There's an argument to be made that the greatest pop-song guitar solo belongs to Eddie Van Halen. In just over 40 seconds, the late, great EVH jammed all his best tricks into Michael Jackson’s Beat It: the tapping, the harmonics, the dive bombs, the tremolo picking – all while elevating one of the best songs by the most famous artist of his day to a whole new level, driving into that last chorus with the momentum of a freight train.
But Eddie, for all his talent, never had to play those licks in heels while an acrobat did distracting, death-defying flips dozens of feet overhead.
That’s exactly the gig that Israeli-American guitarist Nili Brosh signed up for. Between 2017 and 2019, she bore the outlandish costumes, and yes, the high heels, that come with being a Cirque du Soleil performer in the company’s production Michael Jackson ONE. And even for someone whose feet stay firmly on the ground during the show, Brosh found herself facing some occupational hazards, starting with the shoes.
“That did end up being a real part of the environment and a real challenge and having to learn how to get over that hurdle and still be able to put on a show and play difficult stuff,” Brosh says. “But other than that, there's so much going on all the time. I couldn't have imagined what that would entail or feel like and how many little details there are going on behind the scenes.
"You're working with so many people and I'm really good at banging guitars against walls by accident. So the theater is a deathtrap for more than one reason, there's just so many things that you would have never thought about.”
Fortunately, Brosh never found herself in any kind of life-threatening danger, only the danger that comes with any kind of live guitar performance.
“There was one time where I broke a string in the worst possible moment,” she says. “There was a spot in the show where I was actually just doing a guitar solo, and there's nothing else playing and I'm the only thing on stage, which is, you know, strange.
"And I broke a string right as I dive bomb to get into the solo. Everything went out of tune. There was nothing that I could play that sounded good. The one solace I had in that was at least people knew that I was really playing because there's so many people who didn't believe it, because they're not seeing an amp.”
It’s a job that came around almost through chance: Brosh caught wind of an open casting call and was placed on the shortlist of finalists after numerous auditions.
Though Baroness guitarist Gina Gleason ended up getting the original gig, Brosh ended up getting the call when they needed someone to step in. Hence, the heels.
Playing amidst contortionists and acrobats is the type of off-the-beaten path job that has become typical for Brosh. Since graduating from the famed Berklee College of Music, her career has been singularly non-linear, taking her on a zig-zagging path that’s made stops in such disparate destinations as backing up Tony MacAlpine, becoming the real-life embodiment of a cartoon character and jamming with the musical mind behind The Simpsons’ theme song.
Ironically, these high-profile gigs aren’t what she had in mind for herself when she first started out. Brosh grew up in a guitar-oriented family – her brother, Ethan, is an accomplished solo artist in his own right – and worshipped players like Extreme’s Nuno Bettencourt.
Still, in an interview she did during her senior year at Berklee, Brosh laid out a more modest career aspiration: rather than being a part of a major spectacle in front of thousands of people, she wanted the relatively more anonymous life of a session musician.
“I don't even think that really exists anymore the way that it used to. Maybe that was an optimistic way to go about it. But I think it was more like I was a young college kid who was still very much fearful of the stage,” she says. “Nowadays, it's more like I'm just wanting to be as diverse as possible and have my hands in many projects.”
It’s a goal she’s more than met: since the Cirque gig came to an end, Brosh hasn’t slowed down. She released Spectrum, her third solo album, in December, 2019, did a stint in the live-band version of the animated metal gods Dethklok, and has recently been heading into the studio with famed film composer and former Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman to work on a mysterious project.
“I was trying to brace myself for it the longest time because I knew (Cirque du Soleil) was coming to an end at some point,” says Brosh. “And I was just kind of like, 'Okay, I'm just gonna not think about it and just see what happens.'
"I was working on an album at the time, and luckily, things just kind of happen. I did some things with Ibanez and just kind of kept on my stuff. And then the Dethklok thing happened really soon after that.”
The “Dethklok thing” was Brosh getting enlisted for perhaps the strangest gig in metal: joining the aforementioned band, which is fiction, but also real. The real (or not real, depending on how you look at it. We said it’s a strange job.) Dethklok is five cartoon characters around whom the Adult Swim cartoon Metalocalypse revolved.
But the show’s creator, Brendan Small, an accomplished metal musician in his own right, has kept touring the show’s music even after it came to an end in 2013. Brosh was enlisted to help Small bring the guitar riffs of Skwisgaar Skwigelf and Toki Wartooth to life.
“(Brendan and I) have been friends for several years, just through common musicians and common friends. He knows I’m a huge fan. I was not expecting that! But just from that fan perspective, I didn't know how he thinks about the band thing and I actually thought that he wouldn't hire a girl because he wanted the characters to be true to the characters that he has.
"But, you know, he doesn't think of it like that at all. To him, it's just a band that provides music for the huge animation that's always going on onstage. So I was very glad he thought of it like that, because I really did not think that call was coming.”
Now, Brosh is focusing on her latest project, but exactly what that is is somewhat of an enigma thanks to Elfman’s secretive ways.
“This is a new band he’s put together under his name, but it’s not for scores right now,” is all Brosh will reveal about the nature of the job. But there are some clues out there as to what Elfman has been up to.
When the 2020 Coachella lineup was revealed, Elfman’s name right up there with Rage Against the Machine and Travis Scott. But what wasn’t revealed was exactly what he would be doing. In interviews, Elfman ruled out the possibility of reuniting Oingo Boingo, the seminal art rock band he led through the 1980s.
He also said that without a full orchestra, there would be no performances of any of his classic scores to films like A Nightmare Before Christmas. He teased his set would be an amalgamation, wrapping up elements from his 40-year career in music and including something new.
And then COVID-19 hit and Coachella – which was to have been Brosh’s first gig alongside Elfman – was postponed and then cancelled.
Whatever was percolating in Elfman’s head would not yet be revealed. Still, videos posted to the composer’s Instagram account offer a taste.
In several clips from October, Brosh can be seen bashing away at power chords on her yellow Ibanez. In another, a masked Elfman noodles at a riff before nodding and contentedly sighing, “That works”.
For a guy who has composed scores requiring dozens of sight-reading musicians, it’s a decidedly garage band vibe.
“I studied and went to music school my whole life to be able to know the jargon to communicate with people like him, and then I get there and it's like, ‘Ooh, can you play it like this?’ ‘Oh, like boom, like that?,’” laughs Brosh.
“You know, it's just like, that's literally how it's been for us because that's how he prefers to do it. And for me, I like it better too. So, I think that's actually helped us both and it was completely unexpected.”
Jamming with a four-time Oscar nominee, hopping onstage with the biggest metal band in the animated world, guest spots with all-female tribute band The Iron Maidens and rocking the music of the King of Pop – it’s a long way from the rehearsal rooms of Berklee College, where a young Nili Brosh dreamt of a modest career as a studio rat.
“If I look back at that shy college kid, I think at the time, I was really thinking making a career in music is such a difficult thing to do and I'm gonna be lucky if I have low-paying gigs.
“I think through the years of trying to figure out what that looks like, whatever opportunities came my way I would just try to be as prepared as possible.
“I try to be diverse because I like different kinds of music and I want to feel challenged, and I don't want to feel like I am doing the same thing all the time. So I think, I guess I threw it out there into the universe, and I ended up with this wonderful mishmash of things that I would have never expected.”