[Cover photo credit to Kyle Ross]
Brian Bulger recently released his new album Dissolve bringing in more combined Pop elements than you might have heard from his previous releases, but also melding narrative elements and themes with unexpected sound approaches. This evolved partly due to working with Ephraim McFarland as producer, who inspired Bulger to push further into new sonic territories while remaining confessional and personal in his lyrics.
Some of the things that you’ll find reflected in Bulger’s new music are his experiences addressing his past growing up in the Evangelical Christian community and assessing personal value as well as the need for supportive influences in life. Particularly interesting is the way in which Bulger approaches the religious perspective and community that he’s now definitively left behind, taking a questioning tone and a personal approach that’s not at all an attack on the religious perspective of others.
I spoke with Brian Bulger on release day for the new album, and we talked about the role of live performance, how he’s found his sound as a singer/songwriter, the new musical directions on this album, and why it’s so important to him to to address his past without suggesting any universal answers to the questions that life poses for us all.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I know you have a release performance for the album tonight on November 11th. I’ve seen that you have a few people who worked on this album with you. Are they part of a live band, too?
Brian Bulger: Yes, we’re releasing the album with 11 songs on 11/11. I have a core band. One of the main people who is always there is Ephraim McFarland, who’s my bassist and also my producer on the album. Then there’s my friend Hudson Freeman who plays piano and electric, and my friend Luke Ford, who plays drums. I also have three different singers who I kind of rotate in and out. We try to create a lot of voices.
HMS: I’ve noticed you sometimes bring in vocal layers, which seems like a specific choice in indie music, and the effect is great. How did your relationship with Ephraim come about?
BB: We met a few years ago from playing music in Springfield, Missouri, where I live. I had heard his music, but because it didn’t sound like any of my stuff, I didn’t assume we would work together. Then, when I had moved on from a different producer, I thought I’d try to work on some songs with Ephraim and see how it went. It was a million times better. I loved the process and the energy he was bringing. I was more creative when I was around him, so it was a huge step for me. We’ve been making all my music together for the past two years.
HMS: Do you think that has influenced how your music has developed at all in terms of sound and presentation?
BB: Absolutely. I’ve always wanted to blend genres, but I’m not much of a producer, so for me it was in the hands of the producer. He’s able to take my songwriting style and transform it into these other genres without it feeling out place. There are some songs on the album which are very Pop and I’ve always wanted to do that. Some of them have electronic elements that I didn’t know how to do, but wanted to do.
HMS: I can totally hear what you’re talking about in the spread of the songs. In the beginning stages of these songs, were they in a more acoustic form?
BB: Yes, a little bit. That’s mostly what I do as a songwriter, using an acoustic guitar, my voice, and maybe a little bit of piano. But it was never my intention to release them like that. I just really like to give my band the foundation of a song and then let them turn it into something way bigger than what I could do myself. I’m really glad that I didn’t do it alone! It wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting.
HMS: Do you and Ephraim write all the musical parts?
BB: Typically, I’m writing all the parts, including vocal lines, though there have been a few times that I haven’t. On this album, I did. But on the song featuring Guinevere [Sheafer], “The Song You like”, there’s a duet that I had written a long time ago. But it was cool because she also got to help me compose it, and totally took the vocal part and did her own thing with it. I really liked that.
HMS: How would you describe the music scene in Springfield, Missouri? How did you find your way into music there?
BB: I would say that Springfield is the buckle of the Bible belt, so it’s not known for this kind of music. There have actually been a lot of Punk bands and Metal bands, but when I started playing music here, I felt like I was an anomaly. There weren’t many people doing singer/songwriter stuff. I had a band that I played with, but they didn’t really want to do music for a living. Then I met my friends Ephraim, Hudson, and Drew, when they were all going to college at Evangel.
When I met them, they said that they all wanted to do music for a living, so we had that in common and became best friends. We started working together in different ways and playing together. All three of them were actually going to school for music production, and I knew nothing about production, so it was a really great to connect with them. It changed the course of where I was going with my career.
HMS: I’m so happy to hear stories like that where creative people manage to find each other. It always seems against the odds. How did you get into live playing in your community given the situation? Also, I saw a photo of you playing music in the middle of the street recently. How did that come about?
BB: A lot of the places I was asking to play were unconventional. I would go to a place and ask, “Hey, can I play in this coffee shop?” A lot of people were really into that and would let me play shows. But the street one was really fun. The downtown was testing out closing off the main street to allow people to walk around so I was asked to play a 45 minute set. They are pitching making it a walkable street. I played some songs and people were hanging out, walking by, sitting for a minute, all at sunset. It was really cool.
But there is also a big venue called Outland downtown that hosts everything but also a lot of Punk and Metal. I started playing my Folk music there a few years ago. I could tell that people were thinking, “Folk music??” But I think it started to change the scene a little bit. Outland have two venues, and I’m playing the big one tonight. I’m hoping to pack it out.
HMS: How recently did you record this album?
BB: It was done a little bit last minute. I really wanted to put it out on 11/11 and we barely got there. The initial plan was to release it in the Spring but I got impatient since I’d been working on it so long. We started releasing singles in July. We learned some lessons on cutting it close, and will work with more heads up next time. I’m actually moving to Kansas City in June, which is where Ephraim lives. We’ve had to work remotely, but for the next project, we will be able to work on it in the same room, which will change things immensely. We are even considering the next album to be a Pop album. I’m pretty excited about that.
HMS: I heard about some of the context of the music on this album, which is your Evangelical Christian background and your experiences leaving that behind. I can actually relate to that in a pretty direct way since that was also my own background and I’ve followed a similar path away from it. I guess it’s not that uncommon!
But some things I found interesting were that you don’t avoid talking about it in your music, nor do you make it a simplistic narrative in your songs. You present it as being a complex experience, for instance in “Quick Step Manic” and “Bad In a Good Way”.
BB: Yes, this part of my life is really complex. A lot of people, when they come out of Evangelicalism resort to statements like, “Fuck you! I’m moving on.” Or that general idea. I just didn’t feel angry at anyone specifically. It was more that I was angry with the system I was raised in and the ways that it was so harmful. It was almost just expressing grief for that. Also, I don’t always choose to write about things. What’s on my mind all the time comes out in my writing.
But I am really still surrounded by that culture in the buckle of the Bible belt. You can’t really ignore it here. For someone who doesn’t want anything to do with it anymore, that’s a difficult step to take around here. I still have plenty of friends and acquaintances who are in that culture. I have family in that culture. To talk about it in a way that suggests nuance to this is something that I wanted to do. In the song “Bad in a Good Way”, I am saying that this religious culture is so messed up that it makes people feel like a piece of shit and that they should die. That’s what it did to me and I don’t want anything to do with that. If walking away from that makes me “bad”, or a lost sheep, then that’s the best thing possible for me. This song says that it’s okay to get out of that for your own mental health.
Another song that talks about that is “God, my” which probably has the hardest-hitting talk about this. It talks about who God is, based on what everyone tells you that he is, and how that’s completely contradictory most of the time. But that’s usually a version of God who is judging you all the time. The song has angst in it, because I have angst about what I was taught, but it also ends with the idea that I have no idea who God actually is.
But I tell people about this album and those songs, “This is not a thesis statement on religion or on how you should live your life. It’s just my personal expression, my personal journey.” That’s why it doesn’t end with, “Here’s what you should do…”, or “Here’s what I figured out…” All I really figure out on this album is that the religious culture hurt me a lot, that I don’t want to have anything to do with it, and that I need to focus on loving myself above all else. Those are the takeaways.
HMS: What led you to really consciously address a lot of this on the album?
BB: As the beginning of the album talks about, I had suicidal thoughts for a while and I thought that was just normal. Then I realized that I needed to work on myself, and go to therapy, and get better, for the sake of my son who was born around the time that I started writing this album. I realized that I needed to leave a lot of that shitty stuff behind and start over. That’s what Dissolve is all about.
HMS: Does that idea tie into the title? If there’s an obstruction in your life that seems monumental, how do you handle it? The idea of dissolving it is pretty interesting, more like a gradual process.
BB: Yes, it’s also a breaking down of oneself as a tool of moving on. That’s basically what it was like for me. Leaving that culture was losing so much of my identity. There’s also so much about politics blended into Evangelicalism and now I’m the furthest thing away from that. Breaking all that away was so painful.
HMS: How have friends and family who are still Evangelical reacted to your music?
BB: 99% of them are supportive and have said that they love it. One or two people who I can think of got upset when I released, “Bad in a Good Way”. It was because they thought I was attacking their religious culture. But I pointed out that it showed their priorities that they were upset that I was attacking Evangelicalism, which I am, when I’m not actually attacking God. The culture is more important to them.
I don’t present this in a way that’s attacking, but when you hear someone else’s experiences, it does change your perspective. What you then do with that is up to you. I have some siblings who are still involved in Evangelicalism and they are down to talk about it. They don’t think any less of me. There’s a peace there that I’m thankful for.
HMS: Well the music video for “Bad in a Good Way” might rub some people the wrong way if they are thinking that way because it does use some religious iconography. But I also think it’s a fun video, and the sound of that song is pretty surprising, too. It’s lighter and almost seems to not take itself so seriously. Did Ephraim have to do with creating that sound?
BB: That’s actually one of the few songs where, when I started writing it, I wanted it to be a Pop song. The content of that song is pretty dark at times. I wanted to contrast that with a song that was upbeat and felt kind of eccentric and happy. The song is happy go lucky, in a way, but it talks about a lot of things that make people uncomfortable. We wanted to create a music video that was both quirky and dark. A lot the lighting that the director chose was dark and brooding, but some of the shots and acting are silly. It could make you feel any one of five ways watching it.
There is a lot of religious iconography, and I actually took some away from it, because I didn’t want people to think I was jabbing at religion. I simply wanted to show that the preacher character in the video represented the parts of religion that are basically just capitalism. The parts that commodify it and just, basically, sell God. Evangelicalism does that more than any other denomination. There are a number of megachurch pastors who are making millions of dollars and it’s kind of like a pyramid scheme. My character in the video is trying to get over trauma and trying to get rid of this baggage, but I keep running into this other character who is basically selling happiness for money.
I wanted to show that, in that moment, it’s so convincing that I actually want to buy it. I was bought into this. The only reason I don’t do it at that moment of the video is because I don’t have any money. A lot of these places, if you don’t have money, or if they can’t get something from you, like your time, or money, you’re not worth anything to them. And as soon as they realize that, they turn on you. This is a system that I’m showing.
HMS: It says a lot about human need and human vulnerability and the fact that you’ve been there yourself brings a lot of empathy to the situation.