Chicago Music Guide’s Hannah Frank interviewed touring singer-songwriter Jeff Brown when he was in Chicago for several shows this summer. At the time of this article, his new album is reportedly up for consideration for Grammy nomination. Jeff has performed in and around Chicago solo and with his band Jeff Brown & The New Black, appearing at METRO and other venues. In addition, Jeff is also a music lawyer. Jeff’s original music inhabits two worlds: loud, engaging rock and artistic, quieter, sonically explorative songwriter moments. His new album 1,000 Ways is inspired by Rumi. Let’s learn all about it here…
Take a listen to “All for Nothing” from 1,000 Ways by Jeff Brown:
Who do you write songs for?
I think the cheap answer is to say that I write songs for myself. Not that it isn’t true, but if I were just writing songs for myself, they would never leave my house. I’ve been listening to music all my life, and I’ve had countless moments where a song takes me somewhere, or makes me feel something that I didn’t plan on. Those moments are the closest thing to magic that I can describe, and if there’s a chance that I can write something that makes someone else experience that, I’m going to do it. I write songs for people to feel.
What’s the most life-changing thing that has happened to you and how did it impact your music?
There are countless musicians that have affected me over the years, but there are two distinct instances that have had the most effect on what I do… The first was when I was 9. My family moved to California, and when we moved, I found a box of records that was left in a closet where I was staying: Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Anthrax – heavy stuff. As a 9 year old, I was simultaneously terrified and fascinated by them. It was a few years later when I finally found the nerve to play one of them when I was home from school. I put on Powerslave by Iron Maiden, and I could feel my life change. Within moments, I wanted to learn how to play guitar.
The second was around 2003 or so. I was in a band that had broken up, and I still wanted to perform, so I took my acoustic guitar, and started hitting up open mics and such. I had come from a history of pretty heavy bands, so the transition was super awkward and not pretty. I wrote songs that were not good, and covered songs that I probably had no business covering, and didn’t really know what I was doing until I was introduced to Damien Rice’s recently released album “O”. I heard that, and immediately knew that it felt real. I started writing songs like his that felt authentic, until I ultimately started writing songs like mine that I believed in and were real. No other album has ever influenced what I do like that album has.
As you tour throughout the U.S. and as far away as Iceland, you likely play with a lot of different acts. Who are some of the favorite artists that you’ve shared the stage with and why?
I feel like that’s like asking a parent which child they like the best… But what I will say is that there was a fantastic songwriter named Katie Reider from Ohio. She’s sadly no longer with us. I had been trying unsuccessfully to book a show at the Uncommon Ground in Chicago, and she heard my music, and offered me a support spot. It went well, and then UG started offering me shows on my own merits. Artists like her that have been willing to give me a chance have been indescribably important in my musical career. Andy Metz for the same reasons – his band was headlining The Metro, and he offered my band the chance to open that show. It was the first time I ever had my name on the sign outside. It was a huge moment.
But let’s face it, there is a special place in my heart for just about every artist that I’ve ever had the opportunity to share the stage with, whether by fate, by choice, or by accident: from Chicago acts like Company of Thieves, Laura Glyda, Heather Styka, Liz Chidester, and Common Shiner to dear friends and national touring artists like Donna Frost, The Honey Dewdrops, and Crystal Bowersox, to acts overseas like Lucy Spraggan, Mick Hargan, Peter Quinn, and Kathleen Turner. Added to that the hundreds of acts and friends that I don’t have the space and time to mention…
As a songwriter you acknowledge that support, community and knowledge is important. What do you get out of attending conferences such as International Folk Alliance or other similar gatherings?
Within the past few days, I heard someone describe Folk Alliance as an uncomfortable mix of community and consumerism. I’ve never heard something so devastatingly accurate. Make no mistake, Folk Alliance exists to help artists, but it’s still easy to get lost in the mix without already having some sort of backing already; the old joke being, “How do you make a million dollars in the music industry? You start with two million dollars.”
That all said, the best thing Folk Alliance has ever done is to get hundreds of people that are in the same boat together and say, “go talk to each other.” At least 75% of this industry is who you know. And the Folk Alliance conferences are an excellent opportunity to meet people who are doing what you are doing, or have done what you want to do, or want to do what you are doing. Having that network is game-changing. We’re all in this crazy business together, and the more we act together is going to further all of our interests. Competition is poisonous.
In addition to practicing guitar…you also practice…law. What is a quick tip on the legal side of the music business that more musicians should know?
GET IT IN WRITING!
You seem to inhabit two very different musicians in the same body: at once an achingly sparse minimalist with heart-tugging singer-songwriter work (which is primarily acoustic based, and sometimes backed with cello and painted with female vocals) and on the other hand, a bonafide rock show with real guts and gusto [with a full band most recently featuring Chicago musicians Mark Lester (drums), Eric Dinse (guitar), Mike Narvaez (bass) at Chicago’s Ranger Studios]. Have you ever thought of a “Best Of” Album to showcase both sides at once? Or do you keep the two approaches separate for stylistic consistency?
For example, your live shows are solid, fierce rock and the mood is upbeat. On your recent studio albums, listeners hear an artistic, mellow, or even melancholy sound.
I think part of that is related to keeping an open ear to everything I can. I fully believe that a musician that doesn’t listen to as wide a spectrum of music as possible is doing themselves a disservice. I feel very connected with the sparse intimacy of folk music and singer-songwriters, and yet, being on stage with drums and giant crushing guitars is fun as hell. Both are parts of me, and both are real. I admit, I do try and keep the two parts separated. I haven’t invited any of my band members to appear on my solo recordings – not because they aren’t fantastic performers, but more because I wanted some distance between what I do with the band and what I do on my own.
That all said, there is still a substantial amount of heart-tugging in the full band work… I ultimately think that some of the songs I write lend themselves more to the power of the full band arrangements, and some fare better without it.
When you go into the studio to make an album, the goal is obviously to make an album– but what is the goal behind that goal, what drives you to create an album?
With this last album especially, I wanted to have something that I can hand to someone and say, “I made this,and I’m proud to have my name on it”. I put all of myself into this album, and while I don’t want to sound full of myself, I think that I have a lot of worthwhile things to say. I think this album says that.
What do you like most about sharing your music with live audiences?
I like (and am also occasionally filled with anxiety about) the way that everything is up in the air with live performances. It’s a moment in time that is special to everyone in that room, and will never happen again the same way. The chance to experience moments like that is what keeps me doing what I do.
There is a Rumi quote that says ‘When you are at your most lost, there are always at least 1,000 ways to go home again.’ The album is centered around that idea – songs about belonging, trying to figure out what matters, loss, love, and a whole host of feelings in between.
The album opens with a song about being terrified about the uncertainty of the world we live in right now, and ends with a song I wrote that explores why we even create art at all.
Where can we find the album?
I have a few boxes in my music room. But the easiest way that doesn’t involve finding out where I live is through Bandcamp. Click here: http://jeffbrown.bandcamp.com
My bandcamp site offers digital downloads of the album, but also vinyl and CD options. It’s also on Itunes, CDBaby, Spotify, Pandora, and a bunch of places I probably don’t even realize.
Learn more about Jeff Brown’s music at www.jeffbrownmusic.com.
Interview by Hannah Frank, Chicago singer-songwriter and writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.