Composer-arranger Jherek Bischoff grew up on a sailboat — fitting, since he’s coming to St. Paul on Friday as part of the genre-smudging Liquid Music series.
Wordplay aside, Bischoff believes his seafaring experience was integral to his artistic calling. It certainly is connected to his crowning achievement thus far, the 2012 album “Composed,” a series of orchestral pop songs that Bischoff recorded one player at a time in front of a single microphone, bicycling from musician to musician with the recording equipment in his backpack.
Back when he was a kid, “I used to do these recordings on the boat that by necessity had me do a lot with a little,” he said by phone from Seattle, not far from the Bainbridge Island dock that once was his family’s home base. “We only had room for my bass and a couple of other small instruments, so I’d take down the pots and pans and work with anything that made a sound.”
More important, his upbringing taught Bischoff how to teach himself. As his family increasingly embarked on longer trips (one lasted two years), he convinced his parents to let him abandon his correspondence-course studies.
“I told them that I could be out there surfing and fishing and talking with locals learning awesome things about different cultures instead of doing my geometry homework. They finally said, ‘Yeah, OK,’ as long as I got my GED,” Bischoff said.
“It was really fortuitous because it doesn’t scare me at all to try and learn things on my own.”
He taught himself to play more than a dozen brass, string and woodwind instruments (he is most proficient on the ukulele and acoustic bass), and became enmeshed in the Seattle indie-music scene a decade ago when he was in his 20s. Eventually burned out by the grind of touring, he taught himself to produce and mix music, and found steady work helping other people make albums.
To celebrate his 30th birthday a few years ago, Bischoff rented a hall and assembled a wide swath of his friends to perform tunes he’d recently written.
“It was a magical night of music, with my family and friends laughing and crying and looking into each other’s eyes while they played my music,” he said. “Right then I knew: I didn’t want to be a producer; I wanted to be a composer.”
He spent more than a year laboriously recording and then layering the individual contributions of more than a dozen musicians. What could have simply been an ambitious gimmick resulted in classical pop that was lush and playful. The music of “Composed” is reminiscent of Van Dyke Parks, whom Bischoff cites along with the composer Arvo Pärt as his main influences.
A different kind of luck
With the scores completed, Bischoff began to recruit vocalists to sing and write the lyrics. By the time of the album’s release, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and the legendary Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso were among the eight vocalists.
“I feel like people have different kinds of luck,” Bischoff said. “For example, some have money luck, or some have love luck. I feel like I have travel luck and collaboration luck, which is very fortunate for a musician.”
Bischoff’s concert Friday at the Fitzgerald also will depend on fortuitous collaborations.
Backed by a string quartet — many of them members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, a Liquid Music co-sponsor — he will be joined by singer-songwriters Sondre Lerche of Norway, Ólöf Arnalds of Iceland and Channy Leaneagh of the Minneapolis electro-pop group Poliça, as well as drummer Greg Saunier of Deerhoof. They will play pieces from “Composed,” new material that he describes as “more ambient” and Bischoff arrangements of songs by the three vocalists.
“The singers all came into my life differently,” Bischoff said. He and Lerche discovered through Twitter that they were fans of each other’s work. Leaneagh was chosen after he put out a call on Facebook asking for suggestions on arresting vocalists from the Twin Cities. And he met Arnalds backstage after her show in Seattle.
“I was a longtime fan and said, ‘I would love to work with you sometime.’ I heard string arrangements in my head during her entire show.
“It is always super fun to get my hands on the work of people I admire.”
After the ambient-oriented record, Bischoff wants to write an orchestral work with all the musicians performing at the same time. He’s busy soliciting suggestions of iconic classical music pieces, things he never listened to growing up on that boat. He’s teaching himself to write a symphony.