(Photo by Neil Krug)
ONE CERTAINLY COULD NOT QUESTION Bruno Major’s taste in vehicles, given on his post-Covid relocation to Los Angeles one of his first moves was to buy an ivory white 1978 Mercedes 380SL. A sleek, classic beauty the Englishman called Columbo, banishing any thoughts some of us might have of a shuffling man in a trenchcoat with one more question before he leaves.
And far be it from me to question Major’s driving ability, given I have studiously avoided driving in LA in all of my trips there.
However, it behoves me to ask, can the Northhampton-born singer/songwriter – a man described by one American newspaper as making music that was “a mixture of soft-spoken lyrics and soothing instrumentals – reassure any of us travelling to Los Angeles in the near future that he will not be moonlighting as an Uber driver anytime soon?
“Is that because of my car crashes,” he asks.
Alleged car crashes my lawyers might advise. But, yes, having noted that in one of those “crashes”, Columbo met an unexpected end in a collision with another, far less attractive, car. And taking in the news that said-collision inspired firstly a song named after the car, and now a new album with the same title, there may be a question mark or two over both future inspirations and current safety.
“I don’t know what it is man, I seem to be really good at crashing cars,” Major says, with a small chuckle. “But they’ve provided inspiration for a lot of songs, so it was worth it.”
(They are a pretty car the old Mercs)
This is a very glass half full/damn the no claim bonus approach.
“Yeah man, I don’t think anything you do in life is ever a waste of time. That period of life that Columbo was written about was after lockdown and I had FOMO, fear of missing out of life in general. I felt like we’d all had time taken away from us but I’d had my 30th year taken away from me and I had my 31st year taken away from me, and I was like, ‘those are the best ones, so if I’m missing those I am gonna make sure that the next one, I’m going to do all of the stuff. I’m going to go to all of the parties, and meet with people and try all the things,” he explains in a rush.
“I landed in Los Angeles, got the first flight out of London, and I bought this vintage Mercedes, spending the next eight months driving around Los Angeles writing all these songs. And yeah I crashed it, but it was part of the story, part of the poem and I don’t think you should regret anything.”
He then adds with a snort of self mocking laughter, “No regrets.”
Is this what those modern gurus like to say is living each day as if it’s your last? Maybe those ideas put into effect explains how the difference between his first two albums, 2017’s A Song For Every Moon and 2020’s To Let A Good Thing Die, and this year’s Columbo is quite subtle in some ways – less rhythm, less R&B for that matter, more shadings of ‘70s pop – but also less reverence for styles and more willingness to let ideas roll out to their conclusion. It feels looser, freer.
“I would agree with that,” says Major. “I didn’t release my first album until I was 27 because I felt like I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t the complete artist I wanted to be until that point. I wanted to be able to write the songs, I wanted to be able to play all the instruments, wanted to be able to produce it, to mix it. I wanted to make it myself.”
That’s some extra level of control, maybe even unreasonable control, but did it pay dividends?
“I thought because I had learned all those skills separately that would equal album. And it did, but what I didn’t realise was that making albums is a skill unto itself, and now that I’m making my third one it’s the first time that I’ve been free of my creative inhibitions. For different reasons,” he says.
“When you make your first one you are trying to figure out who you are, and the second album is the first time you’ve got people waiting for it and people expecting it, and there’s pressure and less time. With this third album I just took my time and this is the first time I’ve been able to say what I wanted to say the way that I wanted to say it. I did feel very free, and I felt like I knew who I was, and I felt open when I was writing and I just let it happen. Which is a great feeling.”
This is definitely true lyrically, and its manifestation musically began with the instrument on which the songs were written, and the transition from familiar to wonder.
“It’s the first album I’ve written on guitar. I was a jazz guitar player before I was a songwriter and I think because I’d spent so long learning the guitar I almost knew too much when it came to songwriting. When I picked up the guitar I didn’t see magic, I saw Lydian dominant scales and F minor major sevens, I saw all those hours a day I spent practising and I saw all those gigs I’d done playing music that I didn’t necessarily enjoy. It was like a tool. So when I started writing songs I picked up the piano and I taught myself. It was really my magic place because I didn’t know anything about the piano so every time I sat down there something would happen and I’d be like, wow that’s so cool.
“With Columbo for the first time I went back to the guitar. I was in Silverlake in Los Angeles and had a notepad and a pen and acoustic guitar, and I wrote pretty much the whole album that way. It feels different, it feels guitar-y, for want of a better word, but maybe it’s because guitar is so much part of me that it feels freer because of that. It took me a long while to be able to turn my brain off and feel with my body.”
One difference between those first couple of albums, which did very well commercially (the 2017 single, Easily, achieved gold record status in Australia; he toured with Sam Smith) and Columbo, is that those first two sounded very … well, nice, with all that word implies, while there are moments on Columbo that are genuinely beautiful.
It’s a record that is less ready for the Smith or Ed Sheeren market and more for those who valued the intricate subtleties in the richness of Cardinal, or a sense of Paul McCartney and Elliott Smith coming together. Oh yes, and a clear love of Queen.
“I don’t know who Cardinal are but the other people you listed are definitely inspirations of mine,” Major says. “I don’t know man, the hardest part of being an artist is finding your artistic voice. You are constantly trying to break through the boundaries of your chimp brain and reach for the interstellar, cosmic consciousness that we all possess. I’m constantly trying to reach that place and I feel like I’ve gone further into the realm with this album than I ever managed before.”
There’s another journey beyond that chimp brain represented in this record, a clearly and specifically spiritual one. On his first album was a song called On Our Own which Major explains as “about my journey from agnosticism to atheism”, reflecting his reading of writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and Richard Harris and a declaration that “I don’t believe in religion”.
He wouldn’t be the first, nor would he get an argument from me. But one person who would object is Major himself.
“That’s what I thought of the time and now I find myself 10 years later and I am really spiritual, I believe in God, I believe in a higher power, I believe in manifestation, I believe that I am part of the universe, I believe that I can manifest my future and paint my picture, and all of the stuff,” he says.
“I’ve witnessed performances by people in the name of God that went beyond what they are capable of. I definitely feel that my own abilities as an artist have increased as a direct result of my connection to a higher power. I feel that in my greatest flow, when I’m writing a song, I’m connected to something that is higher. And it’s exactly what you’re talking about with those first two albums: I never fully opened that bridge.”
What happens when he does open that bridge?
“I think you can feel it. You call yourself an agnostic and you call yourself an atheist but I know you can feel what John Coltrane is feeling and I know what you can feel in my new album, what I’m feeling.”
A question I have with Coltrane’s transcendent A Love Supreme is, is what I am experiencing spirituality because that is what he had or is it something else? Can I experience the full splendour of that album without having a sense of spirituality myself? I mean I could explain my response to and connection to Astral Weeks as similar, and is that spiritual?
“I think probably you are. Without divulging some of my extraneous activities, if you take my magic mushrooms and you look at the tree you can see the meaning of life, you can see the tree breathing, you can see the tree talking to you. You can look at the stars and see a visual connection with the universe. It’s like [Aldous Huxley’s] The Doors Of Perception when he takes mescaline, looks at a painting and in the fabric of the close of the people in the painting he sees the meaning of everything.
“I feel like when I listened to Bill Evans I can hear is connection with a higher, and I can hear it in John Coltrane as well. But I also think somebody else might listen to John Coltrane and just think it’s a lot of wrong notes.”
I’m not aware of what Bill Evans’ spirituality was, I say, whether he was particularly spiritually connected …
“He was definitely connected to heroin,” Major says.
Yes, and maybe that was his seeking of spirituality or its replacement. What I find with Evans is a sense of peace, a core that is peaceful even if everything else is disturbed around it. Maybe that’s what the heroin was for him, trying to find that peace when he wasn’t at the piano.
So maybe Major’s alternative isn’t the worst, even if it’s not one I’d choose.
Columbo is out now.