Bruno Major: A Musical Canvas
// Image courtesy of Juan Ortiz Arenas.
Bruno Major was surrounded by music during his childhood in Northampton, England. Finding his way to the guitar at age seven, he later went on to study music at Leeds Conservatoire. He began posting his music on SoundCloud, leading to a contract with Virgin Records, where he released his Live EP. After his partnership with Virgin Records ended, Major found his voice again through songwriting, releasing a song every month, starting with “Wouldn't Mean A Thing” in August 2016. Since then, Major has released two albums, and his lead single, “Easily” has gone gold in multiple countries.
Read more about Bruno Major’s journey in his conversation with WHRB below.
Alexis Logan: Your song “Nothing” recently became very popular on TikTok. How do you feel about having your song represent a wholesome trend and having so many people appreciate your music on a platform like TikTok?
Bruno Major: Honestly, it was a really wonderful thing. I have nothing but appreciation and gratitude for the whole experience. It's a wholesome song. I have two types of songs: the first being diary-based descriptions of my feelings and experiences, and the other being mini-movies. I write [songs] like shorts with characters; “Nothing” is definitely one of those. It’s a cozy scene with two lovers watching movies in their pajamas. It felt very appropriate that it was used as a celebration of love on the Internet. On a secondary and more selfish level, [having all this success only online] wasn't so lovely. With covid and everything else, I never toured the second album; I felt that album was never given the chance that it deserved. So, it was quite nice for this [song to become popular] just happen out of the blue.
So many people connected to the song because you tend to have, at least in some of your music, a very realistic and modern version of love. Many of the most popular love songs are incredibly grandiose, whereas your music leans towards a more realistic version of love that can actually be seen and experienced by people. Is that something you consciously put into your work or is that just the way that you see love?
Yeah, I've written about love and different types of it. There's the saccharine cozy intimacy that I talk about in “Nothing.” But I've also got the darker, pretty negative, Stockholm syndrome style of love in “Just The Same” on my first album. “Cold Blood,” also on my first album, also talks about the type of love that's suffocating and strangulating. I talk about an imaginary love in “The Most Beautiful Thing,” which is written to someone I've never met before. That's why people write so much about love — it’s the closest thing we've got to a meaning of life. It's an infinite subject, and it always needs updating.
To stay on the topic of “Just The Same”: in your interview with Bandwagon, you spoke about how you enjoy photography. For many of your songs, you release different types of visual forms of art to go with the music. This ranges from music videos to lyric videos to content like the “Figment Of My Mind” video. What is the significance of having visual art too?
Well, the way that I write songs is heavily lyrically based. I like my lyrics to read as poems. I think that there are different ways of writing songs: some people write chords and melodies and then they sing sounds. and hear these words that come out of those sounds. For me, it's the other way around. For example, the line: “there's nothing like doing nothing with you.” There's a rhythm when you say that, and it’s in the song when I sing it. The melody is like that as well: “nothing like doing nothing with you”—you can hear [the rhythm] almost before you've even done anything. And if you read a poem and there's no strong subject or imagery, it's not going to work.
To go back to your beginnings, you've been playing guitar since age seven, started getting into jazz around 17, and then started songwriting in your 20s. Do you think you would be where you are today without having focused so much of your music education on classical guitar, including studying in University, where you got a bachelor's degree in jazz?
No, I don't think so at all. I'm not really a believer in talent; I think I was born with the privilege of intelligence. My brain is like a computer, and I can just absorb information. I absorbed guitar, classical music, and jazz until I was 21. Then, I absorbed songwriting until I was 26, and then I absorbed production for two years. I always see myself as a canvas. I've definitely made myself into the musician I wanted to be. That's why I didn't release my first album until I was 28. I pursued a doctorate in music to write songs and make them musically complex and then produce them all myself. It took a long time to absorb that information. I'm not Mozart. I didn't wake up when I was seven with symphonies in my head.
The original career path that you set out on was being a guitarist for one of “the greats.” You ended up playing with artists like Erykah Badu and Lalah Hathaway. How did you transition from wanting to be a professional guitarist to becoming a songwriter?
Well, honestly, I worked so hard at guitar. I wanted to be Wes Montgomery. I wanted to be Joe Pass. I wanted to be Biréli Lagrène and all these heroes. As hard as I worked and as competent as I got, I never found my voice as an artist. For example, if you listen to Wes Montgomery play two notes, you’ll know that it's him. I never had that.
But, when I moved to London, I was so inspired by being in this place and having all this crazy energy and all these new experiences that I started writing songs. As soon as I wrote my first song, I remember feeling, “Oh, this is it, this is the thing that I meant to be doing.” When I was a kid, I always loved words, and I loved writing to the point where I almost decided to study literature. What is wonderful about songwriting is music and writing and the meeting of the two.
What fascinates me and what inspires me more than anything in the whole world is that you can say a certain phrase, and depending on the chords underneath it, you can make it feel a certain way. You can say “I love you” with sad or happy chords, and it can be tragic or joyful. In the same way, you can say something over a certain chord and make that chord feel different. It's the interplay between writing and music which makes songwriting such a beautiful and complex art. That's really where I found my artistic voice. I used to practice [guitar] for six hours a day, and I did that for years. But with writing, the songs fall out of me in a very natural way, so I'm sure that's what I am meant to do.
In regards to your songwriting, you studied so intensely and for so long on guitar. How would you say that songwriting for you differs when you're writing on guitar versus writing on piano?
I don't write on guitar most of the time. The amount of stuff I've learned gets in the way on the guitar. If I pick up a guitar, I can see Lydian scales and melodic minor chord clusters. I shouldn't be thinking about that. Instead, I should be thinking about what my girlfriend said to me three years ago. What I tend to do is I sit here and play the piano and have a notepad until I've got the bare bones of the structure. Then, I move over to the guitar and bring some musicality to the whole thing and make it more complex. Ray Davis, the singer from The Kinks, once said “all the greatest songs can be played on an out of tune piano.” I really believe that. You have to simplify everything and make the structure, the skeleton of the song. Once I've done that, I can put it to one side and put my jazz hat on and sprinkle a bit of magic dust on top of it. It's two very different mindsets.
As a follow-up—many of your songs, like “The Most Beautiful Thing” with Finneas, “Home” with Dan McDougal, or “Nothing” with Raelee Nikole, were written with other people. How would you say songwriting differs when you're writing by yourself versus when you're writing with others?
It's really different. Language is a funny thing. Even if you get two of the most articulate people on the planet talking to each other, there's always something that gets lost in translation. There's always going to be a bit of information lost every time [songwriting happens] between the two people. When I'm writing on my own, I don't sit up and say out loud “Oh, what about if I did this in the first person, maybe we could talk about that feeling” or “Maybe we can rhyme this with this.” When I'm writing on my own, I just sit there singing and playing, and everything's going on in my brain. It all feels very insular. I also have a really fragile stamina so if anything goes wrong, I give up and go away. The songs I write on my own tend to be these “blast through” songs that I see through to the end as soon as I start. When you do a writing session, it's chill to just hang out and have some food. If it doesn't work then it doesn't work. You can bounce off of each other. It's a much more pleasant experience. But there aren't many people that I can co-write with. In fact, I can count them on one hand.
You're clearly influenced by some of the great jazz musicians. Earlier you mentioned Joe Pass, as well as other musicians such as Nina Simone and Jimi Hendrix. I can see their influences within your songs, but where else do you find inspiration aside from music?
A lot of the things I write about come from things people say. When people are drunk, they tend to say stuff without thinking in beautiful ways. I have my iPhone Notes app and write down a litany of little tidbits. Sometimes they're rubbish and sometimes they're not. It can be a line in a film or a book I'm reading. Very, very occasionally there is an original thought. For example, for “The Most Beautiful Thing” from the second album, I'd always wanted to write a song about the person you've never met that you're going to fall in love with one day, and how they’re walking around out there minding their own business. Maybe they're on the street or next door. You could run out right now and just grab them and say, “Yo! this is crazy but I think we’re soulmates and we are meant to fall in love!” But, we obviously don't do this. Maybe they walk past you and maybe you never speak to them again. I thought, we’ll call it “The Most Beautiful Thing That You've Never Seen.” The whole song came from that idea.
Recently, you released a cover of “My Funny Valentine” with the group Stories. You've said Chet Baker was one of your bigger jazz influences. How did it feel to be able to do a cover of one of your biggest influences' signature songs and put your own spin on it?
I mean, it's not Chet Baker’s song technically. His is a cover too. His is just the best cover, so everyone else now is covering his cover. It's like Jeff Buckley doing “Hallelujah.” But yes, I channel Chet a little all the time. As a singer, he's my biggest influence. He taught me that it's okay to be tender. When everyone starts out singing, they want to be like Rod Stewart or Tom Jones. That's what I thought when I was like 10. But Chet Baker’s got this tragic, melancholy, beautiful, treacle, almost floral sound. He's definitely my favorite singer. Honestly, I tried not to embarrass myself by doing it.
The first song of To Let A Good Thing Die, “Old Soul,” begins with someone talking over instrumentals. Where did this idea come from, and why did you decide to start the album with a spoken line?
It just felt right. The second album, more than my first album, was about the arc of a relationship. “To Let A Good Thing Die” acknowledges that love can still be there, even when it's time to let it go. Introducing the theme of a relationship would be a good thing, and it feels personal as well.
I imagine that there's quite a difference between being in the mindset of writing and developing new music versus the mindset that you need to have while touring. Since you had to postpone and then cancel your 2020 tour, how did it impact you not having that tour experience? Also, has not being able to play live shows affected your songwriting and the rest of your musical process?
Well, if I can be frank, it's one of the great sadnesses of my career. I feel like we were all robbed of time and experiences, and that was one of the things that was hardest about COVID-19. We all had two years of our lives just deleted. It was such a strange thing to know that, on this date, I was meant to be in New York and, on this date, I was meant to be in Indonesia. Instead, I was at my parent's house eating ham sandwiches and taking the dog for a walk once a day when allowed.
It's tragic that I've never performed that album, but I have to put it in perspective. People are losing their lives, and it was one of the worst things that ever happened to the human race. I'm not going to cry about the fact that I didn't get to play a few gigs. When this album is ready, I'm going to come back and do a tour, and it will be even more special because we didn't get to do this one.
You've been a very strong advocate for independent artists and not signing with major labels. There is clearly a difference between the music industry of a few years ago and the current music industry in regards to this avenue being feasible. How do you think that up-and-coming artists can get their music out there and heard without the traditional “record deal” avenue?
You could write a book on this, and maybe I should one day, but I think the basic issue is that there is a conflict between the world of commerce and the world of art. On a basic level, you have artists, whose primary concern is to experience life and write about it. Then you have businessmen, whose primary concern is to take art and make as much money from it as possible. Businessmen tend to be much better at that than artists. You have a situation where artists, historically and also now, are being ripped off by people who know more about, think more about, and care more about commerce and business.
What I've come to realize is that making music is like any other business: you have an asset that you created; in the musicians' case, it's songs. Whether you're selling Hoover's or plastic cups or whatever it is, you have an item that generates capital, and it is yours. In exchange for funding, you give away equity like any other business. But in the normal business world, people say “Okay, we need $100,000 so that we can make more plastic cups,” and then they'll give away 4% of their business. But in the music industry, the industry standard is that 80% of your equity is taken away in exchange for whatever the record label feels is a good amount of money. It's a completely ridiculous, antiquated, and totally unfair system. But people can't see that. They say, “Oh, but you're a musician. You sign a record deal. That's how it works.” That isn't how it works anymore. Now, you have Spotify and Apple Music. You don't need a record label, you don't need a studio, you don't need anyone to package and distribute your music. You just make it on your laptop and put it on the Internet.
You can't tell people that because every time I say that, they say, “I don't know that — a major label just offered me $100,000, and they know what they're doing. They're going to take it to the radio and do this and that.” Yet in reality, what they're going to do is they're going to give you a hundred grand on a really, really bad business loan with terrible rates. Then they're going to wait for you to do all of the work. If you're lucky enough to be one of the thirty people who does blow up, they'll pump money into it and take all the credit. If one in thirty people gets blown up bigger, they've got the funding to help. It is amazing when you get a Lewis Capaldi, a Sam Smith, or a Dua Lipa. But the amount of people who do blow up is infinitesimally small. For every Dua Lipa, there are thirty or forty female artists who are making pop music that doesn’t make it.
I'm so firmly clear-headed about this. I'm a case in point. If I told my record label that I was going to record my album in my kitchen with one microphone and release a slow six-eight ballad I never mixed as my lead single and that it was going to go gold, they would have laughed me out of the room. In fact, they did laugh me out of the room.
// Alexis Logan ’25 is a staff writer for The Darker Side.