Phil Brown – The Mechanics Of Song Creation

It’s time we caught up with mercurial musician, arranger, songsmith and singer Phil Brown. Currently based in Nashville, Brown’s skyborne sonic works eschew the city’s traditional patterns and tone palates for something more linear and soulful…

This conversation takes in his influences and many other thoughts…

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Firstly Phil, how is your recovery from major surgery in Nashville going? We spoke most days throughout of course, but you had us worried?

I’m in good shape – much better now. Thank you

Just quickly on gear, I think you have use of one of the recent Fender Hendrix Series Stratocasters? How did this happen and I bet you have modified it!!

I was looking at a very hip music site and saw a white JH Strat with a reverse left handed neck – ooh la-lah! I bought it and changed out the electronics, added some Fender Custom Shop ‘54 pick ups AND a Trevor Wilkinson Tremolo with a kill switch… my usual set up.

How do you attain that mobile deeper guitar sound?

I have always had a violin/viola consciousness. I was classically trained as a violinist from the ages of 6 to 13 years of age. Classical music has always had a tremendous influence upon me and continues to be. I can assure you that just listening to classical music will help recreate your own sense of commitment. Guitar is like recognizing your own definition of God in your life. I’m constantly amazed at where the strings on wood have taken me! The tone and the abilities to bring it out is a search all about excellence. I’m always shooting for the moon and beyond. It’s my true cause. It’s the power to say yes at your fingertips … coupled with unimaginable adventure.

Occasionally your voice has shades of Bowie…what are his three key recordings to you? Oh and we saw the great Earl Slick playing a fabulous set with Glen Matlock..have you met Earl?

Aha … David Bowie … I’m a crooner in fact. I loved The Rat Pack and still go crazy over the whole crew. Let’s Dance is among many of my faves as is All The Young Dudes and Gene Genie. I’ve known Earl for many years. An amazing talent. He has and still contributes much to our musical culture. Earl is a necessary part of Bowie as Mick Ronson was, earlier on.

What is missing in the rock music that you hear all around you, these days? And what can be done about it, if anything?

Without the influence of the blues music has little or no value. I was captivated by the blues greats. I love a great story. Most of the majority of musical artists today are not present. The songs are missing. For example, I wanted to learn about the audacity aa well as the theatrics involved in the music as well as the recording process.

The blues gives a person a stepping point off of the norm as the norm is what we are attenuated today here in our so called rock culture. Yes – I generally enjoy all kinds of music but very little of today’s genres impact me. There are always great bands but only a few that have something to say that manage to break on thru. In my humble opinion that’s because most of the real A&R departments are not staffed with the real taste makers. Those days and those incredible people are long gone.

English guitar star John McLoughlin is coming off the road – what does he mean to you, as a musician or inspiration?

I loved John McLoughlin when he did records with Miles Davis. Mahavishnu killed me! Still does to this day. Visions of the Emerald Beyond and his production team with Dennis Makay were exceptional and masterful. The writing and the players – he created a whole new otherworldly concept. I was drawn to him immediately. He was one of the main progenitors in my book – just like Miles.

What direction is your songwriting taking at present? How inclined are you to follow the conventional intro-verse-verse-middle eight- chorus thang?

In the old days, way back in the early 60’s doo wop era the same old same old was the order of the day. So called folk music was in the mud too. There were a few great bands but everything sounded the same after a time – Identical themes until Dylan and The Who with My Generation and The Kinks with You Really Got Me came out. The Rolling Stones … Satisfaction etc. This music was so explosive. The Zombies and She’s Not There …Yes, there were identical numbered intro themes – 8 to 16 beat intros verse, chorus, verse chorus, solo bridge etc followed the same format. Let’s not forget the three minute single. When Dylan came out with Like A Rolling Stone – six minutes – oh my! We were way past the three minute mile and we WERE pulverized with all of the new emotion and until Jimi Hendrix and Purple Haze … nobody had a clue. We all melted into some kind of mysterious psychic glue when that black saviour strung us out. Simon and Garfunkel as well as CSN and The Troggs and The Yardbirds and T-Rex among so many other bands – oh my goodness – you could go to a show and see several bands with very different kaleidoscopic ideas. Structurally, Pete…I have always physically gone past the normal safety zone of the typical. Nowadays almost every band stays the same with the redundant – Weak intros and no real handle on how to commit. For the most part the usual bad strumming and no real voice MUSICALLY and the rhythm hardly has any significance – The importance has been lost.

It’s as if the enlightenment of the song writer musicians have never made it past the rubicon. An interesting entrance requires courage sonically but most importantly the feeling, the voodoo ought to command our attention. Rarely has it done that of late. In my opinion we all need a big challenge – I certainly need that … it’s too important in my opinion.

Who would be worth listening to?

I have been trained by some of the best songwriters in the world – Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, Larry Weiss and Scott English, Holland, Dozier and Holland, Lennon and McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Mozart, Handel, Beethoven, Liszt, Jagger and Richards, Pete Townsend, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Willie Dixon, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, Pete Brown, Lowell George, Jackie DeShannon, Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, Deep Purple, Moby Grape, Roger Miller, George Jones and Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Leonard and Elmer Bernstein, Miles Davis, CSN&Y, Neil Diamond, Janis Ian, The Beach Boys with Brian Wilson, The Zombies, The Kinks – so many.

I’m lucky and blessed to’ve been influenced by such talent and greatness

Can you tell us anything about your new Anglo-American recording project? Naming no names for now!!

Yes! Yes! Yes! This idea started last year in December. My girl asked me whom I wanted to work with. I talked about a fellow countryman of yours. She wrote him an email as well as my affiliation with Little Fest. The very next day he rang me up. We spoke for about 40 minutes. So much fun! Like I’d known him my whole life. Well, I have known him for years because of 4 major bands he’d played drums with. My plan is to put a trans-Atlantic team together – two drummers, a journalist and singer/12 string and harp player, a bassist along with several well known guitarists here in the US and London, a fabulous lyricist/singer/ percussionist all joining up together … AND we all sing. I tracked down everybody – Gave ‘em all the particulars of what I have in mind and everyone said “Phil – I’m in!” We are now coordinating our best time to all join up and do some rehearsals and play a few dates. Believe it or not there is interest building regarding us. Nobody’s ever done anything like this. This is what I have in mind for over a year. It’s pretty exciting.

What will be the musical &/or vocal aspirations of the project?

I’ve a few surprises up my sleeve. Everybody knows I’ve a few songs already written for the album – I‘ll have to keep a secret or two among ourselves but it’s happening and moving forward. I have not seen nor heard anything up’n’coming. We are calling ourselves Apaches From Paris. This act is a very unique idea – one that has never been attempted quite like this ever before. If some how we are needed we are ready’n’willing to take n make this hyper drive jump. I’m very confident with the players – all fabulous cats. Something spectacular is out of the box. I’m pleased and excited.

Aretha gone and now Otis Rush and this week my pal Tony Joe White….what do they each leave for us?

I will always love Aretha, Tony Joe and Otis. They all added to my sense of joy and immortality.

You don’t play over/obliterate your vocal lines…has this always been part of your schtick?

My guitar is an important part of my arsenal but vocals always come first. Nobody walks away singing a guitar solo.

How was your recent gig down in Memphis received? Any highlights?

That gig was a solid redemption for me. The surgery and recovery prevented me from standing and holding a guitar. Now my voice had two new components – Louis Armstrong meets Joe Cocker. All that gravel .. never EVER had that sound before. I performed these great tunes alongside a real drummer. Memphis is a well known musical Mecca. A few of the major music guys from the Memphis music community know of me thru Little Feat and the Jimi Project]. It was a lot of fun. About 1/2 way thru the first set everything kicked in. We had a blast. Voice? Yes! Guitar? Yes! Played three sets. A great bassist sat in with us. Sold quite a few CDs. It’s good to be back.

When you play slide, what do you use, for your sound?

I am a real slide player from The English Invasion tradition. I play a huge brass slide, smaller and with less density at one end and the heavier density laying on the strings on the other end. I have a finger slide so I can rip a few sound effects on my right hand while I’m over the moon with my left hand. I discovered this technique by accident several years ago. It’s pretty interesting. I can’t imagine not doing it !

There are several female artists have you worked with? Who might still be in your sights maybe for a duet?

A lot of girls cut my songs. I’ve several girls in mind I’d love to work and sing with. Y’all will just have to wait n see what comes to pass…

Pete Sargeant


(Many thanks to Phil for his answers)

Feature Image Supplied By Artist

Guitar Photo Supplied By Fender

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