There is a saying in the music industry: You can get rich doing music, but it's very hard to make a living. And yet here is Peter Breinholt, a local pop-folk, singer-songwriter-guitarist, earning a paycheck with his music and making a living.
For 10 years he has played to packed houses in small venues around Utah Sundance, Tuacahn, Thanksgiving Point, Kingsbury Hall, Sandy Amphitheater and produced five CDs. He has cultivated a loyal following with his big-band folk music and become a fixture on the Utah music scene, so the question always arises:
Why not sign with a record label and go national, fans and reporters ask him?
Because he can have a normal life and make a living. Because he can be a good husband to Becca and a father to their two children. Because he can tend the kids in the morning and make trips to the grocery store. Because he can be at home most nights. Because he can teach early-morning seminary at Murray High School. Because he can live close to extended family. Because he's missing the gene that causes people to seek fame and fortune. Because his whole career is kind of a giant accident anyway.
"I was uncertain how much I wanted to throw myself into this business," he says. "More than anything, I want a pretty normal life. I grew up following bands, and I know enough that there's a lot of dysfunction." Breinholt is almost apologetic for the wonderfully bland normality of his life. "It's not that interesting, is it?" he says. "Here's this guy with an average life."
Breinholt, who served a mission in Chile for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a decade ago, has to pinch himself some days to see if he is really making his living this way. For years he expected it to end he was just riding it out as long as he could before he got a real job but at the age of 34 he's still riding it.
By now he has established a routine that his fans can count on. He plays Sundance for several nights in the fall, Thanksgiving Point at Christmas, Tuacahn during spring break, Kingsbury Hall at various times of the year, and summer is filled with outdoor concerts and arts festivals and a July show at the Sandy Amphitheater.
Then there are myriad performances elsewhere, an average of more than one a week. A week ago he played a few songs on a morning program on Channel 4 and before that there was a concert at Southern Utah University. He will perform at an LDS fireside in Sandy tonight, with several more to follow in the weeks to come. He will play an in-studio concert for a local radio station next month and a benefit concert at Cottonwood High School, and so it goes.
Breinholt is known largely as an LDS musician, although his songs are not overtly LDS. He is not a Mormon musician, he would say; he is a musician who is Mormon.
"I don't mind that label, but I really didn't get tagged with it until a few years ago," he says. The tag came after he was commissioned to co-produce and write some of the songs for a worldwide Mormon youth conference known as Especially For Youth.
"Now I get invited to firesides regularly," he says. "They have come to me, and that's fine. It's been good."
His songs are mostly happy and upbeat, a breath of fresh air against the angry, cynical, sometimes profane lyrics on the radio. Excluding the "Live" and Christmas albums, his CDs have reflected the stages of his life, although, he says, not intentionally.
"Songs of the Great Divide," his first CD, related experiences on his mission the people, poverty, humility and culture he saw in Chile. "Heartland" covers his worldwide travels before he was married. "Deep Summer" is largely about children and family.
"It was not a conscious thing," he says of the themes. "It was later when I looked back at the albums, I'd go, 'Well, what do you know.' "
Breinholt calls himself the oddity of his family. His parents were both educators Robert took degrees at Harvard and Stanford and taught at the prestigious Wharton School of business at the University of Pennsylvania and later at the University of Utah; Jane taught grade school for a time. Peter's four siblings, all bright and motivated, pursued their educations at blue-blood schools in diverse ways.
Jeff, the oldest, played football at Yale for two seasons before deciding to concentrate on his studies there. He is now a federal prosecutor with the Justice Department in international terrorism in Washington, D.C.
Mary Jane, a Fulbright Scholar, took an MBA from Harvard and teaches part time at Cal-Berkley. John, a graduate of the University of Utah film department, took a master's degree from Northwestern and is now a film editor in Los Angeles. Annie earned a degree in speech pathology at Utah and will soon complete her master's degree and become a marriage counselor in San Francisco.
For his part, Peter completed a degree in Spanish at Utah. He tried to return to school once to complete the last three classes he needed for a political science degree, but his music career took off suddenly and unexpectedly.
Breinholt is a natural musician, but it took years for him to find his voice, both figuratively and literally. He didn't talk until he was 3 1/2 years old "We were concerned about him," says Jane and yet he could pick out melodies on the piano by 18 months.
"Rob would play three or four notes on the piano and Peter would find the next octave up and play them," recalls Jane. "We thought it was amazing. By the time he was 5, he was playing songs from 'Bambi.' I remember when he was a little boy he heard a piece of music and said, 'That's my good dream music.' We thought that was unusual I mean, I don't dream in music."
Peter and Jeff took the usual boyhood piano lessons "Even from the other room I could tell which one of them was playing because one played with passion and the other was just playing the notes," says Jane. The piano lessons continued until one day Rob and Jane realized Peter was not reading the music he was playing. He would ask the teacher to play the song so he wouldn't have to read the music he could play it by ear once he'd heard it played.
"We figured we were wasting our money," says Jane.
He continued to teach himself songs from the radio on his own, and at 12 he began teaching himself guitar. While attending Highland High School, he joined a band called the Dobermans. They played at high school functions and eventually performed on the University of Utah campus.
It fell to Breinholt to learn the songs off the radio and teach the other band members their parts. Without knowing it, he was giving himself on-the-job training for a music career.
"I spent hours in front of the stereo, figuring out guitar parts and bass and piano and then teaching it to them," recalls Breinholt. "I learned over a hundred songs by ear. It was a lot of work. But that's how I learned to write songs and produce."
As a student-body officer in charge of producing assemblies, he also learned the rest of the skills he would need someday. As an independent musician with no label, he does it all, booking recording studios and concert venues, assembling a band, designing album covers, arranging the music, designing shows, promoting CDs and concerts.
The Dobermans played classic rock music, but after returning from his mission Breinholt turned to his first love: folk music. He had been reared on the songs of Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Paul Simon, John Denver, Dan Fogelberg, Nanci Griffith. . . .
"When I came back from my mission, I lost my taste for the kind of things we had been doing as a band," he says. "I'd come away from the shows with my ears ringing, and my heart was just not in this scene anymore. I wanted to do acoustic music. I remember coming home to my CD collection and realizing I was only interested in a fraction of them."
This is the way it really began: Friends invited him to a get-together at a cabin at Brighton, telling him to bring a date and, more important, his guitar. It became a weekly gathering, and more and more people showed up. He played popular songs that people could sing along to, and once in a while he would slip in one of his own songs. People noticed and began to ask for tapes of his original work. He obliged them by making a homemade tape that somehow found its way around campus.
Word spread. Breinholt was asked to play at a "battle of the bands" to kill time between acts while the next band was setting up for its turn. He wound up winning second place even though he wasn't even entered in the contest.
After graduating from Utah in 1993, he spent $1,500 to record his original songs. He and his small band knocked out 12 songs in two days, never doing more than two takes of any song. It was raw, unpolished acoustic music, which, it turned out, is one reason it proved so popular. Breinholt produced 500 tapes. They sold out in a few months. He made 1,000 more. They also sold out quickly.
"So I became a musician full-time," he says. "I thought I would do it one year, but after a year it had blossomed enough that I didn't have the heart to stop doing it, because I enjoyed it."
That first album, "Songs of the Great Divide" (a k a Peter Breinholt and the Big Parade), has sold over 50,000 copies and is still his biggest money-maker. It didn't even have the benefit of radio time; it was sold strictly by word of mouth. Suddenly, the tapes were being passed around at the U., and high school kids were singing his songs and BYU was playing one of his tunes at halftime of a football game.
"The album allowed me to turn to music full-time right away," says Breinholt. "I didn't even have to have a job to tide me over."
For the next two years, he played the local circuit, but his career made another quantum leap in 1995 when he rented a small theater at Westminster College, sold advance tickets and hired a string quartet. A radio show got wind of the concert and promoted it. Breinholt and his band were scheduled to play one night; they wound up doing three nights, and still they had to turn people away.
Unlike bands that tour the country and do essentially the same show night after night, Breinholt and his band must come up with fresh material for each of their major shows because they have been playing for the same crowd for a decade. It has forced him to be creative and exacting. Breinholt has employed cellos, violins, fiddles, bagpipes, mandolins, bouzoukis, accordions, harmonicas, didgeridoos and a large cast of guest musicians Jon Schmidt, Nancy Hanson, Russ Dixon all built around his "first-string band" of Ryan Shupe, Craig Minor, Mike Ensign, David Tolk and Rory Carerra.
"Peter is an absolute perfectionist," says Kelly Heuston, Breinholt's former assistant. "He can hear every missed note. That's why he rehearses so incessantly. He's very meticulous. He'll videotape his shows and go over it and over it. He tears it up looking for things he can do better."
Apparently, he has succeeded in staying fresh because he continues to play almost exclusively in one state and fares well enough that he has never had to take out so much as a loan to produce a show, and he has steadfastly refused to raise ticket prices (normally about $10), even if it means butting heads with venue execs.
Robert Breinholt echoes the sentiment of many of his son's fans when he says, "Peter has a body of music that has been so enthusiastically received that you can't help wishing that he could have a broader audience geographically." Record labels have made their own inquiries, but Breinholt and his band are happy where they are.
That's probably not going to happen. Breinholt, a mild, introspective fellow who measures his words so carefully that his sentences stop and start like a car with a bad clutch, is famously generous and kind-hearted and apparently devoid of the sort of ego that would seek a bigger audience and more money. He has played at seminary students' weddings gratis, he has played at hospital beds, he performs for a steady stream of firesides.
"People feel good when they listen to his music, and it's an extension of who he is," says Hanson. "It's all genuine. When people come to listen to him, they feel like he's their friend. He hangs out afterward and talks to fans. He's interested in them. He asks them questions 'What's your name? Where do you live?' He really cares about them."
The kids who once came to see Breinholt's concerts in high school are now young parents, and they're still coming, along with a new generation of Utah teens and college students. Year after year they come back, and so does Breinholt.
E-mail: [email protected]