Thursday , May 29, 2014 - 12:44 PM
Singer-songwriter Peter Breinholt has lived an artist’s life, with soaring highs when fans tell him how his songs touch them, to worrisome lows when the bookings thin out and his family’s living expenses do not.
“I never set out to conquer the world with my music,” said Breinholt, who plays the Ed Kenley Amphitheater Saturday in a benefit for Layton’s Whitesides Elementary School. “I just enjoyed the ride, and it just kept on going.”
Breinholt’s musical style is usually described as singer-songwriter, a genre that includes Bob Dylan, James Taylor and Paul Simon, who all composed meaningful songs to be performed, primarily, as solos. Breinholt shares the stage Saturday with Shanna Taggart, Mackenzie Tolk and Nancy Hanson.
Breinholt, 45 and a Pennsylvania native, has called Salt Lake City home for most of his life. His father, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, moved his family back to his native Utah for a semester as a University of Utah visiting professor.
“He thought it would be a good idea to have this adventure, and come to Utah for six months,” the singer said, talking on a cell phone, an hour north of his next gig in San Diego. “We never went back. We stayed here.”
Peter Breinholt had always loved music, teaching himself to play piano and guitar, and writing his first soulful songs at about age 11. His first musical memory dates back to age 3.
“It remember hearing a song in ‘Bambi,’ and the song was ‘Little April Showers,’” he said. “It was a scene where it was raining, and I still remember that. It was like I had heard it in my dreams. I told my mother, ‘That’s my dream music.’”
Within the next decade, young Breinholt would amass a serious record and poster collection, and would pick fights with friends over who was the better musical group, The Beatles or The Monkees (the former, of course). During one especially lonely year of high school, the emotions captured in The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” could always move him to tears.
But when it came time to pick his University of Utah major, Breinholt was stumped.
“I graduated in Spanish and political science,” he said, with a laugh. “I kept changing. I wanted to be a filmmaker at one point, and took a lot of classes. At another point I was an English major. I just couldn’t feel settled.
“So I finally asked my dad what he thought, and he asked me of all the classes I was taking, what was my favorite, and it was Spanish. I had no idea why I loved my Spanish class. I went on a mission to South America, and I loved travel, and I thought I spoke pretty well. So he asked, ‘Why don’t you major in Spanish? Study something you are interested in. If you don’t think about money or a job, what are you most interested in?’”
It may seem like unlikely advice from a father with a prestigious academic career.
“My dad got a Ph.D,” Breinholt said. “My dad — one of his great attributes came from his experience with his own dad, and feeling there were certain expectations, and feeling he had to break loose of it.”
The singer’s father was born into a family with a successful commercial development business, and it was assumed the elder Breinholt would work in that family business.
“Dad tried it for a year, but it just didn’t fit,” Peter Breinholt said. “My grandfather thought, ‘Why wouldn’t he do this?’ My dad decided to go to school, and went to Harvard, and decided to go to Stanford for his Ph.D.
“That experience shaped how my dad raised us. If you look at us, we’ve got everything. My oldest brother is a prosecutor for the Justice Department, and works in the terrorism department. My next sister is a professor, like my dad, at Georgetown now. My third sibling, a brother, is a film editor in Hollywood, and edited ‘The Pursuit of Happyness.’ We were at a family gathering in Palm Springs years ago, and he had the edit on his laptop and showed me a scene. And my little sister is a marriage and family counselor. My dad really encouraged his children to follow their own pursuits.”
Investing in music
So college-aged Peter Breinholt scraped together his pennies, saving $1,500 for a post-graduation trip he planned to take to a Spanish-speaking country, to await further career inspiration.
“I’d actually decided to put music away in college,” Breinholt said. “It was time to get serious. But I kept writing songs, and I recorded them on tapes, and my friends asked to hear them. They would copy them and give them to their friends, then other people would ask for them. This kind of homemade album started spreading around the U of U campus in 1982. And one of the people who heard my tape had experience in a recording studio, and he felt so strongly about the music, he came over to my house, and picked me up, and took me to the studio.”
After hearing the result, Breinholt decided to use the $1,500 he earmarked for a South American trip, and produce an album, “Songs About the Great Divide.”
It became a Utah best-seller, and fans from around the country discovered Breinholt’s music.
“It came out a few weeks after my graduation, and this tape just had legs,” he said. “People started calling me or coming up to me, telling me they loved it. It was grass roots, it wasn’t me shopping it at all. It was word of mouth, which is pretty good. I thought, ‘I am the luckiest man in the world. I get to do this for awhile.’”
That, of course, was two decades ago. Breinholt’s recording since that first one include “Heartland,” “Deep Summer,” “Live September,” Noel,” “All the Color Green” and “The Best of Peter Breinholt.” He is known for songs that touch the heart and soul without lyrics that get overly specific. Breinholt’s songs can mean many different things to people, and fans have often shared stories of how he seemed to be singing directly to them.
But back to the 1990s, and our story.
“Eventually I was booking all the theaters in Utah, and selling them out as an independent artist,” Breinholt recalled. “I was conflicted at the same time, because my brain was telling me I needed to do something serious. Now I’m over that, and I hope I get to do this forever.
“There are been ups and downs,” he said. “The ride that started without any effort 20 years ago has, at times, required a lot of it, sometimes to the point of discouragement.”
Many times Breinholt has considered going to graduate school in hopes of qualifying for a steady career.
“It’s been close, but it has always worked out,” he said. “I never had another job. Someone once told me if I had a backup plan I would have fallen back by now. I had no backup plan, and this is what I really know how to do.”
From time to time, Breinholt and his wife discuss what would be best, financially, for their four children, age 3 to 14.
“I once heard somebody else say that there are jobs, there are careers, and there are callings. When you’re in the arts, you develop a sense of mission and calling,” he said. “The trick is knowing when to change gears or direction when what you’re doing is off course.”
Bookings have been pretty steady lately, but through high times and low, Breinholt’s fans have been a constant.
“If I were ever to run into Paul McCartney or Paul Simon or Neil Young, if I ever ran into them, I could think of all these things I would say,” Breinholt said. “ ‘You are the soundtrack to my childhood.’ ‘You are my favorite road trip musician.’ There are lots of things I could say, and it’s really gratifying when people say those things to me.
“I have had people say ‘You were the soundtrack to my high school years’ or ‘my college years.’ I once met a couple that drove across the country to see me in a big concert in Salt Lake, from North Carolina, and they said, ‘We listened to your music all across the country, it’s our favorite driving music.’ I know what that means. I have my own favorite driving music, and that’s a big compliment.”
But he’s gotten one bigger.
“I had someone tell me they decided they’re going to listen to music as they have their first baby, and my music is what they chose. They chose my music to bring their child into the world.”
Contact Nancy Van Valkenburg at 801-625-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @SE_NancyVanV; on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SENancyVanV.
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