Natalie Albert
Will Sturgeon, aka Brightener. Credit: Natalie Albert

While you may not always see his work firsthand, Will Sturgeon is one of the most influential people in the Coachella Valley music world.

Sturgeon was first known for his solo-project/band hybrid Brightener, but recent years have seen him take on more behind-the-scenes roles—working with other artists and recording them in “The Sturdio,” and devoting time to the youth of the valley via the Academy of Musical Performance program.

But three years after Brightener’s last release, the project is back with a new, four-song EP, Stay Open, slated for a May 20 release. Sturgeon gave me a sneak preview; while Stay Open is by far the most synth-heavy of all his releases, Brightener’s well-known feel-good indie sound shines even brighter on the new EP. Fans of Brightener will see this EP as a modern take on the same sound they love, while new fans will be introduced to the Brightener sound via less rock and more electronica.

I spoke to Will Sturgeon over the phone about what the past three years have been like for him; Brightener’s new sound; and his strategy for releasing music during a pandemic.

It was in 2017 was when we released Headroom. I really wanted to get an album out within a year of us playing Coachella (in 2016),” Sturgeon said. “It was an arbitrary timeline, but I really hustled to do that.”

He met that goal by releasing Headroom in April 2017.

“We went on a tour, held a Kickstarter (fundraising campaign)—and that whole process really stressed me out,” Sturgeon said. “I took a step back from trying to do Brightener and took the rest of 2017 off. I went and played in L.A. with a band called the Tambourines, and I also started making some solo beats. In 2018, I moved to a new house and started doing stuff with The Sturdio. During that time, I started toying with some songs, and every couple of weeks, I would set aside an hour or two a day for songwriting. I set out a goal to put out 10 songs in 2019, but it just took the band and I way longer than we wanted to.

“In 2019, we were only able to meet about four times. We all realized that life was getting in the way, and that Brightener was entering a new phase. Over the years, I’ve had these four songs that I’ve identified as a potential release, so I have been working for the last few months, putting essential touches on these tracks to get them ready for release.”

I asked if the “band” era of Brightener was over.

“Everybody in the band can’t make Brightener a priority,” Sturgeon said. “At its core, Brightener is a solo project. All the recordings and songwriting have been done by me. I want to make Brightener fit into my life more—in a way that’s not as stressful, and in a way that doesn’t define my whole identity. I’m not sure of the next time we will play a show, but for now, I just want to put out great music as Brightener.”

This new chapter is also signaled by a change in tune: Sturgeon explained that the move in a more-electronic direction came from him wanting to create with no limits.

“I got a lot more comfortable with using electronic sounds, so there’s a lot more of those on this release,” he said. “I have a Juno-60 synthesizer from the ’80s that I’ve grown more dependent on, as well as a piano that I have more access to for songwriting now. The last release, I wrote for the live band, but moving forward, I just want to make the music I want to make. I don’t have any plans to play these songs live, so I can make them exactly what I want to make them.”

Over the last couple of years, Sturgeon has been busy in The Sturdio, producing releases from bands like The Flusters, Israel’s Arcade and others. I wondered if his time spent tracking bands has been helpful in crafting and tracking his own music.

“All of the projects that I’ve worked on in The Sturdio for the past couple of years have been super-helpful for me,” Sturgeon said. “I originally wanted to bring the skills I learned in Brightener to The Sturdio, but now, I’m able to use all the skills learned in The Sturdio on Brightener. This is the first Brightener release that I’ve mastered, and those skills definitely came from those other projects. All of the elements of my life work really well together, which I’m really grateful for.”

With the stay-at-home order still in place, the days of being able to promote new releases in person through live shows and the selling of CDs are on hold for the foreseeable future. Sturgeon, however, said he wasn’t worried about that for this release.

“I’m just going to put it out and see what happens,” he said. “When I look back on the Brightener stuff I’ve done in the past decade, there have been a couple of really stressful moments. A lot of those moments came from trying to put so much energy into Brightener—planning the tour, running a Kickstarter, and doing this managerial stuff that is necessary for having a career as an independent musician.

“For this release, I want to preserve the things I love about Brightener, which is making good music, and I hope people enjoy it enough to share it. My release strategy involves me just reaching out to people I know, letting them know I have the record, and hoping they share it. Even if they don’t, I’m still very proud to have this release as a part of my discography.”

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Matt King

Matt King is a freelance writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. A creative at heart, his love for music thrust him into the world of journalism at 17 years old, and he hasn't looked back. Before...