Wednesday, March 02, 2005
A conversation with . . .
Greg Brown: A songwriter in the heartland
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With two Grammy nominations, two Indie Awards and almost 20 albums under his belt, Greg Brown knows a thing or two about folk. A groove player who keeps it simple, these days Brown is splitting his time between among his Iowan farm and Kansas City and travelling traveling on the weekends to gig. Brown, performing tonight at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg, took a few moments recently to muse about the muse, and to offer a glimpse into the private life of a songwriter in the heartland.
Are you working on recording from home?
Greg Brown: I hope to get into some of that, yeah. I bought a couple of really simple little recording machines. I’ve got to learn how to use them a little bit. I’m not any kind of a techno guy. Pretty much just “play” and “record” is about all I want to push. There are some little projects I’d like to do, just record them and print up like 500 CDs and take them to my gigs, that sort of thing.
Home recording can be kind of an endless vortex you can spiral into.
GB: I know what you’re talking about, but I’m not the kind of guy to get seduced by too many boxes, whistles and things. I just basically want to try to catch a fairly good room sound. I think about all I record will be solo. Occasionally if a friend stops by, I’ll have him play some, but I want to keep it fairly simple.
Is there a recording process for you?
GB: Well, for a long time I didn’t really care much about recording. I was kind of resistant to it, but I had to do it. If you’re gonna go out and do gigs, you’ve got to have records out. So I would just go in and we would do it. But when I hooked up with Bo Ramsey [guitarist and producer] . . . the process for a long time was, Bo and I would do quite a bit of preproduction. We would go through the songs and have an arrangement idea, and think about the musicians we wanted to use and do some rehearsals. So when we went into the studio we would generally only spend three days, maybe four days tops. We were very prepared when we went in.
Three or four days to do one or two tracks?
GB: Three or four days to tape all the stuff [the entire album]. And then we’d usually spend a couple of days . . . come back maybe a month later and mix.
That’s amazingly fast. That’s a raw way to go at it.
GB: We’re not really making ear candy records. We don’t have to fill up every second with this or that. I’m basically just a groove player, I try to find that groove. Once I find that groove, then away we go. . . . There were a lot of great records that were made where people just went into the studio for a day or two. I think a lot of the stuff that’s resulted from technology, like you said you kind of get lost in that stuff. . . . I always try to keep my records fairly much in the same pocket or groove that I try to bring to live performances. . . . Some people maybe worry about things more than I do. I’ve never had any problem with people taping my live shows, and I know some nights I’m gonna be off and I’m gonna hit clunkers. But that’s all part of the deal. I’m not after some image of perfection.
What kind of gigs are you playing these days?
GB: I used to go out and tour a little more than I do now. Now I tend to go out and do weekends. Like this is a typical one — we’re coming down and doing Blacksburg, and then we’re doing Asheville and Carrboro, North Carolina. . . . I tend to work more in the fall and the spring. In the summertime I don’t do so much, and winter’s leaning that way, too.
If you had your choice, what size venue do you like to play?
GB: You know I seem to feel most comfortable in anything up to about 900, on down to whoever’s there. . . . I’ve played a lot of folk festivals over the years. You walk out there and there’s 15,000 people, and that’s okay, too. But I think the kind of music I do, and the style and the way I present it — it communicates a lot better in a smaller venue.
What’s an average day for Greg Brown?
GB: Up here at the farm . . . I’ll work on music and singing and stuff for part of the morning, and I’ll usually spend most of the afternoon doing outside work. I’m building a new fence around my garden. It’s a nice balance up here between being able to do some of my musical work and I love to be outdoors and doing stuff out there. That’s pretty much a typical day. Maybe watch a DVD or read a book.
I know it’s an evolving thing, but where are you feeling at these days with your lyrics? Where are the songs coming from?
GB: Well, really no different than before. I’m not sure where all that stuff comes from, it just comes out of life. It’s just like recycling or something. Life comes into you, all the various facets of it — your particular place, your particular time, your personality and your genetics and your history and your inclinations. And then you’ve got the world, with all of its chaos and beauty and disorder and mystery. Put all that together, and all that stuff goes through you, and some of it comes back out. I think some of my new songs have a sense of dread in them about what’s going on in our country, and has been going on for awhile. That seems to seep in there, even if I’m just writing some simple little song. And then there’s some love songs for my wife, and some various little stories about friends I've known. . . . Fortunately for me, I've always enjoyed the writing process. It's not a drudgery to me and it's not painful, even when things aren't going good. Like I just wrote a really stupid song the other day, I can't even remember what it was about. But even from writing that little song, I know that maybe that's gonna lead to something a little bit better.