In your own words, who is Aren Bruce?
At the core of who I am, I’m just a guy who thinks a lot and writes songs about those thoughts, hoping other people will chew on those thoughts for a while. Life comes at us so quickly with so many attractive things that we rarely take a chance to pause and reflect on what really matters at the end of the day. Because God has offered us life in the death of His son, we are both privileged and obligated to live in worship by humbling ourselves and serving others. My focus is to live that out, and music is a wonderfully creative vehicle for expressing such a focus. I’m also a weirdo of a husband to my best friend and a fanatic when it comes to anything involving either exercise or the outdoors.
You have mixed elements of folk, blues, pop, R&B, and a bit of Jazz in your music. Is there any particular genre that you feel most at home in?
It’s funny to admit, but I think the genre in which I’m most comfortable is the one in which I’ve written very few songs: jazz/soul. There’s something about the complexity of endless nuance in jazz that just fuses so well with the deep sincerity of soul. When I can find that balance in writing, I set up camp there and take a very, very long nap. Otherwise, I find pop/R&B to be the most comfortable.
What kind of background do you have when it comes to music theory? Did you ever take lessons? I ask because you get fairly harmonically adventurous in many of your songs.
I played various instruments throughout my childhood, from violin to piano to handbells and even the more refined kazoo. In the 8th grade I started guitar lessons for a year, then studied guitar in college again as a music minor. I was never very diligent when it came to consistent practice, but I would invest a lot of time in certain specific areas of interest. In addition to learning popular songs, teaching myself basic jazz chords and shapes provided me with tools with which I applied my knowledge of music theory. My understanding of theory, though, especially jazz theory, is very cursory, so I’d like to study the principles of jazz to better develop my compositional skills.
Who are your primary musical influences?
Growing up, I listened to a majority mix of black gospel and CCM artists. My mom was always blasting hits by Donnie McClurkin, Yolanda Adams, John Stoddart, and The Winans. I owe the special place Sam Cooke holds in my heart to my mom and her siblings frequently singing “Touch the Hem of His Garment” a cappella at family events. My dad has been a huge fan of Bryan Duncan and Steven Curtis Chapman, and that affinity rubbed off on me, so now I basically know all the words to all of their albums after 1995. We’d bump the Temptations, Average White Band, The Rippingtons, and a lot of world music like Gloria Estéfan and Salif Keita. When I started playing guitar, though, I stumbled upon the youtube content of an independent singer-songwriter, Gabe Bondoc, and instantly took to his pop/R&B style and lyricism. I play more covers of his songs than of any other artist, so I think it's safe to say he has been one of my biggest stylistic influences.
Your songs on Take Time seamlessly drift between seemingly mundane, everyday topics and questions of spirituality. That can be a difficult line to walk for a songwriter. In light of this, can you talk about how you approach your lyric writing?
As a lyricist, my #1 goal is to be as clear as possible while expressing myself as creatively as possible. With this in mind, I’ve found the use of nuance and plays on words to be the most instrumental in communicating simple concepts in a way that is neither too plain nor cliché, especially for songs that fall on the mundane end of the spectrum of life matters. For the deeper concepts, I actually try to simplify the lyrical delivery so that the weight of the message can be felt for what it is. It seems counterintuitive, but I find that a simpler vehicle more effectively communicates a complex message, and vice versa.
One song on Take Time that really stands out is “Creation Sings.” It manages to be both light and energetic at the same time. Can you say more about how you wrote that song, and what inspired the particular musical choices you made there?
The funny thing about this song is that it was a very experimental first step into working with a loop station. In my second year of college, I had just purchased the Ditto Looper, a single-channel recording device that allows the user to record an initial clip, then repeat that clip indefinitely while recording new musical layers over top of it. Because I only had one channel to work with, and I had lately been in the thick of worship leading, I felt pretty confident in using the G chord for the entire song. The layered harmonics and lead riffs you hear were largely my attempt to add as much harmony as I knew how to within the bounds of the mighty G chord. Despite maybe having too many layers, it still flows for a couple of reasons. The lead riffs are layered as 3-part harmonies to fill out the sound without taking up unnecessary rhythmic space, and each voice has its own varied syncopation that leaves appropriate breathing room while sustaining the energy of the song. I also LOVE latin percussion, so while the original version of this song starts with me slapping the back of my guitar, the recorded version involves both a bass cajon and bongo drums to vary the timbre and rhythms of the percussion. The words and theme largely draw from many psalms I’ve read, expressing a hopeful and bright gratefulness toward God for his creativity and perfection.
On your Bandcamp, you mention that your album emerged during a time of intense transitions and changes in your life. You specifically mention the idea that these experiences pulled you out of “selfish versions of spirituality and philosophy.” Can you expand a little bit more on what that means, and maybe some of the ways that this personal growth is reflected in your music?
As human beings, our tendency is to make everything about ourselves. Notwithstanding our parents’ efforts to the contrary, we often grow up feeling centered as the most important thing in our universe. Our opinions, our impulses, our dreams, our wants; every thought and action springs from a default selfishness that taints our entire outlook. While I understood and believed the concepts of putting God first and caring for others as He would, the transitional period between college and post-collegiate life brought hurdles and milestones that showed me even my faith had been compromised by that selfishness. I’ll share an honest example: While my grandparents were still around, I would limit the time I talked to them because I felt it was too hard to end conversations with them at a reasonable length. I genuinely felt that any period of time, no matter how short, spent in conversation with them was caring for them as God desired, because I was “busy” doing “important things”, yet I still spent some of my time on them. When I lost them, it hit me like a ton of bricks that caring for others means putting their immediate needs above your preferences and convenience. In marrying my wife and working different jobs, God was and is still teaching me that what he needs is not me doing nice things for people and reading my bible while I go manifest my best self, but me emptying myself completely. That way, God’s spirit has unhindered access to my heart and mind. The ninth track on Take Time, “If You Supply”, is an unfiltered expression of my coming face to face with how ugly and tiring my heart’s sin is, and my impatiently begging God to fix it yesterday.
Can you tell us more about “Think Deeper Music”? Is that a label or brand for promoting your own music, or do you have any broader plans for that?
Sure! Think Deeper Music is the name of my artist page on bandcamp.com. As of now, it functions as a bit of a brand, but more so a representation of my goal as an artist. The tendency of much art and entertainment is to keep the audience’s attention at the surface level, but because I believe Jesus will return one day to judge the world and claim His children, I want to encourage as many people as possible to think deeply about their values. To be honest, I haven’t thought too deeply (pun intended) about whether the phrase will be strictly a brand, or a label/platform for other like-minded creators. Deciding will (brace for pun) take time.
Last question - what one thing would you like to say to anyone reading this?
I would warn those reading this against the lie that only those with the most experience, resources, influence, or ability are most useful to God. God’s kingdom is not built on the work of the most talented people with the most connections and the most attractive presentation. It is built on the Spirit of God imparting knowledge and wisdom to the weak and the strong alike, to the confident speaker and her who stammers, to the social butterfly and the loner. If you are willing to humble yourself, what you have right now is enough, because what you might one day have will never be enough.
More about Aren Bruce:
Hometown: Takoma Park, MD, USA
Genre: Pop / Soul / R&B