AWOLNATION’s Aaron Bruno and Jewel: A Conversation

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

As AWOLNATION gets set to release their upcoming album My Echo, My Shadow, My Covers and Me on May 6, lead singer Aaron Bruno and Jewel, who is featured on the album, sat down for a conversation about their collaborative cover—ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me.” The new album is a project of carefully curated covers, with each track featuring at least one acclaimed musical artist with whom AWOLNATION’s founder, Bruno, has a personal connection.

Read on to get a peek into the conversation between Jewel, whose new album Freewheelin’ Woman, her first in seven years, was released on April 15, and Bruno as they discuss their newest collaboration, production on the album, and their mental health during quarantine.

Jewel: 

You were doing a fundraiser to help get some personal protection and COVID gear out on the Navajo nation and you wrote me a song, which was really nice. And I got to be familiar with your work. I was already a huge fan and familiar with “Sail” and whatnot. And then you asked me to collaborate on this album of covers. And I was really surprised by the songs you picked. I don’t know why. I guess music gives us an impression of who we think we are. But it was a really broad swipe. And I just wanted to ask you about your selection process and what made you gravitate to specific songs and what your goal was?

Aaron Bruno:

I’m sure you’ve done cover songs throughout your career, either live or for fun with your guitar. And so the same is true for me. Some of these songs I just always thought would be either A: hilarious to attempt to cover, and B: I had just released an album of original songs. And due to the state of the world, all tours were canceled, obviously. So the last thing I wanted to do was write another original album. And so I was like, “Okay, well, I can finally do that covers album I’d always been flirting with doing.” And it felt like a good way to exercise creativity without having to get back into making up a whole new record. 

And I also figured that a lot of people were going to be mentally unstable during times of fear and the unknown. This is uncharted territory so we’re all trying to figure out how to best mentally just get through the day, right? So that was another part of doing this covers album for me because music is therapy, of course, it’s saved my life many times. So I thought it would be a good idea to tackle some of these songs that I’ve always wanted to and keep it light. So it was just a very fun process. But to answer your question in a roundabout way, there’s no rhyme or reason to the songs I selected other than I always thought that would be cool to do one day. And it depended on the feature and the guests. So who better to tackle the huge uphill battle of an ABBA song than with you?

Jewel:

I had the easiest part. You sent me those tracks and I was really impressed with the amount of work that you did. You self-produced, is that right?

Aaron Bruno:

Yeah.

Jewel:

Yeah. When people get a hold of this, I think they’re going to be really impressed by the production.

Aaron Bruno:

Thank you.

Jewel:

On top of everything else. But all the intricate guitar work. So much goes into that ABBA song (“Take a Chance on Me”) to make that thing pop. The melodies are so simple, which is deceivingly difficult. As you become a songwriter, the things that sound simplest you realize are kind of the hardest. But all the musical hooks that go in there and all the layering and all the harmonies you did, I can’t imagine how you even dissected to figure out what all those parts were.

Aaron Bruno:

The hardest part was the “Take a Chance” cadence, the lower vocal that’s in there that the two gentlemen in ABBA did. And I remember doing that and not understanding if I did it right. And I still don’t know if I did it exactly right. But I survived that part. And truth be told though, I did have the help of my keyboard player, Dan Saslow, who did a lot of the synth work on that song. And so he helped me quite a bit. But yeah, it seems like pop songs when done well, come across as very simple, as you said. But it’s super complex, that song. 

Jewel:

I really enjoyed “Just a Friend.” I thought that was a really awesome version of it. It sounded great. That was fun.

Aaron Bruno:

And rest in peace Biz Markie I obviously had no idea that he was going to pass of course. So that’s kind of sad. But that was just a childhood favorite. And here’s a funny story about that one. I tried to do the whole song alone because I knew it from my childhood front to end. I was like, I think I know all the words, and I did it. And I remember thinking, “Wow, I just killed that. This is going to be so amazing.” I impressed my engineer, Eric, and then we listen back. I’m like, “‘No, that doesn’t sound good,” So I had a buddy, an artist by the name of Hyro the Hero, appear on that and he helped a lot to make it sound legit.

Jewel:

A lot of your focus during quarantine was on mental health. How did you do during quarantine? What did you discover?

Photo by Dana Trippe

Aaron Bruno:

I just listened to everybody else that had more expertise than me and I just tried to take it day by day. And continue to. I have a tendency to look at the glass half empty a lot when it comes to emotions. My wife is the opposite. She’s very easygoing and nothing’s a big deal. So that’s one way to cope with it. Another way is to look in my dog’s eyes… I don’t have kids yet. I’m sure people who have kids would say the same thing about their children. Just the little reminders that nothing’s as big of a deal as it seems at the time. I suppose the best thing I’ve learned over the last couple of years is that if something seems like a major deal, end of the world scenario, for me personally this is just my personality journey. If I give myself an hour to not react automatically one hour later I’m going to feel significantly better than I did. And then in a couple of hours, I’m feeling better. And then the next day it seems silly that I was that upset to begin with. So that’s probably the best tool. And I can’t always do it, but that’s probably the best tool I’ve gained over the last couple of years I would say.

Jewel:

I have a youth foundation and we work with really difficult, complex trauma. And these kids don’t have therapists or traditional support networks. And teaching in that impermanence that A: not every thought and feeling is a fact. Just because your brain comes up with it doesn’t mean you have to consume it. You do get to question it and maybe abstain from it. And also that nothing is forever. And you’re not the only thing in all of the history of all of nature that will remain the same in a static state. And if you can just, I call it buckling myself in. If you just buckle yourself in and not jump out of your skin in a short period of time, relative to like you’re saying, within an hour the weather has already shifted so to speak, the internal landscape. It’s a great skill.

Aaron Bruno:

And also to remember that the world doesn’t revolve around you is key as well. I think it’s hard when you’re writing songs and doing interviews and stuff. And not in an egotistical way do I think the world revolves around me ever, but sometimes you feel alone because only you know what it’s like to write these lyrics and these songs and these melodies and sing them. My drummer, Isaac, anytime we were about to do a really serious pressure performance, whether it was a late-night kind of thing or whatever, if I’d get stressed, he’d always pull me aside and go, ‘Dude, you’re not that important. Don’t worry about it.’ And I always thought that was a great thing to remember it and say it.

Jewel:

Yeah. It is funny as an artist we’re encouraged and lucky if we get to be paid for really dredging through our emotionality, and it can definitely get a little myopic if we don’t come up for air.

Aaron Bruno:

Well, it’s also just nice to remember that other people feel some of the negative emotions that you may have to feel yourself and there are people you could talk to about it. Not everybody likes to talk about their emotions. Some are better than others. I certainly like to talk about it much more than my wife does, that’s for sure.

Jewel:

So why not talk about it? And I think that it’s a real gift for musicians to be able to express feelings for other people that don’t know the words and don’t even quite know what it is they’re feeling. And then you hear that song and you’re like, that’s exactly what I’m going through. And you feel so much less alone. And I know you really look at music as sort of a mental health tool, that it has mental health benefits. How do you see that?

Aaron Bruno:

It’s the best therapy that I’ve found. I try to sustain from as much outside product as possible for anything like that. So I try to find it in different ways whether it’s meditating or listening to music or writing. It’s always been the thing that’s helped me feel better no matter what. And it’s so strange that sad songs make me feel good. I do love some happy songs as well. It’s some uplifting songs, but it’s the songs that make you feel devastated that make me feel like I want to cry which makes me feel better.

I just wanted to add one more thing to that. The best thing about doing this covers album was that I didn’t write any of it. So there was no pressure other than to just not screw these songs up too much. And so talking, relating back to lyrics in emotion, I didn’t have to think about any of that. It was the first time I’d ever done that. So it was just fun. And if you don’t like the song, it’s not my fault because I didn’t write it. So talk to Madonna or whoever. Yeah. Or ABBA.

Jewel:

That’s a really freeing thing.

Aaron Bruno:

It was awesome. And now I’m already working on my new album of AWOL songs and it feels great and it’s easy. Not always easy, but it just feels like I’m ready to do it. I had to do this in between. I wasn’t ready to make two new albums in a row. That was nuts to me. And I’ve also enjoyed being home and not touring. I’m getting kind of addicted to it, which is dangerous of course. Like if a tour gets booked, I’ll be like, “What? What are you talking about? I’m going to leave for how long?” I don’t know.

Jewel:

There were some real pros of quarantine. One, of course, is that we got this album from you, which we wouldn’t have had a chance to get otherwise. I guess just before we go, any advice to young writers? I learned a lot listening through these songs you selected. There was such good writing, such good structure, and different ways of delivering a hook. And just any advice? I always like to try and end it on for young inspiring talent?

Aaron Bruno:

Well, I would say two things. One, always keep writing songs. Never settle or think I’ve written my best song. I know so many artists, and I’ve been guilty of this too, that feels like I’ve written this—the best I could. This is the best song I could write. This is my biggest chance to have success or reach an audience. And then it fails. And it’s so devastating because you put too much pressure on this one song where you have no idea what you’re going to write next. And that was the case for me. So I would say always just keep writing. And you’ll write some bad songs of course, but don’t be so precious to think that each song you make deserves all this attention, because that may not be the case and you could always get better.

And the other piece of advice is if there’s a song you love dearly and you’re obsessed with and it does everything for you, learn how to play it. Whatever your instrument is. Whether it’s guitar, piano, or something else, learn to play it. And it may take some time, but do that. And then you’ll get better at writing songs. And then a wonderful song that doesn’t seem as daunting because you’ve kind of lifted up the hood and looked around a little bit. And that’s what happened for me. 

Aaron Bruno:

Well, thanks for your time. And thanks for listening to all the songs.

Jewel:

Yeah, really enjoyed it.

Aaron Bruno photo by Kari Rowe

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