Dear readers, we are pleased to offer you in this article an interview with a Danish Progressive Rock artist whose debut album “Brick By Brick” was released on May 01, 2023. We welcome Jon Brændsgaard Toft.
Hi Jon, how are you?
Hi! I’m great, thanks. Springtime seems to have finally arrived in Denmark, and I’m really enjoying it.
You are primarily a drummer, even though you still play other instruments how did your passion for this instrument come about and which artists are you inspired by?
I started playing drums in 6th grade. It was my mom’s idea because I was banging on household items all the time. It was fun, but it wasn’t until years later that I saw the value of the instrument as a source (or an outlet) for creativity. I don’t have any drummers in particular that I’d say I’m inspired by; rather, more artists and bands in general. I remember my first encounters with odd time signatures (one of my passions), which were on albums by Sting and Jethro Tull. There is also some brilliant drum work on songs by Led Zeppelin, Toto and Dave Matthews Band, just to name a few that I like to keep up with.
In your debut album “Brick By Brick” released on May 01, 2023, Prog Rock mixes with Folk and more, how would you describe this work?
Well, technically it’s not my debut, but it is my first solo project in more than a decade. I’d say the prog rock influences largely are a result of my fascination with the above mentioned artists and bands, though I’d also like to throw in the Swedish band Pain of Salvation into the mix. They are generally more metal than me, but they have made some blues inspired and acoustic prog which spoke to me. The folk sounds and multipart harmonies are inspired by classic rock in general and Crosby, Stills & Nash in particular. Think CSN meets Jethro Tull with a touch of Herbie Hancock and Steely Dan here and there, and I think you’d be pretty close.
I read in the booklet that the writing process of the record was particular, how did the idea for the record come about and how did you develop this work?
A lot of records are planned out in detail ahead of time, but this one certainly wasn’t. In the beginning of the year, I didn’t think I would ever be making a solo album again. That was a thing I had tried a few times many years before and I thought that was that. But a few years ago a friend of mine had joined a group (or community) called Århus Sangskriverværksted – which could be translated into Songwriters Guild of Aarhus (based in my home town in Denmark). Twice a year they arrange a retreat where about 30 songwriters move to a cabin in the middle of nowhere for four or five days and do nothing but write songs, either together or solo, with or without guidelines and rules. My friend had tried to convince me to check it out repeatedly over the years, and then finally I joined them for the winter retreat in January. Two of the songs on the album are co-writes from that experience. Then we went home from the camp, and I again thought that, while it was fun, that was probably gonna be it for me, as far as songwriting goes. But then it so happened that after January comes February, and unbeknownst to me, February has for a long time been the go-to month for songwriters around the globe to really get going, thanks to the online community FAWM – February Album Writing Month, where the idea is that you write (or contribute to) at least 14 songs and post your demos between February 1st and 28th. Some of the songwriters from the winter camp knew about this and suggested to me that I join. And then I just got going I guess. It’s really good for morale as a songwriter when you’re able to post your ideas and get feedback from the community immediatly when you’re in the zone. I get the appeal for this whole FAWM thing. I think I’ll try it again next year. Then March came, and now suddenly I had an album’s worth of material. And while I hadn’t been writing songs for a long time, I certainly had been recording a lot – band related stuff, tribute projects or just helping others in the studio, adding drums to things and so on, so I knew my way around a studio and Pro Tools. I recorded all the drum parts in one day, and then spent the next four weeks adding layers, listening, tinkering, adding more stuff, and by the end of March, I had an album!
Both in the composition and execution phase you had some collaborators, how did they contribute to the sound of the album?
Both of the co-writes were written at the songwriters retreat. My friend Gunnar Snær Gunnarsson, who is the one that got me involved in the first place, co-wrote Brick By Brick with me. To spice up everything a little bit, all songs written on that day would have to have two limitations in place. One of them was “start with something you know” – so the song starts on an E minor chord – that’s pretty basic. The other limitation said “don’t build a wall – build a brick”. We deviated a little bit from that one, when we started thinking about all the things that could be built by bricks, both literally and figuratively. And in the chorus we explored tearing it all down again. A few hours later we had a song. The same story goes for The Ballad of Tír na nÓg, co-written with Ellie Mackey (EJ Mae on socials – check her out!). The song had to be based on a fairytale or folklore of some sort, and since Ellie is Irish, we thought it could be fun to explore that direction. And on a technical note, the song had to feature a chromatic melody in the chord progression. It was great fun! Now, Gunnar lives in Aarhus, so it was a no-brainer to have him come over and add a few
guitar parts here and there, especially on the song he wrote with me. With Ellie, we had to do it online, where she would sing her harmony part and I would splice it together.
The lyrics play a key role in your music, what themes do they deal with?
Lyrics were always my weak spot. In the past I had tried to write some political commentary and songs about broken love and loneliness, but it never really worked. I think naïve and cringeworthy would be a good description of most of that material. A lot of great songs come from artists struggling with their demons or from them having a lot of stuff on their mind, that they need to communicate. I had none of that, and if I had nothing to say, it’s no surprise to anyone that my songs wouldn’t resonate – not even with myself. So this time I went with a different approach. A lot of the songs on the album are sci-fi and fantasy stories. We follow a time traveler in The World Is My Playground and Among Vikings, we dream of colonizing Mars in The Explorers and have already done so in The New Blip, and in Part Of Something New, we go even further into space. Even the songs that sound like they could be autobiographical, like Mr. Johnson and Worth A Try, aren’t. It’s all in my head. And that seems to work much better for me.
Yours is a solo work where you play almost all the instruments, will there be a chance to hear your music live or is it just a studio project?
Well, all the songs were born on an acoustic guitar, and work fairly well without all the extra layers added later in the process. Obviously you’d need a band to play some of the more out-there instrumental parts in, say, Mr. Johnson or My Mind Playing Tricks, but you can shave the songs down to their core and play them solo, which I’ve done a few times. The songwriters guild has repeating monthly open mic sessions at two local cafés downtown, where I have performed the songs. I would like to assemble a band and play the songs the prog rock way they are presented on the album, but they also work the singer-songwriter way.
Besides this solo project, do you have any other ideas or collaborations with other artists in the pipeline?
I do lots of collaborations. People ask me to add drums to their stuff, which I happily do. I enjoy when people can make use of me. On a more permanent basis though, I play in severel bands, one of which plays 40-60 gigs a year ranging from small concerts at institutions to big festival shows. Later this summer we’ll be cooperating with Chief 1, one of Denmark’s leading producers and music magicians. That band’s repertoire, though, is mostly Danish hit songs from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. We don’t do my material in that setting.
Times have changed compared to the past, what difficulties do you face nowadays in establishing yourself with a more sophisticated genre such as Prog Rock?
Well, I didn’t live in the past (even though one of my favorite Jethro Tull songs is exactly about that), so for me this whole business about getting signed, getting advertized, getting dropped when you don’t sell anything– it has never been part of my thought process. Prog rock is a pretty forgiving genre, I think, because you don’t have to follow the latest trends in music production, and yes, I do get the irony of the name, but a lot of the defining qualities of prog rock were already settled in the ‘70s. It’s not meant for pop radio, it’s not easy listening and consumer friendly. Listening to prog rock is a decision the listener makes, and by then, they know what they’re looking for. The biggest challenge, I believe, is to get noticed. It’s easier than ever to produce professionally sounding records in your own home, put them online and there you go: A
brand new release. The amount of really talented musicians around has never been greater either, so there are a lot of people fighting for the spotlight, and in these streaming and playlist focused times, the album as a concept is not the default listening experience for the modern listener, which hurts a genre like prog rock, that often has themes and concepts streching over multiple songs if not the whole album. Prog rock fans know this of course, and they still listen to full albums, but when they do that, it’s even more challenging to get noticed. How many new full albums can people realistically manage to get into? A lot fewer than are being produced, that’s for sure!
What advice would you give to young artists who decide to approach music with a genre like Prog?
Make sure that you know your reasons for doing it. As I mentioned above, it’s really hard to get noticed. Make sure you love doing it. If you play music because you simply can’t not do it, that’s a good starting point. Don’t phone it in. Every note counts now, more than ever. In the ‘60s, record companies would often build up an album around a few good songs with single potential and then fill out the rest of the space with what became known as album tracks, which sometimes would lean towards being dismissible. Now the jungle is simply too thick for that, and people’s patience has dwindled too much. I think it’s also important to be a part of a community. If you can find a prog rock scene to be a part of, where people listen to each other’s stuff and arrange multi-band all-night gigs, you’re on the right track. But you’d have to be a social animal and a people person to enjoy the promotional aspects of the game. Personally I’m really bad at all that. I function much better in my home studio next to the coffee maker or on stage behind a mic or a drum kit.
Music and Prog in particular are constantly evolving, how do you see this musical genre in the future?
New genres keep popping up, but new music in old genres is still a thing as well. Take bands like Rival Sons and Greta Van Fleet. They feel like my generation’s Led Zeppelin. No single band is getting to the same level anymore though. And people move on more quickly. Take a song like Gangnam Style. A decade ago it was the biggest song on the planet with billions of views on YouTube. But no one talks about it anymore. However, new audiences still explore and experience Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Dark Side Of The Moon for the first time. When a new album like those came out back then, you’d have to live under a rock to not know about it. Now, new great albums come out all the time. Some even make it big for a spell, but there are so many of them. If you put 20 music enthusiasts in a room together, chances are they all have their own favorite newer band that they dig, but that none of the other people have ever heard of. The music is still there, and it is still important to people, but it’s not connecting them the same way it used to. Now it’s a solo experience to discover new stuff, whereas before it was a journey you shared with everybody else.
As usual, I leave the last question free, so that you can talk about any topic not covered in the previous questions.
Thank you. I must say these were some good and interesting questions. I had to stop and think many times. One thing I could add, that I’m looking forward to with both excitement and dread, is the use of AI in the creative process. Of course a lot of modern pop music already sounds like it was made entirely by computers, but when are the AIs gonna be prog fans? And how will they tackle that? I used AI on my album, not for music, but for the artwork. In the booklet, there’s a photo representing each song, and those were all generated by AI, being prompted with snippets of the lyrics or a description of a scene from the songs.
It was a fun experiment, and I believe it turned out very well.
I thank Jon for the interview and wish him all the best for the continuation of his artistic career.