Bryan Free was raised on a strict diet of classical music, and was never encouraged to listen to pop. "It wasn't frowned upon, but... I remember I got this Billy Joel songbook when I was 15 or 16, as a gift," he says. "And I went in the other room and I played it. And my grandma left. She stood up and said, 'Well, I'm not going to sit around and listen to this.'"
Grandma Free may have had a point about Billy Joel, but Bryan began writing his own pop songs a few years later, and his latest album, Each Other, is an extraordinarily diverse collection that contains piano pop, operatic heavy rock, trance-y dance music, and layered chorales. "There was a huge pile of songs to pull from," Free says, "and I picked the ones I felt best represented the community of my friends. Because my first album [Poison I Drank From] was just myself. And my EP [Lust] was a small group of friends. So, this time I just wanted to get that diverse feel to it. That's why I called it Each Other. It's individual personalities, individual things making up this sort of mosaic."
The album opens with the gorgeous "Rally," a spare, accordion-led hymn with a mass chorus of friends, and closes with "Run," a huge piano ballad where the choir becomes a gospel revival. "Those songs bookend the CD for a reason. Just because it meant a lot to me to listen to my friends singing them. I just feel outside myself when a lot of other people are participating in something that was originally a very individual vision."
Free plays keyboards for pop-rockers Crosstide, but has been writing and performing his own material for years, becoming fully ensconced in a close-knit community of Portland songwriters and musicians. "We did these songwriter nights at various places," he says. "We called it 'Shock and Awe.' Once a month we'd get together and you'd have to only bring new songs. We'd find a safe place to do it, like a coffee shop or someone's house or something like that. We'd invite a bunch of different people. It was really cool and really fearless and all the songs were really raw."
Each Other is remarkably universal—its experimental qualities are balanced by more traditional fare, like the heartbreaking, incredible "One Hundred." Free is still inspired by the ambition of composers like Wagner and Tchaikovsky, which you can hear in his melodies and arrangements, and his soaring vocals deserve comparisons to both Thom Yorke and Freddie Mercury. Yet he's looking to do more.
"I'm gonna write a musical in the next year," he reveals shyly. "What sucks is my car was broken into and they took my backpack and these 11 x 17 sheets, on which I had it all storyboarded out. But it's the musical of the robot messiah, 'Steelmmanu'el'.... If I don't write a musical, then my life is a sham. Everything points that way. It would be a shame to not pursue the melodrama. I'm a really big fan of metaphor and archetype, and you can do that with theater. You can make somebody who embodies love or hate and people are fine with that, and you can move on with the story with these giant idealistic metaphors in place. And that's what I like talking about in general. There's no way I can efficiently or effectively incorporate that into my pop music."