Pierre Englebert shows making music has no age limit

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

For as long as there’s been a “music business,” most mainstream pop has been the exclusive domain of young people.

But making music—the joyous, out-of-body freedom one feels when the song in your head and the sound in your ears are one—has no age limit.

So it’s not entirely unusual that 58-year-old Claremont musician and songwriter Pierre Englebert released two albums of elegantly arranged pop music full of sophisticated chord changes and voicings (under the moniker “Not a Moment Too Soon”) over the past year.

But the route he took is anything but ordinary.

“Even to myself it’s a little bit of a surprise,” said Mr. Englebert, whose day job is as the H. Russell Smith Professor of International Relations at Pomona College, where’s he’s been employed since 1998, the same year he earned his PhD in political economy from USC.

The esteemed and widely published political scientist had been in bands and written some songs as a teenager growing up in Belgium. But by 1982, when he was a junior at the University of Brussels (from where he would graduate “la plus grande distinction” in 1985 with a degree in political science and international relations), he was through with music.

Or so it seemed.

Over the ensuing years, he’d pick up the guitar or play piano around the house, but adulthood, marriage, children and career were understandably the priorities. He and his wife of 29 years, Beth Bodnar, a history teacher at Claremont High School, have raised five children. As one might imagine, between family and child rearing responsibilities and his job at Pomona College his time and energy were mostly spoken for.

But the concept of free time has gradually started to become a thing again. Their kids started leaving the nest a few years ago. Two are out of college and living on their own, and two more are in college. Just their youngest, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Sycamore Elementary, remains at home.

Over the course of the past couple of years, Mr. Englebert began in earnest to reconnect with his musical past.

“But I didn’t think it was going to take off like this,” he said.

Since the pandemic hit last March, he has self-released two albums, “Back to Plan A,” and “Well,.” Both abound with sophisticated pop, sinewy vocal melodies, complex arrangements and interestingly layered production choices. Fans of Neil Finn and Crowded House, XTC, Barenaked Ladies or Jellyfish may find some familiar touchstones here.

He wrote all the material and played all the instruments on both records, singing all the parts, programming digital drums, and playing guitar, bass and keyboards. He recorded it all with Logic software at his home studio in Claremont before uploading the tracks to be mixed and mastered offsite.

Both “Back to Plan A” and “Well,” are available at major streaming sites such as Apple Music or Spotify. You can also listen for free on Soundcloud at https://soundcloud.com/notamomenttoosoon/albums.

A lifelong learner, it’s not surprising Mr. Englebert’s later-in-life musical evolution was aided and accelerated by his preternatural curiosity.

Contemplating making music in his 50s, he looked back on the raw fledgling musician and songwriter of his early 20s and decided he needed a new path forward.

“I did write some songs [in the early 1980s],” he said. “But I must tell you I was not very good. I wasn’t very good at playing with interesting chord sequences or modulating the chords and adding things. I was fairly limited. I enjoyed writing songs and I had ideas, but I had a very limited musical vocabulary.”

In 2016 he audited an introduction to music theory class at Pomona College. “It whet my appetite for more,” he said. So he took a more advanced music theory class, and another, “to get more vocabulary, more musical culture.”

He also started taking guitar classes at the Folk Music Center from longtime instructor Mike Kreivis.

“I would go to him and tell him I have some ideas but I feel like I’m limited because I don’t know how to develop them,” Mr. Englebert said. “Then he would go over with me things like [legendary Belgian jazz guitarist] Django Reinhardt chord progressions. And that’s not my style of music, but once you do that you realize the possibilities that you haven’t thought of, right?

“Then I went from learning with him to thinking about them, okay, what is happening here in terms of the sequence in terms of the key we’re in? Why is this fitting well here and not there, and how do go with leading tones from one to the other? And that is so fascinating. That’s a new thing that I’ve never had in my life that I’ve really enjoyed. And it’s really helping me compose in a way that I’m more deliberate, intentional, and that was not there before in my life. It’s something I’ve come to in my fifties, and it’s been a wonderful experience.”

Writing and recording are by now second nature to him. He has another record in progress and hopes to have it ready for release by summer. But the other component of being a musician—playing live—will have to wait. The last time he was onstage was 1982, when he was a junior at the University of Brussels.

“And then nothing since then,” Mr. Englebert said. “And it wasn’t very good back then I can tell you that. So that will be the next stage, maybe start with an open mic [night] at the Folk Music Center and see where I can go. I don’t know how much I want to spend time performing, though I’m sure at one point I would like to do a little concert here and there just for friends or something.”

From the outside, his are a remarkable set of accomplishments. Over the course of just a few years, he’s studied hard, rewritten his musical story and released his original music out into the world, conceiving and executing a plan many longtime musicians and songwriters have been talking about for decades.

He’s content with his life as a father, esteemed political scientist, and now, musician and songwriter. And the new side gig has admittedly added value.

“I’m keeping my day job I’ll tell you that!” Mr. Englebert said. “I think it’s great as it is. It’s giving me a lot of joy. It’s a great activity. I have five kids, and four are out of the house. So life has slowed down. We used to do soccer practice every night and things like that, so there’s a little bit more time for things like this. I’m still able to do the other things, and I’m still decent company for my wife, so I’m happy. It’s all balanced right now. Maybe I’ll enjoy it in retirement. I don’t know. But I’m enjoying it, I’m enjoying sharing music. It’s been a great new skill.”

For more information see https://www.not-a-moment-too-soon.com.



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