Brothers Koren on Finding Your Musical Cosmology

by Corey O'Flanagan

There is a metaphysical side of music we rarely hear about. Consider the question: Will music survive if humans die out? The Brothers Koren - Isaac and Thorald - call this "musical cosmology."

The idea, which Isaac first explored at Northeastern University, is that we all have a unique way of hearing music (eardrums are as unique as fingerprints), and by understanding how we process it, we can understand ourselves. They've been teaching the concept for six years now on "Songwriter's Journey" retreats, which have produced some songs that might be on your playlists (we found out about them through Monique DeBose, who was on the podcast in September).

These Aussie brothers formed a group called The Kin in 2001, landed a deal with Interscope, and toured with Pink in 2013. These days, in addition to their duties as musical zen masters, they have a group called Fransancisco, which is set to release their first album in 2021. In this episode, we take a deep dive into our musical cosmologies and hear them perform a few songs. Excerpts from the transcript are below.


First Singing Together

Thorald: We both got into music separately, and then we found ourselves in New York.

Isaac: There's this memory of us in the back seat of a car. We may have been going on a trip with our dad to the snow or something - we were just so excited. It was probably 6 a.m. and we'd just had something on the highway to eat and we were singing along to the harmony of Prince's "When Doves Cry."

[Both sing, quite well] Dig if you will a picture, of you and I engaged in a kiss...


Fransancisco

Isaac: Ken Rockwood from Rockwood Musical Records wanted to do an album with us and wanted to go on a journey with us into an acoustic record. Our new band, Fransancisco, is named by Thorald's 4-year-old daughter who couldn't quite say "San Francisco." We have an album coming next year and we've released a couple of songs. "What Happens Now" is the first original from that album.

Thorald: The song itself stemmed from singing about being at a crossroads and looking out no matter what was happening and choosing to take the high road. The high road being that you would live life to the fullest, regardless of the circumstance that you found yourself in. When we come to a crossroads, we always have two choices, whether it's something really traumatic or something small, like a bad day, we always stand at the precipice of that choice, so there's crossroads everywhere.

Fransancisco was born out of both a request from someone who was always a supporter of Isaac and I during The Kin, our original band, but it was also born out of taking ourselves on The Songwriter's Journey, which we'll talk about. We took ourselves on this program that we created for other people, and finally took each other together on it from inception to all the way through. Fransancisco was born out of that year-and-a-half long experience.

Isaac: It was fed from a real personal need of expressing the inexpressible. The grief that came from losing a family member way too soon. All of that together kind of pressurized this beautiful album.

We got to fly into this beautiful studio called Sonic Ranch in Texas with Nic Hard. Nic was the producer we did our favorite The Kin album with in 2007 called Rise And Fall. He flew out and we made this album in a week. It was a precious, precious time together.

Thorald: We were doing 12-to-16-hour days and we did about 16 songs in six days. The Neve room at Sonic Ranch is arguably one of the best in the world that is still functioning at a high level. What we had at our disposal gear-wise was just unbelievable, and yet, the entire Fransancisco record is one guitar and two voices.

So there we were, sitting in this playground - Snarky Puppy did their Grammy Award-winning album there with Nic Hard as well - and yet we were just using one instrument and two voices at almost every moment of the album. So it was kind of ironic in a way.

Being stripped down like that was more a relief than a challenge. When Brothers Koren sing together into that empty canvas with a song like that, the subtleties and the complexities of the dynamic range are akin to what it feels like to bang out a big rock song, because you're playing with something just as dynamic with less ingredients and more subtlety. It was kind of relieving to just let all the frills go and to just let it be what it is.


Dad's (Second) Wedding Song

Isaac: The first song we ever wrote from start to finish was a song that came out as the solution to the question, "What do we, as sons, get our father for his second wedding?"

The divorce was a shattering experience for both of us in different ways and we didn't see it coming, so as teenagers that was our traumatic moment, so coming together to sing to our father was powerful. We didn't know what to get him, and we didn't have the money to buy him anything special, so we said, "Let's write him a song."

We were hiding from the rest of the family in the bathroom and the acoustics of the bathroom space really lent itself for us to hear the harmonies for the first time.

Thorald: This was the first time we said, "OK, let's officially do it." When we first started singing together it was like, "How can we not do this?"

You know, we got into music differently. I found music as a performing arts high school kid and got into playing and singing early. Isaac found music a couple years later. We came from these different places with these different versions of passion for it, and when we opened our mouths and harmonized, we were like, "What's that? We haven't been working on that, how can that be there?"

People often ask us how we do that. It's now been 20-plus years of roughhousing each other melodically and pushing up against each other. You can never replace that experience.

So the song came together and we went to the wedding.

Isaac: We sang it, and there were tears. It was so cheesy and beautiful. Then 7 minutes in, we caught our dad looking at his watch. We didn't really understand framework at that point.


Musical Cosmology

Isaac: "Musical cosmology" is a term that came out of a study. When I was in college at Northeastern, I did a paper on the "being of music." It is a Heideggerian existentialist way of asking, "Does music exist without us perceiving it? Are there a set of laws that exist outside of us? Will music die if humanity gets wiped out? Is there an intelligence of beingness that we can experience, understand, tap into and be reflected in?"

Our being is then reflected in the being of music, or what we call the musical cosmology. Each individual is drastically unique. The eardrum is shown to be an even better representation of your uniqueness than your fingerprint. The space in which people listen to the world around them, including music, is unique. It's a unique shape. With our own music, and with over 150 different musical journeys, we've found that no human being's musical cosmology or way of listening to music is remotely the same.

Thorald: On Songwriter's Journeys, we get deeply inside their listening. We go on these games with people that put them back into the music that's hit them where they lived since they're a kid until now, and we get them to rediscover, and in front of us, show us why they're struck, and not by anything reasonable. Because music is that unknowable space. It's somewhere between physical, mental, emotional, electromagnetic. It's semantic. It's a mind, body and beyond experience.

Isaac: My musical cosmology started with John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy." I remember that being played when I was young and being like, "Whoa, what is that? I get that." Now, when I look at my son, it's almost like I hear that song, like I'm drawn to it.

Then there are minor-chord songs such as "Sweet Dreams" by Eurythmics, or "When Doves Cry" by Prince, these requiems that speak to these big life themes like betrayal, loss and grief, but then this resolution of the human realizing that they're free.

Think of a song from your childhood that hits every part of your being, and then find one from now, and notice what that tells you about the music you are struck by.

Thorald: Music lives in us as embodied memory, as little capsules, containers of messages.

Isaac: Music gets into us more than we know how to get into ourselves. A song goes straight to where it needs to go, where it belongs.

Thorald: Like medicine.

Isaac: Imagine being able to see someone in the street and be able to unlock their doors like one of the songs in your Musical Cosmology.


Thorald and Isaac performing with The Kin

Finding Their Cosmologies

Thorald: We've taken 150 people so far on these Songwriter's Journeys in the last six years. When we approached Fransancisco we said, "OK, this is going to be so fun because this will be the first time we're conscious of putting up both of our cosmologies and just touching the Venn diagram, if you will. The space between the spheres, the space between both of us, where we share cosmology clearly."

I think bringing all of these different influences together in a space where people are so interconnected makes a great band. Take Red Hot Chili Peppers for example. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but they're deeply in my teenage roots. And what an amalgamation of interesting elements that brought that together.

Where it goes even beyond reasonable cosmologic ingredients is when you step out of creative harm's way and you channel something. "Channel" meaning an idea comes to you that is just there.

Our greatest cosmology to me would be the handful of songs that wrote through Isaac and I in 15-20 minutes. And there's a small handful through The Kin's career: a song called "Abraham," a song called "Never Be The Same." Songs that just had to come out of both of us and they have a certain kind of quality to them.

When we approached Fransancisco, we knew it would be an acoustic duo album because we wanted to make that kind of music. We had already agreed on the creative vision, but when we put our cosmologies of what that might be together, we just knew that the perfect slice through the center was this stripped-back, dead harmony, modern take on early Kin acoustic music and Simon & Garfunkel. We felt where it wanted to live, and the kind of chords and keys we agreed on.

But it doesn't always happen. A lot of people come together and they kind of work, and then they have a hit or two and they realize they're actually not in alignment after that moment, so we see a lot of bands split away that don't find that shared Venn diagram space.


"Abraham"

Thorald: This song wrote itself through us. Isaac came to my place in Astoria, Queens. He had just finished watching this documentary on Abraham's tomb, and I went on to watch it too. It was really just a look into how Isaac and Ishmael, these two brothers born to Abraham, both gave birth to these different religious pods that were both fighting for thousands of years and there they were both honoring the same father.

As two brothers, and as hippie kids, we were looking at these ancient biblical stories, and we just couldn't believe that two people could fight for this long, but then be honoring the same father. So this song wrote itself through us. It's a call to peace between two brothers.


Daring To Suck

Thorald: We encourage people to dare to suck. Which means, press "record" and without knowing what you're about to do, do something. Then after two minutes, press "stop" and name it. Then come back to it later.

Isaac: So much of what we do is re-empower people to the fact that the magic, both creative and expressive, is right there if they just get out of the way. Stop thinking about what's better. Stop comparing. Stop competing. Get into the front of the process where it's creative and messy and not meant to be perfect. Turn off social media, or share messy things on social media and say, "Work in progress." Basically, counterpose what's happening in culture right now.

The best creative process is what people have right in front of them if they just trust it again. That's really what we're doing when people come to work with us on albums or on these Songwriter's Journeys in groups. It's all about helping someone get back to their freedom and power that's awaiting them.


The Songwriter's Journey

Thorald: We were one of Jimmy Iovine's last signings on Interscope. As soon as we got signed, Isaac and I immediately had this gut feeling that we should write for others, so we met with Universal Publishing, and the head of Universal was like, "You guys need to be an artist first." Then we go to the next person who was also like, "You should do that in some years to come."

And we always wondered why. We kept coming with this feeling that we want to foster and nurture other people at the same time. It just didn't happen straight away, but we knew it was there. So as we did our thing, we got to tour the world with Pink and Coldplay. Our Interscope experience didn't pan out more than a couple of releases and we left that label. We took a break from touring, and all of a sudden, we get this gut feeling that we need to relocate to LA and start nurturing and developing other singers. So we moved our whole families to LA and after a couple months of doing the LA experience, we looked at each other and realized that this wasn't it.

So we got into this conversation of, "If this way forward isn't it, than what is it?" And in one hour, we were hopelessly lost driving to a session because we had this download of an idea: What if we became someone's brothers and walked with them, with their permission, from inception. And got to study them and be with them in a way that surfaced all of these foundational parts of them that aren't present in this modern-day songwriting experience.

When you meet someone for the first time, this stuff doesn't come to the surface, so what if we put together this journey that had all of these stages that we wish someone had done with us? What if they got to know themselves in our creative reflective mirror and then we created a song together from that vantage point?

Isaac: Two weeks later, a Kin fan wrote to us. She was 17, just finished high school. She asked if we would consider working with an aspiring young songwriter who was new to everything. She went on to win the John Legend songwriting competition at South By Southwest.

We have now opened The Songwriter's Journey up to an online course called Your Big Voice, which uses the power of song and recognizes that you have a distinct musical cosmology, a story to tell, and a whole-body instrument to feel and get to know.

A lot of people have a hard time hearing their own voice recorded, and there's actually some biological reasons for that. When we hear it back, it sounds foreign because it's not in the memory banks.

Thorald: We've been told a lie that music is for the some, for the few. Music is medicine for anyone that has it inside them that needs to access it and share it. And that sharing can be to your family, your community, or on a label to thousands of people.

Isaac: As a singer and songwriter, it's really hard being the ingredients in a field, harvest yourself, cook the meal, then plate it, stand back, and go, "How's that taste?"

Thorald: At the end of the day, you're being cooked and eaten.

There are times when songs come like a gift, wrapped and delivered. But for all of the other times, it's not easy and it causes sweat and tears, which causes growth. If you've got writer's block, it's great, because it means you've got a breakthrough right around the corner. You don't have anything to say? Perfect. Why don't you relax today. 

Isaac: We challenge common practices back to where nature intended them to be. 


If You Had To Listen To One Artist The Rest Of Your Life?

Isaac: Brian Eno. Music For Airports, I can listen to that stuff forever because it's non-obtrusive and is an open book.

Thorald: Joni Mitchell. She's probably the greatest hero in my childhood cosmology. What she said about being alive was just magic to me.


Song You Wish You'd Written

Thorald: "Let It Be." It's very uncharacteristic of me, but it's because of the words that I picked it.

Isaac: "Suzanne" by Leonard Cohen.

December 9, 2020
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