Arts and Entertainment

Composed: Island native comes home after musical adventure

Jherek Bischoff takes orchestral composition to a new level. His recent album, “Composed,” features vocal legend David Byrne and alt-favorite Soko coupled with full-bodied orchestral innovation. He will be returning to the Bainbridge stage this August. - Angel Ceballos photo
Jherek Bischoff takes orchestral composition to a new level. His recent album, “Composed,” features vocal legend David Byrne and alt-favorite Soko coupled with full-bodied orchestral innovation. He will be returning to the Bainbridge stage this August.
— image credit: Angel Ceballos photo

Jherek Bischoff didn’t know he would one day arrange orchestral pieces.

In fact, it wasn’t until about 2006 that he began to identify himself as someone who could score music.

He was filling out a Seattle artist grant application when for the first time he checked the box next to composer.

Fast forward seven years, and the Bainbridge Island native has an album featuring orchestral music coupled with such vocal legends as David Byrne and Caetano Veloso and press attention from NPR, the New Yorker, the New York Times and The Guardian.

On Aug. 16, Bischoff will return to Bainbridge for his first hometown performance since the release of his 2012 album, “Composed.”

“Composed,” much like Bischoff, started out with a somewhat unusual foundation.

Bischoff started playing bass guitar as a kid. His amp took up the entire floor space of his bedroom which was the approximate size of a storage closet inside his family’s sailboat, the Gumbo Ya-Ya.

It was 98 percent bed and about 2 percent floor space, a square footage just enough to stand inside the door.

“I think the most direct impact of (growing up in a sailboat) is how to make do with very little,” Bischoff said.

“I would have to make sure that I was actually interested in the thing before I got it,” he recalled. “Do I want a bass amplifier or a floor?”

Bischoff lived on the Gumbo Ya-Ya most of his childhood, from about fourth grade through high school. It was hard to ignore the amp he had to step on in order to get in bed, and it was hard to ignore his bass, which took a decent amount of space next to him in bed.

So, naturally, he got started on trying to become the best bass player in the entire world.

After coming home from a more than two-year-long sailing trip through Central and South America with his family, Bischoff dedicated himself to his music. He set out on a journey that would take him from the sailboat, to living in his car, to living in a friend’s closet.

Coming from an upbringing in small spaces, and a sailing trip that required him to enroll in correspondence school, where he taught himself the curriculum, the poor-musician lifestyle fit well.

But, of course, becoming the best bass player in the entire world, he said, didn’t exactly happen.

He practiced for hours on end with various stringed instruments.

Eventually all the tinkering evolved into something altogether new.

“The idea of songs became more important to me than musicianship,” Bischoff said. “That led me to encounter people who were really technically skilled and people who this was their first time playing.”

Songs were forming in his head, but he couldn’t sing or perform them quite right, and a one-man show didn’t appeal to him. At that point he was still trying to be a professional live music artist, but he knew that he just couldn’t do it all.

While still living in a friend’s closet, he began to hone in on the power of collaboration. Of course, living in a closet didn’t allow him the luxury of owning a lot of recording equipment, so he asked musical friends with talent and personality he couldn’t replicate if he could record them in their living room.

He rode his bike all over Seattle with a microphone recorder, then came home and started layering the sounds.

It took about a year. It then went through many more phases over the course of about four years. The phases included everything from drafting to getting in touch with David Byrne and Caetano Veloso.

In his song, “Eyes,” Bischoff envisioned Byrne’s tangoey voice to fill the lines. It was overwhelming to the point that he found himself trying to replicate Byrne on his own, but of course, Byrne is a tough talent to imitate.

It just happened that a friend of his was a dancer for Byrne’s band, and Bischoff seized the opportunity to pass along the song. Byrne contacted him directly when he heard it and said he would gladly sing the song.

This miraculous agreement led Bischoff to then get in touch with Byrne’s acquaintance, Veloso.

This was a harder nut to crack. Veloso was in Brazil, and Jherek Bischoff was an unknown. It wasn’t exactly the easiest thing to make a virtual promise. But then Bischoff found himself down in Brazil for a performance and came into contact with someone who knew Veloso.

He happened to mention how it was teetering on whether it was going to happen, and the guy says, “Oh! I know Caetano, let me help you out…”

“It’s just one of those things where I’ve been touring enough and around enough people where I’m only one or two people away from that world,” Bischoff said. “Just from being out working, that world has shrunk a lot.”

Out of persistence, a DIY approach and what goes without saying, hard work, “Composed” was released in June 2012.

The album takes listeners on a ride. It fits its palm around the mystical, the dark, the sensual and the secret love affair with a full orchestra sound and rich vocals.

“With artists like Björk it always sounds like their music, but they’re utilizing these musicians from all over the world,” Bischoff explained.

Bischoff wrote the scores, gathered the musicians, curated the sound and produced the album into a seamless masterpiece.

“I’m actually surprisingly content with the record,” Bischoff said. “It’s impossible for me to look at it any other way than pure amazement.”

His press attention didn’t happen right away. Just like he was able to get in touch with Veloso and Byrne, it happened by being committed to working.

Bischoff almost did not commit to doing the show in New York that the producer of NPR’s “Fresh Air” happened to attend. Bischoff knew he would lose money by committing to a longer tour. But at the last minute, he decided go ahead with it.

At the show in a dingy rock club, he opened for a rock band wearing a tuxedo and accompanied by a string quartet and guest singers. After the performance, the producer from “Fresh Air” approached him and asked if he’d like to interview with the show’s host, Terry Gross.

“I think what excited them, was that I playing this pretty serious chamber music,” Bischoff said. “Just the context of it.”

Bischoff has not yet performed his compositions for his hometown audience. At 7:30 p.m. Aug. 16, islanders will have the opportunity to attend a one-night only performance at the Bainbridge Performing Arts. Bischoff  — playing on the ukelele, bass and vocals — will be accompanied by a string quartet, clarinet and percussion.

“I’m really excited to bring my music back to Bainbridge,” Bischoff said.

“It was an extremely forgiving environment to grow up in. I was a weird kid; I had purple hair and purple Converse. It says a lot about the island and how it nurtures creativity.”

The concert will bring Bischoff, some of his closest friends — including his brother on percussion — and many of the collaborators featured in his album together on one stage. They will be performing a combination of songs from his album and arrangements he was commissioned to write by the Lincoln Center for the Kronos Quartet.

Tickets are $20 per person and can be purchased through the Bainbridge Performing Arts.

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