,” American singer-songwriter Brian Lybrandt reveals to me straight away. “Band in school and with bands outside of school,” he quickly adds. Nothing out of the ordinary in that, but Brian freely admits to being shy and somewhat introverted, to not being a natural frontman. To having never been the songwriter, or someone to front a project such as Alive and Suffering, his album, released on the 4th September. He admits to loving the creative process more, to being captivated by what he happily calls all the, “nerdy”, aspects of creating an album, of capturing its integral sound, and then layering multiple sounds together.
“I am sure this album could have turned out a lot better,” he suggests, “if someone else had engineered and mixed it, but I wanted to experience those things for myself,” simply because he so obviously enjoys it, and because he is so good at it, as his first album will hauntingly testify.
From Muskegon in Michigan, “the best place on earth for 3 months of the year, summer,” he laughs, his was, as he freely admits now, something of an unconventional upbringing. “My influences are all over the map,” Brian reflects. He grew up more on orchestral music, he admits, with jazz and blues, “partly because my parents wouldn’t let me listen to anything with, what they perceived as, morally questionable lyrics.” But, as he’s at pains to quickly point out, and contrary to what people may at first think, he had a wonderful childhood and upbringing, and very supportive parents.
“Most of the songs are self-reflective,” Brian Lybrandt explains. “They’re about what goes on in my head. However,” he adds in an almost throw away tone in the middle of our conversation, “I am also the benefactor of a long lineage of mental illness.”
Is he okay with me revealing this? was my initial thought. After all, he reveals it so very matter-of-factly, continuing on without seeming to take a minute’s pause: “I tried to cut my wrists for the first time when I was 17.” Revealing his history so easily and so casually it would seem, and choosing now to do so, and not just in a collection of songs that soulfully lament and reminisce on his troubled past. But, you quickly realise, this all appears to be something that he has come to terms with, that he feels able to open up about. A way of finally unburdening himself.
It seems a relief.
On listening to his words, poetic with suffering and sung so softly in revelation and through what must have surely been a very painful experience, and as lamented supportively by guitars and a very effectively yet simple drum beat, it does colour Alive and Suffering, it does give the album its very essence and its soul throughout, allowing Brian to grow in confidence as story-teller and singer, giving him the strength and courage to finally reveal all publicly for the first time. “I don’t fucking care anymore,” he sings throughout Bleed, the first moment of a tangible, strong defiance. He really doesn’t care who knows: it’s part of him, his history.
“My parents noticed, and immediately took me in for treatment. I took anti-depressants for the next 2 years but really did not like how they made me feel. I decided at that point I could beat my illness. I didn’t need professional help. I was wrong,” he admits now.
Fast forward 15 years: “My dad called me and said that my brother was in a psychiatric hospital, he didn’t know why, and that he was being released the next day.” The problem was, as Brian now explains, his brother lived in Colorado, there was no one available to pick him up and he had nowhere to go.
“For some context, my brother is the smartest person I know,” he says proudly. “He has a PhD from M.I.T. in Physics, and works on atomic clocks.” As Brian Lybrandt admits, he didn’t understand then how someone with that much mind power could be in such mental distress. But he quickly boarded a plane, and went to pick him up.
“We arranged for a temporary place for him… and I stayed with him for a few days. It was difficult, “ he reveals, looking back, his tone changing, saddening. “I could see his mind struggling to keep control…” he remembers. “Ultimately I had to head back home for work, and didn’t trust the situation, so I re-admitted him.” A heavy burden of unwanted responsibility for any brother to have to endure!
“When he got back out, I flew out again, and helped him get into an apartment. This time it stuck. He kept control and is doing well.” However, something about the whole process “broke” Brian, and he hasn’t felt the same since. “Now I feel like a mental health ticking time bomb,” he says, for the first time somewhat warily.
“On the plane ride back from the second trip I wrote the song Brother.” And such a haunting song it is, full of fear but also of hope, no matter how slight. It is part-warning and part-catharsis, and was to be the start of a journey towards a resolution. It is sung with a deep sense of brotherly love, with a strong, heartfelt pride, all the while softly supported by a lilting guitar that slides and then lifts and carries the remorseful mood. The song ends on a cloud-like fade; of Brian staring from that plane’s window as he penned his scarred words of a beloved brother in need? This then is Alive and Suffering’s conception, its story.
“The rest of the songs flowed from there.” And not surprisingly they are all deeply touched and coloured and unapologetically influenced by personal experiences; as a brother and as someone living with, and adapting to, their own mental health issues.
Alive and Suffering is an album laden with pain-filled experiences, but it is given life and a strong sense of meaning because of them. It is revealing, weary and wary, but full of a warmth tinged with sadness and love. It is scared, scarred but hopeful. Even in its darkest moments you feel that there is always a light at the end, no matter how small it may appear.
Alive and Suffering opens with Alive. “What if everything you’re yearning for is gone?” Brian Lybrandt sings, pleading for an answer. “But it’s not me in the mirror… Just a hollow reflection,” he reveals sadly.
“It’s about feeling like there’s a virus inside,” not surprising considering what he and his family have faced to get to this point. “A virus eating away at anything that’s positive, and leaving behind the negative.” Given the current situation we all find ourselves in, it feels timely, despite the song being written long before, he assures me.
“I’ve had some people say they were really put off by the song Suffering. But it is one of the most honest songs I have ever written. It’s about living with a nagging thought…Sometimes quiet, sometimes loud, but ever present, that I would be better off dead.” Nagging doubts that Brian has to deal with every single day. How do you cope with that?
“In the event there is an afterlife, I’m afraid of living with the guilt of leaving my family high and dry for eternity.” Such an unforgiving burden for anyone’s shoulders. “Since my trip to Colorado, I started seeing a psychologist to help deal with these thoughts. Something I would recommend to anyone and everyone,” Brian Lybrandt quickly adds.
“Part of why I wanted to release these songs is an effort to normalise the conversation about mental health. It’s scary to talk about,” he admits from experience. “But I think if more people were open to talking about it then getting help would be easier.” By talking, or writing about it, he hopes that, “others who are suffering wouldn’t have to make up excuses about where they’re going in order to make it to a psychologist appointment because they feel ashamed about it,” or embarrassed about how they are feeling and what they are going through. That they can find hope from the knowledge that they are not alone.
As Brian touchingly reveals to me later: “This is the first time I’ve thought through everything, and actually put it down on paper. It’s kind of cathartic,” he adds.
So, how has he spent lockdown? He must have found it hard and daunting?
“I think this period, distancing has been more difficult on me and my family than I thought it would be. At first I thought, since I’m a homebody anyways, what difference does it make?But eventually even homebodies need to get out.
“We have tried really hard to follow all the guidelines and do our part… It’s been draining though,” he openly admits.
“It unfortunately cut short my efforts to start playing. I had just played a show before the lockdown started, with a couple more booked. Since then I shifted gears to building a proper studio. I have an A.P.I. console on order and am so excited about the prospect of recording other people.
“One unique benefit to the lockdown was a lot of the musicians that may have otherwise been out on tour were home and available to record some parts for me. Joshua James was kind enough to record the piano on Ghost, Evan Coulombe added guitar on the first four tracks, and Peter Stroud added guitar to Skin Deep. Before lockdown some local friends also helped. Dan Rickabus, Max Lockwood, Hannah Laine and Eric Kuhn,” he rattles through the names gratefully, excitedly. “Almost everything was recorded at my home studio I have affectionately dubbed the ‘Community Sound’.”
The album was an experiment, Brian says. “I was learning how to record as I went, which would probably be a bit more apparent if the track list was in chronological order. I wrote the title track while on a trip to Utah in early 2019. I was recording with Joshua, who’s an amazingly talented musician and producer, and it was great to be able to watch him work, and I feel like I learned a lot watching him, but I left wanting to try everything for myself. I wanted to be the one pushing the buttons and twisting all the knobs. I’m sure the album could have turned out a lot better if someone else engineered and mixed it, but I wanted to experience those things. Not out of some delusional self-view that I’m good at it,” he feels the need to add quickly, “but because I enjoy it.”
It is because the album is so simply produced and engineered that it has this endearing quality, that makes it moving and so darkly revealing and compelling, and that gives it its sound and overwhelming sense of vulnerability. Alive and Suffering’s appeal, its lasting strength, comes and thrives from that minimalistic simplicity, highlighting the pain-filled questioning voice and with its guitars laid bare, nakedly enhancing the life-giving pulse that comes from the drums. Brian allows nothing to add or distract from the songs, from the moving, revealing message in his lyrics.
“It’s very authentic to me, as a person and as an artist,” he says, nervously you feel.
So, who are Brian Lybrandt’s influences?
“On the current playlist would be Coltrane, Wilco, Joshua James,” of course, “The Head And The Heart and Margot And The Nuclear So & So’s.” But, as much as he likes following bands, he admits to following their producers just as much, if not more.
“Having made an album with a producer last year, I saw first hand how they really shape the sound that the listener ultimately hears. I am more apt to find an album I like, then go off to find what else that producer has done. People like Richard Swift, Tom Schick, Jim O’Rourke, Brian Deck,” for example. “They just make great stuff! I think that’s where I would like to see my music career go. More towards engineering and mixing for myself and others.”
For someone who insists so resolutely that he is not a natural frontman, Brian Lybrandt’s voice gives Alive and Suffering meaning and it’s layers of palpable depth. It is delicate and fragile, thoughtful and fearful. It is simply haunting. And now we understand why.
The album’s stand-out moments are many and revealing; Not Well is led by an almost wispy guitar, soft and deceptively dreamy in spite of everything, and perfectly shadows a vocal that bleeds throughout. Suffering, draws from Brian’s well of personal experience, and of the constant overwhelming need to mask “the voices in my head”, a fear returned to constantly. And Ghost is beautiful, sad and vulnerable in equal, gorgeous measure, my favourite track of the year so far, full of heartfelt, provoking melancholy.
“Lyrically it is an open window into my mind,” Brian explains of Ghost. “Instrumentally, I really enjoy how the arrangement came together. I started it with just the piano and didn’t know where it was going to go, I just kept adding layers. Sometimes I write with an end goal in mind, but other times I like being surprised with where it ends up. During the mystery, creation, and sometimes surprise of songwriting is one of the only times I don’t feel blue, which is what keeps me writing.”
The album grows in maturity, and Brian seems to grow in confidence the longer it plays, as though the whole process has been freeing. As though, I hope, it has helped to relieve some of the burden. Above all, Alive and Suffering, through the veins of every delicately and painfully crafted song, bravely reveals all of Brian Lybrandt’s fears and anxieties and troubles to the world outside of Michigan, but it also tells of dreams and of a resolute attitude. I hope that its success will enable him to find peace in understanding: to not fucking care anymore. He proves, despite all the doubts he may harbour, that he is a frontman, a gentle and thoughtful frontman, whether he accepts it or not. And, despite protestations he may have, he is a songwriter, writing from the heart. Alive and Suffering has enabled him to find his voice. It has told his story, beautifully and bravely, and has coloured his sound uniquely. He has perfectly blended and layered his multiple sounds together intriguingly, so that every track forms some kind of dream from his consciousness.
As he eventually had to admit: “I think it turned out pretty good.”