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Jon Brion is the man behind the music

Controversial producer has worked with Fiona Apple and Kayne West
/ Source: Reuters

Eclectic music producer Jon Brion remains largely under the radar and unfazed despite being a central figure in one of the year’s biggest hits and one of the record industry’s biggest controversies.

Regarded by many in the business as a sonic whiz kid, Brion, 41, has drawn raves for his work on rapper Kanye West’s critically acclaimed hit album, “Late Registration.” But his collaboration with Fiona Apple led the singer’s label to shelve a much-anticipated CD for two years, triggering the now-famous “Free Fiona” campaign by her fans.

“For me, it’s very funny. She’s one of my favorite living artists and a friend. I adore her,” said Brion, who earned a Grammy nomination for his work on the score for the 1999 film “Magnolia.”

Describing himself as a largely self-taught musician, even though he grew up in a musical household with a father who was a conductor, Brion finds himself in great demand these days.

His film music credits also include “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and “I Heart Huckabees,” while the list of artists who have enlisted his expertise continues to grow, including the likes of Apple, West, Macy Gray, David Byrne and Aimee Mann.

One-man showMany of these stars also are regulars at Brion’s one-man show on Friday nights at the Los Angeles club Largo, making it a hot spot on the area’s singer-songwriter scene. Despite the turmoil surrounding his work on Apple’s album, the soul-baring siren repeatedly sat in with Brion at the club late this summer, underscoring their continued friendship.

During a recent interview, the tall, thin Brion, sporting a mop of dark hair that often falls into his eyes, said his work remains on two songs of Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine,” which debuted Oct. 4. The album’s release capped a much-chronicled creative and commercial meltdown that prompted Apple at one point to proclaim she was quitting the record business and to finally seek a new producer.

During the ordeal, Brion, who had produced Apple’s previous album, “When the Pawn ...,” was suspected of leaking the shelved version of “Extraordinary Machine” to the Internet, triggering a grass-roots campaign among fans seeking its commercial release. Brion denies the charge.

“I didn’t even like the version that got leaked on the Internet. It was very different from the way we cut it. It was mixed in a way to make it as radio-friendly as possible,” said Brion, who prides himself on shaping sounds in unorthodox and progressive ways.

This musical imprint is what apparently drew West to Brion, and the producer is credited with providing richer texture and mood-setting sounds to the rapper’s album.

“Kanye calling me was interesting to me,” Brion said. “He seemed to be coming from a position of openness. He just said, ‘I want it to be really good, and I want different sounds that people don’t usually get,’ meaning in hip-hop,” said Brion.

“I liked that he was concerned with wanting to be really good ... not like, ‘This is my follow-up record, and I’ve got to sell as much as the first,”’ Brion recalled.

‘Trust me’“It’s an honest concern, but if an artist said that to me, I’d say, ‘Well you should go with whoever you worked with on the first record and repeat the formula. Trust me, you don’t want me around,” he said.

Indeed, it was the commercial pressure that put the kibosh on his latest work with Apple. After teaming up on her critically acclaimed yet commercially disappointing “When the Pawn ...” (1999), the two decided to work together again.

Brion said he and Apple presented some finished tracks to Sony Corp.’s Epic Records in mid-2003 only to have label executives reject them as uncommercial. He admits, too, that Apple began to grow uncertain of the project.

“Pressure began to be put on Fiona to get a [hit] single and make it sound more palatable,” he said. “As far as that goes, she was in a place where she was unsure of herself. When you have a great deal of time that goes by as a creative person, you’re very much about the moment,” he said.

Recounting the whole incident a “gross miscalculation” by Epic, Brion said he believes the same fans who would have bought the original version will buy the latest version, produced by Dr. Dre’s sometime collaborator, Mike Elizondo.