BRETTON LEE JOHN
For fans of: Dallas Green, Modern Lovers, Dinosaur Jr.
John Cusack made his bones in modern cinema as the nice guy/everyman in films like Better Off Dead (1985), Say Anything.... (1989), and High Fidelity (2000). I would like to be the first to say that indie singer/songwriter Bretton Lee John is Calgary’s John Cusack with a guitar on. Bretton Lee John, and his music, capture the essence of many different John Cusack archetype qualities. There is his sardonic wit that reminds us of Cusack’s character in Hot Tub Time Machine (2008), there is his hopeless romantic nature that harkens to Lloyd Dobbler of Say Anything…, and then there is John’s evident music addiction that echoes character Rob of the classic High Fidelity. The placid indie songs Bretton Lee John writes could actually be the perfect soundtrack to the new High Fidelity series, despite John saying he wishes he could say Tiger King “for the meme.” When I initially approached John about being featured in R Planet, he said “Yes! One step closer to marrying Phoebe Bridgers.” What does the lo-fi cowboy feel that the indie folk queen possess that would make her the perfect spouse? “I think the real question is what makes me a suitable spouse for Phoebs. I was so cynical of her bandwagon, but she’s a killer songwriter and she’s tricking kids into listening to country while being incredibly sarcastic and hanging out with the National. I’ve always been attracted to thoughtfulness and character, and a dark sense of humour always seems indicative of both. I’d like to think I’m like Phoebe Bridgers if she severely damaged her vocal chords, was a dude, and her dad was biracial. Now that I think about it, I’m nothing like the male version of Phoebe.”
After listening to John’s inference on why Bridgers would make the perfect spouse, I can vouch for him. I can vouch for him because his latest single “The Wanting” and his latest EP “Find Yourself Missing” both ooze the raw honesty and revealing qualities that John finds so captivating about Bridgers. “The Wanting” was released to all platforms on April 1st, and has been enjoying some regular airplay on x92.9 FM’s Xposure. “I had just gotten out of a serious relationship, and I was at work at a guitar shop in a mall” John explains. “This really pretty girl is in the store with her friends, and we talked about charity work for way longer than a customer and employee talk in a normal circumstance. She was funny and well spoken, and I ended up getting her Instagram….just for her profile picture to be her wrapped around her boyfriend.” I can certainly relate to such an adolescent tragedy, as I know many other young people can. I believe that is exactly what John is aiming for. When your lyrics pour straight out of your own life, as John says, the songs write themselves.
Now, when I think of an emotionally intelligent indie singer songwriter, one of the last places I would think to find them would be on the outskirts of Calgary. “I grew up in a rural neighbourhood surrounded by farmers and conservative oil workers” John details. Growing up, John found an affinity for Billy Talent and Rise Against. It was when he dove into Dallas Green’s music, though, that he began to pick up the acoustic more and find his sound. John’s sound includes his signature deviation from the traditional male indie artist: he opts for a rich bass register vocal style, as opposed to the standard baritone or tenor range that others gravitate towards. “People had commented on my deep voice my whole life, and they’d tell me things like that I should be a radio host” John shares. “I’m not sure if there was a subconscious leaning into that suggestion or not, but it’s what happened. I’m trying to push my range more lately.” Further discussing the depths of his music, John expands on his overall goal with his lyrics being that of forming a sense of identity and understanding between himself and listeners. “Depression presented itself early in my life and I felt very disconnected. Records like Dallas Green’s ‘Bring Me Your Love’ or Dan Mangan’s ‘Postcards & Daydreaming’ were like ‘holy shit, there are more of me out there! Dudes with thoughts and emotions, and they aren’t happy all the time.’” John concludes that even if conventional success does not come his way, someone being helped by his lyrics would satisfy everything he has been working towards.
John’s metaphorically titled EP “Find Yourself Missing” breached its way onto Spotify and Apple Music in 2019, and permeates with vivid and familiar imagery, including “the blackened lips of the indie queens, the stares of the ACAD kids.” The title of the EP is not only an attractive contradiction to John, but it roots back to before the EP title became a topic of discussion. “The song ‘Built Down’ builds to a line about finding yourself missing, which felt appropriate” John explains. Speaking to what that phrase means to him, John says “when it hits you in the face that you aren’t really inside of yourself.” The record’s cadences also echo with a voice pleading for something real in a city where things can feel as grey as the concrete that keeps the downtown feeling so chilly year round. “I have obsessive compulsive disorder and had pretty severe depression for much of my life, and I always kind of felt like an empty shell of a person. Those songs feel to me like twenty years of angst and self doubt coming out.”
The EP has many standout tracks, but John has a couple in his mind that take the whole pot of Hospital Coffee for him. “Inferno is the last song I wrote for it, and it’s my favourite by a long way. That song just came out right, and it’s never hard to give it the emotion it deserves. It’s funny, cause that song performs the worst by a long way.” Do not let John fool you though, because his music has a lot more going into it than lyrical precision. John holds his own as a writer on the guitar, mainly the acoustic guitar. Again citing Dallas Green as an influence, John praises Green’s ability to write really great parts that are not overly complicated, and serve the songs. He also cites Townes Van Zandt’s fingerpicking on his first record, which really inspired John to pay more attention to his right hand.
Bretton Lee John says that his goal when taking the stage is “to be a faithful representation of myself with no pretension or pageantry.” It’s clear to see that through pictures and videos of John’s gigs, as he takes the stage with the magnetism and openness of your best friend since childhood. John probably has no complaints with exuding that kind of aura, as in his words, “my favourite part of playing is meeting new people. I’ll sit down for a coffee or a beer with anyone.”
John can be seen kicking around at multiple local venues like Cafe Koi, but says a stage he would be ecstatic to play would be the Calgary Folk Fest main stage. “My mom took me to festivals every summer growing up and they were always when I felt happiest. In the open air, around happy people sharing music” John reminices. Speaking of shows, before the pandemic hit, John had all kinds of plans to be hitting the road between British Columbia and Ontario throughout the year. “I have this romanticized idea of pulling long driving shifts and smoking American Spirits in a tattered denim jacket” John fantasizes. While the movie scene may have to wait, John assures (with a wit that is now almost as signature as his deep vocal timbre) “my next single “the Rock Show” (not a cover of Blink-182) is the feel good hit of the summer coming to a made-by-Netflix teen drama near you. I’m working in the general direction of recording a full length recording sometime in the next year, and I’m recording a few live acoustic songs.” I was sad to hear that there were no plans of a grand romantic gesture for Phoebe Bridgers, but perhaps the indie folk wedding bells will be chiming sometime after the next release.