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Playing with Fire

Tom Brislin’s Lyrical Journey from a Dunellen Music Studio to Keyboardist for Iconic Rock Band Kansas

Tom Brislin thought his career had died at Bernards High School. 

He was 15, performing at a Battle of the Bands with his friends. It was their first gig and they were nervous and excited. They were also green. And not as prepared as they should have been. They were in over their heads. 

They went on and were practically booed off the stage. “It was demoralizing,” Brislin says. “I thought, ‘OK, well, I guess my career as a musician is over.’”

As his mind was racing with new career options, competing, older musicians from The Bouncing Souls, approached the boys, telling them to persevere. “That gave me a lifeline in the darkness, turning a soul-crushing experience into a moment where I decided I was going to work harder and not give up,” Brislin says. 

Brislin grew up in a working-class home in Dunellen—one filled with music. His father, William, sang in bands while he was in the Air Force stationed in the Philippines during the Korean War. His older siblings either played music or were avid listeners. As early as age 6, he was mesmerized by albums and would try to create his own music. As he made noise on the piano, his sisters started teaching him the basics, skills that he further honed through lessons with Anita De Sorbo at Rifino & De Sorbo Music Studio in Dunellen. 

Fueled by a clear sense of purpose and drive—“I knew early that music would be my world,” he says—Brislin was always involved in bands or music projects, even as young as age 10. He played percussion in the Immaculata High School Marching Band, then went on to study jazz and classical music at William Paterson University. 

“Being raised with a strong work ethic, I applied a working-class approach to music. My phone would ring: Could I play at an art gallery? At a street fair? A church? The answer was always ‘yes,’” he says. “Recognizing that music was my language, I sought likeminded people to collaborate, learn from and grow with. This foundation helped me develop as a musician because it taught me how to be versatile.”

After college, he forged a living as a musician, recording with artists in the studio or out on tour. After college, he fronted the Central Jersey synth-rock band Spiraling before going on to tour with Meat Loaf and Yes and collaborate on stage and in studio with artists such as Debbie Harry, Renaissance, Camel and The Sea Within.

Brislin’s life changed in 2018 when he received a call from Phil Ehart, Kansas’ original drummer and founding member. He and co-founding member Richard Williams, Kansas’ original guitarist, were familiar with Brislin’s work with Yes and Camel. They wanted him to join Kansas as their keyboardist. 

“This was very unexpected—and very cool. It was a different level than the work I had done with previous acts as a recording or touring musician. As a member of the band, I had a big part in the creation of Kansas’ next album, ‘The Absence of Presence,’ which was released in 2019,” he says. “I felt honored to be a true part of this iconic group with decades of great legacy and a true story to tell.”

Brislin joined Kansas on their “Point of Know Return” tour and is currently traveling the nation in the “50th Anniversary Tour,” which is continuing through 2024. 

Touring does not stop him from composing. “I find time in the cracks—on the plane, in the hotel—to jot down ideas or record voice memos to develop in my home studio when I return,” he says. 

“From the time I wrote my first song or composed my first piece of instrumental music, I have been on a lifelong quest to find my true sense of self expression,” he says. “As a musician, you have different goals and phases: At first, you want to be recognized and liked, but as you mature, you strive to find the way to best express yourself and determine your true sound. How can I best communicate with the listener?”

Ultimately, Brislin strives to create music that will stand the test of time and remain meaningful.

“I would like to be remembered as a versatile musician who contributed to the net positive in the world,” he says. “To do this, I continue to work on paying attention to life, observing my experiences and the greater world. From there, I let my imagination run wild and just see what happens.”

Kansas performs at the Mayo Performing Arts Center on April 26. Learn more about Tom Brislin at Photo shoot at Woodrock Studios, Raritan. 

  • Photo: Todd Jolicoeur
  • Photo: Esa Ahola
  • Photo: Esa Ahola