by Sean Pollock, OnStage Columnist Briana Lynn Wolf is a 23-year-old composer from Montville, New Jersey. She went to Westminster College of the Arts at Rider University for Musical Theater and graduated when she was 20. She’s been writing since she was a child, and performs music as a solo artist, acts as an actor, writes as a co-writer for multiple music genres, and writes song cycles for broadway actors. She has written song cycles that have been performed at 54 Below and The Laurie Beechman. Her first two shows at the Laurie Beechman and 54 Below she wrote, directed, music directed, produced, cast, promoted and booked. Every aspect of the show she put together herself. In her most recent show she had a cast of 19 singers, a 4 piece band, Cody Owen Stine as music director, Jenny Leon as director and Sammy Lopez as producer. She has performed solo or with a band at every shitty dive bar you can think of, and has recently co-wrote with some cool popular bands that she can’t tell you about just yet, but hopefully you will be able to hear those songs soon. She had one song that went viral a few years ago, it got 300,000 hits, but it’s quite silly and she doesn’t feel it represents her music well.
SP: Hey Briana. Thanks for chatting with us! You have a lot of really impressive things going on right now. Tell us about your latest show, “Right Now” that just premiered at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in December, which was very well received. What was it like working at Laurie Beechman and 54 Below? What was that process like for you?
BW: Hey Sean, Thanks for inviting me to chat with you! It was great working at both those venues. For me, my last show was very different from my previous shows. I had a lot more people involved in the process, I think all together it was 26 people including myself, and I got to focus on the music and less of the schedule making behind the scenes stuff, which was wonderful and less of a stress fest for me. Of course I stressed out nonetheless, but I had a support system behind me, which I hadn’t really had in the past. There was a lot less rehearsal time than I was used to, because everyone we worked with had busy broadway schedules and there were so many people involved. The show was also for a cause, “Bring Change 2 Mind” which is a non-profit focused on ending the stigma for mental illness. The Beechman has always been welcoming to me, everyone there is lovely. It was the place I nervously did my first New York song cycle and it was great to be back more confident in my work.
SP: As a fellow writer, I know this question can make one feel pigeon-holed, but what themes would you say are important to you in your work? What do you think some of those themes are, and why are they important to you?
BW: Hmm. I guess, I try to make every song different. I want them each to stand on their own. I don’t want them all to be about the same thing in the same way. We live in a “single” world right now, and while I obviously want everything to flow well together, it is important to me that I have songs spanning multiple genres and subject matters. So I don’t ever really want to fall into one theme. I want to write about things that people can relate to, I want to be positive and empowering, but I also want to be human and make sure people know it’s ok to be sad. I know that doesn’t really answer your question, but I’d rather people decide what themes they take from my music themselves then tell them what to think of it.
SP: Do you have any musical artists that you feel have influenced your work? Have you had any mentors?
BW: I listen to a lot of very different music, depending on how I’m feeling on whatever day, and I want to be my own person, so I’ve tried to not to consciously be influenced by other artists, but if I really had to say a few specific artists that I love or admire I would probably say The Beatles, Joni Mitchell and Fiona Apple. I also try to be aware of all the songwriters that are writing the current hits on the radio, the people behind the scenes of pop hits. As for mentors, I had a voice teacher when I was very young who passed away when I was 12, I felt very close to her and it was very traumatic for me, as it was for everyone who knew her. I think her death impacted me a lot over the years, it was hard to be a normal teenager when you’ve experienced loss so young, and it really gave me the drive to focus on what I love.
SP: Let’s talk about some of your earlier work, such as “Constructing Chaos”, your first engagement at Laurie Beechman. What was that process like for you to bring a song cycle to life like that for the first time?
BW: I had done one song cycle before that at college, but Constructing Chaos was my first real world one. I was heartbroken and having a mental breakdown and decided that I needed to focus my energy into something. So I randomly called some friends, including friends who were awesome singers who I hadn’t talked to in four years (who I’m now super close with), and emailed the Beechman and made it happen. I had no money, so I rented really gross band rehearsal spaces or had rehearsals at my apartment and everyone worked for free. I first met with all the singers individually and played them a few songs that I thought they would like, and they chose which 2 or 3 they wanted to do. I wanted to make sure they were singing songs they liked. Then I taught all the singers one-on-one the music without sheet music, and one on one taught each band member the music individually with just chords written down. Then I brought it all together bit by bit. We had a lot of rehearsal, and two or three weeks of full band rehearsals--which generally never happens in the real world. The singers and the band became really close and we all formed an awesome bond. We had two guitars and I played piano on only one song for the show so it was very rock oriented, which was fun, and most of the songs were about heartbreak and toxic relationships and being in an emotional whirl wind. I called it constructing chaos, because my brain was a chaotic mess at the time, and I used the creation of the show to focus all of that energy into something positive, constructing the chaos in my head and making something hopefully people liked out of it. I am so glad I did it, because it was a good way to deal with heartache and because after that show I gained the confidence to perform my own material in a new way. When I had people who believed in me and my music and were willing to donate so much of their time to it, it gave me hope and I spent most of the next year gigging around manhattan.
SP: So your background is primarily in musical theatre, from appearing in musicals in New York from a very young age. When did you start making the transition from perform to writer, and how did you start finding your voice as a songwriter?
BW: You know, I don’t know if I’ve fully transitioned. Performing is a huge part of my life and I think it will always be, I want to be able to do both. I spent the last two years doing a children's tour around NY, NJ, PA and IL, and I sing my own music as well. I always performed, but I always wrote too. I wrote my first song about my first crush in fourth grade. I kept songwriting a secret for most of my life, and didn’t tell anyone. I only really started to share my music when I went to college. I was that annoying kid at college that always ran into the theater kids lounge and was like “wanna hear this new song I just wrote?”, eventually people got really tired of hearing a new song every day, but it did help to get an immediate opinion right after I wrote the song. Then, I started working at an open mic, and gained songwriting confidence by performing there weekly with whatever new material I had written. I got mostly positive feedback and people started knowing me more for being a songwriter at college then a performer. My senior year I had major vocal problems and no one knew how to fix them (fixed now though yay!) and my mom suggested that since I had so much music and wasn’t able to sing it myself, I should have other people sing it--and that’s kinda how it happened. Thanks mom! I didn’t get any additional credit or anything for putting the show together, but it really helped me see writing music in a new way that didn’t always have to do with me.
SP: You mention that you’ve played at “every shitty dive bar you can think of”. What was one of the worst performing gigs, or embarrassing moments you had when you were first starting out? How did it help shape you as the writer/performer you are now?
BW: I mean, just like performing a gig to a pretty much empty room, because no one came. That kind of sucked. But it taught me to get to the gig early and stay till the end of the night and try to meet every band and fan possible. I also used to get pretty nervous at my earlier shows and I feel like my singing suffered because of lack of confidence. I felt like I was putting my heart and soul up for people to look at and judge and it was scary. It still is scary sometimes.
SP: Also when you first started out, you released the song “Punch (Let’s Be Real)” which got over 300,000 hits on Youtube--which is really impressive. What was that experience like going viral at such an early point in your career?
BW: It was crazy. It happened so fast too. I really had no idea that would happen. I didn’t have a smart phone at the time and I was at work while it was all happening and I had no way to keep track of it all which was nerve-wracking.
SP: You say “it’s quite silly and she doesn’t feel it represents her music well.” What makes you say that? What made you want to release the song?
BW: You know, that song is a lot of fun. It’s catchy and I think it says some clever things. I wanted to release the song because it was the only way I knew how to deal with things going on in my life and I felt like I had to say something. I wanted to say it in a fun, interesting way, also I had a lot of friends that really really liked it. I don’t think my vocals were recorded well, and I didn’t really have the option to re-do them, and the music video had no budget and was a little goofy. I don’t think that song is like any of my other music though, which is mainly why I say that. I typically don’t write boy bashing super pop songs. I really didn’t want it to define me, so I just backed away from all the attention. It wasn’t what I wanted to be known for, and I think I have much better songs. Sometimes it sucks because that’s the song I’m known for and I really have a lot more important things to say. On a side note, multiple people have said to me that they broke up with their boyfriend by saying “Just cause you feel bad doing bad things doesn’t mean you’re not an asshole”, which I think is awesome.
SP: So, jumping forward--what’s coming up on the horizon? What should we be looking out for next from you?
BW: Right now I’m just writing and focusing on the future. I’m working to make recordings of my songs so that I don’t just have live videos, but recording is expensive. I’m trying to get interviews, and get my last song cycle shown places. I’m trying to get out sheet music to people who want to sing my music (hit me up!) I’ve co-written some songs for bands/ artists that hopefully I’ll be able to share with everyone soon. My next song cycle will be all new music, so I’m writing for that. I’m trying to write with as many new people as possible, in as many genres as possible.
SP: And finally, what advice would you offer to young women, or young artists in general, trying to start out as songwriters?
BW: I think it’s really hard to be a female songwriter. People don’t take you seriously. I’ve found that when networking, important people are much more likely to try to hit on you then actually listen to your music or think of you seriously as a writer. You’re always looked at as a piece of meat before you’re a songwriter and that sucks. I hope that I can help change that. It sucks that I need a man to vouch for me or have to say something at least 5 times before it will be taken seriously. People assume you have people who write for you or you can’t play an instrument. I know there are similar struggles with minorities who are writers. I think we just have to keep fighting and not give up. Practice a lot and know what you’re good at and become great at it, and then keep creating, and don’t stop until people listen. If you love it, and you work hard, I think anything is possible. I know this is annoying, but I think networking is a huge part of the business. Go out and meet people, anywhere, and be a friendly person. I’m such an introvert but I’ve learned to force myself into social settings where I don’t know anyone, or only know one person to meet new people, and it’s always been beneficial to me and my art. You never know who could have a connection to someone important, or who could help you creatively. Always be nice to people, and always say thank you.
Visit Briana Wolf online at brianalynnwolf.com