Brenner, a Bloomington native, is touring behind “Mister Divine,” his second album of his solo project, Naytronix. The tour brought him back to Bloomington on Wednesday to play a show at the Velvet Onion.
When Brenner, 32, started touring behind his solo project earlier this month, he was alone — no bandmates, no managers, no drivers. So he flew to New York and rented a car, and as he got behind the wheel, he said, the endorphins of being on the road — and of being alone for once — hit him.
“I’m on the highway listening to whatever I want,” he said. “I can crank it up. I usually don’t talk on the phone because it’s weird. I’m unreachable — no one can email me, text me, I don’t talk to anyone for hours, and I’m like, ‘This is amazing.’ ... I wish I could do that every day.”
The Bloomington stop was Brenner’s second in his hometown in as many months — Tune-Yards played the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival in September — but because of his busy schedule in Tune-Yards, he said he rarely gets an opportunity to return to Bloomington. Now that he has time to himself, he said he intentionally routed the tour through Bloomington, especially after a positive experience at Lotus Festival.
“I’m really surprised that when we came back to Lotus I was kind of expecting some sort of weird nostalgia, and everything just felt really fun,” he said. “I was proud of myself for not being weirded out.”
Brenner left Bloomington in 2002 after a year at IU. He then transferred to Oberlin College to study jazz before moving to Oakland in 2005. He still has family in town, though, and he said he hopes to visit more often as Tune-Yards take a break between album cycles.
Touring with Naytronix has meant playing significantly smaller venues than Tune-Yards usually does, including houses like the Velvet Onion, he said. He said he doesn’t remember Bloomington’s house show scene’s being as vibrant when he was growing up as it is now, but he said he does remember Bloomington being conducive to his growth as a young musician, from shows at Rhino’s All Ages Club to school programs.
“We had the University, obviously, to pull from, with these professors that would come and give master classes,” he said. “The schools here are very supportive of the arts, too.”
Brenner said he does wish he’d been able to diversify his artistic abilities in his youth, which he said he has been thinking about often as he focuses on solo work. While Tune-Yards requires one artistic mindset — helping frontwoman Merrill Garbus meet her artistic goals — he said working largely on his own offers a different dynamic.
“I went to a music conservatory, so at first I was kind of like, ‘How do I communicate?’” he said. “I haven’t spent a lot of time writing aside from a tiny bit of lyrics, so there’s that side. There’s the music videos. It’s like, all the sudden, ‘I’m an actor. I’ve never acted in my life.’ And then design, album art, fliers and posters — there’s all these things that all the sudden you’re just like, ‘Go.’”
In addition to adapting to the various facets of being a solo artist, Brenner said he’s used the project to push himself musically. While working on “Mister Divine,” he began taking voice lessons to extend his range, and Garbus has assisted him on refining melodies.
Naytronix’s pop, funk and rhythmic style has partially grown from a resistance to Brenner’s own instincts. He said his background in jazz means he sometimes feels a need to write overly complex passages or strive for technical greatness. However, he said he’s grateful for the skills his jazz education has given him — intense understanding of chord progressions, improvisational abilities — and he’s realized it’s less important to “prove” something or reinvent the wheel than it is to feel confident in his own music.
“I’ve noticed, especially in a solo performance, if you don’t think it sounds good it starts going downhill,” he said. “You really have to believe in yourself and your music because there are a lot of times no one else will.”