Producer Jon Brion content to stay behind the scenes -- The soundtrack composer of ''I Heart Huckabees'' and producer for Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple, makes his mark by working on others music, rather than his own

By Chris Willman
Updated October 15, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Survey the artists and engineers in the studios of L.A., and Jon Brion’s fame is off the scale. Step onto the street, and it drops to zip. That imbalance is okay by him. He’s produced groundbreaking Aimee Mann and Rufus Wainwright records; been Tom Petty’s string arranger; backed everybody from David Byrne to Lisa Marie Presley. Most recently he’s been working on I [Heart] Huckabees — his latest idiosyncratic score to an equally idiosyncratic film, following Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Punch-Drunk Love, and Magnolia. It’s a streak that’s placed him among the most envied movie composers. Now, if he could just forestall one question…

”I always have to answer ‘Why aren’t you doing your own stuff?”’ he says, taking a cheeseburger break in a Hollywood studio. He hasn’t completed an album of his own Beatlesque songs since he and Lava/Atlantic parted ways in 1999; producing and scoring offers are ”the squeakier wheel.” ”If you don’t go for the same prize everybody else wants, it’s taken as a sign of weakness. But I didn’t grow up with that thing of ‘I want to be a rock star.’ Rock star seemed like one interesting job, because it bought you power to be in studios. But I found my own way to that…. The world of pop success is extraordinarily temporal. I’m playing a long game.”

His cult of admirers will finally get some new Jon Brion songs: He’s appending five onto this soundtrack. It’s been a tight deadline, but he has the assurance it’ll come out — unlike Fiona Apple’s third album, which Brion says has been shelved since they finished it in May 2003 due to the label not hearing any obvious singles. (A rep for Epic claims Apple decided to rerecord some tracks and that the disc will be out in February.) Happily, his Huckabees work had to be vetted only by director David O. Russell. ”Whatever I finish here is not gonna go through a rigorous process of examination for its potential market value. I’m kind of tickled about that.”

Back in the studio, he starts overdubbing himself for a Huckabees track to see ”if we can [achieve] Queen.” His soft self-harmonizing recalls the layered sighs of the Beatles’ ”Sun King” more than ”Killer Queen.” But the song itself, ”Revolving Door,” is jagged and raw. Maybe that’s because it’s about major-label execs he’s known. ”You’re sick of your skin,” goes the lead vocal. ”The rot has set in/And it could be as little as an hour or two/Before it completely devours you…” Brion takes off his head-phones and laughs. ”Gee, does it sound angry?” Well, yes…in an oddly contented sort of way.