Rising songwriter Brett Kristofferson finds his voice and acclaim

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday April 27, 2010

Brett Kristofferson recently won the Bistro Award for Songwriter of the Year; next week his song "Things That Haunt Me" is up for Song of the Year at the MAC Awards.

Not a bad month for a guy from rural Missouri with a high school graduating class of forty-seven people.

Growing up in a tight-knit family that included his twin brother and an older brother, Kristofferson wrote his first play in fifth grade and first show tune in sixth grade. "It still took me a long time to find my exact focus," he told EDGE recently.

In high school, when Andrew Lloyd Webber was the rage and he saw Phantom of the Opera, he had pretty much decided he wanted to write for the theater.

Kristofferson graduated from Missouri State University and immediately went to Texas Tech University to get his MFA before moving to New York. Like many before and after him, he had his years of waiting tables and temping in office jobs.

About six years ago, he began teaching at Manhattan's Professional Performing Arts School. "It's become an indispensable part of my life," he said of teaching. "It keeps me grounded and humble."

Looking every bit like the teacher he is, with his dark tweed jacket, square glasses, a ready smile and just-woke-up shock of brown hair, Kristofferson also has a performer side himself, hosting and playing piano for "Keeping My Composure," a monthly showcase for his songs at the Laurie Beechman Theatre that features a dozen or so Broadway and pop singers.

"It's something I enjoy doing," he said of that gig. "But in my day to day life, I'm much more the quiet one."

The showcase of his songs offer unexpected topics, from a man-to-man encounter at a gym, a lament by Lizzie Borden, an imagined song sung by Blanche Dubois, and a woman angrily asserting that her husband is not gay. "My sense of humor is off-the-wall and dark," he said.

Yet Kristofferson's most celebrated songs have a way of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, everyday lives of people, and hitting an emotional chord. "I studied at BMI and they tended to want us to write about big, life-changing events that change the world, but my characters want to change the world on their block," Kristofferson explained. "Most of my original ideas are set back home, so my musicals are almost like William Inge-type musicals."

Works alone

Kristofferson has written or co-written several musicals, including Insanities, The Red House (additional lyrics by Angela Schultz), As the Curtain Rises (books and lyrics by Brent Peterson) and In Her Place (books and lyrics by Angela Schultz). He has also presented several revues of his work, including This Love, which the New York Post named the Best Revue of 1999.

He writes music and lyrics for most of his songs. "I choose to work alone a lot," he said. "I don't think of myself as a great collaborator with writers, but more so with singers and directors."

His main collaborator is singer Angela Schultz (who will pick up a special Hansen Award at next week's MAC Awards), also from Missouri, who has been his friend for nearly twenty years. "When I'm sitting down writing, I think of her voice," he said.

For her part, Schultz told EDGE, "Because the music and lyrics go so well together, it doesn't feel like work to sing his songs. I can pick one up and immediately understand it."

Recalling a very early meeting in their college days, Schultz said, "I remember how I felt even the first time I heard one of his songs when he was about nineteen. The truth and beauty were there even then."

Singer Kevin Dozier agreed, saying, "His songs are very honest and they are written in such a way that a singer can easily communicate that."

Despite all the praise, Kristofferson feels he is not that prolific and joked that he waits for a deadline and writes last-minute. "Over the years, though, I've gotten a craft down," he said.

In fact, he can write on command, he says, and loves it when singers ask him to write a song specifically for them. One of the big deadlines looming is to finish a musical he has been commissioned to write for Missouri Baptist University - he has until February 2011 to complete it.

As for the recent recognition, Kristofferson is grateful for it and simply said, "It makes me want to write more."

"As his friend, I've always known he would have his success even when he didn't know it," Schultz said. "I'm thrilled he's being recognized by so many people."

The MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs) Awards will be presented on Tuesday, May 4 at BB King's Blues Club.

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).