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Introducing: The Brave Optimistic

posted September 14, 2015, 7:18 pm by Kevin Sellers | Filed Under Introducing, Music News | comment Leave a Comment


A musician today is, perhaps not more so than in the past but with the heightened visibility of our times more obviously, a musician second. A primary career path outside of the art, typical as it may be, can glean interesting detail on the musician and their sound. In his current pursuit of a Mathematics PhD and a history of dabbling (and temporarily heavily pursuing full-time) with music, Kody Holmes (aka The Brave Optimistic) is on a path both familiar and unusual. Recently finding time and passion for re-entry into music, Oh, Odonata (click here for review) shows us a man of numerous influences, energies and directions. Which reflect the rest of his life with a clarity you’ll see (amongst other interesting nuggets) in my little Q&A with the Arizona-born artist below.11864912_10153570118829108_1014704655563138298_o

Let’s get introductions out of the way. Your website’s bio gives a few key details, but feel free to elaborate. Who you are, where you’re from, all the basics you want to cover.

Let’s see. I’m a fourth generation Phoenician. I love my hometown. Just moved to Lincoln, Nebraska to pursue a PhD in Mathematics. Now days music is just a hobby, but there were a couple years when I was making a living as a live musician, songwriter, producer, etc. Kind of a jack of all trades, master of none (wasn’t doing any solo music at that time). My hobbies include math, bug collecting and songwriting.

Intrigued as I am about most aspects of your music, the first things that come to mind are the “Brave Optimistic” moniker and the album title. What’s the story behind these titles?

Nothing too interesting about the band name. We decided on the name for my high school rock band, probably over a decade ago. We were way too pumped to use “optimistic” as a noun. I think we had just learned in english class that adjectives could be used as nouns with sort of an implied subject. I reclaimed the name when I started doing solo music a couple years ago, mostly just so I could reuse some old merch and graphics.odo-2
As for the album name, I think there’s more to that. I collect insects for fun, and also model insect populations using differential equations as part of my professional research duties. Dragonflies (belonging to the order Odonata) were always one of my favorite insects. They’re voracious predators and some of best/fastest fly-ers in the animal kingdom. I always sort of envied them, so I made a bit of a metaphor out of that and that became the title track. I also specifically requested that the album cover be of a pinned dragonfly. I liked that it was sort of a “grass is always greener on the other side” thing. Even though the dragonfly might be the most beautiful fly on the lake, it also attracted the hobbyist bug catcher as a result.

Musically, you seem to be hyperactive (a compliment, believe me) and stylistically not able to sit still for too long. This is one of the bigger selling points of your album to me. Where does all the variety come from? Local scene, listening habits, etc?

That’s a tough one. I’ve never had to think about that. I would say listening habits play a role. I listen to a wide variety of music, a typical thing to say, but I expect my interests do expand further than most. I’ve never been attracted to artists’ particular aesthetics (those things that ultimately amalgamate into genres). I think that’s a fleeting thing. What makes music stand the test of time is composition, and that extends far beyond simple aesthetics. I think, as a result, I’m more willing to incorporate different aesthetics if it accentuates the composition. I also just get bored easily. I never want to write the same type of song twice.

More on titles, many of the album’s tracks have interesting titles. “KY -> AZ -> HI” and “Love In The Time Of Climate Change” in particular. What’s the story behind these, and more generally speaking, your lyrics overall? Where do you find inspiration for these, etc etc.

A few of these songs were inspired by a breakup with my first serious girlfriend. We actually met on Tinder, embarrassingly enough. It’s a common thing on there, that people under their bio section will simply state the places they have lived in that exact syntax, i.e. “KY -> AZ -> HI”. The girl, who the song was about had moved from Kentucky to Arizona. The Hawaii part was sort of a pretend future I had imagined, and told her about at one point. I wanted to retire with her on a tropical fruit farm in Hawaii. Love in the Time of Climate Change steals its name from the book, “Love in the Time of Cholera.” It’s not actually based on the book, but I felt the general feel of the title would stick well to what has already been established in the zeitgeist. For that song I really pictured a couple sitting on the couch watching Jon Stewart mock some Bill O’Reilly clip about climate change, with big threatening smokestacks on the screen. If you picture that during the chorus lyrics, it might make sense.

Your website bio mentions a Mathematics PhD. Are you in the process of getting this or have you already? Either way, do you find this pursuit seeps into your musical endeavors at all and if so, how?

I just started my PhD program a couple weeks ago. I do feel that math plays a big role in my music. For one, it really worked its way into the lyrics on this album. Isaac Newton on the Human Condition, in particular, uses almost exclusively mathematics as its source of metaphor. There are references to all sorts of mathematics: differential equations, infinite loops, the topologist’s sine curve, the coastline paradox, etc. I also use some interesting math worked into the composition at times. There a little clicking drum hit you may hear in the bridge of that song. I wrote a software that timed that sound using a stochastic function. Each measure, the timing of the hits were averaged so that eventually the drum hit is not erratic but consistent. It’s the law of large numbers in musical form, almost a rhythmic resolve (as opposed to the common melodic resolves we hear in certain chord progressions).

Is that an actual conversation with your grandmother at the end of the record?

No. It’s fake. But it is actually my grandmother. This was really an album about saying goodbye to my hometown of four generations, so I liked getting to work her in.

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“Oh, Odonata” is dubbed a “break-up album” that may involve a significant other or your own homestate. Elaborate on this, because many of the lyrics could be interpreted one way or the other or somewhere in the middle.

On the last track, I note: “I used to hedge my lyrics; it’s a scary thing to do, telling people how you’re feeling to a dilettantish tune.” I suppose that’s a lie. I still hedge my lyrics. I don’t want to tell people how to interpret things. I like lyrics to be somewhat ambiguous. For me the record is just that: a breakup record that blurs the lines about the real subject matter. A breakup did inspire some of the songs for me, but it didn’t actually have anything to do with me leaving AZ. Some of the lyrics suggest otherwise though. It’s a fictionalized version of me, if it’s even really about me at all.

Tell us a little bit about the contributors to “Oh, Odonata”. Are these generally friends or people you’ve worked with in the past, how much did they contribute to the writing process, etc.

I like to go into the studio with only the bare bones for songs. I come prepared with chord progressions, rough ideas for song structure, lyrics and melody. That about it. Then everything is improvised in the studio. It forces me not to overthink things. Otherwise, I would never finish a song. I really beat myself up if I don’t have Dan (Parker), the producer, telling me that my parts are good. In the past, I’ve also recorded most (in some cases all) of the instruments myself. However I wanted to this record’s composition to focus a bit more on virtuosity, as that is a big thing in bluegrass music. There’s just no way I could prepare enough to kick ass on every instrument, so I had to bring people in and force them to fly by the seat of their pants and improvise too. If the album were a movie, my role would be writer, director, lead actor. However, the other actors obviously played huge roles. They were improvising on the spot, with my guidance (since I obviously had ideas for structure in mind), so everyone pretty much wrote their own parts. Occasionally, I knew exactly what I wanted and I would write the part for them. I handled male vocals, ukulele, guitar, dulcimer, banjolele, organ and various percussion instruments. My close friend and long time collaborator, Tim, played drums. A math major friend of mine, Alex, played piano and the super hard organ parts. Devyn, the bass player from the old high school version of The Brave Optimistic came back to record electric bass. Then we brought in a horde of studio musicians to handle banjo, mandolin, fiddle, upright bass, trumpet, etc. I already knew most of them through either academics or music.

Your bio mentions having worked and written for other musicians in the past. Go more into what you’ve done prior to “Oh, Odonata” and if we can hear your work anywhere else?

I won’t go to into detail about who I wrote for or where to find it. I was always ghostwriting, so I’m not supposed to get credit. I doubt that it would be a big deal if I identified songs I wrote, but I’m choosing not to. None of the songs were huge hits, so it’s not as though it’s an interesting story.

I’ve worked with tons of bands in one manner or another. At one point I ran sound at an old Scottsdale venue, I toured as a live musician for a band called My Girl Friday and also for a worship band at one point (a shockingly fantastic job). Christian music is a good route for struggling artists. I think a lot of people pick up on that and take advantage of it (often insincerely). For me, it was sincere at the time. I quit when I changed my mind about some things and it became insincere. I briefly tried starting a record label, first signing a (then) rap band called Tiger Heist (now it’s acoustic/indie stuff). That business tanked hard, and I lost a lot of money. That’s when I went back to school to pursue mathematics.

Share a personal experience that one can connect with a moment or track from the album or the album overall. (This can be just about anything you feel like sharing…I love this question for the deeper insight it can bring but it’s optional like everything else).

I wrote Magic Love after having a very similar conversation to this one that the great Richard Feynman describes (see below). I, of course, was on the side that science adds beauty.

What career are you pursuing or already in? If not music, I mean. A Mathematics PhD seems to lend itself more to non-musical pursuits…

I have no idea what I’ll do once I earn my PhD. Math stimulates and challenges me. I hope I can keep doing things that stimulate and challenge me. Math definitely doesn’t sound like an obvious path to art, but Brian May (lead guitarist for Queen), Dan Snaith (Caribou) and Robert Schneider (The Apples in Stereo) are all mathematicians in a very real professional sense. There are a lot of mathematicians writing in comedy (most notably for the Simpsons). Lot’s of mathematicians at Pixar. John Urschel, who plays for the Baltimore Ravens, is a publishing mathematician. There are tons of secret math geniuses hiding in popular culture and entertainment. Not that I ever expect to be in the art/entertainment industry again. I much prefer music as a hobby. When it becomes a job, it’s soul crushing.

Favorite bands/musicians? Well known or local, influences or just stuff you dig.

I can’t name Arizona band’s, because I’ll leave someone out and feel terrible. Look into the Phoenix music scene if you have time. The Phoenix New Times is a great source. Local music has really begun to thrive there in recent years.
collectivegroupkh As for more national acts, that’s tough. I love Punch Brothers, Animal Collective, Bright Eyes, Elvis Costello, Oingo Boingo, Shugo Tokumaru, Randy Newman, Willie Nelson, Eric Church, My Morning Jacket and a million other bands. I know this is a cheap answer: but I also obsess over both The Beach Boys and The Beatles. We reference them constantly in the studio.

It seems clear to me when listening, but do yo think there will be more from The Brave Optimistic in terms of studio work in the future?

Probably. I thought my previous EP was going to be a resolute farewell to music. Two years later, I had the bug to do a full length. I will probably never stop making music, but you probably won’t hear another album from me until I finish my PhD.

 

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