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Matt Brown - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 27 / 11 / 2018

Matt Brown - Interview


Executive Producer Matt Brown talks to Lisa Torem about 'On Big Shoulders', his fascinating album project which takes as its theme the city of Chicago.

Matt Brown is executive producer of an exciting recording project fresh out of Chicago entitled 'On Big Shoulders'. The home-grown multi-instrumentalist and Old Town School of Folk Music teacher came up with the ambitious "small tribute to the city's enormous musical legacy" which features original and revamped traditional songs. Chicago's understated legacy is reinstated here with soundscapes inspired by Sam Cooke, Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, Wilco bassist John Stirratt, Big Bill Broonzy and so many more soulful and insightful artists whose influences exist to this day. Bluegrass, gospel, folk, alt-country, you name it, 'On Big Shoulders' has rallied the appropriate troops and diligently done its homework. But with such an extensive, historical tapestry to draw from, how was the scope of this mighty project defined and carried out? Matt Brown, in his first Pennyblackmusic interview, tells all... PB: How did you select the local musicians who played on the album? MB: It started with about eight musicians with whom I had played in various gigs or at recording sessions, but who hadn't all played together. And then as the recording process unfolded, others were brought in by those of us already on the album. I only wanted to make this album if Gerald Dowd would play drums and Aaron Smith would play bass. They both said yes, and then I asked Steve Dawson to sing and play guitar, and Brian Wilkie to play pedal steel & electric guitar. Liam Davis, my co-producer, was originally going to be another guitar player, but he told me that he and Dawson have very similar inclinations on the guitar and we realized that we didn't need that redundancy, which freed Liam up to focus on being the arranger and my co-producer. He also sang one song, played organ and piano on several tracks, and edited and mixed the album. Singers Elise Bergman and Gia Margaret were in the original crew I asked to be involved, and Keely Vasquez and Liz Chidester were brought in a little later to sing as well. They are my four favorite female singers in Chicago. And then while we were recording 'It's Just That Simple,' Gerald suggested we overdub some horns during Brian's steel solo, so we got Anna and Evan Jacobson in the studio the next week to add trumpet and trombone respectively. Then I got tricked into playing fiddle on 'A World Without You' because I went for coffee as rehearsal was starting and the band told me they had added a fiddle solo while I was gone. I'm the only one who plays fiddle in the group, so... PB: What do you feel local musicians Robbie Fulks and Wilco have contributed to Chicago's musical history? MB: They both have a rich legacy of songs, two very active fan bases, and have been an inspiration to countless musicians & fans for generations to come. PB: I believe the album title, 'On Big Shoulders' was inspired by poet Carl Sandburg? MB: Exactly! In the first paragraph of Greg Reish's liner notes essay about our album he talks about how Carl Sandburg, in his 1914 poem, "Chicago", calls the city "Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders." Greg says this poem "captures the grittiness, squalor, danger, and corruption of the city, just as it conveys the vitality of Chicago's people and the robustness of its urban industrial life". In terms of the significance, it's hopefully as obvious as we intend it to be. Liam named the project, and we both want to show reverence and appreciation for these musical titans who have either lived or recorded in this city. We stand on their shoulders. PB: Had you and Liam worked together previously? MB: I first met Liam when I was hired to play fiddle and banjo for two concerts by Justin Roberts & The Not Ready for Naptime Players at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Liam Davis produces Justin's records and is his musical director in addition to playing in his band. Gerald Dowd is Justin's drummer in that project, so this is how I met Gerald, too. In the rehearsal for the shows and then at the concerts themselves, I was equally impressed with Gerald and Liam. Liam is really efficient at communicating to other musicians a vision that quickly blossoms into a wonderful arrangement. In order to make On Big Shoulders, I knew I wanted Liam's efficiency, vision, and experience to guide the shaping of the arrangements and to help run the recording sessions. He edited and mixed the tracks, too, so he really put a spin on each song's finished form that I wouldn't have on my own. I'm in awe. PB: How did you envision the scope of the project? MB: My first vision of the scope was way too broad. There are so many great musicians in and around Chicago whom I wanted to include starting with Irish fiddler Liz Carroll and bluegrass banjoist & Special Consensus bandleader Greg Cahill, but I had to narrow the focus a bit or the album would have been all over the place. My favorite music is honky-tonk country music, the ideal being a young George Jones on Mercury singing 'The Color of the Blues' and 'Relief is Just a Swallow Away'. I like to dance to country music, and so I started thinking about making an album featuring Chicago musicians that had at its core a country band, even if the genres covered throughout the record ranged a little beyond that. PB: Who is the desired demographic? MB: Humans. PB: Ha! Where was 'On Big Shoulders' recorded and how long did the process take? MB: With engineer Shane Hendrickson at I.V. Lab Studios on Clybourn Avenue here in Chicago. Sadly, the building's since been sold, probably to be demolished, to make way for some gaudy monstrosity. And yes, I just quoted Elliott Gould's character Reuben Tishkoff from Ocean's 11. We had one rehearsal here at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Then we had three full days in the studio, plus another half day, all at I.V. Lab Studios. Then Liam began editing the album and realized that we needed to do some more recording, which he knocked out at his home studio in maybe a day or so. And then the mastering engineer, JJ Golden at Golden Mastering, did his part in one work day, from what I remember. But it was a two-and-a half year span from when I conceived of the project and release day last Friday. PB: If I'm not a local, will I still understand the ideas behind the themes? MB: I don't think there are any ideas behind the themes, or that there is more than one theme, which is this: Chicago is and has been for decades a place where a lot of incredible and influential music has been made. Someone can listen to 'On Big Shoulders' without knowing that and my hope is that they like it. If they do, our work is done. If they read Greg's liner notes, they'll probably become fascinated, as I did, with how many artists are from here or came here to make their records. PB: How will the album be promoted? Do you anticipate a sequel? MB: It's being shared on social media and with journalists all around the globe, with an understandable focus on The Windy City's press corps. We have a release concert here at the Old Town School on December 2. I don't anticipate a sequel but I would be ecstatic to sell and stream enough copies of this album to be able to afford to make one. And then a sequel to that sequel. I currently have 25 songs picked out for such hypothetical sequels, and that list grows every day. So it is on my mind, but it's a pipe dream at this point. An album like this should cost about $100,000 to make, and I did it with $35,000. PB: If you could describe the finished project in under six words... MB: Fantastic PB: Is there anything else that you're dying to tell us? MB: Nope, I prefer living! PB: Thank you.

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