[GTR] You were born in Israel, moved to Boston when you were 12, started Berklee when you were 18, and after graduating Summa Cum Laude you become one of their youngest instructors! You released the first of two shredelicious instrumental discs in 2010, toured extensively as second fiddle in Tony MacAlpine’s band, and then moved over to first chair with the Iron Maidens. Now you’re shredding away in Vegas as on-stage talent in Michael Jacksons ONE by Cirque de Sole. That’s a pretty impressive resumé! Looking back to your Berklee days, how different is the outcome compared to what you thought might happen?
[Nili Brosh] Wow! First of all, that does sound pretty impressive when coming out of somebody else’s mouth! The circus is definitely something that I had never considered. I was so used to a music school mentality, that it took a little while to adjust to what the real life of a musician is – the culture is quite different than the music school bubble.
[GTR] You recorded Through the Looking Glass in 2010, and A Matter of Perception in 2014. The audio production on both recordings is really strong.
[Nili] One of the great things about Berklee is the diversity of the people that you meet. It’s not just great musicians or great guitar players, but it included great engineers as well. Both of the engineers that I worked with were schoolmates of mine. That helped a lot.
[GTR] In co-producing your own records, you have your vision, but how important is it to have an outside perspective?
[Nili] For me, it was very important. On the first record, Through the Looking Glass, I was new to this process. I knew what the songs were, but I’d never made a record before. I was mostly concerned with wanting it to sound like a real album. With the second one, it was even more important. I felt like I didn’t know if it was going to work out, and I really needed someone that I trusted to help salvage it for me.
I worked with my Sabi Saltiel, who is a wonderful Turkish musician I went to Berklee with. He was in my band when I recorded Through the Looking Glass, and he played all of the rhythm guitar parts. He had a big hand in the arrangements and getting me to think more about the arrangements than just drums, bass, rhythm guitar and lead guitar. I really trusted him with that stuff and knew that he was the right person.
[GTR] I’ve heard you use the phrase, “the education that money can’t buy” on more than one occasion. What do you mean by that?
[Nili] Berklee is the education that you pay for. But playing with Tony MacAlpine is the stuff that you can’t put a monetary value on, things that I couldn’t have learned in school. Playing with somebody who is not only a virtuoso, but has also had so many experiences and years of being a musician, working in the industry and collaborating with so many different people.
Those experiences were the ones that really made me, in my eyes, a real musician. Those are the situations where you are forced to sink or swim, and to figure it out and play with these guys. Through the process, you just end up getting better without even feeling you really tried. I was working hard, but I wasn’t deliberately trying to get better, I just had to survive the situation and make sure that I could play the songs with these guys and not make a fool out of myself. Then, you come home three weeks later after rehearsals and realize that you had this transformation that you weren’t really looking for.
[GTR] What advice do you have for musicians who live in a “virtual bubble” where the only music they make is in their own studio?
[Nili] I think we’re really lucky to be living now. I’m young enough to still be called a Millennial, but I’m old enough to remember being in High School and not knowing how to find other musicians to play with if they didn’t go to my school. I even remember searching Craigslist as a teenager, and never really finding anything there. We almost have the opposite problem now. There’s so much saturation that you don’t even know where to start now because there’s so many people.
The biggest thing is to be proactive. That’s something that’s really hard for most people, myself included. You have to put yourself out there. You can’t assume that just because you made a connection with somebody on Facebook that they’re going to ask you to do something. You have to be the first one to go for it. Whether or not it’s difficult for you, it’s worth trying to get over it because there is a big world out there with tons of musicians, and it’s never been easier to do stuff with other people. I would completely encourage everyone to collaborate with other people.
[GTR] Your “Guthrie Govan solo played by an 18 year-old girl” video on YouTube was key to establishing you as an artist. How important is the virtual presence compared to actually making music, and how do you strike that balance in terms of managing your time?
[Nili] It’s so hard to gauge how well you’re doing at that, or what you should be doing. Everyone has a different idea of what that should be. It’s funny that you bring it up, because it’s been brought up in a lot of interviews. Looking back at that video, I never thought that it would become this thing that people were going to talk to me about for the next decade. It’s totally fine… I’m just laughing at it because I’m so embarrassed by the title. I actually made a 10th Anniversary video where I played the same solo, only hopefully better. And, as a joke, I titled it “Guthrie Govan solo played by a 28 year old girl,” just to kind of make fun of myself and of what I thought that marketing was at that time. I thought that would be a cute way to revisit it and come full circle on something that is kind of embarrassing to me now. But, I guess it worked!
[GTR] I love the fact that you’re always smiling in your videos, do you ever reshoot something because you didn’t feel you were smiling enough?
[Nili] No. It started off as something that I did once, and a couple of people came to me and said, “That was really nice and it really brightened my day.” And I thought, “That’s a really nice sentiment.” For all of the crap that you can get on the Internet, and all of the negativity that can be created there, if you can do something positive for one person, I really value that. It didn’t start out fabricated, but I realized that, even for myself, if I wasn’t really feeling it that day, if I smiled it kind of turned things around for me. So, it just became this snowball effect of something positive rather than something negative that I decided to jump on. It became this very real thing that is just a part of my playing now. It’s kind of a nice, organic way that it happened. It’s an example of nice things that can start on the Internet.
[GTR] As an artist, is there a mental separation of being a female artist versus “just being an artist”?
[Nili] I never think about it. I don’t really understand why there seems to be a separation for other people, but I guess that’s just where we’re at. I’m sure that being a woman affects my view on the world in general, but I think that’s just as individual as anybody’s view is going to be when you get into their art. It’s the same as if someone asked me, “How do you think being Jewish affects your art?” or something like that. I have nothing else to compare it to. This is the only person I’ve ever been. I don’t think about all of those other things. It can be a tough question to answer because I know everybody expects more out of it, but I really just don’t think about it very much.
[GTR] I was pretty stoked to see your ginormous photo at the Ibanez booth. Did you get hooked up with them through Tony MacAlpine, and regardless of how it came about, what does it mean to you for them to feature you so prominently?
[Nili] That started last year, and then I realized that the only reason it hadn’t been up there before was because I didn’t say anything. I never knew that, and I was really upset at myself. I got hooked up with them when I started playing with Tony in 2011. It’s been a great relationship. I love Ibanez, and it was always my dream to work with them. For someone who has struggled a lot, it’s a great validation and really warms my heart. When I see something like that, all I can think of is, “I’m just going to try and earn this. I’m going to try and live up to the fact that this is here and make this into something good.”
[Nili] When I first started working with Tony I was working with Virgil Donati a lot. He was the one that opened my eyes to viewing music in that way. We have a lot more artists that are doing that now, but even at that time, my perception of what the guitar was, was much more a melodic and harmonic instrument than a rhythmic instrument. When I met Virgil, and began playing his music it really opened my eyes to a bunch more that I could do with my instrument than what I would have thought of. There were all of these ideas that I thought were so incredible, and I thought it would be really interesting to develop on my instrument. I started giving it some time, and tried to do something cool with it. The fact that he was on this record was really helpful because I knew that he would see what I was trying to do with it and make it sound good. That would have never happened had I not met those guys. It was not the direction that I was heading towards before that.
Again, it’s going back to that, “Money can’t buy that,” kind of thing, where sometimes you’re just lucky and life takes you somewhere where you wouldn’t have ever guessed and something really cool comes out of it. As much as the unknown can be scary, I always try to have an attitude of, “Anything is possible.” You don’t know who you’re going to meet, or what you’re going to learn from them. I try to stay open to that.
[GTR] In an interview you did with Mitch Gallagher and Sweetwater you mentioned that, unlike horn players and vocalists, guitar players don’t have to take a breath. What are the most valuable things you’ve applied to your playing from other instruments.
[Nili] I think that was the biggest thing. Even though I play instrumental music, I love Pop songs and catchy melodies. Bringing that into the instrumental world is one of the hardest things to do. That’s why I started learning from vocalists. I think Tommy Emmanuel probably said it best, “If you want to write good music on the guitar, you cannot think like a guitar player. You have to think like a singer.” Most guitar players have the facility after a certain point to just keep on playing. No one is going to stop us. So, that advice has been the best reminder for me. I try to sing what I play, or really stay aware of where I would have to stop if I were singing or playing a horn.
[GTR] I came across a cool video of you playing “So This Is Love” that had Stu Hamm on bass. I loved the guitar and how you played the parts. How much did playing other people’s songs, like when you were in the Iron Maidens, impact your playing?
[Nili] I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite, because I just made a really big case for all of the wonderful people that came into my life. However, I think if I had to log the number of hours that I spent practicing, and what I spent them actually doing, learning songs by ear would probably be the number one thing that I spent most hours on growing up. To this day, it’s the quickest way I learn new music because I’ve done it so much. That is a big, big part of my life. I really believe that learning by ear, and learning other people’s music, is one of the best ways to get better as a musician. The more stuff that you can get your hands and ears on, the more vocabulary you’re learning, and the more different approaches you’re learning. I attribute a really big part of my development to that. If you’re paying attention and listening and learning that stuff, you can adapt to situations like that, even if you haven’t played with those people. I had played with Stu before, but not having rehearsed and just jumping on stage in front of people and having the faith that it’s going to work out, you can only learn to trust that if you’ve learned to do your own homework.
[GTR] Playing in Vegas is a pretty big deal. How did you get the gig, and what did you do to prepare for it?
[Nili] The little-known story about this is that this was my third audition for the show over the last five years. When the show was being created in 2012 there was an online flyer going around and a bunch of people sent it to me. I auditioned for it and ended up being a finalist, but they chose Gina Gleason. I was going to be her backup, but that didn’t work out, and then Gina ended up leaving because she’s playing in a Metal band called Baroness right now. They really needed someone, so they called me again, and this time they wanted to fly me to Vegas and do the whole thing in person. The previous times it had all been by video.
So, the good part was that it was the exact same audition all three times. The same songs, same process, so that wasn’t a big deal because I already knew the music. But the biggest thing about that audition was having to wear heels and walk around while playing. That was really the tough part. All of those times before I bought heels, filmed the audition, and returned the heels to the store! They were very specific about wanting five-inch heels, and I wasn’t the kind of girl that just owned a bunch of those. So, for the third time, I went to the store, found the heels, bought the heels, went to Vegas, did the audition, came back and returned the heels!
I really think that the reason it worked out this time, is because it was that first time that I had gone to any audition in my life where I said, “Even if none of this works out, and even if none of the other auditions that I’ve been to this week work out, I know it’s going to be fine.” That was a new perspective for me. I had always felt like, “I have to get this! It’s a tough business, and if I don’t, then what’s going to happen with my career?” I was always worrying about it. But that was the first time where I felt like it wasn’t about that particular audition. People knew my name now and were calling me for these things, and if I had a good audition they were going to remember it, and that was what mattered. I trusted it and stopped putting pressure on myself. Getting to go down there and meet the people who work there was not the same as writing emails to a corporate office in Montreal. I was making human connections with people who work on the show, and are now my bosses. I think that was a big part of what made the difference this time.
[GTR] In addition to Ibanez, you have endorsements with Dunlop, EMG, and now HeadRush. Tell us about how you got hooked up with HeadRush and creating and sharing your custom presets?
[Nili] The HeadRush thing happened in a backwards way because of Cirque. I was heading to Vegas, and I didn’t know how long I was going to be there. I already invested so much time and energy into making weekly videos that I didn’t want to kill the momentum. I wanted to keep the same level of quality too, so I was looking for a mobile recording device, that’s all I was really thinking about at that time. Going into it, I just thought, “Okay, here’s a simple solution where I can get a good tone, record my stuff, and go on with my day.” But the unit is obviously capable of so much more. The relationship ended up being really good, and the people are so cool. I started exploring the sounds that I could make with it, and I was getting a lot of questions about the tone that I was using, so we thought, that it would be fun to create a list of presets that we could make available to everyone.
[Nili] Other than working on my third album, which I’m trying to dedicate any open hour that I have in my 10-shows-a-week schedule to, I just hooked up with JamTrackCentral.com. They get backing tracks from bands and artists, and then I create sample solos or licks over it, and then they sell it as a package with the jam track and the licks that go over it, along with transcriptions. It has been a dream of mine to work with them for a long time, even going back to that first video that I made when I was 18. That’s how I found out about Guthrie, and about JamTrackCentral in their early days. For me, that company was always the mark of the kind of guitar player that I was aspiring to be. It took a long time, but we’re finally working together. I have a series with them called the “Twenty Lick Series” It’s pretty much done, and just being mixed now. It should be