By Bliss Bowen
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
The pandemic has spawned more than a year’s worth of creative shifts for artists, from new albums to projects in different genres or mediums. But local saxophonist Michael Birnbryer-Lao says his debut EP, released in late February under the banner of his musical alter ego, Francis Frances (francisfrances.com), was inspired not by the lockdown but by a “thought experiment” and processing his fears.
“The big fear was losing my wife and son in some tragic way,” Birnbryer-Lao explained. The music’s comforting vibe, he elaborated, is a “reflection of the most important role that music plays for me in my life, in a functional way, aside from being a career path in different ways. I just love that soothing space that comes from making music.”
As a sideman, Birnbryer-Lao has recorded with Brother Ali, Pharcyde and Scott Weiland. (He also played some local shows with Weiland before the ex-Stone Temple Pilots frontman’s death in 2015.) He reached out to multi-instrumentalist Miles Senzaki, aka Point Lobo, to make the Francis Frances EP, “I’m Home.” The four songs — “Back Again,” “Before I Knew You Well,” the gauzy “Bereaved” and sax-gilded title track — meld pop melodies with R&B rhythms, ambient textures, and gently uplifting messages.
The Sunland resident has been teaching music in the Pasadena Unified School District since 2008, (“at Blair exclusively for 11 years”), and students benefit from his experiences as an independent musician. He had already been using a browser-based digital workstation for music production and songwriting lessons when they began returning to physical classrooms. A month into hybrid learning, most are now composing and doing remixes; Birnbryer-Lao said he also has them perform contemporary music by the likes of Lizzo, Khalid or the “Black Panther” film score. They respond to instruments as well as computers, but he acknowledges a “compartmentalization” that occurs with younger generations weaned on computer-generated music.
Shifting to hybrid learning has been a “tremendous transition” near the end of a school year shaped by historic change, and Birnbryer-Lao said he’s noticed “students across the board” struggling emotionally and psychologically. Inevitably, that gets processed in assignments focused on “socio-emotional connections to music.”
“One project we did was around a memory, a dream for their summer or a dream for their future — helping them connect their inner world and expressing it through music. It’s kind of a music therapy approach,” Birnbryer-Lao said. “When we did summer dream, it’s all about hanging out with their friends. When it came to moods, and we’re writing some songs right now, a lot of things are around feelings of anxiety or feelings of loss. Like there’s a middle-school student whose dad died of COVID-19 five months ago, and he did a song about a memory. I asked, ‘Do you want to share what the memory was?’ And he said, ‘I’d rather not share.’ It was a beautiful piece of music. You could almost imagine where it was.”